Any teenager will tell you that one superpower they'd most like to have is to read someone else's thoughts - but what if you and two others were psychically-connected and could read each other's thoughts... with nothing off limits?
That's all coming, thanks to a god-like alien and the new BOOM! Studios' limited series Alienated. Writer Simon Spurrier and artist Chris Wildgoose have been wanting to work together for nine years, and this is their chance to explore something that hits both of their strengths.
With the six-issue series debuting this Wednesday, Alienated's creators spoke with Newsarama about the unique visual narrative tools the team used to explore the internal monologue of their lead teens, and the precautions taken to allow this 'coming of age' tale to stand the test of time while still diving into today’s internet culture.
Newsarama: Simon, how did you come up with the concept for Alienated?
Simon Spurrier: That's a very good question. I’ve been quite interested for a very long time in, what would happen if a person had the means to change the world and more importantly what would that do to that person? I kind of got to thinking about specifically how that might take a teenage mind. And I guess the sort of inspiring element here is the sort of extinction rebellion stuff that's going on, certainly here in the United Kingdom and in the wider world as well.
It just struck me that of all the people who would have the biggest ideas about how to change the world it would probably be the youth, and they would be a spectrum of opinion about whether or not they were right or wrong in the things they wanted to do. But there's just something really fascinating in saying what would an angry, opinionated, and angst ridden teenager, like most of us were when we were teenagers, what would that person do if they were suddenly able to do anything?
They might think that they only have the best of intentions, but how quickly would that spiral out of control? And I ended up thinking about science fiction stories that involve children and the obvious one of ET. So, the obvious starter question was what would have happened if the kid in ET hadn't been a little well-adjusted goody two shoes with his heart in the right place, but already conflicted, frankly, quite unpleasant teenager.
That’s sort of the starting point and from there we introduced a couple of extra, frankly, quite unpleasant teenagers, which made it a lot more complicated and more nuanced. And the alien became much more - well alien in the real sense. This isn't just a little green guy who looks and talks like a person, but something genuinely ineffable and unknowable and a little bit godlike. And yeah, that's where we're at - a story about these three extremely complicated, very likable, but also quite unlikable at times. In other words, just very real young people dealing with some extremely big questions and ambitions and problems.
Nrama: You were discussing influences from the UK, how do you think an American audience can relate to this and vice versa how do you think this story can be special for someone growing up in the UK?
Spurrier: I think it's just a question of trying to be as broad in appeal as possible. We're lucky that, where as Chris Wildgoose and I are both Brits, we've got an awful lot of very smart people from all over the world, most especially from the United States on the team. Especially our editor, Eric Harburn, to guide us so that there's just enough verisimilitude in the stuff going on in the day to day in the characters lives, but nobody's going to stop and say, that feels a bit too British or that feels a bit too American.
It’s essentially set in the U.S. - it's very much a small town America story, but the trick is the seeds are universal enough that any kid who has been to any school around the world should recognize what is going on.
Nrama: Chris, how did you approach the look for the series?
Chris Wildgoose: Not in any unusual, specific way. It's weird to say I just kind of do my thing on it really. It's collaborating with the colorist, Andre May, really gives it a different flavor to anything I've done before because he tends to have quite a high sense of colors I would probably use the go for. Just general look, I don't know.
I'd say that it's a sort of massive what me, Si, Eric, and Andre all alike together because we collaborate and throw ideas around and stuff quite a lot. I certainly go to see what they like first and hear feedback through the whole team. General look – it’s just my style.
Nrama: How did you approach the character designs?
Chris Wildgoose: We nailed the designs for the kids on the head straight out of the box.
Spurrier: It was pretty much immediately.
Wildgoose: I think it was just tweaking hairstyles. Then we came up with the whole color coordination thing. Like Samuel is blue, Samir is read, and Samantha is green. That’s just hinted a bit with their clothes a little bit. And then Andre put in some influence on that for the general colors. And I think I did like six designs for Chip and then I think Si and Eric liked the one – is it a spoiler to say that he changes?
Spurrier: I don’t think so.
Wildgoose: He sort of evolves as the book goes on. I think you and Eric liked this design. It wasn’t intended to be the second stage of what he looked like. It was just a general design and then you were like this can be what he looks like later on. I sort of adapted a design as a go between one.
Spurrier: Quite early on in the story, there's a sort of mask motif that starts to slowly emerge. There’s a lot of thematic stuff about people not being who they appear. A lot of Chip’s early designs, which is the alien just if that's not clear, utilize, without it being obvious, this mask the middle where they’re constantly evolving and shifting aesthetic of the alien.
As I said before, we wanted our little green man to not just be a little green man, but to be something where you really don't quite know what you're getting. When you look at it, it does change, and one of the themes, obviously, at the center of any story about children is going to be rights of passage and how they respond to the idea of growing up. And, of course, that’s reflected in our alien and he will change. We gradually realize he is on a journey to a very specific place and, how his journey relates to the children who thinks that he's theirs is part of the unfolding drama.
But I will very quickly, jam on what Chris mentioned about color because it's super cool and it's one of the USTs I'm proudest of in this book, which is we have as a result of Chris’ amazing character designs, we sort of realized that we weren't just dealing with one really interesting character and a couple of sidekicks, but three fully-formed teenagers and we wanted to get into their heads and hear their thoughts. But to do that - becomes extremely complicated and extremely confusing if you’re yammering away with three separate internal monologues at once.
So, we've kind of wrote in every element of our collaborative team. It's not just me and Chris, it's also Andre on color and Jim Campbell doing letters to come up with so many cool tricks. Chris mentioned the obvious one, which is that we assigned a color to each of these kids and it's subtly there at all times. So, each of the kids went out without having a superhero uniform - they each got elements of their design and elements of their clothing, which speaks to a particular color. And that color relates to the tone used for their lettering whenever they are thinking. So, when we're hearing the thoughts of the character called Samuel, it's in blue and we hit a thoughts of Samantha it’s in green and so on.
That just lets us muddle things up in such a way that it's not going to confuse the audience, and when very quickly in our story, these three kids become telepathically entangled, spoiler, we are able to figure out who's thinking what and it doesn't become overwhelming. That’s something I'm always keen to talk about because it's just so wonderful to be able to say we are using color and letters as narrative tools rather than just window dressing.
Nrama: You instill internet culture in your debut. Why do you feel like this was important to add to a coming of age story, especially a 2020 coming of age story?
Spurrier: You've got to have that verisimilitude. If you are trying to speak to a teenager today and you have a story which doesn’t touch upon interconnectivity and don't touch upon the immediacy of being able to publish one's own thoughts and views and face. Then you’re doing a disservice to a fairly major part of the culture.
In fact, we lean into it, one of the big emerging themes is about that entitlement. It's about the fact that I suspect a whole generation is being raised in the mistaken belief that they are entitled to be listened to and that's going to cause an awful lot of psychic trauma down the line when people realize that in our current world, anyone can hit publish, but not necessarily is anybody listening. That’s going to cause some heartache.
Anyway, that's all stuff that interested in, but the big problem is not so much whether or not to include technology but how to make it time proof. Because if somebody reads Alienated today, that probably recognize it as happening in 2020, but if somebody reads it in 2030, let's hope it's still on a shelf somewhere and people are still reading it. We don't want it to look hopelessly outdated. So, it's avoiding any super specific terminology and making the point in the comics that a lot of this stuff will be obsolete very quickly. It's got its own obsolescence built in, but the principle, which is that there are no middle men anymore, there's no publishers. There's nobody controlling the content. There's just influences in waiting as content creators, that's all people are now that I think is here to stay and that will hopefully stand the test of time.
Nrama: How did you both connect for this story?
Spurrier: Are we married? Yeah, a long time couple. [Laughs]
Wildgoose: I personally remember the first time I got in touch. We met before this but in person, but the first time he asked me to work on a book, I think 2011 I remember it was at a convention. Si sent me an email saying we'd really like to work with me. Then, we never really matched up in like timewise or like project timelines to bash heads together on anything. And, and then this is the first time, wasn't it? I think.
Spurrier: Yeah, I’ve wanted to work with Chris since Porcelain, which is an extraordinary book.
Wildgoose: Thanks. You've been in the comic scene longer than I have, so I've read Si stuff before he read mine. I've always just been a fan of Si’s stuff and he’s always worked with artists I’ve really liked as well. It was just perfect timing schedule wise.
Spurrier: And I think Eric knew that I wanted to work with Chris for a long time. So, we were just waiting for the opportunity and, of course, it's one of the privileges of being a writer as opposed to being an artist, but I can be working on several projects at once and I get to work with a lot more amazing artists than any individual artist gets to work with amazing writers. It really was just serendipitous that we were both free and had this idea at the same moment.
Wildgoose: Yeah, I think Eric definitely got a big part in pulling us together, as well as always wanting to work with Si I also always wanted to work with Eric, the editor, as well. He’s been hounding me for a couple of years. I think because he knew both Si and me wanted to work together - upon it worked out schedule wise.
Spurrier: He’s worth the wait in gold but go and then I cannot overstate the importance of a great editor and, he has hooked me up with so many incredible artists and he's got this annoying habit of being right about things even when I'm absolutely certain he’s wrong. Yeah, he’s a good guy.
Nrama: How did you decide that you wanted to make this a limited series instead of an ongoing?
Spurrier: That's the sort of question that I could wax lyrical for hours about my personal love affair with the importance of endings. I don't believe a story really matters unless it has an ending.
That’s not to say that all ongoing series are not important. It's just that if I'm going to do an ongoing series, and I've done plenty of them in my time, I have to approach them as a series of modular self-contained stories. And if I do my job correctly, you won't even realize that they're modular. It's just that a certain group of threads that should close and a controlling idea should be satisfied. A question should be answered and then, hey, we can carry on, we can do more. We can continue with a new story that asks a different question or has a different controlling idea, but it's not the same story, that story has ended.
The idea behind Alienated, and I sort of hinted at it earlier when I said that there are destinations to all of these journeys. That story has, I think, a quite defined ending point. That is not to say that we can potentially do more stories and continue on rumbling. That's not something we've really looked into as yet. But for now, all I can say for sure is that this is a six-issue story, which end I think really beautifully and in a sort of bittersweet way. So that if we don't do anymore ever, that will be okay.
Nrama: Why did you feel BOOM! Studios was the perfect place to tell this story?
Spurrier: I’m sure Chris has his own answer, but very briefly from my perspective, I've worked with them enough times now and you will have gleaned from our comments, but we're both big fans of Eric, the editor. They always let me bring my strangest and wildest ideas and they have never failed to find me an incredible artist. They've never failed to direct my ideas in such a way that they become better. They’re just a really resurgent force at the moment. They are doing extremely well. You can take five minutes to Google they're interesting publication strategies at the moment and it's clear that they've got their head screwed on. They know what they're doing. They're not just trying to scattergun product into the market in hopes that something sticks, but being really considerate around curating their line and it's kind of wonderful that Alienated is a part of that.
Wildgoose: Yeah, I'd say exactly the same. My big draw for coming to BOOM! was Eric and Si really because that's where you find them doing their own thing. And after doing two big two sort of books as well - it’s the most indie publisher book while being, a big voice in comics and putting out really good content. It was a no brainer.
Nrama: What do you think fans will enjoy the most about Alienated?
Spurrier: I think the perverse pleasure lies in thinking you know where the story is going, because we're all quite familiar now with young people encountering something weird in the woods and then it goes in directions, in aesthetics, and in slightly psychedelic worlds that we really don't expect. I'm kind of excited, I think issue one stands alone really well to tell the concept that things get truly strange in issue #2 and onwards.
Wildgoose: My biggest tagline for the book is it's not going to go where you think it's going to go. Especially for me issue #3 is like my favorite one so far. I said it to Si when I was working on the layouts for it. That issue #3 is one of the best scripts that I have been given to draw ever. It didn't go where I was expecting to go and four is exactly the same as well. I think it's been a challenging thing for all of us - just on every level the book is just not done the way any of us thought it was going to go. But in a good way.
Spurrier: We’re so used to seeing teenage archetypes in fiction there’s the preppy one, the sultry one, and blah, blah, blah. I think what's kind of wonderful about Alienated is that when you first meet these three kids they’re clearly not just living, breathing stereotypes, but we feel like we get to know them quite quickly. And then over the course of the next few issues, we realized that we really don't know them at all. And they've got really hidden depths. And that's entirely because as we've been working on this, we sort of discovered them as a team other than knowing exactly what was going to happen. And that's a wonderful little voyage of discovery.