Smash Pages Q&A: Tim Fielder on ‘Infinitum’

The creator of ‘Matty’s Rocket’ talks about his latest graphic novel, Afrofuturism, what he’s working on next and more.

Tim Fielder had been working as an artist and animator for years before making a splash a few years ago with Matty’s Rocket. A stunning Afrofuturist graphic novel, the book was a dynamic artistic triumph on so many levels.

His new book is Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale, which was just released by Harper Collins’ Amistad Press. It’s an original Afrofuturist graphic novel published by a major American publisher, and Fielder admits that he understands the significance — just as he understands what it means to find this success after working for decades and becoming an overnight sensation.

Infinitum is an epic in every sense of the word, about a warlord from the dawn of civilization cursed to live forever. Beyond that, as the book moves ahead centuries and millennia, are a lot of twists and turns that make it difficult to talk about it without spoiling anything, but I was thrilled to talk with Fielder again about this new project.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned this idea that was going to be your next book. Where did Infinitum start?

It started in the early 2000s. It started so that I could delve into the idea of the black character with agency that won’t be taken out of the story prematurely through death, maiming, or disability. I wanted to do something with a character who would live. That sounds weird, but as a black person in America, there is always that fear. It’s something so simple. When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, no one questions his ability to be able to do it. That’s what Infinitum was. I wanted to do something that was big in scale. To try to present black life as something worthy of the epic as a form.

It is an epic. Was there a point where you thought, can I keep doing this and pushing forward?

That’s the nature of the story. It’s not the first time this has been done. It’s a storytelling device that allows you to imply the passage of time and have your characters interact with history. How far can you go? As far as reality itself allows you to. And then some. As I’ve said, I did Matty’s Rocket but that story was always about giving flowers to my mother and grandmother and that category of women. I achieved a great personal feat when I did that. Infinitum was paying respect to this field that I’ve been doing for decades. Since before it was sexy to do. For long decades it was not sexy to do! [laughs] It was time for me to make my definitive statement about what I feel about Afrofuturism as a form and a practice.

We are at this moment of Afrofuturism and African futurism. Back in the day, there were so few black science fiction writers, and it was very different from today.

Yeah. There was Octavia and Chip, and then you had Steven Barnes and this legion of unpublished people. Like me. No one ever heard of me outside of fringe elements in the comics community until 2015. That’s because I did not understand how important it was to finish work. I say this over and over again, but people need to hear it. Finishing. I had worked on an animated film over a 10-year period called Harbinger. I kept at it, but I eventually stopped. I have not gone back to that project in over ten years. The lesson I learned after all of that work is that if you stop, that’s okay, but if you never get back up and be real about what is required to finish a project, you’ll never finish it. Then the energy that you put out into the world from finishing something is never allowed to mature and grow into something that can generate more opportunity and the chance to tell other stories. 

When I made the switch to comics, I wasn’t very good at finishing other people’s work. But the honest truth was, I reached the point where I needed to do my bibliography. People wanted me to draw their stuff, which was awesome. I loved that. But no one was lifting a finger to help me draw my books. Even in the process of doing this book, I had folks who would help me edit, but when it came to painting, that was all me. I don’t think I got any notes on the visuals. They just said, let him do his thing. That’s been wonderful. This is not the first time I tried to do a story like this. I’ve been trying to do this type of story for literally decades. I’m not alone. There are other people who have tried and who are doing it. It’s hard. I would never say it’s as good as Ursula K. LeGuin or Isaac Asimov, but I damn sure tried. Because why can’t we have black characters in environments like that? Where it’s black but it goes beyond that. Because race is artificial. It’s manufactured. It’s not real. It affects us, which makes it real, but there’s no biological grounding.

What was the editing process like?

Most of the notes were, did he really love this person? Or, how is he feeling about this act? In the initial version, he didn’t have first person narration. I added that in after. There were parts where the visuals were there but there was no dialogue or inner thoughts. It made the book better. I respect the editorial process. It’s painful sometimes, but I respect it.

At what point did you know it was going to be told in single-page illustrations?

This idea started as a story for the New York Times about Afrofuturism. I designed that to be one image per page. It was a big story because it had to be told in broad strokes. That carried over from the initial project to the version you have now. It’s still this sweeping story, but the story beats have these personal moments and you really have to pay attention to the pacing.

You said before that you wanted a character not bound by conventions, one of which was death. It’s a good laugh line but also very true.

Spoiler alert! [laughs] 

[laughs] Maybe I shouldn’t say that! The book starts out thousands of years ago in an African kingdom like Punt or Sao, which have been largely been forgotten or ignored.

It’s also a nod to Charles Saunders and his work. 

It’s also about these places and cultures and people who have been forgotten. And the idea that one of these people didn’t die and would be a witness to and a part of history is at the heart of this.

No question of that. The job of a storyteller is to try to create something that will be memorable. And the way that you can create something that is memorable is by imbuing your story with sentiment. Sentiment is usage of the familiar. It doesn’t have to exactly familiar. I love my children and they’re not all the same but if I can embed that feeling into the feeling the father character has for his children, then the audience will find that as familiar. They can apply their own experience to the characters. That level of desperation and fear.

It’s such a hard book to talk about because there’s so much I don’t want to spoil for readers.

There’s a lot of that. It’s fun seeing journalists twist themselves into pretzels because Infinitum is like twenty graphic novels in one big ass graphic novel. 

It is! You could have made 20 books covering this material – a whole book of the old kingdom, one book about this period or that period.

It goes on and on and on. That hasn’t been done on this level yet. Our job is to show ourselves in this light. We have to get to that kind of storytelling. I barely scratched the surface with this thing. Infinitum is the first full on unambiguous afro futurist graphic novel published by a major publisher. There have been others published as Indies, there were adaptations. I am aware of the significance of Infinitum. I’m aware of what it means just by its existence. Infinitum was supposed to be out last summer, but covid happened. That didn’t mean we stopped. I had to learn to work faster because everything was being handled over mail. I got the book in my hands on December 30 and it was a very emotional moment for me.

When we spoke years back about Matty’s Rocket, Black Panther had come out the year before, and we were talking about this Afrofuturist book you published and here we are with your next book from a big publisher and who knows what comes next, but it is a different cultural moment than just a few years ago.

Infinitum pays homage to Black Panther and Octavia Butler, Chip Delany and George Lucas, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, and all the people who formed me as an artist. It’s a story that’s part of my personal experience. As a black man living in this country you can sometimes feel like you’re spinning your wheels. You do this work, and you want recognition or compensation, but the goalposts are forever moving. That can be frustrating. And then the goalposts no longer move. And when you hit that target, it’s incredibly fulfilling.

You said before that you’re returning to Matty’s Rocket. Can you say anything about what you’re doing or what that means?

I can reveal this. When I did Matty’s Rocket I did breakdowns for three books. Not just written, but drawn! I did that because I was going to animate Matty’s Rocket. I got far into the story, so when I transferred it to comics I was decided what to use and what not to use. I’m editing and redrawing stuff now. I was trying to do that last year but COVID happened. Matty was me. Infinitum was me and a bunch of other people. So it’ll be good to get back to Matty. That’s my serial. My Dan Dare. My Buck Rogers. Which are so amazing, but where are the black people at? [laughs]

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