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The Intergalactic Nemesis

on Mon, 10/20/2014 - 00:00

The early-to-mid decades of the Twentieth Century are a nostalgic time period when it comes to Geek Culture, and numerous entertainment mediums can trace their “Golden Years” to the time period. The 1920s through the 1950s, for instance, is considered the Golden Age of Radio, when the audio medium dominated household activities around the country with an array of “live dramas” that contained an ample helping of science fiction. The 1950s, meanwhile, have earned the title of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” thanks to an abundance of sci-fi films and literature during the decade. Then there’s the “Golden Age of Comic Books,” which began with the appearance of Superman in 1938 and likewise extends into the 1950s.

Many contemporaries have been inspired by the works from these various “Golden Ages,” including the likes of George Lucas and Steve Spielberg, but arguably no one has been able to tie this disparate array of entertainment mediums and genres together in the same way that Jason Neulander has with The Intergalactic Nemesis. A “live-action graphic novel,” The Intergalactic Nemesis began life as a radio drama “performed” live at an Austin, Texas, coffee shop in 1996 before evolving into a comic book adaptation in 2009—paving the way for a multimedia version that includes three actors voicing all the characters, Foley-style sound effects and a series of large illustrated panels displayed above the stage. After an initial performance in 2010 that attracted 2,100 attendees, The Intergalactic Nemesis took its show on the road, appearing in over 140 cities around the world.

“It’s pretty simple and spectacular all at the same time,” Jason Neulander explains of The Intergalactic Nemesis. “Three actors standing at vintage microphones voice all the characters, a Foley artist stands at a huge table filled with toys and gadgets to create all the sound effects, a pianist performs a symphonic cinematic score, all while more than 1,250 individual comic book panels flash on a huge screen to tell the story visually. Add in the fact that the story is both funny and filled with surprises and you end up with a spectacle that really takes people places they’ve never been before.”

As for the plot of The Intergalactic Nemesis, Neulander call it “goofy, pulpy, period sci-fi fun. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Molly Sloan and her intrepid assistant Timmy Mendez team up with a mysterious librarian from Flagstaff, Arizona—named Ben Wilcott—to try to save Earth from an invasion of sludge monsters from the planet Zygon. The story starts in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, moves to Scotland, then across the Alps, then to Tunis, and finally to Outer Space. If you’re a sci-fi nerd like me, you’re gonna have a huge smile on your face pretty much the whole time.”

The idea for The Intergalactic Nemesis was initially conceived by fellow Austin resident Ray Colgen, who approached Neulander about developing a science-fiction radio serial to be performed live on stage in 1996. Neulander ran with the idea, putting together a writing team to craft the scripts and an audio engineer—Buzz Moran—to both come up with the sound effects and record each performance.

“We had four writers and we created ten twenty-minute episodes, recording two-a-week for five weeks,” Neulander remembers of the experience. “On a Monday, the first writer of the week would start on their episode. They’d hand off their script to writer number two on Wednesday. On Friday I’d get both scripts and frantically start making phone calls to people trying to cast them. We’d rehearse the two episodes with the actors on Saturday for about two hours. Then Buzz Moran and I would rummage through his closets and kitchen to try to find gadgets that would make the sounds called for in the script. On Sunday, we’d rehearse for about ninety minutes with me reading all the lines and Buzz making the various sounds. Then we’d race to the Little City Coffeehouse to set up our gear to record at 9 p.m. that night. Repeat for five weeks. It was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on.”

Although the initial performances of The Intergalactic Nemesis were immortalized on cassette tape, Buzz Moran approached Jason Neulander four years later about re-recording the show using a digital eight-track recorder. The original script was likewise tightened and shorted for a one-night performance at the State Theater in Austin that attracted a capacity crowd. A sequel was written the following year, with repeat performances of both shows in 2002. In 2009, meanwhile, The Intergalactic Nemesis bug again hit Neulander, who this time approached artist Tim Doyle about adapting the radio serial into a comic book version. Inspired by the artwork produced by Doyle, Neulander decided to use the illustrations during the live performance to produce a more visual experience.

“As soon as I came up with the idea of those projections, I knew I wanted to tour it,” Jason Neulander explains. “Really the tour was almost a matter of luck. It took Tim Doyle about eighteen months to create all the artwork. We premiered this version of the show on September 3, 2010, and more than 2,100 people came out to see it. Ten days later I was at a conference for booking touring acts with the hopes of getting five venues interested in booking the show, but I walked out three days later with the business cards of 33 different venues. Since then, we’ve been booked into more than 140 venues around the world and the project has spawned two sequels and a spinoff called SALT. Just amazing.”

The buzz surrounding the show has led The Intergalactic Nemesis to be featured on the likes of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and NPR’s All Things Considered. Despite such national exposure, however, Jason Neulander’s fondest memory is smaller and closer to home. “I think my favorite moment was during the premiere of the first sequel in 2012,” he says. “I’ve stuck with the project because I love these characters, but I wasn’t entirely sure that the audience was into them. You know, maybe they were there simply because of the unique format of the show or whatever. But at the top of the second act of Robot Planet Rising, a character who you thought was gone forever returns. And at the premiere, the audience of 1,700 people stopped the show with their cheering. The cast was so surprised by this that for a few seconds, the show was kind of thrown off. But at that moment I knew that our fans loved these characters as much as I do. That was just incredibly gratifying.”

Even more gratifying is the way that Neulander has been able to take all the fond remembrances of his youth and craft them into something that is both homage and original at the same time. “For me, The Intergalactic Nemesis is all about tapping into my own personal inner twelve-year-old,” Neulander explains. “So it’s inspired by the Flash Gordon episodes I used to watch with my dad on TV on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, by the fact that I was seven when Star Wars came out, by the fact that I was eleven when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. It’s also inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s and by the things those stories inspired. Plenty of sci-fi action movies from the 80s come to mind—The Terminator, Back to the Future, Alien. But it’s also inspired by Golden Age Hollywood. The dialogue is our effort to hearken back to movies like His Girl Friday which just crackle.”

The Intergalactic Nemesis made its Pittsburgh premier on November 14, 2014, at the Byham Theater. “We’ve never played Pittsburgh before, but I’ve been there a few times for some arts conferences and my dad actually went to college there,” Jason Neulander said beforehand. “It seems like Pittsburgh really has gone through an amazing transformation driven in no small part by an investment in the performing arts. I love that! Really can’t wait to play there!” For actor Christopher Lee Gibson, meanwhile, the performance marked a homecoming of sorts as the Texas transplant was born and raised in the Steel City, and based on both his excitement as well as the audience in attendance, the wait was obviously worth it.

Anthony Letizia

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