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John Harris Dunning on memory and atmosphere in 'Wiper'

Comic Books

John Harris Dunning on memory and atmosphere in ‘Wiper’

The sleek, sensual new sci-fi epic drops November 16.

What do you get if you mixed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Blade Runner? It just might look a little Wiper, a brand new original graphic novel from writer John Harris Dunning, artist Ricardo Cabral, colorist Brad Simpson, and letterer Jim Campbell.

The story follows the Wiper named Lula Nomi, who is a P.I. who guarantees “complete discretion” by undergoing a total memory wipe at the completion of every job. However, when she lands a new case working for a robot named Klute, she faces a giant mystery that forces her to “learn what happened to [journalist Orson Glark]…and the truth about herself.” Fans of the aforementioned Blade Runner will find the same kind of tense sci-fi wizardry, with a rich world and atmospherics galore.

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Ahead of Wiper‘s release on November 16 via Dark Horse Comics, we caught up with Harris Dunning recently via email. We talked about writing proper sci-fi, the further Blade Runner connections, exploring ideas around memory, and much more.

AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for Wiper?

John Harris Dunning on memory and atmosphere in 'Wiper'

Courtesy of Dark Horse.

John Harris Dunning: A private investigator working in Africa about a hundred years from now is hired to locate a missing journalist. As the case unfolds, she starts to suspect his disappearance is somehow connected to her own mysterious past…

AIPT: The narrative seems really interested in the idea of memory/remembering. What is your interest in exploring this idea, and how much of it has to do with how technology “forces” us to remember these days?

JHD: What an interesting connection – and not one that I’d made. I’m interested in how memories form personality: we create stories about ourselves to become the people we are. And we’re all unreliable narrators. Up until my 30s I used to keep detailed diaries. I was often surprised when I looked at earlier entries how differently I remembered things. My memory of events had subtly altered over time to serve my current narratives. Any psychologist – and police detective – will tell you, our memories are wildly unreliable.

AIPT: Similar to that last question, is there something pertinent today — like living in a surveillance state — that spurred on some of the story?

JHD: I’m hugely anti the surveillance state [that] the whole so-called ‘developed world’ has sleep-walked into. It’s up to all of us to rebel against and dismantle the current system. It’s already nightmarishly dystopian. In this book, I wasn’t so much exploring the surveillance aspect of the big tech companies as I was their eerily blithe arrogance – particularly when it comes to their totalitarian ideas of utopia. These guys seem to genuinely believe they know best. It’s very unnerving to me – all the more so because they actually think they’re doing good. But whose idea of good? And good for who, exactly? In the world of Wiper these corporations are running rampant and refusing to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Sound familiar?

AIPT: Why put Wiper out as a graphic novel and not single issues beforehand?

JHD: The graphic novel Wiper was born of the lockdown. There were paper shortages in the U.S. and production blockages that led to a huge cut in terms of commissions, so it was decided we would go straight to graphic novel. That decision really laser honed my world building with the artist Ricardo Cabral. We lived and breathed this world while in lockdown and directly following it. It concentrated our energies. It allowed the story to cohere in a way it wouldn’t have as a collection of single issues.

AIPT: Wiper is described as “tropical noir.” What’s that mean, and is it at all a little tongue-and-cheek satire/spoofing of the onslaught of noir-ish comics?

JHD: Ha ha! I like that interpretation! But no – I have a love of that atmosphere of sleazy waterfront nightclubs in Miami in the ’30s, or Lagos in the 1960s. Dirty neon and ice cream-colored suits sticking to sweaty bodies. Palm trees and gun shots. I wanted to bring these elements into the science fiction space. I was using the term to communicate the idea to the artist and colorist, primarily, but it stuck.

Wiper

Unlettered art by Ricardo Cabral and Brad Simpson. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: Is it easier or harder to write sci-fi as the world not only makes big technological advances but also becomes more insane and terrifying to boot?

JHD: Now’s a great time to write sci-fi. All the more ammunition for inspiration! The real challenge for me is trying to preserve a sense of wonder at the heart of the sci-fi I produce. I don’t mind if the world is dark, and scary, and unsettlingly mind blowing – but I also want it to be a place my reader would want to go for a drink, peopled by characters they’d like to meet. I don’t want to create a straightforward dystopia. Put simply – the first Blade Runner film versus Blade Runner 2049. Even in a film like Alien, you somehow want to be hanging out on the Nostromo, or in that universe.

AIPT: I feel like the book, especially in the early parts, does a great job creating and fostering lore without making it feel overwhelming. How is the world of Wiper like our own, and how much of that lore do you need to really know or grapple with?

JHD: For me, it’s all about the world-building. I want readers to want to crawl up into the book and live in it. That’s what comics were for me as a kid. They still are, to come extent. A space station sealed off from the real world. An alchemist’s laboratory in which to cook up spiritual survival techniques. A temporary autonomous zone in which to dream. I hope the lore grabs readers and they enjoy it – it’s not necessary for grasping the story, but it’s an important part of the book. As important as the story itself.

Wiper

Unlettered art by Ricardo Cabral and Brad Simpson. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: What was it like working with the art team of Ricardo Cabral and Brad Simpson; what did they add to the process and the narrative at-large?

JHD: I’ve known Ricardo for years, and we collaborated on a pitch a few years ago. I’m a big fan of his work. Once Wiper was commissioned by Dark Horse, I brought the project to him and it was game on. We spent a good few months just working on the world – the clothing, the architecture, the design of the technology – then he started drawing pages. He blew my mind. Right from the start. His level of dedication to the world-building was astonishing. It was hard to find a colorist who could complement and elevate Ricardo’s artwork, who could work with the level of detail he was producing. Brad Simpson took our vision of a tropical palette and ran with it. He’s come from a background of being a painter, so he brought a very singular aesthetic to the project. He was a core part of the creative team – as was letterer Jim Campbell. It was a pleasure to work with someone like Jim who ensured the words and storytelling are so intelligently presented. Both Brad and Jim hugely amplified the storytelling.

AIPT: How much of the design influenced the universe and lore here? And vice versa?

JHD: A first draft of the script was written by the time Ricardo started drawing, so it didn’t impact the actual writing of the book – but so much of the drawing is the universe and the lore. I’m still discovering things in the pages – that is the generosity and genius of Ricardo Cabral. I find myself seeing a strange alien or robot for the first time that makes me laugh – Ricardo’s imagination is delightfully odd and surprising. It reminds me of early work by artists Kevin O’ Neill and Bryan Talbot in Nemesis the Warlock in British comics anthology 2000 AD. Bulletproof worldbuilding. It’s also the publication where some of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s best work appeared. It was a huge influence on me.

John Harris Dunning on memory and atmosphere in 'Wiper'

Unlettered art by Ricardo Cabral and Brad Simpson. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: I feel like, as sleek and intense as the book is, it also maintains a sense of playfulness and almost sensuality. Why is that a vital feature in a story like this?

JHD: That’s a great compliment, so, thanks. My foremost ambition is to entertain. I wanted there to be a comedic, sexy edge. High energy. Optimism. Singularity. That’s what I want our readers to come away with.

AIPT: I think, given the concepts and visuals at play here, this book will be compared to a pillar like Blade Runner. Is that annoying as a creator, or do you try and just accept it and run with it?

JHD: I adore the first Blade Runner film. With Alien, it remains the blueprint for smart, thrilling sci-fi. Both entirely singular works. So, any comparisons are welcome! As has now been acknowledged, the look and feel of Blade Runner was hugely influenced by filmmaker, comics creator and wizard Alejandro Jodorowsky. It therefore feels appropriate that Blade Runner should inspire comics. Nothing can stop the flow!

AIPT: Why should anyone read Wiper?

JHD: Because they want their mind blown – and to travel to a place they are never going to want to leave…

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