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Christopher Sebela breaks down the technology and humanity in '.Self'

Comic Books

Christopher Sebela breaks down the technology and humanity in ‘.Self’

The near-future tale of tech gone haywire is out now.

The near-future is utterly terrifying. It’s just close enough to start dreading about it right now, and yet not far away enough where the power of space and time might somehow change things so drastically. Perhaps no comics creator is more acutely aware of this dynamic then writer Christopher Sebela. With his 2019 series Crowded, Sebela (alongside artists Ro Stein and Ted Brandt) created a world in which our obsession with job shares and apps has resulted in humans being hunted for sport (but, like, as an irreverent reality show, too).

Now, Sebela, alongside artist Cara McGee, colorist Rebecca Nalty, and letterer Aditya Bidikar, once more examines a potentially terrifying near-future with .Self. The ComiXology Original sees a world in which a service called Postscript allows you to save a kind of digital backup of yourself, which can be used in the event of your untimely death for wrapping up any final mortal business. But when the account of Natalie Winters is hacked, we see what happens when your life and very identity are no longer your own.

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With issue #1 of the five-part series out today (November 2), we got the chance to talk to Sebela via email. He discussed the book’s genesis and inspirations, his thoughts on sci-fi in comics, and how he approaches design work, among other topics.

Christopher Sebela breaks down the technology and humanity in '.Self'

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: This book has a slightly complicated (but hugely amazing) description. What’s your elevator pitch? It feels a bit like Altered Carbon meets Orphan Black.

Christopher Sebela: The basic idea is Postscript is this technology that backs up a human being to a hard drive so they can be loaded into artificial bodies called Blanks for one last chance after death to say goodbye to friends and family and clear up their final affairs. Nat Winters is a Postscript user living what should be a perfect life, until she finds out she’s been hacked and the backup of who she is has been stolen and torrented online. Now a bunch of Blanks running tweaked versions of Nat’s software are running around using her bank accounts and emailing friends to tell them what she really thinks about them, turning her whole life upside down, including people showing up to kick her ass. And she has to somehow figure out how to stop it and get her life back from all these versions of her out there stealing her identity.

AIPT: After Crowded, this is another book dealing with some near-future piece of tech gone horribly awry. What appeals to you in exploring technology through these lenses?

CS: I think it’s that technology is very much one of those eye of the beholder things and depending on who gets their hands on it, it can either be a tool to repair things or a weapon to demolish them. Most technology isn’t built to be anything other than what it is, people are the variables that determine what these things can do. So, maybe, technology is just, for me, a reliable lens for seeing what people are capable of at their best and worst.

AIPT: Building off that last question, do you feel hopeful or worried about the future of commercial technology? And how do you think that reflects in these stories?

CS: Oh, it’s always hope tinged with worry. Like, I can’t allow myself to be 100% optimistic about where these things lead, as someone who has been very on-line for a long while, I’ve seen how the dream can get diminished. So, in my stories, I’m not trying to be an advocate or a doom monger, I’m just theorizing where things could go, in both nice and awful ways. I hope they don’t come off as me shaking my fist at clouds.

Christopher Sebela breaks down the technology and humanity in '.Self'

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: Do you have any specific properties (books, films, TV, etc.) that you referenced in either designing or how you approach the world within this book?

CS: Not really? Which is not to say that I don’t usually, but this one I tried to just go with what was in my head and not lean on anything else specifically. The closest influence I can think of is the movie Looper, which presents a futuristic world where it looks a lot like ours, but just a few things are noticeably different or have new additions to make them future compatible. I love that vibe and that’s definitely something I wanted to bring to .Self.

AIPT: What was the collaborative process like with the rest of the team? Does releasing this via ComiXology make a difference to you and/or the story at all?

CS: It was all pretty much like making a book anywhere else. None of us live remotely close to one another and did all our communicating through email and Dropbox. And we did a lot of close working together in the beginning to get things to a place where everyone was happy and then once you kind of establish the bar, you just have to make sure to clear it four more times while everyone is off in their own separate spaces doing their part. It was an easy book from start to finish. Even writing it wasn’t difficult.

Releasing it through ComiXology is exciting because it’s comics but different. You don’t have to bang the drum for pre-orders and cutoff dates and tease the book out, you can just show up and say hey, look what we did, now you can go read it right this second. So, the different model definitely interests me a lot, but we still made the book like we would if we were going the traditional publishing route.

AIPT: When you’re dealing with a concept like this, how much research do you conduct, and do you try to keep things “realistic”? Does that matter in the realm of sci-fi like this?

CS: Well, for an idea like this, there’s only so much research you can do to make it feel semi-logical in a science way before you’re just reading someone else’s sci-fi stories. I do try to achieve something close to “realistic” but more from a logical point of view, making it so it makes sense to me. I think stuff like all the details of how Postscript and Blanks would truly work slips into the realm of hard sci-fi and we’re definitely doing something more like lo-fi sci-fi.

Christopher Sebela breaks down the technology and humanity in '.Self'

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: Similarly, how much planning goes into building the actual world, and do you put effort into creating a kind of mythos for this “reality?”

CS: I do all the planning. I love to sit down with a pen and a notebook and just write out all the rules of the world, or questions about how the world works with a bunch of possible solutions and then how that spreads out and what it means for A, B and C. And maybe 20% of that actually shows up in the book itself, but it goes back to that idea of making it make sense to me. If I understand it all and know the ins and outs, then I can write it like I live there. If that makes sense.

AIPT: There’s a few allegories/motifs here just in issue #1, like technology running amok, the human need for permanence, and even the argument of physical vs. digital. Is there one overarching message or metaphor that you think rings most true in this series/story?

CS: Well, a lot of times I have no idea what the book is really about when I start on it. I just know that it’s a story that compels me to want to tell it and that there’s probably a good reason for that, and hope I figure it out. That was the case with .Self, where about halfway through writing it, things started clicking into place. The motifs you mention are all big parts of the mix, but to me, the biggest part was the gulf between the life you dream of achieving and the reality of that life when you finally achieve it. All the things and people that get lost and left behind along the way and what other roads you could have gone down instead. A lot of it might have been due to me being on lockdown when I was writing it or just me being interested in these ideas, it’s hard to say anymore. But ultimately, what rings truest for me won’t necessarily what resonates with readers, so this is just my educated guess on what it’s actually about.

AIPT: Would you ever want to have access to something like Postscript? Or is that just Pandora’s box waiting to happen?

CS: Oh, I’d sign right up. I do think it’s a Pandora’s box, but I love the idea of digitally backing myself up, having a chance to say goodbye after I die, and scrolling thru my life would be a fun and terrible experience. Mostly I’m into it for that last part because I’ve never been very good at keeping a diary and this would just expedite the whole process.

Self

Courtesy of ComiXology.

AIPT: This book is just so rich with humanity. Why is that so vital, and does it ground some of the weirdness or tech-centric narrative at all?

CS: People are what make books worth reading, for me. You could have the coolest concept in the world but if there aren’t people to invest in, it’s empty calories and easily forgettable. Once I get an idea for a story, one of my first big steps is figuring out who my characters are and what makes them tick. Writing out their whole life story and getting to know them. Then it becomes a lot easier to figure out what they’ll do when everything is turned upside-down on them. Especially in sci-fi, where concepts can be so big and impenetrable, the people shaped by it are always easier to understand on some level.

AIPT: I love the look and feel of the book, and it feels futuristic and yet so familiar. Why is that balance important, and what kind of design process or approach does that require?

CS: Design-wise, I left 99% of that to Cara. The only thing I really contributed was designing what the Postscript Unit looks like and the backmatter stuff. Otherwise, everything else was in my script and I never went too deep in describing how this world is different from ours. There’s a danger, for me at least, in world building of getting lost in shading in all these details of how this world works, and this felt like a much more personal, intimate story to me, so the larger world wasn’t as big a concern as Nat’s world and what happens to it.

AIPT: Without spoiling too much, what are some tidbits we can expect from issue #2-5?

CS: Well, things definitely get worse for Nat. The chaos visited on her in issue 1 is just a taste of what’s coming. And she meets a lot more Blanks, many different versions of herself. Like, a lot of them. And not all of them are looking out for her best interests. So, it’s going to get pretty wild.

AIPT: Why should anyone pick up issue #1?

CS: If they like good comics with actual characters and cool concepts, they should definitely get it. If they don’t enjoy any of those things, then I wouldn’t recommend it to them.

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