Astral projection is a term many superhero comic book fans will be familiar with, but Leila del Duca and Kit Seaton are taking it in a new direction with their Image Comics OGN Afar. Debuting this week in comic stores, this YA story blends both adventure and science fiction as it tells the journey of a brother and sister from a desert world set in the not-too-distant future where they must struggle to find their way apart from their parents.
The two creators first met while attending Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and reconnected here as del Duca sought to branch out from drawing comics such as Shutter to writing for herself. Newsarama spoke with both creators to find out more about this futuristic project and see what led them to bring this unconventional project to Image Comics.
Newsarama: Leila, you also work on Shutter as the artist with Joe Keatinge. This time around with Afar, you’ll be focusing on the writing duties. How has this experience been different for you?
Leila del Duca: It was really terrifying for me, actually! I had a bit of an idea of what it took to write a comic book since I've written short comics before, but I also vastly underestimated how much world-building I needed to do, how much outlining I needed to complete, and I ended up setting myself up for some difficult problems to solve that manifested later in the book. I hired Taneka Stotts as my editor, since I knew I'd need the help, and she really went above and beyond in nudging my scripts in the right way and making it much better than I could have done on my own. In the end, I've learned that I do really like writing, even if it gives me a lot of anxiety! And it's the most rewarding thing seeing Kit's beautiful artwork bring my weird ideas to life. That was the biggest motivator.
Nrama: Kit, I understand you’re also a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design. How does working on Afar help inform what you’re doing in the classroom with your college students at SCAD?
Kit Seaton: Afar was a great project to have on hand for instruction in the classroom. My own process of trial and error where all instances that could be used for teaching. My students seemed to enjoy being part of the process, and seeing bits and pieces of it evolve over that year and a half when I was working on it. Even when I made mistakes, those were all moments and experiences I could take back to my students. Hopefully, they will have the benefit of being more aware of some of those production issues in their careers.
Nrama: Most of the comics Image publishes take the form of the traditional monthly issues. What led you both to release Afar in the graphic novel format?
del Duca: Afar was originally going to be published as a 6-issue monthly, but I wasn't confident that the first issue's script was strong enough to grab and keep people's attention. Being a fan of trade paper backs and graphic novels more than monthly comics, I asked Eric Stephenson if Image would be willing to publish it as a YA graphic novel instead, and he thankfully said yes. I'm really happy we were able to publish it as a graphic novel. It feels like it's in its truest form this way and people can binge it all at once!
Seaton: In the beginning, we were going to take the traditional route, but around the start of 2016, Leila made the call to go to the full graphic novel format. It was a very good call, I think in the long run, as it would be difficult to maintain a monthly issue with my teaching schedule. I likely would have spread myself too thin, and this ended up giving us plenty of time to revise and smooth things out before it went to print.
Nrama: Looking at the story itself, Afar focuses on a teen girl who is left to care for her younger brother in a post-apocalyptic desert world, and it takes readers in some pretty far-out directions from many of the other stories out there on newsstands today. What can you tell readers about what inspired your creation of these characters and this story?
del Duca: Other than wanting to see Kit draw a YA science fantasy book, my inspiration came from what I loved reading and watching while growing up in small-town Montana. Star Trek was a huge influence on me, as well as YA fantasy books by Tamora Pierce and Meredith Furlong. Later in college, when I finally started watching Hayao Miyazaki films, they became a huge influence as well. I wanted to create visually captivating stories that spoke to every age, and had character-driven stories with life lessons to learn by the end.
Seaton: Even before the story became what we know it to be now, Leila was very clear in the beginning that she wanted to tell a story that focused on the dynamics between siblings, that it would explore themes of science fiction and fantasy, and that the worlds would look a little like our own, but maintain a sense of wonder. Beyond that, and I think what I like most about this book is that some of it is improvisational. I received the script in sections as Leila completed it, so I wouldn't know what things would look like too far in advance. I had the foundation of what came before to build from, and Leila always offered direction and guidance when I needed it.
She often tells me that she would send me ideas based on what she wanted to see me draw. The best way that I can put it is that the book is a result of our two brains working simultaneously. We put a great deal of trust in each other, too.
Nrama: Kit, I’m especially curious about your aesthetic design choices in this story as they push back against what might be viewed as more mainstream styles. What were you hoping to accomplish artistically in Afar and what sort of influences did you find playing out in your work on this story?
Seaton: I hadn't really thought that I was pushing back against the mainstream. I was just trying to deliver my best possible work, and I knew that I wanted to use mostly traditional materials. I learned how to draw and paint first as a theatrical designer, then later as an illustrator. I always made comics, but usually they were personal, usually strips, and often very weird. My entry into comics was Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Garfield, and later, Krazy Kat and Ignatz. I started wanting to make graphic novels in earnest sometime in my mid-twenties. I tend to approach comics from a theatrical perspective, so that may be why it looks a little different. I think about the stage a lot: how the characters are positioned, what the emotional tone of the scene is, and what business they are doing with their bodies or hands or props. Though I don't know how unique that is, I think a lot of artists work that way.
When I was younger, I read a lot about different styles of theatre. I liked reading about Commedia dell'Arte because I liked the masks, costumes, and the classical approaches to character. Some of my earliest influences were the costume plates designed by Erté and Leon Bakst. For this book in particular, I took a lot of inspiration from Franco-Belgian comics. I've always loved the work of Jean Giraud and Francois Shuiten, but I don't have that level of technical skill, so I have to interpret it my own way.
Nrama: Given that our protagonist, Boetema, is able to project herself astrally across various planes of existence, this entails a great deal of world-building for both of you. In what ways did this challenge you as storytellers?
del Duca: Most of the planets Boetema visits we only see for a panel or two, so those were fun mash-ups of interesting Earth creatures and environments we thought were interesting. When it came to Boetema's planet, it was challenging to research and find reference for pre-colonial Eastern and Northern Africa, which is where we drew a lot of inspiration. To make sure readers knew this wasn't Earth, we added clear visual indications like technological ruins and livestock that are different versions of real Earth animals. As a writer, it was super challenging to find information on the cultures I was inspired by, which was incredibly frustrating. I didn't know about EBSCO or who to ask for advice on where to find certain information. And since I was drawing a monthly comic on top of writing, finding the time to research was also a huge challenge. Needless to say, I learned a lot about how much time and effort I need to schedule myself for the next time I write.
Seaton: As a designer, I'm always thinking about setting limitations in order to more easily establish unity and harmony. Since we used a lot of our own world to establish what others would look like, the amount of biodiversity and wonder on this planet is overwhelming. Sometimes simply choosing could be challenging, but once I could pare it down to an idea, it was always a lot of fun. Color could also present challenges, since I was committing to limited palettes, I had to be careful that one world didn't look too much like one that came before.
Nrama: Leila, you likened this to Star Trek when it was originally announced at Image Expo a year ago. What led you to make this comparison?
del Duca: Star Trek always has a moral lesson each episode, and I'm a huge fan of that. I like stories with purpose, something I can learn and self-reflect on. I also loved Star Trek's diversity, how many different worlds and species there were, and that it was set in space! I wrote Afar intending to include all of the elements I loved about Star Trek.
Nrama: What do you think one of the greatest challenges will be for readers approaching this story?
del Duca: If you're looking for world catastrophes and action-packed drama, Afar is not the book for you. It's a quieter story about two siblings taking responsibility for the problems they get themselves into.
Seaton: Most of what I've heard from readers is that they want it to be longer, or to answer a few more questions. This book represented a lot of firsts for us, so for that reason, we kept the adventure at a relatively quick pace and left some room for readers to fill in the gaps. I think there's something to be said about that old vaudeville phrase: “Get on, get over, and get off.”
Nrama: On the other hand, what aspects of this story do you think will make Afar especially approachable for readers today?
del Duca: Kit's fantastical designs and renderings are breathtaking! Also, the sibling dynamic between Boetema and Inotu while they traverse their world and deal with their problems is very endearing.
Seaton: It’s a story for daydreamers, and in that sense, we tried to keep to the escapism and fun that Leila and I both sought out from stories when we were young. I hope readers will enjoy travelling to other worlds with Boetema, and seeing it all through her sense of wonder and curiosity.