Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
The husband and wife team of Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko once collaborated on a coloring book and educational comics for the Los Angeles Zoo. Their story depicted young students shrinking down to the size of insects to examine spiders up close. Hardman’s cover image of a predatory spider chasing those same children initially worried instructors, but the two were adamant about never talking down to young readers. As co-writers, Bechko and Hardman thrive on challenge and even look for the same from the entertainment they enjoy. Their “Planet of the Apes” comics for BOOM! Studios aren’t escapist fare — they’re just as politically charged and provocative as the original film.
A new project, “Deep Gravity,” sees the pair scripting a tale of interstellar monsters based on an original story by Dark Horse founder and publisher Mike Richardson. They also plan to return to the world of their extra-dimensional kaiju one-shot “Station to Station” and are collaborating on an unannounced project for Marvel Comics. Hardman’s solo project “Kinski” — an ever escalating yarn about a troubled man willing to give up everything in pursuit of a wayward labrador — is available digitally from Monkeybrain.
CBR News spoke to Bechko and Hardman their work and a mutual love of animals which has served them well in so many of their projects.
CBR News: Corinna, I want to ask you about working with animals. What was the spark?
Corinna Bechko: You know, when I was a little kid I wanted to be a paleontologist and study extinct animals. As I got older it occurred to me that I could study live animals. By doing the latter, de facto you study extinct animals as well. Finally I got around to reading Richard Dawkins and I went and got a zoology degree. It wasn’t quite that easy, but I have a real affinity for animals. You have to work really hard to earn the trust of an animal, and in a lot of ways, for that reason, they’re easier to deal with than humans.
Which animals were you drawn to in particular?
Bechko: I love tapirs. I’ve never had the opportunity to work with them physically, in a behavioral research way or as a keeper, but I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering for the Tapir Preservation Fund. For some reason I’ve always worked with monkeys, apes and parrots. Those are animals I admire, though they’re not my favorites. It just kind of happened. Then toward the end of my zoo keeping career we started working on comics. There was a long commute, but now I volunteer with animals while I work at home as a writer.
Gabriel Hardman: We got into comics at the same time with “Heathentown.”
Which had some extinct animals featured rather prominently! What are you two up to these days?
Hardman: Well, we have “Deep Gravity” coming out from Dark Horse. It’s something that we’re scripting from a Mike Richardson story that I know he’d been working on for quite a while. It’s being drawn by a really good artist called Fernando Baldo. We’re having a good time with it. It’s a nice space-oriented story with monsters — relatively hard sci-fi though. Creatures in extra — Corinna, you know the word I’m looking for!
Corinna Bechko: [Laughs] Astrobiology, I guess you could say.
Bechko: It’s set in deep space, another planet with three times the gravity of Earth. All of the biology is completely different, which was really, really fun to play with. The monsters are basically animals as they’d occur on another semi-Earth-like planet. Most of it takes place on a spaceship, so there’s a lot of human drama too.
Hardman: It’s a little bit more realistic than some of the sci-fi we’ve done before.
What do you each find attractive about science fiction? Is there any link between all of the stories you’ve told over the years?
Hardman: You mean aside from getting our liberal agenda across? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Do you get comments about that kind of thing?
Hardman: Nobody notices!
Bechko: [Laughs] Well, I do think we like to plunge into the politics of things a bit, but as they would warp and occur in different circumstances. It’s always interesting to look at that.
Hardman: And we are genre fans. We like sci-fi. We like genre in general. It’s a confluence of what we can do in the current environment and what we’d like to do. But it’s also a coincidence that our sci-fi stories are all coming together in such succession, all together like this. Because there are other stories we’d like to tell. It’s not all we want to do.
It certainly seems like a good time for science fiction as both a storyteller and someone who simply enjoys reading those stories.
Bechko: It does seem like that, and I’m really happy about it because that’s what I like to read. It’s a great time if you like sci-fi comics.
Even in the parameters of a licensed book like a “Planet of the Apes” or “Star Wars” project, it’s clear you’re approaching it just as you would a creator-owned project.
Hardman: I absolutely appreciate that, although I do think it’s a pretty semantic thing, maybe even a cultural thing in comics that people look at certain things as licensed and others as not, when clearly much of the superhero world is driven by the movies and not the people writing, and the editorial–
There’s that anarchist agenda, shaking down all the barriers and all the preconceived notions from genre to genre and what’s licensed and what isn’t.
And I don’t want to keep going back to sci-fi, because I know it can be a box, but I know you’re “Twilight Zone” fans.
Hardman: Sure! Probably bigger “Outer Limits” fans than “Twilight Zone” fans.
Bechko: Well, the first season or two at least.
Hardman: Yeah, that’s probably right. But yeah, I love Rod Serling.
That’s a very political storyteller. He had things he wanted to examine through his fiction. Fascism. Nostalgia. Are there similar subjects you have a particular interest in exploring in your own work?
Hardman: Yeah! Every story we tell is something about that. Sometimes we smuggle it deeper in the story than in others. I don’t know about you, Corinna, but I feel like we’re always trying to do that. Not necessarily political agenda. And sometimes Serling really tripped himself up with that stuff.
Bechko: It can become a polemic, and you don’t ever want it to become a polemic. Then nobody’s entertained.
Hardman: Then you’re defeating your own purpose.
Bechko: One thing I find gratifying about working in sci-fi that you can’t get as easily in some genres — I’m not much for putting things in boxes as far as genre goes, because that leads to, “Oh, pat, pat, you work in horror. You work in science fiction.”
Bechko: Exactly. One thing you can do in science fiction easier than you can do in a lot of other things is that you can have a diversity of characters without commenting on that and without that being a major distraction or point of interest. “Oh, why does that person have that job that wouldn’t normally have that job?” You can have people from all sorts of backgrounds, including aliens, non-mammalians. In our “Star Wars: Legacy” story we had a very diverse cast I think, but it’s just a diverse cast. We don’t have to make a big to-do about that. It’s a really nice thing that can happen in sci-fi.
Yeah, but by issue #3 I was just, “They are really pushing this Mon Calamari agenda. These fish people fishing it up all the time.”
Hardman: [Laughs] I’ll tell you one thing though. There was not one single white, blonde guy in the entire run of the book.
Bechko: And it’s cool because — I hope at least — you’re not even exactly thinking about it when you’re reading the book. It’s just, oh, this is the cast. Whereas maybe if you’re writing a western, you’d have to look for ways to diversify your cast. Although certainly I think the west was a lot more diverse than it’s often portrayed, just reading about the people who were out there actually making that history happen. In sci-fi you don’t have to worry about that at all.
Looking at other genres, we’ve got “Kinski.” That book is pretty hard to classify, which is one reason it’s so exciting. Gabe, where did that come from?
Hardman: Do you want the real story about where “Kinski” came from, or the bogus, whitewashed story that I’ve given everybody else?
Well, if I can get an exclusive…
Hardman: [Laughs] It came out of my doing a short film several years ago. It was in Slamdance, which is sort of the shadow festival of Sundance. Me and a couple friends went out there. It went well and everybody liked the film a lot, but nothing really was happening with it. The last day when we were supposed to drive back, I found a dog just running around. Animal control had already been called. They came and picked up the dog. This was just the spark. “What if I was the crazy guy who would just keep going with this?”
To be the guy who tracked that dog down so you could take him home with you.
Hardman: It’s not like I didn’t have that impulse. I tend to ask those questions when an animal is in trouble. “Well, what are we going to do about this?” I’d be very focused about helping out the animal. Corinna’s even more so.
Bechko: [Laughs] We’ve channeled this into a more healthy response taking in our own dog Camilla.
Hardman: Yeah. The gist of “Kinski” was, what if I were this guy — who is not me — who would pursue this dog no matter what was put in front of him. And then it more or less ruins his life.
It sounds like a way of exploring the path not taken. Do you think you overthink things a bit?
Hardman: Probably. Sure. I think everybody has that tendency from time to time. I’m very good at making decisions, moving forward, cutting losses. I don’t obsess to the point of not getting things done.
But maybe when it comes to a dog in distress, that process is harder?
Hardman: Yeah. If there’s no one to take care of them and they’re on their own, and you’re in a position to do something about it, there’s an obligation. If I saw a kid walking around, I’d feel the same way.
Hardman: Not just any kid walking around in life! If the kid was in trouble.
You’re not actively driving around on the lookout for troubled youths. It’s just if you hazarded upon the — we understand what you mean.
Have you always been dog people?
Bechko: I had a dog when I was young.
Hardman: But neither of us had had a dog for a while until we got Camilla. Which was five years ago. I’d never had a dog before that though.
Well, as a lifelong dog person, I think you speak to that sense of obligation very well. That guy may go to extreme lengths, but that desire to help beyond what’s feasible — that’s very relatable.
Hardman: My feeling about the book is that I’m putting out this story for people to judge. The reader has to meet me half way. I’m not going to tell you how to feel about the guy. I’m not going to moralize. We were just at Emerald City [Comicon]. Someone came up to me and said, “Oh, I read ‘Kinski.’ That book is great! It made me really uncomfortable.” I feel that’s a success. He’s justified even if he’s not making the best decisions. There are consequences.
RELATED: Hardman Makes Movies and Monsters
It’s not predictable at all, which is why it’s not the most comfortable reading experience. That’s what’s exciting about it.
Hardman: that’s the benefit. I’m doing this thing myself. The only real risk here — I’m not risking anybody’s money. I’m not painting Captain America as a dubious character. The only investment here is my time spent on it. The low stakes are what allow me to make a black and white comic like that.
It’s a sexy book in that way. It’s dangerous in that anything can happen. It’s comics on your own terms. There is no leash. You can’t say that about a lot of comics.
Hardman: There’s plenty of stuff out there that is about familiarity. Not just in comics. My god, look at the movies that this town makes. So much of it is about giving you what you already know you’re going to get. Movie trailers. The whole plan is to tell people exactly what’s going to happen in the movie. That’s the stated plan because it’s thought that more people will go if they already know what they can expect. That’s not something I like. It’s just not. Me personally, I’m not a big fan of being comforted by stuff. Well. That’s not true. There are some things I like that are comforting. I like Capra. I like, you know, I like that “Star Trek” movie where they save the whales.
Hardman: As if I didn’t know that. [Laughs] There are a lot of things out there that I like that are comforting, but I feel that there’s an equal amount of stuff that’s difficult, but rewarding. You know, I want to do both. The “Star Wars” book was about delivering a certain amount of comfort. I like the idea of doing both.