Of the many, many archetypes in comics, none feel more essential than “Mano y Mano.” Or that’s what I call it when two foes (regardless of gender) are locked into eternal combat. Whether that’s Batman versus Joker or Spy vs. Spy, this bloody dynamic is always ripe with storytelling potential. Mattson Tomlin (Project Power) and Lee Bermejo (Batman: Damned) continue this tradition in their new book — albeit with a slight twist.
Their three-part prestige miniseries A Vicious Circle follows Shawn Thacker and Ferris, two men who are irrevocably tied together as part of a mission involving the very fate of the world and/or history itself. Their battle, though, has them each “involuntarily [traveling] between vastly different past and future eras…spanning from 22nd century Tokyo to 1950s New Orleans.” It’s a gorgeous and utterly intense exploration of morality and human nature (with commentary on storytelling itself to boot). And while it plays like a giant genre-leaping action flick (rounded out by Becca Carey’s lettering), the story draws you in for an intimate tale of how far two men will go for what they believe to be the truth.
Issue #1 is available this week (December 14) from BOOM! Studios. We caught up with both Tomlin and Bermejo recently via Zoom, where we talked about their collaborative process, the book’s visual identity, and referencing history, among other tidbits.
AIPT: I love the story of A Vicious Circle — two dudes bashing each other across time. What was the genesis? Are we playing with that comics trope of two opposing figures?
Mattson Tomlin: I think that we’re playing with the trope and that we know it’s a trope and that we know we can play with it. For me, I value character above everything else. And so with a comic book, there’s a kind of economy of space where it’s OK, let’s get in there. And so you meet these two guys, and hopefully you’re going to get to know them, but you’ll also make certain assumptions about them. And I think that by the time that you get to the end of this story, what you think of one character and what you think of another they might be inverted or they might be completely changed. But we’re definitely aware of some of the tropes and playing with them.
AIPT: When we meet Ferris, he’s a kind of animalistic fiend. But it also raises questions about who is this guy? What’s he about? Why am I making assumptions about him?
MT: I think that the archetypes that we have for a story of hero and villain are very useful, but it’s not real life. There are no heroes in real life — with minor exceptions. For me, to tell a good story you start broad and then go more and more specific. In that first issue, Ferris ask , ‘Who’s the good guy here?’ And we’re going to understand why he’s asking that question.
AIPT: Lee, I’ve always been a big fan of your work, but I feel like you’re at your peak here with A Vicious Circle. What was it like to have to switch up your art as the pair leapt through time?
Lee Bermejo: It was definitely a challenge.
When Mattson fist came to me with the pitch for this high-concept book, I thought, ‘Well, this is a comic book — how do we how what comics do best and embrace what makes this medium so fun? Which is something that you can’t necessarily do the same way in other mediums. I thought that was a really interesting way to take us clearly through the time jumps in this book, and that’s all thanks to the story. The story kind of asked for that, in a way.
But, you know, I need the challenge. I need every project to be something that I haven’t necessarily done before. So you know, with Batman: Damned, I’d never colored myself before, and so I colored that book. In this book, the challenge that I kind of wanted to put on myself was that was to switch styles. And there’s a lot of style changes.
AIPT: There’s tons of swaps.
But I can always tell it’s you, and there’s a kind of connective thread throughout the art. And yet it feels varied enough to still be interesting.
Was there anything specific you referenced in developing the look?
LB: We always talked about stuff. We know for the beginning of the story, for instance, it would be this kind of black-and-white, Leave It to Beaver kind of thing. But there’s still a broad enough plan. In the third book, Mattson said, ‘I think it would be cool if you do it in this kind of style. You know what I mean?’ And so it’s stuff that we’ve we’ve definitely discussed, but a lot of it is also me going, ‘What do I love? Who are other artists that I love? What’s stuff that people have never seen from me before?’ So that that was also a big part of it — surprising readers. They’re going into this book expecting things…and I want to throw them a curveball, because the story is a curveball the entire way through.
AIPT: Mattson, I guess this next one would be for you. Obviously Shawn and Ferris jump around a lot. But were there any specific reasons for some of the time periods chosen here? Something about a specific time tied to an idea or motif?
MT: I think that a lot of those things will make sense once people can see the whole story. But definitely, just in terms of telling the story from what’s in front of you now, starting off in the past, and starting off in this place, as a reader you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know who these people are, and you don’t know that this guy is from the future. And then as he’s saying, ‘I’m from the future’ — and you’re going, ‘Is that real? What am I reading right?’ And for him to then get to a future immediately, and it not skip much of a beat… a lot of it is just the intention of you want to feel like you’re in good hands. Because this character, these characters, are a little bit ahead of you for this book — they’re in the middle of their story.
And so for me, a lot of it was going, ‘OK, I want to be disorienting. I want to be confusing in the way that creates questions.’ It makes you lean in and really want to know what’s going on and not in a confusing way that makes you go,’ I’m getting annoyed. And I’m going to put this thing down.’ So a lot of the answers just come down to what’s right for the story and for the audience in being brought into this in this time and in this place.
AIPT: I did find myself going back and re-reading stuff not out of annoyance. It makes you want to really figure it out before you really know it all.
Moving on. Lee touched on it briefly, but what was the collaborative process like?
MT: For me in the writing, I have my first page after the title page in the script and there’s always a note to Lee that says, ‘This how I’m seeing it in my head.’ So I have panel breakdowns, I have action breakdowns, and I’ll even put hyperlinks with references to period art or something that I’ve read about, that says, like, ‘Mogadishu 1620.’ Just ’cause nobody knows what that is off of the top of their brain.
But then I say, ‘I’m giving you all this more as inspiration, because you’re the one that has to go and stick the landing here.’ So don’t think of it as a prescription. Don’t think of it as ‘Do it like this.’ That creates a freedom for me to just be able to fully let out what’s in my head. And I think it makes a freedom for Lee as well, because so often things really changed from what I’ve written, and 100% of the time it has been for the better. For me that say, ‘This is a collaboration that is just really working because I’m giving him everything I can and then he’s taking it but then also bringing himself to the process as well.’
LB: I mean, he’s a filmmaker. So he thinks very visually; the scripts are very visual. So I remember, before we even started working on this, he sent me the script from Mother/Android, and I read it and thought, ‘Holy s--t.’ I felt like I could completely immerse myself in that story and the heartbeat of that story and the characters and just everything. Obviously you see that translated in the film itself as well. It’s like he has — I love talking about you like you’re not here — he already has that visual sense. So the scripts in that way are super informative, because he he definitely already has has that good grasp of what needs to be seen. I think that makes makes everything that much easier for me.
AIPT: I think that does it for time. Thanks for taking the time out — I have about a bajillion more questions, but perhaps none of them are super relevant until I read the rest of the story.
MT: Then let’s plan to do it again.
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