John Layman & Afu Chan Venture into a Sci-Fi Horror Abyss for Outer Darkness

That double meaning defines the new sci-fi horror comic written by John Layman, illustrated by Afu Chan, and lettered by Pat Brosseau. Published under Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint, the new ongoing follows the personal quest of Captain Joshua Jerome Rigg in an intricately crafted series where the dangers of space are more demonic than cosmic. The ensuing experience is like Star Trek aged in a barrel of holy water.

Rigg frequently sidesteps—or outright obliterates—the chain of command. He’d rather save lives than follow protocol: in the debut issue, out November 7th, Rigg saves a damned soul ordered as a sacrifice to the God Engine, a trapped Sumerian deity that fuels Rigg’s ship, the Charon. Layman describes Rigg as a grizzled amalgamation both classic and tragic—“Captain Picard by way of Captain Ahab and Colonel Kurtz.”

Rigg anchors the first several issues, but Outer Darkness is an ensemble comic that spotlights many members of a varied cast that includes intriguingly named characters, such as Lead Mathematician Willits and Chief Exorcist Reno—plus the mysterious Rochelle, the personal object of Rigg’s quest... if not his employer’s. “I have a backstory for every single character,” Layman explains, hinting at a vast scope for his new comic.

If a Starfleet captain with an ongoing mission sounds familiar, Layman doesn’t run away from the Star Trek comparison: he’s a longtime fan, and revisiting the series helped inspire this comic.

“I hadn’t watched Next Generation since it came out,” Layman says. “I had a period where I was on the treadmill every day, and I said I’m going to rewatch [Next Generation and Deep Space Nine]. So I started rewatching that, and I started getting ideas for my own kind of Star Trek book. And I like horror, and I like Asian horror, and I regard Event Horizon really highly—more than it deserves. It’s not that good a movie, but the ideas are there. Every space-horror movie I see, I like, but it doesn’t seem like it’s a very popular genre. It’s a genre that deserves more. So I wanted to fuse the two.”

Layman knows how to make a comic that doesn’t fit in a traditional box. His classic Chew (co-created with artist Rob Guillory) is a sci-fi-police-procedural-conspiracy-thriller-comedy with a buffet of superpowered folks. The specificity of Chew’s world is reflected in its distinctive rules and vocabulary, especially with words for bizarre superpowers such as cibolinguist (someone who can speak the language associated with whatever they’re cooking) and pederexplodier (someone whose farts are explosive to the point of being a weapon).

“Etymology was always my thing,” Layman says. “Those were always my favorite English classes, figuring out root words and shit when I was an English major in school.”

In Outer Darkness, Layman’s coinages are less scholarly, but reminiscent of the wild inventiveness of Jack Kirby creations, such as Boom Tubes, Mega-Rods, and Moebius Chairs. Every page, and sometimes every panel, introduces a new gizmo or concept, such as the aforementioned God Engine, ecto-shields, necro-storms, and the valuable substance Vyeradium. The vocabulary scaffolds and teases a world that’s easy to get lost in.

As for the Outer Darkness mythology, Layman explains that “basically, there’s no God. There’s no Satan. There’s no heaven. There’s no hell. When you die, your spirit just flies out there. And everything that’s ever lived in the universe that’s died is out there in space, and it’s corrupt, and it gets angry, and there are old Gods.”

The good news is that resurrection can reunite spirit with body. The bad news is that unless you’re well-insured and/or high-ranking, no ship is going to bother retrieving your soul from the abyss.

“Let’s say you’re a private, and you die,” Layman says. “The Galactic Service Ship finds your soul within five light years. If you’ve got a five-light-year guarantee, they’re obligated to retrieve you. And of course, the higher rank and the more important you are—if you’re a general—maybe they’ll fly within a billion light years to save you. You earn this through military service or through importance, whether they’re going to bring you back. And I figure with this technology, you can live forever on Earth and grow a new body or whatever on a planet, but if you get killed, your soul gets strewn out into space. Basically, space is eternal hell.”

Finding an artist to depict this journey through the inky expanse—which Layman has been working on since the latter days of Chew—was a process. But Afu Chan’s lively, cartoony approach brings Layman’s intricate plans to life via art that recalls Jack Kirby’s interstellar creativity. Chan makes the comic live and breathe and haunt.

Layman compares the collaboration with Chan to his other spontaneous partnerships: “Some things I work on are a lot more loose. With Sam Kieth, he wants a very loose plot with dialogue, and then he paces it as he sees fit. With Leviathan and Nick Pitarra, I write a page with three panels, and it comes back with five panels. He draws what I ask, but he paces everything differently. So it’s more loose.”

Outer Darkness is like Chew in that it’s more ambitious. I’m picturing it as a novel, so I’m planting seeds, and every line and every panel counts. Like Rob Guillory, Afu draws precise to the script. But he still surprises me with his angles… It’s not like he’s tied up and doesn’t have freedom, but it’s as close to my script being realized as anything since Chew.”

Layman has planned a lengthy comic bound to run for years, but, he clarifies, “In theory, this thing could go on forever.” That would be good news for readers, but bad news for the denizens of Layman and Chan’s chaotic universe, where talismans and exorcists are as necessary as spacesuits and warp drives. Sci-fi and horror have seldom paired so well.

Outer Darkness #1 releases in comic book stores on November 7, 2018.