Exclusive Interview: Legend Of Sumeria Authors Jay Webb And Biju Parekkadan
Writers often consult professionals in other fields to make sure they’re getting things right. Mystery writers, for example, will sometimes talk to cops, detectives, or FBI agents. But in the new science fiction graphic novel Legend Of Sumeria (hardcover, paperback) by Jay Webb and Biju Parekkadan, PHD, it was actually the doc who was asking for advice.
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is Legend Of Sumeria about?
Parekkadan: Legend Of Sumeria is about a world where technology has gone too far.
Webb: I think we are there already, really…or I mean we will probably be living on this tipping point for the foreseeable future until some catastrophic event either cripples technology or makes us rethink the very fibers of society.
Parekkadan: He was looking for a summary, not a morbid prediction.
Webb: My bad. Legend Of Sumeria is a human survival story set in what we see as a very viable future of our species once the capturing of genetic code becomes as easily obtained, and as heavily targeted and manipulated, as all of our current internet data is by companies and the government.
Where did the original idea for Legend Of Sumeria come from, and how different is the finished graphic novel from that initial concept?
Parekkadan: The original idea for the story came from a funny experience with a writing competition that started on November 1st. I was with friends on Halloween night without a story idea in mind. Many of my friends are not scientists, so they are always curious about what I do in the lab. I was explaining an experiment using my own blood and testing a drug compound on the blood cells. Don’t worry, I’m a volunteer under an approved medical protocol to donate blood for research.
Webb: He’s basically a biohacker with a PHD.
Parekkadan: As I was saying. Before getting to the actual scientific studies, my friends were amazed that I was using my own blood for research. I witnessed a real human response to it and decided that no matter where the story would go, there would be a character who would use his own blood for discovering new medicines. From there, things evolved into a story about two scientists who discover a new “cure-all,” but were taken advantage of by a ruthless CEO with his own vision for the future. After completing the writing piece, I shared it with my best friend over here who has a lot of experience with film production and building richness into a story. When he came on board, we spewed out many new stories, characters, and themes that arose all to bring about a much more descriptive world that had some excitement to it. This included the stories of two new major characters: Tessa, a space traveler, and Henry, a symbologist that added important dimensions to the story.
Legend Of Sumeria has been called hard sci-fi. Do you agree with this, or do you think there’s a genre, or combination of genres, that described it better?
Parekkadan: We agree with this in principle. We tried to mix real scientific theories with current events in technology, like genetics, gene therapy, space exploration. We tried to strike a balance of fiction that is not too far from a reality.
Webb: Yeah, what I think makes it unique is the blend of factual educational science with some more futuristic theories. And since most of the science comes from one of the character’s lab books, it all helps to blur the lines between fiction and reality, and hopefully makes at least some of the science and new ideas accessible to almost all readers. We figured if a simpleton like me could understand the science explanations then most people would be able to.
What writers or other stories do you feel had a bit impact on the writing of Legend Of Sumeria?
Parekkadan: Certainly other graphic novels like [Alan Moore’s] Watchmen and [Frank Miller’s] The Dark Knight Returns were impactful because they have a noir feel to the world that we also tried to have. Also, both stories had “heroes” and “villains” that didn’t really have superpowers per se but were deemed extraordinary in their own ways. They also had flaws too so it was hard to characterize them as truly good or bad.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had an influence on Legend Of Sumeria?
Webb: Films that played with scale were always fascinating to me: Fantastic Voyage, InnerSpace. And films with flawed heroes certainly resonate with me, too. Contemplating the motives and morality of the characters after experiencing a journey with them is what probably got me hooked on film and storytelling in the first place. It’s a fun ride and can somehow lead to you being a better person.
Parekkadan: The TV series Dexter and the movie American Psycho were impactful for me, too. They were popular examples that really brought “blood lust” out from the world of vampires and into an everyday person. I think District 9 was also a great movie that we tried to model after. The aliens in it were actually gentle, it was the humans that were nasty. Also, the way the movie ended was great because it provided closure while also leaving open the clear possibility for a sequel, which is a rare example of a graceful ending. We tried to do the same.
You guys have talked before about how Dr. Parekkadan brought real science to the story of Legend Of Sumeria. But Jay, what else did he bring to the writing of this comic?
Webb: The center dot. It’s kind of an inside joke, but the center dot is a punctuation that we feel really doesn’t get enough air time, so we gave it some love in our subtitle, Life · Blood · DNA. Not a comma, not a hyphen…a center dot really was the only way to encompass the transition between the words, and I think I might have to give Biju credit for the risky decision to go out on a limb and go with this underdog of punctuation.
But seriously, this was a collaboration in the truest form. This book couldn’t have been made without both of us. Many of the ideas and storylines came from multiple hour video calls where we would dive into everything from the political process of FDA drug approval, to talks of college debauchery, to the social impact made by Garbage Pail Kids…by the end of the call, we would have finished the outline of a chapter and most of a bottle of Bullet bourbon.
So Doc, have the scientific ideas in Legend Of Sumeria been peer reviewed?
Parekkadan: Peer review depends on which peers. Yes, I talked with a few immunologists along the way that thought the core ideas were fascinating spins on our current understanding of the immune system. The simple idea was to negate a central dogmatic theme and build a world around it. In this case, current dogma would state that once a T cell is born it is unchanged in what it is designed to recognize as foreign. B cells, on the other hand, have the ability to “mutate” after being born so that they can become better defenders. So, the story started by negating the assumption that T cells don’t change and we made a cure-all therapy out of the concept. In many ways, the real-world example of CAR-T cells is based on this prophetic description that we started years ago.
And who did you decide to have them do this?
Parekkadan: Primarily two immunologists, Dr. Anne Fletcher from the University of Monash and Shannon Turley from Genentech. Both were former collaborators of mine at Harvard, and are generally good friends that I can talk about personal topics like this with.
Aiding you in this graphic novel are lead illustrator Anthony La Gaipa and illustrator Juan Carlos Colla Acland. Why did you think they were the best people to draw this comic?
Webb: Well, Anthony went to my high school, and was one of my brother’s best friends, so I was familiar with his work. I lived in an apartment above my brother and him after college, and Anthony once drew an enormous sketch of a futuristic estate of homes and cars that he said was what he was going to build when he won the lottery. He drew a home and a concept Mustang that he said were for me. That was pretty sweet, so I figured bringing him on to illustrate this comic was the least I could do. Juan, and a few of the other illustrators came on a bit later in the process. All of the illustrators had great style, and a good mix of realizing the vision we brought to them and bringing their own creative suggestions and spins to the creation.
Did either of them do anything that prompted you guys to change the story, even in a minor way?
Parekkadan: Yes, Anthony was very much a part of the scene-to-scene storytelling, and had ideas about how to creatively get a point across.
Webb: Yeah, working with Ant was great. He has much more experience reading and drawing comics, so he brought great ideas that helped to turn some of my cinematic ideas into the world of static comic panels.
Along with the regular paperback edition of Legend Of Sumeria, there’s also a limited-edition hardcover. But aside from being more useful when it comes to smashing spiders, is there anything else different or added to the hardcover?
Parekkadan: Ha, not really!
Webb: Well we make like an extra dollar on each hardcover, so we recently released an invasive species of spider into Canada….
As you guys undoubtedly know, a lot of comic books are not one-off stories, but are parts of an ongoing series. So, is Legend Of Sumeria a stand-alone story, or is it the first part of a larger saga, and why is it whatever it is?
Parekkadan: It’s certainly part of a trilogy that we’d love to continue if our fans want more. There are two more books outlined in concept, and we have left many “eggs” in this first book awaiting the opportunity to jump off on points for books 2 and 3.
Webb: The first book is focused on physical science, the second will be focused on the mind, and the third will be a little further outside of known sciences and will be touching on the role of genetics within spirituality. Sort of a body, mind, spirit story path.
Now Jay, prior to writing Legend Of Sumeria, you had produced some movies, including Breaking Point. Has there been any interesting in adapting Legend Of Sumeria into a movie, TV show, or video game?
Parekkadan: There has been some thought to make a TV series, but we haven’t made a push yet until we see if there is demand.
Webb: I think it would work pretty well as a TV show because there are some pretty annoying cliff hangers we could build in to the story organically. Probably thinking of bringing the script for book 2 to a few premium networks for consideration.
If Legend Of Sumeria was to be adapted into a TV show, who would you pick to star in it and why them?
Parekkadan: We actually considered this even when were just starting to develop the graphic novel. When discussing with illustrators, it’s nice to find a common ground by choosing a few celebrity images to discuss and model after, rather than just going with descriptive language. Off the top of my head we used Zoe Saldana [Star Trek] as a reference for Tessa, Patrick Wilson [Watchmen] for Jack, and a blend of a few actors became Bruce.
Finally, if someone enjoys Legend Of Sumeria, what hard sci-fi graphic novel or manga would you suggest they read next and why?
Parekkadan: Well, I would suggest Y The Last Man [from Saga writer Brian K. Vaughn]. It is not really as hard science as Legend Of Sumeria, but it does an amazing job of implanting the reader into a believable future world and comments on our current humanity through the epic tale without being preachy about it at all. This is always a challenge and when it’s pulled off, it is seriously impressive. Another one that I am just starting to read is Black Science [by Rick Remender]. I heard it’s right up our alley.