It’s tough to fit in growing up when you’re a little different, but imagine if you’re not even from this planet. Writer Chris Ryall and artist Sam Kieth explore exactly that this June in “Mars Attacks: First Born,” a 4-issue miniseries from IDW Publishing that marks the duo’s first project since their critically-acclaimed series “The Hollows.” Kieth’s association with the publisher has deepened in recent months, as the writer/artist best known for his legendary creator-owned series “The Maxx” has been overseeing re-mastered and re-colored editions published monthly by IDW.
Ryall, who is also Editor-in-Chief of IDW, and Kieth recently spoke with CBR News about their latest collaboration, revealing how a Martian baby winds up stranded on Earth, how their working relationship has evolved since “The Hollows,” why “First Born” is dedicated to Wally Wood and much more.
CBR News: Chris and Sam, what’s “Mars Attacks: First Born” about?
Chris Ryall: It’s about a family of survivors: little Clare Allan and her eccentric uncle, Woody. The rest of their family was wiped out in the Martian attacks, but they’re trying to rebuild. Which is complicated by the fact that Clare was struck blind during the invasion. And when all was said and done, there was a new third member of their family: a helmeted Martian infant. But as we experienced during the making of “The Hollows,” stories that Sam and I tell never really seem to be about what they appear to be on the surface.
Kieth: Uh… yeah, what Chris said.
Are Martians in control of the Earth at the start of the story or have they already left the planet? What’s Earth look like post-Martian invasion?
Kieth: I’d like to flatter myself I am capable of looking any other way than I usually do, but that’s really pure folly at this point, so I’ll let Chris answer this one.
Ryall: The invasion has happened, and they’ve largely left. But since once of their own was left behind — especially considering the fact that the straggler is the first Martian born on Earth — they’re not entirely gone.
We really only see the devastated neighborhood where this family and some other survivors are trying to get by, so it’s not clear how things stand in the rest of the world. But that’s also not really germane to this particular story.
What sets “First Born” apart from other “Mars Attacks” titles?
Ryall: They’re all very much their own thing: [John] Layman and [John] McCrea told a story with a much wider viewpoint and much more focused on the “Attack” itself. This one is instead more of a small, personal story about family and survival and the old “heredity-vs.-environment” discussion. It’s also done as a love letter to Wally Wood’s EC comics.
When I read the premise of “First Born,” the first thing that sprang to mind was that it’s a little bit like the reverse of the classic novel “Stranger in a Strange Land,” in which a human gets raised by Martians and adopts a Martian way of thinking. Which is it in “First Born” — Martian nature or human nurture?
Ryall: Good question, and that’s something we’re exploring in this series. The little girl, Clare, knows there’s something different about her new little sister but, being blind, isn’t sure what. And Uncle Woody certainly isn’t telling her, since he wants her to know some form of normalcy now (even as he works on a mysterious contraption that is far from normal). But others in the bombed-out neighborhood, notably some orphaned kids, aren’t exactly thrilled to see a baby Martian infiltrate their lives. Especially when questions over whether the Martian child is a nefarious mole of some sort. And what’s with that flying saucer that keeps appearing and disappearing over their house?
How has your collaborative process evolved since “The Hollows?”
Kieth: This one is slightly less blurry or weird looking. Least that was the plan. My version of normal these days is pretty subjective I’m afraid. I’m not even ashamed when my art looks odd these days, what’s the point? Chris eggs me on with his enthusiastic encouragement for me to stop worrying and just draw how I’d naturally like too. I tried to make the Martians look normal, honest. That is, as ‘normal’ as anything is that I draw. So I guess it’s just more of the same Chris-Sam stuff. Trying to get me to draw normal is like herding cats, so Chris is somewhat complicit in encouraging our mutual evolution, or mutations. Whatever it is we are doing, we seem to be enjoying ourselves.
Ryall: For me, it’s one of the most satisfying collaborations I could imagine. Sam and I seem so very in synch in so many ways, and even the differences in the ways we tell a story has led to a sum greater than the parts, I think. We sometimes seem to finish each other’s thoughts, and I know that for me, the massive heart that Sam puts into all his work has helped me a lot to try to temper my more sarcastic leanings in places. I’d be happy to continue working Sam for as long as I’m working.
What sort of tone are you going for in the book? Does it lean more toward ‘dark’ or ‘humor?’
Ryall: I know that’s my usual inclination, but this one has more of a dour tone than other “Mars Attacks” stories (certainly more than the two I’ve done previously, the “Mars Attacks Kiss” and “Mars Attacks Zombies vs. Robots” one-shots). There’s certainly some humor — it’d be impossible not to laugh at the situation of a little blind human girl dressing up her terrible Martian child friend and being oblivious to the alien’s horrific visage. I mean, the first image Sam sent me of the Martian baby with a blonde wig over its helmet made me laugh loudly. But for the most part, it’s a story of a girl whose parents were struck dead, who was herself struck blind by what she saw, and everyone trying to rebuild their lives. These things shouldn’t be played for laughs and aren’t, but as with all stories of humans getting by, you do also laugh so you don’t cry.
In IDW’s initial press release you called “First Born” a “love letter” to “Mars Attacks” and Wally Wood. How influential were they in both your careers?
Ryall: This is probably better for Sam as the artist to talk about than me.
Kieth: Maybe more of an ‘affectionate nod,’ rather than ‘love letter?’ This comic isn’t really drawn in Wally Wood’s style because I’m not tenthly capable of paying homage to Wood’s artistic talents, let alone any of the EC artists. But given his cover and art did kick off the whole “Mars” franchise — and no offense to fine folks at Topps — but of course my sympathy is with the early artists themselves, most of whom toiled away before royalties or movies or franchises were common place. So, yeah, sort of a ‘thank you’ to him, in my own goofy inept way.
Ryall: But as far as Wally’s importance to the comics world in a visual sense, I grew up reading my brother’s old “Mad” magazines, which probably helps explain my overall worldview. And years later, when I experienced Wally’s EC work, it was like nothing I’d seen before; all those EC stories hit me on a level I’d never thought comics could offer, being the “Archie” and superhero kid that I was. And certainly then growing up and learning more about Wood, from his amazing output to his tragic travails in comics to IDW offering his work the best of all possible tributes in the form of the Artist’s Edition showcasing his work, his contributions have meant a lot to me. And as Sam and I talked about this story, the mood and tone seemed to fit nicely alongside Wood’s EC stories, so we decided to embrace that.
What’s up next for the tag-team of Ryall and Kieth?
Ryall: We are always talking about what to do next, and there are some fun things we’ve kicked around — more “Hollows?” Something all-new? We’ll see. As long as it’s something with Sam and I working together, I’ll be happy.
Kieth: Yeah. What he said, again.
“Mars Attacks: First Born” #1 is out this June from IDW Publishing.