Mark Allen chats to Ganzeer about The Solar Grid…
Writer/artist Ganzeer’s first full-length comics project is certainly an ambitious one. His nine-part series The Solar Grid is a sprawling socio-political science fiction story that spans centuries of future history and interplanetary distances, featuring a diverse array of characters each struggling with the state of the world in which they live.
Its themes of surveillance, environmental catastrophe, dystopia and political ambiguity are all reflections of the real world, though Ganzeer’s detailed monochrome art and retro-futurist designs describe a civilisation sprung from both science fiction lore and keen observation of how our own flawed one already functions. It’s an intoxicating, ambitious read, and each installment brings new angles and exciting concepts to the story.
With two distinct chapters already out and a third on the way, we took some time to chat to Ganzeer about his process, the themes of the series and whether his dystopian disaster narrative is an optimistic or pessimistic one:
MA: THE SOLAR GRID is a sprawling narrative told through many different characters over distant time periods. Was that always your intention, or did the story initially have a narrower focus?
G: Oh, the story definitely started with a narrower focus. It really started as a tight 4-issue high concept piece, with the entirety of the story taking place in 949 AF (After the Flood). The core story really takes place with a handful of characters between Earth, Mars, and the moon. It became very clear, though, looking at that first outline that I had a very mechanical, plot-based action/adventure piece of sci-fi on my hands, completely void of the interesting complexities behind the thoughts surrounding the creation of the story. So I allowed myself to explore the backstory of the world of The Solar Grid and jot it down as it came to me. I threw away the very structured, mechanical outline I’d initially come up with, and instead outlined the whole thing in a Jack Kerouac, stream-of-consciousness sort of way.
The result was massive and quite insane. But from there I was able to chop at the thing until I had something containable in 9 chapters, with the backstory of how things came to be the way the were actually explored through narratives in the distant past involving completely different characters.Which is actually very akin to our own reality. It’s difficult to tell the story of say, a Lakota kid growing up on the Pine Ridge rez, without at least a nod to Christopher Columbus’s first sighting of the Bahamas.
A part of me wishes I’d stuck to tighter 4-chapter version though. I’d be close to finished by now. But chances are I wouldn’t have been entirely satisfied with the thing.
And if you’d decided to go the traditional publishing route you might have faced editorial restrictions on changing the structure. Is that a key factor in choosing to self-publish? What have been the challenges in creating, publishing and promoting THE SOLAR GRID completely solo?
To a certain degree, it is a key factor. I got frustrated with putting so much energy into trying to distill the entirety of the story into a one page pitch, which is what most publishers/editors ask for. Once I did it (several versions of it actually), what I had on my hands was a very dry plot-based outline completely void of what I thought made the story great. It’s unfortunate that most people in Hollywood or Comics will tell you that’s what you need to do to make sure you’ve got a good story on your hands. But that is the lie of the entertainment industry, which in my view has only served to reduce the art of storytelling to pointless laughs, thrills, or tears, with no other purpose to back it up other than sales.
The authors of actual stories, however, authors of books and novels, will tell you that the only way to figure out a story, is go through the experience of telling the story. And all my favorite authors agree that story and plot are two different things. And that a great plot does not make a great story. Plot, in fact, comes secondary to actual story, and I find that my favorite stories tend to be rather plotless. Plot-dependent stories, on the other hand, give me a very short-term sensation, but lack the power to fascinate me for years on end. So no wonder we feel that the majority of movies and comic books today are utter crap. It has to do with producers’ and editors’ over-fixation with plot, and their insistence that writers ought to share that exact same fixation.
Creating, publishing, and promoting the work is definitely harder than I thought. Luckily though, with digital publishing, the publishing aspect of it doesn’t require too much out of me. A few years ago I put out a zine, and the energy one has to put into printing, stapling, and distributing the physical things can be incredibly draining. So with digital publishing, I don’t have to deal with any of that, which leaves me more time and energy to focus on the actual content of the book.
Still have to put in the work to promote though, which I would rather not have to do, just so I can focus entirely on the actual book. But promotion is a necessary evil. I don’t want to feel like I’m cramming something down anybody’s throat, but at the same time, I’d just like to let people know that this thing exists. And that requires so much work on my part because of the sheer amount of noise out there, especially by the big established companies.
THE SOLAR GRID is in the tradition of complex, multi-stranded sci-fi with a global focus. It’s reminiscent of comics like Transmetropolitan, and novelists like Phillip K. Dick. How much of the project is extrapolating real-world concerns versus riffing on the themes of classic sci-fi?
I think there’s equal parts of both. The story is predominantly concerned with reflecting on real world events, while also acting as a love letter to the genre of science fiction, so you’ll find an endless number of references to other works. But the latter comes secondary to the former. If one was to take all the references out and throw them away, the story would still essentially be the same. So quite different from, say, a Stranger Things approach, where the references very much inform the story. With The Solar Grid, the references are little more than a nod. The similarities to PKD predominantly lie in allowing personal events to influence the story. But that doesn’t make The Solar Grid any more autobiographical than A Scanner Darkly was to Dick.Rather than think of The Solar Grid as any kind of actual mirror, be it for the world, myself, or the genre of Sci-fi, best to consider it the reflective chrome surface of the hull of a spaceship. One that is completely imagined.
The STRANGER THINGS comparison feels particularly relevant – personally, there seems to be much more substance to THE SOLAR GRID because you’re not borrowing wholesale from other sources or relying on a nostalgic boost from an audience more interested in looking back than forwards.
I’m glad you think so, man. I do agree, but it may be a technique I might employ in the future if I were to ever feel the urge to re-live my teens. Which seems to be the case for most 30 somethings right now. Which explains things like Barcades and the return of the cassette tape. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re into, but as it is right now, I’m far more interested in the discovery of new things, whether they’re actually new or old things I haven’t heard of.
On a related note, there’s a diversity of perspectives, ideologies and even lexicons in the comic. I’m thinking of one example in Chapter 02 where one character calls another “trash nigger” but isn’t offended because the slur has no meaning for her. Do you see moments like these as making a statement or simply serving the story?
Right. And compare that to when he called her a “Dusi” in Chapter 01, where she gets super angry. Now as readers we don’t know what the fuck a “Dusi” is, but we can get that its a derogatory term based entirely on the character’s reaction. What we will find out later is that “Dusi” is a slur often directed at a species native to Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. And as is the case in Chapter 01, even used as a way to call someone dumb. But in any case, the use of both slurs is important to make a statement as well as serve the story. Because if you have a story that tackles the notion of a good portion of the human race migrating to Mars, while leaving the rest of humanity to rot on Earth after having damaged it beyond repair… well then the subject of race simply becomes unavoidable.
And the idea of race/nationality becomes different once people start being born on different planets rather than provinces or countries or continents, right? Is that – and other kind of prejudice – something you’ll be exploring more throughout the series?
Absolutely. That is actually the very heart of this story. The Martians here don’t identify as Earthlings, not entirely dissimilar to how a great many humans today don’t necessarily identify as originating from Africa. Or heck, like Americans who don’t necessarily identify as English or Scandinavian or German or wherever their grandparents might’ve hailed from.
What’s your approach to the art in THE SOLAR GRID? So far you’ve employed different styles and storytelling techniques – was this always the intention or did you have something different in mind when the series was only 4 issues?
Actually, my initial intention was to draw the entire series the way I’d approached the first few pages of the book: stark black and white. When it came to draw the scene where the solar grid is activated, I had to come up with a solution for how to depict it. My first instinct was to make it look overexposed in the traditional sense, but that would’ve only made sense if we were talking about very strong lighting from one particular direction, as opposed to all directions. So my second instinct was to draw in all the line art, with no shadows and no weight variation in the lines. And that’s how the style for those scenes came about.
I’d actually already started drawing those first few pages when the series was still only 4 issues. But then when it turned into a 9-chapter thing, that’s when I decided to cut to 475 years into the past, and felt it was important to alter the style so that those scenes become easily distinguishable from others.
And only recently did I start daydreaming about full-color for the scenes that’ll take place on Mars. Possibly duo-tone for Enceladus. Decisions that are likely to make any interested publisher feel severe pain and nausea, I’m sure.
The backmatter and in-world articles, news reports etc. do a good job of framing your story, and you had Molly Crabapple contribute an illustration to your VICE-esque piece at the end of Chapter 02. Can we expect to see more collaborative cameos in future chapters?
Absolutely! The second half of Chapter 03 takes place in the year 9 After the Flood. So I tapped into my buddy Tzortzis Rallis, graphic designer with the Occupied Times of London, to design a post-flood survival pamphlet.
I’ve also been talking to designer/curator/archivist Josh MacPhee, author of such books as SIGNS OF CHANGE, REALIZING THE IMPOSSIBLE, and PAPER POLITICS to do a little something on the “history” of resistance art on Mars. This will likely appear in Chapter 07, I think.
The idea is to have such supplements in each chapter, enriching the world of The Solar Grid in ways that straight up comix can’t really.
There is a lot of hope and idealism in some of THE SOLAR GRID’s characters despite the situations they’re in. Would you say this is an optimistic or pessimistic story?
Oh man, there’s so much of both in The Solar Grid! The idea of the Solar Grid itself is incredibly pessimistic. Solar Energy is often looked at in positive light, but here we take it to an extreme where capitalists and politicians have employed it to a degree that is detrimental to the planet and human life (as is often the case with most inventions). The story is also pessimistic in it showing how swaths of people have been unable to do anything about it over the course of history. But it is ultimately optimistic in allowing our protagonists, Mehret and Kameen, two impoverished children “of color” on Earth, to change everything.
How important is it to tell than kind of story today?
It is, in my totally unbiased opinion, the story that really needs to be told right now. It’s really the kind of story that shoulda been told ages ago, and needed to be told over and over again in multiple different ways. So in a way, it’s been a long time coming, I think.
THE SOLAR GRID is written and illustrated by Ganzeer. The first two chapters are available for download from thesolargrid.net. Chapter 03 is released on 31st October; check out Flickering Myth’s exclusive preview here