Sean McKeever Returns to the Coming-of-Age Epic in the Introspective Sci-Fi Adventure, Outpost Zero
July 25, 2018 | By Hillary Brown
Throughout a robust comics career that began in 1997 when he was just 25, writer Sean McKeever has exercised a deep capacity to explore and elevate the inner humanity of any character. Ranging from his reimagining of Spider-Man stories from the perspective of a teenage girl (Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) to pulling an alternate universe narrative down to earth (Nomad: Girl Without a World), McKeever has articulated his gift for summoning three-dimensional characters within a few pages. His new science-fiction bildungsroman, Outpost Zero, is no exception. Set in a cosmos where humanity lives within a giant bubble to survive, the new series, illustrated by Alexandre Tefenkgi and colored by Jean-Francois Beaulieu, doesn’t fall into the genre trap of obsessing over technicalities. Instead, McKeever zooms straight to reckless teenage behavior—a universal point of empathy no matter the planet. For the two protagonists of Outpost Zero, Alea and Steven, this disobedience involves testing the gravity fields at the edge of their biome, resulting in some broken bones and burgeoning dreams.
Though the veteran scribe can channel restless 14-year-olds with surgical precision, McKeever didn’t quite embrace the rebellion of his characters in his teens; instead, he sold comics out of his parents' hardware store. “We had a bookstore, the grocery stores, and that was it for comics in the little town I was raised in. So at 14, I got a gently used magazine rack, put it at the end of the housewares aisle and started up my own reseller account. That four-foot rack became about 150 square feet nearly a decade later.”
McKeever also says he learned to read at a young age because he was impatient with having comics read to him. He wanted to read them for himself and proceeded rapidly to write his own. That drive eventually resulted in the creation of The Waiting Place, a realistic fiction comic about teens waiting to blossom from a small Wisconsin town (McKeever is also a native of the state), published by Slave Labor Graphics. McKeever launched the project when he was 25, and quickly spread his wings through a series of projects spanning multiple publishers and national superhero properties.
In Outpost Zero, McKeever sets up the titular locale as another holding pen, containing kids who yearn to see a wider world and grown-ups who are more aware of the fragility of existence. The comic choreographs that tension beautifully: if parents helicopter too close, they rob their offspring of survival skills. If they stay too far away, they might doom their progeny. Outpost Zero captures that balancing act even as it focuses primarily on the adolescents. The very real danger outside the outpost (a frozen environment incapable of supporting human life) serves as a stand-in for the more amorphous dangers of leaving home, and the pioneer setting escalates the potential drama inherent in any small community where young people chafe against their ordained roles. This friction also works on a bigger stage. Alea’s parents spearhead the Discovery Team, a group devoted to exploring possibilities outside of the biome’s artificial support. Other members of the colony, adults and kids alike, balk at the department’s existence, protesting that the risk of progress jeopardizes the safety of maintaining.
Per his fascination with that stage of life, McKeever says he’s attracted to the teenage bracket's “heightened emotive states,” adding, “It's also that you're still something of a stem-cell person at that point. You're not set in your ways; there are all these quantum possibilities, and you've got your whole life ahead of you. That's a great vehicle for storytelling.”
When the Bubble Bursts
Outpost Zero features the kind of strong ensemble cast that has remained a hallmark throughout McKeever’s output: the aforementioned risk-taking lead, Alea, and her more cautious and empathetic friend, Steven, clear-eyed and pragmatic Lyss (whose career aptitude test marks her future in sanitation, much to her parents’ anger), arrogant Mitchell, and thoughtful, burdened Sam. “It almost always starts with one character, the one who sets me off looking for a world for them to inhabit,” McKeever explains. "It's all usually a very instinctive process, and whatever it is I write in their one-line character bios gets tweaked along the way as they reveal themselves to me.”
In the debut issue, the characters hint at a profound depth that will unfold over future issues, leaving McKeever the room to dive deep into the yearnings, regrets, and dreams that wind throughout their psyches. The writer also layers what can only be described as a rehabilitative tendency, in which the most dislikable characters surprise the reader with their newfound complexity. It’s not only a compassionate way to approach worldbuilding, but also a fantastic narrative strategy that leaves space for future intrigue. The same approach also describes how McKeever collaborates with Tefenkgi; the writer provides logical and functional details (the structure of the biome) while leaving plenty of room for the artist to explore and play.
One device in McKeever’s work that’s present in Outpost Zero is his novel positioning of characters out of frame, or focusing on atmospheric elements—tree branches floating above the lunching ensemble, swings swaying on a playground. McKeever describes the method as a way to provide not only a sense of place, but also a "poignant sense of dissonance from the conversation going on.” In other words, this approach forces the reader to focus on the dialogue and draws attention to the images because they’re notably different. It does what comics should do: make your brain work on two levels at once and consider how they relate to each other.
Though McKeever briefly worked with the publisher in 2003, collaborating with Image and the Skybound imprint has allowed McKeever to be more deeply involved with Tefenkgi than he was with artists while working on company-owned properties—even if his new collaborator is halfway around the world in Vietnam. McKeever says they’ve mostly done business through email, walking through everything with both the Skybound editorial team and Beaulieu, whose mix of warm and cool serves the story’s setting and emotional tone well. The resulting comic offers a grand metaphor in its premise, asking what barriers—physical and emotional—hold a captivating group of kids from realizing their futures and themselves. Only upcoming issues will reveal which ones break out into the wild cosmic unknown, promising the deep-rooted introspection and catharsis that McKeever has made synonymous with his name.
Outpost Zero #1 is out now.