feature by Brittany Matter, originally published in IMAGE+ #15
What is this childlike language, this playground of vocabulary that builds the ANGELIC world unto itself? What are these technologically advanced sea creatures; these flying monkeys reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz? What are their religious beliefs and political structures? How is this impossible world, drawn with clean lines and colored with vibrant tones of pink and purple, relatable?
These are the questions I found myself asking while reading through the first half of ANGELIC #1 by Simon Spurrier and Caspar Wijngaard. Their use of language piqued my curiosity from the first page. I wanted to learn and understand it, and because of that, I couldn’t see where the story was going. Simple exclamations like “poop,” “playplan,” and “nobedient” take the place of everyday words like “shit,” “strategy,” and “disobedient.” Then there are Shakespeare-esque phrases like, “Verily I too hath prayed for prey” or "Are thou not perky?" Altogether, the whimsical approach to conversation invited me to be a part of the world in a different way—where I had to learn their language, which is approachable, to exist with them in their world.
The foundation Spurrier and Wijngaard lay with their creative tongue-in-cheek dialogue and make-believe color palette supported my suspension of disbelief. Their dominant hues evoke the innocence of childhood: a bright, untainted, and energetic universe of possibilities that helped draw me into the animated storyline. The combination of the youthful language and glowing ambiance allowed me to become distracted and vulnerable to surprise. It wasn’t until about halfway through the issue that I experienced an emotion outside of joy.
I felt disgust. Disgust at what occurs in the human and animal kingdoms. Seen through the eyes of one of the characters, the fear of the future is palpable, which hints that this tale might be a coming-of-age story. Almost every creature in the book has some sinister aspect lurking beneath the joy, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, suggesting that this story is also about overcoming a monster or that tragedy awaits those caught unprepared. It’s too soon to predict the genre, which kept me intrigued and questioning—in the same way we all rubberneck toward car accidents and world issues.
The first issue slowly builds up to the conflict, and then once it hits, it’s a ton of bricks. But then it keeps going. The creep-factor elevates with the introduction of a creature I know and love but now see in a whole new light. Also, when it comes to some of the more ominous characters, they each have a digital or cyborg enhancement about them, which is captivating and could indicate ANGELIC is all about nature versus technology. I found myself wondering how they got this way; did humans do this to them, but wait, are there humans in this story? The one million questions burning a hole in my head seem endless after only 25 pages.
Spurrier and Wijngaard successfully captured my attention in a way I didn’t expect and also reminded me why I read comics. I read comics to enter worlds outside my own; to see through another’s eyes and learn something about storytelling, myself, or other people’s experiences; to expand my mind. Like in Tron when Kevin Flynn enters the Grid for the first time, he’s pulled into this digital landscape that’s familiar yet foreign and intriguing, and he wants to keep going and explore. ANGELIC makes me feel like a young Flynn navigating a new world with limitless potential.
Though, Flynn sees the danger of his nemesis’s creation, the Master Control Program, and that’s where ANGELIC made me think deeply about world issues like the possible threat of artificial intelligence. It makes me consider what could happen in the not-too-distant future, not just with humans and AI, but also the applications with animals, which is also terrifying when thinking the worst of technology—that it could advance beyond our control. As you can see, this story jettisons my mind’s eye to faraway places, and yet holds it with its unexpected twists and turns.
Considering the conflicts, the different tribes of creatures, and the somewhat hokey religions introduced so far within issue one, it makes me question something else about the story: Who or what is Angelic? Is it the protagonist or who they meet along the way? I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out!
BRITTANY MATTER: The different ways the characters communicate are almost characters in themselves. How did you go about developing the dialect for the clans?
SIMON SPURRIER: It all flows pretty neatly from the more important bedrock stuff, I think. Character, world, theme. Once that’s all in place, the surface-flourishes like slang and syntax come naturally.
For instance, in our story the main tribe of “monks”—they’re a clan of winged monkeys who live on skyscraper rooftops, because of course they do—have created this adorable sort of cargo-cult society out of the ruins of bygone human civilizations. They’re naive, trusting, simple...but quite cruel and dogmatic. To my mind, that list of ingredients immediately suggests (don’t judge me here) a group of kindergarten kids. So that’s the main vibe in the monks’ slang: this cheeky, childlike patois full of made-up words, crude poop-centric adjectives, and half understood derivations...with the occasional really vicious slur. These guys aren’t dumb, they’re just very like children. Unfortunately they’re like children who’ve inherited some majorly adult responsibilities, living in a world they barely understand.
Other characters and groups have their own guiding voices. From the techno-dolphin “dolts” (I imagine them as these insanely restless Victorian gentlemen, constantly itching to go on a fox hunt) to the mysterious “Mans”, who—in my mind—sound a lot like monied southerners in the Colonel Sanders mold.
SPURRIER: We’re just superkeen that above all else, this story should be a fun, accessible adventure. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of meaty thematic stuff going on just below the surface, which I think will appeal to fans of Caspar’s and my other work. Religion, culture, storytelling, eco-awareness, all that stuff. In one sense, we’re channelling a Watership Down sort of vibe: kid-friendly in a forward-facing way, but with a lot of adult ideas lurking below for those who care to see them.
But, yeah, above all else it’s fun with exploring. A Lumberjanes-ish sort of buzz, which lends itself very well to the tongue-in-cheek dialogue you mention. I’ve often described ANGELIC as being “Watership Down meets Wall-E”, and I like to think there’s more than a smidge of that Pixar magic in its genes. It’s got something for all ages, if we’re doing it right.
MATTER: Does ANGELIC's world have humans? Do they speak like us?
SPURRIER: Haha, that’s a leading question. I guess without going too far into the backstory, let alone the story itself, we can say that it’s central to the belief system of our plucky young heroine Qora that “the Makers”—that’s her name for humanity—have left the earth and gone to the stars. Her people, the monks, have built this whole complex cosmology around being left behind during the human evacuation of the planet. They believe that as long as they live good lives and perform their duties on time, the Makers will return to reward them.
Sadly for Qora, part of living “a good life” involves settling down, no longer going exploring, and eventually becoming a mother. Which—in one of those cruel little sci-fi twists—would mean literally losing her wings. She’s horrified by the prospect, and basically runs away to try and avoid it. Even though she knows it makes her a “nobedient”—a heretic in the Makers’ eyes.
MATTER: It seems from the characters that have cybernetic accompaniments that you don't like technology. Is that true?
SPURRIER: No, I love me some tech. There’s no value judgement in any of this stuff in the story per se, only in the ways it’s used.
I mean, without getting too pretentious, there’s a whole conversation to be had about exactly what we mean when we say “technology.” It’s not just shiny gadgets and wi-fi toasters. By any convincing definition of the term, things like language, story, faith, sport, biological intervention, and mathematics are all applicable. Seen in that light, literally everything in ANGELIC is tacitly about technology and its influence on civilization, whether good or bad.
Without giving too much away, there’s a narrow sense in which ANGELIC is actually a story about two competing versions of faith-based culture. On one side, we’ve got the Mans, who typify the sort of “shiny hi-tech gadgetry” you refer to. Theirs is a society defined by convenience. Everything around them exists to make their lives easier, up to and including their concept of god. On the other side, we’ve got the Monks, who are almost totally lacking in functional tool-level tech, but whose entire lives are ruled by the sort of demanding religious doctrine that I will always argue is a transitional social technology—with its own superfluousness built in.
I say there’s a “narrow sense” in which ANGELIC is about these things because it’s really just the backdrop against which Qora and her companion The Complainer go off and have adventures.
MATTER: How do you feel about nature vs. technology and the applications of artificial intelligence?
SPURRIER: See above, really. On a long enough timeline, nature is just a grand and grotesquely complex technology of its own, hence the difference between intelligence and artificial intelligence is purely semantic.
In story terms, there’s a rich and surprising back-history to be discovered amidst Qora’s “richules”—a chronicle which explains what truly happened several hundred years ago, why mankind left the Earth, and how (if ever) they might be encouraged to return. And most importantly, whether we really want them to.
But it always, always plays second fiddle to Qora’s very personal journey, and her simple indomitable desire to go and have adventures.
MATTER: Some of the characters, the dolphins for example, are branded with emojis, like pilot call signs. Did they earn these call signs the way military pilots do?
CASPAR WIJNGAARD: The animal species in ANGELIC are, by design, much more intelligent and sophisticated than their previous incarnations. Without treading on spoilers, I think it’s safe to say that it was a long process creating the animals that inhabit this new world, with probably thousands of iterations. Qora and the other species you’ll meet in ANGELIC are the peak of their Makers' tinkering.
Love them or hate them, we as humans have a universal language in emojis. My take is that, in an earlier and more crude era of creating and programing these animals, the Makers would have used symbols and emojis as a way to create interspecies communication, especially in the case of ANGELIC's 8-bit sprites. This way, every animal, no matter the species, would have a base-level understanding of one another.
Most importantly, however, many animals, such as dolphins and a few other creatures you’ll meet throughout the series, lack or have very little in the way of facial expression and can’t express emotion, so utilizing the 8-bit emojis was a neat way to help the reader understand what the character is feeling, not unlike how we would use them today whilst texting.
MATTER: Talk to us about the color palette. What do the colors mean to you, and how do you use them to amplify the story?
CASPAR: I really wanted this to be a visually inviting book. I’m a big fan of Studio Ghibli and wanted to capture a bit of that essence in ANGELIC. I looked for elements in the script where I could possibly take a conventional idea and turn it into something beautiful. As this book is post-apocalyptic, I really wanted to steer clear of the classic tropes.
ANGELIC’s world didn’t end as the result of nuclear fallout, but a toxic gas that lingers on the planet's surface. Above this toxic bed, life continues to flourish with fantastic plants growing amongst the skyscrapers. The sky is also a light pink, probably another result of chemical attacks on the surface affecting the ozone.
Qora and the winged monks are a rainbow of colours. I like to think it’s a by-product of the genetic splicing, where the simpler apes, like the gibbons that open ANGELIC #1, still maintain their original genetic makeup.
Basically, I took any excuse I came across to ramp up the visuals!
MATTER: ANGELIC’s overall aesthetic distinctly feels like a cartoon—the way it moves from panel to panel and the background paintings. Caspar, do you have a design background? How did you two settle on this aesthetic?
CASPAR: I always like to challenge myself and do something unconventional with my art. With my previous IMAGE series, LIMBO, I chose a neon aesthetic to complement its VHS-inflected world, and used stark and contrasting colors that made it feel like you were watching an '80s music video on MTV.
In the case of ANGELIC, I wanted it to feel like a Ghibli or Pixar movie. While drawing and coloring an issue, my process naturally begins to adapt to something more apropos to the story, and it really adhered to the look of their animated features.
ANGELIC was a challenge, and a lot of its design changed whilst drawing issue one. For instance, the painted backgrounds actually came later in the production process. I went back to the first issue after finishing the second and updated a lot of the art to give it a more consistent vision.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever worked on before, and Simon continues to raise the stakes each issue, and I’m totally down with that.
ANGELIC #1 debuts 9/20 and is available for preorder now.
Brittany Matter is a firecracker empath with a deep love for storytelling, ramen, and pour-over coffee, ideally all at the same time. You are most likely to find her immersed in a graphic novel, writing over cocktails, or looking after the people she loves. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.