Staying “Awake” with Susan Beneville and Brian Hess
In their new ongoing series for Action Lab Entertainment, Awake, writer Susan Beneville and artist Brian Hess imagine a future where young people travel through space, saving planets in crisis – by talking to the planets directly. Susan and Brian told me all about the process of turning Brian’s fantastical vision into words and images, and how they collaborate to bring the world of Awake to life. They aim to make Awake accessible to a young adult audience but appealing to all ages, and they take pride in telling a story where compassion and cleverness are more effective than violence in solving the problems their characters face.
Graphic Policy: Just tell me a little bit about Awake.
Susan Beneville: Awake is a story about a young girl and her brother who are part of an intergalactic race of people who have the ability to communicate with planets and to wake up planets. So when a planet’s in trouble, when a planet is about to go through a natural transition, it’s the job of these children to go down to the planet and wake up the planet’s consciousness and help it through these transitions. So in our story, Regn, the young girl, has to go to this planet, and she finds out that this planet is already in complete chaos – fires, earthquakes, and tornadoes – and so she has to figure out why there’s so much chaos on this one particular planet. It’s one of the things that I was really trying to do with the comic, writing it, was to really think about the idea that a planet has a consciousness, and so one of our main characters in the series is Gremon, which is the consciousness of the planet. The planet itself is a character.
GP: That’s really neat because we’re used to seeing spaceships as characters, but a planet as a character is taking it in a new direction. What kinds of comics or novels that came earlier influenced you in this, if anything?
SB: I don’t think I, personally, had any reference. The original idea was Brian’s.
Brian Hess: I came up with this idea. I wanted to do something for kids, and I was reading a lot of young adult graphic novels like Doug TenNapel’s Rat Fist or [Kazu Kibuishi’s] Amulet. I was also watching [Avatar: The Last Airbender] and [Legend of Korra]. This started back in 2008, so Korra wasn’t even out. And the funny thing is, one of the characters in [Awake], Operi, is this big polar bear dog. And after Korra came out, I was like, “Oh no! What did I just do? Darn it!” A lot of people were referencing that, “Oh, you just copied Korra,” and I’m like, “No, this came out quite a while ago.” We spent a lot of time – way too much time – nurturing it, getting it where it’s at today. We started this, what, two years ago now?
SB: In earnest, yeah.
BH: Really got into it two years ago, and we’re really happy with where it’s at. I really had to get over the I just need to make this kind of feeling and stop reworking it. I did the first seven pages over, what, four times?
BH: Seven times? I stopped counting after the second one. But I wanted it to look like an animated film. That was my goal. Animation, Treasure Planet was a big influence on this, stylistically, along with all of those young adult books.
GP: How did you two start working together?
SB: My cousin and I, several years ago, were hired to do a custom comic book for a big hotel chain in the Bahamas. I was writing it, and my cousin was the creative director. We hired Brian to do the artwork after some really bad experiences with other artists. We landed on Brian and he was amazing.
BH: Thank God.
SB: Seriously. Then, in 2009 or 2010, he came to me because he had this idea for Awake. At that point, I would say it was more like a vision than a full-on plot.
BH: I had some basic text in there. Literally, the first seven pages are still in the book in some form. That she did that is kind of fun for me.
SB: To honor him. But then he said, “I need to bring in a writer,” and asked me if I would write it. We sat and we talked for three or four hours, and that’s when we really started to talk about, what is the story really about? What’s the theme going to be? Who are the key characters going to be? What is it that we want them to achieve? And then I went home and wrote a treatment that was, like, twenty pages long. He looked at it, thumbs up on both sides. I started scripting, and we initially self-published last year.
BH: September 2014. So it’s been a year now, almost a year to the day since we originally launched it. We’re relaunching it with Action Lab September 16.
GP: So you’re relaunching from the beginning?
BH: Yeah, but if you did pick up the original 700-piece run that we had, we split it up in two, so that’s the first and the second issue, and we added ten new pages to each, so if you did get [the self-published version] – if you were lucky enough to get it – you do get something new.
GP: Are you hoping to have this be an ongoing, with an open run?
BH: It’s an ongoing bi-monthly series. I’ve already finished the first arc, and I’m working on the second arc.
SB: He’s doing the arc right now on issue number 5, and I’m already scripting issues 6 through 8. We are fully intending this to be an ongoing. Action Lab is absolutely committed to it and has been super supportive. I’m never quite sure if we’re allowed to say this, but we’re actually the Action Lab free comic book.
BH: We are the submission for Action Lab. We are their Free Comic Book Day submission. I’ve already finished that.
SB: It’s so cool!
BH: We literally just finished it a week ago. And if we do get in there, it’s going to be really fun. It’s my favorite issue so far. But every issue that I’ve just finished is my favorite one. I become obsessed with every page until I’m done with it.
GP: I think that’s almost a typical artistic progression. You get that, “I love what I’m doing,” and then the “I hate what I’m doing.”
SB: I feel like that’s my personal challenge, to put something in each book that’s going to be new and exciting for him to draw. And then it’s also my personal challenge to throw in a couple pages that will make him tear what’s left of his hair out.
BH: No, but the fun thing is, the way we work is, like here [points to Awake art on display in the booth], we have these two characters in a buggy, and that was just something I came up with, and she’s like, “All right, I’ve got to find a way to put this in.” And so in the second arc, the buggy turned into an ice buggy. And I love it. I love that the first arc had the hover bikes, and the second one is going to have a lot more vehicles like the snow buggy. (That isn’t spoiling anything.) I have other ideas for crazy vehicles. There’s something for everybody, you know? The little girl who’s kind of learning and growing up, and finding out where her place is, and her powers, and how to take care of herself. You have her brother Picar, who’s learning, or relearning how to use his powers, and how to take on the role that he was meant to have. And then we have all this kind of fun stuff happening on the side. It’s so much fun to have kids come up, and they’ll pick it up on a Friday and come back on a Saturday and be like, “What happens next issue?” and I’m like, “You have to wait! I’m sorry! It’s on a schedule!” And we’ll have adults who will do the same thing. It’s really fun, it’s really rewarding to go to the shows and have that instant gratification of them reading it and giving feedback.
GP: You guys lit up when I mentioned the political angle of Graphic Policy. Are there messages or ideas that you’re hoping to get across, even under the radar?
SB: I don’t feel like it’s political.
BH: It’s not environmental, either.
SB: To me, it’s more like a spiritual thing, or an emotional thing. For me personally, my politics, I’m from the Bay Area, I’m progressive. But it really is this concept that things are connected, particularly within a planet, that it manifests what we put into it. So it’s this broader idea of taking responsibility for your world. Sure, the bad guys here definitely abuse the planet and take advantage of the chaos that happens. And some of my politics is there in terms of pollution and things like that. But it’s really focused on feelings, and extremely positive in that respect. One of the things we tried to stay away from – and it’s a hard thing to do in comics – is the real easy violence. I really struggle to make sure that the way that they resolve conflict is clever, and not just, how do I use my powers to punch that guy in the face? And it’s also the idea that if you have power, it’s not that easy to use it. You have to know how to use it. You have to have the confidence to use it. Particularly because our main character is a girl. I really wanted to show that she’s struggling with it. She’s fighting her comfort level with it. And she’s the only one who can do it for herself. She has a guide who helps her, but the first two arcs are really going to be about her getting that maturity level where she becomes completely confident in her powers. And that, to me, I’m really looking forward to that. That’s going to be a beautiful thing, when she actually has the ability to say, “You know what, I’m good. I’m really good, and I have this self-esteem and this confidence.” And not everybody in the book, like her brother, they don’t all have it.
BH: It’s a good balance, too. I mean, there are fistfights in the comic. You’ll see in the second issue that comes out in November. There are straight-up fistfights. There’s a bar brawl. But it’s to show how demeaning that can be to your character, and how immature it is. And then the only other time they really get rough is at the end of the first arc, when they are literally fighting for their lives. One of them is going to be kidnapped. And I really like that it’s not violent to be violent. There’s no bad language in it. It’s really clean, and every piece of dialogue is really thoughtful. That’s one thing I like about how Susan writes – everything has a meaning. It’s not just dialogue for dialogue’s sake. And everything is building an emotion and building on character.
SB: And one of the other things that we were really trying to do was to create a book that we felt was truly an all-ages book. Because there are a lot of books that I love that are really kids’ books, and the language is a lot more simple, the story is a lot more simple. For me, I really respect every one of our readers, and I think that a book that appeals to a ten-year-old can be just as appealing to a forty-year-old. They can all have that same connection to it. We really have focused on that in terms of the level of the art, the style of the art, and the language that we use.
GP: I’m a big proponent of getting things out of the “YA ghetto,” of saying things aren’t “less than” because they’re accessible to a younger audience, and they’re not limited to that kind of audience.
BH: Yes, like, the color palette, it’s super saturated. I did that on purpose, because most comics are so monotone or duotone. I’m not knocking them, it’s just that it wouldn’t fit our story. But every colorist I talked to – that’s why I ended up coloring it by myself. I did the penciling, inking, and coloring. Now we have a wonderful colorist, her name is Darné Lang, and she’s doing a fantastic job. She did clean-ups on issues one through four, and then she started doing the full-on color on issue zero, and she’s going to be with us from now on.
GP: I know you’re putting on paper your dream idea, but if you could draw or write any existing comics character or series, what would it be?
SB: Oh, for me, it would be Batwoman.
GP: Is there a reason for that?
SB: Number one, she’s a lesbian character, and I really identify with that. I like that so far, the book has done a really nice job of crossing over the supernatural and superhero/supervillain type of thing. And I just like that her persona is, to me, sort of scratchy and edgy, and she’s not very warm. And yet when I imagine her fighting, it’s just beautiful and graceful.
GP: Brian, what would you draw?
BH: I would love to draw Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s just right up my alley. Even before the movie came out, I was really into it. That would be my dream, to draw that: a cover, or an issue, or anything. A sketch card.
GP: Last and silliest question: pirates, aliens, ninjas, or cowboys?
BH: Not pirates. Listen, it’s cowboys and aliens.
GP: Pick one!
SB: Pirates all the way.
GP: There are going to be, like, pirates and cowboys fighting in the third arc.
BH: [Laughing] That’s our next comic.