Comic-Con Exclusive: Skynet returns in “Terminator: The Final Battle” comic

(CBR) When it comes to the characters from the “Terminator” film franchise, the future may be unknown, but for those who wish to continue to soldier on, there’s one key piece of advice to give them: “Come with Dark Horse if you want to live.”

The publisher announced today, on the eve of Comic-Con International in San Diego, that it will publish the 12-issue “Terminator: The Final Battle” by the team of J. Michael Straczynski and Pete Woods. JMS will appear Thursday at 1:00 PM at the Dark Horse booth on the con floor for to sign and discuss the as yet unscheduled series with fans.

Created by filmmaker James Cameron and carrying over four movies and a TV show, the Terminator franchise has reached a ubiquitous level in pop culture. The story of freedom fighter John Connor — from his parents time-travel romance to his rise to battle the evil A.I. Skynet in the future — has also launched any number of comic books at nearly a half dozen publishers over the years, including a previous run by Dark Horse. But for this new series, JMS and Woods are looking towards tying their story hard to the events and characters of the films in order to deliver a story more closely related to the action from the original “The Terminator” to the most recent “Terminator Salvation” film. In fact, the story of this 12-issue series takes place after “Salvation”, as John Connor battles against the growing mind of Skynet in an attempt to save the human race.

CBR News has an exclusive first interview with Straczynski, and below the writer explains what his goals are for the book, how the Connor/Skynet relationship will drive the franchise forward, what Woods brings to the table in killer robot terms and what he learned from Cameron that has impacted how he approaches sci-fi in general and “The Terminator” in particular.

CBR News: At this point, I think it’s fair to say “The Terminator” is one of those rare things which you can actually call a “fabled pop culture franchise.” From James Cameron’s original films on through “Salvation,” the franchise has shown a lot of depth and longevity. In a general sense, what do you most identify with when you think of this world and these characters? What’s the heart of this story for you?

J. Michael Straczynski: First and foremost, I think it’s the world that Jim created so magnificently, the history and the whole mythology/future history of the thing. That’s why so much has been done with it — there are just so many points of view to explore, so many periods where you can dive in and out of the story. The characters are all interesting and compelling in their own rights, but I think it’s that world that is the real star of the thing.

Now, there have been a number of comics based on these movies over the years from Dark Horse’s original issues around and back again through any number of publishers. And while many of those stories have gone deep in developing ideas out of the Terminator world, I don’t think any of them have really been thought of as canonical in the sense with the films. How are you looking to tackle that particular challenge here?

By integrating as much of what is considered canonical into our structure, so the story leans as much as possible against that which we know is established lore.

This series will be set in the era of the “Salvation” film — whereas only in the Terminator franchise can you refer to is as a “prequel in the future.” What’s the attraction to telling your story in the most recent iteration of the franchise? Was there something specifically in that film that you wanted to pick up and carry forward?

The story that I’ve always wanted to see visualized, and that I think other fans of the movies have eagerly anticipated, is the battle that set all of the movies into motion: the assault on Skynet, the Terminators going through and what happens afterward on both sides of the timeline. So the events weave in and out of the tapestry of the Terminator, showing what we know or what we think we know, then turning the camera around to show us that what we thought we knew may not be exactly what happens. The only timeline in which you could set that story would be after “Salvation.”

This is the latest in your current string of longform, 12-issue comic stories. What was it about this Terminator tale and your plans for the characters that needed that epic scope to the story? What kind of overall journey are you hoping to take readers on over the course of the book?

It’s established that Skynet became self-aware at 2:14 a.m. EDT August 29, 1997. Okay that’s the fact, but what does that actually mean? How does that awareness evolve and change over time? The first stirrings of that awareness are brutal in their simplicity: Survive. Kill that which would kill you. Adapt to your environment, and to your enemy’s tactics. The Skynet that awakened on August 29, 1997 was not instantly capable of building the Terminators seen in the original film. It grew into that capacity as it assessed the capabilities of its enemy, and adapted accordingly. The Terminators went from brutish machines to brutish faux-men to more elegant machines, more elegant figures. Their design reflected not just purpose but aesthetics. Let me repeat that for emphasis: aesthetics. Not something you’d expect to find in a machine, but still necessary.

From birth, humans grow from the need for base survival to more complex needs, to self-awareness and self-identity. Similarly, Skynet has grown from base survival and self-awareness to more complex needs and, most importantly, a more complex system of understanding the world and itself. Skynet evolved in this fashion in order to adapt to its enemy, humans, who are a massively complex and infinitely adaptable species. The change from the Terminator seen in the first time to the T1000 and later models demonstrates Skynet adapting, learning how to make its machines more human in action and appearance. The more a Terminator can think like a human and act like a human, learning from its enemy, the better it becomes at infiltration and termination. We saw that demonstrated clearly in “T2,” in which the Terminator began to learn from the humans around it, gradually developing something resembling emotion and true awareness. “I know now why you cry.” The question then becomes, where does this lead? What is the end result of Skynet trying to fight us — by becoming us? If you’re Skynet, and you know that you are on the cusp of being defeated by humans, because despite your all your technology and your science and your brains humans are simply better at killing than you are — maybe you look to recruit another mind into the equation. Maybe you look into history a bit and you find one of the most ruthless serial killers of the 20th century, a human who hunts humans…and integrate that mind, that person, into the architecture you’ve created. In that way, the story becomes about Skynet, but also about who and what we are as a species. Which is what always set this series of movies apart from the imitators: it’s not just about machines, it’s about what those machines have to say about us. In preparing that story, I gave Mike Richardson a 35-page detailed outline of every issue, so we could track not just the current story as it goes from past to present to future, but also how it intersects with the whole future history of the Terminator films.

You’ll be working with Pete Woods on the book. What do you view as the essential qualities an artist working in this world must have, and how has Pete’s stuff lived up to that goal so far?

Pete Woods, as I type this, has pretty much finished the first issue. As I told Mike, I wanted as much in the can as possible before making the announcement and soliciting the book so that we could be sure to come out on time. In terms of the artistic approach to the book, Pete’s more the person to talk to than I am, but suffice to say we’ve exchanged a buttload of lengthy emails discussing the look of the world and the style.  One of the problems with licensed books is that they can are sometimes perceived as the bastard child of comics publishing, seeing them as generally done well but a bit prosaically in terms of the art and storytelling. How many times can you have a Terminator on a cover holding a gun in the classic pose before it blurs into all other times we’ve seen that image? So we kind of want to jack up the volume a bit in that respect.

Overall, what do you view as the greatest benefit from returning to and deepening this world in the comics form?

Selfishly, for me, it starts with the joy of just doing it. I can still remember the first time I saw “Terminator” at a small theater in Eagle Rock with fellow writer Larry DiTillio. We both walked out of the theater realizing we’d just seen something different, something extraordinary, something that expanded the language of film. I’ve been a fan of the films ever since, and have probably seen the first two films alone dozens of times. Maybe more. The other part comes from wanting to explore that universe in more detail, broadening out what we know and seeing if we can challenge a bit what we think we know. I especially want to focus on the relationship between Skynet and the humans it is trying to eliminate, especially John Connor. It’s kind of symbiotic in a sense: he wouldn’t be here if not for the time door and Skynet, and Skynet’s survival is dependent on getting rid of John. So it’s a cool dynamic to explore. A few years ago, just before “Avatar” came out, I worked with Jim on a planned reimagining of “Forbidden Planet.” We worked out the story together, I did the script and he was going to produce and/or direct it. It was one of the best experience I’ve ever had, and we just enjoyed the hell out of re-examining the characters and mythology behind that movie. We developed some storytelling techniques to accomplish that which, ironically enough, I’m now using in the Terminator universe. (The film didn’t get made, because Jim had to hop back to do “Avatar 2” and the script slipped into limbo at Warner Bros.) Something he said during our conversations has stuck with me ever since. Before “Terminator,” he said that he thought that science fiction was about familiar characters in unfamiliar setting. It took him years afterward, he said, to realize that he was wrong: that it’s about familiar relationships in unfamiliar settings (so “T2” is a father/son relationship, even though it’s not; “Aliens” is a mother/daughter relationship, even though it’s not.) That being the case, what I want to explore here is the Skynet/Connor relationship, to see what sort of metaphor awaits us there. Should be a fun ride!