“Hacktivist Volume 1” followed Nate Graft and Ed Hiccox, the creators of social media site YourLife as well as a white hat hacking group called .sve_urs3lf, on a globe-trotting adventure filled with death and betrayal. In the new six issue miniseries, Nate finds himself dealing with the fallout, including the faked death of his friend Ed, a new group going by the name .sve_urs3lf that wants to see Nate punished and a job working for what he used to consider the enemy, VIGIL.
As with the first volume, this second look at the world of “Hacktivist” features the writing talents of Lanzing and Kelly along with ideas from actress Milano and artwork by To as they draw from real life events to weave their tale. This second book from Archaia debuts on July 29, and will run for six issues.
CBR News spoke with Lanzing and Kelly about Nate’s less-than-ideal life, the dangers of .sve_urs3lf and getting the team back together.
CBR News: It’s been six months since the previous book wrapped. How has Nate’s life changed in that time, and where is he when this new story picks up?
Jackson Lanzing: At the end of “Volume 1,” we left Nate in a seriously precarious situation. Just think about it: your multi-billion-dollar company’s been dragged through the mud to the degree that you can’t remain in control of it. There goes your fortune. Now, you’re at the mercy of the most covert elements of the US government, to whom you’re feigning allegiance just to stay out of prison. Your best friend has been branded a terrorist and a traitor, and worse yet, the world thinks that you’re complicit in his execution by drone strike. You may know that you actually saved your friend’s life, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re still in the belly of the beast and he’s not. So, to keep from going to jail and blowing your best friend’s cover, you have to stay there. You have to lie to everyone in your life and pretend to be something you’re not, all the while hoping you can find a way to do good from the inside.
Collin Kelly: And anyone who’s seen Season Five of “Angel” knows how “doing good from the inside” works out.
Nate also now runs VIGIL. How has this new gig changed his life?
Kelly: Once upon a time, Nate Graft was a celebrity in the tech world. Now, he’s a pariah. He’s gone from billionaire freedom fighter to government-salaried cop. YourLife has been taken over by a board of hyper wealthy one-percenters, and Nate’s name is cursed with the same breath as the universally reviled NSA snitch, Sabu. Now, with no friends left, Nate has taken the place of his one-time handler, Brynn Ori, with the power to seamlessly interface between the NSA, CIA, DoD and FBI, ignoring jurisdiction to get the job done. Though Nate has found himself in a cage, it’s a cage that gives him access to the world’s most advanced cryptographic resources. It’s an opportunity, but while Nate will always try and do the right thing, “the right thing” looks very different when you’re sitting at the top.
Lanzing: He’s a closet crypto-anarchist at the heart of the machine designed to catch guys like him. It’s a very different life than the one he once had.
His new gets jumbled up even further with the reappearance of .sve_urs3lf on the scene. What’s their goal, and what does that mean for Nate?
Lanzing: Simply put, the new .sve_urs3lf wants justice for the events of “Volume 1.” They are a group of hackers with good intentions and severe methods who have taken the name .sve_urs3lf as a tribute to their fallen leader, Ed Hiccox. See, they’re operating under some false information. They think Ed is dead. They think Nate engineered his death. Like the rest of the world, they don’t know even that Nate was half of .sve_urs3lf — as far as they’re concerned, Nate was nothing more than a money man.
Thus, anything connected to Nate Graft is under threat from this new force. They will stop at nothing. Nate has never contended with anything of this scale, and he’ll have to fight them both in his public persona as a law enforcement officer and in his private life as a hacker. Nate’s built a bubble of safety around himself, one made of lies and secrets. He’ll have to step outside of that bubble when innocent lives — including his own — are on the line.
Nate is clearly in a bad place all around, like he’s a man without a country.Who will Nate have to join forces with in order to fend off these new villains?
Kelly: Though Nate has more resources than ever before, he’s also never been more alone. That’s hell on Nate — he’s always been a people person — so in Ed’s absence, Nate’s has grown closer to former YourLife employee Reggie (now a member of his VIGIL team) and Ed’s one-time assistant Jess (whose new job is super cool and, for now, a reveal we’d like to hold for the book). They’re the last vestiges of the life he used to have and he holds onto them pretty desperately.
Lanzing: Nate is also slowly learning to embrace the entire hacktivism community — the thousands of real people who are making a difference every day — even though they are alternately targeting him or running from his surveillance. He was never truly one of them, and his challenge is now learning to understand what it’s like to be responsible to a community.
Kelly: But it’s important to note: this book doesn’t have any “villains.” Yes, some of our new characters are willing to utilize violent, vicious methods to their end goals. But they’re not evil, greedy, or cruel. In the new .sve_urs3lf, fans will be introduced to a new kind of antagonist; a small cabal of young Americans who are sick of watching the wealthy and arrogant bleed the 99% to death. If their methods are extreme, well, that’s simply what they see as necessary — rational discourse and political maneuvering had their chance, but now it’s time for fire.
Lanzing: To them, Nate is clearly the villain of the piece. And who’s to say they’re wrong?
You seem to draw from news stories when developing these stories. Were there any specific real life events that helped inspire this new volume?
Lanzing: “Volume 1” was obviously inspired by the Arab Spring and the rise of whistleblowers. It’s important to remember that, despite the similarity of our plot, we wrote that book before Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance. The world has changed fundamentally from the one we began essaying in “Volume 1” and we want to make sure that’s reflected in “Volume 2.”
Kelly: With “Hacktivist,” we always look to real-world issues to inform the story we wanted to tell. While that included drawing from the world of technology, such as the MBR Wiper attack on Sony, it also included the heartbreaking tragedies in Ferguson and the rash of racially motivated violence that continues to plague the country. In a massive way, we were also incredibly influenced by GamerGate, which threw into stark relief the exact danger and devastation that can come from a vocal, Internet-savvy minority dedicated to perpetuating hate. If we’re going to make the claim that Ed and Nate are fighting for justice in a digital age, we owe it to them, to the reader, and to ourselves to confront the real issues at the heart of not just information security, but our culture at large.
Lanzing: Last year, we got called out in “VICE” by Gabriella Coleman (author of the excellent “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy”). While I don’t agree with her assessment of our intentions or the ultimate point of “Volume 1,” something she said has stuck with me: Anonymous wasn’t about individuals like Ed and Nate, it was a “collective protest movement.” We weren’t really focused on Anonymous specifically in “Volume 1” it simply wasn’t the story we were telling. This time around, especially since our focus was going to be much more domestic than the international “Volume 1,” we were heavily inspired by that collective mentality within the hacktivist community — how it brings people together over righteous causes and how it fractures people over methodology.
Essentially, rather than the top-down systems of Silicon Valley and government agencies, Anonymous is a disorganized, organic world of passionate people. There are cells within that movement with different objectives and methods. Black Hats and White Hats and everything in between. We’ve spent a lot of time interviewing people in that world and are particularly inspired to ask some big questions about the state of cyber-vigilantism. What are the limits of the Internet’s ability to affect the lives of everyday people? How far is too far when you are fighting for justice? And when one cell goes too far, how does a movement self-police without becoming the very fascist thing it is trying to fight?
Nate and Ed aren’t Anons — they’re something different. Not protesters, but vigilantes. The same way Batman has to learn to work within Gotham’s hierarchy of corrupt police, mob bosses and psychopathic anarchists, Ed and Nate are going to have to learn to work within the chaotic collective that is the modern Internet — but they might not make it out alive.
The “Hacktivist” creative team re-formed for this volume. How do you think you’ve all grown as collaborators after working on the first series?
Lanzing: “Hacktivist Volume 1” was a learning experience for us — it was our first book with Archaia and BOOM!, our first series with Marcus To, and our first time working with Alyssa Milano. Plus, while the Kelly/Lanzing writing team has been kicking around in Hollywood for about five years, it was our first comic together. It was something of an experiment. Every part of the process was a discovery.
As a result, “Hacktivist Volume 2” is a well-oiled machine. We’ve got a great shorthand with Alyssa now — we trust her story sense and she trusts ours. Marcus, who we’re working with on “Joyride” as well, has become a friend and a frequent collaborator. We talk nearly every week. Writing for his style has become second-nature. We’re already in communication with the incredible Ian Herring about pushing the color schemes that were so important to “Volume 1,” and have even come up with new ways to challenge Deron Bennett, who innovated on standard lettering beautifully the first time around. Plus, we have six issues to tell the story, so the whole group is getting a chance to decompress the narrative and dig into individual moments more than we could on the first four-issue series.
As for Collin and I, well, we still kick each other’s ass every day. We fight and bite and eventually there’s a script and we’re friends again. Some things never change.
Alyssa was heavily involved in the creation of the series. What kind of inspiration did she bring to the second volume?
Kelly: When we were all first sitting down to conceptualize what this volume would be, Jack and I came to the table with a bunch of options. We love these characters and were incredibly excited to see them face off against any one of a dozen different world-crisis situations. For Alyssa, however, it wasn’t about what was happening across the globe; she very correctly guided us toward the fact that, while the world might be in chaos, truly egregious acts of social, economic, and political injustice are happening right here on the national stage.
When we realized “Hacktivist Volume 2” could focus in on very real domestic threats — from NSA sting operations and rampant police brutality to gross wage and gender inequality — the story began to come into focus. While this could give us an amazing opportunity to speak out, it also made us incredibly nervous. Would the NSA put us on a watch list? Would members of the hacktivism scene lash out? Would people even want such a topical story? Once again, it was Alyssa who helped anchor us, with four little words that have been our mantra for the book ever since: “Let’s cause a ruckus.”
The second volume of “Hacktivist” from Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly, Marcus To and Archaia, hits shelves on July 29.