In Conversation with Tom Akel (co-writer/co-producer Stan Lee’s POW Entertainment’s BACKCHANNEL)

0
439

Stan Lee’s BACKCHANNEL is POW! Entertainment‘s first posthumous release since the Man’s death in November last year – the first ‘episode’ of the ambitious digital webcomic was originally put out just before that sad event but is now given a full release in 2019.

Created by Lee, and developed by writer Tom Akel and WOW! President Gill Champion, it finds Stan firing on all cylinders and not resting on any laurels in his twilight years. Indeed, the story has all the attitude – the piss and vinegar – of comics written by people a third his age, with the lead protagonist Tom very much full of contemporary rages and frustrations, hell-bent on seeking justice for perceived wrongs of the US prison system, putting him in direct conflict with his police detective father Martin.

Here, Tom Akel talks about the creative process that he and Stan developed in the creation of BACKCHANNEL, how Stan felt strongly about the themes and social commentary raised by the book, about what the team of Andie Tong, colour artists Sean Lee (Komikaki Studios) and Omi Remalante and master letterer Taylor Esposito brought to the project, and what fans can expect in future instalments.


THE CONVENTION COLLECTIVE: [Today, we’re] in conversation with Tom… I want to say AkEl? Or AkAl? [laughs]

TOM AKEL: Either one, man, I’ve been called worse!

TCC: Fair enough. And you’re the co-writer and the co-producer of Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment’s BACKCHANNEL. Tom, welcome along. I think first up for the uninitiated, if you could please set up the story and the background of BACKCHANNEL. Give us the elevator pitch, if you could.

TOM: Sure. So, BACKCHANNEL is about the relationship between high school student Tom Tanner, who’s a comic book lover and engineering prodigy, and his father Martin, a widowed police detective. So,while it does have all of your your Stan Lee elements of suspense and superhero action and powers, at its core, the story is really about how when we all come of age and discover that our parents aren’t maybe as wonderful as we always held in our hearts and minds, and what we discover about them and how we we reconcile that or not, and move into the next stage of those relationships. So, I think it’s something that we all go through it at different degrees in life.

And, y’know, this being a comic created by Stan Lee, obviously the situation is rather… heightened!

TCC: Would I be right in saying saying that this was pretty much one of the last, if not the last, creative projects that Stan was involved in before his death? Because I find it interesting that the story that serves as Stan’s final work isn’t a pure superhero story, like a traditional cape-and-tights kind of tale…

TOM: I would be speaking out of turn, I think you’d have to check with POW! because I don’t know everything that’s going on at the company but this was the last thing that I’m aware of that we were working on and was actively being published when he passed. But yeah, I know that there’s a library of things that Stan has worked on and created over the years that’s still have not been released.

TCC: Okay, how did the story evolve from Stan’s first initial pitch to the publishing of the first chapter? I mean, what was the writing process between yourself and Lee, what did that entail?

TOM: So, before we got to writing any of the scripts, you know, Stan had this great, really long initial treatment and concept, and then we thought about how can we adapt this for mobile phones and a mobile audience and will it work because it is natively ideal for that environment, being that Tom’s powers are using and controlling the internet and being able to scroll vertically, and do some things [in the platform] with sound and automation to make that a richer environment.

And then we then we then we really delve into character development and figuring out, what’s the relationship, how does it begin and end, how are these characters going to grow and change over the course of the story, and then beat out the full twenty-six to forty chapters worth of content and figure out the entire arc of the story. So that was all solved first.

Then we’ve gone to the script phase, where I would just write a script, send it in, get notes and changes and revisions, clean it up, and we’d kind of go from there. And then those would go off to Andie to be drawn and then really back and forth with Andy on layouts and you wind up with brilliant artwork.

TCC: What was it like reading that initial pitch from Stan? What were the kind of thoughts that went through your mind when you were reading it?

TOM: I’ve read a lot a lot of these, this material that [POW!] have that people haven’t seen, I’ve been fortunate in that. So it wasn’t so much the idea of, “Oh my god, I’m reading a pitch by Stan!”, as, “Oh my God, this thing has so much potential!” And that was what was really exciting, seeing seeing something saying like, wow… I don’t know exactly how old he was when he wrote it, but it was clear like he still has it. Because the core concepts of this were something that I think resonates with everyone and it really was designed for a digital age.

TCC: This is very much a story where there’s some a couple of classic and, indeed, contemporary touchstones that can be seen as influences to BACKCHANNEL such as THE MATRIX, the work of William Gibson, MR. ROBOT, and even, in hindsight, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. What influences can you remember were talked about when you and Stan and the team were constructing the story?

TOM: THE MATRIX is an interesting one, because we knew, obviously, that [story] would be touched on, being that a lot of this takes place, quote-unquote, ‘inside the internet’. So it was a design conversation about what what that would look like in our world, which is why you see a lot of those fluorescent views that are a little more reminiscent of the ’80s.

And then it was sort of, we really took the approach of “What if THE MATRIX was designed by Apple, and what would that look like?” And that was kind of what we came up with, is how do we modernise that for what people think of today is cool and modern technology with something that touches on on THE MATRIX, visually anyway, so that that influence is there.

The other storytelling influences are, y’know, there are nods to SPIDER-MAN and some other stories. Obviously, if you’ve read it all, it goes kind of in a different direction than that pretty quickly but we wanted to make sure we we had a couple things in there that felt very, very much like Stan’s work so people would you know recognise those characters and feel at home very easily and very quickly, which seems to have worked. Making Sally a redhead was intentional, y’know – her calling Tom ‘Tiger’ obviously was very intentional!

TCC: Yeah, I did notice that, I noticed that drop! I find the character of Tom very interesting in that, while there is that ‘young man as outsider’, the social outcast, he has a little bit of physicality to him, a little bit more chutzpah, than some traditional Stan Lee protagonists if you know what I mean, there’s a little bit more tipping of the shoulder. Is that was that something that was introduced at pitch level, was that something with Stan was playing around with?

TOM: That’s something that evolved as we evolve the character and what [Tom] would be like and what motivates him, so that edge that Tom has, that underlying anger about having lost his mother and his father never really talking to him about it, and a little bit of blaming himself for it, you see that as a progressive for the story, and obviously things get worse when he finds out that that’s not the case.

But it was, how would a teenager whose gone through what he’s gone through his life, what would their every day reaction be like, how tough would that kid be, how would he react to certain kinds of adversity if he was picked on, it was really more in the character development stage, I think, than in “Oh, we want to make him edgier.” It was more, how would he actually respond to these situations? And that’s where that edge started to come out in Tom

TCC: I think that’s a very contemporary thing as well: if Tom did feel and go through the story, say back in the 1960’s, when Stan was doing SPIDER-MAN with Peter Parker, Peter [ended up being] a bit more withdrawn. But in 2019, that there’s more more aggression… if not aggression, than just a bit more spine to people, I think. I think that’s reflected in our time.

I find it very interesting as well, that Tom is a young man who takes to the internet as a very proactive ‘social justice warrior’, that term which has proven to be very contentious in today’s pop culture conversation, but that could be argued was very much Stan’s default stance throughout his career. How important to Stan, and to you as the producers, was it to have the activism front and centre in this story.

TOM: It was super important to the story to both of us: it was obviously a little secondary to character and to the overall arc of Tom and Martin but
[the in-story hacktivist group] BackChannel’s charge, in what they’re after as an organisation, is something that really rings true to Stan’s positions on social justice throughout his career as seen in all the old STAN’S SOAPBOX‘s and everything, and in several interviews.

So you’ll see that play out in the BackChannel piece of it, it is very much inspired by Ava DuVernay‘s 13TH documentary. We knew we had this hacktivist organisation and we had to centre in on what are they after: are they MR. ROBOT / FIGHT CLUB, taking down financial institutions? And with V FOR VENDETTA, it’s taking down the government. So, when you have an organisation like this, what are they actually after? And we kind of settled on, it’s starting to become evident [in the story], on all the injustice in the modern prison industrial complex so that is definitely something that will become more and more to light as the story goes on.

TCC: Very quickly, just to mention: ‘Tom Tanner’! Yet another addition to the famous Stan Lee roster of alliterative character names! Was there any conversation about you trying to steer away from that or was it you just going, “…okay, well, we’ll lean into this!’

TOM: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely not! That was his name from the beginning when I first heard the treatment, and none of that is [me]! Tom, Martin, Sally, Nick – none of the name’s are changed. Y’know, that was fun, obviously, definitely wanted to keep that one, for sure.

TCC: You have Andie Tong on art, you’ve got Sean Lee and Omi Remalente on [colour] art duties, along with master letterer Taylor Esposito – who I’m a huge fan of! – that’s quite the creative team. How did you find them and what did they bring to the creative process. I mean, I can imagine it’s quite hard to say, “I’d like to do this or try this” when you’ve got Stan Lee on the other side of the table!

TOM: Well, with each of them, you know, obviously, they’re all working remotely because they’re all overseas – well, Taylor’s on the East Coast and everybody else’s overseas. So we’ll bring the team together: Sean is a part of Alan Quah‘s Komikaki Studios and I’ve worked with them on colouring a lot of projects in the past. So we found Sean through Alan, and then he had to take on some other work so we had to find another colourist, so we found Omi through Andie.

Andie had previously worked with Pow! on THE ZODIAC LEGACY, and he’s actually an old friend of mine and we’ve always wanted to work on something together, there are some things that were out there and pitched before in the past so as soon as I posted something on Facebook about another project and Andie mentioned, oh, he’d be interested in that and I was like, “Well, wait, hold on a minute, then! I think there’s something coming up!” And you know, I mentioned this to everyone at Pow! and they were like, “Yes! Yes, we love {Andie]…”, immediately said yes.

Taylor, I’d already been working with. There are several books I was editing where Taylor was the letterer and he just had already had, you know, master templates for the format and his head around it really well, he’s done probably a dozen vertical comics at this point. So, that was easy, it was sort of like: right, Taylor knows this stuff, I love working with him, he’s really easy to communicate with. So, putting that creative team together was actually not difficult and it was really exciting to work with people that I hold in the highest regard.

TCC: BACKCHANNEL isn’t being distributed as a traditional comic, it’s very much embracing new media in a big way. And now while online comics distribution has evolved so much in recent years, it has in the main settled into a very traditional reading experience. Now BACKCHANNEL does buck that trend, with music, sound effects and that vertical scrolling reading experience. Can you talk about the creative decisions that informed the story and what makes Webtoons the ideal platform for BACKCHANNEL?

TOM: A lot of it is the infinite scrolling [aspect] and being able to have every single panel be a reveal, that’s probably the most exciting part of it. And then there’s… ‘the camera tricks’, right? But they really are, in what you can pull off, along with being able to animate some of the things inside the internet and using audio as a piece of the storytelling – not just in music so that there’s a background soundtrack, but the way we integrate it.

There’s some examples where when Tom first gets his powers, you hear this sound effect that we use, that’s associated to a CMA, right? And that plays back again later in the same chapter. So we’re sort of tying elements together using audio without having to do any additional work in dialogue or design or the art, so it’s really fun. And there’s a lot of classical music used throughout and used in very specific ways at specific times, which I’ll leave there as I don’t want to spoil stuff! Some of what we’re doing in there is very intentional and will come to light much later on in the series as to why it was done that way so that’s super exciting to be able to use that extra dimension to the storytelling. Print and digital are both fantastic for different reasons so this is one of those things that makes digital super cool.

TCC: It’s a very forward thinking story – and BACKCHANNEL does set up quite the scale for a continuing story. How much of the story did you and Stan have planned? And where do you see BACKCHANNEL heading in the future?

TOM: We have all the plans! [laughs] Yeah, we have the whole thing planned, it’s just a matter of each script and how we get there at this point. So each general weekly ‘beat’ is done, and then within any development process, there’s changes that are going to happen as we script things out and try to realise, “Oh, that’s continuity error, I better fix that!”, or “Will this persons motivational be clear if we do this?”, so we know where it goes and how it ends, and all the big, you know, twists and turns along the way.

TCC: Cool. And, to wrap things up with one final question, can we talk about any future plans for POW! Entertainment and what you’ve got barrelling down the pipe? Can we see any more titles that we can expect to see released under the banner?

TOM: I can only say that I am working with POW! on a couple of other things – and that’s all I can say! And I don’t know when or where any of that will come to light.

TCC: Can we see you bringing future titles to upcoming cons, perhaps?

TOM: Oh, my answer to this is, I don’t know. I mean, we are working on stuff. They are no firm plans for anything – obviously you can speak to, like somebody at POW! that would probably be better suited to speak to the long term plans the organisation because all I do is, you know, mixed up with those guys, which is amazing.

TCC: Well, I’m excited to see what happens with BACKCHANNEL, from what I’ve read so far. It’s a compelling story, it’s very contemporary and that’s something that we need to see more of, I think, for future thinking stories, and this is definitely one of those. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much indeed for your time.

TOM: Thank you so much. This was great.


Find out more about Stan Lee’s BACKCHANNEL at www.webtoons.com on its dedicated page on the site, and find new chapters uploaded every Wednesday.

Many thanks to Dan Berry, and Kritzia and Holly of Miller PR, for setting up the interview, and of course to Tom for his very generous time.

Intro Music: ‘Punky’, bensounds.com
Transcription by https://otter.ai

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here