Alex Paknadel is a rising star in the field of comics writing. In 2019, he has completed his highly acclaimed first series with Vault Comics called Friendo. He has continued as the writer of the Lion Forge book Kino, which is set in the Catalyst Prime universe. He also wrote a four-part mini-series for Valiant called Incursion.
After breaking into the comics scene in 2015 with Arcadia from Boom! Studios, he has developed a reputation for thought-provoking storytelling. Often his topics cover deep socio-political subjects, but he can write a super-hero fight scene with the best of them. If you follow our Preview Reviews or Everything We Read columns, you will find Alex show up regularly there.
We caught up with Alex in Chicago at C2E2 in March, and this interview was captured then.
PopCultureSquad: Recently [in March 2019] there was an announcement that you and your White Noise studio mates [Dan Watters, Ram V, and Ryan O’Sullivan] have new books coming from Vault Comics. What can you tell us about that?
Alex Paknadel: We’ve re-upped with Vault for another tranche of books for 2019-2020. Dan Watters and I have started work on a book called Earthcrosser, which is being gorgeously illustrated by a brilliant Scottish artist named Pablo Clark. Ram and Ryan’s plans for 2020 are well-advanced too, so expect great things.
PCS: Ok, and you guys know what you are doing? You are excited about the new books?
AP: Yeah, we were able to get fantastic creative teams for the first wave of books, and we have managed to at least equal the quality of creative talent for this next set if not go beyond that.
We have been viewing Vault, and I hope they don’t get upset for me saying this but, as sort of an outlet for our “Boutique Books”. These are the ones where we take big risks.
PCS: Are they the ones that are most personal?
AP: I can say that from my perspective. For me, 100%. I know Ram, Ryan, and Dan all have Image books, and I would think that they are equally personal.
Most of the work that I do is work-for-hire, and so Friendo was an intensely personal book. That was basically me screaming into a bucket for five issues.
PCS: I want to talk about all your work, but since you brought it up, let’s talk about Friendo. Where did the inspiration for that book come from?
AP: Ok! Arcadia was my first book that came out from Boom! Studios in 2015, and the seeds of both books were planted when I was working at a digital marketing and education company in London. I went there straight out of college. I had just finished my PhD. When I was introduced to the technology that underpins most digital marketing, it genuinely terrified me.
Don’t get me wrong; working for the company was great, and the people were great. This was around 2011-13, so we saw Google Glass arrive with great fanfare and then sort of disappear; however, I think it would be naive and churlish to assume that that technology has been mothballed indefinitely – I don’t think it has at all. It came out. They trialed it. They are going to incorporate it into something else.
When Glass came out, I remember thinking, “How are they going to monetize this thing to get the price-point down?” At that time, they were running the “Explorer” Frame. It was about $1500 a pair at the time, and there would have to come a point where they would roll out a consumer version. I knew they would have to get this thing to down to about $300 to $400. So, it made sense that it would be like anything else and be advertiser funded. The same way that you can get a Kindle Fire for $70 just because you are bombarded with ads.
I started thinking about it and thought, “Well, it can’t just be like a phone with push notifications swimming into your field of vision.” Then, when I thought about it, it just hit me, and genuinely, it chilled me. I felt cold. I thought, “Oh God! It’s going to be a guy.” It’s just going to be a guy telling you to buy shit. He is going to be like, “Hey, let’s go to Hot Topic. I can get you ten percent off.”
PCS: I love the idea in Friendo that if you are not buying things or want to buy things, the assistant goes away.
AP: It was “purchase intent.” We had five issues, and that was good. We couldn’t do too much world building because we had a finite space, but I was talking to Martin [Simmonds] about how there would be the weird measures of skin resistance. So, if you see a product, and you want it, then “Jerry” [the VR digital assistant] appears because he is measuring the perspiration on your top lip and your heart rate. That kind of stuff is great, but when world building detracts from story, I think you are in trouble. I feel that I would have gotten lost in those woods if not for the spatial restraints, so that is good.
PCS: What do you hope that people see in Friendo? I know what I see in it, but from your perspective, is there something you want to say directly or would you rather just speak through the book?
AP: I am not being evasive. I don’t want the reading to be univalent. I am interested in what other people bring to it. I am in my mid 30’s now. I think if I had written it in my early 20’s, I would have written it in a more didactic manner – perhaps in the hope and expectation that it would effect some kind of change, but of course it won’t. Art doesn’t change anything.
Overall, I think it’s fair to say we are at a point in history where things aren’t going so great. I think the important thing is to let people know that they are not alone; that other people feel like this.
I didn’t articulate that as well as I would have liked, but if I could paraphrase Mark Russell. In the intro to what would become Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles. “You do not fight battles because you expect to win; you fight them merely because they need to be fought.”
PCS: Switching gears. What was the process like when you took over Kino, an established character, from the creator Joe Casey.
AP: Really smooth. It happened over a weekend. Lion Forge flew me out to their writers’ summit in St. Louis in May of 2018. I was super green at the time, and when I got the email that said they were going to fly me out, I emailed them back to ask if they had made a mistake. [Laughter]
At the summit, they were trying to bring everything [in the Catalyst Prime Universe] closer together, and of course, that would culminate in bringing on Gail Simone, who is now my boss, which is just Bananas. I have DM conversations with Gail Simone, and this is my life now. Wow.
Joe Casey was there, and it was a little surreal, because he was a big part of my comics fan life. When I was in college in the early 2000’s, I was kind of done with comics, but what brought me back was Joe Casey’s WildC.A.T.s 3.0. He was the guy that brought me back, and I was fanboying over him a bit. Joe is very low bullshit, and he just talked to me like a regular guy.
We kind of talked for a little. I told him my plans for the character, and he said, “That’s good.” I asked what he meant by that, and he said, “Well, you are not kneeling before my take. You are taking it in your own direction, and that’s what I want you to do. Do your own thing.”
So, he was super generous. After that, I felt sort of charged with purpose in a weird way. I felt that the proper way to honor the previous creative team was to not just make it a tribute act. We have turned it into a dark political thriller with occasional super heroics.
PCS: I think that it fits so well into the rest of the Catalyst Prime line. I really like it. Now let’s turn to Incursion. You are co-writing with Andy Diggle? What was that like?
AP: Well, Andy only co-wrote the first issue, and I am taking it from there. It’s great though. Oddly, moving. Andy and I have been friends since 2005. We are neighbors. Since I met him in my early 20’s, he has intermittently mentored me for that long time.
For a few years when we would hang out, I would tell him my dumb ideas. He would brush it off, and then eventually he kind of gave me some tough love. He said, “It’s great that you want to do this, but you never write anything down. You never do anything. You just come to the bar and talk about these big ideas you have, and then you never do anything about it.”
It was because I was chickenshit. The moment you submit something, you have skin in the game, and anyone in this industry with any power can ruin your day with a furrowed brow. A “No” can really mess you up, if you don’t have thick skin, and Andy called me out on my bullshit enough that I actually sat down and wrote something.
The moment that I wrote something everything changed, and we were at Thought Bubble in Leeds, and Will Dennis was there. He was the outgoing Vertigo editor at the time. Andy sat me down in front of him, and just said “Talk. Off you go.” Will was leaving Vertigo, but he hooked me up with Boom! and that is how I got Arcadia. Everything started from there, and that was really amazing of Andy.
With Incursion, I was in London, and Andy rang me up. He said that Valiant wanted him to do this crossover, and they were open to him co-writing or at least co-plotting it with someone. Then, he said, “I think you are ready. Do you think you are ready?” I lied and said I was ready. Within two days, I was meeting with Valiant editorial, and they liked my take, and we were off to the races.
Andy kind of said that he would help set it up and establish the world. He told me, “After that, if you fuck it up, that is on you.” It was amazing journey from him kicking my ass to him handing me to a major publisher and letting me go with his blessing.
PCS: Right now, you have a ton of stuff going on. You have three monthly books coming out. How do you manage your artist relationships?
AP: Cattle prods? Mind control drugs?
PCS: Do you find yourself trying to isolate and keep separate the different books that you are working on?
AP: I don’t. I kind of allow them to tumble into each other. I think that is how you can get some very interesting colored sparks when you allow the projects you are working on to hit each other. I don’t necessarily think that they should be discrete.
There are elements of Friendo in Kino and the reverse as well. Not to the extent of a soft crossover, but it’s whatever you are thinking at the time. You want to be a bit more mercurial. You are researching different things, and it might inform Friendo, or Kino, or even Incursion. To be honest, I still have a day job as well, and I don’t really have the luxury of compartmentalizing to a great extent.
In terms of managing relationships, while I have huge respect for Diego [Galindo], it is made very easy by Lion Forge. Everything flows through my editor Jasmine Amiri, and I trust Jasmine more than anyone in comics. I would lay down in traffic for Jasmine Amiri, because she absolutely has my back. She knows what I think, and she handles that communication with Diego. That takes a lot of pressure off of me.
With Friendo, Martin and I are really good friends, and that is really a separate conversation that never really ends. I’ll be out in a park with my kid, and something will occur to me. I will then text Martin about changing a panel mid-flight. He is there rocking his son to sleep and say, “Yeah, No Problem. I’ll handle it tonight.”
So, when a Kino script is locked, I know I can just trust Jasmine to handle it. With Friendo, that book has been by design, iterative from the beginning.
I told the Vault guys very early on. I gave them the loose framework. I knew where it was going to go and how it was going to end, but the global political climate is constantly changing. I wanted everything around the main structure to be as reflective of where we were at the time. So, I was still writing parts of Friendo #5 two months before publication, and Martin was frantically working around it. We deliberately set that challenge for us to make it as close to the wire as humanly possible.
PCS: That is fantastic. Ok. Two more fun questions. Before you turned away from comics, only to be lured back, what was your favorite comic when you were growing up?
AP: X-Men and Strikeforce: Morituri
PCS: What is the weirdest job you’ve had that is not in comics?
AP: Being lowered between buildings to hoover up the liquefied remains of rats and pigeons.
PCS: That’s disgusting.
AP: Yeah man, but it’s the truth.
PCS: This has been awesome. Thanks so much for doing this.
AP: Not at all. Thank you so much.
You can find Alex on Twitter at @AlexPaknadel
You can find his books at your Local Comic Shop. Remember to support your LCS!