Spurrier and Wijngaard on the high-flying animal apocalypse of Angelic

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Aug 14, 2017

There is no end to the visions of the future you can find in science fiction comic books, but you’ve never seen one quite like Angelic.

Debuting next month from Image Comics, Angelic is set in a future that humans have long since been erased from, leaving nothing but ruins and the highly intelligent animals they experimented on in their wake. One such tribe of animals is a group of religious winged monkeys, one of whom, a young girl named Qora, doesn’t feel like staying as grounded as her tribe would like. It’s a world populated by crazed cyber-dolphins and numerous other dangers, and it’s easily one of the most compelling debuts of any comic I’ve read this year.

This fun, thought-provoking, and gorgeously drawn series comes from writer Si Spurrier (The Spire, Godshaper) and artist Caspar Wijngaard (LIMBO, Dark Souls), who were angelic enough to answer a few of my questions about the monkey business of creating the book. So read on for the interview, where they discuss the ideas behind the book, its uniquely colorful look, why dolphins aren’t as nice as you think, and much more. Plus check out a few of the jaw-dropping pages from​Angelic #1 throughout, and be sure to pick it up in all discerning comic book shops on September 20.

For our SYFY WIRE readers who may not have heard of Angelic yet, can you both give your “elevator pitch” for the book?

Si Spurrier: Sure! Super-reductive gross Hollywood version is: It’s WALL-E meets Watership Down with a sprinkling of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Which is to say: It’s a delightful all-ages adventure about sci-fi animals in a post-apocalyptic future, which—just beneath the skin—is also a delicately handled fable about growing up in a repressive culture, religious expectations, and adulthood

The slightly longer version goes like this:

Mankind’s gone. In the poisonous remains of our abandoned planet the only things that even look like civilization are the leftovers of our bad science. That is to say: animals, genetically engineered for a war none of them remember. Cybernetic dolphins, energy-blasting gibbons, and a whole tribe of flying monkeys living on skyscraper rooftops. And that’s just in the first three pages.

Our heroine is Qora—one of those flying monkeys. She’s young, quizzical, brave, curious, rebellious ... so it’s her misfortune to [have] been born in a tribe that punishes all of those things.

All she truly wants is to explore her world and have adventures, but instead there are some horrible things looming on Qora’s horizon. Rites of adulthood, which will literally cost her her wings.

So she flies away. And that’s how our story starts.

Simon, tell me a bit about the genesis of this project. It seems like it has influences from familiar sources—Planet of the Apes and Wizard of Oz spring to mind for obvious reasons—but it’s definitely a completely original setting and tale. Where did the idea for Angelic begin?

SS: It’s super tricky to identify a particular moment. For me ideas aren’t usually things which strike like an asteroid from the void, fully formed, but more like planets: coalescing over a long time from scattered clouds of cosmic dust, solidifying under the force of their own gravity.

I tend to keep a lot of ideas on standby. Some are quite well developed, fully plotted, just waiting for the right artist or publisher to show enough interest that it’s time to start scripting. Others are far more freeform—often just scraps of a world, or a character, or a bundle of preoccupations. In those cases the best thing that can happen is that you find an artist who sets about co-developing the world and the story. That’s what happened with Caspar and Angelic. Of the ideas I pitched him, this was the least-formed, so we’ve watched it solidify together. We’re in this lovely situation now where I honestly can’t define how much of the raw invention comes from my keyboard, and how much from Caspar’s stylus. There are whole plot twists coming down the line based entirely on things Caspar’s unexpectedly drawn. That’s a really exciting state of creative collaboration to be in.

I guess what I’ve always found most compelling about Angelic, as an idea, is that it combines so many of the things I’m most fascinated by—religion, war, science, culture—but deliberately explores them through a filter of childlike wonder. The challenge we set for ourselves was to create a book that can be enjoyed by an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old alike. For the former, it’s a glorious adventure about a brave little animal exploring her world; for the latter, it’s a more layered delve into some timely, progressive themes. We couldn’t be prouder.

Caspar, how did you come on board the project, and how has it evolved as you’ve worked on it and made it your own?

Caspar Wijngaard: Si approached me about a working on a possible creator-owned book at the start of 2016, He sent me three possible project outlines, and the "post-apocalyptic flying monkey adventure" stuck out for me. On paper it was like nothing I had ever tackled creatively, so I was totally up for the challenge. We created a pitch and had the book picked up within the month, I believe. Si really gave me free rein creatively, I like to think he trusted me to do something outlandish.

This book could have easily had a Planet of the Apes-style aesthetic—dark, brooding, and covering all your classic post-Earth tropes.

I wanted the book to take a different approach visually. The world of Angelic is extremely colourful and alive. I'm deep into production on the first arc, and Si just keeps throwing more insane ideas into the mix; it's been a delight to draw, really a dream gig. 

Tell me about how you chose the types of animals that would populate this world. We see both intelligent and unintelligent animals, but will Angelic get into why certain species are the way they are? Does Caspar just really like drawing monkeys and dolphins?

SS: There’s actually an author’s note in Issue #1 with an anecdote about "Why Monkeys." I won’t spoil it—it’s kind of mind-blowing—but the short version is that they’re so very like children. They’re social and vivacious and curious, and often very cruel to one another. And as adults, we look at them with the slightly sideways sense that they’re almost—but not quite—human. As I say: just like children.

Sci-fi’s at its best when it’s giving us a new perspective on a world we recognize. One of the oldest tricks in storytelling is to provide uncomfortable truths “from the mouths of babes.” These innocent attitudes which carry the mark of wonder and truth, no matter what the subject matter. So it is with animals, I think—hence the powerful tales in comics and elsewhere that really resonate: Watership Down, We3, Red Rover Charlie, The Plague Dogs, etc., etc. And in my opinion, especially with monkeys. We can present this frankly quite scary world of ruins and mad science, but because it’s all seen through the eyes of our brave, adventurous, little girlmonk heroine, it takes on the aspect of myth and magic. Angelic’s technically a post-apocalyptic story, but when you take POV into account, it becomes a fable.

The other beauty of using animals as surrogates for a childlike sense of wonder and innocence is that it lends itself so well to the “layered” approach I mentioned above. Young readers can relate to Qora because they recognize her childishness; older readers share her sense of wonder, but have a deeper understanding of things which she—in her naivete—doesn’t fully grasp.

The shorter answer to the above question: winged monkeys are objectively cool.

As for the “dolts” ... I have complicated views regarding dolphins. Readers of some of my more, ah, mature comics work might already know that. The bottom line is that “intelligent” doesn’t have to mean “nice,” and if you do even the slightest bit of research into the ever-photogenic bottlenose dolphin, you’ll realize they’re nature’s biggest bastards. You’ll see that perpetual bloody smile in a whole new light, I assure you.

For Angelic I couldn’t think of any better candidate for the sort of hyper-fast, toffy-nosed assholes I needed. When writing them, I imagine them as Victorian gentlemen, getting frisky in the run-up to a foxhunt. “Sport! Sport! Sport!”

Caspar, your art on this book is stunning. It’s emotive and cartoony, but doesn’t skimp on the detail or world-building. What has been the most rewarding part of creating the world of Angelic so far?

CW: Thank you, it’s great hearing the positive feedback, especially as it was something out of my comfort zone. I love world-building, and Si is fantastic at laying down the foundations of Angelic's world, giving me the space to build upon.

The most rewarding part in terms of creating the book is when it begins to feel cohesive. Issue #1 is always a tight learning curve in any gig, I find, especially creator-owned work. It's a case of finding your voice and giving the world and its inhabitants voices too; once you’re over that hurdle, it’s so much fun to build upon.

The radiant colors of this book really make it stand out, and are the polar opposite of what readers may expect from a “post-apocalyptic” setting. What was the thought process behind the uniquely colorful look?

CW: I've actually been asked about this a few times now, which (I hope) is a sign the direction I chose is the right one.

Basically, I really didn't want to fall into that classic post-nuclear wasteland trope, this book is intended to appeal to all ages, I wanted the world to be less bleak and more inviting. A world worth exploring.

I really appreciated the distinct speech patterns you give to the different species. How do you go about developing them, and how difficult is it to keep them consistent?

SS: Delighted you enjoyed that stuff—thank you. We actually fiddled with the syntax quite a lot while fine-tuning the book. I’m a big believer that language is one of the most powerful tools in a world-builder’s kit, but it can be a double-edged sword. If you’re challenging the reader right out of the gate to “get their ear in”—to immerse themselves in the slang and patois of the characters—whereas it might eventually pay big dividends in how invested those readers become, there’s always going to be a portion of the audience who view it as a hurdle and quit straight away. So the trick is to make it accessible and intuitive while maintaining the uniqueness.

Neologisms come pretty naturally to me. It’s taken me quite a long time to realize that that’s a personal weirdness rather than something universally human. Alan Moore uses speculatively evolved syntax an awful lot in his works—Halo Jones, Crossed +100, the “Lucy Lips” stuff in Jerusalem—and up until lately it always slightly mystified me when other readers complained of it being impenetrable.

My family recently broke out in a rash of New Kids, which frankly only deepened my love for this sort of pluripotent language. Youngsters are amazingly good at mishearing a term but understanding the meaning, and coming up with novel terms to bridge the dissonance. In etymology (he said, putting his nerd hat on) this is called “analogical reformation,” and it’s by no means unique to kids. It’s why, for instance, early English speakers heard Frenchmen saying “écrevisse” and misheard it as “crayfish”—even though crayfish are neither fish nor, um, Cray. There are still whole dialectical groups who refer to “asparagus” as “sparrow grass,” because after an initial mishearing that makes a sort of sense. It’s the same approach with Qora and the monks. Their childlike language has evolved over the centuries to retain meanings, while mutating, contracting, or misusing the words themselves. Hence anything out-of-bounds for them is referred to as “the outer bounds,” while someone naughty is a “nobedient,” and a thoughtless heretic is being “sinfool."

As I say—the difficulty for me isn’t coming up with this stuff, but reining it in, so its occasional rather than constant. I think we’ve hit a really nice balance in the final version. These funny little words the monks sometimes use are always clear, but delightfully poetical.

Interestingly enough, based on some very unscientific market research, young readers have far less trouble with this sort of thing than grownups.

The central theme of the book is about questioning long-held beliefs and your assumptions of reality, something that I think everyone can relate to, to some extent. What makes this story a relatable one to each of you personally?

SS: Everyone’s been a child. Everyone’s seen a world of wonder. And everyone’s had the moment—or moments—that they question everything they’ve been taught. These are pretty universal experiences.

It would be nice to say that Qora’s repressive home-society, with its rather abhorrent attitudes towards females, is just an exaggerated sci-fi version of that same thing: the youth questioning the establishment. But of course we know the world is sadly full of societies—from both edges of the ideological spectrum—who impose their often unhealthy expectations on their youngest members. It sounds weird to say that the experiences of one little monkey with wings could be both universally relatable and extremely timely, but that’s the hope.

CW: I can really relate to Qora's relentless questioning, trying to understand why we/her tribe can often follow thing so mindlessly, to simply do as we're told and never question why. As a teen, I would most definitely have identified myself as an outcast; I was against anything that was considered popular, you know, f*** the system, man (so edge, much cringe). However, I was also incredibly innocent. I've channeled a lot of my teen characteristics into Qora, for better or worse.

There are so many twists and surprises in the first issue alone that I can’t imagine how crazy this book will get in the future. Do you have a set number of issues that you plan to wrap the story in, or will it be an ongoing?

SS: Ongoing! With the standard Spurrier proviso that stories mean precisely nothing unless they have endings. So Angelic will adopt a very modular rhythm: arcs of 5-6 issues, with a distinct controlling idea, which tie off one set of threads while drawing out another.

Finally, which of you is more angelic?

CW: Definitely not me.

SS: I mean … Caspar’s got the sharpest cheekbones in comics, which definitely helps, but I look great strumming a harp in a toga.

Angelic #1 is on sale September 20 from Image Comics. All art by Caspar Wijngaard.