Take Me to Your Teacher: Trevor Mueller and Gabo Discuss ‘Albert the Alien’ [Webcomic Q&A]
When preparing for the first day of school, having the correct supplies is essential. Are your pencils of the number two variety? Do you have a glue stick that dries clear? Are your supplies sentient and hell-bent on world domination? That last question should've been answered with a "no," unbeknownst to Albert, Earth's first exchange student from space.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Albert the Alien creators Trevor Mueller and Gabo to discuss their Harvey Award-nominated webcomic, alienation as an alien, and Saturday morning cartoons.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Albert the Alien? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Trevor Mueller: Albert the Alien started when I was invited to pitch for an educational anthology benefiting a non-profit organization called Reading with Pictures. The pitch directions were simple: the story had to be educational in nature. So it had to take place in school, or you had to learn something from reading it. I thought back to my time in school growing up, when I was in love with Saturday morning cartoons --- but I was also made fun of for being a nerdy kid.
This was long before comic book movies took Hollywood by storm, and when, if you weren't into or playing sports you were not popular, and therefore got picked on a lot. And I did get picked on a lot, but I really wasn't any different from the other kids around me. So I thought, "What if a character was very different from the other kids around him, and what kind of fun adventures could they have together?" I basically combined my love of being a kid --- especially that feeling of running downstairs in your PJs with a bowl of sugary cereal on a Saturday morning, binge watching hours of TV --- and embracing the weirdness of being different from everyone else around you.
The pitch for Reading with Pictures was simple: Albert the Alien zaps his class back in time to learn about dinosaurs, and the teacher gets kidnapped by a pterodactyl. Albert and friends must save the teacher before the end of class, or else they may be stuck in time forever!
The editor of the book put me in touch with Gabo, who up to this point was an award-winning colorist but wanted to try his hand at illustration. I gave him descriptions of the characters --- not physical descriptions, but more so their personalities and attitudes --- and he designed their looks. So we co-created the project: I came up with the premise and characters, and Gabo put his unique style into their looks and the world they live in.
CA: What’s it about?
TM: Albert the Alien is about the first foreign exchange student from another planet. Everyone knows he's an alien — he's not trying to hide that from anyone — and he has a lack of understanding of our social and cultural norms, which always gets him and his friends into strange and fun adventures. The idea is to take things we see everyday — your first day of school, bring your kids to work day, sleep overs, etc — and turn them into weird and wacky adventures.
So for example, on Albert's first day of school, his alien school supplies make a giant mecha-school supply monster and take over the classroom because they think they can do a better job teaching. Or during his first sleepover, Albert whisks his friends into an online video game and they must defeat a player who's hacking the game to cheat.
It's a lot of fun, wacky adventures with cool sci-fi elements, and strong themes around friendship and anti-bullying. It's Superman meets Invader Zim. It's Phineas and Ferb meets Steven Universe.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
TM: Albert was always intended to be a young readers series, since the content in Reading with Pictures had to be all-ages. It's recommended for readers 7+, but only because Albert and friends are in middle school — so their vocabulary may be a little advanced for younger readers.
We don't suggest any age restrictions because the content is more or less PG in nature. We're really trying to maintain that innocence of Saturday morning cartoons (or a Pixar movie), but also have stuff in there that adults can enjoy as well.
CA: Gabo, how did you come up with the designs for the comic’s characters, particularly Albert? Am I correct in noting a Coneheads inspiration in his design?
Gabo: Honestly, I wanted to make an alien that was more like the Ellen Ripley, xenomorph, Aliens type --- but cuter. While Coneheads has always been one of my favs, that correlation didn't hit until way after I had drawn him a few times. His color scheme was purely based on Ben Grimm though. I happened to catch a glance at the cover of a book and I thought his outfit felt very Fantastic Four-ish, so I ran with it. His first few designs were a lot weirder looking, not nearly as cute or naive.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
G: Working with Trevor for all these years on the same project, I've learned how to read through his scripts and decode what he wants drawn quicker. We are a well oiled mecha that slings hot rounds of webcomic magic.
TM: Ha ha ha, Gabe's right. Our process hasn't really changed all that much, since the plan since I pitched this to him as a series really hasn't changed at all. This was always intended to be a 20-25 chapter story that leads to a finale --- and we're almost there! We're wrapping up chapter 15 right now, and that will be collected into volume three — which we just finished funding on Kickstarter.
Our approach has been to build an audience with the webcomic, and then leverage that support to help fund printing the book on Kickstarter. We then sell the print editions on my online store, Amazon, at local comic shops, and at conventions around the country. But, there's also over 400 pages available for free online at AlbertTheAlien.com.
We got nominated for a Harvey Award in 2014 for Best Online Comic series, losing to Brian K. Vaughan. Then we got nominated again in 2015 --- so I think we're doing something that people enjoy.
CA: The most recent pages of the comic show Albert reacting negatively to a movie that posits aliens as aggressive antagonists. Could you talk about the storytelling opportunities Albert presents as an alien, one easily “othered" by his origins and appearance?
TM: At the end of the day, the theme of Albert is about friendship. Gender, race, species, or number of face phalanges --- they don't matter. Everyone has the ability to make friends and be accepted for who they are. And that despite our differences, we all have something in common.
Albert, although different from us in many ways, has a lot of similarities. Our most recent story is the end of volume three, so it's building to a cliffhanger. In it, Albert doesn't like that he sees aliens portrayed in our media as always being the bad guy. You look at a lot of our sci-fi movie, and they are very anti-alien; and I asked myself, what would an alien on our planet think of these kinds of movies? How would they like always being portrayed as the villain?
Some of the characters in the story are very anti-alien. They're basically bullies, whether in title or in actions and attitude. And in this latest story, Albert is getting a taste of their bullying in a way he's never encountered before --- and he doesn't understand it, coming from another galaxy where many races and religions live and work together. His situation is going to continue to cascade until it's out of control, and he's left with no other options. And this will give us our "Empire Strikes Back-like" ending to this volume.
If that sounds heavy, don't worry --- we're using it to set up our characters for more fun adventures that we haven't seen before in the next story. We'll get to see some adventures of Albert on his own, and what life is like on Earth without Albert. And how his friends and our world are not the same place without him.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
TM: My career in comics started on the web, way back in 2002. I got back into making comics in college when my friends were doing jam comics, and I fell back in love with storytelling. With Albert, I really wanted to own and control the website — since I knew it would be kid-friendly material, and comments from fans aren't always kid-friendly. So we built a site from scratch, and we moderate all the comments and review the user content to make sure it stays all-ages.
G: I've been doing webcomics for well over a decade, starting with the comic battle website EnterVOID.com that I created. So when it came to making this title, Trevor and I were in agreement that doing a webcomic to build an audience would be smart.
CA: What’s your process like?
TM: Typically I write out a script and share it with Gabe, collect any feedback that he has, and make some tweaks, and keep going forward. I used to work 2-3 scripts ahead of him, but I had a life change in the last few months: my wife and I had our first baby. Now he's a little more caught up to me than I would like, but I'm working on fixing that.
G: In the past I used to have a full 24-page script when I'd start a new issue, but it seems that the past few months I've been catching up to him quicker than he can write haha. I can see how for some it might be difficult not knowing what's gonna happen a few pages down the road, but Trevor and I gel so well that he's able to riff off of anything that I turn in and keep the ball rolling.
The drawing portion of the comic is all done digital. Up until recently I was drawing, coloring and lettering the whole thing- but now we've enlisted the help of a colorist to help alleviate the stress and time suck of other projects. Our colorist, Spitfire, is super fast and we love her energy — so blessed to have her on the team!
CA: Congratulations on the birth of your first child, Trevor! Aside from scheduling, has fatherhood affected how you approach Albert the Alien at all?
TM: It has a bit, actually. Having a little girl (who I hope will grow to love all things nerdy, as I do), I have noticed a lack of content for young female readers outside of licensed properties. While I included a strong female lead in the story from the beginning (Albert's best friend and homestay sister, Gerty Greyson), I've found that I try to give her a more active role in the stories and solutions than I have in the past.
Usually, Albert introduces the inciting incident --- either because the school bully makes it go awry, or because Albert doesn't understand our way of doing things --- and Gerty has always tried to help get him out of it. But now I find myself giving her more hero moments. Albert's not the only one saving the day, and sometimes he needs to be rescued by her or relies on her ideas to solve the problem.
Basically, I want more stories that my daughter can read with characters she can look up to. Characters that are like I hope she will want to be --- normal, but courageous, imaginative, and inspiring. And if those stories just so happen to be written by me, then so be it.
CA: How would you characterize effective all-ages media? What do you want kids reading Albert the Alien to walk away with?
TM: My goal with Albert is to tell fun adventure stories that kids want to read, with characters that are interesting and identifiable and that are the kind of people you would want to hang out with in real life. That inspire kids to tell their own stories, in whatever medium they so choose.
Creating all-ages stories, for me, allows me to tap into a part of my imagination that defies reality to a degree we don't often see in stories geared towards older readers. The kind of stories that I told when I played with my toys growing up, and that I would love to see on the big screen one day. And yeah, they may have a little message in there about friendship, acceptance, and yes --- anti-bullying, in all its many forms. But they should never lose sight of what's important - telling a fun story about characters you care about like your best friend.
If we can get kids to have fun reading and creating their own stories, then we're going to have entertainment for generations to come.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
TM: I think we've had the benefit and the detriment of not having editorial feedback on the book from the beginning. I'll give you an example: during the original pitch, Albert's best friend on Earth was named Alicia --- named after my good friend who edits children's books. But the editor said we couldn't have two main characters with the same two starting initials, so we changed her name to Gerty. The editor still didn't like that name, but I liked it more so it stayed. We also had to change a lot of the story elements to keep it kid-friendly. Originally, one of the villains was going to be the principal — but when the editor pointed out that wasn't good for a kid's book, I had to create a new character to introduce those plot points and become an antagonist.
Once we launched Albert as a webcomic, there was no more editorial feedback — so we've really turned it into more of an adventure series for young readers than the semi-educational stories we launched on.
G: I've never been in a situation where a publisher holds me back on a project. I feel that usually the people that aren't given "freedom" are those that are working on projects attached to already existing intellectual properties. For example, let's say I'm working on a M.O.D.O.K. book for Marvel (which I would kill to do BTW, LOL), there are some rules that I obviously have to abide by. Other properties are even bigger sticklers and things can get pretty hairy if you don't stay on model.
When it comes to creator-owned projects though, the reigns are quite often super loose. I think the biggest constraint we've had for Albert has been keeping things G-rated, which is fine, cause that's our audience.
I imagine there are some things we have done in the comic that maybe some children's books publishers might not like, so I guess the freedom of self publishing is a good thing? It has its ups and downs haha.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
TM: I mostly read my friends' work, these days:
The Dreamer: My buddy Lora Innes does an incredible comic called The Dreamer, which is about a 17-year-old girl who when she falls asleep, dreams she's living another life during the Revolutionary War. Lora is a history buff, so she puts a lot of detail into her world building. And her art style is incredible --- like a classic Disney cartoon. There are spies and history and people in fancy outfits --- it's awesome!
Rival Angels: My friend Alan Evans channels his love of sports and wrestling into an action-heavy story about four women trying to make it in the world of professional wrestling, only to find the battles outside the ring may be harder than their fights inside the ring. While I'm not a sports guy, I do love his action sequences. Alan makes you feel like you're attending a sporting event, and you can't help but pick a side and root for them with every page. Plus, the guy has never missed an update since he launched the comic --- which is impressive! Also, I appear as a random character in every print edition.
Multiplex: This is Gordon McAlpin's story about a group of people working at a movie theater, talking about and making fun of movies and Hollywood. It's like Clerks with less swearing, and talking about more movies than just Star Wars. Plus, Gordon does the art in a vector style that's very unique and distinct.
Spinnerette: My pal Krazy Krow created a genre-bending superhero story about a girl bitten by a radioactive spider, who then gains spider-like powers. Sounds familiar? Well, it's not like any other stories like this you may be thinking of. She has six arms, shoots webbing out of her rear, and often gets her outfit ripped in compromising ways. She's Ohio's third best superhero, and it's a hilarious blend of manga style and humor, with superhero themes and quandaries. And also, she's gay.
G: I don't get to read many webcomics, (or any comics for that matter), but a recent one that I took a big liking to was Grimmfish by Aaron Pittman. It's a rad scifi novella!
You can follow Albert the Alien on its website, Twitter, Facebook, and Comixology. Find more from Trevor Mueller on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and his online store. Find more from Gabo on his Twitter and website.