Templar, Arizona's Spike Talks Alt History and Extreme Subcultures

In Templar, Arizona, Spike Trotman fills a fictional city with bizarre subcultures, TV shows, and tourists attractions from another universe. We talk to her about Templar's real and fictional inspirations, and why you won't see cell phones in her Arizona.

We reviewed webcomic Templar, Arizona earlier this month, looking at Spike's richly drawn universe marked by unusual architecture, businesses where you can legally contract a prostitute or eat a puppy, and subcultures devoted to complete honesty, usurping buildings for public housing, or the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. We talked to Spike via email about her inspirations for Templar, Arizona and what the future holds.

What prompted you to write an alternate history comic in the first place?

It's a cheat. Ha, I can't lie, it's just a blatant cheat. I always wanted to write a comic full of imaginary subcultures that took place in an invented city, but with the "alternate history" angle tacked on, I can custom-fit the environment. I don't want cell phones, so there aren't any. I don't want Arizona's crazy meth problems, which would just be silly to omit if I were writing about the state's underclass realistically, so that's gone, too. Whatever I say, goes. And when something comes up, someone asks me why Templar's Arizona is (x) instead of (y), well hey, alternate history!

I also wanted the city to be more timeless than a product of my specific age. I don't know if I'm completely successful in that regard, but it was definitely part of the motivation. I don't want anyone looking at TAZ twenty years from now and saying, "Man, iPhones and internet. This is so 2000s!"

To what extent do you have the alternate timeline of "Templar" sketched out? Do you have a sense of why the universe is the way it is?

A lot of alternate history fiction has that one big event that changed everything as a base. The Nazis won World War II, the US lost the Revolutionary War, the Roman Empire discovered gunpowder, China discovered America. Templar doesn't have that. It's more subtle. Lots of small things are different. The world is still recognizable. And I have my reasons for that.

One, this fundamentally is NOT an exercise in what-if history. It's just its own environment. The environment is different to permit the storyline; the storyline isn't the product of the differences in the environment. And two, I'm just a big baby. I want it the way I want it. The Sikh Empire never fell, because I say so. Grass-roots revolutionary communism is rampant, because I want it to be. I want to see how people react in these situations.

Although the subcultures often take center stage, it's interesting to see the technological differences between our world and Templar's, like the absence of cellphones and broadcast television. Why did you decide to make these specific changes?

I'm not gonna lie; cellphones are annoying. In a storytelling sense, I mean. And I know that, because I'm part of the problem. I've watched TV shows and movies, watched everything crescendo to the climax, and sat there thinking, "Jesus, just CALL him. He's GOT to have a phone, he's a secret agent/CEO/21st century human." or "There is no good reason to not call the cops now. You're all stupid."

Have you noticed how the "Oh crap, my phone's got no bars!" scene needs to be kludged into everything, nowadays? Just to set things up for the REAL story? I hate that.

But really, I think the technological situation is a combination of how I was personally living when I started Templar, and having tech-minded friends who consider regaling you with the history of the personal computer awesome dinner conversation. I don't like cells, I don't watch broadcast TV, and I am attached to my computer. Templar reflects that.

To what extent is the city of Templar different from the rest of the country? Ben frequently seems surprised by what he sees, but he also seems to have been rather sheltered in his previous life?

The rest of the country is a lot like Templar. The differences are universal, but Ben is from the rural suburbs. Him moving to to Templar is like someone from our world who can see apple orchards from their bedroom window moving to LA or NYC. Sure, that guy has a general idea of what he's gonna see there. But he's still gonna stare when he sees his first transsexual, medical marijuana storefront, or black person up close.

And Ben, sheltered? Oh, man. I can't wait to get into that. You guys don't know the half of it.

Templar, Arizona's Spike Talks Alt History and Extreme Subcultures

It's easy to chuckle at holier-than-thou groups like the Sincerists or tragically hip characters like Curio and Tuesday. But to what extent do you feel that you're lampooning certain real-life subcultures or people, and to what extent are you chronicling your characters' search for authenticity?

I don't think I'm doing much lampooning at all, just being really unoriginal. I'm reproducing the inevitable complications that go along with any group that decides to give itself a name.

Sincerists have irritable hardliners convinced the new crop of snot-nosed kids aren't true to the cause. Barney John, leader of Reclamation, started his group with the best of intentions, and now he's watching it outgrow him, turn on him, and attempt to handle him like a entourage. Nile Revivalists moved to the states to worship Anubis and Osiris freely, only to discover that their children have no interest in their parents' faith. It's not good or bad, it just happens. So it goes.

And frankly, it's my goal with all my characters to make them truly three-dimensional. I really like trying to introduce them in a way that fools you into forming an opinion on who they are, then kicking what you thought you knew about them off a cliff. Gene the lovable dummy? No, Gene the Pythian oracle. On the floor. Naked. With a hard-on.

Templar, Arizona's Spike Talks Alt History and Extreme Subcultures

Is there a Templar subculture you'd fit into, or at least test drive for a while?

Ahaha oh God, no. What a terrible thought. A lot of them mean well, though. Well, except for the Cooks.

I occasionally get emails from people who think Jakeskin, Reclamation, and Sincerism aren't bad ideas. Those are terrifying emails. But to be fair, I know things they don't know.

It often seems that the major difference between out universe and the universe in Templar is that things are often taken to their logical extreme, as if the absence of zoning laws and FCC regulations creates a fertile breeding ground for addict hostels, shows like "In the Coliseum" or "The Damage Report," and the rather bizarre sculptures of presidents. Is there a comment you're trying to make, or is it more that you try to figure out just what would thrive in a place like Templar?

Templar is less commentary and more watershed. I watch almost nothing but documentaries, I love history and technology and sociological docs. I love museums and National Geographic. I have my favorite bands. And when I see something interesting, I steal it. The Jimmy Carter statue? Based off a real statue of George Washington, one depicting him as Zeus. Addict hostels are real in Britain and Washington state. "In the Coliseum" is just a Tom Waits song.

To what extent are the unusual features of Templar inspired by your own experiences in cities?

Pretty much not at all, I'd say... With the single exception of the scene with a drunken Doctor Bash being hauled out of the middle of the street, which is as close to autobiographical as the comic will ever get.

It must be very tempting for people to look at the comic and try to find me, because a lot of people are convinced they have. I'm apparently Reagan or Ben, depending on who's arguing the case. Templar contains no self-insertion at the character level, but you'd be surprised how hard that is for some people to accept.

Personally, I'm a bit miffed that there aren't clay bars around and that I can't buy a Chimera soda. Do you put things in your comic that you wish you would see in the real world?

Definitely, clay bars and Chimera being prime examples. But the comic's definitely not my idea of a utopia. Templar's full of things I also consider to be terrible. I think it's important to keep things balanced if you want to keep things interesting.

We've seen that a lot of your characters have mysterious or tragic pasts that have yet to be revealed, but do you have specific arcs planned out for them in the future?

Sure do. Everyone'll get their turn. And that's all I'm gonna say.

"Templar" reminds me a bit of Warren Ellis' "Transmetropolitan" in that we're also being led through an extreme and often overwhelming city by a columnist. But Ben is the anti-Spider Jerusalem — meek, humble to a fault, and unfamiliar with his surroundings. Will we see him come to discover and love things about the city on his own? And will we ever get to see him be a journalist?

Beautiful weather we're having.

One of the most striking things about the comic is the dialogue. Many of the characters have very distinct rhythms of speech, and the tenor of the conversations often speak volumes about the relationships between the characters. Do the speech patterns come from people you know or people you observe in your daily life?

I use a lot of cheats with the speech, just like I use a lot of cheats with the settings. I haven't given any characters specific voices from specific people, but they all have rules they follow. Favorite phrases, favorite curses, frequency of profanity, overall dorkiness, affectations, grammatical shortcuts. Most people have unique speech patterns, and I've always wanted my characters to talk like most people. I write the most natural dialogue I can manage, sometimes to a fault. I've had people complain that the dialogue is TOO realistic, with too many pauses and thick accents. I have a hard time caring about that, though.

You've been our tour guide through Templar for four years now. If I were to spend one day in Templar, what would be the must-see attractions?

The Oarlock, the legal brothel district. Little Cairo, the ethnic center of the Nile Revivalists. Xenophage, if you can both stomach and afford it. Any random copybook shop. And a protest, if you can find one. Bring a helmet.

[Templar, Arizona]