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Zack Kaplan, John J. Pearson unfurl the morality, murder, and madness in 'Mindset'

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Zack Kaplan, John J. Pearson unfurl the morality, murder, and madness in ‘Mindset’

A sci-fi thriller that asks some rather heady questions.

Our collective species spends a lot of time glued to cell phones. And, for better and infinitely worse, these machines dictate everything from what we eat and the music we listen to who we call our friends. But what if technology could actually control the average iPhone user?

That very question is the center at Mindset, a new Vault Comics series from writer Zack Kaplan (Port of Earth, Eclipse) and artist John J. Pearson (Beast Wagon, Razorblades). The story follows Ben, an “introverted tech geek accidentally discovers mind control.” But when he and his friends try to make good use of the discovery of the century, what unfurls is “murder and mayhem,” as Kaplan told us recently. It’s not just a story of whether technology is good or bad, but our relationship to these reality-shaping devices and what it all means for our shared morality and future as a species.

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We caught up with both Kaplan and Pearson before issue #1 drops (that’d be June 29, FYI). Over an extended call, the pair talked about the power of great sci-fi stories, the effectiveness of a well-built protagonist, and how they hope the story impacts readers, among many other tidbits.

AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for Mindset?

Zack Kaplan: Mindset is a dark, twisted techno thriller about for grad school nobodies who, by accident, discover mind control, and they decide to do something different with it — they put it in a meditation app to rid ordinary people of their technological addiction. And they end up launching the most successful social media app on the planet and achieving a cult following. And after murder and mayhem, they have to ask themselves, just who’s in control here? 

AIPT: What was the genesis of this project? And how would you describe your overall creative process?

ZK: I was a young farm boy on a desert planet, and I needed to get off and I found old Ben here. 

I had this idea for a long time, and just been playing around with it. To do a comic like Mindset, which is really dark and character-driven and moody, it really needed the right artist. I first got turned on to John’s work, seeing his colors and his collaboration with Ram V on Blue in Green. I knew this could be a really exciting style for the book. 

Zack Kaplan, John J. Pearson unfurl the morality, murder, and madness in 'Mindset'

Courtesy of Vault Comics.

John J. Pearson: I remember [Zack] getting in touch and we spoke about Mindset, and right from the get go, you wanted it to be something that was a little different. And that’s what I love with my art and art in general: there is something that is familiar, but isn’t afraid to take risks. From the outset that’s what we wanted for this project. From the very start, we were talking about the different ways that we could push the storytelling — not only through the scripts in the written narrative, but through the artwork as well, and how that would work in unison.

ZK: Yeah, I think it was exciting to kind of say, ‘What artistic choices can we make that will bring out the themes and the mood and the proper aesthetics?’ Our whole approach from the very get go, even bringing in [letter] Hassan [Otsmane-Elhaou ], was to be very thoughtful and very collaborative and to make sure that everything — story, art, colors, letters, everything — was working to to really bring the book to a high level for delivering the narrative.

AIPT: We talked about that character-driven aspect, and obviously I think that’s huge if you’re dealing with something that’s sci-fi or near future related, with some cyberpunk elements to boot. Are there any particular movies, comics, stories, etc. that you drew on to develop the look or the overall tone of the book?

JP: From the get go, we’ve always aimed for it to have that David Fincher feel to it. I think that’s kind of apparent tonally through the storytelling in general. It’s about bringing in that stylistic influence as well, in some elements. I think with this story, it’s very much sci-fi, but it’s definitely leaning more into the thriller side of things. So having that very down-to-earth, almost tactile feel to it, it makes the feel of the book not what you’d maybe expect. It’s definitely grittier and rougher, I suppose. Cinema has always been a massive influence to me and how I approach visuals or anything. It’s definitely trying to get the kind of emotive and the raw storytelling through individuals and drawing on a lot of the cinematography that we really liked in a lot of classic thrillers. Even things like horror — that’s always had an influence on the kind of thriller side of things as well, especially with the use of color and the use of a framing.

ZK: I’d say this is the least sci-fi book I’ve ever done. And the sci-fi is really doing some heavy lifting in terms of exploring themes about technology’s influence on us and our society’s relationship with social media and with Silicon Valley. And so there’s definitely a sci-fi, what-if component that explores mind control in our daily lives, but from a genre standpoint and from the aesthetics, we leaned far more into the dark thriller, and even a little bit of mind-bending horror. I think readers are going to find it’s very alive and just an intoxicating kind of experience to read through this. We really wanted to make it feel immersive, and like an experience where you join these characters and you are grabbed and you are brought into their world from the very beginning.

JP: The whole idea of social media and apps and phone technology, you have an expectation as to what the aesthetics look like, for everything connected with that. And if you go into this book, knowing it’s about social media and technology and kind of app-based ideas, then you have this idea of what that will probably look like. It’s completely different than that.

It was us kind of playing with the themes that we’re dealing with. You’ll have these expectations, but it’s kind of subverting them. It’s almost kind of challenging your expectations as to why it should be straight away just through the look of it.

Zack Kaplan, John J. Pearson unfurl the morality, murder, and madness in 'Mindset'

Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: Yeah, you think of, say, Silicon Valley and these bright lights and big open windows. The book is very beautiful, but it’s very weird and gritty and dark and intense. It got me thinking about William Gibson’s Neuromancer: taking those big ideas about technology and subverting them in a gritty but approachable way

JP: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you’d actually mentioned that because I love Neuromancer. Early on, where it’s describing the plastic of the arm of the bartender, that really stuck with me. It’s kind of a messy technology, and before I read Neuromancer, I always had the idea of sci-fi being very clean. I think the ideal is that kind of shadow version for me. So, yeah, that’s a good call.

ZK: I think it also comes from the fact that when we set out to tell this story, we wanted to show two possible sides. There is this kind of seduction to the main character as he gets pulled into this world of a successful app and Silicon Valley and the glitz and the glamor of a business startup. He goes from a grad school nobody to a tech billionaire in a matter of a few weeks. And so there is this kind of seductive quality of social media in general, from a sci-fi standpoint. But then there’s this dark, horrific undertone of what lies beneath the surface. So I think we’re trying to bring broke both presences, both a hopeful and a fearful kind of presence, throughout the story. That gave the art a really cool opportunity to not just be Minority Report clean, but playing in this grit and playing with these textures.

AIPT: There’s a lot of fiction out now that points a finger at tech bro culture as being very capitalistic and being very self-involved. But I get the sense from this book that there is that kind of condemnation of technology, but also the sense of things don’t always sort of start out terribly, and there’s this thread of decency and that these people are trying to do something good. How does that human aspects kind of shape everything and, and influence everything?

ZK: I don’t think we’re making any blanket statements about how all startups work or how all tech works. But this specific story focuses on a character, Ben Sharpe and his friends, and they are in the onset of discovering mind control which is an amazing discovery. They’re looking to do something different, and to try to do something good and put it in a meditation app that will help people free themselves from the manipulative influences of technology. But it ends up going a different direction. The road is paved with good intentions, and we’ve tried to very much show the character and what brought him to this place in his past and his childhood. Like, emotionally, and with what’s going on in his life, how does he get to this place? And what happens along the way — it’s a complicated look at how technology meets commerce and capitalism and business and what happens when you take a good intention and then bring in elements like making money. I think it’s a really fascinating character exploration for these guys and their intentions and what goes wrong.

JP: With what we’re trying to do as well, it’s more about asking the questions than providing any answers about anything. Plus, it’s done on multiple levels as well. So on the one hand, you’ve got the kind of potential empathy you might have for the characters  the situations they would find themselves in, but also through the technology that they’re using and everybody engages with, you have this secondary level of questions raised about how people interact with them and how we should be interacting with them. And that’s something that I think a majority of people will be able to connect to, because it’s part of all of our daily lives. So it’s about these questions that are being raised. One of the main things for me is I like bringing that about through the art and reinforcing it as well. It’s a complex story about the questions being posed.

Zack Kaplan, John J. Pearson unfurl the morality, murder, and madness in 'Mindset'

Courtesy of Vault Comics.

ZK: The answers are all at the very last page of the last issue, so when readers read the whole way through, they’ll know exactly what they should be doing.

But, no. We’re all plagued by these kinds of questions right now. How do we deal with and how do we use social media? How do we use Zoom and technology in our daily lives and not be susceptible to its influences? You can be talking about a new mattress with your family, and next thing you know, you’re getting an ad for a new mattress on Instagram. So we are being influenced, and it’s a very  human thing that we all know about, and so we’re using the narrative to explore it and put the questions to the readers.

AIPT: I think that’s a great element of true sci-fi: raising questions. And I think it’s going to depend on the reader here. Do you think people are going to have different takes and perspectives depending on how they use technology and what they think about technology beforehand?

JP: The best sci-fi is a kind of social commentary, and even if it’s set in the far future, it’s relevant to both the time it’s written and it has a timeless quality. Because, ultimately, a lot of those issues constantly arise. Control is a wider theme here, and people are always controlled in some capacity; they almost let themselves be controlled. So I think this is definitely ticking those boxes.

ZK: I also find it very interesting when you take a premise like mind control, and we’ve seen so many stories about it. But I think mind control stories are usually intimate in the sense that they’re about a few people and someone’s controlling someone else. But I haven’t seen a lot of these same stories that have been updated into modern technology. What interested me, as an author, was how can you take a mind control story and take it to a global, more epic scale? I find it, just as an everyday person, just how fast society is transforming around technology and social media. It was great fun to explore that in the narrative.

AIPT: In comics, mind control is still a gimmick, like something from a supervillain’s ray gun. But I think mind control is one of those things that it’s right here in front of us, and there’s some guy designing an app in Silicon Valley that’s having a major impact on people’s cognitive processes right now.

ZK: And we all wake up and go to sleep completely differently than we did 10 years ago — we all now reach for our phones and we look to check our badges and our notifications. We’ve literally changed the way we go to bed and we wake up in the morning, and we don’t even realize it. That’s mind control. So it’s here, right now, and it’s happening. And your behavior is being changed and altered in the way you order food. It’s all right here. Is it good? Is it bad? What is it doing to us? What is it doing to the people who are making it? Also, what if you had that power? What if you had the power to influence the world with this form of mind control? What would you do with it?

Mindset

Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: I do want to circle back about the main character, Ben. He’s got this history and all these insights. How important is it to have that really relatable core of humanity in a specific book like this?

ZK: I think it’s extremely important to relate to and understand the protagonist in a dark thriller like this, I was very much thinking about other comics, like Kill or Be Killed or Deadly Class, and thinking about flawed characters who you understand their flaws. You understand why they are attracted or propelled to have a more complicated path forward in the story. And Ben is no different. He’s a character who  has grown up under the influence of technology and social media, and he’s starting off and he’s clearly lost in his life. He hasn’t really achieved what he expected to achieve. He is feeling very frustrated and disillusioned, and he longs for more, like we all do, but he also wants to maintain his ideals and his values. He doesn’t want to be corrupted to become a Silicon Valley executive who’s just manipulating people for a profit.

So he’s very torn. It’s really important to understand him, because he’s going to get pulled into the world of having an overnight success app that the planet is using. They put this mind control on the app and it goes viral, and all sorts of mayhem and chaos follows. It’s really important to connect to him before it takes off, and we are going to be constantly asking ourselves if Ben is going to be true to himself. Is he going to be able to stand up? Or is he going to be controlled? Is he going to be seduced? It’s very much about the influences that are placed on him. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think that it’s really integral to relate to the character for a story like this.

JP: Any time you create any character, it’s trying to understand them holistically. Like, I can anticipate what they would do in any situation, I suppose. So, as the story progresses, understanding them as a real, tangible character, what would their reaction be in this situation? Then, how can that be either enhanced or subverted? Or how can it be done in interesting ways that will hopefully reinforce that characterization to the reader. This first issue is all about grounding Ben as this real person — someone who is complex and has nuances. And that’s where, from the artistic point of view, you can see what emphasis is put on him in certain kinds of framing, and then that would hopefully push some of those elements a little bit further. The thing that I love doing is trying to push the emotional connection that a reader will have, and how that can be done through things like the use of color, or the lack of color, for Ben and other characters.

ZK: When we first designed [Ben], we talked a lot about designing him with a duality — designing a character that you could see and think is both lost and there’s a darkness in there. You could see him in a completely different way. John does an incredible job of showing those layers throughout and sometimes he leans into one energy and another energy.

JP: We went through quite a few different iterations of Ben, trying to lock it down as to the exact feel we wanted for that character. Like, visually, there’s nothing that really stands out on him. But that’s the point. He needs to have that capacity to be relatable, but then be pushed in different ways and have that layering that isn’t kind of being signified by anything specific with that character design.

AIPT: Ben is clearly a guy who is going to either be lots of trouble or I’m going to feel really bad for him at the end of this. It’s not a thing we get in a lot stories, and going back once more to the sci-fi elements, isn’t that what you want from a protagonist? Someone who goes through this adventure and then you figure out who he is in the very end?

ZK: Absolutely. He’s a multi-faceted character. And I think that we want to keep readers on their toes in terms of his journey. I think you are meant to both care about him and fear for him and be fearful of him all at the same time. You’re not supposed to know what’s going to happen, but you know that he’s a very empathetic character. Issue one definitely brings you into his world.

JP: Yeah, it’s another extension of the whole duality thing. It’s not just this type of character on this type of character arc. I’m glad you had the reaction from that first issue — the intention is to be heavily invested in the character, but unsure as to where that character may or may not head.

Zack Kaplan, John J. Pearson unfurl the morality, murder, and madness in 'Mindset'

Variant Cover from Martin Simmonds. Courtesy of Vault Comics.

AIPT: I was also thinking about another property like A Scanner Darkly — a movie where you don’t know what’s real and what’s not actually happening (or happening in reality). Are you trying to get people to second guess themselves? Are you actively poking people in that part of the brain?

ZK: I would say you’re reading a mind control comic — why would you want to second guess anything? You clearly want to accept everything at face value.

But, again, we’re going to promise the readers lots of twists and turns, and I think that the first issue does create a really dreamy experience at times. You’re talking about exploring deep interpersonal feelings — we’re hearing Ben’s inner thoughts but we’re also experiencing his deepest feelings. We’re really connecting with this character. And so the story is being told at the onset in a subjective way, and the very narration takes us out of an omniscient experience. So you’re not reading it and saying, ‘I’m seeing what’s happening.’ You’re reading it, and you’re saying, ‘Ben is telling me what is happening. This is what I’m experiencing; I’m experiencing this journey with this character who you don’t know so well. I think the readers will have a great time going along as it continues, but just sit back and enjoy hearing and seeing everything that you hear him see.

JP: I think that subjectivity is one of the things that I love about this. I said to Zack before, but one of the things that I don’t like about some comics are that I’ll only read it once. There’s zero re-read value a lot of time. So we’re trying to aim for this to be an experience for the reader, and you can go back and experience it again because of that subjectivity. But also because of the character and the journey.

AIPT: Wrapping up, and without spoiling too much, what can we expect from the rest of the issues and the Mindset story in general?

ZK: It’s timely and it’s topical. And anybody who enjoys a good thriller, who enjoys a good mystery and a grounded sci-fi story and anybody who likes David Fincher films is going to love this comic.

I think it’s also an extremely thoughtful comic, and it’s extremely character driven. It really pushes the boundaries of what comics can do, I think, in the sense that we’re trying to really blend narrative and art and letters and design all together to make sure that the medium is really creating something provocative for readers. And it just has a lot of interpretation. People are going to read this comic and want to say to somebody, ‘Hey, what did you think? What did you think about this, and what’s your answer?’ So it’s just our hope that it engages people in that way. 

JP: It just hits on so many different levels. If you pick up this book, like Zack said, it’s something that I feel like you’ll want to talk about. You’ll want to gauge what other people’s reactions are, and you’ll want to find out what happens next or what people think might happen next. You might want to discuss the kind of the connection between what’s happening in the story or someone with the artwork. For me, we’re trying to do something that is a little bit different. It isn’t just a straightforward, linear comic about this thing that happens — there is a subjectivity to the story and that’s really the driving passion. That’s what is really going to connect with the audience.

Mindset #1 is out June 29 via Vault Comics.

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