COVID-19 is hitting all of us hard in many different ways. As the medical and scientific community struggle to decipher the many moving parts of the disease, so too does the rest of the world struggle to navigate the new and dangerous world we live in, haunted by an invisible enemy. It’s all very frightening and overwhelming, but in the face of such an unprecedented situation, sometimes, all you gotta do is laugh. That’s where Planet DIVOC-91 comes in.
Coming to Webtoons on July 15, this nine-chapter webcomic is “an offbeat sci-fi satire about a pandemic outbreak in the far reaches of outer space. In Planet DIVOC-91, all young adults between the age of 16-25 have been transported to an earth-like planet which has been terraformed, so that both humans and aliens can breathe the air. Planet DIVOC-91 follows the adventures of two earthlings: Sanda Oung, a 23-year-old girl from the UK, and Champo Oung, Sanda’s 19-year-old, non-binary sibling. In the series, 15% of the world’s population of 7.5 billion people are now stuck on another planet, miles from the safety of home. Sanda learns that humans have been brought to Planet Divoc-91 because the Earth is at risk of an extinction level event – and young adults have been moved to safety by the Board of Adversity Scientists for Intergalactic Leadership’ (BASIL), led by a charismatic and fearsome alien named ADRO.”
Okay, that doesn’t sound all that humourous, but co-producer and writer Sara Kenney, who is also the Creative Director at Wowbagger Productions, promises that it “is full of humour and is occasionally ridiculous.” It will also lean heavily into the science and counter the misinformation that has been plaguing our 2020 pandemic experience. But most importantly, it will be aimed at and will feature young voices. Writes Shanjida Hossain, one of the young adults contributing to the comic, in an interview with Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor: “Having studied hard since the age of five, getting to the very end of our educational journey to face this global pandemic wasn’t something we could have ever planned for, yet here we are, left with nothing but insecurities and confusion.” Hossain’s full interview will be included with the first chapter of the series, along with other peripheral media.
In fact, each chapter will be interspersed with short articles, links to videos and additional art, as well as mixes from reknowned DJs. Exclusive mixes will be hidden throughout as Easter Eggs. “Chapter 2 features a mix from one of the most important new-generation experimental UK club music producer, artist and label owner LCY,” explains Kenney. “Chapter 3 features an Afrofuturism playlist from one of the UKs best loved MCs Juice Aleem. And at the end of the day, we want readers to come back each month for the story and art. Why is Planet Divoc-91 inhabited only by 16-25 year old humans? Who are these strange aliens? Sanda Oung, a bit of a conspiracy theorist at first, has to figure out what is real and who to trust.”
“Whenever our worlds are turned upside down and we find ourselves crying “what the hell,” we call upon stories to explain “this: this the hell,” writes UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry in the afterword to Planet DIVOC-91. “Our brains are hardwired with a furious need to find patterns as a means of survival, and we hunt for them — and for their subsequent meanings — everywhere, in everything. Stories bring shape and meaning to random events. They are about the conflict and the resolution; the breaking apart and the coming together; they help us to find hope in darkness and rally us when we are lost and, ultimately, they help us overcome. Faced with the greatest upheaval of a generation, and the strict social obligations keeping us all apart, where better to seek that sense of connection and meaning now than in stories?”
Along with Kenney, Panet DIVOC-91 is produced by Dr. Bella Starling, Director of Vocal at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, in association with the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, with funding and support from several other UK organizations. “Bella and I were already working together on creative projects to engage audiences in sharing their views about antibiotic resistance and immunisation and when lockdown hit, it became obvious that our thinking could be refocused on the COVID pandemic,” said Kenney in a media release. “We realised there was a ton of information and advice about the pandemic out there, but it’s so difficult to know what to believe and who to trust, and there were virtually no young voices in the mix.”
The project has grown exponentially since their initial discussions. It now includes a young editorial team from UK, India, South Africa, and Malawi who are working hard to capture the thoughts of scientists, historians, ethicists, anthropologists, and other experts in their fields in relation to COVID-19 and its socio-economic impact. The editorial team is also curating articles and creating art and videos in reaction to their interviews.
“Planet DIVOC-91 is a thought experiment, one that’s a metaphor for what we’re currently experiencing around the world with COVID-19,” said Kenney. “We’re releasing the series on Webtoons, because it’s an inclusive, wide-reaching, digital platform, with a global audience of 10 million readers daily, and we want to foster a dialogue in the comments section, about the pandemic and where we go from here.
In addition to their press release and other interviews, Sara Kenney and Dr. Bella Starling provided a few more details about their experiences with this ambitious project and what it means to them.
Ms. Kenney, how did your interest in comics evolve and what made you decide to take the leap into writing them yourself?
Kenney: My Dad was a comics fan, so we had comics in the house growing up. It was Karen Berger and her Vertigo line that really got me hooked. I learnt so much about comics from working with Karen Berger on Surgeon X, which was also a baptism of fire. I learnt never again to create an app, over 25 animations, 6 film docs and 6 audio docs alongside writing your first comic! Oh and there were my 14-month-old twins to contend with too. I just get so many ideas and see all the possibilities and reigning myself in is a skill I need to get better at!
I’m from a TV documentary background and I think that probably shows in Surgeon X in both positive and negative ways. I’m currently working on another comic project with James Devlin on art and I’ve learnt to use less words/exposition and I’m cutting back on strands/ideas/themes. Having written tons of scripts for TV — I have so much respect for the craft of creating comics and I’m certainly still a learner!
What did you learn about writing comics from your previous experience and what hurdles did you have to overcome, if any, with writing for this particular project?
Kenney: The writing hurdles for Planet DIVOC-91 were figuring out how to script this for Webtoon. Did we do single panel vertical scroll or full pages? In the end we opted for approximately three panel pages retaining some of the horizontal momentum that makes comics so special. Getting over the nerves of writing for an artist as brilliant as Charlie Adlard was another hurdle, but he is so down to Earth it was more about my internal fears. Thinking about what to plant in chapter 1, which can be paid off by the other creative teams down the line, was another writing hurdle but was also a lot of fun.
Outside of the reach of the platform, what other advantages made Webtoon the appropriate platform to launch this project?
Kenney: We did a lot of research in terms of format and we found that almost 100% of young adults in the UK have smart phones, but many don’t have access to tablets or computers. We’re a global project and in India and South Africa, whilst less young adults have phones, it’s still the predominant way of consuming digital material. And 78% of Webtoon content is read by phone, so it felt like the most inclusive platform for this project. Finally there’s no paywall.
Dr. Starling, you have written about the importance of inclusivity in scientific and medical research. Through this project, you’re expanding the COVID-19 discussion to include younger voices. What have been the most surprising and insightful things such voices have brought to the table?
Dr. Starling: It’s been an absolute joy to work with such hugely thoughtful and creative young adults as part of Planet DIVOC-91. I’ve been most struck by their interest in and ability to see how complex and interconnected this pandemic is – not just in its science, but how it relates to the UK and global social, historical, environmental, and cultural factors. They have all expressed a deep concern for the inequalities being laid bare by the pandemic, and they’re really probing the researchers they interact with, about what they are going to do to address equity in science and society in the future.
This project encompasses a number of creative people across various media. How did you pull together this impressive roster?
Kenney: I was already working with friend and colleague Dr. Starling who runs Vocal and Manchester University NHS Trust when the pandemic emerged, so we collaborated to pull things together. I’ve worked in TV and science engagement for over 20-years, as staff inside the BBC and as a freelancer and you learn quickly how to assemble and organise teams of good people at a fast pace. We started small as we had a small budget, but I’m very bad at keeping a lid on the ambition for a project and I have to say Bella was brilliant at pulling me down from the ceiling and keeping me focused! We slowly grew the project as more funders became involved.
For the past 3-years I’ve run workshops, panels and immersive experiences at the brilliant comic con Thought Bubble, so I was able to reach out to some of the comics creatives I’d collaborated with before. As I mentioned I was already working with James Devlin on another project and he jumped on to do colour, design, and art. I was also working with Editor Kirsten Murray, so she got involved. I’d been introduced to and worked with letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou via Kieron Gillen. Hassan was so up for the Webtoon challenge – and why not? His lettering gets to take up so much more space! It was the fantastic David Hyde from Superfan promotions who brought on most of the cover artists and what a talented bevy they are.