Mike Johnson And Yasmin Liang On Gender-Flipping ‘Star Trek’ And The Tie-In Comic’s New Five-Year Mission [Interview]
Much like their (rightly) acclaimed Judge Dredd comics, IDW's handling of the Star Trek license has managed to exceed reader expectations with high production values and an uncanny ability to tell engaging comics stories within the limitations of a tie-in book. Over the last three years, IDW has shifted the comics focus to tell stories from within the world of J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot team's cinematic Star Trek reboot. With the new status quo firmly established, writer Mike Johnson and a team of artists are going to be taking the Enterprise and her crew into all-new directions, starting with a gender-flipped parallel universe. The two-part "Parallel Lives" debuted last week with Star Trek #29 and gives new readers a chance to take a tour with the finest crew in the fleet while seeing them in an all-new light.
We talked to Johnson and artist Yasmin Liang for more information about their two-part Trek adventure, and got an inside look at the ins-and-outs of how they approach working on a license with such heavy fan expectations.
Mike Johnson, Writer
ComicsAlliance: You've been writing for IDW's Star Trek series since before the first of the Abrams movies came out, scripting the Countdown miniseries and working with Roberto Orci. How does that relationship work and what's changing with #29?
Mike Johnson: My relationship with Bob on the comics began when I was working in film development at Kurtzman/Orci's production company. I had started writing for DC Comics on the side, with Bob and Alex's blessing, so when the possibility of a prequel comic to the 2009 Star Trek film came around it was a nice confluence of the two worlds I was inhabiting. We followed that Countdown series with an adaptation of the movie and a separate mini-series focusing on the origin of Nero, the Romulan villain played by Eric Bana.
I left the company to write full time in early 2011, and as we were between Trek movies at that time it felt like the perfect opportunity to keep the new Trek-verse alive and kicking with a new comic series. IDW launched the ongoing Trek comic in September of 2011, with Bob as the creative godfather of the stories. Bob's the biggest and most knowledgeable Trek fan amongst the movie team, and he's a big supporter of Trek stories being told across different media. He gave me enormous freedom to create new "episodes", and has always been there to offer suggestions and act as a sounding board. Because he was involved, we were able to seed tiny nods to what was coming up in Star Trek Into Darkness, and the plan is to do the same for the third movie currently in development.
Bob remains involved as the series godfather, and he embraced issue #29's gender-switching concept as both a fun story and as a throwback to some of the more unusual adventures we saw in the original television series. The original series was fearless about trying new ideas ("Spock's Brain", anyone?) and we want to honor that tradition in the comics.
CA: That's great to hear, as I'm a huge fan of how The Original Series was essentially a genre engine, with the Enterprise and its crew becoming the stage and cast for a mystery or comedy or thriller. Even "Spock's Brain" and "The Omega Glory" have a certain panache that goes beyond their scripts. What's interesting to me is the licensed book process — how does that work for you guys; do you pitch outlines Bob's way before the editorial team at IDW sees them or is it all hashed out with Bad Robot before IDW sees things?
MJ: The other big development with issue #29 is that we are embarking on the "Five Year Mission" that Kirk talks about in Star Trek Into Darkness. Only in the comics will we see the adventures of the crew as they leave the Federation in the rear-view and head out into uncharted space. This is a departure from the original television series, where the Enterprise would often be visiting existing colonies and shuttling diplomats around when it wasn't finding new worlds. We're leaving all of that behind, so the comic really embraces the sense of a lone ship out there on the seas of space. No backup, no rescue if things go wrong. Hopefully everybody survives to make it to the next movie...
We're lucky to have a great licensing team working on the books. We work closely with John Van Citters at CBS and Risa Gertner at Paramount, who are fantastic partners in making sure the stories stay quintessentially "Star Trek". At the same time they encourage going boldly (sorry, had to say it) in new directions as well so that the franchise retains its trademark invention and excitement. Licensed books are always a tricky proposition given the number of cooks in the comics kitchen, but in our case we have a small team with a proven track record and a lot of trust between all partners.
When it comes to pitching stories, it varies from case to case. Sometimes I'll bounce an idea off Bob first, or it will come out of a conversation with him, and sometimes I'll run one past my brilliant editor at IDW, Sarah Gaydos, as well as Risa and John to get their initial reaction.
In the case of "Parallel Lives", the gender-switching story that starts in issue #29, it arose from a discussion I had when Sarah when she first joined the series as editor and we were planning out the year ahead. I wanted to try something attention-grabbing and slightly weird, in the tradition of the more daring original episodes, and joked that a "Lil' Star Trek" series following a miniature crew would certainly be that. Sarah suggested an alternative that still embraced the idea of seeing the crew in a different way: switching genders. It's certainly attention-grabbing, but it is also very "Star Trek" in the way that it invites an examination of deeper themes in the story beyond just the unusual premise.
CA: Early in the series, you presented new angles on classic stories — I especially liked your version of "The Return Of The Archons" — but with some of the decisions made with Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm actually craving the new much more than seeing what's changed. With this representing the start of the five-year-mission, does this mean we're going to see more new adventures?
MJ: Indeed we will! We're leaving the re-interpretations of original episodes behind in favor of all-new adventures. This doesn't mean we won't see a familiar face in a new light now and then, but the focus will be on new stories. There's a lot of fallout from Into Darkness to explore, and new additions to the crew we want to get to know. Coming up we will learn the origin of Science Officer 0718, the android-looking blueshirt we met on the bridge in Into Darkness (and who starred in a recent commercial for G.E. along with Sulu!)
CA: That commercial blew my mind! I'm eager to see what you do with 0718 because he surprised me, frankly. Androids and the like were always presented in The Original Series as problematic, especially in episodes like "What Are Little Girls Made Of?". Speaking of Into Darkness, the last issue of the Khan miniseries is also coming out very soon. The casting of Cumberbatch in that role has been met with no small amount of controversy and that miniseries promises to resolve the matter. Was that series planned from the outset or did it come together after the fact?
MJ: Yes, the Khan series was planned before the movie came out. We knew we wanted to do the Countdown To Darkness mini-series first, but we didn't want to spoil the reveal of Khan in the movie in Countdown. So the plan was always to go back and show Khan's history after the movie's release. I've heard chatter about not showing more of Khan's history in the movie, but the fact is there is only so much you can pack into two hours onscreen, and Into Darkness actually takes place in a pretty compressed time frame. But Bob Orci has always embraced the comics as a means to add to what's onscreen, going all the way back to the original Countdown to the 2009 movie that showed how Nero arrived in the new timeline.
CA: That's really interesting, and it makes a certain amount of sense. Now, for the lightning round.
CA: Favorite Episode of TOS?
MJ: "Amok Time." Our first look at Vulcan, and Nimoy brings new depth to the role of Spock.
CA: Favorite Character?
MJ: For TOS, it's Bones. For all Trek, it's Data.
CA: Favorite Moment?
MJ: I'll go movies for this one. Wrath of Khan, Spock and Kirk, hands on glass.
Yasmin Liang, Artist
ComicsAlliance: Yasmin, you've just wrapped up Steed and Mrs. Peel and are now taking on Star Trek. What other 1960's based licenses need to look out? Has anyone talked to you about Batman '66 yet?
Yasmin Liang: Help me, Kevin. I'm stuck in the '60s! I'd draw the crap out of a Batman '66 title though. Wasn't The Green Hornet from that era as well? Put it on the list. I seem to be pulling in all the work that requires likenesses!
CA: He was! And Bewitched, but nobody's listened to my pleas on that front. How'd you get this assignment? As you said, you're getting work that requires likenesses, and they're certainly part of any licensed comic, but your overall work has such variety that I wonder if there's anyone one thing that stood out to the editors as making you right for this?
YL: I wouldn't say I'm very good at likenesses, I really never had any intention of being the artist you hire if you wanted that in a comic. It's just dumb luck I'm even here. I've been very, very fortunate regarding how I've gotten the projects I'm currently working on. Sarah actually e-mailed me a year ago when she saw my Elizabethan Batwoman piece and was kind enough to follow my work thereafter. At the time, I hadn't done any comic book work yet and certainly hadn't exhibited any likeness work (though I did draw Troy and Abed from Community once, I suppose). The planets aligned when I finished Steed and Mrs. Peel though and she needed an artist who could draw Simon Pegg's weirdly-shaped head! Sorry, not sorry, I hate Simon Pegg's skull.
CA: Ha! Think about poor Darrick Robertson, drawing Pegg's duplicate for years over on The Boys! For someone who thinks they're not especially good at likenesses, you make it look effortless without being clumsy. Were you a fan of Trek before Sarah and IDW got in touch? Is there any secret fan art we should know about?
YL: Thanks! And yes, huge fan of Star Trek here. I'm a TNG fan, though I very much love the new movies and the original series. I have yet to finish watching all of DS9, however. And now that I've said that, I'm ashamed to say I haven't done any Trek art I can think of! I think I doodled a Spock... once...? This is embarrassing. Well, that said, I think I've made up for it with these issues.
CA: Probably so! Now, when it came to the gender-flipped versions of the crew, you had to create your own versions of these characters. What process went behind Chris Pine even prettier?
YL: Hide his forehead.
I can't take the credit for Kirk's design actually. Kirk, Spock and Uhuro's designs were all handled by the cover artist, Cat Staggs. Even then, Mike provided me with some guidelines for the rest of the crew! When I approach designs, especially redesigns and genderbends, I try to determine the main motivations and personality behind the character. For instance, Bones as a woman would be just as grouchy and still be taller than Kirk. I just like the idea of Bones being a large, mean-looking woman! And of course, Chekov would be cute as a button.
It's not really a science though and I've done my fair share of genderbends for fun. People get MAD about genderbends. Have you seen how angry they get? I'm actually a bit afraid for when the books are released and people read them.
CA: I have! It's funny that they'll get worked up over a gender-bent Sulu or something but be down for mirror universe versions of characters that are actually out-and-out murderers and torturers.
CA: Let's get into the nitty-gritty; how did you handle art chores on these two issues? Was it all digital? What goes into making a page?
YL: It's funny, I often worry that I can't compete with a lot of comic book artists because I tend to work all digitally or mostly digital anyway. The thing is, edits become ten times more quick to make when the ink is digital. Sarah looked at my being a digital comic book artist as a plus. I do envy the traditional comic book artist and their proud stack of Bristol that they finish with.
That said, I usually do a refined sketch for the page and then ink on top with a Cintiq. Of course, that doesn't count the time spent looking up reference for how many stripes Uhuro is supposed to have on his uniform or what side Sulu's mole is on. I spent maybe an hour going through the movies just trying to figure out what the bottom of someone's chair looked like. And finally, working on these books has been very hectic because of holidays, flu season and just all kinds of rubbish that has popped up to slow me down. Add on to that, there's maybe three or four different people the pages need to be approved by before they even get to approval. I really admire Sarah for somehow working that all into a schedule for the rest of us.
CA: Star Trek has so many moving parts that it's challenging for everyone, it sounds like, but that's part of the fun, I guess? What's next for you after this two-parter? Anything you can talk about?
YL: I'm currently working on a series called Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons, written by Tony Wolf, for BOOM! Studios which is pretty exciting. It's about the ninja suffragettes! Kind of.