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RETCON Retcons Itself [Feature]

interview by Henry Barajas, originally published in IMAGE+ #15

"Retroactive continuity," better known as a "retcon." RETCON is a psychedelic new series Matt Nixon & Toby Cypress are cooking up for Image Comics this summer. It's kind of like what would happen if David Lynch made a funnybook with Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko, but RETCON is even wilder than that sounds. This is the perfect series to pick-up if you're addicted to the complexity of CASANOVA or fascinated by the paranormal activity of The X-Files.

We rendezvoused with Cypress & Nixon, and their letterer Matt Krotzer, for a debriefing on what to expect from this series, and how they'll change everything that you know about a retcon.

HENRY BARAJAS: What was the original kernel of an idea that led to RETCON?

MATT NIXON: For a long time I’ve wanted to tell the ultimate conspiracy theory story, one where our entire existence is a conspiracy.

BARAJAS: This feels like a '70s psychedelic Jim-Steranko-meets-Steve-Ditko superhero story, but backward. You say that this is a reboot of a comic book series that never existed. What's that mean, exactly?

NIXON: That’s a super flattering comparison. That fluidity is thanks to Toby’s inspired art. I wrote the script so it would play to Toby’s style and specifically tailored it to maximize his stellar storytelling ability, but I was still blown away each time he sent pages. 

Without giving away too much, there’s this idea that these characters have all been in this same situation several times before. They know, or sense, that they all are reliving the series in a Groundhog’s Day scenario. So far, all the retcons [in comics] have involved an established series being reimagined. This is the first time a series was retconned in its first iteration.

BARAJAS: What does the word retcon mean to you? What is it about retcons that made them seem like something to structure a series around?

NIXON: There are a few convincing definitions of retcon out there that would refute this, but I think it’s simply when a series gets a substantial overhaul. Also, to me, it means continuity be damned. Characters are brought back from the dead with no solid explanation, races or genders are swapped, bad guys become heroes...that sort of thing. One example is when things are changed to update an established series. I retconned the movie Motel Hell and adapted it for comics with IDW and MGM.

Obviously, retcons happen all the time in comics, and there’s generally some logic behind it. I’m experimenting with the retcon as story structure because, love it or hate it, it is a permanent part of comic book storytelling. In comics, you have celebrated characters who are self-aware and breaking the fourth wall. This story is self-aware and, in an oblique way, it breaks the fourth wall.

BARAJAS: RETCON doesn't pull its punches, and the first issue alone deals with post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, and drug addiction. How heavy is this comic going to get?

NIXON: Very heavy. Issue one is tame. Issue four should gut you.

BARAJAS: Do you worry that by blending real-life issues with the more fantastic elements of RETCON you'll do a disservice to them?

NIXON: No. I’ve recently noticed that these same issues are brought up in children’s movies like Trolls. One of the characters is riddled with PTSD, and it doesn’t get much more fantastic than Trolls. Even Hank the Octopus has PTSD in Finding Dory, and that’s a Disney film. I believe we’ve become very matter-of-fact about these things, and that’s how I treat it in this book.

BARAJAS: Matt, what's your background in comics? How did you end up collaborating with Toby?

NIXON: I started 20 years ago. After college I moved to New York City with a simple dream: I wanted to write Wolverine for Marvel Comics. I was told this would be impossible. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that.

My first work in comics was with Marvel writing a Conan the Barbarian mini-series. That got me work writing for Frank Frazetta Fantasy Illustrated, a wannabe Heavy Metal Magazine. Shortly after that, Toby and I worked on a small story featuring Wolverine that backed up an issue of X-Men Unlimited. Later on down the road I finally got my chance to write Wolverine.

But I still wanted to write my own thing. I love writing licensed properties, but you can only create so much before their owners box you in. This story has no limits. And if this miniseries does well enough, I will invite a new creative team to come aboard, and they will reinvent it as they see fit.

When I started to look for collaborators on this project, Toby was on my very short list of artists, but I expected he’d be too busy. Fortunately, he liked this story enough to find the time.

BARAJAS: Toby, your style is so alive that it's almost as if the art changes with every issue. You're doing everything but the letters, right? What's your approach to the storytelling in this book? What does RETCON look like to you, figuratively?

TOBY CYPRESS: Well, for me, the concept of RETCON is very complex. It could potentially mean unlimited parallel dimensions, with unlimited possibilities all existing at once and only separated by subliminal choices. Yet the plot simplifies a potentially complex and overwhelming situation and grounds it in the experience of one unfortunate fella who has to come to grips with subtle choices, their impact on the larger world, and even the impact on the larger universe.
 
While reading the script, I thought it read as several different genres. I wanted to try to subtly imply several realities at once, as the story's concept suggested. For me, the most obvious changes through the design of the story are in my color choices. Issue one has a very gritty, oversaturated color scheme that I hope relates well with a sort of horror or grindhouse style of story. The colors change to something more traditional in issue two as the story takes a turn towards commentary on traditional superheroes, and changes again as things become increasingly supernatural and sci-fi.
 
My art does tend to change depending on narrative set-up and action at hand. I’ve always been very keen on lively linework and design. When a narrative is setting up lots of talking heads and environmental settings, I draw things very straight. Simple angles, consistent character designs, and I try to make the reading flow easily, allowing readers to understand the room, location, who is talking, who is responding, and so on. When things get faster paced, like in action scenes, my artwork gets more interpretational. Characters might exaggerate more, rooms bend, and reality becomes hyper-stylized.

I like to have fun with comics, and I think the strongest asset of comics is that it’s a unique art form. I think it’s limiting to portray a comic story like a movie, or novel. It’s both and neither. So stylization has a big impact on pacing, emotion, and story.

BARAJAS: What's a lesson that you've internalized from the Joe Kubert School? Do you approach things differently now that you've moved on from the school? 

CYPRESS: The thing I remember most from the Kubert School is that comics are as much an artform as they are commercial art. I tried to remember that even though there are rules to storytelling and rules to comic making...comic books are ART. So I’ve tried to practice real art-making in comics. The biggest thrill I received from instructors was that I had made art.

For me, it means that I successfully achieved a goal in my communication. A lot of comics approach the business as commercial, and that would be just as good because comics are commercial as well. With RETCON, I think the story is art, and also commentary of art, so it was an opportunity for me to really lean into this aspect.

BARAJAS: Matt Nixon reached out to say that you, specifically, bring a lot to the team, even beyond lettering it. What is it that fascinates you about this project? What made you go all-in?

MATT KROTZER: If you get the opportunity to work with an artist like Toby, you don't hesitate. And once I'd talked to Matt and found out the premise of the book, I couldn't have been more excited if you'd lit me on fire.

This is a book where I got to be on board from the ground level, before we even knew we'd be fortunate enough to find a home at Image, so it's been a thrilling ride and an awesome experience in regards to the development process of the book—seeing it grow from concept to pitch to publication. 

BARAJAS: You had to match your lettering to Toby's art for this project, which is something most readers wouldn't even think about. Do you have a philosophy when it comes to lettering? Are you a person who thinks lettering should be invisible, enhance the storytelling, or something else entirely?

KROTZER: Toby's definitely challenged me to up my game, that's for sure. He does brilliant hand-drawn SFX in places throughout these books that have really inspired me to explore new techniques and stylistic concepts to deliver something that feels consistent. It's one of those rare creative opportunities where you know you're growing in your craft with each completed page. Those are rare, and it's absolutely the best type of challenge you can get, professionally. 

I really dislike the idea that letters should be "invisible," because that's diminishing the role of a letterer. A good letterer isn't invisible, in my opinion, so much as they complete the art in a way that doesn't draw more attention than is appropriate. To some, that may seem like a semantic difference, but I think there's a big difference between something you don't notice and something that feels like a part of the book. 

BARAJAS: Letterers are a crucial role in comics, one that's often unappreciated. What do you enjoy about the role?

KROTZER: Especially on a book like RETCON, it's a delight getting to be the first person in the world to see what the finished pages look like, and being the first real reader of the book. 

Letterers can bring so much to a page beyond just putting words in balloons. From the amount of "air" in a balloon, to the shape and length of the tails, to even the number of balloons you choose to use for a section of dialogue, you can really shape the tone of a character's speech, in a way that's wholly unique, from cues provided by the artists. I enjoy the subtlety and nuance that can be brought out through the lettering that adds to the experience of the story, and I hope I was able to enhance the experience of the story in my own way for Matt, Toby, and the readers.

BARAJAS: There are a lot of characters and moving pieces in this comic. As creators, do you find yourself feeling for certain characters more than others? Do you play favorites?

NIXON: Detective Case became my favorite as the story progressed. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know that he was going to do what he did in issue four until the moment I wrote the scene. Authors often talk about characters coming to life within the work and making their own choices...it happened with Case. I had something else planned for him and he surprised me when he went a different way with it.

CYPRESS: My favorite character comes later in the series. Not to spoil too much, but we get to meet Bigfoot. For me, my Bigfoot was Andre the Giant’s interpretation on the Six Million Dollar Man TV series. I watched that show as a kid, and those episodes really shook me. I wanted to know everything about that character. So, when we see Bigfoot, you’ll recognize him a little bit. Andre the Giant also happens to be my favorite wrestler, so two birds, one stone.

BARAJAS: What can you tell us about the acronym "TPTB" and what it means for RETCON?

NIXON: In conspiracy slang, it just means "The Powers That Be"...

RETCON #1 debuts 9/13 and is available for preorder now.

Originally from the Old Pueblo, Henry Barajas works for Top Cow Productions and sells doughnuts in Hollywood. He writes comics, writes about comics, and collects comics. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.