With the recent announcement that Papercutz would be publishing The Only Living Girl – a sequel to its acclaimed The Only Living Boy – Comics Bulletin reached out to the creative team to pick their brains on returning to this world, their influences, and the creative process.
Daniel Gehen & Thea Srinivasan for Comics Bulletin (CB): Gentlemen, how’s it feel to dive back into the world you set up in The Only Living Boy?
Steve Ellis: I really love the patchwork planet that we’ve created for The Only Living Boy. Because the world is an amalgamation of thousands of other worlds, the potential for storytelling is limitless. We have the ability to bend reality, create elaborate landscapes, or populate the world with strange creatures, monsters, and aliens. Being able to challenge our imagination – and our characters – is a lot of fun.
David Gallaher: We’re trying to create the sense of wonder that made readers fall in love with children’s literature, Saturday morningcartoons, role-playing games and pulp adventure. Yes, there is beauty and splendor with what we’re creating, but there’s also a palpable sense of menace and danger. You can’t have the sublime without the sinister. It’s fun to create a world that is filled with both.
CB: When developing The Only Living Girl, at what point did you decide on a new protagonist?
Gallaher: When we developed the outline for Only Living Boy about six years ago, we knew Zee was going to be an important character to the story. I think it was something we decided on the day after we wrote the outline for the series.
Ellis: Without ruining the soul-crushing plot twists of the first series, we knew that it was important to give Zee her own agency and her own journey. Her perspective is crucial to understanding the world and all of the characters that live in it. I mean, she’s the daughter of a mad scientist… who basically slept through a planetary apocalypse… there’s a story waiting to be told there.
CB: What was the inspiration for Zee? How was she conceptualized?
Gallaher: I think of Zee as sort of a young Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space. Jemison is an American engineer, physician and NASA astronaut. Like Mae, Zee is an explorer with a mind for the fantastic and wonderful – she’s sharp as a tack, with a mind for science. She’s a direct contrast to her companions, Erik and Morgan. Erik has this sense of justice and a wobbly sense of self. Morgan is driven by a passion to the best fighter the world has ever seen.
Ellis: …Zee, however, is driven by science. She’s practical, smart, and level-headed. She has patience that way the other two main characters simply don’t. This is something that I really tried to bring out in her character designs. Given her heritage, she is remarkably well put together.
CB: What new influences have you brought to this book, and how do they differ from the previous series?
Gallaher: With this new series, we’re really asking some deep and complex questions of forgiveness. When someone we admire does something truly deplorable, can we forgive them? Do they deserve to be forgiven? Zee has a very difficult relationship with her father and his legacy. By the very nature, these themes require us to dip our toes into some deeper influences. For instance, the literary work of Carmen Maria Machado, Mary Shelley, and Melinda Salisbury were all influences to a degree.
Ellis: It’s a morally complex, adventure series – and I think changing the protagonist and seeing things from her perspective will be fantastic. You know, there were a lot of amazing things that we couldn’t include in The Only Living Boy because it didn’t fit the tone of Erik’s journey. Zee’s story is tonally different and we’re going to see some very different threats that draw inspiration from science, tarot cards, and philosophers.
CB: Aside from the obvious, how does Zee differ from Erik?
Ellis: Zee is the daughter of a mad scientist. She sees things very logically, but also feels like her actions are always under a microscope. Secretly, she wonders if others believe she’ll become as diabolical as her father. Whether it is true or not, she feels like she is constantly being judged by the sins of her father rather than being judged of her own merit.
Gallaher: Exactly. She’s emotionally sophisticated in a way that Erik from The Only Living Boy simply isn’t. Erik struggled with his guilt and self-worth. Zee knows who she is. She is confident with her skills.
CB: What kinds of struggles will Zee face?
Gallaher: Zee faces the challenges of identity that we all face when we are pre-teens. She finds herself asking herself about the type of woman she’ll become. Adding to those personal challenges, she has deeper feeling about her heritage her father’s legacy. Complicating all of those issues is the Consortium – a council of rogue, alien scientists who are looking to control the fundamental forces of space and time.
CB: What’s the creative process like for you two?
Gallaher: Generally one of use has an idea and calls the other one up. “Ooooohhhh… check this out… what if…blah blah blah.” From those long conversations, the basics of a story emerges. Typically, I’ll type out an outline from that conversations. Steve will review it. We’ll go back and forth on it for a bit. Steve will design character sketches and maybe some promotional work. From there, I write a loose script for Steve to draw from. We adjust the story and the dialogue as the art comes in. There is a lot of back and forth, we tend to put our egos aside for the good of the story. It’s a fun process.
CB: Having both worked on a wide range of comics over the course of your careers, what differences do you see in creating a series such as The Only Living Girl versus a more mainstream title such as The Hulk or Batman?
Ellis: I think the creative control is different when you create your own titles. When you are able to see the stories through to the end, I think it is very powerful. You can see the characters change, grow, die, or achieve their greatest ambitions. With our own stories – in something like High Moon, Box 13, or The Only Living Girl, we’ve built the mythologies from the ground up. With characters like Batman or the Hulk, there is a joy about adding to the legacy of the characters, but I really love the idea of making things up. Maybe other people will continue our legacy and continue our stories long after we’re gone.
CB: Even though it’s early, have you considered bringing these two titles together?
Gallaher: We have some very broad ideas about what will happen after The Only Living Girl. Continuing the story as a trilogy. I think there are so many opportunities to go completely bonkers with the stories following what we’re doing with The Only Living Girl.
CB: What do you hope readers take away from The Only Living Girl?
Ellis: I think The Only Living Girl resonates with every kid who chafes against challenges of growing up. As kids, our agency, our opinions, and our confidence are often dismissed by adults who ought to know better. We’re telling a story that dares to be a little rebellious and courageous. We hope it helps readers find the strength and the audacity to stand up for what is right… to stand up for what matters.