Mathew Klickstein Talks You Are Obsolete in a Post-COVID World
A disgraced journalist is called to cover a mysterious story on an isolated European island. As she investigates, she discovers the children have taken control and are somehow killing off all adults by their 40th birthdays. Now, she must discover the truth behind the killings while staying on the good side of the children’s harsh leader…or she’s next.
Published by AfterShock Comics, You Are Obsolete is a spine-tingling thriller that evokes 1970s horror. Written by Mathew Klickstein, with art by Evgeniy Bornyakov, color by Lauren Affe, lettering by Simon Bowland, and a cover by Andy Clarke and Jose Villarrubia, the trade paperback is out June 16, 2020.
We talked to writer Mathew Klickstein about how this series has changed in a post-COVID-19 world.
Graphic Policy: Where did you come up with the idea for You Are Obsolete?
Mathew Klickstein: For quite a while, I’d been considering writing a sci-fi/horror story revolving around a kind of Logan’s Run meets Children of the Corn with a twist of John Carpenter’s They Live concept involving apps, cell phones and such “devices.”
Coincidentally, it was around this time that a film development guy at the literary agency at which I was repped sent out a memo suggesting to clients ideas for books/stories that might be adaptable to film/television, considering current trends. One such vague idea was something along the lines of “a video game that kills people.”
BOOM: Seemed like a reasonable impetus to start back on that concept of mine. I brought it up to a trusted friend I was having drinks with at a bar – we even brought in the bartender to the conversation, and I joked with him that we’d have to give him “associate producer” credit if the story were to ever become a movie – and later that day, I got home and the three-page “confessional” from the perspective of protagonist Lyla Wilton just poured out of me and essentially “pitched” the fuller, more specific narrative of what would ultimately become YOU ARE OBSOLETE.
Everything else built off of that three-page summation. Blame it on the Angel’s Envy bourbon I was guzzling at the bar that day with my friend and our bartender.
GP: It’s your first comic, what prompted you to create a comic and what were some of the surprises you didn’t expect when doing so?
MK: I’ve brought this up multiple times in the past (and, boy, wouldn’t it be just dandy if it were still to happen?), but I was originally pitching around what would become YOU ARE OBSOLETE as a film.
Courtesy my extensive background in film and television production, I was able to reach out to a number of people and organizations to whom I could send the aforementioned three-page “confessional”/summation from Lyla’s perspective. I received a great deal of positive feedback, but after a few months I began hearing from friends in the comics industry that the idea sounded like a good fit for a comic.
Two or three of them nudged me toward AfterShock, I connected with executive editor Mike Marts over there, we had a good series of email and phone conversations, the company evidently flipped over my concept/Lyla’s confessional and we very shortly after that had a deal.
I’d say the one real “surprise,” which was very positive, was just how refreshingly quick everything moved. Normally, while working on a project – particularly one of my documentaries or non-fiction pop culture history books – things move at a glacial pace. Working on the comic, however, we moved so swiftly from concept, to story meetings/development, to writing the scripts, to going over them with my editors Mike Marts and Christina Harrington, to incorporating the edits and working with the production team on how each issue would look before off it went to the printers and, finally, the stores.
It was a real shot in the arm to my creative anima. To be able to come up with an idea, mold it and work on it in such a frictionless and efficient way, before so quickly seeing it realized was truly thrilling. It doesn’t typically work like that in the other mediums in which I’ve engaged over the years.
GP: How did the rest of the team come on board?
MK: This was one of the many advantages of working with an established and robust brand such as AfterShock. They brought on the team, all of whom did a spectacular job and made the process of collaboration as joyful and easy-going as earlier indicated. I was especially pleased with the stellar artwork of Evgeniy Bornyakov and work of colorist Lauren Affe.
GP: The comic is a horror thriller and in a COVID-19 world, it’s even more unsettling. Just wanted to get some of your thoughts about how the series might be viewed a bit differently now.
MK: Yes, this is certainly something that has come up more than once while we’ve been dealing with the release of the trade paperback of YOU ARE OBSOLETE. The original release of the trade edition was of course postponed a few months and during the time we’ve been waiting on that, I’ve been going over elements of the story that are, perhaps serendipitously enough, now rather “obsolete” themselves.
The story and concept turned out to be quite prescient about various aspects of what would happen to our society psychologically and culturally (among other ways) if we were suddenly driven far more profoundly toward our dependence on and addiction to our mobile devices, online engagement and interfacing with screens in general.
Well, now all of a sudden here we are, we’re stuck inside for the most part, we have little else to depend on for communication, entertainment, education, supply delivery and social connection aside from our screens/devices/online engagement. So, yes, it’s been fascinating to see how the world of YOU ARE OBSOLETE turned out to be rather apt and how its “speculative”/futuristic sci-fi elements are no longer necessarily “speculative”/futuristic nor sci-fi anymore.
The most direct example, for instance, is an entire page in Issue 2 in which the protagonist Lyla Wilton is exploring an abandoned schoolhouse with her new friend Kadunud and Kad is explaining to her how all the children on their island have taken to going to school online. Certainly, and as Kad elaborates during this scene, online schooling is nothing particularly new, but during the COVID-19 containment period, it’s not the least bit uncommon or peculiar.
Luckily, we can more or less reconcile such anachronisms brought on by YOU ARE OBSOLETE perhaps being a little too prophetic in its speculative sci-fi machinations by the fact that the entire five-part series is told from that point of view of Lyla’s confessional of what happened a little while back … So, I guess we have our excuse for having components in the story that proved my inner Cassandra wasn’t just whistling dixie, I suppose.
And, besides, I think now the series could also be seen as something of a very pertinent time capsule of the period of time just before the pandemic took hold.
GP: Let’s dive into some of that specifically. The comic’s horror is driven by the young outliving the older individuals and technology used to choose who dies. It eerily has some echoes of today with the young’s mortality rate so low and in this case the lack of available technology resulting in higher mortality.
MK: Yes, the theme of the elders in our society being put out to pasture before their time and replaced by the next generation – with the aid of new technology, in particular – is a running motif throughout the entire series (hence the series title as well as Issue 2’s title of “Planned Obsolescence”). And it wasn’t lost on any of us later when the actual pandemic to come turned out to follow a similar pattern of mostly going after the elderly, something that has been heartbreaking and worrisome for all of us to behold, of course.
While working on the series, the “OK Boomer” slogan/epithet/memes etc. really started becoming more ubiquitous even beyond the online realm. To play off of the idea in something of a darkly ironic way that I hoped would showcase how horrific and repugnant that slogan is, I had AfterShock nearly last-minute change the title of the final/fifth issue to “OK Boomer,” later disclosing my apprehension about the decision in the intro for the upcoming trade paperback edition.
For some years now, ageism has been a blight that has devastated many people in my life (and, believe it or not, more than a few times rather explicitly, myself despite only being in my late thirties). It’s been really hard watching friends and family who are 50+ treated so poorly and feeling (and, sadly, being) pushed out or left out of collective society solely because of their age.
Personally, I’ve never understood why anyone would attack someone who happens to have far more life experience and sage wisdom and a far more developed understanding of how the world works than they: It’s one of the reasons most of my friends, even when I was much younger, were usually older and why I’ve enjoyed a lifelong love of older movies, books, TV, radio shows and music.
I’m with late, great playwright Herb Gardner who reminds us in his immortal play dealing with the subject of ageism, I’m Not Rappaport, that older people are survivors and because of that might just have something to teach us if we give them a chance and we keep our ears open.
I would hope that post-COVID, those who so gleefully bandied around the “OK Boomer” epithet or were ideologically influenced by the commensurate mentality will think better of it in the future and be more compassionate and empathetic toward those who are older than they. This was always one of my goals with YOU ARE OBSOLETE.
GP: There’s also the kids having so much more control over technology than adults. We’re seeing that with the hijacking of technology as lives move online, like school Zoom presentations, by kids. That generation technology gap seems really important to the comic but we’re also seeing it play out in real life now.
MK: When I was still living and working in LA some years back, one of my production partners on a series of film projects I was engaged in had a grandfather who I absolutely adored. He was funny, extremely bright, a terrific storyteller and had had many adventures in his life that he recounted for us often. We’d go to his apartment for a visit every now and then, and he’d show us classic old movies like 42nd Street and Pal Joey, and he’d make us little dinners and we’d scarf down Hershey Kisses from his always-filled candy dish on the coffee table. It was great. I had a profound degree of respect for the man.
But every few days or so, wherever we were in the city, if my production partner’s grandpa needed to get some cash, we’d have to do our best to go find him wherever he was … because he was so incapable of using a computer, he had never learned how to use an ATM machine. He just couldn’t do it.
We might have to drive twenty, thirty minutes – sometimes an hour or more – to go find this man and help him get his cash out of the ATM. I didn’t mind it so much and it never interfered with our work. But I’ll never forget having to go all over the city to get to this guy and help him use an ATM just so he could get his money out of the machine.
And I remember thinking how dreadful it must feel to be in a world where you can’t even get access to your own money that you spent a lifetime earning solely because you may not be able to interface with the new technology that has sprung up so rapidly around you.
True, an ATM machine is incredibly user-friendly and there was really no reason that my friend’s grandpa couldn’t just give in and learn how to press a few buttons so he could get his money himself.
But ever since then – more than ten years ago now – I can’t help worrying every now and then about what might happen if the new technology that does continue to so rapidly spring up all around us – whether we want it to or not, whether we agree with how it functions or not, whether it’s deleterious to our environment/minds/bodies/culture/economy or not – were to become so inaccessible and so arcane to certain segments of our society (or, yes, myself) that we too were to suddenly find ourselves in a world where we can’t get our money, can’t pay our bills, can’t communicate with the outside, can’t buy supplies, etc.
What will we do when that day comes – and the wizards in Silicon Valley funded by their billionaire CEOs are doing all they can to bring that day as close as possible – in which suddenly we turn around and realize you’re “obsolete” from this society if you don’t put that chip in your head?
These are the themes I wanted to explore in YOU ARE OBSOLETE and which has been particularly frightening to witness developing further in real life during our COVID-19 containment.
GP: The other thing that stands out to me now is this attitude of older adults resigned to sacrificing themselves for that next generation. We’ve seen that attitude echoed by politicians in the real world, as hollow as it might be. But, in a pre-COVID world, that thought of the next generation felt like it waned a bit. In the comic I got a sense it’s almost a feel of inevitability that this is just the way it is and a cycle of life in a way.
MK: One of the more ominous aspects of what’s happening in YOU ARE OBSOLETE – the children of the isolated island we’re on killing off anyone over 40 with a new app they’ve developed – is that there are those adults in the community there who are actually in favor of this gruesome development.
A scene that I’m so proud of how it came together includes the talent show in Issue 4 in which the kids are rolling out a newer version of their murderous app, just as a tech company would exhibit such an upgrade at a trade show or something … and we show in the audience that whereas there are of course those parents/adults watching who are understandably terrified by this, there are also those who are clapping and proud of the “creative innovation” and vision of their children.
Rather than everyone in the community being scared of what’s going on, wanting to do what they can to stop it from happening, wanting to stop the mindless killing of anyone over 40, I thought it would be much more interesting if there were a lot of those who were actually in favor of this, who supported if not were complicit with the vicious children’s mission.
It gives some dynamic nuance to the story, takes the reader on some unpredictable turns they might not expect (including alliances forged and broken throughout the story with other characters, etc.) and, I believe, this is also – sadly – more realistic to how our culture actually operates.
I talk both directly and indirectly about the work of Hannah Arendt in YOU ARE OBSOLETE, and though she later rather regretted it, she popularized the notion of “banality of evil.”
A contemporary analogue here would maybe be something like the so-called “hive mind” or what some refer to as “mob mentality,” or what more recent psychological mavens might call “pluralistic ignorance” or “cognitive dissonance.” The idea that people tend to follow along with something that might be utterly reprehensible or despicable (in Arendt’s case, she spent her career analyzing how/why something like the Holocaust could happen) because of some kind of collective mindset or ideological imperative they’re not even aware of.
They simply become like lemmings, “following the leader” or following the party line, more to the point, and if they’re made to believe that new technology is always beneficial no matter what – even if it’s leading to the death of the elderly because of “inevitability” in the eyes of those pushing that agenda – well, they’re only following orders and doing “what everyone else is doing.” It’s similar to the more abstract idea behind the “Nuremberg defense.”
Being so influenced by Arendt throughout my own career, it’s no wonder I delved into these notions in YOU ARE OBSOLETE. But I have to say, that really the principle inspiration for having some of the adults in the story’s village actually supporting if not condoning what’s going on with the children came from similar dystopian sci-fi stories like 1984, its semi-pastiche Brazil and other books such as Fahrenheit-451 and Brave New World. It goes back to Logan’s Run here, or a similar film such as Soylent Green in which older people are killed off as a daily part of life.
You have in these stories parents of children who are proud that their kids might rat on them to the oppressive government officials lurking all around, proud of the fact that their kids have become such dedicated soldiers to “the cause,” so to speak. People who are actually proud and supportive of the terrible things being wrought by the totalitarian governments, technology and culture they rules their lives.
I’ll add that I also see a connection here to how there are those among us who actually seem to think that staying inside and, more or less, forever connected to the online realm is a good thing. I find it pretty frightening myself, and anyone who’s read or watched enough speculative sci-fi that deals with such super-technological dystopian societies (e.g. the “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror or George Lucas’ THX-1138) know better.
I’ve for a long time felt there’s a growing push in our society toward staying locked up inside, afraid of the outside world, afraid of other people, away from anyone and everyone … except those we connect with through the computer, through the screen. “Buy things on Amazon, watch things on Netflix, meet mates on Tinder/Match.com, talk to people on social media, order food on Grubhub, etc.”
This fear I had about such social nudging toward this isolated, technologically-dependent lifestyle was another driver for my creating and writing YOU ARE OBSOLETE.
And now, once again, here we are, and this technological/isolated terror is not only much more real … but, yes, there are people who seem to be championing it and almost appear to want it to be our new way of life. Like it’s the next step in evolution. Like it’s inevitable anyway.
Rather like how the children in YOU ARE OBSOLETE justify what it is they’re doing in killing off those over 40 with their new app while some of their parents and other adults in the community applaud them for their efforts as a mode of “progress” and that all such “progress” should always be supported or at least not interfered with.
Of course, what they’re forgetting is such so-called “progress” can also lead to the atomic bomb, Global Warming and – as we’ve seen more recently – at least two generations whose attention spans are so depleted they probably can’t even finish reading this very sentence.
GP: There’s this interesting use of a journalist to reveal what’s going on. As she discovers the truth, we discover it as well. I couldn’t help but think about “fake news” and how this might play out in the real world. Did that cross your mind at all? There’s also this conspiracy aspect of it all that I couldn’t help but think about.
MK: I have a uniquely complex connection to the news/Media due in large part to the fact that I’ve been a professional in the field since I was 15 years old, more than half my life, and most of my friends and colleagues nationwide are in some way connected to the sector as well. I see a lot of things go on and have seen a lot of things go on beyond the velvet rope, behind the Wizard of Oz curtain that not everyone gets to see, that not everyone would believe and that I’ve learned to more or less keep to myself.
I’m also something of a student of the Media and am voraciously reading books on the subject – both old and new, both criticisms and paeans alike, and everything in between. I enjoy documentaries on the subject. I enjoy going back to the oldest records and analyses and data on the subject I can find and truly get excited when I discover some century-old article or comic strip or interview or something that might so compellingly connect with what’s happening with our modern Media milieu today.
For whatever reason, I find “the Media” as a thing unto itself extremely fascinating and have both written extensively on the subject and have instructed various seminars/classes on Media analysis, as well. So, it’s no wonder my fascination with the Media crept into the topicality of YOU ARE OBSOLETE.
It also helped that I knew I wanted to tell the story in a relatively modern or even post-modern way, and that by having it told from the perspective of a confessional by a member of the Media, I could really have some fun with how I played with the storyteller’s credibility, biases and nuances – all things we’re regarding more and more these days when it comes to how we as news consumers relate to the news and those behind it.
This gave the story a bit more relevance, I hope, and connected well with the general themes of new tech, generational shifts and – again – the idea of “banality of evil” or the “hive mind” concept that run throughout the series.
The idea of the main character of my story being an “unreliable narrator” who was once a prestigious journalist hopefully will be a reminder that whereas news/Media is vital to any society/culture, we also need to make sure we’re not taking in everything we read/see from that societal sector at face value. Always dig deeper, is perhaps the message here.
GP: We see a cold calculation from the kids’ leader and we’re seeing that today. It feels like compassion and empathy is lacking in the comic and real world. Was that part of what you were conveying?
MK: Absolutely. As described earlier, this was one of the reasons I decided to have my editors change the title of the fifth issue right before it went to print to “OK Boomer.”
I was so repelled by how blatantly ageist, hateful and intolerant certain pundits, celebrities and even government representatives were being in declaring this phrase while espousing its underlining ethos that I felt like I wanted to do something about it with what platform I had available to me at the moment and thus, yes, decided to subvert its meaning by titling the final installment of a horror story with (spoiler alert, kind of) a rather horrific “downer” ending with the same despicable phrase.
I hoped that in connecting with the story, its themes and the characters within, readers of YOU ARE OBSOLETE would indeed maybe revisit and investigate any superficial generational rancor they might be holding onto so stubbornly. Now with the pandemic impacting these older generations more than the young, I do also hope that those who were more ageist before will find it in their hearts to be more compassionate in the future.
GP: The comic takes place on an isolated European island. What made you choose that location?
MK: It was actually fairly arbitrary. I knew I wanted the locale to be some place rather isolated and unknown, but I also wanted the atmosphere to be rather hauntingly cold and eerie. I’ve long had a strange predilection for Eastern Europe – despite still not having had a chance to go there, which perhaps bolsters its strange “mystique” for me in my mind (especially after I had many friends in bands back in the early 2000s who toured around the region and would come home with this outlandish and amazing stories of what it was like over there).
So, I thought Eastern Europe might be a good fit for the mood I was trying to establish and, honestly, I just began looking up basic search terms such as “Eastern European island” and that sort of thing. I found a few candidates, and – again, rather arbitrarily – just looked through pictures and decided on Estonia’s Muhu because it looked rather like how I saw the village where the story would take place in my head.
Because I do hope to one day go to Eastern Europe, I thought I would find a place that I may actually want to go to if the story were to ever become a film/TV show and I was able to head out to the production, should it be filmed on location. (What can I say? Muhu just looked cool.) A little silly and immature, sure. But, it was my thought process and I do have to say, I wonder if anyone in Estonia or especially Muhu is even aware that I set my story on their island.
GP: Steeped in horror, what were some of the comic’s influences?
MK: Obviously, one of the big ones is The Twilight Zone. I really love the eerie, slow burn, atmospheric terror throughout much of the episodes, and having grown up on the series, I’ve always been extremely influenced by its storytelling and methodology regarding character development, messaging, style and tone. As source material for my artists, I more than a few times used screenshots from the episode “It’s a Good Life” in which the little boy thinks people away to the cornfield or turns them into horrible monstrosities just by looking at them.
In fact, in the earliest stages of development, when we were trying to come up with what would happen when the kids in YOU ARE OBSOLETE used their new app on a person over 40, for a brief period I was considering an outright homage to this episode and actually having people transported in some horrific manner to a cornfield. But, I thought that would be a little too fantastical, would take the reader out of the “reality” of the story and, frankly, would also seem too similar to Children of the Corn, which also of course is comprised of certain elements that inspired YOU ARE OBSOLETE along with, not surprisingly, Village of the Damned (both old and new).
As per the introduction to the trade paperback of YOU ARE OBSOLETE, I’m also (again, quite obviously) a huge fan of the films of David Cronenberg, and these definitely had a very direct influence on how the comic came together. I’m particularly thinking of what I believe to be Cronenberg’s masterpiece, Videodrome and also somewhat of the semi-update he did some years later which is also quite good (and, as with the former, extremely prescient in its vision of how we would interface with technology in the future), eXistenZ.
For the tone and feel of the township in which the story takes place, I really wanted there to be a kind of disquieting and eldritch quality, hence the idea of making sure it would feel very cold, very isolated, even when it was day time a la what you feel in that incredible opening sequence to Night of the Living Dead or throughout much of Carnival of Souls. I pulled some shots from the similar village in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness for same.
The almost gentle creepiness of the atmosphere in these films works so well, I wanted a piece of that in YOU ARE OBSOLETE and took inspiration too from similar scenes in The Stepford Wives (original), The Shining (original), The Wicker Man (original), Rosemary’s Baby (original), Repulsion, Jacob’s Ladder (original), the Australian film Wake in Fright (aka Outback), ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (aka Who Can Kill a Child?) and the opening sequences of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original).
When you’re watching these movies and scenes, you don’t know why, but even when it’s light out, you feel unsettled and disturbed, uncomfortable and unnerved. This is what I was trying to achieve with YOU ARE OBSOLETE, especially since I believe so much of the horror aspect is about the environment and atmosphere of the world created.
This is why I also wanted to be sometimes a little absurdist or playful – to create this kind of “carnival-esque” and childlike feel at times and to grant little tonal shifts to make sure the reader doesn’t ever get too comfortable. For instance, there’s a scene where Martina, the main child running things, is mindlessly playing with the dead body of a person she’s just killed with the same indifference as if she was shoving her thumb onto a colony of ants on the sidewalk or something.
There’s also the opening sequence of the story in which everyone’s wearing these cheesy and garish birthday hats with this big, bright pink cake … despite the fact that clearly something awful is going on between the lines. It’s the whole Twin Peaks melding of horror and absurdity that David Lynch is so adept at, and so of course that show helped me to consider how I would walk that line myself in YOU ARE OBSOLETE.
Lars von Trier, at his best, is quite good at this too – melding brutal, visceral horror with playful, almost cartoonish absurdity at times, particularly in his short-lived television series Riget (aka The Kingdom) and his most recent film, The House That Jack Built.
Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric fame nailed what I’m talking about here with his psychedelically nightmarish music video for Tobacco’s “Streaker.”
Actually, if you truly like this kind of thing, you can’t do better than the Japanese horror/musical/comedy film from 1977, House. It’s truly unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, even if you think you’ve “seen ‘em all.”
GP: Any favorite horror films?
MK: Aside from those I’ve already mentioned, I suppose I should add that though I’ve been pretty disappointed over the past few years over what the new crop of horror films has to offer, there’s a handful that I’ve not only really enjoyed and have found truly scary on a visceral level but also had some impact on how I developed YOU ARE OBSOLETE.
These include Midsommar and Assassination Nation (you put those two together and I firmly believe you have the film adaptation of YOU ARE OBSOLETE!), The Final Girls, Relatos salvajes (aka Wild Tales) and Michael Haneke’s original version of Funny Games, which for the longest time after I first saw it in theaters I thought was the best movie ever made.
In fact, I tend to gravitate toward “horror” films that are much more realistic and “colder” in tone. Less monsters and jump scares, more eerie and peculiar human nature along the lines of the great classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Combat Shock (aka American Nightmares), Cannibal Holocaust, Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q or the boss of it all, Pasolini’s Salò. (Although, I must confess to an obsession with guilty pleasure 80s slasher film Silent Night, Deadly Night, too.)
Horror along the lines of A Serbian Film or my good friend Adam Rehmeier’s The Bunny Game possess a unique quality that connects with the viewer in ways that feels much more intense and authentic than what the more “mainstream” horror scene (such that it is) seems to be spewing out at the moment.
Among my COVID containment reading has been the collected short stories of Franz Kafka, which I revisit every few years and I felt would be apropos to what’s going on right now. I realized I never read the back cover before. The description reads in part that “Franz Kafka created a new genre of fiction, combining fantasy and horror in his narratives of quotidian life in a way that has come to symbolize the terrors and anxieties of the twentieth century.” If I accomplished even a hint of that with YOU ARE OBSOLETE for the twenty-first century, I suppose I did my job.
GP: Thanks so much for chatting and giving us such a deep dive and look into your thoughts and process about the series!