10 Questions with Josh Finney

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Titanium Rain CoverIn July we reviewed Titanium Rain by Josh Finney and Kat Rocha, heaping lots of praise upon it.  Focused on a civil war in China, the story follows a team of pilots and their missions.  What’s amazing isn’t just the beautiful artwork and action packed story, but the human focus of the tail.  This isn’t about crazy action sequences, it’s about the characters it revolves around.

To be alive is to be at odds with the world.  Man against nature.  Man against man.The instinct to survive is what has made us who we are.

In year 2031 mankind’s survival instinct is put to the test when a civil war in China spirals into global conflict.  Nations are destroyed.  Millions are killed.  And for many, like US Air Force pilot Alec Killian, survival will mean shedding some of his humanity in exchange for biotech and machine.

Is this the ultimate corruption of nature?  Or the birth pains of a new chapter in mankind’s evolution?

From Josh Finney and Kat Rocha, the team who brought you the acclaimed cyberpunk series,UtopiatesTitanium Rain is a sci-fi war epic for the post-millennial age.  In the spirit of films such as Ghost in the ShellInnocence, and Blackhawk Down,Titanium Rain follows one pilot’s journey through mankind’s worst, only to discover its best.

There’s heavy political themes and plots that run throughout the book (it’s about a civil war!?), so Josh seemed to be the perfect victim, I mean subject, of our latest round of 10 questions.  Check out below for the full interview.

Graphic Policy: Titanium Rain comes off as a very well planned out graphic novel, where did the genesis of the story come from?

Josh Finney: Titanium Rain was the result of my desire to tell an intelligent story that spoke to the troubles of our time in my own voice.  As I mention below, director Mamoru Oshii had a lot of influence on what kind of story I would tell, and how I’d go about it.  But as far as the moment of inspiration that set it all in motion?  For that I’ve gotta credit Gene Roddenberry.  Keep in mind the first rumblings of Titanium Rain began in 2006, back when we were still stranded in the dark days of the Bush Administration.  We were struggling with two wars, economic strife, and a deeply divided populous, and helming the ship was an incompetent cokehead dirtbag.  Meanwhile, the best the so-called opposition could do was to impersonate their favorite prophet, Michael Moore.  Which is to say, they sat on their asses, got fat, and did a lot of finger waving.  Naturally a lot of indie comics creators at the time, such as Brian Wood, readily embraced this sort of doomed “told ya so” attitude.  Frankly, I was sick of it.

Thinking back to one of my personal heroes, Gene Roddenberry, I recalled the political climate in which he created Star Trek.  There was a monster in the Whitehouse, the nation was divided, the country was at war, and nuclear annihilation was generally accepted as inevitable.  Yet here came Roddenberry with Star Trek, a future in which mankind did nuke itself, yet still managed to rise out of the ashes to become something better than before.  As cheesy as those old Trek episodes are, they really resonated.  They inspired legions of fans to become doctors, scientists, engineers, even diplomats; all of them journeying out into the world with a desire to fulfill Roddenberry’s vision of a better humanity.  Trek’s impact on our culture as a force for progress is not only measurable, it’s visible all around us.  For all the doom-laden pessimistic ugliness that was gracing the big and small screen of the time —Damnation Alley, No Blade of Grass, Future World— it was Trek’s progressive vision that endured.

So I figure it was time I make my mark.  I would pen a tale that would follows one pilot’s journey through mankind’s worst, only to discover its best.

GP: We got a Top Gun vibe from the story, anything else influence it at all?

JF: Heh, Top Gun was the one thing I actively tried to avoid.  I realize a lot of people like the film, and Tony Scott is without a doubt a VERY talented director, but Top Gun always left me cold.  Yes, it got much of the terminology and technology right, but there was a real lack of substance to the story.  The characters talk like rock stars, act like jocks, and look like freaking underwear models.  And who is this enemy they’re fighting?  Some vague commie/mideast/non-nation?  RussoLibyTania?  And they’re pissed at America why?  I think it was so Tom Cruise had someone to shoot at during the film’s climax.  I dunno…or maybe it’s just the Kenny Loggins soundtrack that bugs me.  But enough about Top Gun! You asked about influences…

Hands down, the biggest influence on Titanium Rain has to be the films of director Mamoru Oshii —Ghost in the Shell, Innocence, Avalon, Sky Crawlers.  I was deeply inspired by how Oshii could construct films that are compelling and action packed, yet deeply philosophical.  Themes of war, technology, and evolution are visible throughout his body of work, and in many ways, motivated me to do Titanium Rain.  Another huge influence has been HBO’s mini-series, Generation Kill.  The down and dirty honesty of that series was both impressive and groundbreaking.  It single handedly encapsulated the culture and experience of the USMC without being heavy handed, preachy, or cliché.  Visually speaking, the look and feel of Blackhawk Down worked its way into Titanium Rain…not a huge surprise since I’ve always been a fan of Ridley Scott.

GP: The story seems to have some reoccurring themes of man vs. nature, technology vs. religion/god and ruled vs. ruling class.  Why settle on those?  Do you see all three as intertwined?

JF: As Gen Xers, we’ve been left to muck through the philosophical sludge that was left to us by our parents.  For all its romanticism, the true legacy of the 1960’s is the minefield of reactionary politics that exists today.  Both left and right have become completely radicalized.  There is no room for consensus, or achieving something for the greater good.  There’s only the political faith you’ve pledged your undying allegiance to, regardless of how unreasoning or destructive it is.  And like every successful religion, to be a good conservative or liberal, there’s a multitude of things you have to do and say and believe to remain one of the faithful.  Take the following quote from a recent book written by a well known politician: “I am offering you the choice of life or death. You can choose either blessings or curses.”  Reads like the kind of claptrap the Religious Right spews, right?  Yeah, except those were the opening lines to Al Gore’s latest global warming book.  This is what the national discussion has degenerated to –blatant sermonizing.  This has nothing to do with reason, or logic, or what’s right.  This is about igniting fear, anger, and indignation amongst the flock.  How can there be any sensible progress when men who believe themselves prophets are making national policy?

With Titanium Rain I aim to crush the myths and misconceptions seeded into our culture since the 60’s.  Radicalism isn’t cool, blind devotion is nothing to be proud of, and ultimately, it all routes back to mindless fanaticism.  Nature won’t provide.  Man and technology are inseparable.  And there is nothing inherently noble about the poor, primitive, or oppressed peoples of the world.  In fact, they’re usually the first to be suckered in by tyrants and demagogues.  Stepping backwards isn’t going to fix our problems, nor is dismantling society.  At it’s heart, Titanium Rain is about sending a Humanist message.  It is an argument for reason over irrationality.  Civilization over tribalism.  Innovation over ignorance.  We must rise to the challenges before us.  Submitting to whatever nature/god/chaos hands us is not an option.  Like every other successful link in the evolutionary chain we must choose to climb up out of the muck and strive to become something more.

Just because I’m sure everyone is dying to know, I’ll spell it out.  Politically, I consider myself a Franklin D. Roosevelt style Democrat.

GP: There’s some pretty touchy subjects when it comes to politics in this and the themes mentioned are pretty adult concepts for an “action” comic.  What type of challenges did you have in fitting those concepts in?

JF: No difficulty at all.  The concepts came first.  It was fitting the action in that was the challenge.  Back in 2006 there were a number of themes that’d been burning in my brain, thoughts on the subject of war, evolution, technology, as well as my own beliefs as an atheist.  Clearly this was fuel for a story that needed to be told.  Also, around that time I had been looking for an excuse to paint cool jets.  From this blossomed what is now Titanium Rain.  Using aviation as a metaphor for man’s ambition to reach further, aim higher, and ascend beyond, I began to construct a narrative that would service all these themes.  I never really thought of Titanium Rain as an “action” comic, or even a “war” comic while I was writing it.  I was simply treading the same path so many other science fiction writers have before.

GP: The printing of Titanium Rain made news when a Chinese printing company refused to print it due to “politically sensitive content” that was anti-Chinese government.  What was the full story behind this?  Where you shocked that the story was taken that way?

JF: Actually it was six printing companies.  Until the controversy happened, Archaia Entertainment had printed nearly all of its books in China.  Then their number one go-to printer sent word they wouldn’t print Titanium Rain due to content.  So Archaia tried another Chinese printer, and then another, and another still.  Finally the word came down that the book had been effectively blacklisted by the government.  The thing is, I can’t tell you exactly what it was that upset the Chinese government so much.  The two phrases we kept hearing were, “political content” and oddly enough, “pornographic.”  Conversely, the amount of feedback we’ve gotten from Chinese immigrants who love the book has been amazing, if not enlightening.  In fact, it was a first-generation Chinese American who offered the best explanation as to why the PRC would want the book banned.  He said it was because we had portrayed China’s leaders as fallible, and that any notions that China’s government isn’t divinely perfect is unacceptable to them.

As an addendum to the banned in China controversy, I recently got a rather disturbing email from a fan who is now living abroad in China as an English teacher.  She wrote saying she really wanted the graphic novel, but feared if a customs officer saw it, she would be jailed.

GP: Did you have an interest in politics before writing this series?

JF: Hmmmm…honestly “political” has become such a loaded word these days.  You can’t say it without people immediately swinging to the right or left and putting their blinders on.  Do I care about what’s happening in the country and abroad?  Absolutely. Do I care about the issues of the day?  Absolutely.  But is that “political” or simply being a sensible, informed, socially aware person?  When my stories resonate with the modern human condition, does that make them political?  Or just relevant?  It’s not really something I think about when I sit down at the keyboard.  A writer’s views can’t help but inform his work.

GP: I’ve always felt that comic books are rooted in politics.  The earliest strips often looked at class and social differences even before the great depression.  Thoughts on this history?  Agree/Disagree?

JF: Actually I believe the very first speech bubble to appear in print was in a single panel political cartoon, so yeah, the medium does have its political roots.  The tradition is certainly there.  But to describe the medium as inherently political does it a great disservices.  Sequential art is a powerful means of storytelling with a rich history that goes way back to cave paintings and hieroglyphs.  I would disagree with anyone who would want to limit comics to simply a “political” medium.

GP: There’s been some recent backlash about comic books dipping their toes into the political waters.  Did you find yourself thinking about that at all while writing Titanium Rain?

JF: Nah.  If I don’t rattle a few cages, I’m not doing my job.  And far as I can tell, this so-called backlash is mostly from immature twerps who can’t handle the thought of comics being written by people whose political leanings differ from their own.  To that, I say grow up and grow a pair.  Seriously.  Politics aren’t a team sport.  Comics don’t exist to serve any one single demographic.  And good storytelling is NEVER afraid to challenge the reader.  Deal with it.

GP: Are there any issues you wish you could of dove into more, but the comic form limited it?

JF: In terms of the 24 page issue format, it wasn’t so much subject matter that got limited, but rather the amount of pages spent portraying action.  For the aerial battle in book one I would have liked an extra page or two.  Some of the action feels a little dense on the page.  Also, room for a few dramatic pauses during the dialog-heavy scenes would have been nice.  Really, the only thing that has limited “subject matter” is the need to keep a tight, coherent narrative.  At no point do I want the actual “story” to get mired in overwrought geopolitical/philosophical verbiage.  If readers want to know more about that stuff there is always the fifty extra pages of supplemental material.

GP: Do you think that the comic industry should be speaking out on issues more and there’s an obligation to push boundaries?

JF: Well, I wouldn’t say the industry is obligated to do anything.  There’s a lot of things we as Americans should be doing, but one of the benefits of living in the West is we all have the right to be as fat and as useless as we want to be.  Also, where the industry is at right now, with so much of its energy going to appease Hollywood’s whims, the publishing side of the industry isn’t really apt to take a stand or speak out; especially if it means upsetting a huge potential movie-going audience, like say…China?  So what about the talent?  Should they be pushing boundaries?  Speaking out on issue?  If they want to be relevant, absolutely.  Case and point, The Watchmen.  This book was published nearly 25 years ago.  It’s still relevant, still talked about, and still continues to drawn new readers to the medium.  How about Marvel’s Civil War?  It hasn’t even reached the five year mark.  Does anyone even care?

GP: What can we expect in the second volume of Titanium Rain?

JF: Heh, I’m calling book two the Empire Strikes Back of the series.  The Jades surge forward, the war gets uglier,  and some dark secrets get reveal.  But I suppose from a “political” standpoint, the theme for book two is the twin-headed beast of fanaticism and stark poverty.  We see what happens when an ultra-nationalist ideology is used to weaponize a nation’s poor.  It isn’t pretty.  We also find out some intriguing truths about the Prometheus Initiative.


  • “Titanium Rain” meets “Avatar”?

    I had the great pleasure and honor to conduct Josh’s and Kat’s wedding ceremony a few years ago, in the enchanted Alcazar Garden of San Diego’s Balboa Park. At their request, we three crafted a ritual that was spiritual, not religious; and, with a nod to their work in progress at the time, planned for an exchange of titanium rings.

    Rather than seek the blessing of the gods– the bio-mechanical ones of “Titanium Rain,” or others–we simply asked the few guests to quiet their minds, and to cast aside all preconceptions in order to connect with each other, and to a massive old ficus tree that shades the garden.

    Could this ceremony have been prescient? We have yet to see how “Titanium Rain” plays out, but I’m wondering, for its resolution, if there might be a turn to the values and strategies of an equally futuristic and philosophical work–“Avatar.” I suppose we’ll see.

    In the meantime, the Finney/Rocha duo has captivated us with their work, and eagerly awaiting Vol. II.

  • Re. the above interview, I just wish that Josh would be more direct, forthright, and speak his mind. :-)