Time travel is to comics as explosions are to Michael Bay films. Which is to say, wildly plentiful, and some instances are better than others. For an example of the former, Image Comics is about to launch a new series titled Time Before Time.
The brain-child of writers Rory McConville and Declan Shalvey and artist Joe Palmer, the series follows Tatsuo, a low-level flunkie for the Syndicate, a criminal organization that transports people back in time from a hellish 2140 to seek out better lives. There’s a reason the creative team has been pitching it as “Quantum Leap meets The Wire”: it’s a thrilling blend of crime fiction and sci-fi, riding that sweet spot between the gritty and fantastical to tell a deeply human story about second chances and overcoming the past.
Before issue #1 debuts on May 12, we had the chance to speak with McConville, Shalvey, and Palmer. (Fun fact: this is the second collabo between McConville and Palmer, who previously teamed for the excellent Write It In Blood.) The trio talked about the book’s origins, their design and storytelling choices, the power of time travel in fiction, and where they’d travel in history, among many other topics.
AIPT: How did you all come together on this project? How would you describe this series via a handy-dandy elevator pitch?
Declan Shalvey: I’ve known Rory from the indie comics scene for years and years. He’s always been plugging away getting stories made. I’ve seen him work on various projects over the years and had been killing it on Judge Dredd over at 2000AD. I really liked his work and thought it might be cool to try and co-write something together. He’s a great sci-fi writer and I’m a big sci-fi fan, so I thought maybe we could do something in that genre. It soon became clear we had more of a crime genre connection tough, and that started to flow into the concept more.
I had actually recommended Joe to Rory for Write It In Blood, even though they had previously worked together. Eoin Marron, a friend of mine, had sat with Joe at a con and showed me his stuff later on. I became a fan straight away. We had initially been working with another artist on Time Before Time but they became unavailable. It was around that time Joe was wrapping up Write It In Blood with a great creative partnership of Chris O’Halloran on colors and Hassan Otcmane-Elhaou on letters. I thought that book was great, and imagined it’d be really interesting to see that art team run with this bigger, more imaginative crime/sci-fi canvas that Rory and I had been knocking around.
Joe Palmer: I’d initially heard about the project from talking to Rory about what he was working on. We’d finished up work on Write It In Blood at this point and were discussing some potential future collaboration. There was originally another artist attached to the pitch for Time Before Time, but a short time later they became unavailable and Rory and Dec got in touch to see if I had any interest in working on the book. I really liked the sound of it, and coming off of the relative ‘real world’ subject matter of Write It In Blood I felt like wanted to push my art in the direction of something more imaginative, so I was fully on board with it. It’s more of a gamble to take a chance on a relatively unknown artist, so I’m really grateful to Rory and Dec for giving me the opportunity and having faith that I could do the job.
Rory McConville: As far as describing it, Time Before Time is a grounded sci-fi thriller focused on criminal gangs smuggling people back in time from a dystopian future and follows two smugglers who plan to steal one of the boss’ time machines so they can start a new life.
We’ve been pitching it to people as “Quantum Leap meets The Wire”, “Looper meets Saga” or “Doctor Who meets The Sopranos.”
AIPT: What’s the collaboration process like between the three of you? Joe and Rory, you’ve collaborated before on Write It In Blood — did that make this project better/easier?
DS: It starts with a lot of back and forth with myself and Rory initially. Rory does a lot of the actual hard work, then I swan-in with notes, then write my scenes, leaving Rory to make it all work. Our editor Heather Antos helps us fine-tune it and we hand it to Joe, who does a miraculous job of drawing these amazing pages full of interesting characters and environments, all promptly and professionally. As a freelance artist, his professionalism puts me to shame. Just feed the man script and he comes back with amazing pages.
I had been offering help on Write It In Blood so saw how well Rory, Joe, Chris and Hass all worked well together. I knew that they’d be great to work with directly on TIME BEFORE TIME and that was definitely the case. A lot of the collaborative process for me was more with Rory, in figuring out how the world worked and writing characters we found compelling. The art side of the book just flows together like a dream.
JP:: Rory and I had done a couple of short stories together at 2000AD previous to working on Write It In Blood, so by the time we did that book I was pretty familiar with his writing style.
I find Rory’s scripts really straightforward (in a good way!), and most of the time I’m picturing the story really clearly as I’m reading them, which makes my job a lot easier. With Rory and Dec writing together on Time Before Time that clarity in the script is still there, and they give me a lot of breathing room to pretty much figure it out however I see it. As far as the collaboration goes, it’s pretty easy going. For the majority of the time I’ve got my head down, working away in solitude!
Rory and Dec hand over a full script for an issue and I get to work on the layouts. Once I’m finished with those I send them over to Heather and the guys for approval, and tweak the layouts as necessary. After that, I’m on my own again and it’s off to the drawing board to finish up the pages. I’ve really got a huge amount of freedom to do my thing, which I can’t thank the guys enough for. On a book like this (which requires me to come up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t exist), honestly I’d find it a nightmare to do if everyone wanted a say in how everything looked all the time. To be left alone to come up with whatever I come up with really is a blessing.
RM Having worked with Joe a few times now, I think we’ve figured out a pretty effective working relationship which basically involves me giving him what he needs and then getting out of the way. So from that point of view, nothing really changed on TBT.
The big shift was co-writing with someone. At the very early stages I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to work and suspected it might be tricky as Dec would probably end up being too busy on other projects. I think once we decided that I’d take the lead on steering it became easier to push things forward. It’s definitely been interesting balancing the give and take that comes with co-writing vs writing solo but I think we’ve found a way that works well for us.
AIPT: I feel like time travel is such a well established genre. What’s something new or novel that this series brings to that motif or specific niche?
JP: It’s a genre that has been really heavily exploited and explored, for sure. I haven’t seen the ‘people smuggling across time’ thing done before, so for me that’s a fresh angle. Personally, I
think the time travel aspect isn’t at the forefront of the story. It’s not following a character trying to undo some past mistake, or change the future, because in the context of this story, time can’t be altered. All you can do is escape to another time, which is more like relocating than anything else.
RM: I’d agree with Joe about time travel primarily being a means of transportation within this story rather than the focus of the story itself. We also treat time periods like geographical locations with different gangs controlling different eras.
AIPT: Do you each have a favorite time travel comic/novel/film/etc. that you think might have helped in developing this title?
DS: Well, Looper was a big inspiration from the start for me. Rory and I had mentioned the film and we liked the street level, low-tech feel of it. There’s an aesthetic to the film that definitely influenced the feel from the start, but I think Joe really took the script and make the visuals his own. He may not have even known Looper was in my head in any way. When you work on a comic, you can have inspirations but the creative collaborative process starts to develop into its own thing.
JP: I really like Looper but it definitely wasn’t an inspiration on the visuals. I have a really short attention span, so my research for the book really jumps all over the place. Sometimes I’ll faithfully bring in something that I like the look of, and other times I’ll lose interest in being that glued to research and just play with shapes I like. I wasn’t consciously thinking of any particular thing that already exists, but I guess there’s a lot of time travel stuff swirling around in my head that probably feeds into the work. 12 Monkeys, and that whole clunky, low tech Terry Gilliam aesthetic is in there. The kind of technology where you look at it and have no idea how it would actually function, but it’s cool. Stuff piled on top of stuff.
RS: Looper definitely was a big influence for me from with regard to the low tech set up. Also, Doctor Who, particularly the Moffat era stuff, contains some of my favorite time travel stories so that’s also a huge influence.
AIPT: What are some of the main inspirations and influences for the series’ tone and aesthetic? I described it to someone as Looper meets Criminal.
JP: Speaking to the aesthetics part of the question, and other than the previously mentioned Gilliam influence, there’s certainly some Batman Beyond in there. [Mike] Mignola, too, of course. I’m inspired by all kinds of stuff, and the nature of this book meant that there weren’t really any ‘rules’, so when drawing the pages I thought it was important to not focus on one particular thing. Also having a deadline forces you to make choices quickly. There are some bits and pieces of stuff in there that were designed ahead of time, but for the most part there isn’t time to be analyzing what I’m choosing to do with the visuals. It’s about picking a direction and hoping some it works.
AIPT: I think, without spoiling too much, this is a book about connections: friends, family, strangers, etc. How hard is it to balance (if at all) that rich emotional nougat care with time travel and crime fiction?
RM: I think there’s always a balancing act but as we were saying above, we really view this as a character-driven crime story with time travel as a method of transportation and tool for raising the stakes rather than the main focus of the story, and adhering to that has kept us on track I think.
AIPT: The main character, Tatsuo, feels like an everyman in this really giant, kooky world. How important is his development and readers’ subsequent connection to him in keeping things focused and orderly as the world and story move along?
RM: I think it’s critical. Character gives a story its shape and identity. The risk with high concept storytelling is always that you end up focusing too much on the big shiny high concept and neglecting character.
At the end of the day though, particularly for what we hope will be a long running series, people stay for characters. Readers need someone to care about and from what we’ve heard from people so far, Tatsuo and some of the other character’s stories are really resonating which is great.
AIPT: Prerequisite time travel question: if you could travel anywhere in history, when would you go and why?
DS: I’d go back to the early 2000s and tell my late teenage self to not worry so much about what people think. I’d get stock in Facebook, cash out then use the money go to every pub within sight until COVID kicks in 20 years later. Essentially, I’d relive my adult life but have money. How sad is that…?
JP: I don’t think I’d wanna go back. Well, not to any point in human history anyway! As bad as people are treating each other right now, it was worse in the past. I’d go forward and see something beyond my years. Optimistically it’d be some kind of Star Trek like future!
RM: Can I go forward? 500 years in the future so I can access all the eternal life tech they’ll have probably developed by then. If it has to be the past, provided I could travel back here, maybe the Roman Empire.
AIPT: Did you spend time building your own mythos of time travel? I feel like all good sci-fi has its own rules (see Time Cop, Hot Tub Time Machine, etc.)
DS: Yeah, definitely. From the start Rory and I knew we had to have our own logic to how time travel worked, what you can do and what you can’t do. We also wanted to be careful that we didn’t go off the rails with the device, to keep things stripped down and easy for the reader to follow, even though everything isn’t necessarily spelled out for them.
RM: A lot of time! This is a book we ideally want to run for a long, long time and having the mechanics figured out is crucial to that, so there was a lot of work done ahead of time to figure out a set up and set of rules that would facilitate telling an ongoing story that wouldn’t see us getting tied up in paradoxes every single issue.
AIPT: I love the slow, deliberate pacing (but with great action and meaningful character interactions at all times). How did you plan this out, and do you think taking the time to delve into these characters is essential for a story that can go anywhere/any-when?
RM: Absolutely, with a concept that can go anywhere, you have to give yourself something solid to latch onto and the specific journey of a character is key for giving the whole thing direction.
As far as the pacing and how we planned out, there’s always so much juggling to do in the first issue but I think we really wanted to take our time and make the world feel lived in, and just give the reader what they needed to orient themselves rather than try to rush to explain everything. Obviously, it helped having main characters who were already familiar with the world they were living in (and have passengers they can explain things to) so that we can introduce things in a more naturalistic way.
AIPT: Why should anyone pick up issue #1?
DS: If you’re a fan of the work I’ve done over the years, be in the intimate crime books I’ve written, or the bombastic sci-fi work of Injection or my superhero work, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Within a short few pages, it establishes its own world and pulls you in with engaging characters, fun concepts and brilliantly realized artwork.
JP: I think fans of high concept science fiction will enjoy this. It’s smartly written by the guys, and I think across the board everyone on the team has put a lot of themselves into the work. I don’t think there’s a book on the stands quite like this, and that’s got to be a good thing!
RM: I think we’ve come up with a pretty unique take on the time travel genre and built a story filled with interesting characters and some clever twists and turns.
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