Cybernetic Punk is an original cyberpunk comic undergoing crowdfunding by artist and writer Scott Austin. Although Austin’s work is heavily inspired by many classic cyberpunk tales from Blade Runner to Akira, many of his strongest influences are from the inspirations of the original cyberpunk writers themselves, such as hard-boiled detective novels, film noir, and the writings of Phillip K. Dick. This amalgamation of inspirations has been drawn into a unique cyberpunk story with fantastic stylized art, which a kind of texture to it, a texture you might expect from an old tweed coat sullied by our dark dystopian future. All cards on the table, I’m a fan and have contributed to Austin’s campaign. It is an honor to did deeper into his inspirations, influences, and work in the interview to follow.
Neon Dystopia: You specifically mention Blade Runner, Elysium, and Raymond Chandler as influences for Cybernetic Punk, and I can definitely see it! How did these stories inform your work visually and narratively?
Scott Austin: I grew up watching black and white Film Noir movies. Pulpy films with guys like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and a ton of others. And I loved it. I was a strange kid, I guess. That love for Film Noir has remained with me all my life. It was only natural that I go from the films to the actual novels they were based on. Hard-boiled books by Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane who are best known for their tough as nails detective characters, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. Characters who don’t look for trouble but have no problem finding it just the same. They get the crap beat out of them but don’t give up. They stubbornly pull themselves out of the gutter time and time again, eventually cracking the case wide open. That’s what I’m aiming at with Cybernetic Punk. At it’s core, it’s basically a pulpy whodunnit.
Blade Runner combined my love for sci-fi and Film Noir. I saw it in the theaters as a kid and loved it. I’m also one of the few who prefers the original theater version with Deckard’s lazy narration. I know that really brushes some people the wrong way, but I’m sorry, I just really liked that pulpy narration feel of it. And as I remember no one in the audience had a problem with it back then, but… that’s another discussion… 😉
Blade Runner was the biggest influence for the original version of Cybernetic Punk 25 years ago. That and the roleplaying game Cyberpunk 2020 and the Ghost in the Shell manga. My story took place in a huge city where it rained constantly. It was dark and gloomy with dirt and grit everywhere. The world was overpopulated and the dream of living in the “Offworld colonies” was mentioned throughout the book. Being connected to “the Network” was everything.
There was actually a huge X-men influence as well, as cyborgs were discriminated against in much the same way as mutants were in the comics. That storyline is actually kind of used in the recent versions of Deus Ex as well. My main character Gabriel Kane hated his job and, much like Deckard in Blade Runner, only came back because he was forced to. In the original story, he ended up hunting a group of villainous cyborgs (much like Deckard) and came out the other end kind of questioning his own humanity. And he lived with a sentient android. So, yeah, back then it was really riffing on Blade Runner.
Jump ahead 25 years.
That story and its characters never really went away. The huge stack of layouts, sketches, and synopsis versions was always in a box with the many other projects. Now and then I’d trip over it and flip through it. Recently I started seriously thinking of reviving it. I dug it up and went through it with a serious eye. The first thing I noticed was that the story SUCKED. 😀 It was clearly written by a 20-year old. Not trying to dis 20-year olds but it was really naive and downright terrible. I loved the characters, I loved the main idea, but that story had to go. In the process, I also made big changes to the actual world. I grew up during the later part of the cold war and all entertainment of that era was affected by that. Pretty much all sci-fi had a backstory of nuclear war. Post-Apocalyptic films and books were THE things. That, of course, went away, but recently has made a comeback. Clearly, the recent situation in the world has made it more “topical”. The original influence for Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also had a backstory of nuclear war and the after effects of that were mentioned throughout his book. By the looks of the new Blade Runner trailer, we might be seeing a bit of the aspect of the story this time…
Anyways, while writing my new version of Cybernetic Punk I came up with a new setting, Dome City. Because of nuclear war and natural disaster, humanity is forced to live in huge domed cities across the planet. Humanity has continued to strive and live their lives inside these cities, thus the cyberpunk aspect of the story, but life outside the cities is barren and hostile. Also, the class structure is very clear in Cybernetic Punk. It’s actually quite literal as well since the bottom levels of the city are hot, dirty slum areas with unclean air while the upper levels are something of a paradise. That’s where the Elysium influence comes in. That strong chasm between the classes. Also, I love the gritty world Neil Blomkamp created for both Elysium and District 9. It has all of the hi-tech, cyberpunk going on but being built in someone’s dirty garage.
ND: Are there other cyberpunk works that have had a profound effect on you as a person, and/or as an artist?
SA: When talking about cyberpunk most people bring up William Gibson. It may seem like blasphemy to some, but he wasn’t the biggest influence on me. I found my way into cyberpunk through different channels. Besides the ones mentioned above, Frank Miller’s Ronin and Hard Boiled come to mind. Especially Hard Boiled and the insanely detailed art of Geoff Darrow. Actually, now that I think of it Darrow influenced me much more than Miller did with Hard Boiled. The story for that was kind of surreal, but Darrow’s detailed art of this dirty, gritty cyberpunk world was just mind blowing! That really influenced the world of Cybernetic Punk. I think I originally had a Bart Simpson keychain hanging from Gabe’s gun. Darrow did something similar. That’s not in the book anymore. 😀 And the look of Katie (KD 835), who is one of the main characters in Cybernetic Punk was influenced by a side character in Hard Boiled.
Another influence from back in the day is the film Johnny Mnemonic. The film, not the book. That’s probably more cyberpunk blasphemy on my part, but I saw the film first. The influences are things like how tech has become something of a religion to many. Also, the tech shops to make fixes to your brain chips like we have 24/7 smartphone repair shops. And just things like the storing of data in your brain chips etc.
ND: I can also see elements of the Cyberpunk 2020 Roleplaying Game, and you mention on your campaign page, how did engaging with this classic game influence Cybernetic Punk, and your career?
SA: It was a big influence. Back then, there was no internet and it was really hard to get these things. Especially in Finland, where I grew up. A friend of mine had been in Helsinki at a sci-fi bookstore (probably the only one at that time) and had come back with this tabletop role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2020. I was blown away. We were allowed to make small amounts of copies on our school copy machine for free and well, I copied that whole book. 😀 They were one side copies so you can imagine the size of that pile of paper… As a side note, this was long before anyone even understood what pirating was, so the thought never even crossed our mind should we be doing this.
The setting for that game was right in the same vein as Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell but being a role-playing game, it went into more detail about various character types and factions etc. It also gave explanations for when, where and how you would need cybernetics. One of the things in the game was cyber psychosis (or something like that) which was a state brought on by having too many cybernetics. Playing Cyberpunk 2020 is what originally sparked the idea for Cybersquad. In my book, Cybersquad is a unit of the police force that investigates crimes committed by and against cyborgs. The main hero Gabriel Kane is part of that unit. I think games like Deus Ex have borrowed quite a bit from Cyberpunk 2020.
I still have that old copied version somewhere in the attic. I should try and find it and see how much has stood the hand of time and how much is just corny.
ND: Cyberpunk has been trending toward reality since its inception, and it has always been a reflection of the zeitgeist of the now. Have real events infected your story and is there any societal commentary on display in Cybernetic Punk?
SA: Definitely. The tense situation of the world has affected the story and setting of Cybernetic Punk. I try not to bring too much politics into it because that can turn people off, but things like the exaggerated class structure are there. The presence of a Big Brother type surveillance that, to some point dictates how people live their lives. Also, cybernetics kind of take the place of cosmetic surgery in our world. The superficialness, ego, and vanity of people have taken on new levels. Religions have been replaced by various avatars and online personas. Over sexuality is normalized to the point of it being common to engage in sex with a synthetic sex provider on the street corner. Thanks to internal chips, most people are online 24/7. Some never leave their homes or the network (So there’s a bit of Surrogates influence as well).
But we also see the complete merging of cultures. In the 12-page preview, the mixture of cultures is very apparent (I hope) and I am consciously doing that through the whole book. It’s something that has happened in real life throughout history. Take any big city, rich in cultural diversity and you’ll see it flow over and mix with each other. I love that. In recent years people have made issues about Cultural Misappropriation, and how it’s harmful and even racist to borrow something you like from another culture. I don’t understand that. I think nothing is more unifying for us as humans than someone showing how they like someone else’s culture by taking part in it. Besides, as an artist, there are so many cultures that inspire me and this gives me the chance to draw them all. 😀
ND: You have a delightfully stylized art style, rich with textures, how did that come about?
SA: Growing up I had dreams of becoming a painter. I loved traditional artists. I went through various phases, like Norman Rockwell and his detailed visions of everyday life, John William Waterhouse and his “real” moments of Pre-Raphaelite fantasy, Alphonse Mucha with his designs that could almost be from a comic book. The list goes on and on. I wanted to do that. But I soon realized that no one pays you to paint all day. I had to find something else. My eyes turned to things that had inspired me early on: animation and comics. At that time we lived in Finland. This was long before the internet and there were no animation schools in Finland (at that time) and my career coaches at school thought I was nuts for even bring it up. So animation was out (at that time) But comics I could make on my own, all I need was pencil and paper. Lots of paper. 😀
Then… I stumbled across Uncanny X-Men #205 (Okay, I didn’t remember the number of that issue. I actually had to Google it. I grew up in Finland and the book was in Finnish and are always numbered from January to December). The story was written by Cris Claremont and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. I re-read that book a million times. Not because it was so great but because I just loved Barry Windsor-Smith’s art. It was clear that he was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Waterhouse. There was even some Mucha in there. Later, of course, I read in interviews that he was indeed inspired by them. From then on I got my hands on anything done by Barry Windsor-Smith I could find. And he inspired me not just as an artist but as a writer as well.
Another big influence was an artist I first saw in WildC.A.T.S. named Travis Charest. I loved his realism, texturing and attention to detail. His black and white work is excellent. If you like black and white space pulp, then you should definitely check out his Spacegirl webcomic.
Those two have influenced me time and again throughout the years. But when I started to re-work Cybernetic Punk I had just finished re-reading Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. I’m not a huge reader of manga, but I really liked his style and I realized that he has also been a big influence. And now, for the first time in my life, I thought about using rasters in my work. So that is a new trick I’m (finally) bringing to my work. At least for now. It’s a new technique to me and I’m not completely comfortable with it, but we’ll see how it goes. I might end up ditching it for good old greyscale washes. 😀
I think another thing that has inspired me is just European comics in general. It’s terrible to try and generalize comics by geographical territory, but it’s a fact that the style of art and storytelling is much different in classic European comics than it is in classic American comics. Things have changed over the years, but there are still so many differences between the two.
ND: Art is your life, it seems, and webcomics seem to be how you came into your own as a comic artist. How is Cybernetic Punk different?
SA: Even though I mention a few of the bigger influences in my life above, I’m influenced by so many different kinds of art and styles. And even though I usually end up doing more realistic stuff I really enjoy sitting down and doing caricatures or cartoony stuff. The webcomics allowed me to try out various things. Cartoony comics, newspaper strip style things all kinds of stuff. I did my webcomics back when the whole webcomic scene was kind of new and exciting. The most popular of my webcomics was a superhero series, Heroes Inc., where I used characters that had fallen into public domain and breathed some new life into them. Many of these same characters were used by Dynamite in their public domain character series, Project Superpowers. There were some interesting overlap and coincidences between our series but I won’t go into that here 😀 But my point is that doing the series showed me that people really liked both my art and my writing. Even now, 10 or so years later a lot of those readers have come back to check out Cybernetic Punk.
Now, years later, I’m extremely confident in my skills as a writer and artist. I’ve taken so many leaps forward that I know the reader will love it. The big difference, of course, is that with Cybernetic Punk, I’m going straight for the finished book. With the webcomic, I quickly ran out of page buffer and was just trying my damnedest to get those pages online. That resulted in sometimes putting up half-done pages or really poor quality work. With Cybernetic Punk I don’t have to worry about that. Sure, I’m doing it as quick as possible, but I’m not putting out crap just so I have something to show the readers. This will be a book that I can look back at with pride. A book where I won’t look at with terrible hindsight that I should have done “this” or “that”.
I’ve kind of lost my faith in the webcomic format. I’m all for showing your stuff online, how else will people know what they’re buying, right? Show as much as possible. Make people want that book. I’m just not a huge fan of “Put everything online then try to sell the book” idea. I know that it works for a lot of people, but in my experience, it’s really hard to get people to buy that book once they’ve already read it all online. It’s like people who watch a pirated copy of a DVD/BluRay and then you expect them to go buy the movie. Sure some people will do it, but the majority will be content in watching that online version.
ND: What have you learned about the crowdfunding process with your campaign to fund Cybernetic Punk?
SA: It’s hard. 😀 As an indie author, you need to wear every hat imaginable. Not only am I writer, artist, letterer and editor for the book, but I also have to learn to do marketing, distribution, printing, fulfillment etc. etc. etc. Plus run the campaign. I’ve never been a huge networking guy. I don’t send friend requests to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on Facebook JUST because it’s good networking. I don’t know, maybe it’s acceptable, maybe that’s just how things are done these days. I guess I’m just an old fart. 😀
One of the hard things is that I’ve always been kind of bad at putting a price tag on my work. I guess it comes from a lifetime of being the classic low esteem artist. But in recent years I’ve come to terms with what it is I do and acknowledge that I do it well. So I’m pricing my book at the same price I would have to pay for a graphic novel by any well-known artist on Amazon. I’ve had remarks like “You can get a book by (insert any typically well-known artist’s name here) for that price. So you’re saying you’re as good as (insert any typically well-known artist’s name here)?” To which I answer “Damn right!”
I’m definitely not trying to be cocky here, but I know a lot of talented writers and artists who go through life feeling like they’re eternally in last place because they haven’t made a name for themselves yet. And I realized that I was one of those guys, you know. I would do something, people would like it and I wouldn’t really take the praise, because “Who the hell am I?”
But, yeah, to get back to your question, crowdfunding is nerve-wracking. But there is so much possibility there. You’re going straight to the reader. Cutting out the middle man and when handled right I think it is definitely the way to go.
Now, this is my first crowdfunder, mind you and even though I researched my butt off, I’m sure I could have done things much better. Sure, there are those people who go on Kickstarter for the first time and break the bank, but I think that generally speaking, it’s something that you have to build slowly over each project.
ND: Is there anything else that you would like to comment on?
SA: Just the typical BUY MY BOOK, PEOPLE! stuff. But seriously, check it out and if you like what you see, pledge. And if you DO pledge, that must mean you like it and if YOU like it odds are that one of your friends would like it… see where I’m going here? 😀
Besides the book, we have those great perks like “Be a Cyborg” where you get a sketch card of yourself as a cyborg. And “Be in the Book” where you can be a character in the book, which I believe is what you chose, Isaac. So if you readers want to see Isaac in the book… you know what to do. I’ll warn you though, there aren’t any nice characters. They’re all scumbags. 😀
I’d like to add a HUGE thanks and shout out to all the people who have not only pledged but donated as well. So many cool fans old and new. It really motivates me and keeps me going day and night to get this done and into the hands of the readers.
Cybernetic Punk is fund-raising via the Indiegogo platform through July 8th, 2017. The official synopsis for Cybernetic Punk is:
The story of Cybernetic Punk takes place in the year 2138. Because of natural disasters and nuclear war, mankind lives in dome protected cities all across the globe. They have colonized some of the planets and moons in the solar system, but colonist permission is granted to few and is sought after by many. However, humanity has continued to evolve in their domed cities and thus the cyberpunk element of our story.
In the future world of Cybernetic Punk, cybernetics have become as common as cosmetic surgery in our time. Everything from cybernetic limbs to chip implants that enhance vision or connect the user to the global network. Because of the rise in cybernetic associated crime a special task force, Cybersquad, was started.