Last year, Mistresses and Charmed actress Alyssa Milano flexed her creative talents with the debut of Hacktivist, a graphic novel that focused on the growing issues of social media and social commentary. Along with writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly, as well as artist Marcus To and colorist Ian Herring, Hacktivist explored the story of Nate Graft and Ed Hiccox, two Internet savvy friends running a social media company similar to Twitter called YourLife…and who also happen to be hackers for a group called “.sve_urs3lf.” Four installments were released starting in January 2014 from Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.
The first issue of the second volume of Hacktivist, a six issue miniseries which was released by Archaia this past Wednesday, follows the graphic novel’s acclaimed run. In the wake of new alliances and new complications that stem from the faked death of his friend Ed, Hacktivist takes on new stories and even bigger threats.
EW spoke with Milano, Lanzing and Kelly about taking Hacktivist to the next level, as well as the reflections they had on writing a series that aligned pretty closely with recent real-life events. Fans can also see an exclusive preview of pages below.
EW: This issue is a follow-up to the one you released last year. For all of you, what have been some of the best things that you’ve seen in terms of reception and feedback from the first issue? What surprised you about its debut?
ALYSSA MILANO: I was incredibly nervous before the original release. Comic book fans are smart, loyal and die-hard, so I knew developing a comic might be met with some criticism. Just the fact that the book was so warmly received and critically acclaimed made me happy and was somewhat of a surprise. The other thing that kind of blew me away was how much feedback and support I got from real hacktivists.
JACKSON LANZING: That’s actually my favorite bit of reception, too — the response that came from within the hacker community, from those that reached out after they trolled us mercilessly. They could have easily ignored us, but instead there were many in the wider community who came forward with constructive input for the next volume. Add to that the occasional tweet from someone in Tunisia, thrilled to see their country and story represented in ours, and the reaction has been better than I could have ever expected.
COLLIN KELLY: One thing that delighted me was the number of converts we made. The first volume wasn’t your standard super-hero fare by any stretch, but it also isn’t an indie title. With no natural fan base, we had to carve out a niche, and that meant finding people willing to take a chance on something a little different. Having those same people come back after issue four — not only excited but hungry for this issue — that’s an incredible feeling.
Alyssa, this idea initially came out of your passionate response to how the media controls us. Did you have these bigger ideas you wanted to follow up on in this volume, or did you always know exactly what storytelling path you wanted to take?
MILANO: My passion really stems from how technology and specifically social media has become such a powerful tool for democracy. It gives people with no voice a voice. A moment can create a movement. A movement used to need a leader to stand up and organize and now a movement can be created and led by many people rising up. I think that’s pretty amazing. As far as this issue is concerned, once I decided to do another volume, I knew the exact story I wanted to tell. But it was really important to me when creating the first volume that it could stand on its own.
Jackson and Collin, how is this go-around of Hacktivist easier or more challenging than last year’s? Is it fun to get back into writing Nate again, and also to explore new characters?
KELLY: Pretty much “yes” to all of that. With six issues instead of four, this volume has more space to breathe, which of course makes certain elements easier. In Volume 1, we took two social media moguls-turned-cyber vigilantes and had them assist in one country’s populist revolution; in Volume 2, those same two are faced with a rogue cell that will stop at nothing to bring the current American order to its knees. In exploring the current issues America has with race, wealth, class and technology, combined with a cast that has literally doubled, this volume may be the most complex — and rewarding — thing we’ve ever done. As two best friends, there’s real joy for Jackson and myself in getting to write Ed and Nate… but at the same time, we push them to their absolute emotional limit, and to write that with authenticity required that we pushed ourselves to a similarly exhausting place.
LANZING: That main thrust of friendship between Ed and Nate remains the focus of Hacktivist, even as our scope and our cast changes. Fans of the first volume will see characters like Jess DeSano and Reggie Coltrane — essentially background characters in the first volume — really step into their own as actors on our stage. They found new voice and some real spine; they’re invaluable to this story. Our Tunisian hacker, Sirine, is living her own story back in Tunis and remains at a distance in Volume 2 (which I’m sure will disappoint some readers, but stay tuned). In her stead, we’ve got a new hacker with a similar MO, except she’s operating here in the U.S. and her drive for change isn’t tempered by the same optimism as Sirine. That character takes over the book starting in Issue #2 — and she’s by far my favorite thing to write in this story.
Given all that has happened in the past year with Internet hacking, it seems like the debut of Volume 2 is examining an issue that has become very real. Did that influence your storytelling in any way?
MILANO: There has never been a moment since we started this project that all of this wasn’t very real. From the very beginning, Collin, Jack and I would brainstorm and come up with crazy ideas and then days later that very same thought would be in the news. Of course, I would then use my connections in this space to make sure what we were writing was even feasible. It was important to me to have this story grounded in reality.
LANZING: We have no choice but to be influenced. Ultimately, that’s both the perk and challenge of writing Hacktivist. We’ve told the story many times that we were halfway through writing Volume 1 — about a hacker named Ed who leaks government secrets and goes on the run — when Edward Snowden contacted Greenwald. This time around, we were turning in the script for #1 — in which a large-scale device ransom and data mining exploit is pulled on a major American corporation — when the Sony hack went down. When you write Batman, the Bat-Signal doesn’t appear in the skies above you. When you write Hacktivist, you are often, whether or not you know it, writing the future.
KELLY: We never set out to lift from the headlines — comics take months to produce, so merely emulating the news du jour is a great way for your story to be irrelevant by the time it goes to press. We call Hacktivist “science fiction of the near future”; by looking at current trends in available technology, we hypothesize what clever hackers and futurists might be able to accomplish given a few years and little luck. Nothing we write is fake, but most of it isn’t quite real… yet.
This is a project all of you are passionate about for various reasons. What do you personally want readers to take away from this next installment?
MILANO: In this time, it’s hard to escape accountability for your actions. It can be on a personal level, like how the Internet was able to hold the dentist accountable for killing that beautiful creature [Cecil the lion]. Or on a national level, like how Snowden held the NSA’s surveillance practices accountable. Or on a global level, like what we’ve seen with the Occupy movement. As global citizens we are able to fight for the betterment of humanity. We have the tools. We are all connected, “an army of ghosts.”
KELLY: I hope our book encourages readers to rethink how they treat social media. The Internet is perhaps the most powerful tool of the age, a piece of magic as world-changing as the printing press or air travel, and yet in so many instances it functions to push people apart, rather than bring them together. How we act on the Internet, what we say to “strangers” online, matters as much as what you would say to their face, regardless of whether you know their real name. It’s about respect: If you want it, you give it; hands down, case closed.
LANZING: The entire country — including the comics community — is right now engaged in a very important awakening regarding the massive social and societal injustices that exist all around us. As we turned our focus from Tunisia to our own backyard, it was important to me that we don’t ignore or lessen that awakening. Every character in this book has a perspective; every character has a point. There is no good and there is no evil; there are just perspectives. I hope that by the end of Volume 2, you aren’t sure who you’re really rooting for. I hope our readership takes the opportunity to explore their own feelings and impulses, just as we have in writing this book.
Hacktivist, Vol. 2 #1 is available in comic shops now.