S.T. Lakata, Fanbase Press Senior Contributor: Matt and Cassie, thank you both for taking time to talk about Lifeformed with Fanbase Press. How did this project start, and how did you both come to work together on it?
Matt Mair Lowery: I started working on the Lifeformed story about five years ago. I was thinking of it as a TV show at first, but at this same time I was reading tons of comics with my daughters and always looking for new stuff. One thing I didn’t feel like I was finding enough of were stories in my favorite genre, sci-fi action, that had a girl as the lead and were done in such a way that they’d be enjoyable for both kids and parents. Stuff that you could read together, or at least read and then talk about afterward and you wouldn’t necessarily be coming at it from the same point of view and you could have a discussion. So, anyway, I decided I’d try to see if I could make a comic, which I’d not done before but which I had studied quite a bit, and in addition to doing lots of research I starting talking to great comics folks in Portland like Mike Russell (creator of The Sabertooth Vampire) and Merrick Monroe, manager at my regular comic shop, Bridge City Comics and co-curator of the Sequential Art Gallery + Studio, about approaching artists for collaboration. They both gave me a lot of great advice, enough that when I came across Cassie’s work online and got in touch and we met up to discuss the project, I maybe didn’t come off like a complete newbie.
Cassie Anderson: For me, the project started when Matt approached me with the story for Lifeformed almost 4 years ago. I was immediately drawn to Cleo, the main character, for her snark, attitude, and courage, but also her vulnerability and depth. Before launching into the whole story, we developed a couple of test pages to see how well we collaborated together. A lot has changed since those first few pages, but working with Matt has been great since the beginning.
STL: When you’re talking with someone who isn’t familiar with Lifeformed, how do you describe the premise of the story?
MML: The quick pitch is that Lifeformed is about Cleo, an 11-year-old girl who loves snacks and cats and isn’t quite sure she’s ready to grow up just yet. Cleo’s dad is killed in an alien invasion and a shapeshifting rebel alien takes his place. The two of them team up and fight their way through the alien apocalypse. So, it’s part coming-of-age story and part sci-fi action adventure, but with a focus on the smaller emotional moments.
Cassie: Matt pretty much summed that up.
STL: Lifeformed is an emotionally charged adventure – the death of the father Alex is described in the book’s synopsis, and yet it’s still a shocking moment. How do you approach writing and drawing these characters, particularly Cleo, knowing that there is such a heartbreaking moment from the start?
CA: From the drawing side of things, I wanted to make Cleo visually personable. She’s just a kid with real emotions, and I wanted to express that in a way that allowed people to see a piece of themselves in her. I did my best to base her expressions off of real ones, often my own (being an artist means also being an actor, apparently!). My computer is full of selfies trying to capture what Cleo might be feeling in a panel. Basing her emotions on a real face helps to solidify her and make what she experiences more understandable.
MML: Writing-wise, I wanted to build up human Alex’s character enough to make sure that readers felt Cleo’s loss. So, Alex as a dad is a bit idealized. If you’re a dad, he’s the dad maybe you aspire to be. He shares his real emotions and thoughts with his kid, but he’s sort of inexhaustible when it comes to dealing with Cleo being mopey. He doesn’t stop trying to cheer her up. One of the few things that it was suggested we cut early on was a scene after dinner where Alex is joking with Cleo about being allergic to cats. And it is sort of an extra story beat, like we’ve established this side of him, but I wanted readers to have an extra bit of living in it, if that makes sense. For Cleo - I just wanted her to be as real-seeming as possible. The good thing is that, in my experience, kids can move through emotions and moods so fast in real life that it gives you whiplash, so we get to see stressed-out Cleo, grumpy Cleo, goofy Cleo, snarky Cleo, etc. all before the invasion and it feels, I hope, realistic. Other than that, I just tried to imagine what a normal dad and a normal kid would think if suddenly the sky was full of aliens. You don’t know what world these creatures are from, what they’re called, what they’re up to. So for Cleo, it’s this massive experience of confusion followed by loss and it’s a lot to process.
STL: On Dark Horse’s website, it mentions Cleo Makes Contact is your debut graphic novel. Were there any challenges or surprises along the way when you were trying to build this world around Cleo?
CA: I think for me one of the biggest challenges was being able to hold things loosely in order to accept criticism and let things go or be changed for the better of the whole of the story, if need be. It’s always a little scary offering up your hard work for others to critique, but each of the editors who worked on this project with us gave us such thoughtful and helpful advice that has made the process much less painful. In the end, it also made for a better book!
MML: I’d been thinking about it all for a long time, so I suppose the biggest challenge was probably finding the essential parts of the story and cutting the other stuff out. I’d originally imagined it as an ongoing monthly book, and so when we moved to the graphic novel format, we dropped a lot of things – characters and plotlines. Letting go of some of that and refactoring the story, getting it down to the essentials, was a bit challenging to me just in terms of making sure I was still telling the story I wanted to tell. But I got some great guidance from Dave Marshall, and later from Aaron Walker and Rachel Roberts, and it all worked out.
STL: Matt, as the writer, are there any moments in the story of which you are particularly fond? Which of Cassie’s illustrations were the most striking for you?
MML: Hmm. This is spoiler-y, maybe, but I think I’m most fond of a couple aftermath moments. There’s a scene where, for reasons that aren’t really spelled out, where the alien who has assumed the shape and role of Cleo’s dad - Alien Alex as Cassie and I call him – makes Cleo wait behind a building while he fights a wounded alien soldier. Anyway, when he’s done, he tells Cleo she can come out, and I think that page where she rejoins him and they walk off, turned out both exactly as I’d hoped and thanks to Cassie’s art, way better than I’d imagined. The other is Cleo coming out of the ice cave and throwing up after she’s zapped the alien teenager. And I really love all the flashback scenes with Ayesha, the college student who is abducted by the aliens. Cassie nailed everything, in my opinion, but I love the way she did those scenes. As far as individual illustrations, the crowd shot that opens Part Two is epic, the shot of an alien holding up a skewered talking doll is hilarious, and any shot of Cleo taking aim with her ray gun or readying a Molotov cocktail I love.
STL: Cassie, as the artist, what are your favorite illustrations that you created for Lifeformed? Which elements of Matt’s story stand out for you?
CA: There are a lot of pages I feel pretty satisfied with. Honestly, before Lifeformed I didn’t know I could draw crowd scenes, explosions, and alien spaceships! However, one of the pages that I like the most is the page where Cleo and her new dad-look-a-like are scavenging for food in a convenience store. Drawing all those chip bags and shelves! I added some little Easter eggs there that were fun to throw in. Beyond that, I love the silent storytelling Matt wrote here and how it plays out. I also really enjoyed drawing a scene towards the end of the book between our two main characters. I won’t give too much away, but it was fun trying to translate the great emotional gravity Matt wrote into something visual. What I love about Matt’s writing is that he can paint a larger picture while also staying grounded in the smaller moments. He has some strong callbacks throughout the story that, after being immersed in the story for a few years, I really appreciate. His dialogue is always solid, too! I can always tell what character is talking even if I can’t see them. Cleo has some pretty great lines, in my opinion.
STL: Whether collaborating with Dark Horse, seeing your story or artwork on the pages, seeing the final print, going to book signings, or being on the “list of Seattle Library’s most popular teen graphic novels,” are there any moments during the entire creative process that are highlights for each of you?
MML: The whole thing has been fantastic, and nothing was cooler than seeing the test pages from Cassie way back when we first started, but as far as the book being out in the world, the biggest highlight for me was introducing folks to the book when we launched it at Rose City Comic Con. Talking to people, watching them get really excited about the pitch, and then even more into it when they actually picked up the book and checked it out, it was great to feel like we’d done something that people were really going to enjoy. Also at that con, Sam Humphries (Avengers A.I., Green Lantern, etc.), was one row away from our table. I’d heard him on a podcast years ago talking about making comics and his advice had been to just make your book. Just do it, because you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t just get it done. Anyway, that interview is what kind of propelled me forward, from doing a few test pages with Cassie to going ahead and doing a full first issue, which then became our pitch packet, which is what then found its way to Dark Horse. So, I walked over and introduced myself to Sam and told him all this and gave him a copy of the book, and he was super nice and supportive and so that was fantastic. And lastly, I’d been taking pictures of cosplayers checking out the book at RCCC, and I got one of a woman doing an amazing Rorschach cosplay and that pretty much made writing the book worthwhile in and of itself.
CA: Oh man. A lot of it has felt pretty surreal. My favorite part of actually making the book was watching the story come to life, however gradually. It was particularly satisfying seeing and holding the stack of finished, pencilled pages! A 188-page pile of Bristol is pretty impressive to behold. Also, it’s hard to beat holding to finished and bound book in your hands for the first time. Outside of actually creating the book, one of my favorite things has been getting to visit middle and high schoolers and talk about comics. Seeing kids get excited about art and creating makes my heart happy.
STL: Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you are able to share, or is there any chance of seeing Cleo and her alien friend again in the future?
MML: Nothing we can discuss yet, but in our minds, Cleo and Alex’s adventures definitely continue, and if we get the chance to tell more of the story, we’ll follow not only the development of their relationship but also investigate the aliens more and get to explore more of the what the world is like after the invasion.
CA: I second what Matt said! I love these characters, and we would definitely like to continue their stories, but we’ll wait and see.
STL: Thank you both so much for taking time to talk about the wonderful world you created within Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact. Would you please share with fans where they can find you online and any other information about Lifeformed or upcoming events you want to share?
CA: Thank you! You can find me on Instagram @cassiejanderson, or Twitter @CassieDoesArt. We’ll be doing a presentation at the Bridgeport Barnes and Noble in Tigard, Oregon, on December 16th at 2 p.m.!
MML: People can find me on Twitter and Instagram (@mattmlpdx), and we have a Facebook page for the book at facebook.com/lifeformedcomic/.
Again, we at Fanbase Press want to thank Cassie and Matt for taking time to share their insights into the world of Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact. This graphic novel is available online for purchase in print and digital form.