Breaking the Code

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After having teamed up on the critically acclaimed X Isle, of which the second issue got released recently, the writing tandem of Andrew Cosby and Michael Alan Nelson, along with artist Greg Scott, gear up for Enigma Cipher, coming from Boom! Studios in October.

The book deals with a history student who comes face to face with the darker sides of reality when she cracks a Nazi code with an old Enigma machine and discovers a secret plan from World War II that is still in effect today. BF talked to co-writer Michael Alan Nelson to give you the inside scoop.

BROKEN FRONTIER: At the heart of Enigma Cipher we find Casey, a young grad student who comes across the Enigma device, used by the Nazis during World War II to encrypt and decrypt messages. How does Casey get her hands on one?

MICHAEL ALAN NELSON: Her professor actually has one of the old Enigma machines.  One day in class, he has a little show-and-tell with his students to get them excited about their upcoming post-graduate study on cryptography.  Casey’s professor had recently discovered an old forgotten ciphertext stashed away in the university’s rare books collection, a ciphertext he’s sure no one has ever seen before.

The professor thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if Casey and her fellow students could decrypt the message by designing their own decryption programs.  At the end of their study, the professor would then run the ciphertext through the Enigma machine and they would all see how many of them deciphered the message correctly.  

Well, at least that was the plan.

BF: What I really like about the premise is that, while it takes place in the present, it’s not about finding out where the Neo-Nazis are stashed and beating them up. Enigma Cipher is not that kind of book, and things are a whole lot more complicated where the Nazis come in, right?

MAN: While watching Neo-Nazis get smacked around sure would be a lot of fun, the situation is quite a bit more complicated than that.  As Casey soon learns, her problems come from something much bigger than supremacist hate groups.  The tendrils of this secret go deep within the fabric of the global power structure. 

BF: Why do you think it is that, even though (true) Nazism is a threat better known by a different generation than the one most comic book readers belong to, it still has such a great appeal on us?

MAN: That’s a great question, but honestly, I couldn’t even begin to answer that with any authority.  It’s true that Nazis have been ingrained in the national psyche as the Ultimate Evil.  And rightfully so.  My only guess is that it’s probably because the mad fucker behind one of the most monstrous crimes in history tried to take over the world and almost got away with it.  That’s a “what if” thought that will keep you up at night. 

BF: Yeah, it certainly is. The book has been described as a mix between The Bourne Identity and The Da Vinci Code. They’re lofty comparisons for sure, but what makes them true?

MAN: Well, obviously those comparisons are meant to convey similarities in tone and concept.  I hope no one thinks we’re comparing ourselves to the calibre of Tony GilroyW. Blake Herron or Dan Brown—The Bourne Identity was brilliant.  However, The Da Vinci Code may have been a fascinating story and I enjoyed it a great deal, but Dan Brown can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. 

The comparison to The Bourne Identity is based on the idea that nowhere is safe, no one can be trusted and everywhere Big Brother is watching.  The obvious difference is that Casey isn’t a highly trained and highly classified governmental black-ops killing machine.  She’s a grad student with a pile of student loans and a maxed-out credit card. 

The comparison to The Da Vinci Code comes from the idea of the Big Secret.  Something that could truly shake the foundation of world politics as we know it.

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeBF: You’re co-writing the mini series with Andrew Cosby. In whose mind did the idea for the story originate?

MAN: I wish I could take credit for coming up with an idea this cool, but the brilliance is all Andy.

BF: How much fleshing out of Andy’s early seeds did you do?

MAN: Quite a bit, actually.  That’s one nice thing about working with Andy.  He’s really open to what I can bring to the table, so the storytelling really becomes this great, collaborative process.  Usually, he’ll come up with the big idea, and then we’ll share our ideas on how we go about unfolding that big idea.  Of course, he has this gift for taking my good ideas and making them great ideas. 

It’s funny because he’s known as the “Idea Guy,” the person who can come up with the most amazing concepts.  Yet, that skill often overshadows his amazing ability to develop both plot and character.  He’s got a really sizeable and diverse tool box, so aside from it being a lot of fun, working with him has been an incredible learning experience as well.

BF: How does your writing relationship work? With Andy’s workload in both tv and comics, how do you stay in sync? 

MAN: To get him on the phone for more than three minutes, let alone a chance to sit down for an hour to chat is damn near impossible, so e-mail is really the only way we can communicate on a regular basis.  And the process really works for us.  We’re able to bounce ideas back and forth after we’ve each had some time to digest them.  Then we put them all together to get the story.    

And I really prefer to do it that way since I can’t verbally pitch ideas very well yet (a dead albatross around my neck whenever I decide to try my hand in television).  Andy on the other hand can pitch a story about a guy buying toothpaste off the top of his head and have you on the edge of your seat.  So, the e-mails level the playing field for me a bit since I have time to actually reform my words in a way that don’t make me sound like a complete idiot.  Seriously, it takes me half an hour just to write an e-mail that says “cool idea, let’s go with it.”

BF: Your name is all over the Boom! Studios map. Next to Enigma Cipher, you have worked or are working on titles like Fear the Dead, Pirate Tales, War of the Worlds: Second Wave, X Isle and Zombie Tales. How come you got rolling on the comics rollercoaster so fast? What do you attribute your success as a writer to?

MAN: Bribe money and blackmail.  It’s amazing how much you can further your career with a hidden camera and a complete disregard for human decency.  No, seriously though, it was just a combination of hard work and luck.  There are some people whose writing abilities just come naturally.  I’m not one of those people. 

So, I had to spend countless hours in the woodshed working on story craft just to get good enough that people would take the time to read my work.  And I was lucky enough to run into Ross when he was looking for a new writer.  He’d known that I had been writing for some time and thought I might like to try my hand at a zombie story.  If he liked it, he’d use it. 

Fortunately he did, so I got my first story in Zombie Tales.  Luckily, he’s dug my stuff ever since.  And I swear the stack of 8 X 10 glossies in my desk drawer have nothing to do with it.  Really.  Those are just for personal use. 

Um… maybe you shouldn’t print that.


BF: Perhaps you shouldn’t have brought it up then! [Laughs] Judging by the Boom! titles on your track record, you seem to have a clear preference for the mysterious and the horrific. What attracts you to these types of stories?

MAN: When I was ten, I had a friend who had this “monster” book.  I have no idea what the title was, all I know was that it had a red hardcover and black and white photos of all these great moments in horror film.  Monsters, zombies, vampires, dead bodies, aliens, everything!  I distinctly remember a picture of this beautiful young woman with an axe in her head and the way the blood trickled down her forehead.  Gruesome, I know, but for a kid whose parents wouldn’t let him watch The Three Stooges or Speed Racer because they felt they were too violent, this book was like crack. 

I would go over to his house at least once a week just to look at this book.  I loved that book so much that my friend’s parents got me my own monster book as a gift for my confirmation (I was much older before I could appreciate the irony of that). 

I also used to have horrible nightmares as a kid, even before I discovered that glorious monster book.  I’d dream of being stabbed to death by things with sharp teeth, disembodied faces that would do nothing but scream incessantly, babysitters who hid knives in the fridge so they could lure me close to them with the promise of ice cream, hands under the bed, just these very bizarre dreams.

I can even remember my very first dream.  I was five, six maybe and I was with two friends standing at the top of a set of stairs that led down into a basement.  Out of nowhere this wind just lifts us up and starts to pull us down into the darkness.  I woke up right away but for some reason it freaked me to the point where I still don’t like thinking about it.  I have no idea what was down there in that basement.  But whatever it was, it FELT wrong.  There was just something wrong.  And something waiting. 

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the mysterious and horrific.  I’m just trying to find out what was down in that basement, waiting for me in the darkness.     

BF: Do you believe, then, that dreams can play even the tiniest of roles in one’s life? And, more important to the theme of our conversation here, do you often use dreams as an inspiration for your writing?

MAN: Well, there are certainly people whose dreams play a very prominent role in their lives while there are others who don’t give their dreams much thought at all.  How much of a role I guess is just up to the individual.  Do I?  No, not really.  Then again, with the dreams I have, perhaps it’s a good thing that I don’t analyze them. 

But as for your other question, yes, I definitely use my dreams as inspiration for my writing.  I always keep a pad of paper next to my bed just for that reason.  Though often times when I look back over my notes and remember the dream, the images and the scenarios themselves aren’t really all that interesting or frightening or enthralling.  But at the time I was dreaming them, they were overwhelming.  So, sometimes it’s just trying to convey the way the dream made me feel as opposed to direct dictation of what happened in it.   

BF: It isn’t surprising either, then, that your favourite writers include Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis—each has an over-the-top imagination. Are these three writers your comic industry role models?

MAN: They certainly are three of them, that’s for sure.  These guys are master craftsmen.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been both overjoyed and frustrated at the same time after reading their work.  Thrilled at how enjoyable the story was and disheartened knowing that I will never write anything that good. 

BF: If you had to pick one book by each writer and could never read any of their other work, which ones would you pick? Given your preference for the mysterious and the twisted, my guess would be Watchmen or From Hell by Moore, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum and… well, I’m not so sure about Ellis. Transmetropolitan perhaps, or something more recent and less canonic like Fell? But here I go, answering the question for you, so here’s your mike again! [Laughs]

MAN: Let’s see…Watchmen, WE3 and Transmetropolitan.  Watchmen because I think it is the Ulysses of graphic novels.  You can read it ten times and find deeper meaning and richer layers each time.  WE3 simply for the emotional impact it had on me.  If I could write a story half as empathic as that, I’d consider myself a success.  And Transmet just for the disgusting brilliance of it.  Foul, absurd AND moving. 

But, I’ll tell you, what I just can’t get enough of right now is David Mack’s Kabuki—by far my favorite comic to date.  I bought the first trade two weeks ago and then went back and bought the rest.  I just ploughed though them all and am now reading them all over again.  The art, the story, the characters, just everything about that series is mind-bendingly beautiful.  I would say that if I could only choose one comic and never read any others ever again, it would be Kabuki.

BF: Do you foresee yourself staying exclusively at Boom! for some time to come, or are you planning to create stories for other publishers as well? Now that you’ve work with Cosby on a few projects, perhaps there’s some television in your future too?

MAN: I’ll definitely be doing work for other publishers in the future as well as continuing to write for Boom!  You should start seeing some of that work in early 2007.  I can’t say with which publishers yet because nothing has been set in stone and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. 

And I certainly will be trying my hand at television, but that’s a medium that I’m not quite ready for yet.  I still need to spend a few more hours in the woodshed before I’m ready to swim those waters.

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