by Jarrod Jones. Lonely Receiver, the latest sci-fi peculiarity written by Zac Thompson, has things to say about the way our phones are treating us, and how we treat them in kind.
Sounds weird? Off-putting, maybe? It does, it should, and it’s even more complex than that; Lonely Receiver aims for the psychological techno-thrillers that David Cronenberg gave us decades ago and nails it. Illustrated with sparse intimacy by Jen Hickman and lettered with the deliberate insistence of an especially pushy app by Simon Bowland, Lonely Receiver finesses all this Cronenbergian mind-fuckery to reflect our modernity and all the ennui that pulsates from it. It’s unafraid in its depiction of us humans and our increasingly intimate relationships with the technology we keep humming and pinging all around us.
Yet, it’s delicate. Fragile. Lonely Receiver is about Catrin, a young professional type whose 10-year relationship with her holographic wife has come to an abrupt end and Catrin… she’s not doing so well. Lonely Receiver is a break-up comic, one that dwells in those lonely corners of your home where you put yourself when you feel most alone. Where we’re most vulnerable is where Zac Thompson has decided to spring his horror trap.
By rights, this story should be sending readers running towards something, anything, else. Somewhere safer. But this is 2020, nothing’s safe, and our phones keep on luring us to places we shouldn’t go. In effect, Lonely Receiver has struck a nerve and become one of the best-reviewed comics of the year, a response Thompson himself did not foresee.
“Truth be told, I was terrified for folx to read this book because it was so unlike anything I’ve ever done that I was sure this was going to be it for me,” Zac tells me. “I constructed Lonely Receiver almost as my ‘goodbye’ to comics. This book came to me at this weird point of exhaustion with the medium. I was put off by gatekeeping and I was at my wit’s end trying to make a career in this industry work. I wanted to create something that felt welcoming, accessible and weird in all these ways I didn’t see on the shelf.
“Honestly, seeing people adore the book has been this crazy affirmation to follow my weirdest and wildest impulses. So professionally, it’s been incredibly freeing.”
Lonely Receiver #3 drops this week. At the mid-point of this deliriously great AfterShock Comics series, DoomRocket spoke with Zac Thompson about his latest, eeriest, most-prescient comic series, working with Jen Hickman, and whether or not he’d consider true love via binary code.
1. Issue #3 is about to drop and thus we’ve entered the halfway point of ‘Lonely Receiver’. Where are you at this point with the book—emotionally, professionally, critically?
Zac Thompson: It’s an odd beast because most of this book was conceived and written during 2019. So I’ve had a lot of distance as people started to engage with the story. But, I’m still utterly in love with this book. I set out to write something that was a reflection of the emotional wounds I’ve suffered in my life. To take my bleeding heart and put it on the page. There was a lot of manic “I don’t give a fuck” energy put into the scripts. I wanted to make a book I had never read or seen before and I think we succeeded.
Truth be told, I was terrified for folx to read this book because it was so unlike anything I’ve ever done that I was sure this was going to be it for me. I constructed Lonely Receiver almost as my “goodbye” to comics. This book came to me at this weird point of exhaustion with the medium. I was put off by gatekeeping and I was at my wit’s end trying to make a career in this industry work. I wanted to create something that felt welcoming, accessible and weird in all these ways I didn’t see on the shelf. Honestly, seeing people adore the book has been this crazy affirmation to follow my weirdest and wildest impulses. So professionally, it’s been incredibly freeing. Lonely Receiver showed me that I don’t have to make books like anyone else. That I can just do my weird thing off in the corner and people will enjoy it. That’s been really powerful for me.
2. You seem to have formed a working groove with AfterShock Comics. What can you tell me about the building process of ‘Lonely Receiver’ after Jen came on board, when AfterShock entered the mix? How has this experience differed from, say, working with AfterShock on ‘Her Infernal Descent’ or ‘The Replacer’?
Lonely Receiver was this pet project for me since the summer of 2017. I had this inkling of an idea that took the horror of Cronenberg-style musings on technology and blended with the romance genre. It was a long gestation in my head before I was even ready to pitch it. As I was slowly building out the book, AfterShock became a home for my comics work. With Her Infernal Descent we created a book that was so wild and unconventional in terms of themes and structure that I wasn’t sure they’d ever want to work with me again. But shortly after that book wrapped I came to them with the idea of doing a contained graphic novella in The Replacer. That process was really organic and they encouraged me to make the book my own. I got this impression that AfterShock was willing to take big risks in order to create books that remained memorable to people. So I kept pushing the envelope with everything I brought them…
So that naturally led to Lonely Receiver. It was always billed as this weird blend of horror and romance. The idea was to give readers something that was soaked in bright lights and pastels but all the color held back this dam of simmering darkness. AfterShock saw immediate merit in the idea and I think it was the fastest greenlight I’ve ever received. From there, I began a long and arduous hunt for the perfect artist.
After months of searching, I happened upon Jen’s work in TEST from Vault. The tone and art style was exactly what I was looking for. So I reached out to Jen, with this very hesitant sort of “hey maybe this would be up your alley” type of email. The book was a special beast to invite someone into because it deals with trauma, sex, and horror. That’s a difficult line to walk and I had no idea at the time that Jen does their own sex comics. So it was actually this perfect fit. We had some initial conversations and it was clear from the jump that Jen needed to be the artist on the book. Not only did they completely understand what I wanted to do with the material but they helpfully outlined some places where they felt like the narrative needed more punch. We ended up collaborating on the story and the weird structure of the book to create something that felt like a marriage of both of our tastes.
3. Jen is such a wonder on this book. Those 12-panel pages in issue #2, where Catrin goes through a cycle of confusion, ennui, acceptance, elation, hard-crash depression, apathy… they hit like a ton of bricks, Zac. What’s your working relationship with Jen been like during the production of this series? How has Jen influenced, or even altered, your original plans for ‘Lonely Receiver’, just by virtue of working with them?
Jen is doing career-best work on Lonely Receiver. Every issue was a treat to watch come in as each page they turned in was better than the last. Thankfully, they put up with me getting into the weeds with them about color choices, shot sizes, and pacing stuff on the page. But in turn, they opened up with me about the way the narrative was working. I can without a doubt say that this is probably the closest working relationship I’ve had on one of my books where each of us were influencing decisions in the other’s craft. We both wanted the book to feel intimate and personal to readers. So having Jen as a collaborator greatly influenced the direction for the book. After finishing issue #1, we had conversations about structure, tone, and changing some narrative threads. I actually blew up my plans for the book shortly after completing the first script because having Jen come out had radically changed my perspective and made me think hard about how to make the book more impactful.
So for example, the strange formalist structure was a thing that came from conversations with Jen. I was worried about the book having a linear structure where all of these crazy things happened to Catrin in rapid succession but from our conversations I started to realize that this book is better experienced like the unfurling of a flower. So instead of overloading people about what’s going on, you throw them in and slowly zoom out until you have the complete picture. Luckily when I brought that to Jen they were super down for that weird approach.
But y’know—it’s also the little things. Like lending a pair of helpful eyes in a dialogue scene. Jen was super up front with me and would often tell me if I something came across as inauthentic or didn’t make sense. It was amazing and has led us to having forged a really incredible and trusting creative relationship.
And we also have the impeccable Simon Bowland on letters who helped craft such a unique look for every piece of dialogue in the book. He came in and helped define our world in these really subtle ways, so we’ve got Catrin’s colored captions, The Flat Man’s janky, uncertain voice and the voice of all the computers in the book. It gave everything this added layer of texture to create this really wonderful and dense experience where every choice was scrutinized and agonized over. And I think the book is better for it!
4. All right, let’s talk about Catrin. I think a lot of independent books released these days are propping up imperfect characters, characters that don’t attempt to obscure their flaws, and that to me makes for far more interesting stories. Catrin is imperfect. Politely, she’s maudlin. How did you form the person named “Catrin” in your mind? As a tenant living rent-free in your mind, is she a healthy presence for you?
Oh jesus… Catrin is a pastiche of my worst selves and the people in my life who told me they “loved” me but didn’t really understand what that meant (nor did I for that matter). She’s this ugly reflection of some of the things I’ve thought about myself and some of the things people have thought about me. I think we’ve all got aspects of “Catrin” in our heads but we don’t like to admit it. I wanted to write someone with raw unflinching honesty that had to learn some of the same lessons I had to learn about love. I wanted to be honest (to a point) about my own flaws and open up to readers in a way that is both terrifying and unafraid.
As a straight white dude, I’ve been fighting this idea that I’m not supposed to be vulnerable or have ugly inconvenient feelings. Hell, I grew up being told that feelings were something you weren’t supposed to talk about or even address. I’ve done a lot of therapy and self-examination, and Catrin is this evolution of all of that work. She’s a construct that comes from this very consistent throughline in my life where I often found myself close to unhealthy people with little to no boundaries. So I decided to lay it all out there and get real about it. She’ll always be part of me but part of the journey of this book was healing her, so she’d be at least bearable…
5. Is there a certain amount of freedom that comes with writing such vulnerable people? Does it make the writing process feel more raw, more honest?
Absolutely. It’s also fucking terrifying. Some of the passages in Lonely Receiver come from things directly lifted from personal journals (twisted, distorted or reflected in some way) but still mine. So it creates this process where you feel like you’re tapping into something real. It’s deeply personal and sometimes difficult to write, articulate, or sort through but I wanted people to feel my heart on the page. I knew that was the only way this book would work and I wanted people to see that I was willing to get naked and talk about everything.
6. One thing I’ve noticed about the world of ‘Lonely Receiver’ is how people are so absorbed with their technological relationships that they tend to casually overshare personal details or openly confess personal failings to complete strangers. Like that one bit in issue #2 where Catrin visits a PHYLO healer: The healer admits to a sexual encounter with their L-POS to Catrin as a response to what was originally a rather innocuous question. Whenever I’m on Twitter, I notice people end up sharing incredibly personal things about themselves to their scads of followers. (Perhaps not to this extent.) Hell, I’ve done it. Why do you suppose we share these details with strangers on such an open forum? What do you think we are looking for, beyond affirmation and acceptance?
This is a tough question to answer. I think it comes from a variety of places but mostly… we’re all longing to be accepted. We just want community. We want to talk to people about our wounds, our desires, and our dreams. Some of us don’t get those opportunities in our personal day-to-day lives so we turn to social media to open up.
There are so many things taking up space in our heads, sometimes the act of simply speaking it aloud can give you power. Not even in the acceptance or affirmation aspects but merely just saying it out loud to yourself, to others, to whoever will listen—you no longer live with this solely in your head. It leaves your lips (or fingertips) and goes out into the world. There’s strength to be gained in that but there’s also a dangerous level of over-familiarity. We’re used to seeing so much of one another now, the boundaries between us are more fluid than ever and we’re not really living in a world where you have to be “ashamed” of anything anymore. Which again, is both incredibly empowering and terrifying in equal measure.
7. Folks a lot smarter than I are currently interrogating the adverse affects all this technology is having on us psychologically. We become furious with strangers about things they’ve done or haven’t done, a lot of times without context. The personal philosophies we spent a lifetime piecing together are often under threat of being recalibrated by ambitious con artists. We don’t have to explore this if you don’t want to, but I wanted to ask in the spirit of the conversation: What have you caught yourself doing online that surprised you, whether it was a knee-jerk reaction or getting caught in a well of self-loathing, apropos of nothing?
I’ve gotten a lot better at this but I came of age online during the Bush era. So a lot of my online persona was fueled by this righteous hatred for anything outside my worldview. I was very close-minded and quick to sort of jump on the bandwagon of whatever was trending. But in recent years, I’ve found that a more resigned approach to my online interactions is not only necessary for my mental health but also just a more agreeable way to live my life. If you look at my online profiles, I only talk about things I like and I focus on taking direct action about the things I want to change. I want to cultivate a space away from all the silly games we’re caught up in from the big tech companies who are trying to change our behavior.
But, y’know I got my start writing with online journalism for places like VICE and Huff Post. So during that era of my life, I was trying to be a big shithead jester that also wanted to be taken seriously. It was probably pretty loathsome for people to watch.
8. How do you view Comics Twitter, both as a social media user and as a professional writer? Does social media interaction with creators lessen the comics-reading experience or improve upon it, as a reader, as a creator?
Personally, I love it. It’s been a fantastic space to connect with people who are reading my work, get recommendations, and share my love for this weird hobby we all obsess over. It’s been incredible for my journey as a creator because I’m able to connect with folx a world away who are making comics I adore. It’s a tight-knit community that I feel plays a meaningful role in my life. It gives me a space to belong and a space to connect with all the others who can’t seem to walk away from comics. It’s a perpetual font of cool shit and cool people that feels a little removed from the bigger machinations of the world.
I do wish that the space was more realistic about the way we talk about the medium. There are serious problems within the space with how creators are compensated, monumental distribution problems, highly predatory contract policies that use terms like “creator-owned” when (let’s be honest) they’re not. I’m happy to be a positive and constructive force in the community but I feel like there’s a gleam of inauthenticity to it all (which I feel holds back the industry). We’d all benefit from being more honest with one another but some of the systematic problems prevent people from speaking their minds for fear of retaliation.
9. Right now, the way our phones are made, we’re allowed to live inside our heads for extended periods of time. We construct narratives about other people that aren’t based in reality, attach ourselves to the lives of famous people and popular strangers. Invariably, an intimate, one-sided connection can form that isn’t healthy in the slightest—but this new social media/omnipresent-tech paradigm has a tendency to treat it as, if not normal, then acceptable. How does ‘Lonely Receiver’ bridge our relationship with today’s technology to its nightmare scenario? Do you feel a future like ‘Lonely Receiver’ is possible?
I feel like a lot of things happening in Lonely Receiver are just logical extensions of what you just outlined. There’s an inauthenticity that has invaded almost all aspects of our lives and it’s not going to slow down. The idea of perceived ownership is already a discussion that’s happening with, say, digital movie rentals. You paid for it, you bought it, but you don’t “own” it outright.
I think our phones end up using us as much as we use them. It’s a symbiotic relationship that we’ve forged with technology but we’re under the impression that we’re in control. I’m not so sure. Even with everything I know, I’m still picking up my phone and doom-scrolling for hours to try and get a sense of control from the chaos.
I think we all long for this idea of control and every day new technologies are created to help us automate and control different aspects of our lives. Intimacy and technology are pretty deeply entrenched with one another now and I don’t think it’ll slow down. Perhaps it won’t get to the point of digital, non-corporeal partners but there’s already plenty of unhealthy ways phones affect personal relationships. (Like using technology to spy on or control one another). Our relationship with our phones is like any other intimate bond. If we don’t establish some healthy boundaries, it’ll turn toxic.
10. I want to get a bit weird here, Zac, if you’ll allow it. Let’s say you could digitally construct your idea of the optimum partner. Would you do this, and if you would, why?
Oh man, if I’ve learnt anything in life it’s that what you think you want and want you need are wildly different things. There is nothing on this planet I would trade for the complexity and idyosynracices of another human being. If you construct something with your own preconceptions and idealized dreams—all you’ll do is create a static figure that represents where you are currently. People grow, people change, people empower one another to be their best selves, and people are flawed. I’m flawed and weird. I rarely understand what I want until I’ve had a long time to think about it. So, I think I would always opt for a regular meaty human.
But I’ll say this—surround yourselves with people who are empathic, kind, brave, and driven. Leave people better off than they found you, seek to understand others, and remember that every healthy relationship has boundaries. Don’t be afraid to love and show love —it’s our greatest strength in this hell world.
‘Lonely Receiver’ #3 is in stores now. Contact your LCS to score a copy of your own.
Check out this 2-page preview of ‘Lonely Receiver’, courtesy of AfterShock Comics!
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