Ezra Claytan Daniels on Innovative Storytelling & Upgrade Soul

Upgrade Soul iOS App Icon - from the Apple App store

Most graphic novels exist in the form of books, meant to be read, leafed through and live on your shelf. But Ezra Claytan Daniels’ Upgrade Soul isn’t most graphic novels. It originated as an innovative, serialized story on iOS back in 2012. It was brought back into the public eye last year, when it was republished as a traditional graphic novel by Lion Forge and was hailed with critical acclaim, netting a Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, an Eisner nomination and a place on what felt like every year end list of best comics of 2018. Now, Upgrade Soul is available again the way it was originally meant to be experienced, with a relaunched and updated version of the original iOS app.

The Upgrade Soul app is not the same as simply reading a comic digitally. It guides the reader through the story, using animation, music and sound design to curate both the flow and the emotional resonance of the story. It’s much more immersive than reading the story on paper, as I did the first time I read it. It’s undeniably tense when it needs to be tense, scary when it needs to be scary, and it kept me on the edge of my seat in a way that books can’t really achieve. (I found myself audibly gasping at surprising panels, even in a story I had already read!) I already would have recommended Upgrade Soul for the intensely philosophical story, but now I have to recommend it equally for the unique and deeply engaging reading experience.

We had a chance to catch up with Ezra Claytan Daniels and chat about his process and vision for the project.

Where did the inspiration for Upgrade Soul come from? I see both a lot of hopes and a lot of anxieties very present in the story. How much does it reflect your own hopes and anxieties?

The seeds of Upgrade Soul were planted my first year of college, when I went from being the art star kid in my home town to being a total rube in a big city. I started the fine art program with a portfolio that’d barely moved beyond classroom superhero doodles, and I was suddenly surrounded by kids who were using words like “composition” and “subtext”. That terror of being made obsolete by people who are better at the things that define your identity is the foundation of Upgrade Soul.

Upgrade Soul poses a lot of questions about identity and what it means to be “yourself” — but leaves it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions about the answers. What’s your take on it? Is there a particular conclusion you were hoping people would take away, or is posing the philosophical question and leaving people to ponder it enough?

I think the main message is about the danger of subjectivity. One person’s idea of “superior” may be irrelevant to someone else, or it may even just be objectively meaningless. The ideas of beauty, race, gender, age, or ability being standard metrics for this binary superior/inferior hierarchy is terrifying, and I wanted to illustrate that emotionally.

You’ve described the mobile app as the way Upgrade Soul was originally meant to be read. Did you always have that vision for it even as it was first being conceived? Can you talk a little bit about the iterations between how you originally imagined it and how it was released and then released again in different formats?

I started writing the story before we decided to do an interactive app, but the art was designed specifically for that platform. Every panel was drawn in multiple layers to accommodate the parallax depth effects, and the rigid panel grid helps the comic flow more naturally on screens. But from day one, I knew the art also needed to be print ready, so all my art files were set to standard comic page size. That way I could keep track of page turns and page compositions. When I finished the comic, I didn’t even need to reformat the art—I just flattened the layers and sent the files to the publisher.

What was it like working on the app? How were the challenges different than working on a traditional graphic novel?

My collaborator, developer Erik Loyer could probably speak to that better than me. I’m not a developer, so other than the technical aspects of the art creation, my only consideration was to make a good comic. Erik took my art files and basically directed them like a movie director. The app is filled with all kinds of subtle variations in panel transitions and novel interactive touches. With few exceptions, that’s all Erik. The Upgrade Soul app is way way more than a guided-view comics reader that just bounces the camera from panel to panel. There’s a nuance and bespoke attention to detail in our app that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and that adds immensely to the immersion.

The accompanying music is a really integral part of the experience when reading the comic via the app. What was your vision for music like and what was it like collaborating with Alexis Gideon on it?

Alexis is an old friend from my Chicago DIY art scene days. We’d collaborated on a few projects before this—he makes these incredible hand-animated rap operas and I did some animation for him. We always got along really well creatively, and we have really similar tastes in music. We used to go on road trips and listen to nothing but Steve Reich and Goblin. So he totally got Upgrade Soul and totally got the tone. Our collaboration was basically just me making a list of emotional beats I wanted to score, and him sending us compositions. The way the music works in the app is that every scene is paired with a song. Each song consists of say 8 layered tracks. As you swipe through the comic, each panel transition toggles specific tracks on and off so the music punctuates every emotional cue perfectly. One of our main goals with the app was to honor the comics reading experience. We don’t use any animation or voice over for that reason. The main thing was keeping temporal control in the readers’ hands, so nothing in the app ever happens without the reader making it happen—and that includes musical changes. We actually came up with a whole manifesto about our philosophies that became the centerpiece of a digital comics database I created with Amsterdam-based producer Submarine, called www.screendiver.com

You’ve really pioneered a unique format for experiencing comics. What’s next? Do you anticipate telling more stories in this way, or are you hoping for Upgrade Soul to stay a unique experience?

I would love to do more apps like this in the future. BTTM FDRS, my newest book, with Ben Passmore, was drawn with the same considerations, so if Upgrade Soul does well, I really want to give BTTM FDRS the same treatment. But right now, I’m working on exploring other mediums, like audio drama and film. I just really love working within different structural limitations and opportunities I guess, haha.

Audio drama and film sounds really interesting! Can you say anything about your creative thought process and how you’d like to utilize those structural limitations?

I looove audio drama. I used to listen to The Shadow with my grandpa, and back before podcasts were a thing, I listened obsessively to sci-fi anthology shows from the 50’s like X Minus One and Dimension X. I’ve dreamed about writing audio drama for years, so I’m thrilled to be able to work in that space now. The challenge is incredibly interesting because an audio drama is the exact polar opposite of comics in terms of what you control as a writer. In comics you control the way things look and the gestures and expressions of the characters, but the voices, action, sounds, and pacing are all in the reader’s head. In audio drama you control the voices and pacing, but all the visual elements are in the listener’s head. Comics is such a visual medium, too. I think even more visual than film because the reader can pick panels apart or search for details and symbols in a way they can’t do with a fleeting film shot. So rethinking the way I use visual metaphors has been really fun and challenging, too. I haven’t gotten to the stage where I’m working with actors yet, but I can’t wait to see how that changes the way I write dialog.

Upgrade Soul has won a really impressive number of awards! How did that feel? Were you anticipating having such a positive response?

I worked on this story off and on for 15 years. I wouldn’t have stuck with it for so long if I wasn’t confident in it, so I always expected it to find an audience when I finally finished it. I never expected that audience to be more than a few dozen people though, so it’s been incredibly humbling to see so many people engage with it.

The relaunched Upgrade Soul app is available now on the Apple App store. You can check out the first chapter for free, and the whole book costs $7.99 to unlock! Alexis Gideon’s soundtrack is also available, both as a digital download and on vinyl, in both standard black and limited deluxe color editions.

Jameson Hampton

Jameson Hampton

Jamey is a non-binary adventurer from Buffalo, NY who wishes they were immortal so they’d have time to visit every coffee shop in the world. They write code, like plants, record podcasts, categorize zines and read tarot cards. Ask them about Star Wars or Vampire: the Masquerade if you dare.