Charles Soule and Ryan Browne chat Eight Billion Genies, how they met, and why desire is narratively interesting
Charles Soule and Ryan Browne on collaboration and their shared love of surprise
Eight Billion Genies, Charles Soule and Ryan Browne's newest collaboration following their hit Curse Words, presents a world where everyone on earth is granted a single wish. Told in a structure through which each issue follows one period of time after the genies appear, Eight Billion Genies follows the fallout of those wishes and strikes a pointed path through the chaos of being human and wanting things (and finding out that those things you want may impact and be impacted by others).
Recently Popverse had a chance to chat with series creators Charles Soule and Ryan Browne about their collaboration on Eight Billion Genies. In this interview, Soule and Browne chat how they met, Eight Billion Genies' unique structure, and the benefit of using of differing visual styles in the comic.
Popverse: Can you talk a little about how you met and started collaborating?
Charles Soule: I first met Ryan at a famous comic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina called Heroes Con. This was probably 2010 or so. We were introduced by a mutual friend, the comic writer B. Clay Moore, who took me over to Ryan's table in Artist's Alley. That was my first exposure to Ryan Browne and the reality-warping effects of being in his vicinity, as well as his incredible, long-running, brilliantly insane superhero comic God Hates Astronauts. I think I got the first issue or two at that show, and was immediately hooked. I'm pretty sure I told Ryan how much I liked it the next time I saw him, and we hit it off.
It took a long time for us to collaborate officially - I think our first joint published work was a few pages in my Swamp Thing Annual in what I want to say was 2014 - but we hung out at shows all the time, and always intended to do something bigger if we could. Our respective senses of humor aren't exactly the same, but there's plenty of overlap - we make each other laugh all the time (the jokes are very dumb, but the RIGHT KIND of dumb.) Anyway, eventually our schedules aligned, and we started our landmark Image Comics series Curse Words, which ran from 2016 through 2019, across 28 issues. (A beautiful omnibus edition for the whole series was just released and is available now from Image!)
When Curse Words wrapped, we knew it was only a matter of time before we created something else, and even though the pandemic slowed that process down a bit, we launched Eight Billion Genies this past May... it's been going pretty dang well. I adore Ryan and love telling stories with him - I hope we get to do it forever.
Ryan Browne: We met at my table at Heroes Con. I don't have a strong memory of it--I was probably stressing about getting commissions done or something. The first meeting that led to our friendship was in 2013 at a bar during NYCC. The Detroit Tigers (a baseball team) were in the playoffs, and I was watching it at the bar, as was Charles, and we learned that we were both from Michigan. That led to meeting up back in MI during the holidays, and the relationship grew from there.
We started collaborating by riffing ideas (that could never actually be comics) at bars and at conventions over the years. My schedule finally cleared in 2015 (I had been writing and drawing God Hates Astronauts for Image) and that's when we started talking about collaborating on a new book for Image. I wanted to make sure that whatever we did would have a wide-open visual style, with tons of room to play visually. Charles then asked, "What if we did a book about a wizard who is a total dick?" and that was the start of Curse Words.
Both of you have garnered a bit of a reputation for doing very weird books with high concepts. What draws you to these stories?
Soule: I think that what some people call 'weird,' we just call 'interesting' or 'funny' or 'fresh.' I don't think Ryan or I are interested in telling the kind of stories we've been reading for years. If we can surprise ourselves with our work, the odds are good that it'll surprise the readers too, which is always the goal. A lot of that comes from Ryan - he's a brilliant visual improviser, which is a skill not many comic artists have. Beyond that, he's incredible at making comics FUNNY, which is even harder. Every panel is full of gags and bits of background humor (unless it gets in the way of the story.) It's great to get a Ryan Browne issue in my inbox, because every page is just crammed with ideas.
As far as high concepts go, I love 'em! I adore taking a huge-but-simple idea (the simplicity is key) and then exploring it to its last possible detail. It's a test of my imagination as well as my... engineering brain, I guess? I like to build worlds and give them internal consistency, and Eight Billion Genies, Curse Words (and a lot of my other stuff) have been great tests for that particular skill set.
Browne: Anything where I have room for invention is very appealing to me. I realized a while ago, that I am very bad at faking interest in what I am drawing. A bunch of people standing around having serious conversations is not my wheelhouse. I love making things up, playing with the language of comics, and using the unlimited visual effects budget of comics. I try to add a bunch of background gags to entertain myself--like in Curse Words and Eight Billion Genies, I hide my black cat Simon in every single issue. Doesn't make any sense, but I have a lot of fun with it. Comics should be fun to read and fun to make. Charles is by far my favorite riff/improv partner when it comes to idea breaking and we have one hell of a time make up stories.
Charles, the way that Eight Billion Genies is structured, with each issue happening in a different time period, seems like a bit of a challenge to tackle. Why was this structure important for telling the story you wanted to tell?
Soule: When I was figuring out how the heck a concept this literally infinite could work, I realized early on that a key would be the rules we built for the world, and the internal structure for the story. I wanted to give the readers a sense that they were in for a particular, planned-out ride, and it wouldn't just be Ryan and me messing around with crazy wish ideas for a series that could go on forever. So, soliciting the book as an eight-issue series from the start was important.
Explaining the idea that each issue covers a specific increment of time from the moment the genies appear on earth was important. Giving everyone on earth one wish instead of three was important. All of those ideas and many more serve as the scaffolding upon which we can hang the premise - almost a way we hold the reader's hand and let them know everything's going to be okay. (Even if that's not actually the case.)
Ryan, one throughline that has really stuck out to me about your work is your use of bright colors in your work. How do you balance the style of a book and the tone of the in-story moment?
Browne: I love using bright colors. I grew up on 80s cartoons, and I wear that on my sleeve. With Curse Words, I had the idea early on that each character would have a specific color theme and would be based off a certain animal. Having each character based on a color helped set the palette for the scene--blue magic versus purple magic, etc.
In [Eight Billion Ghosts], I wanted to have the bar interior be very dark and muted so that when the genies show up, their glow is felt as out of place and otherworldly. Even when the genies aren't in panel, their blue glow can be seen ominously lighting up our characters.
On that note, how did you develop the two differing visual tones and styles in Eight Billion Genies?
Browne: Well the first thing I wanted to do was have the bar be grounded in more of a reality. I opted to use a quill pen instead of a brush for all the interiors, and keep it loose and messy. I almost made the bar interior black and white, so when the genies show up it feels like a Wizard Of Oz technicolor moment--but I changed my mind and just kept it muted colors. Contrast was key in the style. The genies needed to feel otherworldly--almost living cartoons, so when they pop-up, you know right away that the entire world has changed. For sequences outside of the bar where the world has been remade with wishes, I use my more typical style, brush and ink, bright colors. It was important to me that you can always tell when the story returns to the safe wish-proof zone of the Lampwick.
At the heart of Eight Billion Genies is this idea of human desire—what do you think your story has to say about what people really want?
Soule: Nothing reveals a character more than exploring the one thing they want more than anything else. It shows you exactly who they are. There's a segment at the end of Issue 4 where we talk about the way the world feels like it's filling up with wants and desires, and in many circumstances, a person getting what they want means someone else doesn't. Desire is approaching a zero sum game. We're not quite there yet, but you can see it on the horizon, and it's a very interesting idea to explore. In Eight Billion Genies, we literally have eight billion stories we can tell just from the wishes alone - and every one of them is a miniature drama of the highest order.
What's more compelling than seeing someone given the opportunity to have their heart's desire... and then be forced to figure out what that desire actually is in a world where everyone else has been granted that same opportunity?
I love this book.
The newest issue of Eight Billion Genies is September 28. Pick it up from your local comic book store.
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