Since March of this year, Image Comics has been publishing The Discipline, a series written by Peter Milligan and illustrated by Leandro Fernandez. The story follows a woman named Melissa, unhappy in her marriage, who “falls in lust with a stranger who's an awful lot more than he seems.” Clearly geared towards an adult audience, the book does not hold back on the sex and violence inherent in its story, but it does so with plenty of style and substance.
This October, Image will be releasing a trade paperback edition collecting the first six issues of the book (which make up the first storyline. Milligan and Fernandez were good enough to talk to us about their work on this series, and what the future holds.
R!S!P!: Your latest series, The Discipline published through Image Comics, takes its central character – a Manhattan house wife named Melissa Peake – into some very dark territory. Where did the inspiration for this series come from and why the decision to publish through Image as opposed to Vertigo?
PM: As usual, a few different strands of interest came together. I’ve been interested in the idea of a sexually-charged and dangerous group lurking in the shadows for some time (see my earlier Vertigo series The Extremist). When I was young I felt myself to be on the fringes of what I imagined to be such a society. The work of a feverish young mind, perhaps, but it has stayed with me and I’ve been fascinated to explore…to imagine what that group might have been. And then you have the main character of Melissa. I’m always interested in people who straddle more than one world, people who, say, come from working class backgrounds but end up moving in different circles. Melissa is such a woman, a blue collar background but now living a fantastic highlife in Manhattan. But now even this act of social chameleonism pales as she is forced to deal with a world that’s totally beyond what she previously thought possible. As for Vertigo as opposed to Image, when Vertigo saw what we were producing I think they thought it was a little rich for their blood, or something. But luckily The Discipline found a home with Image, which has been great: it's the perfect place for a book like The Discipline.
R!S!P!: The series deals, frequently, with sex. But it does so in a decidedly strange way, it’s almost disturbing at times. How would you sum up the relationship between Melissa and Orlando, the ‘man’ she finds solace with while dealing with her antagonistic husband?
PM: The sex is certainly not your flowers and chocolates and shy kisses kind of sex, and I suppose some people could find that disturbing. Personally I usually find the way sex is portrayed in comics – and films and movies – to be pretty disturbing, and pretty unrealistic. The Discipline might depict something extreme and on the face of it unusual but I think comes closer to capturing something of the true effect that sex – especially transgressive sex – can have on the senses. Melissa is frustrated. The way she is obsessed by the painting of the Satyr proves that. Orlando comes along at just the right time. So though it might look as though he is “seducing” her – and he is, in a way – in another way she is allowing herself to be seduced, she is a willful, conscious partner in the dance. At the beginning, then, both Orlando and Melissa are using each other: she wants him for excitement, sexual and otherwise, and he wants her so as to further the aims of The Discipline. But these two quickly start to feel something for each other. One could say they begin to fall in love. It’s a love that puts them both in grave danger…
R!S!P!: In the first issue you reference Goya paintings – was that work an influence on you here? Any other specific outside influences work their way into the story that you care to elaborate on?
PM: There was no one specific Goya painting but I do love his work. I wanted to capture some of his darkness, some of his strangeness, in The Discipline. When I decided use a painting of a satyr in the first issue how I imagined it was as a Goya painting. I might even been in an art gallery, looking at some old masters, when I had this thought. Leandro did a great job in creating this imaginary Goya.
R!S!P!: You’ve written everything from mainstream superhero comics to darker Vertigo properties and now The Discipline – where do your preferences lie, do you prefer to work on more adult, creator owned projects like this or more mainstream fare?
PM: I don’t know about preference. You’d say that my strengths and interests probably veer more towards the dark, twisted, adult side of things. But some of my best work has also been done in more mainstream comics. I’m very proud of X-Statix, and a lot of people still love that book. Smaller tales like my Rhino Tangled Web also shower a lighter side of Milligan--– if a brooding 5000Ib brute like Rhino could be said to be lighter than anything!
R!S!P!: While the series clearly deals with Melissa’s sexual awakening through her exploits with Orlando, it also sees her take on a more dominant role in their collective struggle against the Stalkers. I’m sure this was planned from the start. But as you write each new issue, are you finding the story takes you in new directions too? Or is it all very clearly laid out in your head before you start writing?
PM: I like to give my characters a bit of freedom to move around, for new ideas or themes to appear or surprise me. I know the destination, I know the main stopping points and turning points, but the road on that journey can sometimes take me to some unexpected places.
R!S!P!:Unrelated to The Discipline but you recently brought back Bad Company in the pages of 2000 A.D. and it was great. What are the odds you’ll return to those characters?
PM: I have to say, I loved working with those characters again. It came at a very strange time, as Brett Ewins, one of Bad Company’s original creators and an old friend, died just as Rufus Dayglo, Jim McCarthy and I were starting work on it so Brett was obviously in all our memories when we were doing it. So in a way this comic became a kind of homage to his memory. I think the reason it worked was because it had something new to say, and though it was using a lot of the old characters it wasn’t treading over old ground. I think my doing another series depends on me again having something new to say with the characters again. I have some ideas but it’s early days, I think.
R!S!P!: You’ve worked in comics in the British industry and in the American industry. Do you find a lot of differences between them? If so, why do you think that is?
PM: Mostly it’s a matter of scale and reach. It’s much smaller over here, obviously. With good old 2000 A.D. even the episodes are smaller – six pages – but this presents an interesting challenge. Sometimes I think it’s hard to talk about a British Comics Industry, in the way you talk about an American. There are a few magazines, a few comics and a few publishers, does that constitute an industry? There are of course underground comics in the UK and fanzines and many fans who turn up at conventions or signings. Maybe this is where the heart of any “industry” really lies. A kind of people's industry, maybe.
R!S!P!: How would you saw that the industry on either side of the Atlantic has changed since you started writing in the early eighties?
PM: It’s changed more than once. It became very exciting. And now the two big things that have changed everything again are probably social media and movies. Social media, digital comics, is probably part of the future and for all with know could be amazing, with some really exciting potential. I believe that sometimes movies and TV have had a more malign influence. There are those in the industry who seem to believe that comics should be little more than “feeder clubs” for TV or Movies, and that you can only judge a comic book’s worth by its ability to be turned into one of these other media. I don’t subscribe to that point of view.
R!S!P!: In regards to working with Leandro Fernandez, did you have him in mind for the series since the beginning or did you choose your artist later on in the writing process?
PM: No, it was Will Denis’ editor at Vertigo and the man whom I worked with on The Discipline, who showed me Leandro’s work. I was, of course, blown away.
R!S!P!: What would you say Fernandez brings to the series that makes it stand out – the style really is quite unique!
PM: What I love is that Leandro puts as much attention or effort into the light falling between two buildings in Manhattan as he does the light falling across the naked body of a woman (or man) in sexual ecstasy. I think this is one of the things that gives The Discipline is unnerving quality, the feeling that everything has erotic potential. And this is not just being fanciful: it’s what happens to Melissa. Her world is changed. Her world is eroticized, undergoes its own metamorphosis, even as she is changed.
R!S!P!: The setting for the comic is New York City. Why?
PM: I liked the way you could visit your blue collar family in your blue collar neighbourhood and then drive to this different world, of hedge fund managers and zillionaires, Manhattan, the centre of the universe (as they would see it).
R!S!P!: You mentioned it earlier but years back you wrote a mini-series called The Extremist (great art from Ted McKeever) that really stood out at the time as something completely unique and exciting. Some of the themes from that book sort of carry over into The Discipline. Was that a launching point in a sense for you?
PM: I think that’s a fair statement. It was another book where I explored and imagined certain scenarios, inspired no doubt by my experiences when younger. I always felt that was just the beginning. I had more to say, and more importantly I had different things to say. The Extremist felt like a finite story that had ended so I didn’t want to do an Extremist part Two: better, I thought, to explore some of those dark obsessions from a different angle. To create something even darker, even more shocking.
R!S!P!: With The Discipline’s first story arc having finished with issue six, without spoiling things, what can readers look forward to in future installments of the series?
PM: I’m plotting that out right now. We find out more about both the Stalkers and The Discipline, and as Melissa progresses in the Discipline we see the terrible moral and physical demands it calls upon her.
And yes, there'll be more sex.
R!S!P!: You’ve collaborated with Peter Milligan before – how would you describe his style and what do you think makes your artwork such a good fit for his stories?
LF: Mostly, I feel that Peter and I are on the same frequency. He gives me descriptions of things that I need to pay attention to only when it’s necessary, and leaves it open to my judgment the other times… always with a natural flow. It’s like we don’t need to make that clear at all… it’s implicit.
His style is unpredictable in terms of the story he’s writing and he might become edgy sometimes. That’s why he is so good for these kinds of stories. That’s why The Discipline gets so interesting and provocative.
In regards to my artwork, I feel very enthusiastic about drawing this project because of the subject itself, and at the same time it arrived in my career at the right moment, when I think I’ve become more mature, I’ve got more experience. This wouldn’t have been the same if I’d have done this 15 years ago for example. After working so many years I know better what I want to draw, and how to make it and in which fields I could be more comfortable.
R!S!P!: When you’re given a new issue to draw, is it pretty much spelled out exactly what needs to be on the page or are you given room to interpret the story, visually at least, in your own manner?
LF: If the story needs some detail to be specifically told, Peter will tell me that in the script. Besides this, and for the rest of things to be described, I have all the room I need to tell the story the way I consider to be best. And, for an artist who thinks the storytelling is so important like me, this is very good. So I can work on telling the story as I consider the best, visually speaking.
R!S!P!: The Discipline deals quite often in sex and in violence – has there been anything thrown at your thus far in the series that’s been a challenge to draw in that regard?
LF: Not technically. The challenge comes from other side, the way I see it. Even if I don’t consider myself as an artist who draws easily, and I have to work hard to achieve the proper results I visualize, drawing is the part of the process that comes faster (even if it sounds contradictory)… I put the biggest part of my effort on “thinking” out the page when I have it all blank, and there’s just the script that tells me what I have to show.
I used to spend more time on the penciling before. Now I spend most of the time on the layouts. To tell the story right, to decide what I will show or what not to show, is what makes me think the most. And many times that effort comes from ordinary pages on a sequence, and things that are not so tricky. The interesting shots, the moments of action, sex… even the violent scenes, they become easier by their own nature. Just showing them speaks for themselves… even if how to show them is another deal.
So I could say I got more practice on doing the pencils, but my effort now points mostly to the way I make the layouts of the page. The stage before the pencils.
R!S!P!: One of the great things about the look of this book is how much detail goes into the New York City backgrounds (as someone who lives in NYC this is much appreciated!). How much research do you do here? It really makes a big difference in the visuals!
LF: Well… I love to go NY, and I pay a lot of attention to details… this is such a fascinating city, and it changes frequently. I have to keep myself updated and with an eager eye to catch those details… and I take pictures and get references of it all the time. Besides this, I’ve worked several years for Marvel, and a lot of their stories take place in Manhattan, so I feel very familiar with it. But yeah, there is a lot of research, I use a lot of references.
R!S!P!: A lot of the characters in the book are drawn to look long, thin and almost angular, Melissa in particular. Was this a conscious decision on your part and is there a reason for this?
LF: Melissa is thought as to be a vulnerable looking young woman, that’s why she is thin. She has narrow shoulders, for example… I wanted to move away from the usual superhero type of woman, with big tits, and muscled legs and arms: she’s a real one, with human fears, reactions, and life… she isn’t too tall, and she doesn’t have a supermodel body, neither… she was imagined to be an ordinary looking girl. Beautiful, but not out of the average. Someone you can cross any day walking by the street.
The Discipline monsters look, in fact, thinner than humans, but this is because of the nature of these creatures… they are like a cold-blooded kind of animal, very agile, they can climb and jump very far away like giant frogs, their skins are dark and wet like the amphibians, quite the opposite to their antagonist by nature, the Stalkers, which are more “earthy”, heavy and hairy.
R!S!P!: On a personal level, what’s more fun to draw in this series – The sex? The horror? The drama? Or the simpler scenes of thoughtful character development? Why?
LF: Well… as I said before, the hard thing is to draw something usual to become something interesting. Or, at least, to avoid the readers losing interest when they go through these necessary kinds of pages on every story: it can’t be always about action, sex or tension. Every story needs a time to slow down. And I feel a lot of interest drawing these… here is where I find the challenge. The interesting situations are interesting per se. When drawing sex scenes, I must confess I have to put my mind into that frequency to get the right mood. So drawing them… it IS interesting, indeed!
R!S!P!: Your cover pieces for this series are very striking. What’s the most important aspect of coming up with the cover images for The Discipline and how do you try to set them apart from the hundreds of other books competing for readers’ attention on the racks?
LF: I always work with a core concept when I work on a system of covers. I say a “system”, because the covers have to work together as that… pieces of a bigger thing. They have to be recognizable as parts of something… they have to have a relationship between each others, to tell the readers this is the same book they’re reading… that they are on the same level.
For this series I’ve focused on having simple images with concepts of the interior story (not shots exactly as they are… I try to get the essence of the sequence), then the use of black and white, the colors, the composition… And there it is. There’s already a line of rules to move in between.
R!S!P!: Some of the more erotically charged scenes look a little bit like they could have been influenced by Guido Crepex or Milo Manara. Who would you say our artistic influences are and how have they inspired you and your work?
LF: I don’t like to talk too much about my influences. Mostly because it belongs to such a long time ago stage, the moment where I was learning to draw and work. When I was beginning I would always try to forget about them, and focus on doing more personal work even since the beginning of my career.
Of course, both Crepax and Manara are great artists who I admire and I’ve watched a lot, on my stage of learning, as well as even today, because I continue to enjoy their work. But I’ve been spending so many years on the drawing board trying to let my own personal work come to the surface that I don’t have my mind busy with older references.
I do pay attention to the things that inspire me, but they don’t have to be comic artists… now I see it in other things, like movies… I love to “catch” special shots, framings, use of lights, for example. Or paintings. Or TV series. Even reading non-visual books helps me to see the world in a different way. Even music does that too! Or travelling!
So I’d say my attention is turned into trying to find new ways of thinking, to keep my mind always eager for new things. If something does this, I guess that will be transmitted to my work.
R!S!P!: Like Peter, you’ve also worked on a broad spectrum of titles, working on Marvel superhero fare as well as more experimental, adult oriented books like The Discipline. Which do you prefer and why?
LF: I think this is about stages of the career. When I started working, right at my first beginning, I just wanted to work. That was my first desire, no matter what I had to draw, I wanted to work in comics. After this, I had moment where I wanted to draw specific characters: I’ve done Wolverine, I’ve done Hulk, Punisher, New Mutants… at this stage I’ve realized how important it is to work with good writers, because I had the chance to work with great ones.
Right now my goal is to work on new creations, with great writers too. As it’s the case of The Discipline or The Names, both written by Peter. This is something I feel very comfortable with at the moment, and more importantly, I feel I can move naturally… I have the sensation that this is the way I can get the best out of me doing this job. To create something new, from the scratch… Let’s see what happens.
R!S!P!: One thing that’s appealing about the artwork in The Discipline is the wardrobe. The characters often have a distinct style of dress, and sometimes undress (!), that suits their personalities. Is this something that you’re conscious of as you draw the series and if so, where do you draw inspiration from?
LF: One of thing I used to say when I talked to drawing students is that everything we see on a drawing is meant to be there… it is there because we decided to put it there. Nothing is casual. Every little detail is conceived to be there…. This is not like making a movie where, for example, a bird crosses the screen accidentally and we just leave it there because it looks good: if there will be a bird, it will be there because we decided to put it there.
The same thing happens with the wardrobe. With the underclothes. With even every little detail of every character. Even with their movements… just because we see them on a fixed image, this doesn’t mean they don’t have to show gestures, a way of standing, a way of looking between each other… we have to keep an eye on everything.
And, in the case of clothing, specifically, I do a lot of research, yes especially with a character like Melissa, who is supposed to be a rich, fancy woman. I have to work a lot looking not only for her clothes, but her bags, shoes, combs, accessories… everything. It’s a side of the work I have to be aware of all of the time.
R!S!P!: Aside from The Discipline, what other projects do you have in the works that fans can look forward to?
LF: As I said before, now I’m focused on developing new creations. A new project I’m working on right now, The Old Guard, is written by Greg Rucka. It is another creator owned book which will be published by Image, too. This will be out in February, and has been recently announced. It will also be for mature readers. It’s a story about a group of immortal warriors but set in the present day, where they have to face new situations in different scenarios. I find it very interesting! And I hope people who felt interest in The Discipline will approach this series too!