Talking With Jeff Lemire And Andrea Sorrentino About New Sci-Fi Cold War Conspiracy Thriller ‘Primordial’

by Olly MacNamee

Primordial is a new series from collaborators Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino which I described in my advance review as “one part John le Carré and another part Arthur C. Clarke”. But why rely on my soundbite summation when you can read more from the two creators themselves? 

Olly MacNamee: Like many great thrillers we explore the events of Image Comics’  Primordial #1 from the viewpoint of a character ignorant to the bigger, darker picture, one Doctor Donald Pembroke. But unlike other such figures in literature, comics and film, he seems to be connecting with something more, well, cosmic. What can you tell us about this central character, who seems to be of interests to more than just the readers?

Jeff Lemire: In addition to working from actual history and real historical figures in Primordial, I also need to create a number of fictional characters for the story and Donald is the one of the two central human characters. He is a man who wants to be doing more, who is destined to have a bigger role in history, but has been denied. And now he is caught up in something bigger and beyond his control. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling where we go. I really wanted to capture the feeling of those great ’70s conspiracy films and use Donald as our point-of-view into this. As for his deeper connections to the cosmic events…that may be his destiny at work, or he may just be a fly caught in a vast web of events.

OM: While the synopsis to the first issue of Primordial lets the reader in on the fate of the animals Russia and America shot up into space in the late ‘50s, it doesn’t make mention that your story set on an alternative Earth where Nixon won the presidency in 1960. I take it this will be significant for the story you are both telling?

Andrea Sorrentino: I think that’s a very interesting question. I guess we can’t really spoil it too much, but the first crumbles of uchronia you’ll notice in the first issue will for sure play a role in the way the story develops…

JL: One of the central ideas I was playing with here was to use the historical events as the jumping off point, but to then graft sci-fi onto them. As a result I started thinking about what would happen if these alternate events unfolded and were covered up and if the space race as we all know it was totally shuttered when it was still in its infancy. So the world of Primordial starts to create an alternate history from there, where the space race never happened and thus the Cold War as we know it did not unfold the same way. We will indeed be playing in this alternate history as we go forward. The story of the animals in space will be countered with the Cold War/thriller-type story on Earth.

OM: Positioned as “2001: A Space Odyssey meets We3” I can certainly see the relationship to the aforementioned film in your artwork on the debut issue, Andrea. But, how did you approach this, given it is something of a departure to other projects you’ve illustrated? Not just the mind-bending visuals—so beautifully enhanced by Dave Stewart’s colours, I might add—but the very different style of art you adopt for the closing pages? 

AS: I’ve always tried to give readers the right mood for the stories we’re telling, and to use the right style for the specific kind of story (or part of the story) I’m drawing.

When we started talking about Primordial and its noir vibe in the ’60s, I knew I wanted readers to ‘feel’ the early ‘60s not only by the details inside the panels, but by the overall look of the book. If you make a comparison to my other books, you’ll notice I’ve adopted a different style where the shadows are rougher and more blocked, aided by several halftone textures. The paneling is much more regular and there are several black silhouettes that gives the nod to the noir/crime comic book of those years.

At the same time, trying to not spoil much, there’s a reason that the closing page is NOT treated in the same way, but in, possibly, the most opposite kind of approach. 

You’re going to see a third style in motion as we go ahead (and also a mix of the two!) as the story develops as well.

OM: And, Jeff, how are you able to get across in words some of the artistic concepts expected of Andrea? Or, does it help you too are an artist? Was there a lot of thumbnails and conversations shared in the development of this book? What was the overall collaborative process on Primordial?

JL: We have a very natural and easy collaboration at this point that comes from a mutual admiration and trust. This trust is key and has been developed over several projects now. I believe Primordial is our fifth book together since 2012. In that time I come to expect Andrea to take my words and concepts and to push the boundaries of comic book storytelling with them. I let go and let him do his thing. I give very minimal art direction and instead focus on character, emotion and plot. I let him decide how to bring all that across. I know that he will go places I never could anticipate, so I just let him and then react. You can’t work like this with everyone, but we have developed a synergy over the years.

OM:  Beyond the 2001 comparisons, this is also a Cold War thriller too. For all the cosmic art, there is enough darkness and espionage established too. What can we expect from a series that imagines a world in which the space programme is dismantled by both the US and USSR while both superpowers are aware of something more grandiose and galactic is at stake? 

AS: I don’t think we can spoil much but, as I said, the little differences with the real history you’ve noticed in the first issue will play a larger role as we go ahead with the story. I think it’s what makes Primordial so intriguing. It’s not only an ‘human’ story about those five main characters you’ll come to know during the sixth issue, but it also opens up into a totally unexpected and amazing world building as it goes ahead.

JL: Like I said earlier, we do create an alternate history here, where events unfolded differently and the Cold War as we know it may not have ended the way it did in our world. So this was a really interesting canvas to create a thriller and a sense of foreboding and confinement and paranoia for our human characters.

OM: Finally, what other texts, or art—record sleeve homages aside, Andrea—inspire this series? What could readers look to pick up if they wanted to delve deeper into the roots of this Cold War sci-fi?

AS: I think, for me, it comes a lot out of ’60s music. I think listening to Nancy Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys as you dive through the first issue could come out as a cool comprehensive experience.

I’ve also bombed my brain with a lot of photos or movies from those years, from The Apartment, to All About EveSome Like it Hot. The challenge was really trying to take their vibes and put it on paper.

OM: Thanks to you both, and all the best with Primordial. And, congratulations, Jeff, on the announcement of a second series of Sweet Tooth too! A wonderful first season.

JL & AS: Thank you!

Primordial #1 is out Wednesday 15th September from Image Comics

%d bloggers like this: