Smash Pages Q&A: Zac Thompson

The writer of ‘Lonely Receiver’ talks about the book’s themes, working with Jen Hickman and more.

Zac Thompson seemed to come out of nowhere a few years ago and is now writing one comic after another for AfterShock, Black Mask, BOOM!, Marvel and Vault. There are a lot of through lines and themes that run through his work, and one of his central concerns is structures and cycles, how we build them, how we exist in them and how we break out of them. These ideas exist on a societal level and a personal level, and the ways that he uses this to interrogate people’s lives and ideas are fascinating. 

His current project is Lonely Receiver, which he’s made with Jen Hickman. It is a science fiction story, a story about putting one’s life together after a crushing breakup, and a horror story. These elements come together in organic and fascinating ways that only become more impressive as the series goes on.

Thompson’s other recent projects include the recently concluded No One’s Rose, Undone by Blood and Angel and Spike. We spoke recently about Lonely Receiver, the third issue of which was just released, and how he works.

To start, how did you come to comics?

The short answer is through Age of Apocalypse getting gifted by an older brother. The longer answer, now that I’ve thought about it, is that the stuff that held my attention and devoured were my mom’s Archie and Betty and Veronica digests. I never really looked at that as part of my comics education, but I was reading that more fervently than X-Men comics because my mom had a ton of them and they just were interesting to me. I liked the drama of it, I guess. I don’t think I ever read anything in sequence until Y The Last Man in the early 2000s. 

Where did Lonely Receiver start?

I went through a really bad breakup in 2017 and that’s where the seeds of this started. It also came because I’m obsessed with this weird horror movie Possession from 1981 by a Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski where Sam Neill plays a secret agent who comes back to his wife after being away for a long time and you’re not sure what’s going on, but she wants to end their marriage. You slowly start to realize that she’s in a relationship with a monster or something that is beyond human comprehension. I like that idea of a breakup with something so beyond your psyche that it causes you to have a mental breakdown. It’s a logical sort of extension of everything people go through but turned up to 11. I really love technology and after my last major breakup I was using tinder for the first time. It was this weird thing where it felt like a meat market and it felt odd to me that that was what dating had become. I kept thinking about how technology will change dating and where that could potentially go. Also, addiction to technology and co-dependence and what that looks like. It made sense to blend those things. Teaming with Jen, I brought them this stuff to them and they were so down to develop that world and wrap it in a really colorful, warm idealized future, but with this simmering darkness underneath.

Jen’s sense of style and pacing is a master class on every page. They have a real eye for building a seamless world around the character with everything from logo designs you see in like one panel, or a strange motivational poster on the wall in issue #2. They were able to elevate everything I brought them. Jen’s ability to convey emotion and acting is unrivaled. And having them as my collaborator on this book made all the emotion behind the words hit twice as hard.

Jen is amazing. People will probably be reminded of the movie Her, which has a similar-ish premise.

Also watching that movie I had this moment where I was like, if my digital partner did that to me – hey, I’m evolved and I no longer feel challenged by you and you can’t understand my reality anymore, so see you later. I watched that going, “This is a horror movie!” If that happened to me, that would cause a mental breakdown. It was a huge springboard for me. And then blending that with a Cronenberg-ian sensibility.

The movie’s ending was a little too twee about that.

Yeah, the manic pixie dreamgirl in your phone!

The story is about relationships, and the opening of the second issue is a post breakup scene that almost everyone will cringe at reading. There’s very little sci-fi in those opening pages.

I wanted people to sit with it. That was a huge part of the series where I went, what happens after you go through a huge breakup? There’s the day of the breakup, which we highly dramatize and fixate on, as we depict in the first issue. Every issue after that moves out from that moment and a longer period of time. In the second issue you sit with this pain and see that they’ve given so much of their life to this person or object, that they have to literally rebuild themselves from the ground up – which often feels like what you have to do after a major breakup. Who am I? What do I want? What have I lost in that relationship ending? How do I pick myself back up?

As much as it is science fiction, it’s also a horror story. Some of it is simply Catrin realizing that she’s not who she thought she was and how that transforms her understanding of the world.

That was a huge thing for me. I brought this to Aftershock and said, “I want to do a romance-horror book, but realistically, this is a book about confronting the person you thought you were and having to rebuild yourself.” I really think that’s something we all do over the course of our lives. We have these huge moments that force us to go, “Am I who I thought I am?” If the answer is no, well, you have a lot of hard work to do. That comes with a lot of accounting. On top of that, you have to recalibrate and think about what is important to me, and can I accept reality? In Catrin’s case, she’s accepting certain things, but also disassociating very clearly from other parts. I thought that was important because we self-erase when we go through trauma. We lie to ourselves. I wanted to do something that was very uncomfortable for people to read. [laughs]

Mission accomplished. [laughs] I think people will wince because you capture so much of that experience. This is about relationships and toxicity and self-absorption – and it’s science fiction, but it’s not about that.

I’ve realized that I don’t want to deal with books that are firmly set in a reality that has this very one-to-one allegorical nature. Because comics are a visual medium, I believe that you shouldn’t come into a comic that’s about someone dating their phone and have it look like an iPhone. We use that everyday. It’s sort of bankrupt imagery. I like this perspective of shifting everything a little to the left of reality and telling a complex story about who this person is. There’s a moment in issue #2 where she interacts with someone at the bank and in that interaction you learn a little about the phones and as the issue goes on you get more context about the phones and the world. I thought that was a creative way to do the exposition. It would be boring if she went to the apple store. Early on in The Dregs we created a synthetic drug not based in reality to tell readers that this is skewed a little bit. That’s something Cronenberg used to do, having crazy technology but everyone acts like its matter of fact. I’m getting drawn to doing that. It allows you to do all kinds of cool designs and immerse people in a complex world, but also it adds more nuance and longevity to the story, in my opinion, because you’re not dealing with Facebook or instagram directly. In twenty years time if someone reads it, they’ll understand it as an emotional response to how we used technology. They won’t be stuck on, oh, they were still using Facebook.

I think that’s more important than ever now. Look at pop culture over the past 30 years, and you can date everything by cell phones, which can pull you out of the story a little bit.

When Lonnie and I first started writing we made a rule that no one would be on their cell phones, because how many times do you see someone on their cell phone in a day? It’s not an image where you get people to draw it and they go, “Cool!” So how do you make it visually interesting and make it stand in for something that has more context? If I’m watching a movie and someone’s on their phone or texting someone, unless it’s a key component of the story that evolves into something new, I’m not into it. There must be a more interesting way to get the character from Point A to Point B!

I mentioned that the opening of issue #2 is this emotional grief-stricken moment and it’s interesting how you build the world through all the interactions she has in the issue. And then in third issue you change that context and the norms are thrown off.

I likened writing the series to the unfurling of a flower. You keep adding layers that once they’re revealed contextualize everything that you’ve already seen. I wanted each issue to do that. That was one of the decisions I made about the time structure of each issue. Issue #2 is a week and issue #3 is a month, issue #4 takes places over a year and issue #5 is a life. What it hopefully does is show you that the things that we tell ourselves and rationalize to ourselves, other people may not see that way. I really felt like you can do things to hide yourself and isolate yourself from criticism for so long and issue #3 is a lot about that. You establish this “normal.”

Catrin has rationalized how she feels about it and what it means to herself. And then you meet another character who doesn’t feel the same way. Hazel is objectively the best person in the book at any given time – and they don’t have too good a time. The decision to do that was also to show that almost whiplash you get sometimes. Catrin is brooding for the entirety of issue #2 and in issue #3 it’s sunshine and rainbows and wonderful positive vibes. I wanted to show that emotional whiplash and how you can get carried away on a whim and think, this is my life. I’ve now found my purpose. Then you realize that you’ve over-invested in people you barely know and the people who are well adjusted and have boundaries will say that.

It’s interesting that you have that structure. Having read the first three issues, I saw the expansion of time as reflecting the way we perceive and register things. Initially, we’re hyper focused on the breakup and then time slowly goes back to “normal.”

Issue #4 takes place over the course of a year, but in Catrin’s voiceover and experience of that year, she starts to lose track of that experience. Again, you can go through something and then a year goes by and you’re like, “Holy shit.”

Also, a lot of this was knowing it was going to be a five-issue miniseries. My original plans for this series were one thing after another in the moment and maybe not getting to the breakup until issue #2 or 3, but I realized while working on the outline, “What if that big climactic moment happens right away?” Formalistically it fits into these boxes, but it gets dreamier and weirder as it goes on. 

How did working with Jen and knowing their work and approach affect how you wrote?

Quite a bit. They were very involved because they’re drawing and coloring everything. As we built the series together, they were weighing in on the story and how they felt about the characters doing certain things. There was a fine tuning and reworking because their perspective was so important in telling the story. We were compiling huge playlists and making color decisions together. It was a really organic process that I don’t think I’ve ever had before because it was the two of us over the course of a year crafting this book. Then having Simon come in, whose letters are incredible, who created a real texture to the world. 

Jen has become a good friend and we’ve talked about what we’re going to work on next because the process has been so rewarding. Whenever I said, this is crazy and it might steer the book of a cliff – they were like, fuck yeah, let’s go for it! [laughs] It’s been great in that way because I went, am I going too far? Is this too crazy? But they said, we set up the premise and if you lean into it, we’ll make something more rewarding for everyone. After working with co-writers on various projects you learn that you don’t know for sure that something’s working until someone reads it and goes, I don’t know if this is landing for me. I’m comfortable asking people, is this working for you? Because you’re going to put in a year on it and if the character doesn’t track, I don’t want you to draw that. 

So for everyone who reads the first one and goes, “This is wild and crazy,” then thinks issue #2 seems quieter – just wait, it will get weirder.

I think issue #4 is the weirdest thing I’ve ever written. To the point where I was trying to pick a single panel to show from it but it was hard to find a single panel that I could show on social media. [laughs]

We were talking before about this being a horror book in many ways, and I see Lonely Receiver in conversation with The Replacer. For people who haven’t read it, can you say a little about it?

The Replacer is a loosely autobiographical book about a young boy who sees his father have a stroke, and believes that his father has been replaced by a demon. My dad had a stroke when I was seven and I was not in the room at the time, nor did I think it was a demon, but I thought a lot about that emotional experience that left me feeling like I was short changed from the life that I “deserved.” I tried to wrap that emotional horror in something that represented that. That became The Replacer in much the same way that Lonely Receiver is an emotional horror book about a breakup. If you’re not writing about the things that scare you, then you’re probably not communicating something that’s vital in horror. At the end of the day you want to say something about your own fears and the things that scare you. With Lonely Receiver in particular I wanted this character to be emotionally open and very transparent – and some of their feelings are going to be very ugly. Those are some of the things we censor about ourselves.

You’re writing a number of other things. Do you want to mention a few?

I’m the new writer on Angel and Spike at BOOM! Studios. My take on the characters is a little different than Bryan Edward Hill, who did an incredible job, but as a lifelong fan of Angel I wanted to do something that was a little more reflexive with the material. I feel like it’s time for those characters to represent new things to people. I am writing Undone by Blood at Aftershock. It is a meta-neo-western about a young girl who goes to an Arizona town with only a gun and a pulp western novel to enact revenge against the man who killed her family. We intercut her story with the western novel. That is co-written with Lonnie Nadler. With art by Sami Kivela, colors by Jason Wordie and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. We will be returning for a second arc sometime in the new year. Undone By Blood has been optioned by Norman Reedus’ Bigbaldhead productions and the trade will be out on Nov 3rd!

Finally I have No One’s Rose at Vault, which is a solar punk eco-futurism book. This one is co-written with Emily Horn with incredible art by Alberto Alburquerque, colors by Raúl Angulo, and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. No One’s Rose reimagines dystopia in a more actively environmentally friendly lens. It’s basically about the power of working with nature as opposed to working against nature. That series concluded on Oct. 7 and will be out in trade format on Nov. 18.

One of the themes that runs through so much of your work is cycles and patterns, how we craft them and break them, either on a large societal scale like No One’s Rose or personal ones like Lonely Receiver.

One of the things that Lonnie and I used to joke about all the time was that most of our characters deal with memory in some way – either things that they’re fixated on or things that they can’t escape. That idea of cycles works its way into my work a lot because I think that humans are inherently cyclical beings and the only way forward is to break that cycle and rebuild from the ground up. That theme plays a role in pretty much everything I’m working on right now.

You were talking about how if you’re going to tell a science fiction story, why make it look real and find a way to use comics and make a visually dynamic and interesting world.

I make comics for comic’s sake. In a comic build a visually dense world and you can weave it into the structure of the narrative. You want something that feels fun to look at and imagine yourself in and is escapist in a certain way. You don’t want everyone on the cell phones in downtown New York talking about climate change.

So maybe I should have led with this question, but how do you describe Lonely Receiver?

Lonely Receiver is both a horror book and a romance book that forces people to examine the person that they thought they were in the context of a traumatizing breakup. But as it goes forward it also examines our real infatuation with technology, the lies we tell ourselves, the things we do to escape, and the things that are behind our relationships pulling the strings. And when you confront that, what does that tell you about yourself?

Every successful relationship is about each person giving the other room to grow.

That’s part of what I’ve been building towards in the book. Also, allowing yourself to grow and seeing your own flaws is a huge part of a relationship. If you enter into a relationship going, “I have no work to do, I’m perfect, you’re lucky to be with me” — no. Everyone should be on some journey of self discovery because working on your emotions and processing your emotions and being vulnerable is not weakness – it is the essence of strength. Telling people when you fucked up or how you feel or dealing with your emotions, you can gain strength from that. But if you wall yourself off and tell yourself you don’t need to do any work, you will never evolve beyond where you are.

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