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Exclusive: Top Cow's Matt Hawkins on his unsettling new sci-fi graphic novel, Stairway

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Jul 15, 2018, 7:37 PM EDT

Top Cow President and CEO Matt Hawkins (Think Tank) is gallantly riding an impressive wave of inspiration this summer, heading up a number of high-profile comic projects like Warframe, Cyber Force, and his upcoming new graphic novel, Stairway.

Written by Hawkins and matched with engaging art by Raffaele Ienco (Batman: Sins of the Father), this new 128-page, sci-fi OGN is an alarming peek into our near future, where a curious postgrad research geneticist discovers disturbing information buried deep in our "junk DNA" that could have profound effects on Mankind's salvation or demise.

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In a deteriorating post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, this ambitious student finds a variety of strange blueprints and bio-schematics in our DNA seeded by some ancient intelligence, triggering the biggest scientific initiative since the Manhattan Project. As teams of scientists race around the clock laboring to collect and dissect the data, questions arise as to the true nature of this cosmic mystery and whether these engineering pieces are designed to be a "stairway to heaven" or represent some diabolical doomsday device that will wipe out all humanity.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Hawkins about the origins of this startling project inhabiting that unnerving intersection of science and religion, what readers can anticipate as the narrative moves forward, and hints as to what surprises might emerge when Stairway launches on August 22.

After the chat, immerse yourself in our exclusive 18-page preview in the full gallery below.

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What was the genesis of this cautionary science story?

MATT HAWKINS: I read in 2012 about how at Harvard they had decoded the ability to record information on DNA. The idea of recording like a DNA hard drive fascinated me and I started doing a tremendous amount of research on it. They can fit every piece of data ever made and record it on DNA and it would fit in a single room, and that dwarfs what’s been done by quantum computing and other things. If we can write information on DNA and record even a video on someone's DNA and recover it, why couldn’t someone have done this a long time ago. Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone a few million years ago left a bunch of information in our DNA to discover one day once we figured out how to decode it.

Can you take us on a quick tour of Stairway's plot?

It’s about a research geneticist working at a school who uncovers some of this information in her own DNA. A rich guy brings her under his wing and starts developing this program out. They start deciphering the info and pulling from other vast DNA databases like 23&Me. So they begin combing 10 billion people’s DNA and what they’re finding are schematics for machines and interesting bio-schematics for organisms nobody’s ever heard of or seen before. And this guy is keeping it sort of secretive and he’s been telling people that they’re building a stairway to their creator, but what we learn very quickly is that he’s lying. I’ve always been a bigger fan of the villain than the hero and this is actually the first time I’ve ever done a narrative from the perspective of the villain, and it was quite fun actually.

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What can readers expect as the suspenseful story unfolds?

The plot kind of bounces back and forth between two timelines and you realize there’s two stories going on from two distinct points of view, and there’s a bit of a twist at the very end as to how that works. They’re trying to find all the various pieces for the central core of this machine that’s in this data and he’s determined that it will save humanity if they build it.

We’re in a post-apocalyptic future say 25 years from now where the world has gone to shit. India and Pakistan had a nuclear exchange and it’s going to cause the world economy to collapse. He’s racing against the clock and all the while he’s got the research doctor becoming suspicious and she’s investigating his claims and they become at odds. There’s just four or five characters that make the story matters. It was a fun book to write, it was challenging. I am most fascinated by two things: religion and science. Those are my two lifelong interests and Stairway is probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.

What was this new collaboration with Raffaele Ienco like and how did it differ from past artistic partnerships with him?

“Raff” lives up in Toronto and this is actually the fourth project we worked on together. We did Mechanism, Symmetry, and Manifestations together. We’re actually working on the third volume of Symmetry right now and then we'll probably do a Stairway Volume 2 after that. He just did a Batman mini-series based on the Telltale Games release as well. I really like the work he did on Mechanism, it was a little less photo-realistic. When we did this I wanted it to look more like that and he agreed and I’m really happy with the results.