Space has famously been called "the final frontier." The last place to be explored, and the last place to be truly free of our earthly sins. But even if we were to make it out there, would we be free? Can our minds and bodies ever truly be free?
Those are just a few of the questions being asked in the psychedelic space series Void Trip, by writer Ryan O'Sullivan and artist Plaid Klaus, coming in November from Image Comics. The series stars a pair of road-tripping reprobates who are taking their space-van on the starriest trek of them all, to the "hippy paradise" planet known as Euphoria. Along the way, the duo will be getting into plenty of trouble and eating plenty of Space Froot, their preferred, endlessly varying cosmic hallucinogen.
SYFY WIRE spoke with the creators of Void Trip and discussed the story's unlikely stars, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski's influences of the comic, the book's aesthetic, and a whole lot more.
Ana and Gabe, the frequently intoxicated protagonists of Void Trip are definitely not the type of characters you expect to find as the stars of a sci-fi comic book. What can you tell us about how you developed their characters, and the journey the two of them are on?
Ryan O'Sullivan: I'm glad you noticed that they're different from your typical sci-fi leads. This was deliberate. Void Trip is a road trip story first, and a sci-fi story second. It's about the last two humans left alive, traveling through the stars on the intergalactic highway, in search of the promised land — hippy — paradise, super-planet Euphoria. We had to have a pair of absolute hippies as the leads. It wouldn't have worked with typical sci-fi leads.
The central theme of Void Trip is "How can we be free, if the very nature of the universe stops us from being free?" Ana and Gabe are two different answers to this problem. Ana is the wide-eyed optimist, happy to steamroll her way through life, taking what she wants and thinking little of the consequences. Gabe is the opposite, he's the wise old pessimist who knows that to live freely in this world, you have to give up a few non-essential freedoms. Of course, to Ana there is no such thing as a "non-essential" freedom. Ana would answer this question by saying we have to fight the universe whenever it challenges it; Gabe would say we have to play nice with it. Klaus and I leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Plaid Klaus: I'm not a fan of idealized versions of reality. Instead I prefer the messy complexity of nature staring you in the face — warts and all. When I draw characters, my goal is to capture the version of the hero you'd see in a Greyhound bus station, not the one on the lot of a Hollywood set.
One of the aspects I love about Ryan's writing style is he tends to write imperfect characters. Ana and Gabe are relatable because they're as clueless about the Universe as all us evolved primates seem to be.
The mix of drugs and road trips in Void Trip definitely calls to mind books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though it's in a very different setting and not in the gonzo journalism style. Were these sorts of stories in your mind when creating Void Trip, or were there other sources of inspiration?
RO: Yes! Hunter S. Thompson is a huge influence. Not just in his writing, but in his worldview too. The answer to the question … how to be free in a universe that inherently stops us from being free … was something he figured out. And It's something I hope our readers can figure out, too.
There's a lot of stylistic similarities to Thompson too. The rampant drug use, the nihilistic comedy, the pessimistic existential dread, the way he used to observe reality without judgment. This is why I'm such an avid reader of Thompson. He just wanted to point at the truth, without agenda. Void Trip is a story very much in this vein.
There's a ton of other influences too. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the rest of the beat generation definitely influenced our two heroes. Bukowski too. Especially Bukowski, in fact. His worldview, and works, inspired Void Trip more than anything else. Our villain, however, the all-white, nameless gunslinger chasing our heroes through space, is built much more in the Calvinist mold. He's a force of nature straight from a Herman Melville or Cormac McCarthy novel. We needed someone like him, someone serious and terrifying, to help counterbalance just how ridiculous our two leads are.
PK: Those were all definitely inspirations at the spawning of the story and helped as a catalyst to get the ball rolling. The journey has some other emotional layers that begin to weave in as it progresses. The fact that it's a journey through space starts to give it new layers of meaning to explore.
Did the drug elements make this a difficult comic to pitch?
RO: Well, we don't actually have drugs in our comic. We have "space froot." And our heroes have psychedelic sugar highs. The original idea behind this was that we were going to try and tell an all-ages story with drug use. We realized pretty soon into developing the story that that wouldn't fly, not even at a bohemian publisher like Image Comics, but by that point we'd fallen in love with the idea of Space Froot, so it stayed.
Ultimately, Image Comics didn't have a problem with Space Froot being psychedelic. They're a publisher for readers of all kinds of different age brackets. Comics are a legit medium, you can tell all sorts of stories with them. I get why some people might not want risqué topics in their comics, they're very visual, but this shouldn't be a reason to shy away from certain topics. If anything it should be a reason to double down.
PK: Who doesn't like drugs? But seriously, the story we're telling is about more than just drugs. It's a story about the meaning of life, choosing a path, making mistakes and refusing to give in to the confines of day-to-day life that keep us locked in the "Wheel of the Dharma."
As far as pitching, people look for unique stories with endearing characters. As a creator you have to be the first one to fall in love with your characters and your story—which Ryan and I had. So by the time we went to pitch to Image I felt the story was ready and the drug element was an afterthought.
In the first issue alone, we have a trucker who looks like he was created by Jim Henson, a sheisty yellow Cthulhu, and bounty hunter that looks like if ROM was a member of Youngblood. Who was the most fun character to design in this issue?
PK: Hitch, the Cthulhu-tendriled, four-armed, car-salesman-looking doofus. He's a pretty important side character with a fun character arc. I read through the plot outline and made some conceptual choices that come into play in issue four. He has the most dramatic visual evolution in the series, and it evolved very well.
And following up on that, with such a varied and wild world, how do you decide what to include and fits the "look" of the series, and what doesn't make the cut?
PK: It was a lot of back and forth, because early on I was studying a lot of retro-futuristic '50s forms, but I didn't want it to feel constricted to one time period. I think the '50s vibe helped set the tone in the early scenes and launched the "on the road" aim of the book. However, I didn't want us to stay in that sandbox, so by the time we hit the space-bar, we're not in Kansas anymore. Each new planetary playground has its own unique presence. The one element that ties it all together is the psychedelic, saturated color palette. I want the color tones of the book to scream "drugs in space!" even when our characters aren't high on froot — which, let's be honest, is very rare.
In a lot of spacefaring sci-fi the cosmos can seem almost crowded with aliens. But in this book, space still feels filled with plenty of nature, with that point being driven home by some of the beautiful sweeping landscapes Klaus draws. How important an element is that to the story you're telling with Void Trip?
RO: As I mentioned, this is a road trip story first, and a sci-fi story second. So these big wide vistas of the various planets our heroes travel to were essential to get that "on the road" feeling. We've got plenty of locations full of aliens and robots of all different kinds. We've got our "Mos Eisley" scenes for sure, but it's the big open shots, those that show the innate beauty and appeal of living on the road, that really show the heart and soul of the book. I remember watching Easy Rider last year and trying to pull inspiration from it for our story. All I kept thinking about were the incredible montages of the two characters riding their bikes through the dusty American desert. The vistas, the big shots, that was our way of doing something similar.
PK: Very. These two hippies are running from the mechanistic world of control and order. Like the hippies who drove west looking for the promised land, they're trying to find a place to be free. These landscapes are homages to those dusty roads traveled in Easy Rider. They're open and free, but still are somehow void of whatever it is they're searching for.
The ships in this book are hilarious and awesome, and a perfect visual encapsulation of the book. What inspired you to slap rocket engines on the back of RVs and tanker trucks?
PK: It's a classic road trip tale, it just happens to be in space. The visuals help to continually reinforce that we're paying homage to a time and a place — when restless souls took to the open road. If the highway were completely filled with foreign, sleek spaceships from the onset, the reverence for that time period would have been lost.
In addition to the function of the forms, from the onset, I just loved the idea of a flying space van. The design for the van itself is interesting. While a flying VW bus would have been the most iconic symbol, however the literalness of the image would have just been too on the nose. Instead, I opted for another recognizable automobile from the American mid-20th century. Their space van evolved from the classic United States Postal truck (which once you see, you can't unsee). I wanted it to feel familiar and foreign at the same time.
If you could put some rockets on the back of a car and road-trip it across the universe, what would it be?
RO: Whichever car has the best fuel consumption. Space is a dangerous place. You don't want to die out there in a sexy-looking coffin.
Void Trip's characters are all about expanding their minds, so what do you hope the comic makes readers think more about?
PK: I just want people to wake up a bit from the monotony of a deterministic set path. It's easy to fall prey to life's hamster wheel and fall completely asleep, in turn losing the magic of being alive. The take-home for me from this novel is, recognize the tough truths of living in a mortal body embedded in the larger entity that is culture, free yourself from those confines and find your own meaning in life. Once you can break free of the predefined designations of your exterior world you can really shine like a sun. Adapt, be flexible, and however you are able, stay free.
RO: I hope it makes them realize that we are completely and utterly alone out here on this tiny little rock called Earth. And that's it. As I mentioned above, Hunter S. Thompson and Bukowski are big influences on the book, and what draws me to them, and to writers like them, is the way they just present reality to the reader without judgement. I hope Void Trip does the same. I hope it shows our readers just how bleak reality is … and then it makes them laugh.
Because laughing into the void is the only sane response to it.
Void Trip #1 is on sale November 22 from Image Comics. All art by Plaid Klaus.