Nothing could sound worse then waking up and finding yourself in the middle of one of those dystopian survival games, where competitors aren’t just trying to win. They’re trying to avoid getting killed off, because that’s what being eliminated means, or might mean… who really wants to find out for sure? Cass might not know why she woke up in a nightmare but presumably the writers of Tower do, which is why it was great to be able to pick the brains of head writer, Camrus Johnson, and writer, Kelsey Barnhart, about the series:
Cover Art: ChrisCross & Andrew Dalhouse
Rachel Bellwoar: Like Hunger Games and Squid Game before it, Tower is about a survival competition series. What made you want to put your own spin on that premise, and what do you think it is about these competitions that has people so enthralled?
Camrus Johnson: I come from a very fun and competitive family, so winning games and competitions is something I’ve been into my entire life. My love for video games came out of that, and for so many years I couldn’t help but think how fun it would be to be fully inside a video game competition where you can feel everything; a video game that’s real. So, making our competition more tech-based came from that, but most last-one-standing competitions are sort of “everyone for themselves” so I thought the new twist of having the option to team up with anyone at any time and have an animal assistant along the way would add layers and change the stakes.
I think people are enthralled in survival competitions because we love declaring winners, high stakes, and a show. American Idol, the Super Bowl, the presidential campaign (haha); TOWER is like waking up in one of those and having to figure out the rules as you go.
Kelsey Barnhart: The initial concept for Tower has been something I know Cam had been brainstorming for a long time. But when he first pitched the idea to me, I instantly thought of books like Battle Royale and The Long Walk; stories that weave a huge array of emotions into this nightmarish scenario. I think that’s what’s so alluring about the setup; a simple premise that gives you an exciting and natural way to explore everything about who your characters think they are, who they truly are, and what they are truly capable of.
Bellwoar: Were there any particular video games that helped inspire the design for the gameplay in Tower?
Barnhart: I don’t think one specifically, but I’m sure Mortal Kombat came up a LOT. We talked a lot about capturing that excitement when you watch two really good players face each other. I think there are a lot more parallels now, but the battle royale genre wasn’t really a big thing when we first put the concept together.
Johnson: Yeah, nothing specific; because Kelsey and I both play very different video games the inspirations are all over the place. There’s a lot of RPG influence, but also some Halo, and even some Matrix. (Which counts ‘cuz it was a video game, too! And a dope one!)
Cover Art: Loyiso Mkize and Andrew Dalhouse
Bellwoar: If the man in issue three is to be believed, this is the first time the competition’s ever been run. How did that come into play while you were writing this first arc with Kelsey?
Johnson: I always wanted Tower to be a trilogy: three separate runs. But I didn’t want to go the normal route where Tower Vol. 1 of 3 was the backstory and setup. Instead, I wanted the readers to be put into the same position as Casandra and the challengers: figuring out what the heck was happening and if any of this is real as they go. Then, in the second part, the story continues forward but you get all of the lasting questions from Part 1 answered, as well. But with that structure, the reader can’t be completely in the dark the entire time or it would be unfair and, frankly, not as interesting. The fun of it is getting little pieces of the puzzle here and there and trying to piece together what the big picture is with them. Tower #3, being the midpoint, felt like a place to really give some global perspective of what this is and who’s pulling the strings.
Barnhart: I mean, when was the last time a triple-A game studio launched a game and everything worked perfectly? There were bound to be errors. Tower is no exception.
Bellwoar: When it comes to staying alive, Casandra might not have thought her background as a physical therapist would come in handy, but it does on at least one occasion. How did you land on that career for her?
Barnhart: It was really important to show that Cas was not helpless just because she wasn’t willing to fight. But giving her a field that makes her intimately familiar with how, when, and why people use their bodies conveys that she’s a different kind of survivor. She’s capable and intelligent, but most importantly, she knows how to work with people in a wide range of emotional states.
Johnson: Yeah, it was hard because we wanted to show that although she doesn’t seem to be much of a fighter, she does have a special eye that others don’t. That keen sense for detail, similar to Sherlock Holmes’s or the lead character Shawn’s from Psych, may not always come in handy but it does give her the upper hand sometimes. So, a career where she can see a body and quickly notice implications made physical therapy feel like an interesting and grounded choice.
Cover Art: Loyiso Mkize and Andrew Dalhouse
Bellwoar: None of the contestants appear to remember signing up for the game. Did you always want to have a memory component and introduce flashbacks into the series?
Johnson: Absolutely. I love art that plays with minds, memories, and timelines. So, we use flashbacks because they take us out of the story and into the real world, truly giving us some breaths of fresh air, so to speak, while making the majority of the series inside of the Tower feel that much more suffocating and dangerous. But in Issue #1 we wanted to make sure we stayed inside so the readers got used to being there, like the characters.
Barnhart: That first image in Issue #1 was so critical. The audience needs to be in the same place Cas is when we first see her. But as we move through the story, our characters have more time to think, to reflect. So, when we see them in these human moments, it’s always to recenter these characters’ humanity.
Bellwoar: In issue two we get to meet some of the games’ overseers. What made you hold off on that reveal?
Barnhart: This is a big world and we have a lot of places for the narrative to go. But before unspooling our crazy sci-fi setting on people’s laps, we wanted to introduce them to these characters, have them empathize with these people and see their features and flaws. And at the end of the day, Cas, Mac, and Kimi’s story, regardless of the events in the macro, are the focus of Tower.
Johnson: Exactly. We’re already making readers fall in love with our three leads, but in order to do that Casandra, Mac, and Kimi needed and deserved the entire first issue to introduce themselves. Not to mention introducing our antagonist, Cain, and his lackey, KG! Once we know who our mains are and get to see their dynamics, we can open the world up quite a bit and reveal the other players, like a few of the overseers themselves! Don’t worry, if we make it to Tower Vol. 2, there’s a whole lot more of the “overseers”!
Bellwoar: Sounds great! Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Camrus and Kelsey!
The first three issues of Tower are available now from A Wave Blue World. Issue #4 goes on sale May 17th.
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