UNFOLLOW creators talk about their deadly social media experiment

What would you do if you woke up today and discovered you were a millionaire? How about if you discovered you could easily become a BILLIONAIRE? The only thing you”d have to do is kill – or hire someone to kill – a few people first. But there”s a catch; all those people you have to kill are trying to kill you too.

That”s the concept behind Vertigo Comics series UNFOLLOW by Robert Williams and Mike Dowling. Think of it as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Battle Royale. And you thought social media was scary NOW!

From the press release:

A dying social media mogul leaves his billions to be split evenly between 140 random people-or however many of them are still alive at the moment of his death.

This sharp, thrilling look at life in the digital age assembles a cast that includes a young black man trying to get by in St. Louis, an Iranian reporter in need of hope, a retired special forces soldier with a strange sense of purpose, and a thrill-seeking heiress-and shows us that we”re all still part of the food chain.

At the first collected edition tradeback of UNFOLLOW is in comic book stores now – and arrives in all stores on May 24 – HitFix Harpy spoke with Rob and Mike over the phone about how they came up with this idea, where the story is going, and just how much of the creepy supernatural element is real.

Image Credit: DC Comics

HITFIX HARPY: When did you guys get the idea for UNFOLLOW? This concept is basically social media meets Battle Royale, and it”s terrifying?

ROBERT WILLIAMS: It came out of just observing patterns of Twitter. You see sort of witch hunts going on and certain people getting hounded. You can see followers and alpha males, all the things that you would expect to see in a kind of food chain. The thought kind of emerged that, even though we've got better technology these days, we haven't changed much, to be honest with you. We're still the same animals in the jungle.

MIKE DOWLING: I was kind of interested in doing a hunt type of story when me and Rob were first talking about this. I think Rob had the idea to kind of mix the sort of things, the primal stuff with the height of technology and how we socially interact with that kind of stuff. 

ROBERT: When we talked about what we wanted to do you said thematically that you wanted to do a sort of Call of the Wild-type of thing. It just seemed an interesting juxtaposition to put that type of animal primacy next to sort of the cutting edge technology that has become part of all of our day to day lives.

Can you guys talk a little bit at all about the TV show that they're working on based on UNFOLLOW over at ABC. Is that still happening?

ROBERT: I think we … I mean, there's still sort of like a … What's the best way of putting it? There's still an enthusiasm by DC and Time Warner to get a TV show made, is all we can say at this point.

The characters we met in the first collection of UNFOLLOW, are those the main people that we will be following through the next arc? Will we be introduced to more of the 140, or are they just kind of faceless antagonists for our “heroes” to fight against and defend themselves to survive?

ROBERT: You will see more of the 140, and you'll see sort of the fates of some of them. Some of them will come more to the forefront, but you”ve met our core cast. We've got 22 pages every month. You can't do all these characters justice in a short period. Hopefully, we have a very long run, and you can get to know even more of the characters. The challenge is to give them more depth, and that's something I think we're doing and enjoying; trying to get a sense of humanity behind these people, even if they're very extreme characters. A survivalist who thinks God talks to him or a coke-head high-society girl. 

How much of the supernatural is real? Reading the book made me feel like I was going crazy because I couldn't tell. I'm assuming that was your intent. How do you integrate that into what is a very realistic setting?

MIKE: I'm not sure. The characters think it”s real. I think if I had a vision like that, you'd just have to take it at face value, and I think, you know, the characters do. You know, I feel like they're real to the characters. When I'm drawing it that's how I have to address it.

ROBERT: Yeah, those vision parts of the story are really about the subjectivity of the experience of the individual. It's kind of like, to the individual it's real, and that's kind of all that matters. I think that that's true to anyone that has had any kind of fever-dreamlike experience along the way.

Where did the idea for the mask that Rubenstein wears come from?

ROBERT: That was a real last minute addition, which crazy considering it's one of the most striking visuals in the book. I think I stumbled across an article which was all about; I think it was Bolivian death masks. One of Rubenstein's masks is a real Bolivian death mask that was in this article. It just struck me as absolutely creepy and terrifying. The whole idea of masks thematically works with the book, and it's important with how people appear on social media isn”t necessarily who they really are. It's just a great visual. It immediately pops up off the page and makes him about 100 times more terrifying than if he'd just been some guy.

I don't know if this was intentional, but with the conversation in comics being so much revolving around diversity trying to be more inclusive, there”s been a lot of talk about privilege and appropriation. It's very interesting to watch this white guy put on a mask from a different culture, but it was another sinister layer to him. 

ROBERT: That's actually the sense with the book, the whole inclusivity thing is part of it. Social media's supposed to bring us all together from around the world, no matter what race or what background or whatever, and that's in there. With Rubenstein, it is a case of, he is a different person when he puts the mask on. As you'll see in the second arc, that experience only intensifies and gets kind of scarier. There is a sense that he wants to give the impression that he's involved in some kind of almost a holy quest. But, beneath the surface, he's just after the money. Whatever amount he would even admit that to himself is another matter. That's the thing. One thing that's interesting with the whole mask theme is, certain characters can seem very sort of face value, but beneath the surface their motives can be a lot more pure, and sometimes the opposite is true as well.

When it comes to Akira, how difficult is it to get his tattoo right? When I was reading, I was like, why would you do that to yourself?

MIKE: Yeah, I'm afraid that we cheat. I've only drawn his tattoo once. I drew it so that I could add it to his face in Photoshop. Then you just have to kind of line it up and use special tools to make it stick to his face right, and that's it. It's not too bad.

We shouldn't have revealed your secret. You could have just been like, “Yeah, it's awful. Like every time, it just takes forever.

ROBERT: You just killed your entire mythology, Mike.

MIKE: I mean the book has essentially 140 possible characters, so there's quite a lot of crowd scenes. That's more time-consuming than tattoos.

Were the crowd scenes the most difficult thing to draw? All of those people that you've drawn in the background that are part of the 140 are they consistent? Say midway through arc you need another person, could you go back to that party scene, close your eyes and throw a dart and say, “That one.”?

MIKE: Well, yeah I try to … I have several reference faces, which I use for the crowd scenes. I can always go back to those photos and kind of pull out the different people. So yeah, it is feasible. It is feasible each of those 140 can be called on when they're needed thematically.

Could you guys just talk a little bit about the upcoming arc, what people can expect going forward now that all of the characters are in place, we know a little bit about them, and they've made terrible mistakes. What's next?

ROBERT: The world knows, everyone knows where they are, knows who they are. They”ve become celebrities, but they've also got big price tags on their heads. They're the hunted, and you're going to see a definite sort of schism between two camps. You're going to see one camp who are going to be peaceful. They can show the world they don't have to kill each other. They don't have to go to the lowest common denominator. They can be a force for good in the world. That's a strong statement. Then, you're going to get another side, which is a run for the hills and attempt to higher the biggest people and things that they can to protect them, with money, because they think killers are coming for them. Our characters go into two different groups, our core characters. You'll see where both sides end up. I think by the nature of it, the genie's out of the bottle now. I'm not entirely sure there're any huge happy endings for any of these characters in the next part, I'll put it that way.

MIKE: [laughs] Oh, spoilers.

ROBERT: Money does not necessarily bring them happiness, as you'll all see, I imagine.