How Sci-fi, Edward Albee, and Eugene O’Neill Led Me to the Big Things Behind the Furnace

Prentis Rollins leads us through the inspirations behind his literary science fiction graphic novel debut The Furnace.

This is a guest post by Marvel and DC Comics artist Prentis Rollins, author of graphic novel The Furnace.

Profiting off human suffering is The American Way.

So it seemed to me in 1998, when I first wrote The Furnace as a short prose story for a writers’ workshop in New York City. Twenty years later, it seems more the case than ever, for too many reasons and on too many fronts; now, my graphic novel of The Furnace (out July 2018 from Tor Books) may prove sadly relevant.

The prose story started as just an exercise. I had recently read two short stories that shaped my aesthetic, and continue to do so to this day. One was Bob Shaw’s Light of Other Days. The sci-fi premise of that story is slow glass—a material that looks and feels like ordinary glass, but which is several light years thick (meaning it takes light several years to pass through a pane of it). The slow glass conceit is fascinating enough, and convincingly described—but the story turns out to be about loss, regret, memory, and love—the Big Things.

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The other story was James Blish’s short masterpiece, Common Time, which is about an astronaut’s lone voyage to Alpha Centauri, and his beautiful, hazily-remembered encounter with the loving alien who helps to repair his disabled starship. Again, the science part was Gibraltar-solid: thought-out, authentic, more than convincing. But the fiction part—the beating heart of the story, which was again about love, memory, and the yawning gulf between our moments of transcendence and the gray common time of daily existence—stuck in my craw, and is still there.

All of my favorite sci-fi stories have that much in common: an intriguing speculative springboard, and ultimately a big, human point that matters right now. I wanted to write a story like that. That’s all I’ll ever care to write. The way I see it, sci-fi premises are well and good—but at the end of the day, no one gives a hoot about slow glass. They care about the Big Things.

My topic with The Furnace short story was prisons and prisoners. Sometime around 2040 an aging physicist tells his young daughter about his youthful involvement in the development of the GARD program—a scheme for replacing traditional prisons with personal robots that follow “free” prisoners around and render them invisible and inaudible, and restrict their movements. Through a series of flashbacks, the reader saw the physicist as a young grad student involved in developing the program, and the devastating consequences—the wholesale die-off of the prisoners subjected to this untested new form of psychological isolation. And that was pretty much it.

The story was well-received by the workshop. Or at least it was… well, received. I mainly recall that group members seemed put off by having to read 40 or so whole pages—which, yeah, was a bit much for a bunch of accountant-types dreaming of a townhouse at the corner of Novelist and Easy Street. They suffered, I profited. Carole Bugge, the workshop leader and a terrific writer, was very encouraging.

So. No one’s world was exactly rocked by the story, but it continued to haunt/exercise me—and at a certain point it occurred to me that it might have more impact if it were visual. I’d been drawing comics since I was a kid, and was in the thick of my career as an inker for DC Comics—I decided to transform The Furnace into a graphic novel. This was in 2007. Nine years later, I finished it.

Funnily enough, I didn’t have a single surviving copy of the prose story; every printed copy was long gone, and I had neglected to save it digitally. So when I set about writing a graphic novel script of the story, I had to reconstruct it entirely from memory. This was probably actually a good thing—not being shackled to a pre-existing vision of the story, I was free to morph it in accordance with how I’d changed in the intervening years.

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And I had. I’d actually become a father myself, and in 2007 my daughter was six—the age of the protagonist’s daughter in the graphic novel. My career at DC had flourished, but: a) I felt, well, uneasy continuously pinning my aspirations on an industry for which being on its death bed, wracked with fever and a rib-breaking cough, is the norm, and b) entering my forties, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career inking other people’s work. No matter how fun it is. And it is. Working at home, getting paid (!) to draw people in tights beating the crap out of—Jesus, don’t get me started. It is fun, let’s leave it at that—but I was beginning to feel that maybe I had better fish to fry.

I’d also done a not insignificant amount of reading in the early 2000’s. Not comic books, I hasten to add—funnily enough, I generally find superhero comics a crashing bore to read (I like to tell people that, when it comes to superhero mags, I deal but rarely use). It was two American plays that determined the narrative and thematic trajectories that the graphic novel would finally follow: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill.

These two plays, which are Orion and Taurus in the firmament of American theater, have several things in common. Each has exactly four (main) characters, at least two of which are flaming alcoholics. Each deals with the plutonium-hot emotional dynamic between these characters. Each swirls cat-4 storm-like around the safety/fate of a favored child. And each, in its own way, is about something awful that happened a long time ago, but which continues to distort the present (a lot of American classics are about time—in particular, about the past and how it lingers into and shapes the present. The Sound and The Fury. The Great Gatsby—which is referenced several times in The Furnace).

That was the tradition I wanted to put The Furnace in, and the level of emotional impact I at least wanted to aim for. When I wrote the script, I retained the sci-fi premise—traditional prisons being phased out in favor of ‘free’ prisoners rendered invisible/untouchable by restriction drones that follow them, and the human catastrophe which ensues—but I did my best to remake the story into something an adult who’s lived a day of life could relate to and feel for.

As I see it, the graphic novel is about a man who views himself as a war criminal: he is directly implicated in the development of the GARD program; he sees himself as a failure on every conceivable level—as a scientist, as a husband, as a father, as a human being. At the eleventh hour it’s his six year-old daughter who shows him that the greatness he thinks has eluded him might, just might, barely remain within reach. Like the plays that informed its final form, The Furnace has four main characters (two of which are in a losing battle with alcohol), a child’s welfare hangs in the balance, and the real story happened a long time ago.

The Furnace will be released on July 10th. It is now available for pre-order!

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PRENTIS ROLLINS has over 20 years of experience working as a writer and artist in the comics industry. His previous titles include How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias, The Making of a Graphic Novel, and Survival Machine (Stories). He has also worked for DC Comics between 1993-2013 for titles such as Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, JLA, and dozens more. The Furnace is his debut full-length graphic novel. He lives in London with his wife and three children. You can check out more of his work at: