Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of the collaborative webcomic, Planet DIVOC-91, via WEBTOON. For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the premise of the series, and what inspired this nine-part project?
Sara Kenney: Planet DIVOC-91 is the story of siblings Sanda (23) and Champo (19), who have been "zapped" to another planet along with all young adults on earth aged 16-25, because they are at risk of an Extinction Level Event (ELE). We don’t reveal what that event is until Chapter 2. They are faced with some formidable aliens and have to decide whether to try and flee back to Earth or make something of their time on this new and strange planet.
The project emerged from work I was already doing with Dr. Bella Starling who runs Vocal at Manchester University NHS Trust. There was a lot of information swirling around about the virus and what we should do to protect ourselves, but there were no young adult voices in the mix. Both Bella and I work in a way, which involves collecting and listening to patient and public voices and then feeding that back into research and policy. The initial discussions we had with the young adults were a guiding light and words that came up a lot were "overwhelmed," "strange," "surreal," and "isolation." The feeling of being on a different planet is an obvious metaphor – but we thought we could have some fun with alien experts and a world that was familiar, yet very strange. The story is not literally about what is happening on Earth – it’s allegorical and is often more about the philosophical, anthropological, and ethical aspects of pandemics.
BD: Planet DIVOC-91 was funded by some of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the UK, in addition to having received support from scientific and medical organizations from around the globe. How do you feel that this globally supported project will help to bring greater awareness to and conversation about the impact of our current pandemic?
SK: We have no way of knowing how this will all play out, and we don’t know what this means for our future. But we do know that there are a group of people making decisions about the research that’s being conducted and the policies we must follow to keep us safe and the public need to have some say in this.
We’re working with the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) who are an amazing team. They’re currently preparing a document for the House of Commons, Science & Technology Committee’s inquiry into the government’s response to Coronavirus, which will include views from our young adults. There are many layers to what we’re doing, but the beating heart of this project is how storytelling, art, and science can lead to positive change. Collaborating with these prestigious orgs helps us do just that.
BD: The creative team of Planet DIVOC-91 is truly a powerhouse lineup. How would you describe your shared creative process in working with the creators, which have included Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard, Friendo writer Alex Paknadel, UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, colorist and designer James Devlin, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou?
SK: Well, it’s certainly an evolving machine. This started as a small project, which was just going to be a few comic strips, but it’s grown over the months. Working with Charlie was really easy – we spent a bit of time chatting via email about the WEBTOON format and whether it was the right way to go. I wrote a character and storyworld document, which I updated based on some thoughts from Charlie. Once I got going, the script kept growing, but Charlie agreed to all the extra work, so we were all very lucky to have him involved!
We’re only on Chapter 3 at the moment, so a long way to go! But we’re working with total pros and they’ve been brilliant at taking the material and doing their thing. Charlotte Bailey, writer of chapter 2 is also a sci-fi fan, so she instantly got it and with Nick Brokenshire on art we were in safe hands. Hannah Berry is working on Chapter 3, and she is very smart and funny, with a twisted dark side – which all works perfectly for Planet DIVOC-91! Hannah enjoyed talking to the young adults and viral immunologist, Prof Zania Stamataki (who is also a comics fan), which helped inform her Chapter.
Rachael Smith is about to start Chapter 4, so she’s scheduled to speak to an expert and our young adult editorial group later this week. I know Hannah got a lot out of the interaction with the young adults and experts, and I’m hopeful Rachael will, too. James and Hassan are ace – they are just so easy to work with and great problem solvers. We’re creating a version for WEBTOON and one we can potentially print so lots to figure out!
BD: Do you feel that there is an appropriate age group(s) for the project?
SK: We’ve said our audience is 16-25, but it could definitely skew younger and older. I mean my mum liked it, and she’s 67, and my kids liked it, and they’re 7. Hold on, do you think they were just humouring me?!
BD: For readers who are interested in getting more involved with pandemic research and/or in making change in their community, are there any organizational websites that you would recommend to get them started?
SK: I would definitely recommend you get involved with the comments section on WEBTOON for Planet-DIVOC 91. We plan to start collecting views and building a community there, adding more resources there over the coming months. We’ll have more to share soon.
There are also a variety of youth forums in the UK and beyond:
NHS Youth Forum
European Youth Forum, which has a lot of great resources and opportunities to engage.
UNESCO have a Youth Forum.
Restless Development is the youth-led development agency, and their mission is to place young people at the forefront of change and development.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Planet DIVOC-91?
SK: Come and join us for a story, which we hope will entertain and inspire. Through this comic project, we will explore the science, social science, and medical humanities aspects of the pandemic. We’ll explore the prejudices that have surfaced, but through our collaborations, we also have a well thought out strategy to imagine how we might fix just a bit of what is broken.
Planet DIVOC-91 debuts on July 15, 2020, for FREE on WEBTOON.
For more information, follow @PlanetDivoc91 on Twitter and Instagram.