Nate Simpson on 'Nonplayer' and the art of creative perseverance
In spring 2011, "Nonplayer #1" (Image Comics) generated the kind of excitement that independent comics creators dream of.
Written and illustrated by video game concept artist Nate Simpson, the series introduced readers to Dana Stevens, a tamale delivery girl who escapes her mundane reality through the full-immersion online game "Warriors of Jarvath." The praise for Simpson's story and lush illustrations was immediate and plentiful, making it one of the most critically lauded comics of the year.
By that summer, Warner Bros. acquired the film rights. Simpson, a newcomer to comics, had a huge hit on his hands and a highly anticipated second issue to finish.
Then, that fall, Simpson crashed his bicycle, an incident that could have been fatal if he hadn't been wearing a helmet. As the right-handed artist wrote on his Project Waldo blog, "Every bone connecting my right arm to my torso was broken." His arm in a sling, he was physically sidelined. But Simpson began to write candidly about the other obstacles he had to confront, namely, the enormous pressure he felt after "Nonplayer #1" hit the shelves, and the moments of frustration and outright panic while writing the second issue.
Those blog entries were a window into the reality of making an independent comic and the weighty expectations that accompany success, but they were also highly personal essays about creative perseverance. Fittingly, Simpson compared his craft to riding in the Tour de France.
"(No) matter how much the world begins to feel like a demense-covered treadmill, you remind yourself that the finish line is up there somewhere. It may be far away, but every turn of the pedals brings you a little bit closer. It took Lance exactly the same number of foot-pumps to get there as it'll take you," he wrote.
"The only way to fail is to stop."
"Nonplayer" fans will be happy to know that Simpson hasn't stopped. He has healed sufficiently to spend many hours a day working on the comic, even with a day job at online game company PopCap, and the second issue is in progress. Simpson talked to Geek Out! about being a professional comics and gaming geek, how immersive gaming inspired "Nonplayer," coping with sudden success and having an honest dialogue with his readers about the challenges behind the curtain.
CNN Geek Out!: What influenced your decision to go into video game concept design?
Simpson: Nepotism! My father was an executive at a game company called The Dreamers Guild, and I ended up working there during my first summer after high school. I'd always drawn for fun, so it was a pretty easy transition. It never really entered my mind that it could become a career. For the next several years, it was just the default thing I did during my summers while I studied "real" stuff. After college was over and I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do, I ended up coming back to Los Angeles to make games full-time.
CNN Geek Out!: Where did the idea for "Nonplayer" come from? Since you worked in the gaming industry, I'd imagine that you've given a lot of thought to one of the themes in the comic --- the blurring of fantasy and reality.
Simpson: Maybe because I fell into the business in such a nonchalant way, I've often felt like a bit of an outsider to gamer culture. That may be true for a lot of game artists, actually. We have these ringside seats that give us a rare perspective on a subculture that places a huge emphasis on imaginary achievement --- or if you're feeling charitable, real achievement within imaginary worlds. I'm talking about people who sink 12, 15 hours into an MMO and then recount their exploits the next day by the water cooler like it's something they did in the real world. And this is only going to become more common as these immersive experiences expand beyond the confines of the fantasy and sci-fi genres.
This trend makes me a little queasy, but if that kind of experience were ever tailored to fit my specific tastes, I'd be first in line. I feel like we can all sort of tut-tut when the most conspicuous practitioners of that reality-averse lifestyle are cosplayers or renfaire-types, but at some point we'll get around to building worlds that just about everyone will find preferable to the real thing. "Nonplayer" is my way of trying to sort out some of these issues.
CNN Geek Out!: What are your thoughts about the possibilities, good and bad, of gaming as a full-immersion experience, as shown in the comic?
Simpson: One of the core conceits of "Nonplayer" is that there's no difference in legitimacy between the real and digital worlds. They're both just large collections of interacting data. One just happens to contain the other one. And when you let those parallel worlds bleed into one another through augmented reality, the story can go in some kooky directions. I worry that I lack the imagination to take this as far as it'll actually end up going in real life.
I guess my biggest concern about this trend is that as we turn inward and begin to devalue "real" experience, we as a society may become blinded to longer-term existential risks. I'm a big space geek, and it saddens me to think that maybe the reason the galaxy isn't ringing with alien chatter is because whenever a civilization gets to the point where we are now, it realizes it can replicate the experience of achieving every dream much more easily than it can achieve them in the real world. And then a comet smacks their planet when they're not looking.
CNN Geek Out!: What are some of the similarities and differences between working as an artist in the video game medium and the comic book medium?
Simpson: This question is especially pertinent now that I've taken a day job at a game company.
Working in games is all about working within constraints. You've got technical limitations, budgets, deadlines, a chain of command, multiple clients that each have a vision of what things should look like. There's a real art to maximizing the quality of your output within that framework, and I know some people who really thrive in that setting. It requires great communication and planning abilities, and a willingness to scrap ideas that you may think are good ones. Sometimes it can be exhausting, but it can also be incredibly fun and rewarding to work with a team full of enthusiastic creators.
From what I've heard, making a commercially viable monthly comic is a very similar experience, which is why I have no interest in that part of the business. The attraction of "Nonplayer" is the lack of constraints. I get to do exactly what I want, to commit completely to every idea, and to take whatever time is needed to bring each of those ideas to a satisfying level of polish. I find that when I start thinking about "Nonplayer" as a business, it starts to suck. It's so much better when it can be a place where I go to take off my shoes, take in the sights and just loiter.
CNN Geek Out!: Were you surprised by the critical response to "Nonplayer?" What were some of the issues you confronted when you began working on #2?
Simpson: I was totally unprepared for the way "Nonplayer" was received. I think I was happy for about a day, and then I started to feel like a huge fraud. Part of the problem was that vendors and readers thought that "Nonplayer" would be a monthly comic, which it could never be. By now, nobody really expects "Nonplayer #2" to ever come out, so I don't feel that time pressure as much. The big challenge at the moment is figuring out how to prevent the second book from being a huge letdown, given how much time has passed.
I have very little writing experience, which I was able to downplay somewhat in #1, since it's all setup. In a lot of ways, it was like a movie trailer: It suggested a lot while committing to little. In #2, I've got to move the story forward, there's a lot of dialogue, and I'm stretched right out to the edge of my writing abilities. I'm envious of comic writers who get to develop their writing style in relative obscurity. Ideally, you want to be able to make lots of low-consequence mistakes this early in your career. For me, the mistakes feel very high-consequence, which is really bad when you're trying to develop as an artist. I'm trying to make the worst mistakes in private, with only a few friends bearing witness to my false starts.
All that said, I think #2 may be pretty cool. There's a part where a robot throws a swordfish through another robot's head. So yeah.
CNN Geek Out!: Once you had time to assess your injuries, were you worried about the effect that it would have on your illustration ability? Bring us up to speed on how you've been healing.
Simpson: I was very concerned that I'd suffered permanent nerve damage when they operated on my shoulder. For the first couple of months after I got out of the sling, my drawing hand was very weak. It was difficult to even hold a pencil. There hasn't been a real watershed moment, since healing is such a gradual process, but I've got all of my strength and dexterity back now. Maybe even more than before, since I now spend about 14 hours a day drawing, between my eight-hour day job and my six hours a night on "Nonplayer."
CNN Geek Out!: Was it therapeutic for you to share some of your creative struggles with readers?
Simpson: Knowing that there are so many people out there all trying to climb that same mountain is heartening. Especially the people who comment on my blog. They're mostly people who are grappling with the same creative problems and time constraints that I am, so there's very little judgment. Instead, there's a lot of "Have you tried this?" They're the best. I don't think it's possible to overstate how much of an uphill battle it can be when you're trying to complete a project like this and still lead a balanced life. Sometimes I feel deep despair. And since that's part of the process, it would be dishonest of me to conceal that. Which is the long way of saying that my blog can be intolerably emo at times.
CNN Geek Out!: Did you identify as a gaming/comic book geek growing up? What were some of your primary influences?
Simpson: I was definitely a comic geek as a kid. I worshiped guys like Moebius, Geof Darrow, William Stout, and Mike Mignola. Ironically, I sort of fell out of comics just before Image came on the scene, so I've had to spend the last couple of years playing catch-up. There's so much amazing talent out there right now. Brandon Graham, James Stokoe, James Harren, Benoit Springer, Ryan Ottley, Stuart Immonen --- I could just keep on going. My ideas about world-building were also heavily influenced by Japanese creators like Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. And of course I'm rediscovering a lot of more recent Japanese work, as well. Have you read "20th Century Boys" yet? So good.
CNN Geek Out!: Where do things stand with the second of the six issues? Does the pressure feel less overwhelming now?
Simpson: The second issue is coming along nicely. For obvious reasons, I'm reluctant to provide a release date, but it shouldn't be too long now. Also, it looks a little bit like the series may go to seven issues, because the story has ballooned a bit. As far as pressure goes, I've stopped monitoring the Internet's opinion of me, so any pressure I feel right now is self-imposed. The big challenge right now is just finding time outside of my day job to keep "Nonplayer" moving forward. So far, so good.
CNN Geek Out!: Are there other projects you're working on?
Simpson: I've tinkered a bit with some other ideas, but at the moment my hands are pretty full with "Nonplayer." Maybe I'll take on something new during the 2020s!
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