Zack Kaplan is a writer you may not know now (although you should), but you’ll definitely know within the next few years. The University of Southern California Film School graduate burst onto the comic book scene just two years ago with the critically acclaimed series Eclipse from Top Cow Productions before launching Port of Earth in 2017 and The Lost City Explorers earlier this year.
Kaplan is one of the best science-fiction storytellers in comics right now, with his tightly constructed tales of alien invasion or post apocalyptic desolation that somehow stay rooted in an unnerving sense of realism. Prior to the release of Eclipse #12, out this week, we caught up with Kaplan to chat about his journey into the comics industry, the importance of maintaining balance between suspension of belief and reality, and the science fiction tales that have inspired him to create his string of hits.
AiPT!: You’re a graduate of the University of Southern California film school. How’d you go from film school to writing comics?
Zack Kaplan: When I first came out of film school I was writing lots of film and TV, and I had some things that were in development that never coalesced — but I grew up reading comics and always loved them. I was especially influenced in 2003 by Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughan and Garth Ennis and all these fascinating creators who were telling original stories and it kinda made me think “oh wow, comics can be anything” and that seed has been planted ever since. I tried to get in for years and had several pitches go round — I didn’t even know what I was really getting myself into. I wanted to make a comic — I wasn’t even thinking about being a comic creator or doing all this stuff [conventions]. I could not comprehend what I was getting myself into. But I managed to land Eclipse with Top Cow, they said “It’s a cool idea, you can write, we’ll do a four issue mini,” and ya know, it did very well and so that was the beginning of my dive in!
AiPT!: USC is a pretty prestigious film school. Is there anything you learned about filmmaking there that has made you a better comic creator?
ZK: I think in general you learn a tremendous amount about how to just be a storyteller — spending two years studying nothing but storytelling and writing is invaluable. There’s a big debate in the world about whether or not film school is worth it — people debate this all the time — and I don’t know about worth it versus the value you spend, but spending two years with other like-minded individuals who are all studying story and learning and writing and writing and writing? That’s invaluable. I learned a tremendous amount, there were some amazing professors, I mean, I don’t even know where to begin to talk about everything I learned from structure, to character, to theme, to scene writing, to dialogue — it goes on and on.
AiPT!: Eclipse, as you mentioned, started out as a four issue mini-series, but those first four issues read like a self contained story with the possibility for more. So when you wrote those first four were you writing it as a standalone four issue story or did you purposefully keep it open ended in the hopes of an ongoing extension?
ZK: What you’re reading there is the split of me initially going in thinking I had four issues, but really wanting to possibly have the opportunity to go further and deciding “well, I’m not going to tie everything up in a neat bow.” I was also naive to the possibility of getting it extended because, I guess in general, it doesn’t always happen and I just didn’t know that. So i just left it like “oooh cliffhanger — maybe I’ll get to do more,” then I did get to do more and I realized “wow that’s actually pretty awesome that I get to do more.” I also had been told, and I’ve learned since, that you want a trade, especially a mini, to stand on its own and be a fulfilling experience, so that’s what you’re reading with volume 1.
AiPT!: Despite the complete science fiction narratives they follow, your stories stay completely grounded with the use of more realistic elements like the letters from Fema and the President included with Eclipse, or framing Port of Earth within the context of a startling news broadcast. How do you manage to inject such a sense of realism in these stories?
ZK: I like those kinds of stories — I like the realism, I like to feel like everything is really grounded. I think it is really important to understand in your concept what the suspension of disbelief you are asking the audience to make is, and once they’re willing to take that one leap with you everything else has to be very grounded and very real and authentic and truthful. So with Eclipse, you have to come with me and accept that sunlight is going to burn people alive — and direct sunlight does it and not bounced sunlight. This is just a particular set of rules that I’ve created that if you say “Hmm that’s not making any sense to me, what about this, what about that” it’s not going to work — don’t read this book. I know the science doesn’t work, but it’s fun. But once you take that jump, the characters have to be real. I am not a big fan of two-dimensional antagonists; I like complexity. I like you to be able to understand why everyone has done what they’ve done. And I don’t like telling you everything. I feel like people like to have this level of mystery of what’s happened. Maybe we never find out what’s happened? I get asked all the time in Eclipse “What’s happened with the sun?” and when it first came out I was like “It’s a mystery,” but I am just not going to tell you guys.
AiPT!: So you’re going The Leftovers route and you’re just never going to tell us what happened?
ZK: We’re never going to tell you! And you don’t need to know! And if you read all 16 issues and you’re not fulfilled, you need to know — fair enough. But I feel like at the end you’ll feel like it doesn’t matter. That’s not what the story is about. The story is about how we handle this particular landscape, how we handle a deadly sun, in the face of cataclysmic tragedy are you hopeful or fearful or optimistic or pessimistic and I just don’t think it matters what happened to the sun. I like ambiguity.
AiPT!: Let’s talk Port of Earth for a second. Alien invasion stories are pretty common, yet Port of Earth is a fresh idea that examines invasion from a more socio-economic, corporate lens. Is there anything that inspired you to tackle alien invasion from this angle?
ZK: I suppose after seeing one after another “alien blows up the planet” movies, and simultaneously studying human history, I just kind of realized there was another approach here that had yet to be tackled, maybe one that offers a far more realistic perspective. It’s easy in all of those alien movies to assign the aliens with single-minded attributes, because sure, if a civilization is so powerful and advanced, they can just destroy us. But if they want our planet, why would they do that? In fact, look at all life on Earth. Advanced human civilizations always interact with native populations in business and trade first. Don’t mind us, we’re just going to put a small presence over there, and we’ll make it worth your while. So I considered what might an alien story look like if the aliens were, well, human in behavior. And what unfolded was a startlingly authentic and very scary cautionary tale. The best compliment I get on Port of Earth is that it is the most accurate depiction of what will happen if we ever do meet aliens.
AiPT!: You started off with Eclipse as a mini-series before quickly turning that into an acclaimed ongoing series, then launched Port of Earth and Lost City Explorers to similar fan and critical acclaim, all with varying degrees of science fiction elements within them. What science fiction stories inspire you the most?
ZK: I’m inspired by science fiction stories that do more than simply entertain. I want to make people think. I like those deeply thought-provoking stories that make people desperate to hunt someone down and talk about what they just read or saw. That can be done with a mind-blowing world or a rich and complex character story, or hopefully both, but if I can tell a story that stimulates people and connects to them, doesn’t just act as escapism, but as something they engage into, that’s my dream. Those are the sci-fi stories that inspire me, whether it’s Blade Runner or Arrival or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
AiPT!: Your three titles are science fiction and supernatural. Are there any other genres you’re chomping at the bit to take a shot at?
ZK: I think I’ll always veer towards science fiction, and most of my ideas are sci-fi, but I’m a big fan of mashing up genres. Eclipse is a sci-fi action thriller, a mix of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, with a murder mystery to start and power politics as it goes. Port of Earth is a buddy cop action story against an epic planetary political/business saga with a journalism drama as a framing device. Lost City Explorers is a supernatural/sci-fi teen adventure, but it mashes urban exploration and archeology together. For me, science fiction is merely a story that goes beyond our ordinary world and asks what if this scientific or futuristic phenomenon happened? What would that mean for our world and what would it mean for individuals? So I think I’ll continue to explore science fiction mashed with other genres, and I imagine I’ll always be looking for new worlds to explore and new stories to tell.
AiPT!: All your work thus far has been creator-owned. Do you have any non-creator titles coming up or have any interest in doing superhero stories?
ZK: I’m new to the game, just two years in. I grew up reading superheroes. I have had a great time writing some amazing creator-owned books and I have some more creator-owned books in the kitchen that I am cooking up. But, if some superhero stuff or some other exciting IP came my way. I would absolutely be interested.
AiPT!: Are there any particular superheroes or IPs that you’re itching to write?
ZK: No, and I would have to hear about it. I am not going to do just anything either, it would have to be the right one. There are definitely titles out there that I could have a lot of fun with and nail but there are titles that I don’t think are for me. What’s really exciting, just in the past few years in for superheroes and IP, is it has really been shown that creators can come into those areas and to their own thing. There’s a lot more flexibility and fans are much more willing to have someone like Tom King come in and do a book like Mister Miracle and that’s a superhero book but it’s just so interesting and there’s a lot of that stuff now. So I think it’s a really exciting time just for storytellers of superheroes and IP.
Eclipse#12 is out now at your local comic shop. Port of Earthvolumes one and two are available now, with the series expected to return with issue #9 in 2019. Lost City Explorers issues #1-5 are available at comic shops everywhere.