“Dystopian stories bring out the suffering and injustices that we all feel in the modern day world” Farhan Qureshi talks Digitopia comic

A slick mix of dystopian future and high energy action thriller, we’ve been following the world of Farhan Qureshi’s Digitopia thanks to it’s creators’ smart use of social media and crowd-fudning to build his audience. Keen to find out more about the story behind the comic, we caught up with Farhan to learn the secrets of Digitopia. 

Tell us a bit about the world of Digitopia and what are Digitopians?

Farhan Qureshi: Sure, so Digitopia is a world that I imagined several years ago, back in 2009. I came up with the idea before ‘Digital’ was a thing.

What really intrigued me back then was whether there was a way in which mass industrialisation could live in harmony with nature. When I wrote the initial script I was really worried (and still am) about global warming, it seemed to be that the people profiting from the heavy industrialisation didn’t care about the environment, that somehow destroying the planet wasn’t as important as the profits they were making. I thought that was weird as no matter how rich they become they still live on the planet.

I came up with the name Digitopia, as a place where industrialisation and nature could live together. The Digitopians in the story are those who live in Digitopia. They’re not so much a race as they are a people who subscribe to a philosophy of progress while keeping nature and the environment at their core. The Confederates in the story believe the opposite. It’s when global warming hits and the Confederates run out of natural resources that they decide to invade Digitopia, claiming that the Digitopians were developing weapons of mass destruction and branding all Digitopians as terrorists.

Since 2009, the term ‘Digital’ has come on to take new aspects with the rise of web2.0, social media and mass market smart phones.

The world of Digitopia feels like a mix of the near future, but also the Wild West, is that a conscious combination of genres? Is the story meant to be on modern day earth, or is it somewhere else?

FQ: The actual inspiration of the world is borne out of the original Mad Max story. Somehow, I managed to watch that movie as a kid (it scared the cr@p out me back then). What I think I found so powerful about it was how what we would consider a civilised society, could break down so quickly and readily.

I wanted to capture something of that world in Digitopia. The strap line I use for the book is a pre-apocalyptic world, I find it fascinating to explore which levers could be pulled for society to collapse and who it is that is pulling those levers.

In terms of where is it meant to be set, I tried as best as I could to avoid geographical references. I didn’t want to alienate any group of people. It is meant to be set on Earth, albeit an alternative version of earth where countries are organised by sectors according to their climate.

What is it about a dystopian future which makes it so rich for story-telling?

FQ: I think there’s so many futures that could be imagined, for me dystopian stories bring out the suffering and injustices that we all feel in the modern day world. A dystopian future adds an extra edge to it that stories set in the present day don’t.

Creating a dystopian future treads that fine line of acting as a warning of where we are heading towards without feeling preachy.

I am a sucker for 80s and 90s action movies, I found the ones that were set in the near future that had dystopian worlds ones like Cobra, Robo Cop and Judge Dread more interesting than far off space age movies. The fact that our society is already resembling elements in those movies made it more visceral.

I remember there was a oil trucker strike some time in the 90s, and no fuel got delivered to petrol stations for a couple of days. Society seemed to go crazy for a few days. People were fighting to fill their cars up with petrol, I got caught up in that. It was while I was waiting in line hoping the station wouldn’t run out that it struck me how quickly people could turn on each other for the sake of not having a full tank of petrol for one day. The irony of it was that there was probably still enough fuel under the forecourt to last a couple of days, but nobody was willing to find out how many day’s supply there was.

There seems to be a lot of media satire in there as well, are you inspired by real world events as much as fictional sometimes?

FQ: Yes absolutely, I see a lot of things going on in the real world that is very troubling. The irony is that I wrote this piece about media subversion back in 2009, way before ‘fake news’ became a catchphrase.

Many people are under the misconception that ‘fake news’ was invented in 2017, in truth fake news is as old as news itself.

History has always been written by the victors, I wanted to explore who the people are who create the so-called truth behind the news.

I did that in three of my characters, Silas is the bogey-man who in fact is really the pawn that Yale uses to control the media to his way.
Laika, is the newscaster who thinks she is changing the world by reporting the news.

I wanted the story to work on many levels which is why I set up this hierarchy of bogey-man, orchestrator and reporter, these three characters conspire against Jay and Libra who represent the everyday person who is just trying to survive in the world.

The book feels like it is part of a very rich and well thought out world, do you enjoy world building and do you create meticulously detailed plans for your writing?

FQ: I actually spend more time on the characters than I do on the world. In this story I was forced to re-examine the world in the way it was in 2009 when I wrote the original story to what it was in 2018 when I started the comic book.

The changes that I re-wrote in 2018 were mostly about the world in the way that it has changed over the 9 years. I knew I wanted to explore fake news, but in 2018 that had taken on a new mantle. The technology landscape had also changed over that time, I went down to the minutiae of the new world, thinking about how the new world would fit around the story that I originally wrote.

To do this I use my whiteboard to mind map how the story could work and what changes I need to make along different drafts. I’m a very visual person so drawing it out on a whiteboard helps me take a physical step back to see different patterns that could emerge. The other great thing about drawing it out, is that mistakes are very easy to undo.

Because they’re so easy to undo I like to make more of them and see where the characters and plot can go. When I’m happy with something I tend to walk away and look at it another day. If I’m still happy with it when I come back then I take to the keyboard.

Your artist, Sebastian Piriz has a really clean and detailed style which make the book feel very slick. How did the two of you meet and what was it about his style which so appealed to you?

FQ: I wrote a blog post about the type of art style that I wanted to achieve with Digitopia (http://www.digitopiafilm.com/writing/digitopia-call-graphic-novel-artists/) and then posted it on several groups where comic book artists tend to frequent. I received over a dozen replies to my post. There were some really high calibre artists who wanted to be involved. I went through the process of interviewing the short listed candidates over Skype.

What appealed to me about Seb’s art was the both the storytelling across pages but also the raw energy he was able to portray in the action scenes.
I think he was a really good fit for the story and played a major part in how the script was adapted in art.

You’ve been marketing and promoting the book via website, email newsletters and also on Kickstarter, how important has it been for you to create a buzz around your work before releasing it into the wild?

FQ: Unless you’re already a famous writer I don’t think the old way of making books where you spend a lot of time writing and creating the product, putting it out on sale and then market the book – works for most indie authors.

I know because I did that for my first four books, I diligently locked myself away and wrote the best book that I could and then put them out in the world. It is a crushing experience when you don’t see any sales come through for something that you worked so hard on.

The costs of putting a comic book out there into the world were exponentially higher than on any of the books I did before. I’m not currently in a position to be able to bankroll an entire comic book (or graphic novel as I hope it will be) so I needed to find a method where I could predict how well the book would be before I even committed to making it.

What I found was a half-way house.

I couldn’t get leverage for a comic book that didn’t have any finished pages done at all and I didn’t want to spend so much money making a comic book and hoping it would sell.

What I did instead was to bankroll the first 10 pages of the book so I’d have something to show people.

I went with a ‘this is going to happen anyway’ attitude to the book and offered people a chance to be part of that journey. Having 10 pages already done gave me some credential and legitimacy that this was definitely happening.

I started this via the web comic www.comic.digitopiafilm.com, which gave a very public place to show that this comic book was real. I then continued that journey through my newsletter and culminated in the Kickstarter. People then had confidence in me and knew that if they pledged they’d get a completed comic back.

All of this then led to a successful Kindle launch of the book.

You have also been releasing it on a number of platform, including Kindle, was that important for you to get as wide a reach as possible?

I always wanted to get a digital version of the book out into the world. Going digital is a way for me to spend more time writing than figuring out print orders and making multiple trips to the post office.

I wanted to go first for Kindle as I have had previous experience with Kindle. Kindle has a very clear ranking system. I knew I wanted to get to number 1 in the comic book category on Kindle. I was really pleased when ‘Digitopia 1.0: Displaced Dreams’ hit the top of the charts in its categories.

In terms of widening that reach I do intend to go onto the other comic book platforms, the next one I’m looking to launch on is Comixology and ComicHause.
The story can only really be a story if it has readers.

Can you tell us a bit about the long term plan for the series? Is it ongoing or just a short run?

The original hope for Digitopia was to make it into a graphic novel. Through doing crowd funding I realised that my initial reach was to fund 14 pages. I’m working hard on building a fan base where my next crowd funding project for Digitopia 2.0 will be enough to fund the entire 24 pages. Hopefully that will grow for issue 3. When all 3 issues are funded then I’d look to compile them into a graphic novel.

I hope then the story can branch off into different sub stories and eras of Digitopia. Might it turn out to have prequels and sequels? Well I haven’t got that far into thinking about it. Right now I want to see it through, to complete the three issues and have them ready to be a printed graphic novel.

You can find out more about Digitopia at www.comic.digitopiafilm.com, read a digital preview and sign up for the email newsletter. Or you can pick up Digitopia for Kindle here.