Center of the Galaxy: An Interview with ‘Supermassive Black Hole A*’ Creator Ben Chamberlain

Today we are talking with Ben Chamberlain, creator of the “Supermassive Black Hole A*,” A Sci-Fi webcomic available at http://www.smbhax.com/

 

CHECKPOINT: What is Supermassive Black Hole A* about?

BEN CHAMBERLAIN: It’s about telling stories of high adventure in an exotic space setting, namely the area of space in the vicinity of our galaxy’s core, home of a “supermassive” black hole, called “Sagittarius A*,” which has 4 million times the mass of the Sun.

What prompted you to create the series?

I had been writing science fiction for a while for a massively multiplayer game called “The Matrix Online,” and I suppose subconsciously I was thinking about what kind of story I would write if it was all up to me. One day while more or less randomly wandering around Wikipedia, I came across the page on “relativistic jets” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativistic_jet ), containing a spectacular Hubble photo of a jet of material 5000 light years long shooting out of the center of a distant galaxy at a significant fraction of the speed of light. I found that completely mindblowing!

And looking into it more I found that most galaxies seem to have these jet-creating supermassive black holes at their centers, so I got to thinking how cool it would be to have a story set in such a high energy, dangerous environment–you could have all sort of stories about pirates, bounty hunters, desperadoes, massive corporations, and so forth, with space ships and other fun things. Then I found that our own Milky Way galaxy has a supermassive black hole at *its* center, and that got me thinking more specifically about how humans might get there, what sort of society could/would form there, and so forth, and then ideas for what would be the back story of A* just started fizzing up in my head, and I knew I wanted to get them out!

SMBHAX originally began as animated clips. How did this affect the series when it was turned into a Webcomic?

The series has retained the single-panel, widescreen cinematic format it started with in movie form, as well as its sort of film noir-inspired visual style–and in fact that translated quite easily into regular webcomic format, so I was able to convert the early video episodes into comic form very seamlessly, while retaining what I think is a fairly unique structure and feel. I love being able to indulge in cinematic close-ups and that sort of thing; the format really lets me focus on trying to make each page a visually striking image.

Another key point in the series’ history was when you started using ink wash rather than the Photoshop lasso tool. What prompted the switch?

After several years of drawing at the computer all day, I realized I was starting to get some aches and pains from using a tablet, sitting at a computer desk, and staring at a screen for so many hours on a daily basis. So that got me thinking about alternatives, and the idea of switching to traditional art methods excited me for a few reasons.

 For one thing, I’d done painting as an art student in college, which I’d enjoyed but hadn’t gotten back to since, so it would be nice to pick that back up and see where I could take it. I could use various art tables and boards and such so I wouldn’t be stuck in one position all day long, which would be nice! There’s also the potential to sell the original pieces of art you scan in for the webcomic, which could help pay the rent. And besides all that, I don’t like doing what everyone else is doing, and with most comic artists going digital these days, I took a little pleasure in the thought of going against the grain and reverting to the old ways.

Are you interested in Astronomy and if so, how has that interest influenced the series?

I can’t say I was particularly interested or even aware of astronomy before I came across that Wikipedia page about relativistic jets, but that really opened my eyes about what an amazing place our universe is. There was quite a bit I realized I didn’t know, and I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring that; it’s also lead to me paying more attention to articles and topics on other natural subjects even here on our own planet, like the history and formation of Earth, life in ancient times and even prehistory, exotic animal species, and all kinds of stuff.

 In any case, writing for A* is always an excellent excuse to spend some time looking up all kinds of fascinating topics, and I’ve even found an outlet for stuff that doesn’t make it directly into the comic by writing about other topics that interest me in A*’s daily blog. So astronomy and all these other natural (and unnatural! :o) science topics definitely keep me engaged and excited in the project.

Oh! And their very direct influence was to make me think that I could write the series as “hard” science fiction, which is to say staying within the bounds of what science tells us is or will likely be possible: so you don’t have handheld ray guns, faster than light travel, goofy aliens, and so forth; this really lets me focus the story on a realistic depiction of the human condition in extreme circumstances–real space is a terrifying place!–and pushes me to make sure everything more or less makes sense, which I think in the long run will make for a much more believable and engaging narrative.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Golly! Well… I’ll say that I really enjoy the interaction I have with readers about A* and topics stemming from it; I work on each page that same day it gets posted, so feedback I get on the previous day’s page often has a direct influence on how the next one comes out. I love to hear from people about what they thought of A*, good or bad, so if you do give it a look, please feel free to send me your thoughts at smbhax@gmail.com, or on Twitter ( @smbhax ), Facebook, G+, etc. Yep! And thanks very much for reading! 🙂

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