A Conversation about Sean Wang's RunnersA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Keith Dallas
This month the fifth and final issue of the black and white mini-series Runners was published. Its writer/artist/creator Sean Wang will now collect the five issues into a trade paperback, to be released in August.
Runners: Bad Goods is a science fiction adventure story set in “Roguespace,” a lawless part of space just outside the purview of the interplanetary authorities. The story begins with a small freighter occupied by the protagonists, five smugglers. Another freighter they are meant to rendezvous with which carries secret cargo to be transferred to their ship gets attacked by pirates. Once the smugglers force the pirates to flee, they find the freighter’s crew dead, the cargo mostly intact, and a beautiful young woman, lying unconscious on the cargo bay floor. Since she’s lying beneath a ruptured shipping container, the smugglers wonder if she is part of the cargo they have been hired to transport. In other words, they wonder if they’re running slaves. A rambling adventure then ensues, involving bounty hunters, hidden bases, desperate escapes, and young budding romance, all of it presented with wise crackin’ dialogue and a clean cartoonish art style.
With the Runners mini-series completed, Bob Agamemnon and I recently discussed our individual impressions of Sean Wang’s work.
Keith Dallas: Let's get this question out of the way first: what bullet rating would you give Runners?
Bob Agamemnon: Simply because of the huge warm-fuzzies I felt for the Star Wars-Battlestar Galactica-Black Hole-Logan’s Run design of both the space ships and the Lucas-style aliens, in short simply because of my late-70s-early-80s childhood, I impulsively awarded Runners a whopping . Upon further reflection, several aspects of the book justified the rating beyond the nostalgia of a thirty-something Star Wars geek.
First of all, unlike many space adventures, the aliens here are as important as the human (assuming that Bocce, the WB teen drama star with the arm made of plasma, is to be taken as more or less human.)
Also, with a few exceptions, Wang maintains a tone that is fun without being overly silly, and he presents just enough moral complexity to make Runners a perfect book for young readers.
Keith: I too award Runners . Like you, I was impressed that the principal characters in this book were genuine non-humanoid “aliens.” The advantage that a science fiction comic book has over science fiction movies and television shows is that it can present as many aliens as it wants without worrying about cost or aesthetics. In other words, science fiction television show and movie producers have to concern themselves with how much money it will cost them to present a genuinely alien-looking life form AND make sure this alien doesn’t look “silly.” The comic book medium negates the cost issue and as we know from reading the fictional exploits of grown adults running around in spandex fighting crime, the aesthetics of comic books allow for the... bizarre. There are very few humanoid characters presented in this book, and I wish other science fiction comic books devoted itself to the staging of alien life forms as much as Runners does.
Bob: With regard to Runners’ featured aliens, I also found a subtle signal being sent, one that I think is rare and welcome for an audience of younger readers. While Wang says in one of his letters that Bocce is the “moral center” of the group, he seems no less important than the assorted monsters and weirdos who in a Lucas film would serve as local color (Mos Eisley Cantina), big fat metaphor (Jabba), or cute but mute mascot (Chewbacca).
Roka (who sort of looks like a turtle without a shell) certainly comes off as the conflicted hero of the story. It’s his struggles with morality that give what would otherwise be a fun space romp an air of “human” drama.
This seems to be where Runners is unique, and where I see its thematic value to lie: the signal sent by alien characters standing on equal footing with human ones is one I’d like to see broadcast far and wide. Too often in Hollywood films and American comics, aliens (read foreigners) are relegated to a supporting role while humans (read Americans) are the “adult” characters, or “moral centers.” Hooray for the fact that I identify more with Roka the green-skinned reptile than with Bocce the handsome energy-armed Teen Beat space man.
I wanted to ask you about what seemed to be a technical innovation in issue #3. I have always disliked the way foreign languages are represented in comics. Traditionally, when a character speaks Spanish, his words are bracketed with a note in the panel saying “translated from the Spanish.” Wang does something I’ve never seen when he puts the alien speech in a speech bubble, then makes the translation overlap it, so both are visible. It’s almost as if we’re wearing those big white U.N. earpieces for simultaneous translation. Have you seen this in other comics?
Keith: Sean Wang said that he saw that effect in the Robert Kirkman comic book Tech Jacket, and it seemed to him to be an “elegant solution” to what he wanted to do in this comic book. The other aspect of Runners that I really enjoyed was its presentation of a complex, multi-faceted “universe.” Good sci-fi fantasy always provokes the reader’s desire to learn more about its worlds, cultures, and species. Good sci-fi fantasy makes readers eager to contemplate how its universe “works” on the political, social and cultural level. This is not to say that Runners is some serious anthropological study about alien societies. Runners is very light-hearted and focused on action. However, there’s definitely more going on here than the roller-coaster smuggling job gone wrong depicted in “Bad Goods.” The story’s final page clearly presents an even more compelling development than what we read in chapters one through five.
Was ending the mini-series with “a tease” a smart move on Sean Wang’s part or should he just have resolved the smuggler story with a tidy ending?
Bob: I liked it. It wasn’t a cliff hanger in the sense that I’m going to die if I don't know what happens next. As the story of one smuggling run in the life Roka and company, “Bad Goods” gives the reader a satisfying conclusion while still leaving the door open for further adventures. The teaser hints at the larger universal plot that Wang says he wants to develop.
Regarding the tone, there were times when Runners seemed a little uncertain of what kind of book it wanted to be. In the first chapter, our heroes learn that the crew of a ship they have boarded are dead, casually killed by Hamron the Handsome, the space pirate who plays the otherwise quite comical villain. That Wang never depicts the bodies of the crew reveals a certain discomfort, I think, with the brutality attributed to Hamron. As the “Bad Goods” progresses, Wang becomes more consistent in tone, managing to be serious without being “heavy.”
Keith: I don’t know if I’d agree that Runners at times didn’t know what kind of book it wanted to be. I do see your point about the dead crew never being shown. I felt throughout its first five chapters, Runners remained consistent in tone. It never became dire. Even during those scenes of jeopardy when the protagonists were “up against the wall,” I never felt that any one of them was going to die. Seriously hurt? Okay. Captured? Yeah. But “on screen” death? No, the tenor of the story didn’t seem to allow for that possibility.
Bob: That’s kind of why I felt that the deaths, on screen or off, at the beginning seemed odd. So much of the story is “PG,” that the cold-blooded murder of the crew seemed more “R” than either myself as a reader, or Sean Wang, were comfortable with.
Keith: I do feel that most of the humor is concentrated in that first chapter. Perhaps that’s where the change of tone occurs, although it’s by no means a radical change. To be sure, each of five chapters presents some funny moments. One of my favorites can be found in chapter 3 when Cember Kogi reveals he has a very… unyielding… negotiating style. But it’s while reading that first chapter when all the protagonists are challenging each other and busting on each other that I found myself laughing the hardest. After chapter 1, the plot gets underway, so there isn’t much space for witty banter between the characters.
The artwork contributes a great deal to the tone of the book. How would you assess it?
Bob: The art is a blast. It’s fun to read, and each panel seems to sort of catapult you into the next. The scene you mention with Cember in a bidding war is very eloquent, visually. There’s a series of small panels going back and forth that form the comedic rhythm, and then a final larger panel that that serves as the “punchline,” the reader’s cue to burst out laughing.
But beyond the layout, I was most impressed with how Wang manages to pack figures and backgrounds into small panels without ever seeming cramped. He’s very fluid narratively, yet his art, especially his ships and the alien architecture, is quite angular.
It’s also quite impressive that the alien figures have such a wide range of expression. How do you communicate that someone with like six eyes on his head is in a zany mood, or is worried? Wang widens or narrows the creatures’ eyes, purses their lips or opens their mouths to varying degrees. It really allows him to communicate emotion on even the strangest of faces.
Keith: I completely agree with your points, and I want to emphasize that I absolutely love Sean Wang’s architectural line work, particularly some of the floors’ metal grill lattice and the panel-sectioned walls and ships. The interior of the Roka’s ship invokes the Millenium Falcon while the first issue’s cargo bay resonates the interior Death Star scenes in Star Wars. Much of the series’ architectural aesthetic reminded me of the Alien movies. I’m looking now at the flashback pages from issue #2, and I can’t help but think of the scene in Aliens when the Marines first land on the rain soaked alien infested planet.
This is not to say that all Sean Wang is doing is “sampling” the aesthetic from classic sci-fi movies. Runners evokes those films, but it’s not a “knock off” of them. It’s entertaining on its own terms.
An editor from a comic book publisher once told me that sci-fi comic books HAD to be in full color. Obviously, Runners is not. Do you think there is there anything lost by the story not being presented in color?
Bob: Wang definitely wears his influences on his sleeve, but not in an annoyingly derivative way. Like I wrote, his overall visual atmosphere really resonates with me. His aesthetic has been molded by some of the same images that formed my first experiences with sci-fi.
Oddly, I liked the black and white interior art better than the color covers. With the exception of issue #2’s cover featuring a blue alien woman covered in purple goo, the colored pictures seemed to remove a lot of the intricacy I see in the black, white, and gray of the interior art. I think black and white comics often have unexpected advantages over color comics. Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn’s work on Walking Dead have convinced me of that. The wordless, rain-drenched, Aliens-inspired scene you mentioned is a great example of a black and white scene I don’t think would have been improved by color.
Keith: Yes, that flashback scene is perfectly conveyed in black and white. What also helps is that Sean Wang pencils very tightly and he presents the story so clearly.
But enough compliments. What criticism would you have for Runners?
I have two complaints. You can tell me how damning these complaints are. First, the dialogue balloons in the first chapter are WAY too big. Too much space surround the words. Nearly all the balloons need to be shrunk. This problem, however, only exists in the first chapter. In subsequent chapters the balloons are of an appropriate size.
Okay, that’s nit-picky complaint #1. My second complaint deals with the characters, and it may be a more significant complaint. Here it is: I don’t think the protagonists’ personalities are distinguishable enough. Bocce clearly is the young, “green” romantic, but everyone else had essentially the same character traits. There was some very “surface level” differentiation being made between the characters (i.e. Cember likes to gamble, Ril is a crank), but at their core, I feel, those four characters are identical.
Bob: I see both of your complaints as being linked, in a way. Runners is clearly not only a labor of love for Sean Wang, but also a learning process. As the series progresses, so does Wang’s refinement. While this is not his first work (he also did New England Comics’ The Tick and Arthur) it is his first creator owned work on this scale. In a letter at the end of issue #3 he points out that he has “chucked the hand-lettering and [gone] with a digital font.” You can see the improvement immediately.
To some extent, the same is true of his character development. In the first chapter, I was concerned that the heroes were distinguishable only by their different alien forms. However, as the series progressed, Wang seemed to zero in on what the dynamic is between these characters. Humorous scenes like the one discussed above really define Cember as the comic relief. It’s a cardboard construction, but the funny guy is rarely more than that in such stories. Roka is obviously “the deep one,” like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, the denizen of countless American adventure stories. They’re shallow stereotypes, but adventure stories of this kind are playing with such archetypes. Runners may not plumb the depths of the human soul, but I feel like that fits with my view of the series as most appropriate for younger readers.
Keith: As way of closing, if I may speak for both of us, we would recommend Runners to anyone who can appreciate sci-fi adventure. All five back issues can either be ordered directly from Sean Wang’s website or interested readers can wait until the trade paperback gets released in August. I’m giving you the final word on our conversation, Bob. What is it?
Bob: Runners has tentacles, blue skin, and cutting-edge-circa-1977 space craft. You need a pronunciation guide to say the names correctly. The word is “scifi-geektastic!”