It's the 22nd century, and the U.S. is entering the Second Civil War — except this time, there are robots. And space dragons. There's also a mysterious political directive called Magna Cortica, and spherical flying metal eyes that police Earth's population.
This is the world of Sol, a new comic book by local writer Hart Jeffers and local illustrator Anthony Mingacci. Set mainly in space, the first issue is a lively read that balances thoughtful, complex storytelling with wham-pow-smash action sequences. At the heart of it all are two artificial intelligence beings, Jane and Helen, and it's through these two characters that Jeffers explores one of Sol's main elements: philosophy. "Jane is based on an Aristotelian virtue ethical system, which is a lot more human. It allows for much more emotional interference in ethical decisions, letting your emotions drive you," Jeffers says. "Jane's counterpart, Helen, is a Stoic. Emotion doesn't really come into it for her — Stoics don't compromise. Writing Helen is really interesting because you say, 'OK, if you had a robot lady who operated like this, what would she do?'"
Jeffers is a student of philosophy — he studied the subject at the College of Charleston, and is deeply passionate about how it can impact human life. Virtue ethics may not sound like something you'd encounter in a comic book, but it's actually highly relevant, and not just in the imaginary world of Sol.
Scientists who are working on A.I. have to think about ethical philosophies for very practical reasons, Jeffers says. And he's knowledgeable on the topic — he's done his research, both while developing the book and for his own enjoyment. "When scientists are creating these synthetic people, they're trying to mirror how human psychology works, so these robots don't make horrible mistakes, horrible choices if we had them out in the world doing things." What's worked best so far, he continues, is virtue ethics. In this ethical system, moral decisions are not made by strict adherence to rules (which is known as deontology) or by the consequences of the decision (known as consequentialism), but on more of a case-by-case basis. "What virtue ethics says is that you don't start out as a virtuous or moral person. You become one by continually making the right choices in different situations throughout your life. But you have to live to get there," Jeffers says. "Robots can't do that. You can't be like, 'Here's virtue — now go out in the world and be a good robot.' This book is very much an exploration with these two ladies of how that process might actually work."
Add to this passion for philosophy Jeffers' love of comics and science fiction, and you've got his purpose for creating a story like Sol. "One of the things I want to do with this book — one of the things I think science fiction should do — is introduce philosophical ideas to an audience in a way that's accessible. In a way that's interesting," he says. "And we're not just going to do virtue ethics. With each issue we're going to explore a different modern philosopher and how they're interacting with some of the more old-school philosophical ideas. We might do the philosophy of science, of the panopticon, of economics."
Jeffers' partners in this endeavor are the aforementioned Mingacci and City Paper cartoonist and erstwhile indie comic creator Steve Stegelin. Together, they form the company Run Riot Media. Jeffers and Mingacci were both comic-loving kids who went to the same high school; as teens, they talked about making a comic together but never ended up doing it. The two went their separate ways for the next 15 years — Mingacci became a tattoo artist (he currently works at Blu Gorilla) and Jeffers ended up a sous chef at West Ashley's Sunflower Cafe.
Then, about two and a half years ago, Jeffers was in a car accident that killed the friend he was driving with, Serjei Cahuantzi, and left him close to death. "We were hit by a drunk driver," he says. "It was about 4 in the afternoon on a Sunday. And it was one of those things that changed my life forever." After that tragedy, Jeffers decided to finally make the comic he'd been talking about for so long. "He [Serjei] always wanted me to do this book, and for the longest time I just couldn't do it. I was trying to do everything myself, and I was working as a sous chef — I was trying, but I was failing, over and over." That's when he asked Mingacci to finally start helping him create Sol. "I was messaging him one day and I was like, 'Dude, do you still want to make comics?'" Jeffers says. "He said yes, and we just put this thing together. We're both trying to make a career out of this."
For this first issue, Jeffers and Mingacci settled on the Marvel style of illustration, which gives the illustrator a great deal of freedom. Instead of the writer providing a script that specifies exactly what happens in each individual panel, the writer instead offers more of an overview and lets the illustrator make choices as to how to best convey the action.
In Sol, for example, some pages read in a circle clockwise, while some stretch across the entire spread. It's cinematic, too, with lots of changes in perspective. "There's a lot more to the background and the way the page layouts are done, to engage with the reader a little more," Mingacci says. "You've got a lot of first, second, and third person going on. It's a little more challenging to illustrate that way, but it's more fun."
As for the third member of the team, Stegelin, he's on board to provide these two first-timers with guidance, both creative and business. "There are a lot of aspects to long-form comics that people struggle with," Stegelin says. "It's a learning process, no matter what. With the actual book, I'll help with the reader flow, structure, placement on the page. From a business perspective, it's how to get the book out there, just get an audience."
Part of that, of course, is attending cons — like Charlotte's HeroesCon, which the trio attended with book in hand just a couple of weeks ago. It's one of the biggest comic conferences in the country, and put Sol in the same room as major titles like Saga, not to mention ones by Marvel and DC Comics. They sold about 100 books, but more importantly got positive feedback from the pros. "What's really gratifying to me is I gave the book to several professionals over the weekend who were very supportive, which was very validating," Jeffers says. "They were saying things like, 'This is really good, if you stick with it you guys will get somewhere.' And that's what we want to hear."
Jeffers and Mingacci have begun work on Sol issue two, and Jeffers has a general idea of where he wants the plot to go over the next several issues. But the idea, he says, is to do it indefinitely — if they can get enough readers. "We have enough right now to do six issues, and I know I'd like to do at least two arcs," Jeffers says. "Now that we've done this, it just makes me realize even more that this is what I want to do with my life. I feel like audiences want smart, complex storytelling. People crave that — they want stuff to challenge them a little bit, make them think."