Bayleigh Underwood: Hi! Probably like a Mediterranean sandwich or Gyro (if that counts).
Zac Thompson: Heya! Tempeh and mushrooms with hummus and a load of greens on some real hefty sourdough bread.
Jimmy Gaspero: I enjoyed Nature’s Labyrinth #1. I cannot wait to see where it goes. Can you tell us what it’s all about? Maybe not all of it, there is quite a bit of mystery.
Zac Thompson: Yeah! It’s about a group of “violent” convicts who are imprisoned within a giant outdoor death maze and forced to kill one another for money! At least that’s the basic gist of it. It’s a familiar Battle Royale or Hunger Games type setup. But the key difference is the setting and characters. The Labyrinth at the series center is a complex interlocking set of biomes and puzzles. So if the other players don’t kill you, the environment might! The book is a fast-paced action horror series with a big cast of weirdos and an ever-evolving set of rules. The big question at the heart of things is who can you really trust? And are people capable of redemption?
Jimmy Gaspero: Zac, I’m familiar with quite a bit of your work (that’s an understatement, big fan) and at first I thought Nature’s Labyrinth seemed like a departure from the likes of The Dregs, Lonely Receiver, Undone By Blood, I Breathed a Body, and the recent The Brother of All Men. I do see connective tissue with Her Infernal Descent though. Maybe it’s too early to ask this, but how do you see this series fitting in with the rest of your work?
Zac Thompson: Well, it’s decidedly different in terms of tone. I think a lot of my creator-owned work takes itself very seriously and one of the things I wanted to do was create something that was a little lighter on its feet and free of interior narration. Maybe that’s a boring process-based answer but that was part of the draw.
I think a lot of my work is about the cycles people find themselves trapped inside. Poverty in The Dregs, Codependence in Lonely Receiver, Violence in Undone by Blood and on and on. I think this book fits within that idea of cycles. Especially as the story develops. It’s easier to go into detail about this kind of stuff once a series is over, though. So for now you’ll just have to take me on my word. Hopefully, you can trust me!
Jimmy Gaspero: Straight away in the comic we learn that there are 8 candidates for the “ALL-CONSUMING LABYRINTH”. Is balancing the time the reader gets to spend with the different characters something you are mindful of while plotting the issue? What was the general approach to creating/designing this diverse group of characters?
Zac Thompson: Absolutely. As a comics writer I think you’re always a little aware of compression in the medium. Comics can communicate so much in a single panel but there’s no real substitute for sitting with a character in a scene. I wanted to ensure the first issue set the stage appropriately. I know people are used to getting thrown into the deep end with a lot of series but that didn’t feel right to me here. It’s hard to care about people if you’re already watching them in a life or death scenario. So now, once we get to see them in the game we have a reference point about how much (or how little) they’ve changed from how they present themselves in “polite society”.
Beyond that, the big thing was making sure everyone wasn’t just caucasian. That makes the story feel true to life while also mirroring the makeup of a typical reality TV show. There’s also a practical plot reason for these diverse perspectives that will reveal itself as the book develops. I wanted to make sure we get to have different perspectives on everything and frankly, when you’re telling a story about people trying to trust one another it’s imperative they don’t all look the same.
Bayleigh Underwood: When I was designing the characters I really wanted readers to be able to kind of get their whole vibe from their designs. J is built like a truck and wears basic, practical clothes, Alexi looks like an animated mannequin, and Nasir looks like just a regular dude, etc.
Jimmy Gaspero: Bayleigh, I loved your work on It Took Luke. How did this collaboration with Zac come together? I think your artistic style and visual storytelling fits this story well. What has been the most challenging part of working on Nature’s Labyrinth?
Bayleigh Underwood: Thanks! Mad Cave contacted me with a comic pitch and it sounded rad so I joined in. The hardest part of NL has definitely been the labyrinth itself. Mazes are a pain to draw.
Jimmy Gaspero: As I mentioned earlier, there is quite a bit of mystery to exactly what is going on in this story: Who has gathered these folks together and for what purpose? Why did these 8 answer the call out of a possible 230 candidates? What is Nature’s Labyrinth? What do you think are the keys to putting together a compelling mystery, without making the story too confusing or giving it up too easily?
Zac: I think any good story is feeding you questions just as much as it’s feeding you information. I wanted to give everyone enough in the first issue where you understand who everyone is but you have to experience the Labyrinth on the terms of a contestant. That means for the first half of the series, the readers will learn the rules with the character. That’s in tandem with the greater question about who has brought everyone here. As to why only eight convicts answered a call of an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise? Well, that should tell you something about everyone right away. Either they’re insane, deluded, or fickle.
Jimmy Gaspero: What has your experience been like working with Mad Cave Studios? What do you look for in a publisher when going to pitch a comic?
Bayleigh Underwood: They’ve been wonderful! One of the best publishers I’ve worked with.
Zac Thompson: Genuinely love working with Mad Cave. They have consistently gone above and beyond for me. They’re incredibly organized, professional and they foster a really healthy collaborative environment.
Jimmy Gaspero: About 10 years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, which, regrettably, I had never read. The cruise ship in Nature’s Labyrinth #1 is named “BORGES” and I thought it must be a reference to Jorge Luis Borges and so I finally cracked open Ficciones and what a fool I was to have waited so long. There is another collection of his short stories called Labyrinths.
Zac, was his writing a big influence on this series and specifically, are you looking to tackle similar themes in your work or was this an allusion to a particular short story?
Zac Thompson: I adore Borges writing and think he’s easily one of the best to ever do it. But beyond his writing just being an influence on me generally, this reference was simply to activate readers like yourself into seeking out what it meant and maybe getting them to read Borges. hahaha.
Jimmy Gaspero: Talk to me about Pancho, the Instructions Cat.
Bayleigh Underwood: Hes adorable and great and not at all sinister in any way I promise.
Zac Thompson: God, Pancho is just something I’ve been dying to share with readers. I had this weird image of a super friendly guide to a death game that I couldn’t get out of my head. I love the idea of this adorable mascot that’s here to tell you about how not to die. There’s something really wonderful about it.
His design looks like my mainecoon cat, who is also named Pancho. The little guy wandered out of the woods when he was four months old and found me. That was seven years ago and now he’s basically my familiar. He follows me everywhere I go and sleeps between my legs every single night. I don’t know what I’d do without him.
Jimmy Gaspero: Finally, a departure, perhaps, if you constructed a Rube Goldberg machine, what would it do?
Bayleigh Underwood: Make coffee and bring it to my office for me.
Zac Thompson: Lame but I’m gonna say coffee too. If I could knock down a domino from bed and it somehow, eventually, made me coffee. Well shit, I think I’d finally self-actualize.