I first knew Sean Lewis as a theater artist in Iowa City. His plays—which range from one-man shows engaging social justice issues, to deep dives into local communities and issues, to the occasional farce—are always thought provoking, driven by empathy, and beautifully written. These characteristics have carried over to his scripts for a variety of comic books, including two collaborations with artist Hayden Sherman—2017’s The Few and 2019’s Thumbs. With the first issue released in June, Thumbs imagines a near future in which gamers have been co-opted into a real-life conflict with the U.S. government.
Lewis and his family no longer reside in Iowa City, but I’ve kept in touch and avidly follow his comics exploits. Indeed, he jokingly dubbed me “the one true fan” on Twitter after I revealed I had read all of his comics to date. One issue in, I can tell you that Thumbs is some of his strongest work.
In this e-interview, Lewis writes about the origins and inspirations for his characters and script for Thumbs, his work with Sherman, and what the future holds for his work as a comics creator.
This is your second collaboration with Hayden Sherman with a post-apocalyptic setting. What appeals to you about the genre, and why is it such a good fit for the two of you?
Hayden’s art is a natural fit in this world: it’s really stark and murky. It feels energetic and dangerous. So when my brain is moving in a more political and hyperreal way, I kind of see it in his drawings. I’ve always liked sci-fi because you can kind of examine present anxieties in a meaningful way. Like, tech weirds me out, so it allows me to kind of imagine where it is going or could go. We have a connection to where it is now, so I think we get really excited or curious at the idea of where it could go . . .
Tell me about the origin of this story—and in particular the idea for the MOM app, virtual beings who stand in for parents. And which character came first: Thumbs or his friend Nia? What’s your approach to building their relationship in this first issue?
Thumbs came first. And so did the gurney. I knew I wanted to have a character on a gurney and get into their interiority. I really like Brian DePalma. And it’s how Carlito’s Way opens. Al Pacino has been shot and the opening monologue of the film is as he is wheeled into the hospital. It’s such a great device and I had never seen it used again. So I just started there. I knew I had a kid who was named Thumbs for some reason and that he was being wheeled into surgery.
I also knew that it was going to be a high-tech world, and I wanted the main character to not be the prototype hero for it. I kind of wanted him to be the last person you’d want on this adventure if you needed him to save you. So he’s conflicted and not fully capable and has to grow into his success. Nia became the foil to that—someone who was already a hero. Someone who clearly demonstrated Thumbs’ failures.
MOM is an app that babysits your kids. I have a son, and if you’ve paid for childcare, you feel the crunch. It made me think about what people in less fortunate situations do and how childcare itself can really destroy any chance of financial mobility for people. And then I thought, if someone made an app that you believed safely took care of your kids while you were at work and it cost $9.99 to download, would you use it?
While Thumbs has more pages than a standard comic book, it still strikes me as quite a challenge to quickly and coherently introduce a world, a set of characters, and a problem/mystery to be solved. And yet, Thumbs does just that, so I’m interested in your script-writing approach. Do you find yourself winnowing down a longer draft to its essentials or are you able to hit the beats and provide the key information the first time through?
Well . . . when I work with Hayden, there is a lot of trust. I give him what are really 2,000- to 3,000-word short stories. They have all these scenes and the characters and world building, but they look way more like a short story than a comic script. Hayden then will do layouts of what those would look like as a comic. He emails those to me. I look at them and then we talk about whether they are the final layouts or do we need revision, etc. Once we agree to that, he draws the book and sends it back to me to do the final lettering script. It takes more time than when I do a traditional script. This has taken about a year to get fully together, but we both really like the freedom it gives us and the final product.
You’ve worked with a number of artists on a number of projects. Is there anything in particular that stands out about your collaborations with Hayden in terms of process or storytelling or idea sharing? What do you like best about the art he creates?
We don’t talk a lot, lol. Honestly. We both, during The Few, just started to trust each other to fully nail our half of the project.
I’ve always been in love with his paneling. It gets overlooked, but he is able to create a real sense of velocity in the way he lays out a page (meaning where he puts the panels for all the images). Lots of comics are very traditional and the paneling can be pretty static. But his work just really jumps off. He also is amazing with the ways he uses color palettes. Neither book, Thumbs or The Few, has a lot of color in it, but the color that is used has a very distinct effect.
Thumbs is a five-issue series, which is in keeping with much of your work in comics. You really haven’t had a chance to stretch out on a story over a long run. Is that something you’d like to do or are you comfortable with these more self-contained narratives?
Oh, I’d love to do a real long run. Like an insane run. I grew up a big X-Men fan in the age of Chris Claremont. He wrote that book for, like, 20 years, I think. And, honestly, I read at least 12 years’ worth of it.
Part of it is the model of the business—there’s so much content that by the time you get to issue eight you’re competing with a hundred shiny number ones. I’m working towards that, though. I feel like each book is a step towards building an audience and trust that would have people reading a book over years. I think that kind of dialogue with an audience would be amazing.
I think I read you have another comics project in the offing. What can you tell me about that?
Well, Caitlin Yarsky is an amazing artist I did a book with called Coyotes. We have a new comic called Bliss that deals with collective amnesia (things societies agree to forget so they can continue on peacefully), and she is currently finishing the art for the first issue. I’m hoping that will come out in the fall, but it might be more realistic to say winter. Spring 2020 I’ll have a book called 1000 Warriors at Vault Comics, and then Hayden and I are starting to build our follow-up to Thumbs. I think summer 2020 that should come out.