Q&A: Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman Dissect Technological Dystopias in Their Upcoming Book Thumbs
March 28, 2019
Tech-obsessed teens take on the government in the new series from the creative team that brought you The Few.
We sat down with Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman to get the inside scoop on Thumbs, coming to comic shops June 5th. The creators behind The Few present a dystopian world where technology has allowed corporations to take on the government, and a group of teens are caught in the middle.
How would you describe Thumbs?
Sean Lewis: What would happen if Mark Zuckerburg started to give free technology and video games to lower-income kids in the hopes of turning them into his own army? Thumbs is a kid in a trailer park who, like most kids, is enamored with a tech billionaire named Adrian Camus. Camus has been supplying kids like Thumbs with interactive games, free technology, and even special schooling. But why? It's his own willing army in training.
Following The Few, this is your second comic about a dystopian future. What made both of you return to that genre?
Lewis: The Few was a special book for me, and the working relationship with Hayden was really defining. With The Few, I wanted to make a sci-fi book that was actually kind of quiet and introspective. I wanted to look at guilt and belief, and I really wanted to see if a comic book could slow you down. Hayden got that instinctively, and his art did magic. For me, sci-fi allows me to explore things I am terrified of in a concrete way. I read about Amazon getting involved with lower-income NYC schools training kids to be Cloud representatives and giving free technology, and I start to wonder what is the end goal of this? How long is it before Amazon creates an iNanny to raise your children for you? And what lessons will that tech teach them?
Hayden Sherman: The dystopian future is always a fun way to take current anxieties and blow them up to create new worlds where those anxieties can be experienced in an extreme and almost literal way. So it’s definitely fun to do that again here in Thumbs, tackling different fears to create a new sort of world. That being said, the dystopian setting for The Few was on a much larger scale compared to what we’ve got here in Thumbs. There’s still a feeling of a defined culture and systems in this new dystopia, but I’d say it feels more localized to one society within a world that’s dealing with these new technologies and limitations in differing ways.
The story follows a group of gamers recruited into a private army to fight the U.S. government. Who are the key players in this war?
Lewis: Charley Fellows, aka Thumbs, is our main character. He is searching for his sister, Tabitha, who was raised outside of his tech world. Nia is Thumbs' best friend who helps him in finding his sister. Adrian Camus is the billionaire who created this army. And The Power is like the U.S. Government. They are who Camus originally had planned on fighting. They are led by two anti-tech zealots: Sewell and Cora. Sewell and Cora both have suffered as a result of our interconnected age and have lobbied to end technology in the general population. And then there is MOM. MOM is an app designed by Camus to help raise children. MOM is also bad ass. Imagine an app that could live in 3D, charged with electricity and plugged into an endless mainframe of information. Yeah, that's MOM.
What influenced your designs for the different armies, Hayden?
Sherman: For the most part, we just see two sides in this conflict, the massive government on one side and the recruited kids on the other. For the kids the goal is for them to be wearing just about anything, but then be unified by key features, such as these metal bits that they’ve got around their eyes, which are used to mount their phones to their faces for VR play. That whole army is rather rag-tag. They take what they can get as they can get it and put it to good use, but there’s no sense of them looking to wear team colors or anything.
For the government side, there’s a couple generations that we see, and the idea with them is to just cover them from tip to toe. There’s a sort of ridiculous irony to the society they protect, a society that’s all about openness and interdependence, with a nasty aversion to all things electronic. Meanwhile, these troops are nearly faceless drones that use derivative tech that’s not all that different from what the kids on the other side have. I’d say the thing that influences them both the most is the situations that they exist in.
What can you tell us about the lead character, Charley “Thumbs” Fellows?
Lewis: He is a reluctant hero. Or, I should say, he is the worst hero for this moment. Lol. I think that is something I was really interested in. Who is the worst person to have to rely on? And you have a kid who is not the best at what he does, who is not necessarily tough or a born leader. However, he has great need. He needs to protect his friends. He needs to get to his sister. But he has heart. I think heart gets overlooked when we talk about the American makeup. I think people get very focused on things like money and success and rags to riches when they discuss the qualities of great "Americans." I don't think of that as much as the incredible amount of heart the American people have. We are a big country, so sure there are large pockets of people who are hateful and closed off. But the amount of Americans who go out everyday and in their jobs and free time work to make lives better... the hope for change Americans possess... when I get dark about this country, I keep going to that. Thumbs has heart. Without question.
Why did you focus on technology as the main conflict? How do generations play into that conflict?
Lewis: Technology is scary to me. It is completely boundless. We can create replica human beings. We can print 3D guns. We can manipulate websites to propagate information to the masses. We can spy on each other. We can hunt each other down in large faceless mobs. And we don't want regulation. Because we all love technology. We love access to our songs. We love connection with our friends. We like having platforms for all of our thoughts. I don't think that there is a generational breakdown anymore of young people like tech and old people don't. My mom loves Facebook. My grandma is 95, and she is on Instagram. I think I feel very conflicted. Tech makes my life easier. I can collaborate and have a career with people around the world from my living room.
BUT, I also know that none of these sites were made altruistically. I know they are not meant to help me as a goal. They are there to collect data. To generate profit. To assert power. And because they make my life easier, I submit to those. And I see how disconnected and open to hate people are. I think if you live in a phone 24 hours a day that self selects the information it gives you based on your already held beliefs, your propensity to grow and change in your thought is very low. And your empathy... empathy is about understanding other people. If you spend most of your day only understanding you, empathy disappears. No matter your politics, I find the language of today often more hateful than I ever remember. I think underestimating our tech obsession's connection to that is foolish. But will I give up Twitter for that? I don't know. Scary, right?
Did events like Facebook’s September security breach and the Cambridge Analytica scandal influence Thumbs?
Not particularly. I think my Twitter feed influenced it. I think watching people walk out into traffic reading their phones influenced it. I think arguments with relatives over Thanksgiving about what information they receive and from where influenced it. I mean, the idea that Facebook manipulates information for profit hasn't ever been new. Look, the moment a website recommends something to you (a friend, a partner or a product) they are now starting to influence you. For their gain. This book started when I thought about my own phone reliance, and I wondered what happens when they make an app to watch your kid.
Would you say this book is pro-technology? Anti-technology? Something in between?
I'd say all the things I write are anti-fascism. All movements, political or social, have fascists on their fringes. They have people who want to control other people. I believe in freedom. Freedom to grow. Freedom to change. Freedom to live. When Twitter brings down a dictatorship by being the one way people can communicate freely, like in the Arab Spring, I'm all for it. If it allows Pussy Riot to connect with people around the world about horrible situations in the Soviet Union, yes, I'm pro. When it leads to a bullying death from someone not ever able to escape school, or it tries to replace law or tries to tell me day in and day out what my thoughts, votes, and morals MUST BE in order to have a life, family, or career? Well, f*ck tech those days. And I think zealots who want to do away with all tech, they want to do that for their own power.
The book, like all my books, is about how you overcome control. How do you live freely? AND how do you allow others to with grace and humility?
Hayden, you’re shifting to a setting with advanced technology and holograms. How did you approach that worldbuilding?
Sherman: It might sound silly, but the approach was ultimately to just do it. It’s actually quite similar to The Few, where in that story I didn’t want to give away any exact linear idea of how these people arrived at the point in time that they inhabit. I’m not really interested in creating a timeline of how the people in Thumbs came to live in this world or how the tech developed to this point and so forth. The most important thing is that that’s the world they’re in, and it’s nothing special to anyone in it. If the reader is interested in knowing more about how it all came to be, then it’s all up to them to imagine. And I think that’s all the more fun.
You also take an interesting approach to color in Thumbs. Can you describe your process?
Sherman: The purpose of color in Thumbs is predominantly to highlight any and all tech in any scene. If there’s a piece of technology showing, it’s gonna be pink. Otherwise the book is essentially monochromatic, varying between hues depending on each scene, and done in a way to abstractly represent pixels. Meanwhile, then, the more pink that consumes the page, the more power we can see that tech holds in that place. Which leads to some really fun moments where we’ll jump from a base that’s full of tech and equipment, over to a countryside or something where there’s no tech to speak of. The hope is that this difference in coloring between environments will further drive home the divided state that this world is in.