Outer Darkness hero

John Layman talks merging sci-fi and horror in his wild new Image Comics series Outer Darkness

Contributed by
Oct 22, 2018

Two years after the Eisner Award-winning success of his long-running crime series true, John Layman is back with another ambitious ongoing comic, and this time he's taking us to the stars.

For Outer Darkness, Layman teams with artist Afu Chan (Immortal Iron Fists) to tell a story that merges sci-fi and horror to chart the voyages of a crew somewhere in the future who must venture out into the most terrifying reaches of space. The series will debut its first issue from Skybound Entertainment next month. Here's the official synopsis:

"A world of sci-fi and horror. Outer Darkness is set seven hundred years in the future, against the background of a war between humanity and a savage alien race. Mankind has mastered interstellar travel and colonized the galaxy. But during our travels into space, we've discovered a horrible truth. When a body dies, its spirit is cast into space, into the terrible, infinite 'outer darkness.' Turns out, space is filled with spirits, ghosts, demons, and all manner of necro-essences... that are lonely, scared, confused, corrupted, or just plain pissed! Demonic possession, hauntings, cosmic horror... all as commonplace on a Starship as extraterrestrial encounters and alien attacks. Outer space is terrifying."

We had a chance to chat with Layman about the influences that shaped the book, working with Chan to get the look just right, his love of Star Trek, and all things Outer Darkness. Check out what he had to say below.

First of all, what was the seed of this idea, blending space voyages with ghosts and gods? How did it come to you?

I never know where my ideas come from. The snarky answer is I'm a weird dude and I love to smoke weed. The most practical answer is I'm a freelance writer and if I don't come up with stories I can't pay rent. The most honest answer is I don't know.

The book opens with the classic Star Trek-style setup of a dispute on the bridge, then takes a turn. How much time did you spend balancing the familiar tropes of a crew on a bridge with the supernatural elements, and was it hard to get right?

I'm pretty familiar with both genres, so getting it right was not that hard…assuming I did get it right, that is. That's more for the audience to decide, not me. I just wrote the sort of book that I would want to read, which in this case is a blend of two of my favorite things, sci-fi and horror.

Speaking of Star Trek, did you dig heavily into that franchise or other sci-fi franchises in preparing for this book?

I re-watched both DS9 (my favorite Star Trek series, hands down) and Next Generation while prepping the series, and as much Voyager as I could stomach, which was maybe half. It was the first time I'd done a complete re-watch of any of those series since they went off the air. I love Trek and various "continuing mission" space shows so that was easy. I also intake a steady diet of horror and weirdness, especially Asian horror movies.

Outer Darkness 1 Cover

What was it like working with your co-creator Afu Chan to bring this world to life?

I feel like I hit the jackpot with Afu on Outer Darkness, much in the same way I did with Rob Guillory on Chew. Both are perfect for our respective collaborations. Afu is a phenomenal designer, which really is crucial when building a sci-fi universe from scratch. He's a fantastic storyteller, too, very methodical and precise, making every line and gesture count, just like, in a story like this, I try to do the same with words. Some comic projects are more freewheeling and impromptu, others are not. I've compared certain comics to jazz, fly by the seat of your pants and freewheel and improvise, and other works (Outer Darkness and Chew,) are more like a symphony, where every note is deliberate and precise. Bottom line is Afu is amazing.

There are obviously hints at a great deal of complex world-building in the first issue. What can you tell us about the universe of Outer Darkness and how it formed in your mind?

Um, I'm not super good at explaining how my ideas form. I can say that I'm a polisher. Rather than a person with a lot of ideas, I usually take one idea and finesse it. Let the single idea grow and grow and grow. In the case of Outer Darkness, there is a fully formed set of "rules" to how the universe works. Life, death, the afterlife, or lack thereof. I also went in an gave every single significant character a hearty backstory, their own motivations, pasts and secrets, which comes in handy when putting together an ensemble book. I suppose there is a reason I can only work on one long-form book at a time, because by the time it's on paper it's a very robust, rich universe.

A lot of readers will obviously know you from Chew, and this is a very different project. What would you tell Chew readers to get them interested in this book as well?

Outer Darkness is definitely very different in tone, but I think it has the same skewed sensibilities I try to bring to everything. I like to take a genre and turn it on its side in a (hopefully) unpredictable way. Where Chew was a very warped, silly take on police procedurals and the buddy cop genre, Outer Darkness is a weird, creepy, dark (and occasionally funny) take on both continuing mission space sci-fi and the horror genre.

Did you do a lot of research into the various gods and monsters that populate the space of Outer Darkness, or did you let invention take over?

Just on an issue-to-issue basis. It's pretty fun, digging through old mythologies for this. One of my favorite parts of writing Outer Darkness. Loads of creepy demons and gods throughout human history.

Rigg is a fascinating point-of-view character from the very first page. How did he arrive in your mind as your lead, and what other sci-fi icons does he owe a debt of influence to?

JL: Well, having the captain be the heart and soul of a ship in a story like this is kinda par for the course. Outer Darkness is very much an ensemble book, as will be evident as the series progresses, but I think it's only natural and normal to focus on the ship's captain when introducing a story that focuses o a ship's crew. Yes, Rigg is the Captain Kirk our story, and our Picard, Sisko and Janeway. But that does not mean he will be the sole focal point or ONLY POV character. He's just the starting point in a series --and universe—that will be much, much bigger.

Outer Darkness #1 is on sale Nov. 14. The final order cutoff for retailers is today, so make sure to let your local shop know you'd like to pre-order a copy.

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