Last week saw the release of the first issue of THE LAST OF US: AMERICAN DREAMS, a prequel comic to the upcoming Playstation 3 game THE LAST OF US.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where Humanity is barely holding on as more of them fall under an infection that turns them into ravenous monsters, THE LAST OF US is made by Naughty Dog, the award-winning developers of the UNCHARTED games. THE LAST OF US: AMERICAN DREAMS is a prequel delving into the story of the game’s teenage heroine Ellie before the events of the game itself begin.
What makes THE LAST OF US: AMERICAN DREAMS notable is not only that the game’s writer Neil Druckmann is co-writing it, but that the wonderful Faith Erin Hicks is co-writing and drawing it. Faith has a major body of work that includes graphic novels like ZOMBIES CALLING, THE WAR AT ELLSMERE, FRIENDS WITH BOYS and the webcomic SUPERHERO GIRL, recently published in trade by Dark Horse. Neil Druckmann has also written the graphic novel A SECOND CHANCE AT SARAH (which I liked but slipped my mind when he reminded me).
Dark Horse sent over a preview of the first six pages of the comic and arranged a quick interview with Neil and Faith about THE LAST OF US: AMERICAN DREAMS last week.
Was there always a plan to have a comic book tie-in to the game or was have media tie-ins in the first place?
NEIL: No, it’s something that came much later. The game was already underway. We had much of the game outline already figured out and sections of the game in the can. Part of my job as a writer for the game was figuring out some of the backstory so that when I worked with the actors, in this case Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in the game, just so we could have discussions about where the words were coming from, what are the major events that have shaped her life… And then at some point Dark Horse approached us and wanted to partner with us to do a comic book. That seemed like a good opportunity to see Ellie’s backstory, which you don’t see in the game, because in the beginning of the game, you’re already thrust into the adventure, and here’s this really intriguing scenario where you have this teenager that wants to be a teenager but she lives in this world that has infected and soldiers shooting people who break curfew, and so it became an intriguing story to explore in the comic.
FAITH: When I came on the project, Neil told me initially that he and Naughty Dog just wanted to do a good comic. That was something that was really important to me and attracted me to the project. I mean, comics are my job and my passion and my life most of the time and I feel it’s really important that if you’re making a licensed comic, you set out to make a good comic as something that’s other than just an extension of the game.
Well, we’re fans of Faith’s comics here at Bleeding Cool, and more comics by Faith is always good thing.
FAITH: Thank you!
FAITH: I really appreciate that, thank you. Well, it was back in the summertime. I was already working with Dark Horse at the time. They were publishing my SUPERHERO GIRL webcomic. My editor Rachel, who’s since gone freelance to strike out on her own, sent me this one-line email, “Do you play videogames?” I responded, “Sure.” I’ve played all the Sierra, Lucasarts videogames. They were the stories of my childhood. Dark Horse were interested in a videogame comic of THE LAST OF US and asked if it was something I was potentially interested in. I wrote back an email full of exclamation points saying “Yes! Yes! I’m completely interested!” Previous to this, I was already aware of THE LAST OF US as a game. I’d see the trailer that they showed at E3 back in 2012 and I remember seeing these gorgeous environments that they’d created… I was so interested in Ellie because she seemed like such an unusual character to have in this stealth-action-horror game, this young teenage girl. I remember watching this E3 video and just thinking, “I’d love to make a comic that’s like this!” Two months later, I got his email from my editor. I spent a couple of days working on some concept art for Naughty Dog to show them how I would draw the comic. For me, it was very important that I made a comic that worked visually as a comic. I wasn’t going to try to replicate exactly the way the game looked, you’ll end with something that looked half-way between a game and a comic and doesn’t work as either. Rachel sent Naughty Dog the artwork and I got the job, which was really awesome. I’m really thrilled they picked me.
NEIL: It’s funny that you said earlier she’s not usually someone’s first choice, but she was our first choice. When Dark Horse asked us who we’d like, I’d just read
FRIENDS WITH BOYS and I said she would be perfect for this story.
That’s great, because Faith’s art style feels like how the story would look from inside Ellie’s head.
FAITH: Yeah! Exactly! I’m so thrilled to hear you say that. I feel like that’s what makes it work as well. It’s a story about her. She’s this tough but vulnerable teenage girl. The fact that my artwork is a little cartoony, that YA comic look to it…
It also has a certain edge that a lot of YA doesn’t.
FAITH: Thank you. I worked hard on that edge.
The next question is for both of you. How did you guys work together to create this comic book? How did you decide how much to put in the story and how little, since a lot of stuff has to be saved for the game later on?
NEIL: First thing is we got on the phone with our editor Rachel and discussed goals for the story, what we were after, the idea of telling this coming-of-age story with these two teenage girls. The next thing we did was we started a Google Doc where we would list a bunch of ideas and start filling in the blanks. That was actually a lot of fun. We would just iterating back and forth, like Faith would have an idea and I would just write a bunch of ideas off of them, and I would have an idea… it was really cool. I hope I get to do that again.
FAITH: I remember in the morning I’d go jogging and think about the comic and story ideas to put in. I’m like four hours ahead of Naughty Dog – they’re in California and I’m in Nova Scotia. I’d come back from my jog and all these new ideas would go in the document and they’d respond to that. It was great. I really enjoyed that part of the process.
So Neil, is this the first comic you’ve worked on?
Oh yeah! I remember that now!
NEIL: And after that I did a motion comic for UNCHARTED, so this is like my third.
So how did you deal with co-writing the script? Did you use the Google Doc to write the script together? Who decided on the comic script, the panel-to-panel breakdowns and so on?
NEIL: That was mostly Faith. We’d just come up with ideas and Faith would take a first crack at the script, then I would jump in and iterate on it, send it back to Faith and we would go back and forth.
FAITH: Yeah, I think all the scripts were an equal combination of both of us. Most of the pacing is mine. That was initially something I was more concerned about rather than the dialogue. I was more concerned with what panels would go where and how everything would break down, how things would be compressed or decompressed. That was something I felt really strongly about. Neil would go in and tweak the dialogue or rewrite it. I think we ended up with something that’s just a really nice blend of both our styles.
FAITH: Oh yeah, that was something that was so very important to me as well. This is a really dark comic set in this dark world, but I also felt strongly that you can’t have something dark 100% of the time. It just numbs the audience. Having a bit of humour was important. Although I will say, in issue 3, there’s one line that absolutely cracked me up. It just killed me. I think I laughed for five minutes from that line.
So here’s a general question about comic book tie-ins. Was this miniseries meant to be a self-contained story or is it supposed to end with a lead-in to the game so that you get the complete story if you read the story and then play the game?
Neil: There were two goals early on. One is that I wanted this to be canon. If was canon, it would force us to not just dismiss it as “Ahh, it’s just a thing to help sell the game.” And two, the story has to stand alone. If you just read the comic book and never played the game, you would get an enjoyable story and see the arc of these two characters, Ellie and Riley. At the same time, it was cool to work on the comic book story while finishing the story of the game, because there are a lot of threads that are brought up in the comic book that are then resolved or mentioned in the game, so if you do read the comic and play the game, there are certain events in the game that are going to have much more depth than if you read the comic book.
FAITH: I’m so thrilled that my work is going to be read by a much different and broader audience through the fact that this is a Naughty Dog game. I’m getting people becoming aware of my work that I wouldn’t normally have writing and drawing a comic like FRIENDS WITH BOYS. At the same time, I’m trying to promote this comic to my YA readers and my librarian friends and all the people I know in book publishing as well, because this is a great comic about these two teenage girls and that horrible night, the day in the life in that horrible environment. I just think it’s a great story. I’ve been trying to promote it to all my non-gamer friends just to say to them, “Come on, you guys, it’s a good story. Just read it, you don’t have to play the game!” At the same time, I’m absolutely thrilled that gamers are reading my work now because I had the chance to do this comic.
What’s interesting is that the comic itself, if you leave aside the game for a minute, is that it seems to be part of the general trend in the zeitgeist of post-apocalyptic stories where the world has collapsed and everyone is trying to survive. That’s all over YA fiction, games and comic books. It’s always been part of Science Fiction, but that theme is prevalent now that it’s practically the mainstream. Do either of you have any thoughts about that?
NEIL: As far as why that’s so popular?
Yeah. We have THE WALKING DEAD, which is one of the highest–rated shows on TV. THE LAST OF US is a variation on the zombie apocalypse in some ways. Then there are Young Adult novels with a post-apocalyptic setting like THE HUNGER GAMES…
NEIL: I can just tell you why I’m drawn to it. A lot of those stories are very character-driven. You mentioned THE HUNGER GAMES, which I’m a big fan of. And the earlier stories like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which dealt with racism. They deal with these social issues and only recently I feel like they’ve kind of crossed over like THE WALKING DEAD. The TV show is so successful because it’s character-driven and not focused so much on the monsters or the zombies. At least in games, for a long time, the stories in that genre have been solely focused on the government conspiracy that has released this weapon and now it’s infected all these people or “We’re going to focus on these classes of different monsters”, instead we’re focusing on a relationship, which is what has always been the draw for us with THE LAST OF US.
FAITH: I think Neil and I have made a really cool comic. I hope people enjoy it.
NEIL: Issue 2 is going to be really awesome.
FAITH: That one’s my favourite! It has ponies in it!
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