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Indie Comics Spotlight: How a terrifying flight inspired Indigenous adventure Strangelands
Not only does Darcie Little Badger (Black, Their Regalia) work as a geoscientist, she also has a Ph.D. in oceanography. And as if that weren't enough, she doubles as a talented fiction writer who also happens to be Lipan Apache. Through her speculative work, Little Badger is credited with heavily influencing Indigenous Futurism, a literary and art movement that expresses science fiction through the lens of Indigenous storytelling. The genre puts Indigenous characters in the future (rarely done in mainstream works) but honors present, past, medicine, art, and music across a tapestry of interwoven voices and timelines.
She is also one of the few widely published Indigenous writers in comics and fantasy today.
When the Humanoids H1 team reached out to her about Strangelands — a story featuring a team of tethered superpowered or "Ignited" Apache humans on the run — she jumped at the chance to help craft their story. Co-written with Magdalene Visaggio and drawn by Guillermo Sanna, Mike McKone, and Vincenzo Federici, the story follows Elakshi and Adam Land (no relation), two of the most powerful of the Ignited. The pair have strong telekinetic powers, with one drawback: Whenever they get too far apart or too close, they can create a tear in reality, decimating everything around them. (They're kind of the opposite of Quantum and Woody, just with less jewelry.)
Tethered by their powers, they're searching for a cure that will allow them to lead separate lives while simultaneously being hunted by those who wish to use them for their powers (and sponsored by a mysterious woman who technically already is doing just that).
SYFY WIRE spoke with Little Badger about what it was like co-writing the series and how one terrifying plane ride inspired the story.
In the world of the Ignited, are Elakshi and Adam the strongest powered team in the universe?
They may not be the strongest team, but they are the best dancers. Elakshi and Adam challenge all other teams to a dance-off. Superpowers optional. Though the Lands don't need any powers to win. Y'all, they can tango.
Can you explain their Ignition powers? It's clear if they touch or get too far apart things go "boom," but is it on a subatomic level?
Ignition itself defies the known laws of physics. That said, Mags and I envisioned their explosions as releases of energy capable of temporarily melting the fabric of reality, resulting in unpredictable cosmic horror-esque results. For example, during their ignition, a corpse transformed into a swarm of blood-red butterflies.
The ultimate outcome of "kabooms" are unpredictable, which is a major reason why they're so frightening to Elakshi and Adam.
How did you get involved in the project?
I was goofing around on Twitter when I received a DM from Carla Speed McNeil (she's one of the H1 architects and the creator of the Finder series). Because of confidentiality, her message was super mysterious. In short, there was a project that needed a writer, and would I be interested in learning more?
Magdalene Visaggio spoke to us about this project and she mentioned that this was her first time collaborating with another writer. What was the process like for you? Can you describe how you divided duties?
Writing has the reputation of being solitary work, and sometimes it is. But in my experience, collaboration is a major component of publishing short stories, books, and comics. For example, my debut novel, Elatsoe (coming 2020), evolved based on feedback from my agent, my editor, and my copyeditor. That said, collaboration with editors, artists, and other people is different from co-writing. Co-writers build a story together, and communication and compromises are especially critical.
Similar to Mags, Strangelands was my first co-writing project, and we make a great team, if I do say so myself.
When Mags and I work together, everything is equitable. We'd plan issues via Skype chats. Then one of us writes a draft script (for example, Mags wrote the draft of Issue 1, and I wrote the draft of Issue 2) and sends it to the other writer, who makes changes/suggestions. After both Mags and I approve the script, it receives editorial feedback and undergoes another round of edits. Then brilliant artists (Guillermo Sanna for Issues 1-4 and Vincenzo Federici for Issues 5-8) take over.
Can you describe the subtext in the flashback scene where Elakshi and Adam first meet?
Get ready. It's storytime.
Every month (give or take a few days), I fly across the country; my parents live on the East Coast, my fiance lives on the West Coast, and I live for the people I love. Air travel is not fun, to put it nicely. Turbulence usually sends me into a state of panic, and I'm prone to motion sickness. Yeah. I have a Ph.D. in oceanography, and I get seasick.
The point is: When I suffer on flights, I suffer alone. Miserable.
A year ago, on a short flight on a (big-name) airplane, I had an extra awful experience. We were at cruising altitude. A flight attendant was pushing the drink cart up the aisle, and the seatbelt light was off. I sat in a window seat beside another woman; she was quiet and respectful. Everything was fine.
Until a second flight attendant approached the first and handed her a piece of paper.
"Something's wrong," I thought. "Something they can't discuss without potentially scaring the passengers. Was it related to that sharp dip earlier? The one that felt off?"
The seatbelt signs went on, and the pilot made an announcement: We were making an emergency landing. One of the engines had failed. I glanced at the woman sitting beside me and made an "uh-oh" face. She returned it with a slight cringe.
The bad turbulence that followed was probably not related to the engine issues, but losing an engine didn't help my peace of mind. I wondered what I'd do if the plane began to drop. I'd be sick and afraid and have nobody to hold me before I died. My grasp on one armrest tightened; I held the one near the window, leaving the center armrest free in case the woman beside me needed it. She might have felt the same way, 'cause it remained unused, like a barrier between us. The plane bucked in the air. Somewhere behind me, a child cried. We were descending through the clouds, opaque gray outside the window.
And then the plane began to fall; that's what it felt like, anyway, my stomach flipping and body lifting from my seat like we were on a massive drop ride. The plane leveled roughly, throwing us, and I instinctually reached for the middle armrest for balance. My row buddy mirrored my move, and our hands bumped, her fingers curling over mine.
At that point, we kinda stared at each other for a second before laughing. God, it felt good to laugh. She made a comment about our terrible luck, I said something in agreement, and then we rearranged our hands, sharing the middle armrest. From that point onward, every time the turbulence got bad, we smiled at each other, and my panic all but vanished.
After the plane landed (to applause), my row buddy and I parted without exchanging names. We were strangers, after all. Still, her presence had been a great comfort.
The night Elakshi and Adam meet, they experience a similar bond. They're strangers in an unfamiliar country, grasping for a human connection, somebody to dampen the unpleasantness of suffering alone. They find each other.
It's fascinating that one of the men in the story has almost vampiric powers? Was that a metaphor that you both came up with?
The vampiric powers of Win, the cult leader who claims he can help Elakshi and Adam, are like an extension of his personality. He's the kind of man who will exploit and/or take advantage of everyone around him and then insist that he's doing it for their own good.
There are very real people like Win in the world. Many are charismatic and can successfully fake compassion until the act no longer benefits them. That kind of personality is something Mags and I explore through his character.
Why was working on this project important to you?
It's been wonderful to contribute to H1's new imprint. Humanoids publishes so many exciting comics, and I had the chance to write superheroes for them. Like whoa!
Also, as I said on the NYCC panel "Indigenous Voices in Sci-Fi and Horror," it's uncommon to see Native heroes/characters in comics. Especially characters who are living in contemporary times (no offense to the 1800s, but we did survive into the 21st century). So the chance to write Adam, a typical millennial Apache guy who gains non-stereotypical powers, had great personal importance.
Will we see more of the Lands? How many issues are you slated to work on?
There will be at least another four issues of the Lands — Mags and I have co-written the arc from 5-8 (the new artist, Vincenzo Federici, is fantastic!). In this arc, the Lands experience an epiphany, something that kicks their powers and relationship to a new level. In other words, whether Issue 8 is the end or the beginning of their journey, it's a satisfying milestone.