feature by Brittany Matter, originally published in IMAGE+ magazine
Welcome to Ana and Gabe’s Space Van! Drop some froot, fly high, and spout your newest drug-induced revelations. Your pilots today are Ryan O’Sullivan & Plaid Klaus of the highly successful graphic novel Turncoat. My name is Brittany Matter, and I’ll be your flight attendant this month. This spaced-out journey is brought to you by VOID TRIP, where there are no promises on getting to the promised land!
BRITTANY MATTER: Tell us who we meet in the first issue of VOID TRIP #1, why you chose anthropomorphic aliens, and who your favorite character is so far.
RYAN O’SULLIVAN: In issue one, we meet Ana and Gabe, the last two members of the human race. They’re space hobos, more concerned with getting high on space froot, partying, and slowly making their way towards the hippie-paradise planet Euphoria than they are about...I dunno...fighting evil or exploring the cosmos or whatever it is humans are supposed to do in sci-fi stories. And this is the core of our comic. It’s about two people who just want to be free to do what they want in a universe that, much like ours, will absolutely not let them. The choices they make when confronted with these limitations, and the implications of those choices, should resonate with a lot of people today. So many of us feel like life is out of our control and is passing us by. This comic looks to answer what would happen if you decided to do something about it.
My favorite character is Ana without a shadow of a doubt. I know she’s fictional, but she feels like one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. (And I'm not sure Klaus & I can take credit for creating her. She seems to have a life of her own sometimes.) She's not a role model in the slightest—she's a self-centered, hedonistic, froot addict. But something about her really touches the core of what it means to be human. I don't think I've ever written a character so painfully honest before.
I also have a soft spot for Great White, the nameless (until this interview, I suppose) villain chasing our heroes across the stars. He is very different from our bohemian protagonists. He’s all Old Testament, brimstone and fire. Bouncing between him and Ana was a lot of fun. It helped vary the tone of the story. It also helped avoid the story being a one-note “oh no look at Ana’s zany antics” story, which it very easily could have been.
PLAID KLAUS: The VOID TRIP universe needed to be filled with a barrage of bizarre anthropomorphic creatures, but they all need to appear capable of interfacing with each other. Each set of characters has their own distinct cultures pollinating the atmosphere. This cultural clash of characters is a parallel to the experience of living in New York. Walking down the right city street, you can quickly feel like an outsider inside a microcosmic group of street vendors; however, you can still make a capitalist exchange with the federal papers in your pocket. I really wanted aliens who felt strange, but in a realm that Ana and Gabe could walk through and still navigate and interface with.
This is best expressed in the space bar scene where my personal favorite character, Hitch, is introduced. Ryan described him as a sleazy tentacled alien "used car salesman.” The choice for four arms, as well as the placement of his tentacles, were narrative style choices that come into play involving his character arc (which I don’t want to spoil). All I can say is my design choices are always centered around how the visuals interplay with the reader on a subliminal level to reinforce a story's impact.
MATTER: These characters are on a pilgrimage to the promised land, and on their way, drugs, aka froot, are seemingly a revelatory companion. What kind of adventures are ahead for the two sometimes high space hobos?
O'SULLIVAN: I think “sometimes sober” might be a more accurate description of our duo. Originally, we’d conceived of VOID TRIP to be an all-ages story about space hippies taking drugs. We then realised that probably wasn’t going to fly, but by that point we’d committed fully to the idea of psychedelic space froot as a key part of the series. Froot will get our heroes into a lot of trouble and out of a lot of trouble. But at no point do we say whether that’s a good thing or not. And I think that’s important. In the real world, drugs can be the gateway to enlightenment or the path to ruin. We had to be careful not to play with people's pain for our own amusement. This is a story about two hippies who just so happen to rarely be sober. The froot is just part of the journey, man.
KLAUS: The psychedelic froot is a great metaphor because it's sweet, like candy; a taste can give you a temporary state of ecstasy, but too much will make you sick and crash.
Drugs are merely the opening of a doorway on the path to enlightenment, but the road beyond those doors in unknown. It can be an elevator to enlightenment or a trapdoor that leaves you in the gutter rambling about how aliens are monitoring your brain through microchip implants (...definitely not speaking from experience).
The point is, part of this story is about the dream of living in a perpetual state of euphoria. The path to the eternal enlightened state, the journey of the Fool card in the tarot, these are the mirages of the promise land. What does it mean to seek perfection in an imperfect world? Our heroes are destined for the failures of all those dazed and confused humans seeking the Godhead.
MATTER: VOID TRIP evokes some religious/hippie stoner vibes. What inspired you to put free-spirited Ana and Gabe in outer space?
O'SULLIVAN: In this era of big brother, GPS, and greater interconnectivity online...where else can we get lost but space? Sci-fi is great for tackling large social ideas and problems through the lens of genre fiction. VOID TRIP takes inspiration from everywhere: 1960s counterculture, Easy Rider, Thelma & Louise, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Charles Bukowski’s Post Office. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. As an English dude living in the United Kingdom, I wanted to take a snapshot of the USA across the ages. I wanted to take a look at its belly and see what it honestly was, and then stick a knife in it.
KLAUS: It’s a road trip in the final frontier. The hippies don’t have anywhere else to explore; there is no more “Going West” to San Francisco or “Going East” to India. All esoteric paths have been plumbed and lackadaisically posted to internet forums, their original source diluted and the alchemical powers of their former occult teachings mutated for the sake of easy digestion. Basically, the mystical goods, on this planet, have been bought and sold by every snake oil salesman wearing whatever robes required.
Ryan’s concept of taking the open road to the stars was pretty inspiring to me honestly. The genius of the story is that you can't escape the mechanizing construct of the Universe. Even in the vastness of space, you run into the same problems you’d encounter on Earth. Can a microcosmic element find balance and freedom in the impermanent macrocosm? In a reality where creation and destruction are the universal inhalation and exhalation, can the spirit ever be free? Space can be seen as an infinite trip or an empty void.
MATTER: Tell us about the religious trinkets and shrines in the background. What’s a Silver Husk?
O'SULLIVAN: Following our two heroes is an all-white, all-powerful, man dressed head to toe in white. Some say he is Moby Dick, last God of the human race. Some say he is the demiurge, chasing down the last remnants of his broken creation. Some say he is a bounty hunter, hunting the last two members of an almost-extinct species. Some say he is a Cormac McCarthy villain shoehorned into a Hunter S. Thompson novel. Some people talk too much. Some people should look for clues. That’s what the trinkets are.
KLAUS: Symbols have their own language. To those with eyes: "let them see."
All I can say is, there are deep rabbit holes out there, both in ancient texts (which you can reserve from the NYC library), and believe it or not, on the internet you can score some amazing occult literature. If you buy me a drink sometime, I will be happy to further elaborate on a slurred rant involving John Dee and Edward Kelley.
MATTER: How are Ana and Gabe the last two humans in the galaxy? Will VOID TRIP explore what happened to the rest of humanity? If not, will the story delve into how the characters feel about being the last of their kind?
O'SULLIVAN: We never explore this. This story is about Ana and Gabe as individuals. Humanity is just another thing that held them back. Heck, humanity is dead, and these two are passing the fire on to the next generation, whoever that might be.
KLAUS: Let's not try to point fingers and name names here. Does the monolith on the moon really monitor the Earth? Is HARP really designed to alter the Earth’s atmosphere? Does the CERN large hadron collider really open a portal to a demonic dimension full of mechanistic sentient life that is slowly embedding its silicon tendrils into organic matter?
I couldn't tell you...I'm actually not allowed to. I can't tell you how your species will destroy themselves; all I can ask is, would you be that surprised?
I promise the last humans alive will be experiencing major feels.
O'SULLIVAN: Word. This comic is the last will and testament of the human race. Actually, scrap that. It’s a suicide note.
MATTER: How did you two go about designing and building this world? I’m curious how y’all work together to assemble the cast and execute the art direction.
O'SULLIVAN: We conceived of this together. So the visual side of the story was woven into the narrative from the story’s fetal stages. I think this makes for a better comic than me simply writing a series of scripts and then handing them over to an artist. Klaus is my sounding board, editor, and muse. His art in one issue would regularly inform narrative decisions in later issues. Comics isn’t just collaborative, it’s symbiotic. (Like Venom!)
KLAUS: Indeed, a comic creative team is symbiotic; however, it's a parasitic trinity. The muse is the creature trying to break through. The creators are merely the vessels that let it hatch.
As for the creation details: Ryan throws out awesome descriptive forms and then lets me run it through my mind’s visual filters. He gets inspired by stuff I throw at him, and then he lays on more ideas. Back and forth it goes. We kinda mold the thing together like that scene in the movie Ghost. I feel like his disembodied presence is right there with his hands in the clay...sigh. Sorry, things just got weird.
MATTER: VOID TRIP feels like a mashup of the desert wastelands in Mad Max and the endless universe of futuristic Star Trek with the crass, honest unpredictability of the characters in Firefly. Will this story echo a vision of our collective human future, or is it an alternate sci-fi world that’s based in fantasy? What films or comics would you compare VOID TRIP to?
O'SULLIVAN: I’ve already mentioned films above, but it’s worth saying again. Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise are massive influences. As for comics, I’m not sure VOID TRIP is really all that similar to other comics on the shelves. We took a lot of inspiration from the works of Sean Murphy, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, and Geof Darrow–but that was more in a storytelling/art sense. In terms of the core of VOID TRIP, I’d have to say it’s pretty unique.
That said, if you’re a comics retailer hand-selling it, you could probably get away with saying it’s “Guardians of the Galaxy meets X” and replace X with any of the other influences I’ve mentioned here.
KLAUS: My favorite comics mix dark humor with serious existential dread. Get the reader comfortable with some lighthearted laughs then lure them into the depths of life's true despair. If they're lucky, you give them some light at the end of the tunnel.
To break it down, think Rick and Morty meets Daytripper. Although that sounds like a Frankenstein’s monster, trust me, it's a fun ride.
MATTER: What realistic elements will ground the reader in this sky-high journey?
O'SULLIVAN: I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This comic isn’t a comedy, it’s a tragedy. But you can't tell readers that outright. They want laughs and escapism. So, we’re luring people in with cartoony art, jokes, and general tomfoolery, only to pull the rug out from under all of their feet in the latter issues with hard-hitting emotional moments and existential dread. Because that’s what really makes a story hit home, no matter how farcical—the truth. Anytime a novel, film, or song really connects with us and changes who we are, that’s what grounds us as readers. If a story can't connect us to something honest, what's the point of it?
KLAUS: It’s still just a journey about life. You can’t escape the inevitable truths we all face, even in the outer reaches of the Universe.
You can trip for a while, escape the confines of your situation, but eventually you have to come back down. Euphoria is the dream goal, but what happens when you reach your dreams and life feels the same? There are certain essential facts of life that everyone must confront. As fun as the trip may be, at some point it will end. If you stare into the void of the abyss long enough, it stares back. Ultimately, do you shriek in horror, or do you mirror back that crooked smile?
MATTER: My favorite artistic element so far is the gas station sign on page two. What were some of your inspirations for the art direction?
KLAUS: I’ve been digging through retro references alongside futuristic designs. I sketch both, let them meld in my neural soup, then I’ll free sketch from the new synapses formed.
MATTER: What are some of your favorite things to draw, and what’s most difficult to tackle in this story?
O'SULLIVAN: I can't comment on the drawing, Klaus did all of that. But the most difficult part of the story for me was bleeding onto the page. It's very easy in genre comics to just create a by-the-numbers tropefest story and wow readers by playing with the form a bit. Comics is full of formalists right now who're doing exactly that. What's hard is writing a story that means something. Finding something that needs to be said, but that will appeal to readers regardless of their political persuasion. Making stories is easy. Making honest stories is impossible.
KLAUS: I love to draw tentacles—not sure what it is about them that is so fascinating. Maybe Cthulhu has worked his way into my brain. Something about the way they move, the tangled forms twisting and spiraling, it’s just great.
The most difficult challenge so far was avoiding the standard traps of modern sci-fi (overtly complicated, decorative and intricate technology). Luckily, the aesthetics of the era we’re evoking is mostly known for its minimalist design sense. I love the retro futuristic callback.
Fun fact, the Space Van is modeled after a US mail truck because that is an object from the ‘50s era that I feel resonates even today.
VOID TRIP #1 debuts 11/22 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.