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Metal Society’s Zack Kaplan Chats Robots & Humans in MMA Ring (Interview)

Acclaimed comic book creator Zack Kaplan is coming back to Image Comics and Top Cow Productions — and the hard science fiction genre — with his new comic book miniseries Metal Society. Teaming up with collaborators Guilherme Balbi and Marco Lesko, the story takes place in a world run by sentient robots, with humans cultivated to perform manual labor for the machines. A woman named Rosa grows increasingly frustrated with the societal divide, battling robotic opponents in public mixed-martial arts matches that inspire the world.

In an exclusive interview with CBR, Kaplan shared the inspirations behind Metal Society, teased the story’s relevant themes, and provided updates on his upcoming projects in comics and television. Also included is an unlettered preview from Metal Society #1, illustrated by Balbi and colored by Lesko, along with the standard cover for the issue by Balbi and Lesko.

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CBR: Zack, you’re back at Top Cow Productions and Image Comics for your new hard science fiction series Metal Society. Where did the origins for this story idea come from?

Zack Kaplan: I’m very excited to be back at Top Cow. I love doing hard sci-fi and Top Cow is just a great place to do it because they do hard sci-fi. In the vein of Eclipse and Port of Earth, Metal Society felt like a really fantastic project to bring to life with Top Cow and Image. In terms of where the idea came from, it was a confluence of a lot of different aspects that I was seeing in life, reading about modern automation and the trend of displacing human workers, and how technology was transforming our workplace and society. I think you hear a lot about people being afraid of where this is all going: Will technology change and take our jobs?

I thought what if that was flipped? Could a sentient robot feel that same fear? I really like to think about sci-fi premises taking a device like a robot and finding a way to personify the theme in a way I haven’t seen before because that allows me to explore certain themes about us and our humanity. That was the playground I found myself in here.

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Quite uniquely, this is a world where the robots have already taken over the world, with humanity grown to serve their overlords. How was it flipping this premise right from the start?

The world had to be inherently designed around the theme and conflicts that I wanted to explore. In the same way that we are here and have invented technology and we are watching robots and automation rise, I just took that whole premise and flipped it. Metal Society takes place in a future where humans have had their chance and we blew it and we’re gone. [laughs] Robots have evolved to take over and dominate the planet and echo their human creators as much as they can in their own way. They naturally do what humans would do, which is tinker with science. They re-engineer humans and bring us back. We are resurrected and they do what we would do: They give us the jobs they don’t want to do, which is manual labor and cleaning up the garbage we left on the planet.

At the center of Metal Society, you’ve got a protagonist in Rosa who’s feeling a lot of the human frustrations of this world. Describe this main character for the story.

She’s a badass and real underdog. She’s made into this society and world and, without giving too much away, her initial instinct – like any human’s – is to want to be a part of this world and they’re not. This is really relevant today because there’s so many people who want to be part of a world and yet there are aspects that prevent them from doing that. She is not just dealing with a bad guy and if she can win the fight — although there is a story wrapped around that. She’s also facing a society with perceptions and her own rebellious attitude.

In creating her, she’s just such a great character and so much fun in designing her. To me, the best dramas are when the heroes have to grow themselves to survive or they risk their own downfall. It was really exciting to put this character in this world, to see her not only having to rebel but find a way to grow herself as a person and challenge herself. There’s a great character story there, not just if she can win the fight but if she can find the right way to tackle these social issues that she’s facing.

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Rosa faces machines in mixed-martial arts fights, pitting humanity against machine in the ring. What were the origins of putting this gladiatorial approach into the story?

It was 2018 and I was at New York Comic-Con. I was at a bar with the Conor McGregor/Khabib Nurmagomedov fight on and I was watching it. I always find MMA fights really interesting and provocative because they’re really raw and aggressive, but I found out this wasn’t any ordinary fight. It was a political war going on in the ring because Khabib was a champion of Russian separatists from his homeland and, in turn, McGregor had been supported by Putin and Russia. I’m hearing some of the fight enthusiasts talk about all backstory, pressure, and drama going on behind-the-scenes that had been riding on this fight.

That was when I realized the magnitude of a single fight. [I] realized a fight like this could have ramifications and symbolic measures that echoed across the world. That was when all these ideas came together — a human and a robot fighting to, once and for all, settle who reigns supreme in man vs. machine.

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You’re working with new collaborators for Metal Societywith Guilherme Balbi, Marco Lesko, and Troy Peteri.

This book is gorgeous, every page just sizzles with life. It’s a very ambitious book because we’re creating this complex, sci-fi world with robots, no less, and all the detail that goes into that. It’s also a dramatic story with lots of characters and heart. Guilherme Balbi is a new voice in comics, but I have no doubt he’s going to be a huge voice in comics. I first saw his work by him on Dark Horse’s Alien and Avatar, which gave him a natural predisposition to sci-fi, but he also captures characters so beautifully. I fell in love with his art and just knew he’d be a great collaborator for this project.

Marco Lesko is just a great, up-and-coming colorist. He made his mark on several hit books, most notably bladerunner over at Titan Comics. Marco is very comfortable with dystopian tones and blending sci-fi with noir. This is a world that needed a dark undertone to capture the sociological angst that goes with it. Marco was a really good choice for that and Guilherme and Marco’s work together really stands out.

Troy Peteri always does such a great job. This was actually a very ambitious task for the letterer because we needed humans and robots to have different, distinct ways of talking. Robots sometimes have distinct ways of talking compared to other robots. All of that really needed a lot of skill and Troy just knocks it out of the park. The letters are so integral to this story. It’s a fantastic team and [it’s] been a great collaboration, wonderful working with them. We can’t wait for people to see what we have in store.

Any updates on the television adaptations of Eclipse and Port of Earth?

Things continue to be exciting behind the scenes, but we have no new updates yet. Stay tuned!

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This is a big year for you, Zack, beyond coming back to Top Cow. What else do you have cooking?

I’m very excited about a new series with Dark Horse Comics called breakout!, which involves spaceships from another dimension coming to take young people. It’s an Ocean’s 11-style heist, with teenagers, to rescue the brother of one of the main characters and some of their friends in a sci-fi prison break. It’s a commentary on the existential problems that older generations are passing on to young people and how they deal with it. I’m very excited about it and it’s got a great art team with Wilton Santos, Jason Wordie, and Jim Campbell. As a father of young children, it’s an important commentary, so I’m excited to share it.

Vault Comics also announced that I’m doing a book with them. I can’t speak too much about the story, but I’m teaming up with Eisner Award-winning digital artist John Pearson, who worked with Anand Rk on Blue in Green and is working with Ram V on Batman and Razorblades. This is John’s first full miniseries and his artwork for him is unbelievable. I can’t wait for you all to see what we’re cooking up. There’s also more on the way. It’s going to be a really big year and I’m excited to bring you some new comics.

Just to close us out, Zack, what are you most excited about in getting to share Metal Society with readers?

At first glance, Metal Society is a spectacular, visually stunning hard sci-fi book for fans of Port of Earth, Eclipse, or just hard sci-fi. It’s a great dose of detailed world-building. Readers who know me know I like to play with expectations. I really like to deliver a heartfelt character drama. I think fans are going to come for the world and this exciting hook and stay for a story that’s got twists and turns, characters, and a lot of drama. I hope people are going to walk away thinking about what the book has to say and thinking about the nature of fights in our society and how they’re not the best way to solve our conflicts. It’s a very substantial book, both visually but also thematically.

Written by Zack Kaplan with art by Guilherme Balbi, Metal Society #1 goes on sale May 5 from Image Comics and Top Cow Productions. Subscribers to Top Cow Productions’ Moosletter will get a sneak first of Marc Silvestri’s variant cover for Metal Society #1.

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