Smash Pages Q&A: Mike Phillips on ‘The Tessellation’

The writer of the alternate-reality comic talks about the project, which is currently up on Kickstarter.

Alternate history novels and comic series like Marvel’s What If? have explored what happens when a major change occurs in history, but what about the minor choices we make every day? A new comic project on Kickstarter explores the idea that every choice we make creates a different outcome — and a new reality.

The Tessellation is written by Mike Phillips and explores this idea that multiple realities and alternate timelines are created every time we make a choice. The story will explore those different realities in an interesting way on the comics page. “Think of it as the most unique anthology you’ve ever read, at least formatting-wise,” Phillips said.

Phillips is working with the art team of Hernán Gonzalez and Javi Laparra to create the comic, along with publisher Martian Lit,and is currently running a Kickstarter to fund its publication. I spoke with Mike about the project, alternate realities, the comic’s unique structure and more.

Let’s start with your origin story — how did you first discover comics, and when did you know you wanted to create them?

Claremont & Lee’s X-Men #1. I just remember there was this buzz around it, and I’d always been intrigued by comics but didn’t know a good entry point. And around that time, some friends were gonna ride bikes to the next town to get some basketball and football cards, and I tagged along because I knew the store also sold comics. There was this big display of X-Men #1, and I was like, “Wait how could this be the first issue?” not realizing this was a second X-Men title. I flipped through it. Didn’t really know what was going on, but I was intrigued by Wolverine. I read it a few times and just fell in love with the art / story combo. Loved the idea of a blue team and a gold team. I was always a sucker for collecting stuff, like Garbage Pail cards and TSR novels, so I was primed to waste my money on all of the new X-Family stuff.

Comics quickly became my favorite type of reading, so naturally I began creating tons of comics characters and worlds, but they were more plans than actual scripts. I had a big folder full of characters and titles and universes. But I never went farther than that. As an adult, I had a friend (Martian Lit’s Julian Darius) who literally created his own comic book company, so that definitely inspired me to try to come up with something to pitch him, and when I actually had some ideas I thought were worth pursuing, I had an outlet right away. Julian was very supportive, and he was willing to help nurture my stuff into existence.

What can you tell us about The Tessellation — what’s it about?

It’s a series that’ll revolve around infinite realities, that every choice you’ve ever made and the alternate choices you could have made alllll happened. All of the quintillions upon quintillions of choices you could have made exist in their own realities. Plus, a shadowy organization has figured out how to travel between the realities and is selling expensive trips to them. In “elevator pitch” terms, it’s Sliding Doors (with a little Sliders) meets The Game in the multiverse (with a wink to Counterpart for anyone who’s seen that). I want to focus not only on the mundane choices we make, like the hundreds of split-second decisions that occur every time we get behind the wheel (and what those decisions can lead to), but also on bombastic ideas, like “What does war between alternate realities look like?”

Where did the idea for the story first come from?

Becoming a spouse and father opened up a lot of fears and worries about being good at both of those very important things; fear of failure, fear of making some wrong decision physically or verbally that can lead to hurting them. So in the tradition of “write what you know,” I decided to try to weaponize that fear. When this idea was congealing, I was influenced by the film Interstellar, specifically the black-hole part near the end. Spoilers! Matthew McConaughey goes into the black hole and ends up being in some sort of fifth dimensional observation deck, all around him visions of infinite moments from his daughter’s childhood room. This was the flint to my OCD steel. (You’ll see what I mean in my answer to the next question.) I just shifted “all times at once” to “all possible realities.” More broadly, Twin Peaks: The Return helped inspire me to just go for it. David Lynch is a fearless artist, and he exudes a confidence that says, “If it makes sense to me, that’s good enough.” This was a necessary motto for me, in order to plunge forward and not let it fizzle. So I threw a bunch of my fears and the multiverse into a blender with my attempt at Lynch-level bravery, and The Tessellation came out.

You’re taking a different approach in how you’re telling the story of these alternate realities — can you talk a little bit about the structure of the story?

Sure, the first two issues will be messing with the typical comics format quite a bit. They’ll begin in the usual way, but at a certain point, based on characters’ decisions (string-theory style), the page will splinter into four “reality rows,” each row its own story/reality. From that point on, you could read just the top row/story/reality, throughout the entire issue, and then go back and read the second row, etc. (And sometimes the rows interact.) Think of it as the most unique anthology you’ve ever read, at least formatting-wise.

And will you follow those same realities issue to issue, or are you planning to change things up as you go along?

Yes, eventually… Issue #2’s four stories are completely unrelated to those from issue #1. But in the third issue (which will be told in a more traditional anthology style, sans the “reality rows”), we’ll check in with the main characters from the first two issues to see what’s happening next with them. And in subsequent issues, we’ll follow that same pattern; more characters will be introduced, and then we’ll swing back to earlier established ones.

Who are you working with on the project, and how did the team come together?

Dream-come-true penciler/inker Hernán Gonzalez drew it, and the amazing Javi Laparra is coloring it. The cover is drawn by Hernán and painted by the wonderful Roni Setiawan. My pals Julian Darius and Steven Legge will letter it, and Julian will design the book’s layout. I found Hernán by the complete luck of the draw. I reached out on a Facebook page that connects artists and writers, and he was the clear favorite of the people who responded. I just had no idea how accommodating, friendly, and on board he was going to be. He now treats The Tessellation like it’s his baby too, which makes me feel like I hit the lottery. And I found Javi in the exact same way, and he is as accommodating and friendly and awesome as Hernán! He was open to some really wild coloring ideas, and he put up with my ignorance in that department, always with a smile and a joke. Julian is one of my best friends, and he is a wiz at design, so that’s why the cover and interior layout look so good. And Steve is great with lettering and SFX. Putting together a dream team shouldn’t be this easy, but it kind of was.

In terms of the Kickstarter, can you share some of your planned rewards or stretch goals?

Absolutely! Firstly, The Tessellation #1 will be available in digital and physical versions. And there’s a “behind the scenes” level where you can get a digital copy of the script and a digital B&W version of issue #1. There’s also a cool early-bird reward for the entire Martian Lit comics library in digital. That’s over 1,000 pages of comics for just $50!

Then we come to what I call “the Hernán rewards.” He’ll be drawing and mailing out original art at three reward levels: (1) He’ll do a pinup of any Martian Lit character you want. (2) He’ll do character commissions of any pop-culture character you want. (3) My fave: You can invent three alternate-reality personas for yourself (doctor, astronaut, gangster, olympian, whatever), and Hernán will use photo reference to draw a landscape-format, single-page triptych of these YOUs in action!

And finally, the crazy, big-money reward is you dictate the terms of the string-theory, splintering story: You tell us where a decision in your life led to different possibilities, and we’ll produce a four-page comics story and send it to you in digital. In other words, think of any wild fork-in-the-road you want, and we will write and draw a future The Tessellation story of you having this adventure.

I know you’ve also done another comic, Necropolitan. What’s that one about, and how can people buy it?

I refer to this series as Gangs of New York or Game of Thrones meets Highlander in Hell. A couple hundred years ago, Saint Lucifer vanished from the main Hell city, Pandemonium, leaving a power vacuum, and that’s when the “inmates took over the asylum.” Factions and gangs formed. And ever since, some of history’s worst people have been battling for control over this punishment dimension. Out on the blasted plains, we’ve got the affluent (current king-of-the-hill) Roman clan, headed by Caligula and Nero, and they’re equipped with a serial-killer task force run by Elizabeth Bathory. In downtown Pandemonium we’ve got Robespierre’s gang, with Napoleon as his main enforcer. Up in the mountains we’ve got the techno-wizards, run by Aleister Crowley, Jack Whiteside Parsons and Henry Ford. Prowling through the hills and occasionally raiding the city is the warrior clan headed up by Genghis Khan. Uptown are the demons, run by a bitter Beelzebub, trying to maintain a grasp on what little power Saint Lucifer’s minions still have here. Plus there’s a mystery clan that has infiltrated all of the other groups, and they’re poised to make their big move. It’s a Garth Ennis-y wild ride.

And you can find it here:

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