From Martian Lit Comics comes a fantastic new anthology series, The Tessellation. Writer Mike Phillips sat down with Monkeys Fighting Robots to talk about his strange and brilliant new sci fi series.
About The Tessellation #1:
What if every decision you (n)ever made, big or small, became a new reality, with infinite you’s living out those decisions. What if you could travel to these other realities, even observe other versions of you? Welcome to The Tessellation. This dazzling, mind-bending first issue tells four related stories in four separate “reality rows,” playing out horizontally through the issue… Buckle up for a new kind of anthology!
Written by Mike Phillips, with art by Hernán González, colors by Javi Laparra, and letters by Julian Darius and Steven Legge.
Monkeys Fighting Robots: Thanks for being willing to do this interview. Again, I absolutely loved this issue and am excited to talk about it. I feel like there’s so much to talk about and I could go on for days. This is really one of those issues that when people read it they’re all going to go, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that!”
Mike Phillips: It’s my pleasure! Thank you for the compliments! I’m so happy you liked it!
MFR: My first question for you is something you cover a little in your afterword, but I’d still love to revisit it. You mention that THE TESSELLATION #1 partially sprung from your anxieties as a new parent, finding that you picture yourself doing the wrong thing. How did you go about harnessing that and making a story out of it?
Phillips: I don’t know about other parents’ experiences, but I know from mine that there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t feel like I could have done more with / for my kids. I’m tired. I’m grading quizzes. I’m writing. I’m decompressing from work. I’m whatever. And during all of that, my boys are asking to play, asking about life, needing to be fed, needing to be washed, wanting to tell me a non-sequitur-laden adventure they had. And when I sometimes say “I can’t do that right now,” I immediately feel like a piece of shit. It’s inevitable and depressing.
But not only that, I’m in charge of these wonderful beings. Their life is in my hands most of the day. I drive them around. I make sure they don’t fall off of the playset. I make sure they don’t choke on their food. You get the idea. You can imagine what my overactive imagination does with all of that stimuli. And then there’s a whole other branch of this relating to how I treat my wife… So long story short, it’s pretty easy to come up with a bunch of story ideas of a dad / husband who fucks all of that stuff up.
MFR: Another thing you mention, which I love, is your willingness to just do things with the idea that “If it makes sense to you, then keep going!” A lot of writers have a tendency to do too much hand holding, but you just throw us right into it. It’s great! Did that approach happen from the beginning or did you go through a few drafts before working up to that?
Phillips: Yes, that was the game plan from the outset. It was the only way this comic was going to get finished. And as I mention in the backmatter of the issue, it’s all David Lynch’s influence. That dude rarely explains anything. And that was a mantra for me. I’m an over-explainer by trade; as a K-to-12 teacher I was taught to deliver the curriculum in many different ways. (They called it “differentiated instruction”; every student absorbs information in their own way, so try to reach them all by disseminating the info in as many ways as you can: verbal, visual, auditory, tactile, etc.)
I had to mute that instinct, which was a challenge, because I’m OCD, so there’s always an urge to say it and double back and say it again in a different way. But being a student of David Lynch helped me just shut all of that out and trust where the story took me.
MFR: I just kind of marvel at your confidence in storytelling, in that sense. It’s very refreshing.
Phillips: Thank you so much! I had a lot of good teachers: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, David Lynch, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Paul Chadwick, Christopher Nolan, and Julian Darius. They created the guide posts.
MFR: This next question is kind of a double-whammy. Your titles are awesome. The Tessellation is great, tessellations even show up on the page layout. “A Nicer Cage” is also brilliant. How do you feel these titles tie into the themes of what you’re talking about?
Phillips: The Tessellation as a title was a long time coming. How to sum up the Multiverse, you know? Eventually I settled on the idea that all of our realities are right next to each other. All nestled in together. Just a decision away from each other. I was trying to find a title that would encompass the entire thing. So I envisioned that every reality was a corridor, from the past to the future. The best “tube” I came across was a hexagon, as they can tessellate into infinity, so I ran with it. Only later did I remember that the linoleum flooring of my childhood home was a hexagonal tessellation. Branded in my brain, I guess. The pattern repeated from the dinner table to the stove to the fridge. The hexagons were brown and the lines between were beige. Totally ’80s! As far as the issue’s title “A Nicer Cage,” I’m going to leave that to interpretation.
MFR: Going back to the tessellations on the page layout: that’s a really effective technique. Artist Hernan Gonzalez does some incredible work throughout the issue. Did you both come up with that technique together? Was it you? Was it Gonzalez?
Phillips: It was me. My longtime collaborator Julian Darius [Sequart, Martian Lit] made the hexagonal “reality borders” from my instructions. I needed a non-verbal way to communicate to the reader that these stories are in different realities, and this seemed like the simplest solution. So after Hernan delivered the art, Julian laid the “reality borders” over the relevant spots.
MFR: This issue is such a great one-shot. Of course, you have more planned as you’re already working on the script of #2. But there are a couple things in this issue that feel like they hint at a larger arc. Loose ends which, even if they just stay loose, are kind of satisfying in a mysterious way, but could lead to more. Do you plan on having these issues include connecting characters and overarching stories? If so, how many issues are you hoping to produce?
Phillips: Yes, there will be many connections throughout the series. It’s a slow burn, however, so I’m hoping readers will be patient with me! My goal is to make at least 25 issues before I go into “crazy climax & finale mode”. But yeah, there will be loose ends that won’t get fully answered, and I’m okay with that. That’s for the readers’ imaginations to fill in, which is another great lesson from Lynch: “If you answer every mystery — if everything gets solved — why would anyone talk about it afterwards?”
MFR: The actual structure this issue takes is just fantastic. The parallel storylines. You mention in your afterword that issue #2 will have characters that are very different from each other. Is that affecting the structure of the issue as you write it?
Phillips: Thank you! The structure for issue #2 is slightly different, but that’s the joy of using this format; there are mutations and avenues I didn’t think of in the first issue. But I’m sure that if readers figured out how to absorb issue #1, then issue #2 will be no problem. Incidentally, issue #3 will be a typical anthology with no “reality rows”. Just a few stories moving the whole series forward.
MFR: You mention some of the work that inspired issue #1. People who you say were good teachers throughout the process, like Morrison, Moore, Gaiman and Herbert. Who were some of your influences for issue #2?
Phillips: I decided that since issue #1 focuses on various versions of a man, issue #2’s main character should be a woman, so I came up with Camila Rodriguez-Santiago. A lot of issue #1 leans heavily on “write what you know”, so I figured #2 should be a foray into personal unknowns. There was a lot more research involved this time. I decided one of the versions of Camila would get into politics, and over the past few years I’ve been inspired and energized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, and Elizabeth Warren.
During my research, I discovered U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter, who recently passed away, but her legacy as an advocate for women’s rights and women’s health was a huge find for me. Simply put, she was awesome. Look her up. Camila’s mom is a strong presence in the issue, and a major influence on Camila, so I made sure to focus on the major female influences in my life: my wife, my mom, and my sister. Between the three of them, I’ve learned so much about empathy, ingenuity, art, self-respect, and tenderness. I’m doing my best to pour aspects of that into these characters.
MFR: And lastly, when are we going to see a TV show of this? I mean, come on! It’s just waiting to be adapted.
Phillips: 2022! Just kidding. (But thank you for the compliment!) Yeah, this has crossed my mind once or twice, and I’m 100% open to seeing other media interpret it. But I did use some of the comics medium’s most unique elements to make it as hard as possible to adapt, didn’t I?! (Totally worth it, though!) I can definitely see a major streaming service using remote-control functionality to allow the viewer to move between the issue #1’s various stories / realities to create an interactive experience.
MFR: Thank you for chatting with us about this! It was a pleasure to read!
Phillips: Thank you! It’s so satisfying to hear that you were entertained! Mission accomplished!