One of the most emotional and mind blowing graphic novels I’ve ever read was Upgrade Soul, written and illustrated by Ezra Claytan Daniels. The comic book creator, multimedia artist, animator, director, and greeting card writer won the very first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in comics and the graphic novel isnow going to be made into a film.
The Changers his first work, brought his voice to the comic book world, but it’s his distinct art style and uncompromising dedication to realistic, humorous science fiction stories that have solidified his position as a strong voice in indie comics.
That same sense of humor and commitment is what led him to create the annual Comic Art Battle in Portland and inspired him to work on the critically acclaimed Upgrade Soul for over 15 years, even after it was rejected and rewritten dozens of times.
I spoke to Daniels about how his family inspires his work and how he got intensive art training from–crime scenes.
Did you always know you wanted to create comics?
I’ve made comics ever since I was a kid. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and I used to make little comics as most kids do. After high school, I moved to Portland, Oregon, to go to art school but I dropped out after a couple semesters and just started making comics on my own. Around the same time, I got a job doing trial graphics. So I was doing medical and technical illustrations and charts and graphs for high stakes court cases.
For instance, if the Portland Police Department killed somebody, they would send me to the crime scene and I would make these super detailed overhead maps. So when the witnesses came they could point to where they were at the crime scene.
How old were you when you got that job?
I was 19 and I would get a call and just hop on my bicycle and throw a bunch of like high-end cartography equipment in my backpack and ride my bike down to a crime scene.
Nobody really batted an eye when I would get there. I just was lucky enough to get offered this opportunity at this company because I was a really good illustrator. I guess Portland’s whole thing is keeping Portland weird.
How did you get from crime scenes to comics?
I made these really excruciatingly terrible autobiographical minicomics when I was 20. But with those, I learned the process of working with printers, stores, and… distributors. So I learned how to do everything with these terrible comics, but other 20 year old guys liked my work. So it found a little audience.
Then I did The Changers, which was a really ambitious, 200-page, self-published graphic novel. It’s a science fiction story about these two guys from the distant future who come back to catalyze a leap in human evolution. That book was distributed through Diamond and did well. Someone once told me that Neil Gaiman was a fan of it, which I never verified, but I hope he was.
Did The Changers lead directly to Upgrade Soul?
I started working on Upgrade Soul right away. This was like 15 years ago. I started pitching it all over but I just wasn’t getting any traction. I felt like a big reason was because it’s a story about an elderly mixed-race couple and their malformed clones. So typical comics editors just balked at it.
Did you try writing or drawing something else?
I went into freelance illustration and graphic design and did a collaboration with the Chamber Orchestra in Chicago, called Fifth House Ensemble. They commissioned me to write and illustrate a feature-length graphic novel to be projected behind them as they performed this concert series.
Then I did animation for a few documentaries and my friend and musician Alexis Gideon who does these experimental animated rap operas.
It seems like you shied away from mainstream comics because they didn’t understand your aesthetic, but that it led you to be even more creative.
Yeah, totally. I later collaborated with Alexis on the first iteration of Upgrade Soul. It was originally built as an interactive iOS app with special features. Every panel was built like a 3D Diorama that was tied to the accelerometer in the device. So as you tilt the device, that made it look like every panel is this 3D image with music that Alexis composed.
We launched the story as an app in 2012, but before we completed the story, Apple changed the operating system. So, unfortunately, it’s not supported anymore. It did really well, though.
Who are some of the artists that influence you?[David] Cronenberg obviously is a huge influence. So is Terrence Malick. [Andrei] Tarkovsky is a big influence. I like a lot of like the heady sci-fi stuff from the ’70s and ’80s, as well. I think that’s really apparent in Upgrade Soul because it kind of has a vintage vibe to it.
As far as comics go, I love Jean Giraud‘s art in Moebius, but Enki Bilal’s work was incredible. And Vittorio Giardino’s “A Jew In Communist Prague” was a big influence because his art style has very expressive, realistic figures and his stories have lots of depth. Charles Burns is also a huge influence and I’ll buy anything Junji Ito creates.
What is the premise of Upgrade Soul?
It’s a story about this elderly couple, [Hank and Molly], who goes through this experimental rejuvenation procedure and, unbeknownst to them, the procedure utilizes cloning technology and they’re inadvertently cloned. The clones, while severely disfigured, are [vastly] intellectually and physically superior to the originals. So not only will they live way longer — they’ll live healthier lives — but they’re way smarter. They have total recall memory, they can remember everything that’s ever happened to them in their past.
So the whole story is about these counterparts trying to decide which is a truer vessel for the individual’s identity. Is it the one that looks and acts like the one we recognize to be the individual or is [it] the one that, on paper, by every metric, is [the] superior vessel. But because of the way they look, they won’t be able to live a “normal” life because they won’t be able to enter the same space as the original. So it gets into a lot of issues of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and all these things.
The scene where the clone is talking to Hank about “transcending blackness” is very existential. Where did that come from?
That comes from my mixed race experience and my whole life just trying to figure out where I fit in. My mom is white and my dad’s black. So it was interesting growing up in Sioux City, Iowa.
When my mom and dad split up when I was 12, I stayed with her and it was like I’d suddenly lost the whole black side of my family. I was basically raised for all intents and purposes as white. And I pass mostly as white, so it wasn’t until fairly recently that I started to realize… I can have… this thing that I’ve always wanted and always felt like I was missing.
Because it’s in you.
Yeah. And I think that’s a big central theme of Upgrade Soul, that Hank wants all these things, but since the clone is a manifestation of himself, they’re literally coming from within him. So the idea is that everything you want is already there.
Is there somebody in your life that you patterned Hank and Molly after?
Hank and Molly are specifically inspired by my grandparents on my mom’s side. My grandpa Leon is the inspiration for Hank. He was my best friend until he died a couple of years ago. He was such a sweet and supportive guy, but also kind of complicated, especially [in] his relationship with my grandma.
They’re super cute grandparents but also, when they’re alone and they don’t think anybody’s listening, they kind of snipe at each other in a way [that’s] really interesting, in a way that you only do when you’ve been with somebody for 50 years.
Let’s talk about Lena for a minute. Her journey is interesting.
Lena was born with a conjoined twin at the skull and the twin was removed when she was a toddler. The procedure left her disfigured and her brother Kenton, who was six or seven years older than her, was a child prodigy in genetics and science. He devoted his life to figuring out a way to help her live what he considered a normal life. He built this whole facility, sheltered her there, and researched the cloning procedure because he thought she wasn’t good enough the way she was.
Is there an Upgrade Soul sequel on the way?
I do have ideas for a sequel to the story. Actually, Circuit Closed is the same characters in the same place, [but set] eight years after Upgrade Soul. And that’s kind of the beginning of what I considered to be a sequel [in which the character] Dell is this troubled kid and she’s run away from home. She’s using this device that she stole from Molly’s lab to go on this adventure. So I think, we might go there someday.
How did it feel going from that lack of connection to your father’s family to winning an award created in honor of a pioneering African American comic book artist?
It was profound.
There’s a lot of stuff I’ve discovered about myself later in life. Only [in] the past 10 years have I even really started to think about myself outside of my privilege I didn’t even realize I had because I just never thought about it.
I also realized that everything I’m doing is trying to impress my dad (he died in 2012 so he’s been gone a while). But he was the one who got me into science fiction. There’s so much of my family, my dad and my grandpa in this and to be acknowledged for the fidelity with which I was able to kind of tell my dad’s perspective was insanely profound.