The first time I got a heads up about Prison City I was interviewing Tim Fielder for another BlackSci-Fi.com piece about his art retrospective last summer in NYC. Before the guests arrived for the opening, he was working on some of the promotional art for Prison City and swore me to secrecy then, but promised details later on.
Flash forward to 2017’s 5th annual Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York. Through the magic of the interwebs, I was able to schedule a few minutes with the creative team of Prison City, writer David F. Walker and artist Tim Fielder ,to find out about this provocative title.
David F. Walker: Prison City is a creator owned comic book series, that takes place in an America not unlike our own. Essentially an entire city has been turned into the world’s largest privately-owned prison. I’m not doing a very good job describing it because it almost sounds like Escape From New York, but it’s nothing like that.
It’s really a metaphor about poverty, the disparity of wealth here in the United States and the criminalization of just being a person who has very little. There’s two narratives, one is a guard who works at the prison, another an inmate, and we follow the decline and evolution of this particular version of the United States.
BSF: Would you say it’s near future, the next five to ten years or alternate side future sort of like Fringe?
DFW: It’s an alternative narrative to history, it takes place right about now, we’re never a hundred percent clear but the events of 9/11 greatly influenced the course of history of this particular version of the United States. The war in Iraq goes a lot worse then the war in reality, and that went really bad. We see the machine that went into play during the early days of the war trying to rebuilding Iraq, what would happen if that took over more of the United States and so we see a lot that.
It’s also about the prison industrial complex, one of the most lucrative businesses in the United States. The criminalization especially of people of color, poor people. How do you tell the story about that and the resilience of what it takes to stand up to an oppressive regime that keeps us marginalized and criminalized.
BSF: With your other book Nighthawk, I know you’ve been vocal about social injustice. Was there a particular incident that planted the seed for this project?
DFW: It’s been an idea in my mind for a long time. I’ve always been a somewhat socially conscious person and the prison industrial complex and privatized prisons is a huge problem in this country. When you look at how incarceration rates have increased over the last 20, 40 years, especially people of color who have been incarcerated, it’s an epidemic. I had seen a documentary around 10 years ago about a small town in California and how it had been impacted economically because a prison went in.
Most of the people that lived in the town either worked for the prison or they were families that had moved into town so that they could be near their loved ones who were incarcerated. This happens near a lot of prisons in California, a lot of prisons everywhere. Louisiana’s another state like that. But I remember seeing that documentary and thinking what would be the next natural extension of that and looking at cities like Detroit, that were falling apart and some of the ways that big corporations have come in and exploited the poverty that goes on in America.
To me the ultimate exploitation of poverty is the criminalization of poverty, which is ultimately what black people and a lot of poor people in this country face, is that the circumstances of poverty then lead them into an underground economy or survival skills that often go against law and order and then they end up in prison. What we do as writers, we try to come up with a way to make this one or two steps removed from reality, just enough that we can look and go “wow this is entertaining” without totally scaring the s*** out of people with too much reality and give it a slightly sci-fi angle.
BSF: Tim what format will you be using for creating the art for Prison City? Will you be using traditional pen and pencil or will you be working digitally like you do with Matty’s Rocket?
Tim Fielder: Yes, it will be all digital. I traditionally have been using a lot of Photoshop with a little bit of Manga Studio, but now I have invested in the full-on version of Manga Studio, so I can accommodate more of David’s script writing stuff in terms of story structure. I’m still trying to get that down, but Prison City will be a Manga Studio book where the inking in some cases will be made with Mischief, fantastic line work that it has and I’ll be using that. All digital. I don’t even work analog anymore.
BSF: With the both of you being very busy cats how are you going to get Prison City done?
TF: What’s the word you use, “over committed”? Now I know exactly what he’s saying with that.
DFW: Yeah, I’ve got Power Man & Iron Fist, Occupy Avengers, and Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes which is wrapping up and there a lot of things coming up that I can’t talk about in 2017. Some are creator owned stuff, some stuff for Marvel, and a couple of other publishers, but it’s all hush hush. With Prison City, it depends on how well received it is. The first story arc will be 5 issues, but there’s no point in doing a 60 issues series if nobody buys the first 5. I’m writing it in installments so the story arcs are very specific, and you don’t have to read them in any particular order to get the entire story.
BSF: How do you guys work on the story? Is it organically shaped, do you bounce ideas off one another or do you have set ideas?
DFW: I’m a very strict taskmaster.
TF: No we tried that bouncing stuff off, it doesn’t work with this guy. When he writes, he writes something he’s very concrete about it and you must let him do what he has to do and not be like “hey man, I’ll just start on a few sketches and…” No! It doesn’t work that way with this guy. He has to get his pound of flesh, and then when he’s done you can go in and have your piece of the meal after that. Would that be accurate?
BSF: Since we’re talking story structure, it sounds like you prefer working straight scripts and not Marvel style with a plot. Do you have an idea where you want the story to go when you write?
DFW: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I’m realizing now that with Prison City I have a lot of ideas but not enough structure. That’s what slowed the process down as I realize I needed to have a much tighter outline or else I’m going to paint myself into a corner, then have to work that much harder and I don’t want that kind of challenge at this point in my life.
I had a really loose outline and realized that it was too loose, I needed to focus. I also realized something was missing from the story, and I didn’t know it was missing until I was working on the first issue and there was a perspective that was needed to be brought in. Then it was like “okay if I had outlined this more tightly I would have known this”. A lot of it was me thinking I could half-ass it and then I was like “why would I half-ass a creator owned thing, something that is my property, something that I’ve a got a good part of?”.
TF: It took me a while to understand that that’s the way he works. But you know sometimes that’s the thing, artists can be very arrogant, “hey I could do my thing”, but then you begin to realize it’s really cool when you have a writer who knows exactly what they want and what they don’t want.
So what I’ve had to do is understand that process, because what this is right now is very much a collaboration. It’s the first time I’ve ever collaborated with someone who is such a dense writer like this. Most folks they’re novelists. This dude, I got to give it to him I have wouldn’t want to be inside his head.
DFW: I don’t want to be inside my head.
TF: But you are fortunately. And I have learned over time to understand that that’s the way it is and it’s a good thing. That’s his brand.
TF: There’s a bunch of different things. A lot of them are ideas, of being free to to come up with concepts that will ultimately end up in the story. I like his openness in that regard, he’s a little bit demented and then I occasionally, because I’m from Mississippi and I was also born and raised demented, we’re both sick puppies. Beyond that, the other thing that’s really important about Prison City, I think this could be his masterpiece.
DFW: Thanks for the pressure. Are you saying this could be my It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back? No pressure there.
TF: He’s putting a lot of damn pressure and energy and angst. Do you do all this for Powerman & Iron Fist?
DFW: I do put a lot of time and energy into everything. When I was writing Nighthawk, studying the history of Chicago, what was going on with gentrification and all the violence, I was trying to understand it. I did tons of research on the World Trade Center when I was writing Shaft. All this time and research, almost none of it goes into the actual book, but it goes into my understanding of that world.
I’m writing this book about the prison industrial complex, so I’m reading about it and what I’m reading is how it impacts the lives of everyone involved because there’s so much we don’t know or think about. Like what about their kids and spouses? What about the guards? These are human beings at the end of the day. We put labels on people; inmate, guard, but they’re still human beings, so yeah there’s a lot to be thought about there.
TF: So I guess in that sense based upon his response, I’ve worked with a few writers, without a doubt he’s one of the most detailed multi-layered writers I’ve ever worked with which is kind of jacked up. Let me explain to you why I say it’s his masterpiece.
He’s unrestrained, he doesn’t have an editor looking over your shoulder, he doesn’t have anyone who’s going to second-guess why a character does one thing. My job is I’m going to have something to say visually, writing that’s his bag. My job is to simply give it the stank where it needs to get the stank, and to tell the damn story. That’s an awesome responsibility on my part and I’m just grateful to be doing it.
BSF: Working on this project what’s the best piece of work you’ve given each other?
DW: There’s a really interesting not just page but panel in particular where I’d written his vague description of a character and it was never meant to be anything other than a throwaway character. Then Tim turned in his page, and in this one panel, there was this extra character, there was this look on this character’s face and I was like “yo’ this dude has a story”. And that actually turned into a whole story, and I was like “I gotta tell this guys story, he’s got to become part of this bigger narrative”, and it was never intended.
I never thought about it, but the moment I saw it, there was so much character here. What his story why is he emotionally responding this way, and then that took the story in the series in the whole new direction. You’ve got to go there, the story has to be there, and that was it. I remember that one moment and like “this is going to work”. I mean it was crazy but it’s going to work. I’ll find a way you know to put all this together, just taking a little bit longer than I thought but that’s alright.
Look for Prison City, until then I’ll keep reading Shaft’s Revenge by David F. Walker and waiting for the next installment of Matty’s Rocket by Tim Fielder.
George Carmona 3rd is an Artist/Designer, former Milestone Media Intern, former DC Comics paper pusher, book lover and lifelong comic geek. You can find his work at FistFullofArt.com or follow him on twitter at GCarmona3.