Portland brothers talk about remastered graphic novel set for release, relevance to political scene today

CONTRIBUTED: DANIELLE MATHIAS - Brothers Arnold Pander (left) and Jacob Pander recognize that their plot line in science-fiction book 'Dissident X' resembleS beliefs of some people's view of current politics. It's an updated version of 'Triple X' from the 1990s. Said Arnold: 'Some predictions remain a fantasy, but many have come true right before our eyes, while others we never saw coming.'Portland artists and brothers Arnold and Jacob Pander are well-known among comic book and graphic novel fans for their work on numerous futuristic action series, including such franchises as Batman and X-Men and more published by Milwaukie-based Dark Horse Comics.

Collectively known as the Pander Bros., they are the sons of well-known Portland painter Henk Pander and also have made names of themselvers as filmmakers and video producers.

Early on, they created posters for local rock bands and editorial art for the Portland weeklies. Murals on the back wall of Satyricon nightclub were the backdrop to bands and craziness throughout the 1990s, and their art collective FUSE was host to local underground and established visual and performance artists, designers and filmmakers with First Thursday "Aftermath" parties.

They went on to collaborate with their father on a large-scale public work painting the TriMet Arts and Culture bus, and have also done large-scale murals in venues Rialto Pool Hall and Radio Room.

Their newest graphic novel, "Dissident X," is an updated and expanded version of "Triple X," which the brothers published out of Portland in the 1990s. It predicted a dark future where a corrupt international businessman has a grip on political power, ecological disaster threatens civilization, and democracy buckles under a growing surveillance state that has weaponized social media against the populace while journalists are deemed enemies of the state.

Sound familiar? The Portland Tribune interviewed the brothers about their work ahead of the release of "Dissident X" at a book signing at Bridge City Comics, 3725 N. Mississippi Ave., 6-8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, and after-party at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi Ave., from 9-11 p.m.:

Portland Tribune: How would you summarize your work over the years?

Arnold Pander: We have been collaborating most of our adult lives in comics and film since we got our national break in comics with "Grendel: Devil's Legacy," which was nominated for an Eisner Award and was one of the most successful indie comics of the time, and still has a major following today.

Since then we have gone on to write and illustrate a number of our own creator-owned books for Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics and Oni Press, as well as writing and illustrating "Batman" for DC Comics, which fulfilled a childhood dream of ours.

Jacob Pander: Filmwise, early on we did a number of experimental shorts and multimedia projects with music, film and comics in '90s-era Portland, but it was our music videos for local artists that were broadcast on MTV's "120 Minutes" and "AMP."

In the early 2000s we shifted our focus to screenwriting, which led to producing and directing our debut motion picture, "Selfless," that won top awards at the Bend Film Festival and in 2010 was distributed nationally on V.O.D. Comcast and Time/ Warner.

"Selfless" led to commercial directing opportunities with brands like Panasonic, LG, and Adidas Originals, and creatively put a focus on convergence-based media, which evolved into creating our own digital comics imprint, FUSE Comics, where you can now experience our cross-platform comics and audiovisual media online.

AP: The last few years we've really come back to our roots in comics with our graphic novel "GirlFIEND" and now "Dissident X," but have also directed some recent hip hop and rock music videos, including the Dandy Warhols' music video, "Forever" off their latest album.

COURTESY PANDER BROS. - 'Dissident X' will be released at a signing party from 9 to 11 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at Mississippi Studios, 3725 N. Mississippi Ave.

Tribune: I remember "Triple X" when it came out in the 1990s. How much of "Dissident X" was originally published as "Triple X?"

JP: This new reboot was originally focused around the coloring since that was such a big part of the original approach to the artwork — to depict this colorful world that echoed "Tin Tin" and classic European comics that we grew up reading.

For this new version, we hired seven color flatters to work on the book. Arnold and I then reconciled it with the palette we had always intended. We have also added about 70 new pages of story and artwork. We also cleaned up much of the original artwork so it hopefully feels seamless with the new story elements.

AP: In terms of the storyline, "Triple X" dropped our protagonist Hans, a reluctant citizen journalist, in Amsterdam. He had escaped New York City after martial law had been imposed. His broken spirit is revitalized in the power of the press and the people.

But we always had felt that Hans' character conflict wasn't as palpable to the reader as it could be since we never depicted what Hans had witnessed prior to his escape as a dissident in the original tale.

We decided that a prologue that set his odyssey in motion would really give the story more emotional impact and allow us to update the conflicts that led to the state of martial law and reflect more closely the times that we live in now as compared to the 20th century concerns that informed the original story.

JP: Now the story opens on New Years Eve as an uprising in Times Square is imminent, with Hans playing a critical role in its fate. Hans is now a 21st century archetype fighting to make a difference within an oppressive surveillance state. Once Hans is in Amsterdam, the American subplot is peppered throughout the Amsterdam story and extends the original ending with more plot, character depth and action.

Tribune: Most readers know you probably because of your work with Dark Horse Comics. When and how did that start?

JP: At the same time as "Grendel" was hitting stores, Dark Horse Comics was building momentum as a new and growing indie comics publisher in Milwaukie. They were aware that we were Portland based and reached out to us about a project to illustrate in 1990. This led to an experimental comic book titled "Exquisite Corpse," that was written by Jerry Prosser with the unique structure of being readable in any order.

AP: By this time, we were both very eager to present our own vision of a colorful political intrigue adventure story that was eventually published as the black-and-white series "Triple-X" in the mid-'90s, but thanks to Dark Horse, is now fully realized in full color as "Dissident X."

Tribune: As I recall, when "Triple X" was in the works, the first George Bush was president and there were protests against the first Gulf War and his declaration of a New World Order that included anarchists opposed to globalization. I assumed they were some of the inspiration for some of the characters, but we didn't talk about it directly. How much of "Triple X" was based on what was happening then?

AP: Our original story was created against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, which saw huge anti-war protests throughout America, eco-terrorist actions perpetrated by the Earth Liberation Front fueled by accelerated global warming and a massive hole in the ozone layer. All of which set a tone in the U.S. that was defining our generation and the debate of how to respond to the New World Order that Bush Sr. had envisioned for the 21st century as globalization was going next level.

How does a protest in the streets add up to more than a self-indulgent exercise that only serves to wax the nostalgia of our parents' Vietnam antiwar cries? Protesting seemed futile, but what else to do but stand by and allow the economic polarities to widen and social justice to be ignored?

JP: We began to envision a story that, at its core, was about the "pen vs. the sword," where a dissident journalist filled with fear seeks refuge in a foreign land after a traumatizing escape from a New York City that had fallen to martial law.

Old World mystery fused with futuristic 21st century technology, where flying cars had chases through brick-laden streets, jet pack-strapped assassins carried out deadly missions, and corporate leaders became political authoritarians. This would evolve into our original series, "Triple-X."

COURTESY PANDER BROS. - In 'Dissident X,' the story opens on New Year's Eve as an uprising in Times Square is imminent, with protagonist Hans playing a critical role in its fate, said Jacob Pander.

Tribune: Why update it now?

AP: Twenty-five years later, the world has changed dramatically. Some predictions remain a fantasy, but many have come true right before our eyes, while others we never saw coming. Flying cars and jet packs turned out to be smart devices and silent algorithms that study our behaviors to be categorized and monetized.

Our personal data is indiscriminately shared with governments and sold to Fortune 500 companies. We offer our private information freely to access this new shared future. But in "Dissident X" it didn't quite go as hoped.

JP: In our updated storyline, Hans is part of a new generation who want to opt out of technology and social media but the powers that be do not allow it. Edward Snowden revealed to us what many had feared — we had opted in only to be sold out.

The big issues of environmental destruction, corporate and religious influence in politics, and economic polarity are coming to a head. The debate is driven by social media platforms that, while expanding the dialogue, are exploited by external and internal forces to promote division over consensus. … We didn't see that coming.

AP: Another reason to read the terms of agreement!

JP: There is, however, one ominous prediction we made in the original "Triple-X" that appears to be coming true — a full-frontal assault on the foundations of our democracy, including the First Amendment and our free and open press. In 2018, the United States was added to the list of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist for the first time ever.

AP: In this new version we place more focus on the threat to our pillars of democracy and, specifically, journalism since it is one of the most vulnerable of those pillars and requires much public vigilance to protect and better yet — promote.

This is why our "Dissident X" page on Facebook is populated with articles that champion journalism everywhere. We are still a global village and as they say, it's our journalists who take us into the heart of the world.

Tribune: How much is today different politically from the 1990s?

AP: I would have to say that technology and the web is one of the biggest factors in how we now engage politically. The fracturing of the political strata and the impact of massive disinformation online forums have disrupted the traditions of how we maintain a civil discourse.

JP: There are truly frightening influences that are effectively ripping apart our culture, be they actual people or AI algorithms, and our fragile democracy. We had a feeling that our notions of freedom would always be tested, but what we are witnessing on the daily is beyond what our imaginations could have fully predicted.

COURTESY PANDER BROS. - 'Dissident X' still believes in the power of the pen over the power of the sword.

Tribune: What if anything do you hope to accomplish with the release of "Dissident X" at this time?

JP: First and foremost the story of "Dissident X" is an adventure tale, but one that navigates the dangers we face as a global civilization. We hope to elevate the conversation and virtue of thoughtful dissent, and show a positive story of individual empowerment in the face of overwhelming odds. That one can make a difference in this world, and by working together positive change can happen.

But it's a cautionary tale too, that explores the consequences of unbridled oppression and the human breaking point. That is the heart of our protagonists' inner battle — when does the sword replace the pen?

AP: There is a new generation with real concerns about the direction of our world and the impact it will have on their future. We felt the core story of "Dissident X" was worth devoting a little more effort for a new audience that may otherwise have never experienced it.

We are already seeing how the power of one voice can have a collective impact with the call to action on climate change by Greta Thunberg, so it's our hope that Hans' tale as an exiled dissident facing the Goliath of our times might help inspire young people to take a collective stand.

Tribune: Do you have any other projects lined up?

JP: We have a couple projects that we're now turning our attention to after delivering "Dissident X." On the graphic novel front we've written a followup story to our last Dark Horse Book, "GirlFIEND," a vampire crime thriller that picks up in Paris where the last book left off, and expands the world and deeper conspiracies that threaten to tear our protagonists apart.

Tribune: How has Portland changed over the years you've been here?

JP: The Portland we grew up in was a much quieter and sparse town, moody and industrial, a place the cars kept driving through as opposed to a destination place itself. For us and others, it was a blank canvas as far as art and music were concerned. Portland has always been a very fertile creative ground, so in that sense it hasn't changed much, it's just been amplified.

AP: The changes we're seeing were inevitable, and it's nice to have more cultural diversity and new creative voices. There are some real growing pains with this kind of population growth and the issues of homelessness, mental illness and coping with some of the groups that have shown up to instigate violence in our community, but overall love wins in Portland, and it's great that we've exported some of our Portland weirdness to the world.

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