#45 Building the World of Virtuoso: An Interview with Jon Munger & Krista Brennan

Steampunk can be very much a “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” sort of thing, as The Doctor would say. History can be re-written, new paths explored, inventions changed or inverted or perhaps, never discovered at all. While exploring these possibilities of incorporating the non-West into steampunk, it can be more complex than making everything rusted over, but set in Zimbabwe, or building a steam energy plant in Thailand. A creator should also consider the effect of the environment and cultural social norms when also addressing how steampunk technologies evolve and impact that world.

Virtuoso is one fine example of a work that considers these questions when building a steampunk world. Set in an African-inspired, matriarchal society, this comic has already gotten loads of attention because of its wonderful Art Nouveau style; what is fascinating to me is how Virtuoso is very steampunk but also firmly rooted in a world independent of the West.

Jon Munger and Krista Brennan, the creative duo behind this comic, took some time to discuss the intricacies behind Virtuoso, plus much more.

Let’s start off with the simple questions: Jon, Krista, can you tell me a bit about yourselves and where you each are from?

Jon: Hi Ay-leen! Well, I’m Jon, I’m the writing half of Virtuoso. I’m from all over the US. I was born in Michigan, raised in North Carolina, and live in Seattle. I live with my girlfriend, a chinchilla, and two cats. Seattle is, without a doubt, the best place I’ve ever lived. I’m surrounded by the most creative and self-motivated people I’ve ever met, and the maker community here is enthusiastic and fearless. I’m crazy lucky to live where I am and do what I do.

Krista: Ahoy-hoy, Ay-leen. I’m Natureek Cattam-Pullack Pullack Owheeeee III, which roughly translates in the human tongue to Krista. I was hatched in Sydney, Australia and raised by cephalopods up and down most of the east coast. In recent years I have returned to my birthing nest and live here with my life-mate. I would love to say I do interesting things like collect penny-farthings and play the tuba at the elderly on subways, but mostly I paint and draw, envy men with really stylish facial hair, discuss art and philosophy at the pub and wish I didn’t have to do anything else (like work a day job or pay bills).

Jon, what are your previous writing projects? Is this your first time working in comics? Have you worked in any other mediums before?

Jon: I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I’ve written prose, movie scripts, even terrible poetry. I’ll give any style a try, just to keep limber. Virtuoso is my first published work, but its not my first comic script by far– I have reams of unpublished scripts that I’m going artist hunting for.

Krista, what sort of art training have you had? Have you worked in any other visual medias before (i.e. animation, film etc)?

Krista: After doing quite well in high school, I developed the rather mistaken impression that I had nothing further to learn. I continued to work on my own for several years, during which I also studied theatre, writing and cinematographic make-up. A few years ago I worked briefly with a fellow artist on commercial storyboards, animatics (short, animated storyboards) and movie production, and after a few months we both concluded I just wasn’t as good a draughtsman as I needed to be to keep up that sort of work. Still rather full of ego but feeling mildly discontented, I enrolled at the Julian Ashton Art School, which is Australia’s only school for fine drawing and realist painting. Within about a week of being there, I realised how much better most everyone else was compared to me. My pride took a pummeling, but my inspiration rocketed. I’ve been at the school now for three years, and was last year awarded the Sir William Dobell Scholarship as well as a prize for fine drawing.

Outside of the creative world, do either of you hold any other jobs?

Jon: I’m trying to go professional with the writing right now. I call myself a professional starving artist. When I’m writing, I put in 12 hour days, six days a week, and when I’m not writing I’m doing the publishing side of things, I have the equivalent stress for half the hours. Mind you, I’m not getting paid for the stress. But I’ve had enough odd jobs to realize that writing is the only thing I can do for any length of time and not lose my damn mind.

Krista: I have a few part-time jobs which keep me in rent and my prohibitively expensive art supplies. The main one is probably the least awesome: processing classified advertising for a newspaper. On weekends I host life drawing hen’s nights, where a bunch of drunk, giggling women dabble in drawing and gape at a male model’s willy. More recently I started working a little at the school, helping to develop the website and online profile as well as tutoring at the studio.

Sounds like you both living quite the bohemian lifestyle! If you weren’t halfway across the world from each other, I’d have assumed you both met at a second-hand bookstore somewhere and found that your artistic ambitions clicked. So how did you both meet?

Jon: I saw Krista’s work on Warren Ellis’s web board Whitechapel. She did a couple of steampunk-ish portraits. I’m not sure if you know, but Warren Ellis has a thread over there called ‘Draw Each Other’. The man tends to collect tremendously talented people around him. of which Krista is one.

Krista: I’d just been given a book about Mucha, so I was playing with some Art Nouveau ideas and enjoyed using the references people would post on that site. Jon sent me an email expressing interest, and I liked what I read about the world of Virtuoso.

And the power of the aethernets at work once more! Have you collaborated on anything else before?

Jon: No, this is our first collaboration. Won’t be our last, though.

Krista: What if I lose my arms? What if my brains are replaced with bees? Saving those awkward scenarios, though, I shouldn’t think so either.

Okay, now we get down to the behind-the-scenes stuff. Can you describe the inspiration behind the creation of Virtuoso?

Jon: Oh, boy, that’s complicated. It actually started about five years ago. I was having a debate with a friend of mine about the development of patriarchal societies. As far as I knew, no one had really looked at the question of why societies ended up patriarchal as opposed to matriarchal, and only very, very recently have begun the slow move towards egalitarianism.

Tribal societies are very diverse. Some are viciously patriarchal, some are matriarchal, most are in the middle, but the instant a society decides to move to an agrarian economy they end up as a patriarchal hierarchy. It doesn’t seem to matter where the society is, or when it moves to agriculture, every agricultural society looks the same if you squint hard enough.

I’d just read the book Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. He posits that the reason why some cultures expanded and others were obliterated by the expanders had nothing to do with any intrinsic weakness or strengths of people, but because of sheer good luck. A culture that arose in areas with access to broad, east-west arable land, domesticated animals, and large metal reserves was playing with a deck stacked since antiquity, and could simply out compete anyone else. It was this kind of thinking that influenced me– if every society that developed agriculture moved towards a patriarchy, there must have been a good reason for it. If it was just a cultural coin flip, then we should see an equal number of matriarchies. But we don’t.

My theory was rough and not remotely academically rigorous. I figured it has something to do with distribution of resources and violence. Agrarian societies are violent places. Tribal societies are too, but the violence is almost always personal, whereas in agrarian societies, its also about redistribution of resources. To protect your resources, which, being farmland, you can’t just pick up and move, you have to have some dedicated military force.

There is only one field in human endeavors where being biologically male gives a significant advantage: killing other people with heavy implements. And if your livelihood and very survival is dependent on a male military force, its just a matter of time before that power is leveraged in all political affairs.

So I wanted to design a culture that was matriarchal, where military power was controlled by women, and society developed along parallel lines. Everything else–the technology, the art style, the history, flowed from that.

It was only later that I put this together with ideas by people like Kevin Kelly, Cory Doctrow, and Lawrence Lessig about the nature of technology and information. Believe me, I could talk about this for hours. I’ll spare you.

Krista: The idea arrived on my email doorstep mostly fully-formed. I brought the visuals and the additional development that stemmed from those.

Does your physical distance put a strain on your collaboration?

Jon: Skype is awesome. That’s all I can say. If anything I think it keeps us on good terms– I, by nature of the time difference, can’t stand over her shoulder. Not that I would– I approached Krista because she gets it. Virtuoso is as much Krista as it is me.

Krista: The world is definitely a much closer place these days. Thanks to Skype we get to talk a lot and share all sorts of ideas, not just about Virtuoso. It’s made collaborating as easy as if we lived down the road from each other.

How long have you both been working on this project?

Jon: Wow, lets see… a year and a half? The first issue took forever; it was a learning experience, and we both had to do on-the-job training.

How do each of you define steampunk?

Jon: Can I dodge that question? I prefer for steampunk to be a catch-all title for any retro-futurism, any style that tries to parse the present by re-appropriating the past. I was drawn to it through the Maker movement, so that’s what has the most pull with me. Nowadays its also a cosplay thing, and a pulp rebirth thing, and all these ‘things’ can exist uneasily side by side. Steampunk is a big tent, and like most big tents there’s lots of scuffling underneath it.

Krista: I’d tend to agree with Jon, insomuch as I think it’s a very broad world of ideas, visual aesthetics, artifacts, stories and music. I think the strong threads that tie it together in my mind are a common desire for beauty and uniqueness (in the face of all the mass-production our societies are currently soaked in), and a romantic vision of what the present and future could be when extrapolated out of the finest elements of the past. Throw in a bit of appreciation for the philosophy and lifestyle of the age of enlightenment and the spirit of colonial adventure (without the conquering and oppression of native communities) and that’s pretty much how I see it.

One of the strongest themes in Virtuoso is the power of knowledge. The government is strict in keeping knowledge from escaping outside of its control, which is why Jnembi Osse’s printing press is so dangerous. Have you thought about the relationship between this theme and the decisions to make this a steampunk world?

Jon: I’ll be honest with you, I never equated Virtuoso with steampunk while I was writing it. Now it’s pretty obvious that those big brass thumbprints are all over it. Steampunk is really about our ambivalence with technology. Only a dedicated Luddite would honestly think the world is a better place without it, but only a fool would tell you its been an easy road. And when Steampunk gets taken seriously, it’s about re-appropriating technology for street uses–function and form become divorced from intent. Above all things, Virtuoso is about the disruptive nature of technology on hierarchies. It’s about the street finding its own uses, to paraphrase William Gibson.

Krista: From the visual perspective, it goes back to what I was saying about my loose definition of Steampunk. The world I was asked to imagine and create imagery for was along the lines of Africa meets Art Nouveau just around the point of the age of enlightenment. The thought ‘steampunk’ didn’t come into it, and yet the resultant mixture involves brass, wood, curves, beautiful architecture and even the odd pair of goggles.

What specific African cultural influences did you draw upon when you created this world? Were you inspired by any particular civilization?

Jon: I actually steered clear of too many direct African references. That way lies pastiche. I pulled bits and bobs from dozens of cultures. You have the military class of feudal Japan, the clan system of Scotland, the Iroquois federation in there, some Assyrian expansionism, Indian pantheism, some Zulu tribalism in their distant past–in short, I figured the best way to make a culture unique was to start from the ground up and steal solutions to the problems they’d face.

Krista: In the early development of the prologue, we spent a lot of time just nerding out with world creation. Jon had already done a lot of work, but we talked about what sort of environment would result in the situation the story was set during. As Jon said, there was definitely a lot of blending and mixing to get the situation right. An Africa-style environment was at the heart of the setting, so that dictated elements of the appearance of the people, architecture and clothing, but everything else borrowed from other places and cultures.

Where there any particularly helpful resources you used when writing the Virtuoso compendium?

Jon: Anyone who ever does any world-building needs to read Guns, Germs and Steel. Period, end note. As for the rest, I just regurgitate the still warm contents of my Google Reader.

There also also these fantastic raptor/ostrich/eagle creatures in the comic. How did you come up with such an awesome design? Can you mention any other creature features lurking behind the scenes?

Jon: You know how I was thinking about a woman-led military? Well, those raptors were my easy way out. I figured if there was a big, badass mount that only women could tame (true story– some monitor lizards will pair bond with human females), then military power would shift to women. Also, I love dinosaurs. Because I am human, and to be a full-blooded human you must love dinosaurs.

Krista: Getting the physical appearance of the raptors was a lot of trial and error. At one point they looked like Skeksis from the Dark Crystal. I looked at a lot of references for skeleton ideas, and during research we discussed newish discoveries that velociraptors may have had plumes of feathers in their late evolution, for mating and intimidation purposes. Then I imagined these women breeding them big and scary, like Clydesdales, but more with the beautiful,
proud plumes and sharp teeth.

Jon: As for more critters, who knows? It’s hard to top mounted feminist dino-knights.

Krista: Didn’t we discuss some fire-breathing squirrels and marmots with raygun-turrets?

Another note about character design: did you have any people in mind when you were designing your cast? Because Capt. D’Bai Aman kinda looks like Jaleel White, except with cooler hair.

Jon: I’ll leave that one to Krista. She nailed these people.

Krista: That would be a pretty emphatic no. My realist training means I’m very much into consistency, and I figured that unless I could hire models with my non-existent money to pose for most of the panels, I’d have to rely on free photo references of many different people, which would result in inconsistent facial features. So I just did everything from imagination. Initially I studied the differences between facial construction of several races, looking for the idiosyncrasies that define them. Once I’d worked out what those were, I created faces based on the personalities of the characters. Aman needed to be handsome, but proud and arrogant. J’nembi is a little arrogant too, but also very shrewd, and something of an unconventional looker. The designs in Aman’s hair feed from the decorative nature of the rest of the culture, and a little bit from his vanity. He’s proud to be such a powerful man in a woman’s world, and he wants to
show that he has the time and money to get a really nice haircut when he wants one.

It never occurred to me that he looked like Urkel.

Well, I was thinking more about that episode of Family Matters when Urkel makes the cool potion and becomes Stefan Urkelle. But we all know that Aman is much cooler than that. ^_^

Now, this project is also unique because the world of Virtuoso will be licensed under Creative Commons and there will be an open source directory for other creators to add to this world. Care to speak more about what led you to make this decision, and what you both hope will result from it?

Jon: It’s a simple fact that making copies of art will only get cheaper and faster. The Rubicon has been crossed. So as a new artist you can either spend your time fighting the tide or learn to surf. So how do you, the artist, make a living on your art when anyone can have a copy of it for free and in seconds?

By offering the comic as a Creative Common’s licensed work, we’re hoping that copies of it fall into people’s hands we could have never predicted. That’s the hook. The trap, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, is the setting’s open-source nature. We’re betting that people will take some time out of their day to alter, discuss, argue and enjoy the shared history they’ll help create.

We also want to drag as many creative people into our sandbox as possible. I figure that a community of creative people will be more financially resilient than Krista and I going it alone. So interconnection is an answer.

Now, I don’t think I have *the* answer. In fact, I think the age of one-strategy fits all for artists of any stripe is dead and gone, baby, gone. Every business plan is idiosyncratic now.

Krista: What he said. This isn’t my arena – I’m still stuck in the world of fine art galleries where we all drink free wine and hope wealthy people want to buy our paintings.

And speaking of financial sustainability, right now you’ve been raising money to help continue your work on this comic. Recently, you met your Kickstarter fundraiser goal (and I congratulate you both heartily on that!) Where else can readers go if they want to help throw in a buck or two?

Jon: When the Virtuoso Compendium opens, we’ll have our own Etsy store opened up, filled with many quality merchandise and a handy dandy donate now. But that’s a sad brute pitch. What I really want is for people to start making up stories about the world. Tell me about the nature of military service, or the role of theater in Mahanake Society. I’m curious to see what other people are interested in.

Where else can we find you on the web?

Jon: Well, there’s www.virtuosocomic.com, of course, and my blog over at http://jonwake.blogspot.com/, where I talk about horror and RPGs a lot, my other love.

Krista: My fine art website is at http://kristabrennan.com.au and I also have a profile on the website of my school at http://julianashtonartschool.com.au, which also has spectacular work from my fellow students and teachers.

Any last thoughts you want to mention?

Jon: If anyone is headed to Steamcon II, stop by the Lastwear booth and say hello! I’ll be selling Virtuoso- The Prologue there with friends.

Krista: People in Seattle have all the fun.

Thanks again for stopping by the blog, and I encourage readers to check out Virtuoso. I certainly can’t wait to see what pops out of the Compendium (and perhaps, contribute something too. Gotta brush up on my military knowledge for feminist dino-knights!)

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