Interview: Brian Sippin, Mary Puppo and Mark Romero
by Lis Mesa
Mary Puppo is a South Florida native who loves genre-bending works of fiction. She loves to take an academic look at the history of being a fan and impact of superheroes and science fiction in society. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @mgpuppo or email mpuppo[at]atticdoormedia.com
Mark Romero is a South Florida native with a strong background in marketing. He is a long time Game Master and his passion is to tell intricate, surprising stories. You can find him on Twitter @atticdoormark or email mromero[at]atticdoormedia.com
Brian Sippin is a collaborator with a passion for making things. Also, from South Florida, Brian got his first comic at around six years old: ‘What If? #25: What if the Marvel Heroes had lost Atlantis Attacks.’ This may be a contributing factor to his love of Marvel and constant ‘what if-ing’. Follow his art on Instagram @Writhing_Unknown or reach out through bsippin[at]atticdoormedia.com
The creators of Attic Door Media’s Incident Report and I sit on my terrace and talk as we watch a light rainfall over Miami, Florida. I bring out some bottles of wine and a cheese board, hoping this makes them stay a little longer. I’m fascinated by Mary’s background in literature and encyclopedic knowledge of comic books, Brian’s interest in film and his personal artwork, and Mark’s ability to paint a story – something he developed during his days as Game Master when he led his group through the maze of role-playing games. The trio, who’ve been friends for over a decade, are the main collaborators on a project unlike other superhero comics on the market. They dive straight into their characters’ real lives – and diversity (of all sorts) is included.
Lis Mesa (LM): Let’s just get right into it, drop me into the world of the Incident Report.
Brian Sippin (BS): Incident Report takes place in a world where super powers have been public for 60 years. The International Chimeran Administration was founded after World War II to help the world cope with the sudden emergence of superpowers.
Mary Puppo (MP): People with powers exist and have existed for a while. They’re called Chimerans. There’s an international organization, the ICA, to help them and the general public make sense of what’s going on. Some people fly to work but, they still have to go to work.
LM: One of my favorite aspects of the project is that you challenge what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre, in terms of both the characters and storylines. Why was this so important to you?
BS: We see all-American white men who have amazing abilities and rippling physiques wearing form-fitting clothes. They always save the world and get the girl. Totally just like you and me, right? If you name a superhero off the top of your head, who would you name? Was he Cuban? Was she gay? Were they fat? What kind of family did they have? Do they have kids? Are they divorced? Don’t get me wrong, I love traditional heroes, but the world is bigger than America and far more diverse than Kansas.
MP: So many reasons. People and society have changed and our stories should be changing with them. I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid and it was awesome, but because of a lot of factors, my comics experience was very isolated. There’s so much going on in the community that doesn’t reflect my relationship with the genre and I think that’s true of a lot of people. Superheroes are our modern-day mythos – the best and worst of humanity has to offer. It’s an immensely diverse genre in terms of world building, but not so much inclusivity. It’s also inconsistent. There are constant reboots and characters coming back from the dead. Jumping into comics is difficult at best. We want repercussions and consequences in our stories. Choices lead to events that have lasting impact.
Mark Romero (MR): For me, I wanted to make sure we showed characters that were more like real people and less like an embodiment of an ideology. We have so many people in our world that put their lives on the line to help others, and while typical superhero stories pay homage to them, the story is never about them. The story we tell is more about our everyday heroes; there just happens to be superpowers involved.
LM: Your protagonist Anne seems to be a solid example of what you’re trying to achieve with your characters. What’s a typical day in her life like?
BS: I know [the character] Anne is mostly Mary’s baby, but for me she has the perfect viewpoint to enter our world. Not only is she part of the system but as someone with powers and a family we get to explore how the struggle between herself, her family and the larger world play out almost immediately.
MP: Pretty normal. She has breakfast with her family and makes sure her children get to school on time. She goes to work. She’s a social worker and she helps kids and their parents navigate the sudden onset of having powers.
LM: At her core, Anne’s internal struggle appears to be: ‘Am I obligated to serve society or to serve myself?’ Is this true of a lot of your main characters?
MP: I wouldn’t say a lot, but there are a few who come in later with a similar mindset. I think ‘self versus society’ is an important issue for everyone and when we have characters who are in a position to say something about those struggles, we take advantage of it.
MR: I believe there’s a good mixture of characters and while this is Anne’s main focus there are some characters that couldn’t give a hoot about it. Some people just want to live their lives.
LM: I am blown away by Anne and how detailed the world we see through her eyes is. One of my favorite things is that tenants with powers are required to pay additional insurance fees. You describe Anne as having ‘hyper destructive fire powers.’ Can she afford her rent?
MP: She can, but she’s luckier than most and she knows it.
MR: Anne can in fact afford her rent! Like in our world, there are things you can do to lower your insurance rates. Anne has gone through training with her powers and is certified as such. Training and a small number of incidents lower her rates tremendously.
LM: We never typically read about renter’s insurance or the myriad of social services provided by the International Chimeran Administration. From the way most fans have been conditioned from an early age, I’m thinking the ICA is extremely corrupt and definitely hiding something. Why would they just help, without expecting total control and absolute power in return? What am I not seeing here?
BS: Where there are people in power there is always going to be some corruption. No one is perfect but, I wouldn’t say the ICA is extremely corrupt. “Why would they just help?” The point of police is to enforce the law and protect the people. It’s not purely altruistic. The ICA was formed to keep an eye on potentially dangerous people but also to help educate people. If they don’t, there could be a be a Chimeran that goes unchecked and causes a LOT of damage and suffering. Sure, humanity’s track record isn’t great, but I’d say overall there far fewer of us who mean harm.
MP: Mark can probably speak better to the politics of it, from the outset it’s all about who’s telling the story. We see a lot through Anne’s eyes and that really affects how we see the ICA. She grew up in the system, she works in it and wants to use it for good. More importantly, she knows how to use it for good. There are definitely pockets where everything isn’t sunshine and bunnies but, I think it was important to show that the institution itself isn’t corrupt even if some of the people are.
LM: There is a law enforcement branch of the International Chimeran Administration which you initially described as a mix of the United Nations and Interpol. What is the role this branch serves in your world? Are they diplomats or are they a global military force?
BS: I’d say it’s like a police force with complementary social services that works within the host country. In the real world, where the FBI or CIA might get involved, in our world the ICA gets involved too if it involves Chimerans. And they can pull resources from where they need on a global scale.
MR: The primary functions of the ICA are social services and law enforcement. Each country follows its own individual rules regarding those things but, a lot of information is shared through the actual ICA organization. It is in the interest of global security that proper collaboration occurs between member states in the ICA. Just like the UN however, there are political games that take place which increase tensions behind the scenes.
LM: I noticed how much I wanted to discuss the US and politics. This is actually something we talked a lot about, but you made it a point that you wanted to steer clear of that. We discussed Americentrism and how most superhero stories are told through the lens of the US and politics. How will you try to incorporate different global perspectives into Incident Report?
MR: I think the way for us to do that is by letting other people tell stories along with us. Our goal is to build a solid foundation for other storytellers to join us. We don’t want fans to create fan fiction for the world, we want to empower fans to write in the setting and work to bring their contributions into the canon of the world.
MP: I agree with Mark. There are so many stories to tell in a setting like Incident Report that we might not be the best equipped to tell. The story we’re telling is set in America because that’s where we’re from but having a solid foundation from all over the world is important.
LM: Again, I know it’s not at the forefront of Incident Report but global issues like terrorism, racism, human trafficking, and climate change are still very real problems that exist in your world. Will we see any characters engage with these topics? Will the ICA ever force Chimerans to use their powers for the sake of creating world peace?
BS: I feel like human trafficking and racism are a constant in any world. Radicals of any ideology can also exist, though what kinds and to what extent, I can’t say just yet. The world of Incident Report is slightly more advanced from a technological perspective by the very nature of people having powers. It really motivates companies and governments to make greater strides. So, I feel like our world has a better grasp on the very real issue of climate change. Peace through force isn’t real peace, is it?
MR: They’re definitely going to have to deal with human trafficking and racism. People are still people and sometimes they do terrible things by use of force (that’s a little spoiler-y). I think the idea of forcing peace and what peace means is going to be questioned pretty heavily.
LM: As we discussed the X-Men comics, I began to think about how some of these mutants were weaponized and used by others for personal gain. You made it clear that this is not your world. Do Chimerans really have complete autonomy? Do they share in the same rights as other citizens in their country of origin?
BS: For the most part they’re like the rest of us – with a few more bells and whistles. They have to be evaluated and registered and they’re strongly encouraged to learn how to control their abilities through the training programs the ICA has in place or private institutions. As for other countries, some have conscription laws so military school could be in the cards. There are some overarching ICA rules, but they do have to compromise to deal with the home country.
MR: In the US they certainly do, but the same might not be said for other countries. Without going into too much detail we do still expect a difference between how the Western and Eastern world deal with Chimerans.
LM: Chimerans don’t have multiple powers – you mentioned they have one power that they can use in many ways. What steered you away from having individual characters developing a series of different powers?
BS: I’ll be honest, Superman is cool and amazing but – is he ever really in danger? Are you ever really concerned that he won’t make it or come back from the dead? They always come back from the dead. Narrative needs to have limitations so that the struggles have value and real risk. When the unthinkable happens, the actions the characters take have lasting impact on the world. We’re moving away from that ‘everything gets wrapped up in an hour and everything has neat ending’ format.
MP: We didn’t want them to feel overpowered. I think it’s more interesting to see how a character manipulates having a single power rather than juggling a lot. It also grants us a quick narrative tool. If you see a character using a power that’s different than what they’ve used before, then you know something’s going on.
MR: I’d also like to add that one of the tough parts about building a world like this is trying to ground it in some sort of reality. If powers become too broad or widespread, then it’s difficult to create a society around every possibility. In a way, this makes the worldbuilding slightly easier too.
LM: You wanted to show not just how society deals with individuals who develop powers but how a child developing a power might act; how their parents would handle the situation. Why was showing these angles important to you?
BS: When you’re different, whether it’s a gift or a disability, the world treats you differently. Every experience we have is shaped by our differences. I have both dyslexia and attention deficit disorder but, I’m also considered gifted. It’s frustrating constantly hearing about this ‘potential’ that I have, or worse, had, while also trying to reconcile my gifts with my disabilities. This odd duality of great potential and limited ability made school a little difficult. Being able to explore my own experiences through a more fantastical lens helps us discuss important issues and it gives readers a way to connect to someone a little more like them.
MP: Everyone has as story. They’re all dealing with their own stuff. Kids with powers are part of that. No kid is ‘normal’ and it’s our job to explore how growing up affects someone. Not every parent is going to react to their kid being a Chimeran the same – and that’s going to hugely impact those kids and how they in turn, impact the world. And I agree with Brian – the real world we live in is shaped by the people we meet and the experiences we have. Sharing those experiences allows us to connect.
LR: Chimerans don’t wear spandex, they don’t hide their identities or powers and vigilantism is considered illegal. What do you think this says about the society they live in?
BS: It’s more like our vigilantism laws are enforced. And honestly, form fitting spandex doesn’t look good on everyone. This society doesn’t need to hide something the world already knows about. If you want to hide that you’re a Chimeran on a personal level, that’s different. You don’t have to tell your friends, but you do have to tell HR.
MP: Brian’s right – the vigilantism is illegal in the Big Two, we’re just making sure ours is enforced. Hiding what everyone kind of knows is kind of impractical.
LM: So, no spandex, but we get a performance enhancing drug for humans without powers. Can we please reveal anything about ‘Tripp’, especially things like: am I spelling it right?
BS: So, Tripp. True Chimerans have the right body chemistry to host a microorganism that alters their physiology and grants them powers. Tripp on the other hand temporarily alters the users body chemistry and exposes the user to a culture of the organism but, it loses its effectiveness over time and the microorganism dies. Tripp has some side effects, including accidental self-harm from unstable power use or a coming-down sickness brought on by the body trying to purge the dead organism.
MP: I have to say, I love the double P. But that’s a personal preference. Tripp is a temporary way to get powers but, it comes with some nasty side effects.
LM: I do wonder about the origins of superpowers in your world and those who have them. You mention that ‘enough people in this world have superpowers, so it becomes mundane.’ But then, I find out Chimerans make up like 1% of the population. What about the other 99%? Are they occupying Wall Street until they can get some powers too?
BS: I’m sure there are plenty of people who aren’t pleased that they don’t have super powers. That’s why Tripp exists. But given how dangerous it is, the drug is understandably illegal. Power itself isn’t good or bad but it does reveal a person’s character – some use their power to help, some abuse it and hurt others. Power doesn’t just corrupt, it attracts the corruptible. Not everyone who seeks power should have it.
MP: Some of them, for sure. That’s where Tripp comes in, doesn’t it? People want superpowers, so they take it and have mixed results. There’s no consistent, stable, safe way to permanently get powers. Since the drug is unique to each person, it’s hard to predict if you’d get something awesome or something terrible. Even a cool power can have negative side effects. For example, if you have ice powers but aren’t immune to cold? That’s rough, buddy.
MR: The occupy Wall Street metaphor is great. Some people are born rich, some people are born poor, some people are born sickly, and some people are born with fire that shoots out of their hand.