There’s the saying about how it’s not about the miles, it’s the destination.
What if your destination is to get as high as you possibly can while on your way to a planet that is literally paradise for slackers while avoiding space mobsters?
In this week's Void Trip from Image Comics, Turncoat writer Ryan O’Sullivan reunites with artist Plaid Klaus to bring readers a road trip between friends gone horribly wrong. Take cues from writers like Hunter S. Thompson (who did not skip around his own psychedelic drug use), O’Sullivan takes Ana and Gabe on a journey that is beyond the final frontier.
Newsarama spoke to O’Sullivan about Void Trip, from the trippy inspirations behind it and what tropes he wanted to avoid while constructing it and where he’d go should he be able to travel among the stars.
Newsarama: So Ryan, you have Ana and Gabe as your protagonists here in Void Trip, but they're really unlikely heroes in pretty much every single way. What made you want to create such atypical leads?
Ryan O’Sullivan: Void Trip, at its core, is a story about answering the question: how can we be free, in a universe that will always course-correct to limit us? This isn’t your typical adventure comic, with heroes fighting villains over McGuffins. It’s a road trip story. Its main concern is exploring the human condition. For a story like this we need two leads who felt human and real. You can’t explore the human condition, or examine the existential dread at the heart of it, if your lead is an archetype.
But Ana and Gabe aren’t anti-heroes, either. They’re not good people doing bad things for the greater good. That story has been done to death. In many ways the anti-hero, once a subversion of your typical hero, has now become just as much a staple archetype. For Void Trip, we wanted to get away from anything traditional. It pulls from a lot of counter-cultural influences. Writers like Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac. Movies like Easy Rider or Thelma & Louise. I got into comics in a big way on the works of the English writers in the 80’s and 90’s who were doing subversive/deconstructive comics. They were taking what was currently popular, and turning it on its head. We’re looking to do the same with Void Trip, except with humor.
Because laughing into the abyss is the only sane way to respond to it.
Nrama: You're working with artist Plaid Klaus here, and the designs of some of these beings are just really out there. What was the designing collaboration style like?
O’Sullivan: I write full scripts, but Plaid Klaus and I are collaborators through-and-through on this project way in advance of the scripting. We came up with the concept together and, in the early stages of putting the story outline together, Klaus took on the role more traditionally associated with an editor or co-writer. I’d constantly be bouncing ideas off-of him to see what he thought of them, and he’d constantly be hitting me up with ideas of his own.
Because of this, when it came to me writing the outline and scripts, both of us already have a shared idea of the overall narrative, as well as the various character arcs and ongoing themes throughout. What this means was that when Klaus receives one of my scripts, he’s already “primed” to suggest different visual approaches to characters based on their story arcs. I don’t have to rely on explaining the importance of certain elements within the script to him. This frees me up to focus on nuance in the storytelling. Something which may get lost if we were to take a more traditional approach to collaboration. (Or, if kept, would result in leviathan-length scripts!)
This level of narrative engagement applies to all areas of the art in Void Trip. Nothing Klaus does is without purpose. Everything on the page is there for a reason and that reason is always the story. This even applies to the highly detailed backgrounds and environments. Klaus is incredible at world building through background detailing. The world of Void Trip feels lived in and that’s all down to Klaus.
This principle of narrative-led design also applies to Aditya Bidikar’s lettering on the book. Like most road-trip stories, Void Trip is very navel-gazy. It was Aditya who suggested borderless word balloons. I think it really works. It makes it seem like the ideas being expressed by our two leads aren’t constricted by the word balloons. It feels like the words can just float off into space at any moment. Similarly, our villain’s word balloons not only have borders, but are also inverted (white writing on a black background). This really drives home that this nameless gunslinger chasing our heroes is the complete opposite of them. Visible lettering can really add to a story.
Nrama: Digging deeper with the details of this world, you have so much environmental landscapes and even designs so was there something you wanted to use but couldn't find the right fit for?
O’Sullivan: Void Trip’s a very dense comic. Very compressed. Very fast-paced. Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore are big influences of mine when it comes to plotting out stories. Comics are only 22 pages and I like to pack a lot in there. Because of this we can squeeze in a lot of different locations into each script. So, for the most part, the itch to do say, a tropical world, or an ice world, or a sand world, are all going to be scratched by the end of the series.
But in a broader sense, one thing I wish we’d been able to do more of was slow down the pace a bit more and explore, purely through visuals, the feeling of being on the road. I remember watching the film Easy Rider a few years back and just loving all these montages of the two leads riding through America on their motorcycles. I remember reading Kerouac’s On the Road and being swept away by the descriptions of all the different places he visited. Now I type all this out I realize we actually have done this a fair amount.
Huh. That’s the thing with interviews, isn’t it? You do so many that you end up unpacking your own work to a degree you never thought you would. The Void Trip press tour has taught me more about Void Trip than writing it did. That’s for sure.
Okay. I’ll have a go at actually answering your question properly.
There was one thing I really wanted to get into the book but couldn’t. Treeple. A race of sentient tree-people who were essentially space-Ents. They were going to be these incredibly friendly tree people that Ana and Gabe met up with. We’d build them up as “finally, our heroes have found decent people in this horrible universe," only to reveal that they were the worst of the lot. They’d have art museums that use human flesh as canvases, they’d ingest human flesh to get high, and they’d do all other manner of horrible things. The idea of having these seemingly friendly, but utterly terrifying characters, with a name as dumb as 'treeple' was something I was excited to play with. They were in the original outline but were, sadly, a darling that got cut down. (Just like trees!)
At least this interview allowed them to escape out into the zeitgeist.
Nrama: It seems that Ana and Gabe are on the run from somebody/thing (and its not Treeple@), so what did these lovable losers get into that make them a target?
O’Sullivan: As in the real world, sometimes you find yourself with enemies simply by existing.
Ana and Gabe are the last two humans left alive. So, this all-white, nameless, gunslinger that’s chasing them; he could be a bounty hunter chasing rare animals, he could be a god chasing his last two followers, or he could just be a crazy person hunting prey for entertainment. We’ll leave this detail up to the readers to decide.
We didn’t want to give too much away. That’s the thing with road trip stories. There’s always a before, there’s always an after. They don’t really matter all that much. For example, we never really get into what happened to the rest of humanity. We only show the impact of that on our heroes. Because this isn’t really a story about the human race, it’s the story of Ana and Gabe.
Nrama: You've mentioned that Hunter S. Thompson was a huge influence with these characters and world, what is it about his writing that worked so well within a sci-fi story?
O’Sullivan: He influenced the characters a fair amount, but his style of writing doesn’t influence my own. Part of this is because the bits of Thompson’s writing that define him aren’t the crazy antics of his characters, but rather the acutely observational humour in his prose. Void Trip doesn’t have any narrative captions in it, so the defining part of Thompson’s voice, his prose, isn’t present in our comic.
This was one of the things that concerned me when we first started putting Void Trip together. Thompson’s prose played such a large part in making the crazy antics of the characters palatable. You could enjoy the Samoan, or Yeamon, as characters, because you had Thompson subverting or deconstructing them constantly. Without that, the reader might feel that the author supported those characters. Or, even worse, thought those characters were supposed to be enviable.
Our way around this problem was the Great White - our nameless gun-toting villain. He was such an Old Testament bastard that he made our space bums look positively heroic by comparison. And his style of dialogue contrasted nicely with theirs. It helped inform the reader that the 'voice' (for lack of a better term) of Void Trip wasn’t just the dialogue of Ana or Gabe. Great White’s Melvillian dialogue is a far-cry from Thompson’s prose, but it served the same function here. Specifically: to rob our lead characters of their unearned moral authority.
With all that said, some aspects of Thompson’s worldview did find their way into the comic. As I mentioned above, Void Trip is all about asking the question "how can we be free, in a universe that will always course-correct to limit us?" Thompson figured out the answer to this. He knew where true freedom lay, and he knew what you had to do to get it. And, by the end of our story, at least one of our characters will too.
Nrama: To you, what is Void Trip more of: a roadtrip party between friends, or friends on the run?
O’Sullivan: What is a Void Trip?
Is it a trip across the void?
Is it two people getting high in the void?
Is it two people going on a pointless journey?
Or is it two people realising the pointlessness of getting high?
What’s in a name, eh?
Nrama: Lastly, let's say you suit up a station wagon with space exploration technology, where is the first place you'd want to go?
O’Sullivan: I’d pick the place that, in all of the vastness of space, was the most distant from me right now. I’d move towards that. I’d never arrive. And that would be the entire point.
Destinations aren't important, man. We all end up in the same place.