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Earth Boy | Interview

Cover of Earth Boy

Earth Boy, by writer Paul Tobin and artist Ron Chan, came out earlier this month from Dark Horse Comics. The story is sort of “Harry Potter meets Star Wars,” but with science and alien beings instead of magic: Teenager Benson Chow is the first student from Earth to be admitted to the elite Kayrus Academy to train to be a Galactic Ranger. It turns out that in the year 3115, we have made contact with alien civilizations and they are snubbing us; Earth is an underdeveloped backwater compared to the other planets, so Benson is an outsider and an underdog at the academy. While some students bully him and teachers turn a blind eye, he makes some solid friends and is sweet on an alien girl, while the one teacher who is familiar with Earth is a valued mentor. The book, rated for ages 12 and up, is a fun read with lots of school shenanigans and friendships, a well-developed intergalactic world, and plenty of humor. We talked to Tobin and Chan, who also collaborate on the Plants vs. Zombies graphic novels, about their approach to creating an original story.

What’s the origin story of Earth Boy – where did the idea come from?

Ron Chan: The project came about because Paul and I had collaborated many times before as writer and artist on the Plants vs. Zombies comics for Dark Horse. Our friend and Dark Horse editor Daniel Chabon liked our work on PvZ and asked if we’d like to pitch him on an original idea, and Earth Boy is the idea that Paul came up with. I love sci-fi, so I was thrilled when he first brought up the idea!

Paul Tobin: I wanted to write about the concept of being an outsider, and my ideas of how to approach that just kept getting bigger and bigger, until it was on a truly universal scale. At the same time, I’ve always been interested in the Fermi Paradox, the question of—if life is as plentiful in the universe as many studies suggest—then, where are the aliens? Why haven’t we met them? One answer for that is the zoo hypothesis, a theory that alien life doesn’t yet think Earth is evolved/advanced enough to contact. Earth Boy is the result of all this churning around in my head, combined with something really important: I wanted to see Ron draw a whole bunch of aliens!

The world of this story is incredibly visually rich. What inspirations did you draw on, and what parts of it are you particularly fond of?

Chan: My main sci-fi loves are Mass Effect and Star Trek, so I think some of design is definitely influenced by those two. Soraya’s head “tentacles” for instance, are a direct nod to the Asari race in Mass Effect. However, while those two series are all-time-favorites of mine, they are aesthetically a little more adult than the tone we wanted for Earth Boy, so when it came to designing many of the other creatures and alien races at Kayrus Academy, my mind definitely leaned more towards the wackier and more kid-friendly creatures of Star Wars. The art, while drawn digitally, was done in a way to simulate the look of traditional watercolor. I wanted the book to be bright, with colors that pop and plenty of white showing through the colors.

Tobin: I’m with Ron on Mass Effect and Star Trek! And then from my side, some of the more utopia-oriented moments of the Final Fantasy games, the sense of an incredible range of life forms, with not just visual differences but cultural differences that extend far beyond what everyone normally considers. Too often I think sc-fi forgets that the concepts of alien life go far past just how many arms or eyes are involved; there are vast differences in how the world and the universe are perceived, and I wanted to touch on that, too!

My physicist husband would be dismayed to see students at an elite intergalactic academy in the distant future still using pounds and ounces rather than the metric system! I was grinning at the mix of technology and old-fashioned elbow grease on Benson’s farm. I know you have to keep some things relatable, even when you are writing and drawing exotic space aliens. What sort of ground rules did you set when you were creating this new world?

Chan: No rules only, everything goes! I think the only real ground rules we set were that Benson and his home on Earth should still be recognizable by today’s standard of Earth and humanity. To contrast the slick orange uniforms and golden walls of Kayrus academy, Benson’s own clothes are mostly no different than the flannel button-up and bluejeans you’d see on a person today.

Tobin: I’m dismayed we CURRENTLY use yards and pounds and miles ounces and all that! I’m old enough to remember the US having an attempt at changing over to the “this makes FAR more sense!” metric system, but… good ol’ American stubbornness “prevailed.” Things like that can always be a stumbling block in writing, but it’s necessary because you have to write what an audience understands. And that aspect of being understandable was one of my core ground rules for Earth Boy: it’s a tale about understanding, so I needed to present it in terms where—even though we’re thousands of light years away, and in the future, and dealing with actual alien life—a reader can still say, “this speaks to ME.”

I was very intrigued with the way this story presents issues of inclusion and prejudice from the opposite point of view of a lot of stories – the male from Earth is the underdog. How did you develop that as part of the story, and what inspirations or experiences did you draw on?

Chan: I think all of us have, at some point, experienced some form of bullying, so it’s an experience that’s highly relatable to everyone. Even in space, there are friendly faces, and there are also jerks!

Tobin: I grew up in Iowa in a very homogenous environment, and saw what happened whenever anybody different tried to fit in. Some of my feelings about that worked their way into Earth Boy, how different people react to something new, the ranges of curiosity and acceptance, and the outright hatred. I’ll never forget my first experiences at being “the outsider,” and how it was wonderful in some ways, unsettling in others. 

There’s also an environmental aspect to it. It seems like you’re wrapping a lot of themes into this book, and yet it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. How did you weave them into the story without preaching to the reader?

Chan: I’m glad you feel that way! It was delightful to work on Paul’s script which has some layered themes behind it, but also poop jokes and pizza.

Tobin: I think it’s important to “present” more than preach, to let readers gauge their own feelings on the story. And, like what Ron mentioned, we also relied on humor…maybe not to blunt the sharp edges, but to at least have some different edges. It both lets readers take a breath, and also get to know characters more, so we all care more about what happens to them in the story. 

I really loved the Emily twins, and the fact that no one but Benson can tell them apart – even though they look totally different. How did you come up with that?

Chan: I think Paul’s notes to me were that they should be obviously different. Different enough that they could almost be a different alien race, but similar enough that it’s still believable they are sisters. I designed Soraya first, and then for Lorna, I elongated her proportions and added a long tail.

Tobin: That was part of how I feel about perceptions. Like, how do different creatures perceive the world? The way a dog, for instance, sees the world, is far more gauged by smell than in the case of us olfactory-challenged humans. I like how, too (again talking about dogs) we can dress up in Halloween costumes so that we can barely recognize each other, but our dogs are like, “eh, whatever, it’s you.” Using thoughts like those, I’ve often wondered how truly alien species perceive each other, like, we can be thinking, “hair length,” while they’re thinking “atomic weight ratio.”

Who was your favorite character to write and to draw?

Chan: Benson and Soraya were probably my favorites to draw, but I love them all nearly equally!

Tobin: If I HAD to choose, it would probably be Benson and Soraya, but…yeah, they’re all near and dear to me, for one reason or another! They really came alive for me, and then Ron drew them and they really REALLY came alive.

This is book one – what are your plans for future volumes?

Chan: Earth Boy is meant to be a stand-alone story, but we certainly have a lot to build on if another volume ended up making sense in the future!

Tobin: I’ve a few ideas for where the story could continue, focusing more on a couple of the side-stories and characters we present in this first volume!

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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