Debuting today (7/15/20) on Webtoons is an ambitious hybrid comics and beyond project labelled Planet DIVOC-91 (to read the comic and other materials, click here!).
This summer, an ambitious storytelling experience will bring the world of science to comics like never before. An impressive roster of comic book creators — including WALKING DEAD artist Charlie Adlard, FRIENDO writer Alex Paknadel, UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, colourist and designer James Devlin, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou — are collaborating on PLANET DIVOC-91, an ambitious webcomic debuting July 15, 2020 on WEBTOON. The nine-part webcomic, which is funded by some of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the UK, is an offbeat sci-fi satire about a pandemic outbreak in the far reaches of outer space. In PLANET DIVOC-91, all young adults between the age of 16-25 have been transported to an earth-like planet which has been terraformed, so that both humans and aliens can breathe the air. Each chapter features the work of a different creative team and cover artist and is interspersed with short articles, links to videos, and other pieces of art by young adults about issues related to COVID-19, and mixes from world renowned DJs and Producers.
PLANET DIVOC-91 follows the adventures of two earthlings: Sanda Oung, a 23-year-old girl from the UK, and Champo Oung, Sanda’s 19-year-old, non-binary sibling. In the series, 15% of the world’s population of 7.5 billion people are now stuck on another planet, miles from the safety of home. Sanda learns that humans have been brought to Planet Divoc-91 because the Earth is at risk of an extinction level event – and young adults have been moved to safety by the Board of Adversity Scientists for Intergalactic Leadership’ (BASIL), led by a charismatic and fearsome alien named ADRO.
Comic Watch caught up with the writer for Chapter 1 and the project co-lead Sara Kenney to ask some of our more burning questions about Planet DIVOC-91!
Comic Watch: Sara, as the co-lead for the Planet DIVOC-91 project and writer of the first chapter, we’re excited to get the chance to speak with you on this exciting project. Let’s start with the call for talent. There’s quite the Murderer’s Row of artists and writers lined up to work on these nine chapters. Was there a general call for assistance or were there particular artists or studios you were targeting?
Sara Kenney: Thank you for inviting us to talk to you!
When Dr Bella Starling (Vocal, Manchester University NHS Trust) and I started thinking about this comic back in March, it was a small participatory arts project, working with young adults in the Manchester area. But it’s grown to become global. I emailed creators whose work I admired and who I thought were interested in how storytelling can lead to positive change. For this project we have designed a process that feeds back the views of young adults into research, academia and even government. So the creators are also engaging with young adults and experts. We also wanted creators with a sense of humour – love our gallows humour here in the UK…
CW: In many ways, this series very much has the feeling of a jam session but then you have these essays, interviews, and reporting done by the pool of young adults (16-25) that really seems to up the ante in terms of collective process. How much relationship/symbiosis is there between the comics narrative and the work done by the young adult team? Is one feeding the other and vice versa or is each element co-existing and happening independently?
SK: Yes the collective process is epic! I have been using the term ‘symbiotic engagement’ where people who have different levels of ‘power’ work together with a positive goal in mind. In this case it’s empowering young adults to influence the narrative of Covid-19, so researchers and policy makers consider young and diverse voices.
We are getting better at the comics narrative feeding the articles and vice versa as we progress. The first thing we did was speak to young adults to find out what they were thinking and feeling about the pandemic. This influenced the comic story, but also the type of experts we approached for them to interview. The writer or writer/ artist will join one of the expert interview sessions and also speak to the young adults about their views on the stories and characters.
We also have monthly masterclasses for the young adults – journalists, writers, artists, scientists and where possible I’m trying to make sure each of them gets to explore aspects around health and equity; power and how to hold your own; storytelling and creating change.
And some of our young adults shared ideas about what they are feeling/ reading/ listening to with the cover artists, in the hope they might get inspired by some of their thinking.
As a side note – the young adults were drawn from already established youth groups/ communities – Comics Youth; Voice Up; Your Rheum; Blast Fest; Audiolab; Interfer (SA); DBC India Alliance (India).
CW: Similarly, you quote both Anita Shervington and Erinma Ochu in your post-script. How much influence did your discussions with them influence the comics narrative? There seems to be a really interesting positive energy at play here.
SK: To give a bit of context Anita and Erinma along with Bella Starling were all Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellows with me – we were all researching different areas relating to health, I had a focus on comics. They are all powerful and inspiring women who taught me a lot about ‘systems change’ and how you start to chip away at the toxic structures and behaviours that exist in healthcare; in universities; broadcast and all around. The positive discussions I had with these women over the years has definitely impacted my work in a profound and positive way, but this work is often ‘invisible’, which is why I like to name check them. I think they have each impacted the comics narrative in some way – although probs more unconsciously.
We see how the characters Champo and Sanda are quite different in their outlook in life and how being zapped to another planet impacts them in very different ways. Champo is more trusting of the alien experts whereas Sanda is full of suspicion and paranoia. Sanda also feels like people are always looking down their nose at her, underestimating her, belittling her. Part of her journey is to learn how to become powerful, so that she can, not just help herself, but others too.
CW: The Press Release notes that Champo, Sandra’s younger sibling, is non-binary. This element caught my attention because non-binary representation in comics at large is greatly needed right now. But in reading the actual text, there didn’t seem to be any overt markers or pronoun use to indicate that Champo is non-binary. Is that something readers can expect in future installments?
The inclusion of a non-binary character was suggested by one of the young adults. You’re right there aren’t any overt markers, perhaps that’s my bad for not putting them in. You may or may not have noticed that all the aliens are non-binary too. I thought it would be fun to dig deeper into the notion of a planet where non-binary is the norm and binary is an oddity. It will be interesting to see what the other writer/ artists will make of this.
CW: The most memorable moment of the first issue for me involves the character of Araminta Love and her sudden departure. This entire sequence seems charged with code and meaning and I was hoping maybe you would be willing to unpack some of what is happening in this scene?
I just adored Charlie Adlard’s art in this scene – just really made me laugh. Getting the art back for a scene you have written is an incredible experience. I wrote this script at the beginning of May when everyone was getting pumped about exercising, baking, probs drinking too much and spending too much time on social media. I’m guilty of a couple of those. But I was also thinking a lot about the equity issues.
The story is supposed to be allegorical – but rather than unpack the scene and tell you what was going on in my head, I think I’d rather let the audience take from it what they will…
CW: Given the nature of what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to the comics industry, I understand the inclination to publish a project like this digitally. Are there any future plans to publish hard copies for the LCSs to be able to sell as well?
We published digitally because that’s what the young adults we consulted wanted. Also the project is global and Webtoon don’t have a paywall. However, I am a massive fan of print comics, so I would love for this to become a collected edition, which comic shops could sell. We do want to approach publishers with this idea, but I think we need to see if we get a big enough audience for that to become viable. I’d love to see the aliens, Champo and Sanda in print!
CW: Any final thoughts for our readers about the direction this series is headed or the direction our world is headed or ways to contribute and support?
This is not meant to be a depressing story (although who knows where the other creatives will take it! It’s supposed to be a story that empowers and offers hope. Although for some, it feels like we are engulfed in a fog of despair, I would suggest that some of the horror we are experiencing, could result in a path to a more hopeful and equitable future. I think we need to start thinking more about the possible utopias – how do we imagine our way out of this mess and to better futures? With this in mind – this work by Geoff Mulgan at UCL is an interesting read: https://bit.ly/ImaginaryCrisis
If you follow the story of Sanda and Champo on Webtoon we are going to be sharing resources to help us all ‘make sense’ of our situation and we are interested in your comments.
Obviously, we can’t possibly know what all this means or where this will go, but we can start to process our response. Think about how to protect our physical and mental health and to shape our vision about what researchers should be exploring and what policy makers should be doing. You can scream into the void or you can do something about it. Also, I just don’t think It’s a good idea to let the ‘grown ups’ (powerful people), get on with this work without us.
There you have it, Watchers! Make sure you head over to Webtoons and check it out for yourself, and stay tuned for more updates and new chapters!
Symbiotic Engagements: An Interview with PLANET DIVOC-91’s Sara Kenney
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