Denver Moon, P.I., is on the case in Mars City as she investigates a rash of violent crimes tied to “red fever” — a disease that transforms its victims into gory predators — in a new transmedia sci-fi venture from Erie-based Hex Publishers, complete with a novella, three comic books, a soundtrack and PlayStation dynamic themes.
In advance of the June 1 launch party for Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars at the Alamo Drafthouse Sloan's Lake, Westword sat down with Denver Moon co-writers Josh Viola (founder of Hex Publishers) and Warren Hammond (author of Tides of Maritinia and the KOP novel series), along with illustrator Aaron Lovett, to talk about the importance of beer in literary collaboration, the pitfalls of white guys creating a female Asian character, and the best ways to trick millennials into reading.
Westword: What inspired Denver Moon?
Josh Viola: The original idea was basically that I wanted to do something that paid homage to Blade Runner, which is one of my favorite films. So I knew I wanted to do this cyberpunk detective female who’s on Mars and she’s got a pistol for a sidekick. Total Recall was also one of my favorite films, and I just thought that would be a cool setting, to basically put Blade Runner on Mars.
What’s the genre, and who’s the audience?
Viola: I think of it as high-concept popcorn escapism. It’s fun, it’s not too heavy, but it’s engaging. So I’m a big fan of weird — I like weird shit. I like storytelling that’s not necessarily commercial in America, like [Japanese] anime. I think there are heavy influences — I mean, in how many stories, novelizations, films that you’re gonna pick up is one of the main characters a talking gun? The nerdy pop-culture segment, that’s what I’m shooting for.
Warren Hammond: I think this is a very accessible read. I feel like we took a lot of the science-fiction tropes and just embraced them. When Josh and I first met, and I said it the first time we met, that this is going to be pulpy. And I think the plot is still fairly complex and the characters are complex; there’s a lot of depth to it.
How did you come up with the title/protagonist’s name?
Viola: When I started working through the ideas, I took a walk through Denver late at night. It was a full moon, and that just sounded so cool: Denver Moon.
There’s a little backstory, actually. I grew up in Nebraska in a really small town of 4,000 people. It was essentially a cult, like we couldn’t leave the walls of our town. I had no exposure to the outside world. And as a kid, with Saturday morning cartoons, I always loved watching Denver, the Last Dinosaur. It’s so bad, but I loved it as a kid, I know the theme song. I was obsessed with that TV show and then my mom, and my grandma said we had to go to Denver and, I swear to God, that whole four-hour drive from my little town in Nebraska to when we got here, I thought we were going to some amusement park or something that was themed around this TV show. And when I learned that Denver was just a city, I was so disappointed.
Josh, why did you choose Warren Hammond as co-author?
Viola: With [Hex Publishers’ anthologies] Nightmares Unhinged and Cyberworld, I was introduced to Warren, and I was really impressed with his writing style. It’s really tight and crisp; his prose is really clean and punchy and action-packed. He’s a better writer than me, and I selfishly was like, if I have a cool enough idea that I can convince Warren to work with me, maybe he can make that idea read as badass as it possibly can. And he got on board. And then I was like, oh, shit, I actually have to do this now.
Warren’s really good at plotting, too. I just have crazy ridiculous ideas, and I think sometimes he — that’s why we meet over beer, because he needs to...
Hammond: I need to be anaesthetized.
Warren, what convinced you to do this?
Hammond: Most of my writing is very dark, very noir-ish and science-fictional. And so it wasn’t like I was going out of my comfort zone with this project.
Having worked with the big publishers, they’ll put a lot of money behind their big authors, but for their mid-list authors, they don’t tend to invest a lot. And Josh was willing to invest, he wanted to do a comic book, soundtrack, the promotion that we’re now doing with Alamo and Black Shirt Brewing. And, honestly, none of the other publishers ever did that for me. We had that first conversation over beer, as we are now.
Viola: It should be noted that most of the stuff has happened while we’ve been drunk. This is the product of alcoholism.
Hammond: It might be.
How did the co-authorship work?
Hammond: Josh came to me with the basic story idea, which was...it wasn’t so much a story idea as it was a character and a world.
Viola: No plot.
Hammond: Yeah, there was no plot. But there was a character and a world and a sidekick and this red fever, and then we kind of worked out the plot together. It would be Denver Moon on Mars, color-blind, pistol for a sidekick, red fever drives people insane.
Viola: And the trans robot.
Hammond: We’ll talk about the general plot and then I’ll write a few chapters. Josh will read them and then we meet, all right, next chapter, next chapter, next chapter, here’s what’s gonna happen. And I go back and write it and meet again. So the story’s done together, but the first stab of the prose in the novellas is me. The first stab of prose in the short stories is him.
Viola: We’re aiming for finishing [Book Two] in fall and publishing in 2019.
Denver Moon includes a novella (Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars), three graphic novels and a soundtrack (featuring electronic-music artist Scandroid). Why didn’t you just write a book and leave it at that?
Hammond: The generation before me grew up reading books. My generation grew up watching TV. And then [Josh’s] generation: video games, movies, TV, everything.
Viola: The first Halo [video game] that came out started this transmedia process, and they were reaching out to fans and telling them to go to pay phones and call this number. It was kind of this scavenger hunt, and as you were learning more of the story, it expanded the universe a little bit. And, of course, it became a huge hit and they started breaking out into graphic novels and soundtracks.
That was very interesting to me and my background in video games — where my mind was focused on how can I do a creative video game and expand upon that and other types of media — and that’s when I started shifting gears a little bit and focusing on literature.
I hate to say this, but so many comic-book readers (myself being one) — if I had to pick between a book and a comic book, I’m gonna go for the comic book. And I’m a writer and I read, but it’s an easy way to pick up a story and jump right in.
So that’s sort of the idea for transmedia: I’m gonna reach a different audience with the comic book. The music fans are going to come to the book because they’re a fan of the musician.
Part of that, though, is knowing talented people. I’m not a musician. I’m an artist, but Aaron [Lovett] is a better artist.
Aaron, what can graphic novels communicate that prose can’t?
Aaron Lovett: For some people, like me, who are more visual, it helps create the worlds a lot better. I struggle with words, so I’ll be reading something, some of it kinda goes through me, and sometimes my imagination just takes me other places. But just seeing the artwork helps me get into it. I connect with the characters more, I can visualize the world better.
What did you like most about illustrating Denver Moon?
Lovett: I liked working on Denver because she’s not the typical comic-book female character. I don’t really like to sexualize female characters; I like to make them more independent and strong. I’m just tired of seeing the same old stuff, and I like to imagine more real characters.
What challenged you the most?
Lovett: There are a lot of different environments, and they’re all very busy; it’s a lot of detail. I’m more of a character artist and not an environment artist, so just learning different aspects of drawing, there’s a lot more than I’ve ever done before. By the third issue, I’m having a lot more fun with moving the camera in different places. It’s not just the same steady shots.
You’re all white males, yet Denver is an Asian woman who is also bisexual. Why did you choose that identity for your protagonist?
Viola: I just thought that it would be really cool to have a strong female protagonist. It was about making the character a solid character, so we could easily switch the pronouns from "he" to "she" and it would work. And I think that we accomplished that.
On a personal level, I’m just really in love with the Japanese culture, pop culture in particular, anime and stuff of that nature, so I knew that I wanted the character to be Japanese from the get-go.
Hammond: Josh already had that vision in his mind before I got involved. On the one hand, I feel like we’ve accomplished something really cool. On the other hand, there is somewhat of a risk, too, because sometimes when you write somebody other than yourself, you get accused of having appropriated somebody else’s culture, somebody else’s gender. You’re a couple of white guys — what are you doing writing about this?
What I’ve learned over the years writing is: If you create a good enough character, it won’t matter. So I felt like any risks we were taking could be overcome by creating a person. When it ceases to become a stereotype and becomes a person, then people are more accepting.
Viola: The character is bisexual, but I don’t think we really talked about it, it just sort of happened. I think right now, I’ll learn this from [Warren] — neither of us really shared this — but one of the things I really like about this story is that there isn’t a love interest. We make references that she was in a previous relationship, it didn’t work out.
But I think that there are only two references in the entire book that have anything to do with her sexual relationships. It’s all about the relationship she has with her grandfather and friends, the other characters. The love interest doesn’t play a role and doesn’t need to be there.
Hammond: I totally agree. I think in the end, it feels more realistic to me that somebody sucked up into a giant mystery — the last thing that they’re thinking about is their romantic life at that moment. Josh is right: There are references to her romantic life, but once the story gets going, she’s 100 percent engaged in solving her case.
Viola: But I did want to make her bisexual, personally. Not from a pervy standpoint, purely from an inclusive standpoint. I want to have something that’s inclusive, but I also don’t want to SJW it.
Hammond: I’ve never written anything with an agenda in mind. I don’t like agenda-driven storytelling or fiction. I just want to tell a good story with cool characters, a cool world, and if there are some elements in there that might push a couple boundaries, it’s just part of a good story.
A lot of the promotional illustrations have a distinct ’80s theme. What’s that all about?
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Viola: It fits into this ’80s nostalgia craze that we’re in. This, in my mind, at least, would work perfectly for the movies that inspired it — Blade Runner and Total Recall. It could’ve been produced at that time. The soundtrack is very ’80s synth-heavy, and the visuals and marketing are focused on that. And I was on that shit before it was popular, so I’ve been an '80s nerd from the get-go.
I think that’s what’s cool now — [the film] Ready Player One just came out — that’s ’80s pop culture, nerdy nostalgia, and I think that fits right in with it. So hopefully Denver Moon gets super-popular and the Ready Player One sequel will have a cameo from Denver.
Hammond: Ready Player Two.
Hex Publishers presents The Mars Extravaganza at 8 p.m. Friday, June 1, at Alamo Drafthouse Sloan's Lake, 4255 West Colfax Avenue. The evening includes a screening of the 1990 classic Total Recall, samples of Black Shirt Brewing’s Blood Orange IPA, Red Fever, and a copy of the new book Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars; get tickets here. There will also be a book signing on June 23 at the Tattered Cover at 2526 East Colfax Avenue; find out more at Hex Publishers.