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An Interview WIth: Spencer Lamm - SciFiNow - The World's Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Magazine

An Interview WIth: Spencer Lamm

We speak to the editor of upcoming graphic novels The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition and Doc Frankenstein, as well as the creator of the original Matrix website, about working with the Wachowskis and his extensive career…

Can you tell us how you met the Wachowskis and got involved in The Matrix comics?

We met at Marvel comics, and worked on a book called Ectokid. Lana was hired to be the writer right at the same time I was hired. The Matrix was still years away at this point, this was mid-Nineties and The Matrix started filming in 1998 and the film came out in 1999.

At that point, Lana and Lily wanted to be filmmakers. They were writing a bunch of scripts and I have drafts of The Matrix that definitely pre-date the filmmaking draft by at least a couple of years. They actually wrote The Matrix before Bound, their first feature. The only reason Bound came about was because they got interest in The Matrix script but people didn’t fully understand it and the bigger thing was, they wanted to direct. For them to be given the trust as first-time directors for a relatively large budget sci-fi film, they were told to go and make something else that they could be judged on. So they went off and wrote for Dino De Laurentiis and wrote Bound.

It’s really great. In fact, Warner Bros had another neo-noir movie that cost more, the budget was higher, it got all the promotion and Bound came in and got all the accolades. At the time it didn’t burn up the box office but it was a super strong outing that was very easy to respect. That then more than got their feet in the door with Warner Bros executives.

That’s where [artist] Steve Skroce came in. They didn’t just do normal storyboards, Lana and Lilly had to go in to Warner Bros, and walk executives through the script. And they did that with two 11×17 book glyphs of Steve’s work. They were more than storyboards; they were basically full-on comic books and they walked the executives through visually what the film was. And then the rest is history.

What is your connection with The Matrix movie?

My connection with the film itself is that I stayed in touch [with the Wachowskis] after I left Marvel and would talk to Lana and get copies of the script as things were moving forward. And Lana was like: “If we do this, do you want to work on it and do comics?” it was all a bit maybe because they weren’t even sure if the movie was getting made.

[When filming eventually started] Steve and I jumped on a plane to Australia where they were filming in 1998. I didn’t have a firm plan but the bottom line is my theory of doing the comics turned into me doing The Matrix website. Thank God I went. I was going more as a vacation really. And it was amazing. I realised I had a tape recorder, a camera and access. So, I did interviews with Carrie Anne Moss and did all this stuff just because I was there! And that was all the content we used for the first wave of the website and the comics.

It was more passion and interest and excitement in the moment. I’d already met with the powers that be at Warner Bros so I knew I already had some kind of a budget to do a website and to put together the comics. There was no plan to get content or anything except go to Australia and see friends but then it turned out to be a Godsend.

I love the way back machine. You can literally punch in a date and 90% of the content back to the earliest incarnation of the website is available. If you look at the end pages in The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition book there are the actual news updates that I wrote throughout the dates of us releasing the comics.

Had you ever created a website before?

That was the first website I had ever done. I had an active interest in computers. One of the things I did at Marvel in the early days of computer graphics was I got a freelance editing job at Marvel Music to edit a book called The Grand Ole Oprey from Gene Colan who was a heavyweight Seventies comic book guy. I was brought into the project halfway through and was told that Marvel might be shutting down Marvel Music so if I don’t finish the book by a certain date, which was looming, there was a chance the book would never even get published. Gene Colan was doing pencils at a rate that there was no way this was going to get finished so I took some budget and rented the highest Mac I could get my hands on. I then had Benjamin Raab (who was the assistant editor on the X-Men comics at the time and is now a writer/producer on The Flash TV show and a bunch of other things) and his then-girlfriend, now wife, to pose in the positions of the different Gene Colan breakdowns and I took those photos and then using Photoshop blurred them into the art. I was not considering myself an artist. I was like ‘this is the only way this book can even possibly get done’. We finished it but the book never came out. I say all that because even from the earliest days, I liked playing with technology.

The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition.

Have you thought of opening the website up again?

I would love to and there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening right now. I mean the codes thing that we set up was something that I could not even imagine [doing] now. We would put stuff up and people would find things. At a certain point we started with a 4-digit code that would flip levers and give you access and then we went to 8-digit codes with switches. We went to 16. We went to 128 switches. I mean hundreds and thousands of different combinations. People still broke those codes. It was unbelievable. I mean we would hide ways to find the numbers but people still did that and got to that hidden content.

There were even dedicated websites to find the codes. It was very reactive so when we found out what was going on we set up the website www.hackthematrix.com – that was the beauty and freedom of it because there were no rules. It was so immediate. We were able to see the reaction and do something within the hour.

Were you doing the website and comics at the same time?

They were one and the same, the website was born of the comics. We would not have been doing the website the way we did it if we didn’t have the notion of ‘hey let’s do these comics, hey let’s do them digitally’. And then if we’re doing them digitally, we have to be in control more directly of the website.

At the time, Warner Bros kind of had its own in-house setup but websites were evolving. It was a bit of push and pull but eventually we did get complete control of thematrix.com and at that point it was whatisthematrix.com – even the website name was part of the marketing. If you look at the credits of the first Matrix film at the very end one of the last things is code=stake and that’s our first big major code for the website.

In your introduction to The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition, you wrote that you were shown an animated version of The Matrix comic to be published digitally but it didn’t really sit right with you…

Let me take you back to the Nineties… the internet has had a history of false starts but right then the internet was blowing up. If you look at the numbers it was nothing compared with how many people are online today or how widespread it is, but at that point it was about to take over the world. Flash animation was a really big thing and everyone thought it was a way to do comics as ‘cutting edge’. Some thought that you couldn’t just do static 2D online comics because ‘you’re doing this on the internet’. Everyone just thought the internet was this magical thing and everything should be bigger and brighter.

What are your thoughts on digital content now?

I’m loving the world we’re heading toward, what we’re doing digitally. I read tonnes [of content] digitally; I have a Kindle but I also have some 5000 books around me physically. So, I have a foot in both. The best use of the Kindle is it means I can always have two books on the go and the Kindle is perfect for anything over 300 pages.

Digital is awesome but I’m more intrigued with where we’re going. ComiXology has legitimised the access [for digital comic books]. Now I’m just curious about where we’re going. I mean, video and music and comics. Everything is being completely, fully monetised digitally. Thank God we’re seeing a resurgence though with records and even cassettes now and independent book stores are starting to rear their heads again. Thankfully.

I’m not of the belief that you can’t enjoy a comic digitally and absorb it but there is something about physically holding a book. Even to the creating of the book. We create these stories digitally and some of the stories in The Matrix book had never been printed. There is something awesome when the first book arrives as an advance from the printer that is so physically hard to quantify. It’s so cool.

I think we’ll see a new form of media in the foreseeable future, in our lifetimes. Even short term. Something that we don’t see coming, something like The Matrix, some form of virtual reality or immersive technology is definitely in our future. I suspect that it’s not going to come at us the way we think

You worked at Marvel for a time, how did that job come about?

I got into Marvel comics, partly from a book that I did in college called Expressions Of Dread where I just interviewed people I really wanted to talk to. One thing led to another and I did an internship at Marvel comics partly from Expressions Of Dread. I was reaching out to different people to do interviews, I interviewed Clive Barker and I also reached out to Mike Lackey, the star of Street Trash. He said: “Absolutely, I would love to do an interview, come to where I work” which happened to be Marvel comics. And it was awesome.

I grew up a fan of comics but I wasn’t necessarily in that moment like “oh my God I’m going to Marvel comics” – I was just going to interview Mike Lackey the star of Street Trash. So I show up at 387 Park Avenue South and go upstairs, get buzzed in and the first thing I see is Spider-Man. A guy dressed as Spider-Man of course, but in the Spider-Man pose, crouched down on a filing cabinet, 5 feet off the ground looking down at a bunch of kids that might have been between 8 and 12. They were looking up at Spider-Man as if they were meeting the Spider-Man…

So we did the interview and on my way out I had my hand on the door and I had one of those critical moments where you realise, ‘if I leave, I can just forget this or…’ and suddenly I can’t leave, so I go back to Mike and say “do you guys have an internship program?” and that altered the course of my life for the next number of years. To this day actually. So I got an internship and worked in The Punisher office of all things in the bullpen. There were no editorial jobs open but they were really awesome. Everyone there was awesome and they said we can teach you the basics. And I essentially got an art degree for working in the bullpen for just short of a year. Eventually an editorial job opened for Clive Barker’s Barkerverse and I immediately felt like if there was any editorial job that I could hopefully get, it would be that. Because of the experience I had with Expressions Of Dread with Clive Barker I got the nod.

The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition.

How has working on The Matrix affected your career?

That movie blew up and then I immediately found myself working on The Lord Of The Rings in New Zealand when that was filming. I found myself working with the Cohen brothers. I mean it was all web work for the next 10 years. So suddenly I was allowed to play and make my own rules. I established it by accident that it would be really helpful if I was on set so from that point forward I found myself on a bunch of film sets. That was amazing.

What made you decide to come back to The Matrix 20 years later?

The comics never went away completely and The Matrix is very personal to me. I can’t even imagine not wanting to put [the stories] out there.

Because we had decided to do Doc Frankenstein as an oversized book, we thought it would be cool to also do The Matrix as a slightly oversized book and just put everything that we’d done in the past in there. There was a lot of stuff. There are four new stories, a couple of freshly coloured Paul Chadwick stories and freshly coloured Tommy Lee Edward stories. So yeah essentially it came about that I wanted it [laughs].

I can absolutely say it was always in the back of my mind to do more Matrix stories in some way. Once we started talking to the printers about releasing Doc Frankenstein it seemed like such an obvious to put things together for The Matrix too. What would it look like? What size would we do? How much could we get in? We had all the digital files for the trade paperback but we had to think about little things like if you want to go bigger you need the print integrity for the files. Or if we go larger with the art can we keep the balloons the same size? No one does this because it’s crazy amounts of work but you can separate the layers of the balloons and the art. Keep the balloons the same size as a comic because it’s readable and then make the art bigger. So, you’re seeing more of the art. It’s a small thing but on the stories that we did it makes a big difference.

I was just excited to put together a single collection. I’m looking at it now and I’m ecstatic that this thing finally exists in a physical form.

I’m glad the opportunity came about to be able to do it. When it first came out it was just a marketing thing. It was a paid-for marketing tool but I like to think we did more than just a marketing thing with the budget that they gave us and created something that people actually wanted then and would have a life.

There are four new stories in The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition, can you tell us about those?

We already had 28 stories but when we did the trade paperbacks it broke down really easy into 12 stories for each. That left 4 stories. Well, actually, there’s a fifth that’s still not in the book unfortunately but mostly it was because of a resolution issue. It’s from Manex, the team that did some of the visual effects on the film.

So the four stories are not technically new they were just never before in print. It’s a beautifully unique situation to be able to have something new to print 20 years after it was first created.

There is something exciting about the tangibility of it. It’s weird in the intervening years that those stories existed but weren’t really accessible. So now that this is all in one place in this book it pleases me greatly.

A Matrix 4 has been announced. Is there going to be more from you in the way of comics or get the website open again?

It’s too soon to talk specifically about any of that. This book is coming out end of March for Titan so these are very much in play and alive. They’ve barely started filming for the fourth film but how cool is that?! I can’t friggin believe there’s a fourth film coming. There’s a lot more hopefully happening on all fronts buts it’s early days really.

There is a lot of variety in The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition – stories that are mainly prose and stories that are mainly comic. What are your thoughts on both of these forms of storytelling?

I’m an English major. I love comics but I did film studies at NYU, Lana and Lily love film, love literature and love comics. They were really specific about not wanting to just retell a story across each medium but to use the strengths of each medium that was best for that particular form of storytelling. That’s why the game is coming out. That’s why Enter The Matrix came out and told a different angle and a different story using many of the actors. The Animatrix, the comics they’re all telling stories through different angles. With the comics we didn’t want to limit it. I certainly didn’t. It was just a matter of reaching out to the authors to see their preferences. It always came down to the preference of the person we were talking to but it definitely made more sense to get a prose piece from say Harlan Ellison or Poppy Z Brite who didn’t have a lot of comic book experience. Harlan Ellison was big and he was an ongoing conversation and was always into it.

Were there any authors that you approached that got away?

Most of the people we got, Neil Gaiman, reaching out to Kurt Vonnegut (how crazy is that), that all happened back in 1998 before the film came out. The brunt of our list, though, joined after the movie came out

In 1998 we were already setting up lists, reaching out. Explaining what we wanted to do in a nutshell: ‘We have a small budget; we want to do a 10-page story centered on a film that’s coming out next year from Warner Bros. A sci-fi. Can we tell you more?’.

If they said yes then we would send them the script. There was no security, it was a different time. Some people, like Bill Sienkiewicz, responded really well and I am completely indebted. But some people, who will remain nameless, responded with not-so-kind words. And it’s not even that they were mean. It was more “didn’t Keanu Reeves star in Johnny Pneumonic, just a couple years ago?”. They just weren’t open to it.

I also reached out to Alan Moore I should add. He’s awesome. He definitely gave us a firm no, but I got him on the phone and he was nice and he was cordial and he heard me out. I think he gets a bad rap.

Speaking of Alan Moore, can you tell us more about your work on V For Vendetta?

That was wonderfully tricky. For V For Vendetta I was very careful in that I did the book ‘from script to screen’ because that was what the mandate was. In the book, we didn’t have any images from the comic. We didn’t even really talk about the comic. Which is a really hard mandate for making a book for a film based on a comic!

We ended up using [V For Vendetta’s director] James McTeigue’s actual script which was kind of fun in that his script had all of his notes. So, in the script you have all his notes about what he wants from actors or as he’s figuring out what he wants to do to direct it and then we had all sorts of supplemental stuff in the back. But it’s a great film and now that mask is crazily iconic. V For Vendetta is still shocking relevant considering what year it came out.

Do you think about doing more Matrix comics?

This project got me talking to almost everyone I worked with on this book over the past six months/year. So, yes, in a nutshell. There are tons of people I’d like to work with, like Alex Ross. I was the assistant editor on Marvels, which just hit a milestone, and we actually have a sketch. We went as far as he actually went and did a potential pin-up with Neo surrounded by Agent Smith. It never actually happened and I forget why. Alex and I were talking about it not so long ago. There’s nothing more fun than having worked on this project and more importantly with these really creative people. The people who were into it before the film came out, it helps that they were creative and talented themselves enough to recognise that this is a cool story that I can do something with.

Once the film came out, I can’t express to you, I can’t communicate how different things were from before the film came out to after. It was so otherworldly after it blew up.

How do you feel when you think back on your work on The Matrix?

There are certain things that I’d be a fan of even if I’d had nothing to do with them. The beautiful thing about my role is that I was able to help where I could but since I wasn’t necessarily part of the production itself, I could so beautifully sit back and appreciate it. The team that ended up working on The Matrix website, they all loved it. They were all working on a million projects. We got into a screening ahead of the release. They were all into it, but it was just a project. The minute we saw the film on the big screen (even if you knew the script, or were like me for well over a year, had been deeply steeped in the mythos) it was, powerful. RATM playing and Neo flying up from that phone booth… it left everybody stunned. I’m a fan.

Doc Frankenstein.

Can you tell us more about the Doc Frankenstein collection? What made you come back to it?

We put out a trade paperback of some of the Doc Frankenstein issues in 2014 and then we thought we would come out with a second volume soon thereafter. However, various things got in the way, be it pulls to other films or artist Steve Skroce needing to draw more, but we always wanted to get Doc Frankenstein out there and I think Steve’s only got better.

Doc Frankenstein has quite controversial subjects, did you ever question on whether to include some of those themes?

Did we ever think ‘should we do this?’. No. We reinterpreted Frankenstein. That’s absolutely one of the reasons we were doing it ourselves. There was never a discussion about pulling back. If anything, it was how far can we go. It wasn’t even about pushing boundaries. The idea of any form of limitation wasn’t there. I will say with Warner Bros when we did The Matrix, we were definitely aware of limitations. The Matrix was actually easier once we came to printing it because I’d realised it was dark and we’d already done some censoring. We didn’t censor the stories so far as tone or content where people died. A lot of those stories are still pretty violent but Doc Frankenstein definitely hits hot buttons that The Matrix doesn’t, for instance, in religion. I mean, there’s like an orgy with a priest and a fairy in Doc Frankenstein! It’s a double page spread with the priest orgy – that’s taking it to the next level and I love it. I think it’s great. And the printed book is even bigger than The Matrix book.

With the religion and the pushing buttons, we’re drawing attention to the fact that our freedoms are to be protected even if you don’t like it. Just be aware. Have critical thinking.

What’s next for you?

There’s not a lot I can talk about but now The Matrix and Doc Frankenstein are out, it is making me think of going back to [another thing from my past] and doing something with Expressions Of Dread, with all those interviews. I’m not sure how/what I’m going to do that but that’s kind of exciting. That’s where I first met Poppy Z Brite and Clive Barker who I mentioned. I kind of like this idea because it’s another thing that’s important to me. A milestone. I guess I really like the idea of doing things that are personal and considering that is the very first thing that led me to all these other incredible overwhelming things that I’ve done. In regards to The Matrix, V For Vendetta, O Brother Where Art Thou. Working with Terry Gilliam on Brothers Grimm very briefly. Crazy awesome things. That’s where it started for me. That’s one thing I can actually absolutely say. I’m not sure in what form but I’m dusting off those files now…

The Matrix Comics: 20th Anniversary Edition and Doc Frankenstein will both be released on 6 March in the UK from Titan Comics. To read SciFiNow’s reviews of both graphic novels make sure you grab our March issue – out 6 March. Subscribe here.