Crycoclaire and Io Black are the creative team behind cyberpunk webcomic Drugs & Wires. With new pages released every Monday, Drugs & Wires follows as an unofficial sequel to the animated, interactive comic Dreamspace. Tom spoke with the team about the origins of their project, tapping into 90s nostalgia, and their collaborative process.
T: So, how did Drugs & Wires and Dreamspace first come about?
Cryoclaire: I’d say it started about 3-4 years ago. I was a fresh graduate with a bad case of post-uni blues and needed something to occupy myself with after work, so I dug out an old character design and started doing little sketches of his sad, miserable life for my own amusement. Over time sketches turned into strips and mini-comics, but I was struggling to get a bigger story out of it.
Dreamspace was my first attempt at storytelling – it started out as this glitchy, drug-fueled trip from the character’s POV and got progressively more story-driven with each instalment. That’s when I met Io Black, who turned out to be fantastic at all the things I couldn’t do – like world building, plot development and actually getting those ideas down.
Io: Our creative relationship was mostly a product of dumb luck and a bit of persistence. I stumbled across Claire’s blog during an image search and really liked what she was doing with her brand of “Eastern Bloc” cyberpunk, so I made an effort to reach out, get a dialogue going. In fact, if you dug far enough into her blog, you’d hit the point where I flat-out said “why don’t you just do a webcomic with these characters?
As it turned out, Claire actually did want to do a webcomic and had at least a general sense of the story, but needed help just mapping it all out. So I offered to be a sounding board, and from there we quickly discovered that we shared a certain creative vibe – one largely driven by generous amounts of cynicism and a mutual appreciation of terrible, terrible things.
T: I notice both of you are listed as writers. The writing on this is incredibly strong; from the on going plot and its gradual world building, to the jokes – both in exchanges and those hidden within the visuals. How does your creative process and that role sharing operate?
Io: D&W is the first time either of us has really dabbled with long-form storytelling, so it’s incredibly gratifying to see people having such positive reactions to it. Our creative process is really one long conversation – lots of swapping awful 90s YouTube videos and depressing Soviet architecture back and forth, lots of “what if we did this? Or this?”. Generally, if an idea excites both of us, we’ll figure out a way to stick it somewhere, somehow. Writing tasks aren’t really formally divided. If one of us has an idea for a scene, we jot it down and dump it into a shared document. Where it fits into the story is usually figured out after the fact. There’s stuff in that document that we know won’t be drawn until years down the line, and we’re continuously tweaking and retooling.
Having a modular approach to storytelling helps. We try to end every page with a punchline or plot twist, which creates self-contained chunks that can be moved around if needed. My main concern, though, was avoiding situations where you wait a week for an update and then discover it’s just three panels of some guy walking down a hallway. Instead, I tried to take cues from creators like Kathleen Jacques or John Allison, who crank out dense, really nicely crafted pages with multiple layers of jokes and tremendous character.Claire injects most of the puns and little visual jokes as she works off the script – if you read her ‘standalone’ work, you quickly appreciate that she has a great sense for those. Occasionally, I suggest something I think would play well, like that infamous ‘Think Before You Wank’ poster. But generally, I stay out of the visual aspects of the comic. It’s actually more fun to be surprised by how Claire interprets and frames the material we come up with – it’s as close as I can get to being a reader myself.
Cryoclaire: Well, to be completely honest, crediting me as a writer was Io’s idea and I’m still not 100% on board with that. We both get to contribute to the story, but he’s the one doing all the hard work of actually writing up the script. Even the bits I write myself require some polishing and rewriting, with English being my second language and all. I’ve always been self-conscious about my language, and it’s affected my older work quite a bit. Knowing the script is in good hands really helps when it comes to getting the pages out week by week. One thing I do get to help out with are all the Russian references and names. Io really encouraged me to push the Eastern European look and draw inspiration from 90’s era Russia. It’s a pretty unconventional setting for cyberpunk, so I’m really happy people are enjoying it.
Io: Claire’s giving herself too little credit, but that’s one of the hallmarks of our working relationship. We both think we’re the weak link in the chain, and it kind of pushes us to keep going forward.
T: I’ll admit that I can find 90s/00s nostalgia strange, it seems we’ve reached that position of distance where the gloves are off for all sorts of claims about what it was like. I’ve also seen artefacts from the time displayed in museums which I found really unnerving, I usually think of those cabinet spaces as reserved for dead civilisations.
However, with Drugs and Wires, it does seem to genuinely capture sensations below the surface of what I remember while portraying something quite substantially different. There’s an excellent lacing of triggers throughout it that bring that about. Is that a natural placement coming through from your own experience or is there research behind it?
Cryoclaire: For me there’s definitely a lot of research involved, especially when it comes to technology. While I do technically count as a ’90s kid’, I grew up with my grandparents and my childhood was spent around rotary phones and calculators the size of a PC tower, not cutting edge technology. I didn’t get my first computer until 2000, and when I did, I was actually quite terrified of it for a while. In many ways I’ve been reverse-engineering the ‘90s and rediscovering its subcultures and music – everything I was too young to be a part of at the time. I think we’ve had people tell us we nailed the ‘90s subculture feeling’, which is pretty amazing, seeing how a lot of this stuff I had to learn for myself.
Io: Really, we both do a lot of research, but as a recovering 90s teen, I have the added benefit of being able to draw on my memories of the era as I’m writing. That’s especially true for technology, which is where the era’s rose-colored glasses come off for me – a natural reaction when you’ve seen RealPlayer, nursing home-invalid grandpappy of today’s streaming landscape, stuttering along on glacially slow dial-up, or heard a Zip drive clicking itself into ungentle oblivion. That’s why I honestly love the idea that while you’ve got these superficially futuristic trappings in D&W – brain implants, VR, and suchlike – they ultimately work as well as any other over-ambitious 90s tech product.
T: I think the version of ‘futuristic’ you play with also taps into the 90s obsession with ‘multimedia’ and its potential for sensory overload. I remember using Windows 95 / 98, and filling the machine with tacky cursors, sounds and wallpapers of the worst resolution. Or browsing websites coated in gif animations, picture tile backgrounds and large coloured font. Where we’ve now overcome that enthusiasm, and things are stylistically more subtle, that ‘future’ seems to carry a lot of intensity and desperation in it, and you can see the drugs cross over there too. It all comes together. Speaking of which, can you give us any hints as to what we can expect in the future issues / uploads?
Io: I suspect Claire has a little too much fun cooking up deliberately garish, awful design elements for the comic. To answer your question, though: As readers have probably noticed, the current chapter is easing into what’ll eventually become the overarching plot for the comic. Up until now, our protagonist hasn’t had to worry about much more than where his next hit is coming from, but things are about to get far, far more complicated. That means a host of new characters – many of which will be making Dan’s life miserable in all kinds of fun ways, natch – and a deeper dive into the various (and, incredibly, even less savory) aspects of the D&W world.
Cryoclaire: While 90s/early 00s were cheesy as hell in terms of UI and web design, I feel like they had more personality to them. Loading up a Geocities page was like visiting someone’s home, and you could learn so much about the owner just from its design (or lack thereof). I really like the idea of showing off characters’ personalities through their desktops, and it’s something I’d love to do more of in the future.
One thing we haven’t mentioned is how the story is really set in two countries – Stradania and the US. We’ve introduced our first character on the US side a few pages ago – Marilyn Hope-Fokker, the venture capitalist from hell, and future updates will tie that character and premise into the main story. I already stocked up on vaporwave playlists and – never thought I’d say this – I can’t wait to draw some 90’s corporate America.