Imagine a future where a fictional Mark Zuckerberg recruits teenage gamers into a private army. Writer Sean Lewis (THE FEW, COYOTES) and artist Hayden Sherman (THE FEW, WASTED SPACE) are the creators behind the upcoming dystopian Image Comics series, THUMBS. The series follows Charley “Thumbs” Fellows, a teenager who joins a war against the anti-technology government. Thumbs will have to risk his life in order to find his brother-in-arms, Nia and his sister Tabitha. But will he be able to save them? Sherman illustrates the series with a monochromatic color palette that often looks haunting and pixelated.   

ComicsVerse had the great pleasure of interviewing Lewis and Sherman ahead of THUMBS #1’s June 5th release. We spoke about some of the characters in the story, its video game and theater influences, and their relationship with technology.   

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

ComicsVerse (CV): Thanks for taking some of your busy time to speak with us. To begin, how did THUMBS come about? Why did you guys feel like now is the time to tell this story?

Sean Lewis (SL): Well, as soon as THE FEW was ending I knew I wanted to work with Hayden again and as much as possible. I felt we had really made something special with that book and a lot of the things we were both interested in: silence, pace, design, social dynamics… all really coalesced on that project.

I had a few ideas floating around and I sent the options to Hayden and he picked this one. THANK GOD. I think I wanted him to pick a different project at the time but he was right. For him, I remember he liked a story that involved a brother and sister trying to survive and connect. Me? I am always interested in things that try to control me: financial forms, technology, religion, politics…

I work with students and see their reliance on personal technology and convenience, and I know my reliance on it. It nudges more and more into our personal lives, our freedom, our anonymity, and our finances every year. But it remains convenient. It plays to our narcissism. That is interesting to me.

Hayden Sherman (HS): Like Sean said, the brother/sister angle really pulled me in. I’ve got a bunch of siblings, three younger sisters and an older brother, so seeing a story where the core conflict (as far as the main character is concerned) revolves around reconnecting with family means a lot to me. It allows me to bring a lot to the story as well, which is great for the open ended way that Sean and I collaborate. But yeah, Sean and I were dead-set on making more stuff together well ahead of landing on THUMBS as the book to do. But now having made so much of THUMBS, I can’t imagine a different second book for the two of us to make together, it’s a real natural progression from THE FEW.

CV: While the title THUMBS refers to the protagonist, Charley “Thumbs” Fellows, is there another meaning behind the title? How did you guys ultimately settle on the title?

SL: Eh, I usually pick titles first and then regret them later. People seem to like this one. I just knew he was a gamer and was good with his thumbs on a control pad. I could reach and say that the politics of technology has made us all thumbs, like we can’t hold it properly, but that’d be a reach. We just wanted a title that was simple, evocative, and easy to remember.

I don’t know Iron Man super well. So, I don’t know JARVIS. MOM came out of a conversation between me and a group of friends who all have toddlers. Toddlers make you seek out other people who have toddlers so you can ask “is this normal? My kid eats pickles and pancakes, refuses to sleep and has started throwing ashtrays — is that your experience or is he a sociopath?” We were all talking about sleep and time. How, even with day care and baby sitters and work, the day seems condensed. There is never enough time to get things done.

So, I started thinking about technology. What’s more efficient than that? The copy machine saved time, cars save time… what could tech do that would save time for us parents?!?!

I know a lot of my friends who run feeding schedules, playdates, and more from their phone. So… I just thought, huh, what if an app was created that just baby sat and raised your kids. I mean, we invented this amazing knowledge sharing network in the Internet and use it primarily to watch porn, dox people, and steal movies… what if our main use of AI was childcare if we want to go kayaking.

Or… if you’re poor, what if it was your only option? A 9.99 AI app versus $1800 a month in childcare?

HS: Contributing to the J.A.R.V.I.S. part: I’d say MOM is much more hands-on. If MOM wants something, she pretty much always gets it. J.A.R.V.I.S. has a hard time asserting his will upon the world, but MOM is all about it.

Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: Right off the bat, we meet Nia who is a no nonsense soldier that clearly cares about Thumbs as a brother-in-arms. When creating Nia, did you guys model her after any particular person real or fictional?

SL: A lot of my books have women as primary characters. I had a single mom growing up. My mom is crazy tough. My friends growing up were scared of her. But it’s more than tough. I tend to like heroes I haven’t seen in ways, people outside the norm… there are lots of tough female characters in film and tv. I think what I like about Nia is a lack of nostalgia. She’s a soldier first. She’s committed to a cause and Thumbs is a survivor of that mission. So, she is responsible for him. It’s not their past, and Lord knows there is no romance between them, she knows he fights for what she fights. I like the morality of that. Thumbs is driven by a need to find his sister. Nia is driven by a need to bring her form of justice to the world.

HS: I can’t say it any better than Sean just did. But I’ll just jump in to say Nia’s great and though we’ve put her through a LOT, she keeps getting better.

CV: It’s interesting that this comic kind of revolves centered around a video game, but Nia seems to be the strongest player we’ve seen so far. In what ways does Nia subvert typical tropes?

SL: I think we usually see strong female characters as doing things solely for their family members. Like, two Jennifer Lawrence roles, Katniss in HUNGER GAMES and the teen in WINTER’S BONE, are good examples. She is tough. Salt of the earth. But, her toughness is softened because in both cases she’s doing it for the kids, her siblings. We see that a lot with female leads. It’s almost like they are sacrificing their femininity but only to bring the family unit back together. Usually, if they are tough and don’t have this family outlet they are presented as straight up villains.

But, think of a movie like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. You don’t see women in the role of that movie’s lead. I’m not sure why. I equate NIA more to that character. She isn’t sacrificing anything to be what she wants. She isn’t doing it so that she can pull her family back together and put down her gun to become a mom again. She’s good at fighting. She likes fighting. She believes in it. And that is enough for her.

CV: I quite enjoyed the use of first person perspective in THUMBS #1. I think it pulls readers into the story and keeps their attention quite well. However, it can come with risks. Was first person shooters an inspiration or did it come from somewhere else? Did you guys play any video games as part of your research?

SL: I have some friends who are gamers and game designers. I asked them advice or questions at times. The first person I think comes from theater. I like the classic monologue. I like being in the head and seeing the world through the eyes of a person with a particular viewpoint.

Like, if you take the monologues out of HAMLET, it’s not a very good play. People still do it because that guy’s thoughts are so strange, so singular, so honest…

I wanted a hero who was possibly the worst possible choice to save the world AND HE KNOWS IT. Because I think that is relatable: wanting to be more than you are but scared of it when you have to be. I like seeing him work his way through that. The fact it connects really nicely to the technology of the gaming is a great bonus.

HS: I play a lot of games. They’re prooobably my go-to means of relaxing. So that history there definitely informs how I draw the character’s interaction with tech, especially when it comes to first person. There’s something about the POV that you see in a first person game that’s very clearly a GAME, the way arms are positioned, the way perspective works. Using that amidst the larger narrative, for me, creates an interesting meld of game and day-to-day life for these characters. They’ve been brought into this all alongside games, now they’re in situations similar to the games they’d been playing, it feels natural to me that they would fall back on their game “training” in moments of stress. And by showing moments of first person we can really get a glimpse of that mindset. It’s also a fun challenge in comic form.

CV: Following up on the first person perspective I think there’s something eerie and visceral about it such as body camera footage with law enforcement. What are some of your favorite comics that capture POV quite well?  

SL: Well, first person POV for me comes from monologues in theater. KILL OR BE KILLED does it really well in the narration and helps draw you into the world of a pretty repugnant character. The zombie book DAYBREAK used it to allow things to be really creepy and weirdly fun at the same time.

HS: There’s a moment I remember from BATMAN: YEAR 100 where in the midst of a motorcycle chase Paul Pope switched the POV into first person for just a single panel, which isn’t crazy uncommon, but seems to have really made an impression on me. It’s fun where he uses it in that book, after a scene where two Batmen are confusing the police by seeming to be everywhere at once, we end the chase with the real Batman’s POV. It acts as an interesting way of confirming that we’re following the right character while also adding to the speed of the chase. I hope I’m remembering that all right!

Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: Hayden, you mentioned in the Q&A with Image Comics how the monochromatic color scheme is used to emphasize technology as well as areas that are devoid of it. I was reminded of SHOPLIFTER by Michael Cho and a few video games, such as DE BLOB and THE SABOTEUR. What other colors did you guys consider before ultimately settling on magenta?

SL: Oh, this is all Hayden. I stay out of his way.

HS: Oh man, I almost forgot about THE SABOTEUR! Fun game. And yeah, several books come to mind that influenced this approach, probably Darwyn Cooke’s PARKER: THE HUNTER series more than anything. He had a very different (and beautiful) approach than what I took with THUMBS, but that idea of coloring a book with a singular standout color is a lot of fun to me. It presents interesting challenges and creates a very distinct experience that I enjoy. One color can really define the mood of a book.

As for the magenta, it just popped. It hit the right spot. The feeling of immediacy, the way it caught my eye. I wanted the color to really draw attention to the tech and this vibrant magenta had me right away. I believe I tried some other coloring styles early on, but wow, they did nooot work. Learned several ways to NOT make this book early on haha.  

CV: THUMBS’ premise reminded me of ENDER’S GAME as well as FINAL FANTASY VIII’s use of student-soldiers. What kind of themes are you guys looking to tackle with this series? What do you hope readers take away from it?

SL: I think I’m scared that some adults look to children to solve major problems simply because tech has given the youth more of a voice. It’s great they have a voice, everyone should. What I am talking about is after the Parkland school shooting when the surviving students were giving speeches on TV and I had people online writing “don’t worry, the kids are going to save us.” They shouldn’t have to. Those speeches were moving and way more articulate than I would be at that age. AND WAY MORE ARTICULATE THAN THOSE KIDS NEED TO BE.

Those kids should be kids. Adults should be adults and solve some things. I’m also very worried about what it means to have devices that solely reaffirm are opinions and are curated by ourselves. Most people agree this is the most divisive our country has ever been along political lines. Why? Tech, man. Your iPhone. Your curated news blog and social timelines. Democrat or Republican you don’t have to listen to anyone you don’t want to. You don’t have to even CONSIDER a different perspective. We have avatars you can pretend are people. You also have a constant prompt saying “what do you think on this complicated and layered thing that happened literally 3 minutes ago? State your opinion now!” It trains us to instant reaction, not contemplation.

The zealotry its created in only a few years is amazing. Agree with me right now or be shunned and/or destroyed. That’s beyond dangerous. That is fascist. I look at tech like I look at politicians. They serve us, they don’t control us. But that seems to be getting more and more confused.

Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: Sean, I understand you recently directed a TV series called ADULT ED that’s debuting at Tribeca Film Festival. What’s the difference between directing a TV series versus writing comic books? Are there any similarities, if any?

SL: I did. It stars some comics connected folks, too! Campbell Scott from SPIDERMAN and Aubrey Joseph, who is in CLOAK AND DAGGER. I mean, both demand visualization and understanding how to use the frame to communicate every second of a story. I think comics have helped me think way more visually.

But a lot of film/tv directing is being a manager and being able to communicate between departments. I spend most of my time talking to the DP about the shot and then rushing to the actors to communicate what me and the DP are doing and how they can live/perform the best within it. And you’re managing clock. You’re always working against time and money when you’re filming. I have time to think and contemplate everything before a comic comes out. On set, you’re just making lots of immediate decisions (even with all the prep you’ve done).

CV: As creators, what’s your relationship with technology? Where do you guys see companies such as Facebook and Apple heading in ten years?

SL: I use it. Everyone uses it. I can’t have the career I have without the Internet. I mean, I have worked in theater, comics, and film for the past 15 years without ever having lived in a major city. Never lived in NY or LA. That would have been impossible for the generation older than me. Email and YouTube (for visual work samples) made that possible for me.

It’s been a great tool. But I worry about consolidations of power. I worry about dependence. Because the people who own the supply source are never gracious and are rarely fair. I don’t know where Facebook goes from this but i think it’s funny when people get mad at them changing features or updating interfaces. That is people thinking that they are Facebook’s customer. You are their product. They don’t collect a user fee from you. They collect data. Facebook control and monitor messages. They follow your brain pattern — soon, maybe they’ll be able to track where your eye literally goes on each screen — and they then sell that. They sell you, while you complain about the “poke” button. Facebook will continue to use that information to sell influence. Ways to manipulate your wallet, vote, and more.

Amazon… the two really interesting things to me, is them buying WHOLE FOODS and when they were looking to start HQ 2 in Brooklyn, their want to get involved in lower income schools by providing computers (with their programming) and training to get workers and disadvantaged kids into their system.

It’s tricky. Those areas need resources. But is it solely to expand their brand and workforce. The Whole Foods is interesting because when you control food, you literally control people. Will Whole Foods become Shop Rite, Hannaford, HyVee, or any other supermarket chain? When all you do with your company is scale up for market share, at what point do you just start to devour yourself?

HS: I wish I could answer this with “I live in a cabin deep in the woods and travel to Internet cafe’s to send in pages and tweet.” But nope. I like my tech, but I try to moderate it. I go on twitter as little as possible, I’ve forsaken Facebook, and abandoned Amazon. But I also play a good deal of games, watch Netflix, use the Internet every day for my job. I need it to survive and keep food on the table and then I keep on using it when I rest. So I’m not adversarial to tech, but I try to keep in mind my mental health in relation to it. Social media is annoying to me, so I do that as little as is necessary and stuff like that.

As for the mega-companies of our day, I imagine they’ll just keep growing. They’ll probably eat each other at some point or another. Or hell, maybe Disney’ll eat them all and save them the trouble of fighting. New competitors will come in with new ideas, some will win some will lose. It feels like our new form of gladiatorial combat or something, seeing weekly reports of how these companies are performing. If we’re lucky, maybe one day we’ll see the lions get set on ‘em.

CV: At SXSW 2019, T Bone Burnett did a keynote about the role that technology plays in our society and what the implications mean for the big Silicon Valley companies. In the speech, he said “To stay human, to survive as a species, we have to wrest our communication out of the control of the lust for power, the avarice, larceny, hubris, deceit and self-delusion of the heads of Google and Facebook.” What are some ways people can start making questioning the roles of big tech companies?  

SL: The heart of the question Burnett lays out is not how to fend off tech… but how to stay human. I think people ARE questioning big tech — you see the protests in Brooklyn to Amazon’s HQ 2, lots of people have taken Facebook to task.

The issue isn’t big tech. The issue is small humanity. What makes us aware of each other, communal and interconnected in the day to day? What actions, what activities? I think a phone is a great addiction, because it’s you. It’s all your apps, all your interests, all your self validations and witty quotes and filtered photos… You don’t have to engage with people you’re scared of or ideas you don’t agree with. You get to listen to you. Believe you. Obsess about you.

Humanity is the act of getting outside of ourselves.

Isolation causes violence. Tell me one mass shooter, one radicalized terrorist, one person we see as a monster who didn’t feel isolated? Who then reached out to the darkest parts of themselves with no push back, no differing ideas? This isn’t turn the other cheek shit. This isn’t forgive and forget. This is about how you destroy narcissism. How do you combat isolation? The great thinkers fear AI because it will not need people and therefore it will turn to itself. It will become violent.

The tech companies want you to pretend you’re a celebrity. To brand yourself. To make yourself into a product — BECAUSE THEY ARE ALREADY DOING THAT. If you use Facebook or any other free platform you should understand that: you are not a customer. You are the product. The information and data they sell.

And being a popular product feels good. Being something that everyone wants to buy is amazing. You’re wanted.

But you’re still a product. A thing. Not a person.

Burnett is talking about how you can stop being alone. How you can reject being a product. How you can look for a greater freedom.

CV: Are there any other projects are you guys working on that you can talk about or tease?

SL: I am in the middle of a new comic book with Caitlin Yarsky, who I did COYOTES with, called BLISS. Her art — unreal on this one. Crazy ass urban fantasy. I’m excited for it. And then some short films… and a few comics I can’t discuss just yet. But I will! I will talk about them!

HS: Right now I’m drawing WASTED SPACE for Vault Comics, which is about to wrap up its second of roughly five arcs. I’m also drawing a book called MARY SHELLEY: MONSTER HUNTER for Aftershock that just started releasing. And then there’s plenty of books in the future, thankfully! Some of which I’m writing! So yep yep, plenty of good times on the way I hope. And hopefully more to tease soon.

Thanks again to Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman for their time! THUMBS will release on June 5th, 2019. Make sure you add it to your pull list! Meanwhile, if you prefer digital, be sure to pre-order THUMBS #1 here! 

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