PopLurker Interviews: Tom Bilyeu of Impact Theory Comics (With a Review of Neon Future Issue One)

Neon Future is a brand-new comic book series from Impact Theory Comics, brain child of entrepreneur Tom Bilyeu. He teamed up with world-famous DJ Steve Aoki to create a dazzling new science fiction dystopia where the world is split into two. Those who use do not use technology, and those who do…by putting it inside them.

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Book Description:

In a future where technology is illegal, a war is brewing between the Augmented, who have chosen to integrate technology into their bodies, and the Authentic, who have not. The resistance movement, Neon Future, strives to bring peace by showing the world a brighter future in harmony with technology.

But when Authentic hero and TV Star Clay Campbell dies unexpectedly, Neon Future’s mysterious leader Kita Sovee (inspired by Steve Aoki) is forced to decide whether to use his latest technological innovation to bring Clay back from the dead. This choice threatens to tip the uneasy balance between the government and the techno-class into an all-out civil war.

I read the first issue and was immediately drawn in—this story is solid. It pulls a lot of influence from The Matrix, as well as some Tron blended with traditional Japanese elements. It’s a familiar story, but a good one. A celebrity dies and comes back a “thing”. He’s used as an example of the possibilities of technology, a machine, but also, a man in a state of emotional and mortal limbo. It will be very interesting to follow Clay’s journey, learn more about Kita and which side of the playing field he’s on, and learn that this entire civil war that’s brewing has more gray area than anyone could have realized.

I give Neon Future by Jim Krueger and Tom Bilyeu 4/5 stars.

 

But that’s not all! I was lucky enough to have an interview with Tom himself during my trip to Los Angeles Comic Con! We sat down to discuss his new company, Impact Theory Comics, and discuss his background and what led up to this amazing new project, Neon Future.

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Hi Tom! Thank you so much for giving PopLurker this interview. So, you sir are the owner of Impact Theory comics, correct?

Yes!

 

That’s amazing! Would you please tell us a little bit about Neon Future? It’s your flagship comic book series, isn’t it?

Yes, it is our very first comic.

 

Let’s talk about the comic book’s background and your relationship with Steve Aoki. How did Neon Future come into existence? It looks like you guys are working with a pretty small crew to make this happen.

Everyone was pretty hands on, with it. And it’s funny you say it’s a small crew, because to me, it’s pretty big. Coming into comics, I was amazed by how many people actually touch a panel. Getting all these people together just to complete one frame is pretty extraordinary.

As for the background with Steve Aoki—I run an interview show called Impact Theory and had him on as a guest. We hit it off really well, but when I was doing some research on him, I learned that he plans on being cryogenically frozen when he dies. That’s my kind of guy; someone who isn’t even willing to bow to death. As somebody who also wants to live forever and hopes that technology will meet me so I can pull that off, we just really connected over that.

I pitched him the idea of Neon Future with the idea of “what if we really could use technology to cheat death?”. Only someone with his compassion could achieve that. He didn’t want to be the main character, so we had him in there as a side character. I think of him as our Morpheus. That was in our minds when we wrote it. And we wanted to tell a story that starts in a dystopian world, then talk about how we get out of that. So many worlds just keep you stuck in that dystopia, from the first word to the last. But we wanted to tell a story about how you build your way out of that. I’m excited to see how far we can take it, but that was the genesis.

 

How many issues of Neon Future can readers look forward to? Is there a good amount of story in the pipeline?

It’s a guaranteed six issue arc, and it’s very robust. The first issue was 28 pages, issue two is 32 pages, so it’s a lot longer than your traditional comic. We have eighteen issues mapped out, and if we make it all the way to eighteen because it’s doing well, then we would wrap the story at eighteen. It feels like a natural breath for the story and we have three distinct six-issue arcs.

 

Let’s talk about you and your relationship with fandoms in general. What lead up to you creating your interview show Impact Theory, which then segued into launching Impact Theory Comics?

It’s actually very atypical. I worked in the inner cities a lot. I was a Big Brother for a kid who lived in South Central, Los Angeles for about 8 ½ years starting when I was eighteen. That planted a seed that there are extraordinary people out there who will never do anything with their lives because they don’t believe in themselves. But I was young, and I did not know how to help him other than to just be a presence and to be kind. That wasn’t enough to change the trajectory of his life. Flash forward fifteen years later, I have 3,000 employees and about 1,000 of them grew up hard in the inner cities. They have unimaginable stories of trauma, ranging from one guy holding his stepfather while he bled to death from a gunshot wound to the head, another guy had his sister shot to death with an AK47 in his front yard when she was twelve. It’s just story, after story, after story like that.

Because I knew them so well from working side-by-side, they’ve become some of my favorite people in the world, but their frame of reference was so small. But by then, I’d changed my own life. I’d gone from scrounging around, digging through my couch to find change to put gas in my car (which is absolutely a true story), to building a billion-dollar business. And what you have to do to your mindset in order to get there is pretty extraordinary, but anybody can do it. So, I really wanted to give people that gift of mindset, and in doing what I’ll call non-fiction stuff (interview shows, direct to camera, etc.) I’m telling people ‘if you think like this, and believe in these things, then you can empower yourself to learn, grow, and do whatever you want’.

It worked, but it only hit about 2% of the people I said it to. I started thinking ‘How do I reach that other 98% of the world?’ The answer is narrative. If you’ve read any of Yuval Noah Harari’s books like Sapiens, Homo Deus, or 21 Rules for the 21st Century, he talks about that. He discusses about how human are meaning-making machines. We use narrative to make sense of the world, to orient ourselves, what to believe and how to act. It resonated really strongly with me because my background is film.

I knew if I was going to reach these people, that 98%, it was going to have to be at an emotional level. And how can we construct stories that have that emotional impact? Now our goal as a publisher, as a studio overall, is to tell one kind of story but from a thousand different angles. Stories of empowerment, going from lost and scared, uneducated without owning yourself to finding your personal power and finding your skillset. And look, we can’t preach. But if we can embed those messages seamlessly the way Star Wars or The Matrix (which is the dominant influence of my life!)  then we might actually be able to influence people at a cultural level.

 

I’m blown away, Tom. That’s a really excellent answer. Most people just say ‘I like Batman’.

(laughing) Yeah, that’s fair! But you know what, it works! I’ve been building this social ecosystem for about two years now. Every time I go to conventions, I tell people where to find me and to come say what’s up. And all the time, people come up to me to say that they’ve been reading my material, reading the site, and what we’re doing helps get them out of a dark place.

There’s a biological component to how you feel and where you’re at, and knowing how to get out of that. Knowing that you’re impact people’s lives and touching them, and pulling them out of a dark spiral makes it easier to get up and fight every day.

Honestly, making a comic is hard. When I think about how many people you have to orient to one thing, one vision, one story it’s extraordinary. This industry is unlike anything else. You’d think it would be easier than a film. Sure, it’s less expensive, but I really wouldn’t say it’s easier. It takes a lot of energy.

 

That actually segues into a question for you. What have been some of the challenges, expected or unexpected, that you’ve come across since starting the comic until now through its launch?

I’ll give you the unexpected challenge; there’s no emotional safety in this industry. And by that, I mean there’s a very tense relationship between publishers and talent. The talent feels disenfranchised because they’re all contractors. Nobody has a 401K or health insurance, and so it creates this dynamic where the publisher knows that as soon as somebody else comes along, the talent is happy to jump ship and move over to that. You get paid for the pages you produce, and that’s it.

What happens when you’re sick, for instance, and you still have to turn out pages in order to get paid and feed your family? It creates this scattering effect where people move to smaller towns with a lower cost of living. Which means they have no tactical relationship with their editor, where they can see and talk to them and build those deep bonds. Our writer, an Eisner Award winning writer Jim Krueger and one of our artists, Neil Edwards, both amazingly talented people who have worked together on multiple projects before, had never met face to face. There’s no replacement for proximity. Physical contact is how we build bonds. Otherwise, it creates this standoff mistrust of not knowing where the other person is going with this.

Getting the first book out was a huge effort just in building trust. We pushed that with our artists and pencilers that we want to build this relationship, and we want this to go for the long run. We had to give them that emotional safety. Going from book one to book two? It was night and day difference, just emotionally. I’ll speak for myself, though I think all of the talent on the book would agree, that the difference between working on the two books has been enormous because we have real relationships now.

 

Going back to your point about the 2% of people who can motivate themselves versus the 98% who need fictional narratives. I once heard a quote that said that fiction helps us imagine a better future, and it reminds me of what you are trying to accomplish with Impact Theory Comics. Do you agree with that statement?

Massively. It goes back to what Harari was saying in his most recent book that Science Fiction authors have a moral obligation to paint a picture of a world worth building. While I don’t think they have a moral imperative, I do think it is really important for some sub-set of certainly Sci-Fi, I think it applies even broader to help people live. How to think. How to live. So that they can create a better future. Telling stories like that is so important because for whatever reason, humans use narrative to construct their own self-identity, and their own personal narrative. Giving them a narrative that’s empowering is how you influence the world. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true!

 

Cheese is delicious. Let’s be a little cheesy. Nice things can be a little schmaltzy sometimes.

Yeah, it’s true. I live there. We try to keep it out of our stories, but it’s in my personal life.

 

All right, I won’t take up any more of your time. Tell me—where can PopLurker readers find you?

You can find us @ITComics on Instagram and Twitter. We also have two more projects in the pipeline. The first is called Women of Impact, which takes real-life women telling their stories and then imagining them as superheroes. My wife is my co-founder and she’s producing that book with other female artists and writers; real women.

Our other book is called Power-Less. It’s about two identical twins where one gets magical powers after an alien attack and becomes one of the most famous people in the world, while the other one feels like a loser. Our story focuses around the one without the powers and what he has to do to learn and grow. It’s sort of examining Superman versus Batman, where one was given his powers and the other has to slowly learn and develop those powers.

 

It’s like the Prince and the Pauper. We all want to follow the Pauper. His struggle is more interesting.

Exactly.

 

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