Scientific method: discussing the magic behind Ether with writer Matt Kindt

Can the supernatural be analyzed with the same tools as the natural? Interdimensional traveler Boone Dias thinks so, and that makes him the perfect man to solve a murder in the magical realm known as the Ether.

One of Dark Horse Comics’ most intriguing new series, Ether is the creation of writer Matt Kindt, who has already made his mark at the publisher with series like Mind MGMT and Dept. H and at Valiant on titles like Ninjak, Rai and Divinity. He’s said that he hasn’t understood the appeal of the fantasy genre in the past and that he, like his man-of-science protagonist, is on a journey with Ether to find out what makes fantasy tick. He’s joined on this new series by artist David Rubin (The Fiction), whose wildly imaginative and colorful designs make the world of the Ether spring to life like nothing else you’ll see on this year.

Here’s the solicitation from Dark Horse for the first issue:

Can science solve murder by magic?

A science-minded adventurer gets mixed up in the mysteries of a fantasy world in this charming new adventure from an award-winning creative team. Boone Dias is an interdimensional explorer, a scientist from Earth who has stumbled into great responsibility. He’s got an explanation for everything, so of course the Ether’s magical residents turn to him to solve their toughest crimes. But maybe keeping the real and the abstract separate is too big a job for just one man.

The first issue blew me away with its endearing cast, unforgettable setting, beautiful artwork and surprising twist ending, so I was very excited to pick the brain of Matt Kindt about the series. We discussed how David Rubin’s artwork has influenced the series’ development, the history of Boone and the Ether, the Bloody Screecher, purple apes and much more, so read on to find out more about one of the most imaginative new comics of the year.

So read on for the interview, a preview of the first issue, covers by David Rubin and Jeff Lemire, and an exclusive first look at Rubin’s cover for issue #4. Be sure to pick up Ether #1 this Wednesday, and let us know what you think in the comments below.

 

This is a very visually striking book. How early was David Rubin involved in this project, and how has his art shaped how you write Ether?

I initially pitched the series with character designs and me on art – but my current schedule with Dept. H and my other writing duties just precluded me from doing the art unless I waited a few years until Dept. H was done…and I didn’t want to wait. But I was really looking forward to drawing this series so I wasn’t really excited about finding a collaborator. But then I was introduced to David Rubin. I had read his book Hero earlier – so I was familiar with (and LOVED) his work. So after I realized he was available – and that he’d heard of my work and was excited about it – it was a no brainer. He re-did the character designs and then sent me a flood of sketches and concept art based on the pitch. He really overwhelmed me. I’ve never worked with an artist that did that much preliminary visual work.

He took a lot of concepts and ideas in the pitch that I wasn’t even planning on really getting to in this first story arc and he expanded on those, to the point that I tried to work more of it in early – just because it looked so fantastic. He had these brilliant sketches for what the prisons in Ether looked like…and that’s not even in this first arc…! Along with the main designs and concepts, he turned in a lot of vehicle and animal and supporting character designs. I ended up taking a lot of those visuals and writing them into the scripts because they were just so amazing. The design and sets and locations in this comic are as much a character as any person with a speaking part. It really makes the world feel real and lived in – and with something crazy and fantastical like this – it really raised the level of the entire project. A true collaboration in every sense.

When we meet Boone, he has already been to Ether many times, and had several previous cases. How many of his old cases have you detailed out?

 Probably eight to ten cases – all of them kind of linked. Which we may eventually get to – but I really wanted to start the series with Boone already established. It’s not an origin story so much. His origin is a kind of heartbreaking series of reveals that we’ll get as we get further along into the story. He’s got a lot of back story – but I’ve probably got two or three years’ worth of “moving forward” stories for Boone as well. That’s the beauty of this series is that we can move in both directions and really explore myth and story and the magic of language in whatever way seems fun to us at the time.

Boone has been to Ether many times, but was he the first person to discover Ether?

No. The Ether is really this idea of all myths and stories and fictional worlds all rolled into one. The idea is that “magic” is created through words and language and this “ether” is where all of those ideas actually exist. Like a Willy Wonka factory for ideas. It’s all there. So he isn’t the first to visit…but he is one of the first strictly rational-thinking humans to visit. One of the first scientists that goes there to try to explain how it all works. That’s the real friction in the story – there’s the murder mystery and the exploration – but the heart of it is this story of a scientist trying to make sense of a world and a life that…resists explanation and categorization.

 

Boone comes from a strong tradition of super-science explorers in comic books that include people like Mr. Fantastic, and the recently-revived Cave Carson. Are there any in particular you drew inspiration from for his character?

 I’d say Sherlock Holmes is the most inspiration. Since I was a kid, reading those stories – I was never really too interested in the main mystery of the story. What I loved the most was the initial meeting with Sherlock. The way he could examine a person or a pair of shoes or a hat and glean all of this personal information from small moments of examination. I loved how easily he got bored when he wasn’t learning something. Those are the kinds of things I was intrigued and inspired by – as a person and as a creator. I love the answering of mysteries…but most of all I love the journey to discovery. The ‘how’ as much as the ‘why.’ And there’s something a little sadistic in me that loves pitting the most rationale and scientific character ever against a world of magic faeries, hyper-intelligent birds, and purple-ape-gatekeepers. How does the logical mind deal with that? And that is the real heart, the real fun of watching Ether play out on the page.

You’ve mentioned before that Ether is your attempt to figure out why fantasy doesn’t click for you as a genre. Have you found yourself opening up to it at all as you’ve written the series?

 Oh yeah. I totally get the appeal of it, after taking a stab. I’m sorry I spent so many years creatively with that door closed off. But here’s what I like. I like the pure unadulterated fun of coming up with a big purple ape that wears a gold chain and talks…but then pushing past the “fun” of the idea and getting logical about the back story – about what this purple apes upbringing was like. What was his home life like? Did he have jobs as a teenage talking ape? Why is he so angry all the time? What life experience put him in the job he’s got now as gate keeper of the Ether? It’s so fun to come up with a seemingly throw-away fun idea and then extending that into a larger world and making it all live and breathe. I could do an entire issue slice-of-life story on this purple ape and it would be so much fun!

 

I love all of the care taken in the design in this book, such as with the anatomical diagram you did of the magical “Bloody Screecher” bird, the inventory panel, or with the crazy spectacles he uses to analyze the crime scene. Being an artist yourself, how much of that design is your input or is David designing it more and you’re adding your flourishes?

It’s definitely a mix. He came up with a lot of ideas – the screeching bird was one of his character designs that he threw in on a whim – wasn’t in the script – and those big teeth it had literally made me laugh. That has to be in here! It’s too ridiculous to not shoe-horn in somehow. So I came up with a back story for the bird – and this idea that it LOVES to sing. It lives to sing. But its singing is so awful…so loud…that people actually pay it NOT to sing. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the first issue.

The back covers of comics are the worst – there’s always a boring ad or just a spot illustration or something so I’ve been trying to take extra care in thinking about those. Ever since Mind MGMT which always had a fake back cover ad that was made to look boring but was funny/creepy…and even Dept. H which has a twist to the cover when you flip it over…the backs of Ether were a great way to world build – and collaborate artistically with David. He’s doing all the drawing and I’m painting those – just for the fun of it. And we get to punch up and detail some of the interior story moments at the same time. It’s like a free extra page in the comic!

Would you rather have a scientific perspective in a magical world or a magical perspective in a scientific one?

Boy. Good question. Personally, I have both. It’s like having two eyes. With both eyes, it allows you to see dimension. So one eye is scientific and the other is magical. I look at the world through two eyes.

Can you give a tease as to what kind of magical madness fans can expect in upcoming issues?

Really angry and mean faeries. A cute rope-bridge keeper that will cut the bridge if you don’t answer its questions correctly – and it only speaks in symbols. Big copper golems that have tiny guns that fire real “magic” bullets. Even the little bullets have their own personalities – their lives are like fruit flies – very short life spans. Then there’s the Golden Blaze – the warrior queen/protector of the Ether that is re-born every generation and has the coolest sword I’ve ever seen. And gadgets…Boone has developed a LOT of custom gadgets to help him investigate and parse the very strange crime scenes he encounters in the Ether.

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