Innovation is something that’s sorely been missing from comic books and graphic novels ever since the format’s rise over a half-century ago. The only major change has been that they’re now also available digitally. Sure, page numbers increased and became nice and glossy in the process, but the prices also increased with those additions. Other than some flashy variant covers, there’s never really been anything that has made someone stop in a comic book shop and say, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”
Enter THE AGGREGATE.
THE AGGREGATE is (approximately) a 100-page graphic novel told in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format. Set within a post-apocalyptic world, the story follows a woman named Valerius who’s been tasked with watching over the five pilots (the OTAs) of an 800-foot-tall killing machine (The Aggregate) that was designed by the government a thousand years ago to wipe out half of the world’s population.
Created by writer/artist Ben Bishop, THE AGGREGATE is an absolute labor of love. In the works since 2009, THE AGGREGATE delves into the deeper side of humanity while allowing the reader to decide the story’s fate.
I had the opportunity to talk to Bishop about not only THE AGGREGATE, but also the amazing Kickstarter campaign that’s currently running to help bring the story to life.
BEN BISHOP: Well, I would say the number one thing would be the story itself. The story follows Valerius, a mysteriously young woman who (somehow), for the last 1,000 years, has been keeping five genetically engineered individuals, the OTAs, away from their giant robot killing machine — but she now finds herself leading one of them, the “Man”, right to it. While it will have giant robots and mutant animal abominations like the Spider-Cats, it will follow closely alongside the two main characters as they travel together, and their story is very emotional and real. My first book was essentially a 300-page romance graphic novel, so I do really well with those types of personal character-driven relationship stories. But, yeah… Spider-Cats. (Laughs)
HDN: THE AGGREGATE was created in the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ format or, as you’re calling it, a ‘Split Decision’ comic. What made you go with that format? Were you trying to bring a new sense of interaction to graphic novels?
BB: Yeah, for sure. I feel like since comics were born, there has only really been one way people read them and that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s not that way with books, or video games… I also really wanted to encourage re-readability. It takes a really, really long time to make comics, but a very short time to read them. With THE AGGREGATE and the Split Decision format, you can re-read the book over and over again and it will be a different experience, much like how you can play video games like THE LAST OF US or GRAND THEFT AUTO again and again and depending on the decisions you make or the way you behave, it can be different each time. As far as interaction, yes, definitely. The story is unravelled by your own free will. It’s going to be a very collaborative experience, which is also what’s really cool about using Kickstarter to make the book a reality because some of the rewards allow people to also be a part of its creation — whether it’s being in the book, editing, or even writing one of the Split Decision story branches.
BB: The last time I was able to really hunker down and go into hermit mode making a book of my own was back in 2004. I was 18 and learning as I went, so my process evolved from there over the four years that 300-page book took to create. So I really don’t know what to expect here. (Laughs) I may discover a whole new and improved way of working, but on the smaller projects I’ve done since then, here’s how it usually goes: I have the concept, of course, then I do a really solid outline of where the story will go and what happens along the way. This book will also have a really complicated spiderweb-looking outline because of all the Split Decisions. Once I have the outline, I like to write only a few scenes at a time, as far as dialogue and panel descriptions. I do this because I’ll be staring at an individual page while I’m drawing it for sixteen hours and I always think of new and better ideas, and I don’t want to have to say no to those things because I’ve already invested too much time in another direction. That being said, the Split Decision format will no doubt allow me to use every idea no matter what, so that will be really awesome.
HDN: Your art is honestly quite phenomenal. Which artists do you look up to and use as an inspiration?
BB: Thank you. My favorite comic artists right now are Olivier Coipel who made his name with THOR, and Mateus Santolouco who is killing it on TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES as we speak. Santolouco is actually doing a pin-up for THE AGGREGATE as well which will be available as a reward on the Kickstarter very soon; the original and as a print. So pumped for that. I want it.
HDN: Spider-Cats. What’s that all about?
BB: I am amazed… well, I guess not amazed, but I am really happy that the Spider-Cats have been so popular with everyone. I don’t think I would have half as many backers if the book didn’t have Spider-Cats. They are a hit, cats are Internet gold, and I swear I didn’t plan that. The idea behind the Spider-Cats was actually an evolution from plain old regular cats, obviously, but what I mean is… originally, back in 2009, my older brother and I were talking about doing a post apocalyptic comic together. He was watching a ton of that show LIFE AFTER PEOPLE and in the show, one of the things that stood out to him that we wanted to include, was the theory that in a post-apocalyptic world, regular old house cats would take to living in old tall skyscrapers and even develop flying squirrel like armpit wings so that they could glide from building to building.
As the years went by, my brother and I somewhat abandoned the story we were doing and when I started thinking about THE AGGREGATE, I still wanted to do something with cats, but I didn’t want to get all hung up on the realistic science of what the world would really be like. So I just asked myself, “What do I want to see?” and the Spider-Cats were born. I don’t want this book to be less fun or insane simply because “that could never happen”. I come up with ideas, and then work the science or evolution backwards from there, and in the story I explain how and why things like that could happen.
HDN: Not a question, but while on the topic of animals, I just have to say that I love how you drew your dog into the book.
BB: Thanks. Yeah, she was the greatest. Bronx, my dog, died last year from Lyme’s disease. It was honestly the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Awful. So having her live on in this book is really great. Plus every good apocalyptic story needs the “Man” and his dog. Similarly, one of my Kickstarter rewards allows you to have your cat be drawn into the book as a Spider-Cat and so far, two of the people who have chosen that reward have done so to immortalize their pet cat that they have lost as well. That’s one of those magical things that can happen when you allow people to be a part of the creation of a project on Kickstarter.
HDN: Your Kickstarter campaign features many awesome rewards including variant covers, artwork from special guests, art/script critiques, and a soundtrack. It truly seems like a daunting task to bring all of these talents together to help push THE AGGREGATE. How did you assemble such a team?
BB: Well honestly, I just asked them. These are all people I’ve met and become friends with over the years making comics, trying to break in, doing conventions, etc. Bon Alimagno is a former talent director for Marvel. He’s offering up portfolio reviews for artists who might be trying to “make it” with their comics and he has some great insight. We actually started talking way back in 2011 when I was trying to get work from Marvel and he sent me sample script after sample script. He’s no longer there and I’m still trying to break in now. It’s not easy. I want to mention everyone, but you should look at the Kickstarter page to see all the great people who are a part of the campaign. I’m honored to have them all.
In doing research about launching a successful Kickstarter, I read a lot about how sometimes anthologies will have a much easier time reaching their goal because they have all those different creators spreading the word everyday. So I was scared that because THE AGGREGATE was just me, I might be at a disadvantage, and that’s when I started asking all these people to be a part of it somehow. It has definitely helped having them talking about the project, or even having their name on the page, but honestly I’m just really proud of the team I assembled. It’s great. There are even more people involved in some stretch rewards that I haven’t even revealed yet.
HDN: For the soundtrack, how does that work with THE AGGREGATE? Were themes composed for particular scenes/pages in the book?
BB: Here’s someone I wanted to mention above actually, Taylor Parnell. Taylor, or TURBO as I named him in high school, is writing, recording, and producing the entire score for the book. Every single instrument will be played by him; he’s insanely talented. Anyway, to answer your question, he has written the first track, which you can hear in my Kickstarter video, based solely on the concept and what I’ve told him or shown him for the rest of the story. Going forward, we will be working in tandem throughout the book where I will be sending him pages and he will just be free to do what inspires him. The music wont really be scene specific because everyone reads at different speeds, and the Split Decisions could lead you in just about any direction, but it will be great background atmosphere in general, enhancing the experience rather than distracting you from it.
HDN: What do you hope for with THE AGGREGATE? Would you like to see it inspire more ‘Split Decision’ comics?
BB: I do. People are obviously free to make this type of comic and call it whatever they want — “Pick A Path”, “Make Your Move” (there are some freebies for you right there) — but I hope that with THE AGGREGATE and the future Split Decision comics I plan to make, that people will want to put that Split Decision name on their book. If nothing else, I want people to make comics and push the envelope with format, both in print and online. There’s no wrong way to make a comic. (Laughs)
HDN: Lastly, since Hi-Def Ninja is a community full of superhero aficionados, in your video on Kickstarter, I noticed a pretty nice-looking collection of AVENGERS in the background. Do you have your pre-order in for the AGE OF ULTRON figures yet?
BB: I wish. Those are all Hot Toys, and if you know anything about Hot Toys, you know they are wildly expensive. I bought most of those back in the day when I was temporarily doing well and haven’t been able to snag any new ones in quite some time. However, I will say, I’m glad I got the ones I did when I did because they always go up in value and I cant tell you how many of those poor plastic souls I’ve had to throw on eBay to pay the bills. No more of that now, though; I’ll be back in hermit mode working on THE AGGREGATE and for the first time in the last seven years, I won’t have to scatter my attention between a dozen different freelance jobs. That’s all thanks to all my Kickstarter backers who have pre-ordered the book. I can’t tell you how grateful I am. Hopefully you can see it in the final product.
HDN: Well thank you, Ben. You seem like a great guy and I’m definitely happy to see your campaign succeeding.
BB: Thanks so much, Ken. Really appreciate the interview!
If THE AGGREGATE sounds like something you’d enjoy and would like to support (and you really should if you can afford it), head on over to its Kickstarter campaign here! Featuring some truly incredible “rewards” including exclusive prints from industry artists such as Santolouco, Ben Templesmith, Kristian Donaldson, Chris Dibari, Ray Dillon, and more, THE AGGREGATE’s campaign will surely be worth your time and money in investing.
And if that’s not enough to tempt you, here’s Bishop’s Kickstarter video featuring an in-depth look into THE AGGREGATE: