If you were to transplant the TV series Lost from the mysterious island setting to Hogwarts, then you would have an inkling of what Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma's ongoing comic book creation Morning Glories is like.
Morning Glories was conceived when artist Joe Eisma met series writer Nick Spencer in mid-2009, through Brian Michael Bendis's message board, Jinxworld. Nick had liked what he had seen of Joe's artwork and asked if he would be interested in reading a pitch, which Nick described as Marvel's Runaways meets Lost. From the start Joe Eisma was hooked, and together they fleshed out the individual characters and developed the first thirteen pages for their pitch. It was not long before Morning Glories was picked up by Image and distributed as an ongoing series. Currently, there have been two graphic novels released in the series, with a third to be released later this year.
Volume 1: For A Better Future (Issues 1 - 6)
Casey, Hunter, Jun, Zoe, Jade, and Ike are admitted to the prestigious Morning Glory Academy. Realising that this is not your average college, the six new students plot their escape.
Volume 2: All Will Be Free (Issues 7 - 12)
Following the exploits of the first volume, Volume 2 is a series of single-issue stories for each of the six new students, showing how their lives are all inextricably interlinked.
Joe Eisma admits from day one that Lost was a strong influence. What impressed them both so much about Lost was the epic tapestry within the show, which combined rich characterisation with a sprawling storyline that spanned different times in the characters' lives.
These two volumes are dramatically different beasts, as the first is an action-adventure story, whilst the second is a series of interlinked character studies about the six principal characters. The reason for this dramatic change in storytelling style is that following many online reviews commenting about the lack of character development, Nick Spencer restructured the story for the second arc around a series of spotlight Issues about the cast, which would allow the reader to gain further insight into their backgrounds. As Joe Eisma explains:
"We thought it best to do it that way, to flesh out the characters before the rails came off in the third arc."
The story of Morning Glories follows six new recruits at the prestigious Morning Glory Academy, where everything is not as it first appears. For starters, all of the students have the same birthday, the teachers try to kill their students, there is a ghost wandering the corridors, and a giant spinning cylinder is in the basement. What does it all mean? We have not a clue.
Joss Whedon has already explored the whole "school is hell" shtick with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Morning Glories has little in the way of similarity, barring the academic setting. Instead, Morning Glories is more akin to The Prisoner, which Joe Eisma has confirmed as being an influence for Nick Spencer. From the start we are presented with layer upon layer of mysteries, with no explanation as to what they mean, and any questions which are answered invariably open up more questions.
From the opening page, readers are dropped in at the deep-end with minimal background or scene-setting, as an unknown individual sits waiting until they are approached by a nurse. This single page scene was an unqualified success in setting the mood for the series. Despite eighteen months having passed, we are no wiser as to the identity of that person..
We have to take it on faith that our questions will be answered. If there were nothing else to engage the reader's interest, this lack of explanation might sometimes fail. However, the focus of Morning Glories is not so much the mysteries, but the central characters who are somehow interlinked with them.
The de-facto leader of the new students, Casey is strong-willed, highly intelligent, and yet naïve. Her naivety, due to her sheltered upbringing, is perhaps Casey's greatest flaw as it leaves her with an idealistic view of life. Casey's story is perhaps one of the most horrific, as she soon witnesses how far the Academy will go to ensure cooperation, when they murder her parents.
What surprised many readers was Casey's decision to withhold the revelation that her parents had been killed by the Academy. As Joe Eisma observes: "This speaks to her personality type, where it is played as if admitting it was a weakness, which speaks volumes about her. Casey does not want to appear vulnerable, and revealing the truth about her parents would have done that. In a way, it may have been a coping mechanism - to concentrate on rescuing Jade as a way to turn her focus away from the wound of her parents being murdered. You can see this in how she breaks down at the end of Issue 5 - she has nothing left to stop her from dealing with that, and it hits her like a ton of bricks".
Despite his cool-sounding name, Hunter is the one who has not displayed any of the outstanding abilities that have characterised the other students. The exception to this is his unique trait of being unable to read clocks.
There has been a significant degree of speculation that the time of 8:13 which Hunter sees is a biblical reference, however just what it means has not been revealed yet. Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma will focus on Hunter further in Issues 19 and 21 of Morning Glories.
Jun is the one who probably has most personal connection to the Academy, which explains some of his less-than-startled reactions to the teachers trying to kill them. Jun embodies the warrior archetype: quiet and thoughtful, yet displaying impressive martial art techniques. Joe Eisma admits to being a fan of Jason Statham and Jet Li movies, and credits the Transporter as being inspiration for Jun's style of martial arts.
Jun is perhaps the most transparent, due to a significant proportion of his back-story being revealed during the second volume of Morning Glories. However, Joe Eisma hints that a forthcoming Issue will take many people by surprise in what will be revealed, as what we know is just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite Zoe being vain and materialistic, she is one you sympathise with when you discover her background. Comparisons could be made with Cordelia from Buffy, were it not for the fact she is highly intelligent and fights back when provoked.
Zoe's popularity with readers initially surprised Joe, as it took until the end of the first arc for him to understand her character in drawing the book:
"She's very much against type and very brusque. In a way, though, I think that has endeared her to me and to many of the readers. Her 'bad girl' persona is so much more than that, and her arc throughout the second and third story arcs proves that. Zoe fans will want to make sure they read Issue 19!"
Coming from a privileged Manhattan background, it is implied that Ike murdered his father. Despite Ike's actions putting the other characters in danger, he is subtly portrayed in a sympathetic light, as you have the impression that the manipulative persona he presents to the world is a façade hiding an intensely vulnerable person.
Joe Eisma admits Ike was another one he didn't appreciate at first:
"It took his spotlight Issue for me to see him in a different light. Now, he's one of my favourites to draw. That balance of hating the guy, yet loving him makes him so appealing. I always try to portray his smug exterior as a coping mechanism. Sure, he is very egotistical, but clearly there's a heart underneath all that. I think he and Jade will be characters to keep an eye on".
Introverted and insecure, Jade is the one who struggles the most with leaving her family behind. It could be easy to dismiss Jade as the one who is the target of jokes, were it not for the alternate time-lines where Jade becomes a strong-willed woman working for the Academy.
"Jade always struck me as the underdog of the group" observes Joe Eisma. "Nick and I love her, but she didn't appeal to the readership like Zoe or Hunter did. However, I think with Issue 10 and even Issue 17, readers saw there's more to her than 'whiny goth girl'. Personally, I find her one of the most fascinating of the cast for all those facets you mentioned. Is she travelling through time? Different dimensions? Her story is definitely the most head scratching, but I think it's clearly the most Lost-influenced. She's not one to be underestimated, and she'll have major effects on the story, throughout the various eras."
Morning Glories also shares narrative tropes with the TV series Heroes, due to the interconnected relations between the six principal characters. It seems many of the characters share both a connection with the Morning Glory Academy, as well as each with other, through them meeting the same person at critical points in their past.
Joe Eisma's artwork contains elements that are inherently Manga; most noticeably in the viewpoints and page-layouts, as well as the subtle cartoon style to his artwork. These cartoon elements subconsciously underpin the readers expectations, making the sudden violence all the more horrific when it occurs. Whilst his use of angular lines serves to add to the clinical atmosphere of the Morning Glory Academy. The colours are similarly bold, with pages occasionally dedicated to a particular colour palette to create a visually striking and emotive series of panels.
These mature elements are mirrored in Nick Spencer's writing of Morning Glories. Unafraid to assume that Morning Glories readers are intelligent, there is little in the way of exposition. Instead, Nick Spencer offers us characters who react naturally, in a narrative that is unafraid to cut between different parallel story-lines which simultaneously mirror what is happening.
Despite the necessity of the principal characters wearing school uniforms, they nonetheless remain distinct from each other. The personalities of these six characters uniquely interact with other each, and they are drawn in such a way that reflects their nature, whilst remaining true to the established school uniform. Ike, for example, frequently wears sunglasses, covering his eyes, evoking mistrust; whilst Jun is always drawn in a powerful pose with bare arms, evoking the warrior archetype that he embodies.
There has been some criticism that the secondary characters of Morning Glories, most notably the fellow pupils, are too alike and that this can lead to confusion over who they are. Joe Eisma admits that it is difficult to maintain character uniqueness when they're all wearing the same uniform. Reflecting upon this, Joe believes his ability of adding subtle changes to their uniforms comes from when he worked at Barnes & Noble, and would see pupils come in after school in their uniforms:
"At that age, you're so fiercely independent and you see yourself as unique. Those kids were all wearing the same uniform, but had made just enough adjustments/enhancements to make themselves stand out. I tried to translate that thought process into the book."
Another prominent character is the teacher Miss Daramount, who is viciously manipulative yet undeniably attractive, and who uses her attractiveness to her advantage. From the outset Nick Spencer had a specific direction in mind for her look, which he discussed with Joe Eisma. Based upon the kind of teacher he'd always wanted in high school, Miss Daramount is perhaps Joe Esima's favourite character, as he comments.
"She is such a joy to draw. Villains are more fun as they can be visually more interesting a lot of the time."
I found it interesting to note how the characters are all drawn beautifully, and how there have not been any unattractive people within the Morning Glory Academy. It will be interesting to see if this factors into the revelation for what the academy is planning. Is it a bizarre eugenics program, or a mind-control experiment in advanced behavioural research? The only two people who know are keeping it to themselves.
Joe's artwork also contains many recurring visual motifs throughout the series. An example of this is where apples - symbolic of the student/teacher relationship - are present in key scenes, such as where Casey capitulates to the school's demands. More interestingly, no one is ever seen eating these apples. Petals from Morning Glory flowers are also placed throughout the series, adding to the structure and story-beats of the series.
Within the story of Morning Glories, there is the impression of two opposing forces at work within the Morning Glories Academy, which Joe Eisma likens to a "students vs. teachers thing - maybe to some in the book they're rallying cries, to others perhaps portents". These slogans we are seeing within the pages will later form important parts of the overall narrative to the series.
Given the complex plot of Morning Glories, it is no surprise that the series has generated mammoth internet debates about the multitude of mysteries, something which Joe Eisma finds particularly rewarding. Joe Eisma advises that the first page of the opening Issue remains one to pay attention to, and there were hints of future story-lines in the tenth issue that readers didn't catch the first time.
The greatest concern for the creators is maintaining the narrative's sense of mystery whilst retaining reader interest.
"It's always been a concern of mine, especially in this day and age of instant watch/same day download, etc." explains Joe Eisma, "The simple fact is, comics take time to draw, and we do the best we can to get them out as fast as we can. We have a higher page count than pretty much any book Marvel or DC puts out monthly; we average about 30 pages a month. I can work quickly, but I'm not ever going to phone anything in. That said, while we are a slow-burn mystery story, we do drop answers here and there. We've been addressing questions from the first arc in the second and third arcs, and all the while planting new story sub-plots along the way. Frankly, I just don't get anyone that wants us to answer everything. Where's the fun in that? We're in this for the long haul, 100+ issues, so we can give readers the biggest story possible."
But what does the future hold for Morning Glories? Certainly, reader and critic reactions alike have been overwhelmingly positive, and a natural consequence of this has been that film and TV production companies have taken an interest. Just who is interested, and what medium any adaption will be, Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma are not saying, as the negotiations are ongoing. For them, they are in this for the long term and will be focussing their energies on the comic series.
The first, fourth, and fifth images are by Joe Eisma, whilst the second and third image is by Robin Esquejo, and are used with kind permission.