Life on Mars: an interview with Neal Holman and the creative team of Redline

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Feb 5, 2017

Life on Mars is hard enough for Superintendent Coyle without bombs going off in the colony's run-down neighborhoods. He's got corporate bureaucracy, a bit of an alcohol problem and an inconveniently irritable digestive system to contend with -- a supposed terrorist attack to investigate was the last thing he needed.

But this attack isn't exactly what it seems, and despite the inconvenience, Coyle is determined to uncover the truth beginning in next month's Redline #1. This darkly humorous tale of a near-future Martian colony torn between corporate and military interests comes from the mind of writer Neal Holman — a mind that has been twisted from years of serving as art director and producer on FX's Archer. Now Holman is bringing his latest vision to comic books, alongside artist Clayton McCormack (Heavy Metal) and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick (Shade the Changing Girl), and I got to talk with all three of them about how Redline came together, its similarities and differences with Archer, how much real science influenced the book and much more.

Check out the interview and a six-page preview of the first issue courtesy of publisher Oni Press, in addition to both the regular cover by McCormack and Fitzpatrick and a variant cover by Archer artists David Kuettel and Kat Stockton. And be sure to pick up the first issue when Redline colonizes comic shops everywhere on March 8.

 

Where did the idea for Redline originate?

Neal Holman: Years ago I was researching a pitch for a police project and eventually stumbled my way into interviewing some folks from various departments in the military that handle investigations. It sort of opened my eyes to a different version of the TV detective. That pitch sputtered and died, but I kept all of my research around for later. Flash forward a year or so and I stumbled onto a photo of a Mars sunset from one of the rovers. It was gorgeous -- and also entirely surreal that I was looking at a photo taken on another planet. I started working on ideas for a Mars colony, none of which ever really solidified until I started looking at it from a military angle. All of the old research came back and the story fell into place pretty quickly from there.

How much more research did you do on Mars after that initial picture? Did you learn anything that surprised you or changed the way the story came out?

NH: I did a good bit of research on soil content and the differences in atmosphere, thinking I might play with how ballistics would be altered on Mars. The soil research was more about trying to see what resource a tech company might be exploiting. Both areas kind of fell by the wayside. If we get another arc down the road, then we might see some of those areas creep into the story more.

Clayton and Kelly, how did each of you come to be involved with Redline and what appealed to you about the project?

Clayton McCormack: Well, I had been talking with Oni Press for a while about working with them on a project and when they gave me the script for Redline, I got what Neal was going for right away. I think he and I have a very similar sense of humor, and I loved the world as well as his angle of a future basically defined by military surplus.

Kelly Fitzpatrick: Weirdly, I live near Oni headquarters. I sat down with Robin and James over coffee one morning to discuss future projects and this was one of two they thought I would be a good fit for. Unfortunately I only had room in my schedule for one book ... so I chose Redline. Prior to the meeting, I had told several people I knew at Oni editorial that I really wanted to work for Oni. I like what Oni stands for. They feel like a very honest, inclusive publishing house and I really like what they are doing over there.

 

One of the things I like about the look of Redline is how you seem to consciously under-design some parts. For example, the garbage truck in the opening pages doesn't look exactly like a normal garbage truck, but it's close enough that it seems like a humorously unspectacular thing to see on Mars. How do you decide what to put a lot of design work into and what to leave feeling more mundane?

CM: The mundane stuff is definitely by design. Neal made it very clear that even though this was the future, it wasn't a sleek, clean future, so I wanted to make sure a lot of the aspects had that feeling of being futuristic, but also very relatable. If you go too future-y with your design, it can feel kinda magical, and we wanted this world to feel like it was a future that was only decades — or even only a few years — away. By the same token, there are some elements, like the big crab-looking tank thing, that I intentionally went a little overboard on to accent how much overkill might be involved on the military end — sort of like ED-209 in Robocop.

Did you look to any other science fiction stories for inspiration when creating the look of the humans' Martian colony?

CM: Actually, yes. While I was looking at Sergio Leone Westerns more for the oppressively hot, dusty, sweaty overall feeling of the book, for a lot of the weapons I looked at Elysium, which had great weapon designs that had that "built in your garage" look to a lot of them. I also took some cues for the colony from the way Mega City One was portrayed in Dredd — lots of cement, high rises, cramped and sweaty.

With a setting like Mars, color is obviously going to be very important to making it feel right. Has this project presented any unique challenges to you as a colorist?

KF: Honestly this whole project has felt really natural. I haven't felt like I've had a huge hurdle. I've only done revisions twice and they were for covers so we've all been pretty tuned in to the same goal since the beginning.

 

It's hard not to note the similarities between Superintendent Coyle and Archer, both being hired guns with drinking problems. What appeals to you about these types of characters and how do you think the characters are different from one another?

NH: I love that these guys can take a very serious job with some levity. There are some TV detectives that are so serious, they never smile, they never rag on their partners or friends — who would want to be around that person? The job gets dark enough, why do you have to suck the light out of every little moment?

Archer goes to comedic extremes that we won't get near in Redline, but I do think they have some similarities in tone. (Some of that is probably my lazy writing, letting my day job seep into my side project.) I think Coyle is pretty burnt at the start of the series. He's just going through the motions. The bomb that sets off the series — this should be an open-and-shut case, something Coyle has seen a thousand times. Yet it becomes the square peg in the round hole and that drives him a little crazy.

There are plenty of creators who have worked in both animation and comics, but going from art director and production designer to comic book writer — instead of artist — kind of seems like you're switching roles. How was your transition to writing? Was it hard to hand the visual reigns to someone else?

NH: I've been writing off and on since college, so that part wasn't all that much of a change for me. It was just more of it, rather than a short here or scene edit there for a friend. Getting out of Art Director mode was difficult, but I was insanely lucky to be paired with Clay and Kelly, because honestly I have given so few notes. Most of the notes were about how to fix a script mistake here or there.

It’s treated as not a big deal in the first issue, but Redline's Mars has a breathable atmosphere. Does how the humans pulled that off come into play in the series?

NH: Not so much how they pulled it off, but the fact that they are doing it. Changing an entire planet's atmosphere against the will of its natural inhabitants is a pretty good way to start a war.

Obviously it’s being corrupted by corporate interests, but is any level of what humanity has done in Redline a matter of survival?

NH: We don't touch on that aspect in the first arc, but if we get a second arc (or more) we may zoom out to get a sense of the larger reasons humans are now taking great pains to make Mars our new home. They are doing what they need to survive ... but they have made some massive missteps along the way. Some the general population knows about. Some, not so much. But that's all for later. This first arc is just getting used to the world, pulling one thread at a time. It's self-contained enough so that if we don't make it to other arcs, it's okay. It has an ending that can easily be the series ending. (Obviously, I'm hoping for more, but we'll see.)

 

Do you think humans will ever colonize Mars?

NH: I do, but I think it's a long, long way off. We might get some astronauts there soon-ish, but we're a long way off from colonizing.

CM: I think if we can find something on Mars that we want or need, yes definitely. Otherwise I doubt it, unfortunately.

KF: I don't think it will happen in my lifetime. After watching what happened to the budget cuts at NASA when my dad worked there, I'm pretty disheartened at our future space prospects being held accountable by private business and Russia (for transit). With the new discovery potential of metallic hydrogen who knows though?

What did your dad do at NASA? Did his experience inform the way you approached Redline at all?

KF: My dad was a physician at the NBL in Houston, TX. He specializes in hyperbaric medicine and was mainly there to observe in case of emergencies happening in the pool and he also occasionally was the doc for the KC-135A and I'm pretty sure the Skytrain 2 as well. I'm sorry to say that it didn't really inform the way I approached Redline because what he worked on was mainly involved with training procedures and problem solving on the ground. You can find his published studies online if you are interested on the NASA archives and various other websites.

What has you most excited about future issues of Redline?

KF: I'm really into being able to vary the colors from the drug induced scenes to the interiors and exteriors, so playing with different drama has me excited!

CM: Readers finding out that despite the cover featuring a close-up of a guy puking his guts out, it's more than just jokes and viscera. Neal has written a really fun, blackly humorous story that's also a great whodunnit as well. I look forward to that ... and the reaction to page 4 in issue #2. It's ... probably the grossest thing I've ever drawn. You'll love it. Enjoy!

NH: Issue #2 is probably our most comedic issue ... but I'm really looking forward to #4 and #5. That's where all of the pieces really start to come back together and tensions boil over. Plus some jokes.