Many stories exist about dystopian futures where humans must band together against unimaginable terrors. They typically take place in dark and claustrophobic locations where people are forced to hide themselves away from the world in order to stay safe. But what if these survivors had to head upwards to find their salvation? How do you conceal yourself against a backdrop as bright and wide as the sky? This is one of the many intriguing questions answered in writer Chris Ryall and artist Sam Kieth’s new miniseries, “The Hollows.”
Coming in December from IDW Publishing, this tale deals with the survivors of a decaying Japan that build genetically-engineered “supertrees” (which are capable of supporting entire cities) to stay above the radioactive waste that exists below. These remnants of society travel via jetpacks and are forced to unite against the Hollows, “irradiated husks whose humanity has been supplanted by an unquenchable desire to consume human energy.” It should be no surprise that concepts as wild as these emerged from a pairing of the minds behind such works as “Zombies vs. Robots” and “The Maxx.” That said, Ryall indicated this book took him in a direction he never imagined.
“Sam and I had been talking about doing a project together and I ran this idea by him,” Ryall told CBR News. “It contained many of the elements that made it into the final version of ‘The Hollows,’ but discussions, changes, and additions from Sam helped make this a true and very rewarding collaboration. It’s really become a project like nothing I’ve ever done before in the way Sam and I are working together and throwing out ideas that just perfectly mesh with what the other person already had in mind. It’s the creative equivalent of spouses finishing each other’s sentences.
“As far as inspiration for the story itself, Sam and I both are influenced by Japanese folklore and imagery, and when the basis for my story had roots in the very thing Sam was interested in exploring, we were off and running.”
Kieth confirmed this, adding, “The plot really began with Chis and he was generous enough to allow us to work ‘Marvel-style,’ with my working off his outline and Chris dialoging afterwards. This takes a writer who’s pretty confident in trusting the artist won’t go nuts and hijack the story in some freaky direction. And Chris’ willingness to go this route helped me reinforce, rather than distract, from the core idea.
“Of course, having an excuse to draw my wind-swept ‘Sam Kieth-style’ trees was another bonus!”
As you can see by the description of their partnership, the manner in which the two creators worked together was unusual, albeit in a way that made sense both for them and the project. “‘The Hollows’ began as a more straightforward tale until Sam and I remembered that neither of us really tell straightforward tales,” Ryall said. “[Our work process involved] talking on the phone quite a bit, kicking around story ideas and plot points. I outlined the full series first, and then, basically, Sam and I will talk about each issue individually. I then tighten the issue’s outline a bit based on our talks, and Sam starts drawing.
“When the pages come in, we talk again to see what Sam had in mind, in case any of it diverged from the initial plan. I dialogue the book after that and then revise the next issue’s outline to make it better jibe with the evolving story,” Ryall continued. “Like I say, it’s been a new process for me and certainly for Sam, who’s as used to going it alone as he is working with a writer, and it’s been a very rewarding one.”
The world where “The Hollows” takes place is crucial to the tale, but Ryall explained “the desolate setting for the story is really just the backdrop for a more personal tale of love, loss, redemption, faith, flight, and past versus future…” With that description in mind, one wonders if this story is a futuristic drama, an adventure, a horror story, or some combination of these and other genres? The writer was happy to clarify this point.
“It’s definitely an amalgamation of all those things, but even more than that, what I meant was that its bleak setting is just the background for a story that hits more personal notes than the initial imagery might convey. One thing Sam has done so well throughout his career is subvert expectations and make you think you’re getting one thing when you’re getting another, and I think ‘The Hollows’ does that as well. This is a pretty hard book to shoehorn into any category, as people will see, but it’s definitely got elements of any number of genres, including futuristic drama, adventure, and horror.”
Getting back to those “irradiated husks” that the book takes its name from, some might conclude the partners on this project have created a new breed of zombies or vampires. Those folks, however, would be wrong according to Ryall.
“I don’t really want to spell out what the Hollows are here, but I can say that they’re definitively not zombies or vampires. It cheapens things to say that the Hollows are not central to this story, since that makes it sound like we’re trying to do a ‘Walking Dead’ sort of thing here (‘Humans are the real Hollows!’), but they’re sort of peripheral to the main story that’s being told — at least, at the start.”
That tale begins with a character named Craig Kobayashi and the supertree constructs that have been built in this world. Ryall elaborated, “When things started going badly in Japan, the solution was to build up. But — shades of Romero! — not everyone is able to live in these safe havens — if indeed they’re safe. Kobayashi has a foot in the old world, so while others in this city-state use jetpacks, he uses a more archaic flying suit a la Da Vinci. Kobayashi is a bit of a lost soul to begin with, despite being a scientist and family man, and we delve into just why that is.”
If “Kobayashi” sounds like a familiar name to readers, there’s a good reason. Depending on your area of fandom, it’s either the name of a competitive eater, a character in “The Usual Suspects,” or a challenge at the Star Trek Academy. Although when asked about his inspiration in selecting this name, Ryall gave a different answer: “‘Kobayashi’ is indeed an homage, but on a more personal level for me. It’s not pop-culture-related, just a former boss I liked from my previous life. But he did also once eat 45 hot dogs while beating an unbeatable Starship exercise, so it resonates for other reasons too.”
In addition to the lead character with an interesting name, other individuals in the comic include Lani and Urp. Lani is a “tweenage” girl living in a kind of commune down below, and according to Ryall, “It’s Lani and her people (also lost souls in an entirely different way) who Kobayashi meets and that kick-start the story.”
In speaking about Urp — a tiny pink creature — the writer got quite passionate: “I love Urp. I want a plush Urp. All I did [for this character] was his dialogue, which consists of only the word ‘urp.’ But man, can Urp say a lot with that one word.”
Kieth also threw in his two cents about the character. “I asked Chris which he liked better, ‘Burp’ or ‘Urp.’ Burp seemed too obvious. But then again, like ‘urp’ is subtle? We tried not to make him too cute for cute’s sake, and sometimes Urp’s downright ugly. But it wouldn’t be a Sam Kieth story without an anti-hero, an alienated teenaged girl, and a freaky, slightly disturbing little creature like Urp in it. He sort of looks like an overweight Isz.”
In talking about design and the look of this comic, the artist also confessed that a story which takes place in the sky had him taking a “lighter” approach in the tone of his art. Kieth explained, “This book feels very different than [my ’30 Days of Night’ work]. This one does seem to breathe more. Plus, I hand-colored the majority of it too. It just happened that way organically, which was a surprise to everyone. It’s looser than my usual stuff too, sort of like a ‘Heavy Metal’ story in the old days, but not so gritty — more fantasy or soft sci-fi.”
Regarding the color of the book, the artist added that he chose a very specific palette to work from. “Color was chosen very much intuitively. I wanted to get back to something that ‘felt’ organic and handmade with this book, even if it still used a little digital help. I tried to do the opposite of what I see on the comic stands. Everything so often looks slick and ultra-realistic in comics now. Not that I have the interest or skill to draw realism, but the color followed that, too. I didn’t decide to use cooler skin tones, it just evolved that way. I actually think I overworked it too much.
“The point of the Kanji found in the book was also something I threw in as a clue in the story, one that Chris and I worked into the plot. But to me, the little Kanji panels sort of symbolically show the reader that this is a stripped-down universe,” Kieth continued. “Color too. Everything peeled back, lots of deliberately awkward art and color, which sometimes works, sometimes not. But there’s something compelling about amateurish-looking, or minimally-drawn, ‘simple’ comic art and colors.”
For those who want to see more of Kieth’s art and his process, the artist said, “My blog is the best way to stay updated. Next year, between a hopefully collected trade of ‘The Hollows’ and the first of three hardbound art books from IDW — at long last to premier at SDCC — it will be nice to have something new to finally show my endlessly patient fans.”
Ryall also has plenty for fans to get excited about, from his writing projects to all the projects he oversees as Chief Creative Officer and Editor-in-Chief of IDW. Before concluding this interview, he revealed how he’s been spending his time. “I just finished turning KISS into teenage girls in the coming issues #5-6 of that series, and I’ve been the driving force behind the coming ‘Mars Attacks’ IDW event we’re doing in January. I’ve written two of the issues and have a few other surprises about this project to announce at the IDW panel at NYCC next month. I’ve also got another creator-owned book in the works with artist Drew Moss. And Sam and I have enjoyed this partnership so much, we’re talking about additional projects as well — and we have more in mind for ‘The Hollows,’ if it can possibly find an audience in this screwy world.
“I’m also steering the ship on our ‘Judge Dredd’ relaunch with Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel, and the work those two are doing have me incredibly excited to get that book into peoples’ hands. Between ‘Dredd,’ ‘My Little Pony,’ ‘Locke & Key: Omega’ and other big books, November is going to be an exciting enough month for IDW, but then I also get to enjoy things like launching a new creator-owned book like ‘The Hollows’ the following month.”
“The Hollows” by Chris Ryall and Sam Kieth arrives in December.