Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky have always tried to tell stories wherever they could, and both have ample professional experience in a variety of mediums other than comics. Lewis has also told award-winning stories in theater and film, and Yarsky has told stories via video games and illustration. Perhaps having these multiple sources of inspiration to pull from is what’s lead to such impressive work when they finally combine their efforts.
First came Coyotes — described as “Underworld meets Sicario” — and now they’re collaborating again (also for Image Comics). Due out this week (July 22), Bliss is an intense and personal tale of forgiveness and family legacy that (not unlike the pair’s first series) is described as “Breaking Bad meets Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.”
I spoke with both Yarsky and Lewis via email, and I got a sense of just how personal this series proved to be, especially with Lewis as he navigates being a father himself.
AIPT: I want to start with the courtroom that frames a lot of the narrative in the first issue, and I suspect will continue for issues to come. Why did you use this framing, and how do you think we as readers fit into this courthouse? Are we the judge? The jury? Something else entirely?
Sean Lewis: I placed the story in a courtroom for two reasons. One was the challenge of it. I came up in theater. 12 Angry Men was the first play I read. I was in fifth or sixth grade. And it sounded like the worst idea I ever heard of at that time. A group of men and women sit in the same room for two hours and debate a crime that happened offstage.
But, we read it and like magic I was transfixed.
Roughly 20 or so years later, I sit in a movie theater and watch The Social Network. The tagline of that movie sounds like death to me: a guy creates a website and for the next two hours we watch legal depositions about the website. But the movie is amazing. Fincher and Sorkin make something inert, not only alive, but personal to me. Friendship. Loyalty. Betrayal. Ambition.
I wanted to use the courtroom to see if I could do the same. It lent itself to the past and would give me a frame to move in and out of time while maintaining tension. But there was also something about the performance and witness of testimony that I found really interesting.
When I did theater in Rwanda, we learned about Gacaca courts. Basically, post genocide they couldn’t imprison all the murderers. So they had those men stand before their villages and admit everything they did. They then lived in those villages again. I was fascinated by that.
I have been and will always be interested in empathy and redemption. I am an imperfect person who lives in an imperfect world. I want to believe people grow. If they don’t a lot of my life is pointless. As well as a lot of my work. I’ve worked in prisons. I’ve worked in Rwanda. I’ve worked with men serving life sentences and youthful offenders on similar paths.
I think context shifts perception. And that we forget this a lot. I love Rashomon. I saw it in high school and the idea of shifting perspective and what it does to our sympathies is really important. Empathy is based on information. If you have information on a person, a cause, an event… it changes your empathy for it.
On the surface we know this. Right? We talk about hatred being bred from ignorance. Then, obviously, the only counter to it is information. But empathy is really hard. It’s hard to have empathy for people. Especially, in a time when our leaders are antagonistic. Our leaders behave like fascistic judges. But I fear a world that becomes judges in response.
Because they are judges… but they are not just.
AIPT: Caitlin, one of the very unique aspects of your style on display in Bliss #1 was how easily it seems you’re able to manipulate our perception of space. Both the courthouse and the Bliss depository feel massive and claustrophobic depending on the scene and the mental states of Benton and Perry. How are you able to artificially manipulate that space?
Caitlin Yarsky: I take a lot of cues from film makers/cinematographers when trying to portray a certain feeling with space. Terry Gilliam is a good example — his environments can evoke very specific, surreal moods in his audience. Same with a lot of old Jim Henson movies — I like trying to treat the environment like it’s another character with its own personality.
AIPT: Judgement and forgiveness are important themes for this comic, and I have a feeling that whether or not Benton and Perry deserve these things is going to vary a lot in our eyes as we continue reading. Does it vary a lot for you as you’re writing these characters? If so, how is it writing characters with such an uncertainty in their moral standing?
SL: I’m not sure I think about it in these ways.
The truth is, I don’t often know if my characters are right. I almost always write from a position of not knowing. I don’t really like books that seem self assured in what they are “teaching me.” I don’t trust them.
I had a lot of teachers growing up. And most of them had no idea what they were talking about. And they were scared to just say that. So they just fed me accepted lines. Simple posits. And that did not help me. Or anyone I knew. So, I don’t know that I need a new teacher dressed up as a comic book.
Instead, I’ve found I learned the most in my life through conversations. Particularly, with people who challenged me. Who disagreed with me, with respect.
I have sat across from men who did really unthinkable things. And I will tell you this. When you are in a cafeteria, sitting at a table face to face with them, you’re still talking to a human being. Before you meet them and after, they might be a killer in your mind. But during, they’re a person.
And to answer your question to some degree, the book has become so much more about me and my dad than I expected. That was not the plan when we started. But it’s hard to write about anything if it isn’t personal. And I think it’s probably impossible to write about something as complicated as redemption and addiction, without it being personal.
So, I love all the characters. I even love Lethe and the Mob Gods. I love the Magistrate who has to pretend he is in charge with his wig and gavel, even as the proceedings are clearly so much bigger than him. He knows if he acknowledges his own frailty this will all fall down.
The characters sometimes do things that break my heart. But I love them. Like a parent to a child.
AIPT: Another very important element is the curved panel layouts. I feel like circular and curved panels here are still positioned in a very formal and symmetrical way which isn’t something we see often. What inspired these layouts and this style?
CY: I’m a big fan of Art Nouveau and Alphonse Mucha, and the architecture of that time period. There are a lot of symmetrical curves, curls and flourishes that I think are really beautiful and that I used a lot in paneling Bliss.
Some of my biggest visual influences include movies like the Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Amelie, Triplets of Belleville, any Don Bluth film, illustrators/painters (Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Wylie Beckert, James Harren, and Sergio Toppi), and early 20th century aesthetics.
AIPT: What was the inspiration behind the location of Feral City?
SL: I just wanted a city that had become lawless for everyone. That had no handle on itself.
CY: I think ultimately, Feral City would be somewhere in the US but not specifically in any one state (though visually there’s a lot of influence from San Francisco, Thailand/Vietnam, and New Orleans). It has a slightly other-worldly feel too, sort of like how places feel in the genre of magical realism.
AIPT: What did you learn in your collaboration on Coyotes that you’re able to apply to Bliss, and what is different, new, and fresh this time around?
CY: We definitely collaborated more on the story this time and planned the plot and character development out a little more carefully, and with more inspiration from our own lives and relationships.
SL: I think for me, I just trust Cait implicitly. It’s a true co-ownership. We talk through things, we edit each other. If Cait tells me something feels dishonest, I don’t even get defensive (which normally I would, big time). I just go, she must be right. Cause we both know this book and we know each other.
AIPT: There’s a very oozy, liquid-like texture that permeates throughout the issue, whether it be the water Benton dives into at the beginning and end, the oozy black liquid of Bliss itself, or just the grimy nature of Feral City. Is this a conscious consistent visual element inherent to the story or just a byproduct of the type of actions Benton has to commit here?
CY: I feel like the ooze is meant to be symbolic of the insidiousness of addiction, corruption, and of the decay of relationships and mental wellbeing (in addition to the literal depiction of Bliss, blood etc). Plus it’s just fun to draw!
AIPT: Was the strained father-son relationship developed before the primary mechanic/drug in Bliss or was the idea of a drug that could cause you to forget traumatic experiences something you thought would best be explored in this way?
SL: We started with the concept of “how do people do horrible things and still sleep at night,” first. In came up in just normal conversation. Then, that led to the idea of “what if there was a drug that allowed you to…” Once that got locked in, we started talking about characters.
AIPT: For you Caitlin, what’s the most important part of drawing a character?
CY: To me it’s always about facial expressions. Getting the exact right expression portrayed in a scene is really satisfying. Also, for Bliss, I based the characters on friends in real life who posed for each issue (I would take photos of them in different poses and look at those photos as reference while drawing). So I essentially have a cast of players for Bliss, which has been really fun.
AIPT: What’s been the best part of making Bliss?
CY: To me, the best part is that Sean and I have so much ownership over the project. As with any Image title, we as creators can go nuts with our ideas and imaginations. It’s a very liberating feeling.
SL: It’s really fun to work with Cait again. I gush a lot, but she became a good friend as we traveled around doing signings for Coyotes last year. We had so many conversations about things outside of comic books that it’s so nice to make something with her again. I always just wanted to make things with friends, so that helps.
AIPT: What’s been the most challenging?
SL: I think that marketing and trying to sell a book right now is very hard. I’m very proud of the book. I think it does some new and cool things and is very honest and challenging while being approachable. Which is a tough mix. We took a lot of risks with it. So the fight and concern of will people find this through everything else, is always hard.
CY: Personally it’s always deadlines and work/life balance. I work full time and then draw comics full time. And while I absolutely love it, I’m hoping for the day I can just do comics and not worry about paying the bills.