“How can we be free in a universe where freedom doesn’t exist?” – That is the question English comic book writer Ryan O’Sullivan is looking to explore in the Image comics series, Void Trip. The series, a collaboration between Ryan and artist Plaid Klaus, looks to mix sci-fi with elements of comedy and existential crisis, where the last two humans on earth go on a space road trip to find the promised land; Euphoria
I am always on the lookout for new comics to read. Especially, those which seem as though they are going to be different. Void Trip, a space road trip, that looks to mix comedy with elements of existential crisis, seems to be right up my street.
I recently sat down with the incredibly interesting and kind writer of the series, Ryan, when he was in Aberdeen as part of his Void Trip book tour, and we discussed his career, the storytelling of Void Trip, and the search for freedom in the universe;
“Hello there. So, first of all, could you just tell me a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do?”
Hello. My name is Ryan O’Sullivan and I am a comic writer from Leeds, England. The latest one I have done is Void Trip with Image Comics with an illustrator called Plaid Klaus. It was lettered by Aditya Bidikar , and it’s a story of the last humans left alive going on a pilgrimage through space and trying to find this hippie paradise planet called Euphoria. However, they are absolute stones, so unfortunately they are not particularly efficient, or good, at getting there. So, the story is all about the journey, rather than the destination. Also, the problem in the book, being that they have this all white demiurge type character, full of guns, and not much else, chasing them through the cosmos trying to stop them getting to Euphoria. So, it is my attempt, as an English person to look at American culture and what makes them tick, and to mock them furiously for it. That is what I am aiming for.
Actually, the other stuff that I do, tends to be comics based around video games. I have just finished The Evil Within for Titan, and earlier in the year I done Dawn of War 3, which is a Warhammer 40’000 game tie in. Me and Klaus, the illustrator on Void Trip, we worked on Turn Coat last year, so, we are a bit of a creative duo. So that is me and Klaus and me in a nutshell. I write the words, I don’t draw the pictures.
“So, could you tell me how you came to be interested in the comic book medium?”
Originally, I saw it as a medium in the eighties and nineties, that is how I got into it from a creative perspective. Everyone starts of on superheroes, or the Beano, or the Dandy, or 2’000AD, that is how I got into reading them. How I got into them as something I wanted to do myself was through reading the works by Alan Moore, or Neil Gaiman. You know, that sort of counter comic cultural things that were on The Fringe, and I saw comics as a medium that, perhaps, was not taking as seriously as something compared to other forms of literature or other mediums, I saw it as something that would allow me to play more, because a lot had not been done. I also liked that idea of freedom, that it was Fringe, it was punk, it was something that could have a lot of potential, not that I necessarily was the one to help it find that potential, but I liked the idea that could be something I could strive towards. That is why my books tends to be a little bit different to what you would buy elsewhere, because I like that about comics, it is a pure distillation of creatives working together. Compared to a film or a TV series, which is just a series of compromises, whereas comics is collaborative, and it is so pure, because so few people are involved. Plus, I like reading them as well.
“So, as a comic book writer, do you have any particular inspirations for your stories? “
Where do ideas come from, essentially? I am not inspired by other comic writers, I enjoy their work, but I don’t draw inspiration from them, because there is a thing that I find in a lot of writing, and that is people remixing the words that came before. Especially, in comics, where we are all living in Alan Moore’s shadow at the moment, and I feel like that is, to repackage what he does over and over again, is not particularly what I want to do with my life. So, I am not that influenced by them. I draw from a lot of them, and I will look at the way Alan Moore does scenes, or I might take things as tools and use them. In terms of influences, it depends on what I am writing. With Void Trip, for example, I was influenced a lot by the Beats, like Jack Kerouac, or Ginsberg, or even Bakowski, who arguably was not a beat. I was influenced, as we were taking earlier, by the easy rider, Thelma and Louise, and things like 1960’s counter culture movies. Also Hunter S Thompson, who carried on the legacy of the beats in his own gonzo way. That was all very much my influences for Void Trip, and I think that with comics, it is a very adult medium, and it takes itself very seriously, and I think that what it can do more of, well the comics that I enjoy tend to do, are the ones who look for inspiration out of the comic medium. So, admittedly there are jokes in Void Trip, about Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore. They are referenced there, but what I am interested in is comics that look for inspiration beyond other comics, because, in my opinion, that is how you create the good stuff and that is what I like to do with my work. They always say the book you want to make is the one you want to read, that isn’t out there yet, and that is something I ascribe to.
“So, you are here today as part of your Void Trip tour, and I was just wondering if you could tell us a little more about Void Trip. If you don’t want to spoil it, that is perfectly fine!”
I would prefer not too! I have given you the spiel about how it is about going to a planet and trying to get there. The question Void Trip asks was, “how can we be free in a universe where freedom doesn’t exist?”. How can we be free in a universe that is always course correcting us? The idea that, if we discover some miraculous new space rocket that can let us travel much better and much faster, the universe will course correct us to make something slow it down. The idea is that the universe will always try and reach equilibrium, and the more I thought about it, I realized that kind of message is sort of life in a nutshell. So, for a while, I read a lot of beat generation, crazy counter cultural stuff, but I was also reading, Melville or Moby Dick and McCarthy as well, as I read The Road and all of that. So, it all showed me the two different sides to America; The one side, which was fun loving, American dream chasing, open road, American Wild West. You know, the American Dream, with a capital A and capital D. Whereas, the other side of it, is the top down Calvinist, religious America, which was essentially, ‘yes, you can dream, but only as part of a cog in our machine’. So, playing those two separate sides, it was originally a pastiche on American identity, but I assumed realized that was life for everyone, and there was the idea that we haven’t got that many freedoms in our life, generally speaking. I am so much more used to writing about it, rather than speaking about it, and this has got me unpacking it! It was one of those things that you do in interviews. You discover things about your own book that you didn’t know, because you ask the same question over and over, and then all the threads starts connecting. I mean, I thought I knew the answers, but it sort of mutates!
But yeah, Void Trip, was essentially about asking the question, ‘how can we be free in a universe that would limit us?’, and also, the idea that the universe is not indifferent towards us; it is actually negative towards us. So, the idea that, you say to someone, ‘life is suffering’, which is a cliche, and the counter argument is, ‘No, it is neutral for the majority of it. You have good days and bad days, but life is relatively neutral’. However, I would say that is not quite true. We get older, our bodies fall apart and our loved ones die. Void Trip is a comedy, honest, but that is the way it is looking at life. Life inherently is a negative thing, this is where the Thomas Ligotti nihilism came into it, and I realized that the only actual way of dealing with this huge existential crisis I was having whilst putting this book together, was to make it funny. To badly paraphrase the joke, ‘the only way to respond to the abyss is to laugh in it’s face’.
“Could you tell us a bit more about the characters who are involved in the story?”
Yes of course! I mentioned a bit before about the influences I had in terms of story, the american dream style authors, and also the oppressive american authors. The two main characters are Anna and Gabe; Anna is your free-wheeling anarchist, freedom whatever the costs, who believes in ‘nothing can limit me’. Not pragmatic in the least, and will go down guns blazing. Gabe is the older, world weary hippie, the other side of the coin. Or, perhaps, a slightly older side of the coin, who knows that if you want to be free in the universe then you have to play along with it a little bit. He is the voice of reason, or at least he thinks he is. The story explores those two approaches to things as they go on their journey, so they argue a lot, and both of them have opinions that are valid, but neither one, from my perspective is more right than the other. As preachy as the characters in this comic are, I did not want the reader to feel preached to. So, they are preaching to each other, because they are two didactic stoners, but in the actual comic, they are a lot more fun to read rather than to share with, I imagine!
“You were saying earlier that the story is also quite dramatic, as well as being quite comedic, how did you find mixing the two different genres?”
It’s great because, the way I found it, if you get super existential you have the risk of taking yourself too seriously, but if you go to far with comedy you have the risk of not taking yourself seriously at all. With the two, you then have to find a happy medium. Plus, when you are jumping from something dark and messed up, to then jump into a joke, it then lets you play with the tension on the reader a bit more. So, for me creating it as well, I don’t particularly want to make these depressing stories, I want to make the ending to leave me emotional when I am writing it, but in a way that is enjoyable. I did not want it to be another comic that was dire and grim and violent, but I also did not want to make another comic that was just pure comedy. I wanted a mix, that was completely opposite, and allowed them to amplify each other as well, because you have the juxtaposition between them.
“I am sure I have read this right somewhere, correct me if I am wrong, but I heard that the story line is described as “Guardians of the Galaxy meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?”
That is probably fair. Well I think I did say that to someone. To be fair, they don’t guard the galaxy, they never save the universe, and they would be crap superheros, but they are in space, and that was an easy understanding. I think the illustrator described it as, Rick and Morty meets Day tripper. That is probably slightly more accurate. Rick and Morty has a lot more comedy in it. It has more existential dread. So does Bojack Horesman. The idea is, that if you watch these cartoons, then people who watch them will not have to take them seriously because they are a cartoon, which allows them to layer in all this existential dread and depression, all in with the comedy. See, that is what I was trying to do with this (Void Trip), so yeah I think that is a fair thing to say. I think Guardians of the Galaxy meets Fear and Loathing, as Hunter S Thompson has definitely had an influence on the story, Guardians the Galaxy just happened to be the most relevant sci-fi comic when I was coming up with the log line. I did not pitch it as that. Image wouldn’t have liked that.
“You have worked with the artist, Plaid Klaus, before on your previous comic Turn Coat. How has the collaboration process transformed onto Void Trip?”
I think it has become more collaborative, actually. With Turn Coat, I came up with the concept myself and had written a few scripts for it, and I approached him for it. He drew a few character designs and then he essentially just took my scripts and drew them. We collaborated on the art, as I would give him feedback on the art, but we did not come up with the concept of it together. Whereas, with Void Trip, that was a case of him doing sketches everyday on Facebook, where he would draw. Then one day he drew a space hover. A guy with a broken down spaceship, holding up a card that said whatever he needed to write. I then thought, ‘I could do a comic on that’, and I sort of took the stuff away, and what I was reading at the time happened to coincide with the idea that popped into my mind fully formed. I suggested it to him and he said, ‘yes’, and then we sat down and came up with it together. I sort of plotted it out, I used him like an editor almost, as I went back and forth with ideas. Then, once he liked the plot and suggested a few things for it, and then I scripted it and gave it to him, and then I was the editor for the art, as we switched roles. So, it was a lot more collaborative. He definitely collaborated on Turn Coat as well, as he drew the bloody thing, and it wouldn’t exist without him, but I do feel that with Void Trip, from the early fetal stages was definitely something that we did together. We are definitely shoulder to shoulder.
“So far this is issue 1 that we have here. Do you have any future issues planned, and are you wanting to expand the story?”
Well, we are doing five issues for Void Tip, as Anna and Gabe’s story clocks out at five, and I am a big believer in, when the story is told, it’s told. Even if the book has done alright, I wouldn’t just want to continue to do it just to continue selling it. Comics aren’t really a medium you do that for. That is not to say that we would not go and do another story in the same universe. We have a huge cast of characters, with a few who do not make it into the end – no spoilers!
I have this thing, where is someone tells me who their favourite character in the story is, I will then try and kill them off. I just did it because I like annoying people! So, I killed off one of Klaus’ favourite characters in this one, and also in Turn Coat, and he still hasn’t learned yet. If it is the villain or the lead, I don’t so much, but if it is a tertiary character, I don’t mind throwing them under a bus just for the sake of a cheap feel halfway through an issue. I went slightly off topic there, what was the question again?
“That one was is you had any future issues planned!”
We are doing five issues of this. We may go back in the universe, and we may go back to the Turn Coat universe. Realistically, we are working on another book right now, and we are trying to do a more long form story, as we have done the five or six issue mini series, and now we are hungry to stretch our long form storytelling muscles, which is what Klaus really enjoys doing, as comics is such an economical medium, he really likes visual metaphors and the idea that the characters image can change over 20 issues, and how the visual can tie into the story arc as well. That is something that I feel we can’t really do with short range. Well we can do it in an old school way, with a short issue series, so watch this space!
“Are you allowed to give anything away about any future stories you have planned?”
Well, I can say I have one creative owned book, that is not done with Klaus, but another illustrator, coming out next year. It is with a publisher that I have not worked with yet, so I am pretty excited about that. As I said, me and Klaus have another book that we are collaborating on, and I have one other thing that I have in pipeline that I can’t talk about just yet. So, yes, no I suppose would be the way to answer that question. I say a lot of words where no is the answer!
“So, lastly, do you have any advice for someone who is looking to start writing their own comics?”
I would say, don’t spend ages writing scripts, because you will never learn how to make a comic unless someone draws it. I would also say, there is just too many things, but just be good, because there are far too many people who are not. Just be good, and the aspect of being good is reading so many of them, and picking them apart, and hyper analyzing everything. That would be the best way to go about it. Also; find people who are at the same level that you are, and then as you advance together, their lessons will become yours. I am part of a writers studio called White Noise, and we are all writing comics now, but when we came together as a collaborative, we got a lot more work. Not because we were pitching ourselves as a studio, but because we were giving each other the nod, and giving each other feedback on our scripts, with what would and wouldn’t work. I think you need that. You need that Napoleon mastermind group that is stronger together rather than not. Especially in comics, where everyone is fighting really hard for a piece of the pie. Most importantly, be good, because otherwise, what is the point?
You can keep up to date with all things Void Trip over here at Ryan O’Sullivan’s Twitter account. Make sure to check for Void Trip in your local comic book store, where you can pick up a copy at Asylum Books and Games.