Sometimes sci-fi can feel all too real. Such is the case in Vault Comics recent miniseries, Mindset.
The techno-thriller follows Ben Sharp and three other college students in Silicon Valley, just as they reach graduation. After Ben discovers an audio-visual signal that makes one’s mind temporarily susceptible to the influence of others, he and his friends quickly program the signal into their cell phones. After a night out testing the capabilities and limits of their new-found mind-control, they quickly turn their discovery into a smartphone app. And since the app controls the users mind, it immediately goes viral, growing into the most powerful digital media platform in the world. But, not everything is as it seems, once Ben realizes that he and his friends may be under the influence of the Mindset-app themselves.
More than just an exciting story, Mindset reveals important truths that will open your eyes to some of the more insidious characteristics of our everyday digital media usage. It asks serious questions about how much we are the users of technology and how much the technology uses us. Furthermore, it digs into even more existential questions of influence and control, forcing the reader to reflect on what outside factors influence our everyday decisions.
After the sixth and final issue of the miniseries debuted last week (January 11), the creative team — writer Zack Kaplan, artist John J. Pearson, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou — were kind enough to answer some lingering questions about Mindset. That includes the book’s big twists, how they made certain creative decisions, and the larger artistic style.
Warning: Below are major spoilers from the whole Mindset miniseries.
AIPT: Jumping right into a huge spoiler, the biggest twist – which changes everything that came before – comes at the end of issue #5. It’s revealed that the protagonist, Ben Sharp, has been secretly using the mind control, which he discovered, on himself and probably everyone else. Was this twist planned from the very beginning of the writing process or was it an idea that you came up with sometime along the way, after a few issues had already been written?
Zack Kaplan: Muwahahaha. This was the terrible and beautiful plan all along, even when the idea was but a nascent “what if”. It was the story we brought to Vault. And yes, the entire experience of the comic’s narrative was meant to work both initially, without this stunning reveal, and then again, as readers might find themselves looking back and re-reading the story with the knowledge that Ben is unwittingly using mind control on himself and everyone else. In fact, it was one of the lynchpins of the story and every dramatic beat was built around it. Ben is actually two characters with two very different drives, the need to be seen and the need to break free. We spent a lot of time with Adrian Wassel and Dershing Helmer to make sure both character journeys tracked, and John and I spent a lot of time playing with this layer of duality and control and how to telegraph it in subtle ways through the narrative, such as the moments we see Ben looking at his own reflection in the glass or in the pool, or when we choose to see Ben rendered in more detail vs seeing him sketchy or as a silhouette. This reveal has been a very ambitious and fulfilling dramatic design to play with, so we hope readers enjoyed it!
John Pearson: Yep, right from the start we knew this was the central element of the story, so it was factored into everything from issue one onward. It’s quite literally the first thing you see, the cover of issue one has Ben holding the phone zapping himself, it’s all there. We spoke early on about the visual hints we could give throughout the series that would only become clear upon a re-read. For example, issue one where Ben ‘discovers’ the signal, the page has a pencil panel that is actually a flashback to him first discovering it, which is re-used at the start of the final issue. One of the great things about having an art style that makes use of varying degrees of subjectivity is the reader doesn’t always question when something looks visually different. Hopefully the images resonate on a deeper level and they make those links on a slightly subconscious level, but all the imagery with duality and reflections feeds into it.
AIPT: Can you explain how this twist – Ben using his own mind-control on himself – fits into the deeper themes of social media and internet consumption explored in Mindset?
ZK: Yeah, sure! It’s really the central question of the entire story. When we use technology and our devices, like our cell phones or social media platforms, are we controlling them or are they controlling us? Of course, we all probably think the answer is: yes, they are controlling us in ubiquitous fashion. But one of the most insidious ways that we are controlled in today’s world is not just by manipulating our attention, but by tricking us to think that we are in control and that we are the users.
And so we spend all our time and attention using technology, aspiring to control others with our posts and our videos, when in fact, we are actually controlling ourselves and assisting the technology in its manipulation. Four grad students discover mind control – and set out to free people from our addiction to technology…with technology? Can you free anyone from technology with technology? And so, the darkest twist is that Ben uses technology in a sort of wish fulfillment only to control and further enslave himself.
AIPT: I especially loved the layers of symbolism found in the art throughout the series. For example, it’s pretty obvious in issue #6 that characters are depicted as uncolored outlines when under mind-control, but more fleshed out when not. Did you come up with these artistic symbols in collaboration, did John make these creative decisions mostly alone or were they originally a part of Zack’s script?
ZK: I really think there was no single origin for those symbolisms across the board. Some of the motifs and themes were in the scripts, but then John riffed off some and invented others completely on his own, and then I, in turn, started writing some of the new visual motifs and techniques into new scripts. It was a very fluid creative process.
JP: We absolutely established a collaborative approach with the symbolic nature of the storytelling, we’d have lengthy discussions going over each issue before it was written and talk about places we could play with the visuals in different capacities. Zack would give suggestions for what he thought might work visually, and likewise I’d give ideas for places in the script that I thought could be adapted to something that had an alternative visual approach. Because we knew what our intentions were in the duality of the storytelling and how I was approaching the artwork, it meant that we had a bit more scope to play with the ideas and push how we went about telling the story.
AIPT: What are some of your favorite examples of symbolism in the art from the series?
JP: The use of silhouettes for me is one of the stand-out techniques, because how they’re used in different contexts really changes the meaning behind them. We’ll have crowd scenes with hollow figures, main characters with vulnerabilities, expressions of power imbalances, desires and longing, expressions of otherness, isolation, separation, focusing of attention……the list goes on. I love that the absence of something can say far more than the presence of it here. Some of the more subtle elements we used I’m really happy with as well, like the checked dress Atlanta wears when we first meet her. The pattern shifts in completeness as the interaction with Ben changes, slowly becoming more complete and then drifting away. That varying level of ‘completeness’ is used throughout, with some characters being drawn very differently from panel to panel, but the more subtle uses of it that you might miss are some of my favorites.
ZK: I absolutely love the marriage between John’s artwork and Hassan’s lettering on the pages where we see someone zapped. Hassan is almost a second artist in these moments, and the result of their collaboration is breath-taking. I also love the variations in John’s art between when we see characters rendered with detailed realism and when they are sketchy; this artistic technique emerged early on as a way to show a character’s sense of control or dominance in the scene.
AIPT: Just curious, sometimes the borders of panels appear to be strips of paper that lie on the page. Are these actual strips of paper or a digital effect?
JP: It’s actually both. The art process was a blending of traditional and digital methods in different ways, with the idea that the artwork was an extension of the unreliable narrator. What if you couldn’t even trust what you were seeing in how the art was physically made? I liked the idea of that a lot. The process was usually traditional sketched, colored digitally, and then painted on-top traditionally, then finished again digitally, which was a lengthy way to get a certain result but thematically I liked the approach. There’re probably a tiny handful of people that’ll get a kick out of that, but it felt like the right thing to do. So, the paper borders are both physically there, and sometimes not. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you think is ‘real’ or not.
AIPT: Hassan, I named you the best letterer of 2022, because of your work on Mindset. I was most impressed by the non-linear trails of caption boxes which went all over the page, but were always easy to follow. What do you have to think about when creating a page like that? And why do these kinds of pages work so well in Mindset?
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou: Hello! Yeah I think the main thing is what you mention there, just making sure the flow is readable, and you know where you have to go to next. John does these wonderful splash images and these big spreads, and so I’m just kind of drawing the dotted line that takes you from one image to the next. We had some fun ones, like the revolving captions that never end in (I think) issue #5 [note: it’s actually issue #3], but it speaks to the power that the letterer has, I suppose, in actually guiding someone around the page. Depending on where the next box goes, we can lead you where we want you to go. That’s tying in pretty explicitly into the idea behind Mindset, too, which is a fun element to all of that. We’re directly controlling you!
AIPT: Also for Hassan: Why did you choose thin lines to connect word balloons to characters instead of more traditional balloon tails?
HO: I’ve lettered John on a few different things now, and actually all of the lettering approaches have been really different, because John’s the kind of artist who is constantly changing his approach, not even comic-to-comic, but even just panel-to-panel. So it’s always about looking at the art, the genre and the story, and figuring out the way to approach it. For this, I like how much you can evoke from a single-tail-line look, because they can be super expressive, and it can interact and react a lot to the page. I think originally I’d come up with a bunch of different approaches, some with tails and some without, but everyone gravitated towards this approach. Combining the layered paper texture on the hand drawn balloons with John’s almost collage-like approach, and the tails allowed a lot of variance to go along with that.
AIPT: The series has made me stop and honestly reflect on my smart-phone, internet and social media usage, to the point that I’d like to change how much time I spend on these things – not that I’ve been good at putting that into practice. How has the series affected the way you think about and use digital media?
ZK: Absolutely not. Personally, I’m completely trapped. But I have a number of hit apps that are going to help me manage my enslavement and not at all enslave me even more. I’m really trying to not use my phone right when I wake up or before bed, so I can, in turn, commit to using my phone guilt-free for large blocks of time during the day. Also, with all my many fitness, reading and self-development new year’s resolutions, my phone can effortlessly keep track of all of that for me, which is great! But I am really so glad that you and other readers have reflected on your own usage and dependency on technology. It’s definitely an absurdly large problem in our lives today.
JP: I’ve come to accept it for what it is: an integral part of modern existence, whether you like it or not. I think if you’re conscious of your usage then that’s the key thing, but it’s always easier said than done. I used to worry about it, but now I just know it’s one of the main communication tools I use in both my work and personal life, and I’m happy with that. Creative collaborations would be very different without it now, and while it’s often guilty of making people’s worlds smaller and limiting their experiences in a negative way, it’s down to the individual and how they manage their interactions. Be conscious of what you’re doing and make it work for you, don’t let it devour you.
AIPT: I have to ask, because after six issues, I’m still not sure. Is it “Hanna Atlanta” or “Atlanta Hanna?” Is “Atlanta” her first or last name?
ZK: It’s Atlanta Hanna. Hanna from Atlanta. And sometimes just “Atlanta”. That should clear it up! Truth be told, she was meant to have two names. It sort of tied into the duality of persona in the story, and how even Hanna has two identities. We are all struggling to run from our past and to redefine ourselves. And we are all at war between the pressures on us to fit in and the desire to break away. So to answer the question – Hanna…Atlanta Hanna.
AIPT: The series ends on a somewhat positive note, with Ben and Hanna freeing themselves and the world from mind-control and jetting off to live a carefree life. Or did they? If I’m interpreting the dramatic irony of the last scene and the imagery of the last page correctly, then Ben might still be looping himself and nothing is over. Am I completely off? How would you interpret the ending?
JP: We worked a lot on crafting the ending, and everything you see is very intentional. It’s got the same level of subjectivity that we’ve factored in throughout the story, so it’s up to you what you make of it. Or at least we want you to think it’s up to you.
ZK: Nice try! But truly, I cannot explain the ending, because it is meant for the reader to interpret its many various possibilities. And I say this, not because I don’t have an answer. I do. I know what I think the ending is. But we’ve intentionally designed this ending to be an open ending, a subjective experience for readers to discuss amongst themselves, and to ultimately decide for themselves what it means. Did Ben and Atlanta escape control or are they still trapped in the loop? Are they now controlling Mindset or are they seeking to shut it down? And is Mindset helping people to free themselves from the other toxic, manipulative platforms or is it just controlling them? What happens in the end? It all depends on who you think is in control.
AIPT: Can we expect a sequel? Because if Mindset: Part 2 is coming with all three of you returning, just take my money!
ZK: No plans, but then again, if there was a plan, I probably wouldn’t tell you the plan. And then I’d tell you that was the plan all along. So no, no plans.
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