Horror, Humor and Sci-Fi Collide in "Intro to Alien Invasion"

"Intro to Alien Invasion" is more than a comedic tale of college students who have to fight off intergalactic interlopers while trapped on campus during spring break. It's also the introduction to the graphic novel format for its three creators. Co-writers Owen King and Mark Jude Poirer have experience writing and editing in other mediums, while artist Nancy Ahn is a recent graduate of Bennington College, which may -- or may not -- have been have been used as the setting of the book.

CBR News spoke with the entire creative team about the genesis of their tale, and the challenges they faced in balancing the various elements of the story. The three also discussed how the story changed form its initial incarnation as a screenplay, why developing it as a graphic novel made the most sense, and why it was important to them to create a very different kind of heroine in Stacey.

CBR News: Where did the idea for the book start?

Mark Jude Poirer: Owen and I had been wanting to work on a screenplay for a long time together. He called me one day and said how about this idea, a zombie invasion where at the beginning of the film, two friends make a pact that if one of them gets infected, the other will kill them. I said, sounds good -- except let's do aliens instead. I felt like zombies were over at that point. I was wrong. [lLaughs]

We just started writing it as a film script, and Owen said this would be a good graphic novel. Owen was pretty clear about not wanting a traditional comic book artist to do the art, and I showed him some work of Nancy's. Nancy was a former student of mine at Bennington College, and he really liked [her art], so we contacted her. She came up with some sketches that we really loved, and then we went out to publishers . We sold it pretty quickly.

Owen King: We started to develop it as a film script with a producer. but a lot of film people that we talked to wanted the story to be one thing. They wanted it to be all satire or all action. We wanted it to be funny, but we also wanted it to have that big budget action feel, and we also wanted it, centrally, to be romantic and sweet. We felt pretty powerfully attached to all those elements making it what it was. That's one of the reasons why the graphic novel format appealed [to us]. We felt like it would allow our vision to come through a lot more fully.

Owen, your brother is Joe Hill, a very well known writer and comics writer. Did he have any thoughts or suggestions when you were working on the book?

King: Mark and I looked at a script of his that he'd done for "Locke and Key."

Poirer: That was really helpful for me.

King: It was really helpful in thinking about a good way to present things to Nancy. I also looked at a couple of Scott Snyder's scripts from "Batman" -- he's an old friend -- and I looked at the way Scott presented things. We just tried to stay true to the way we imagined it as a movie. I say this every time: we wanted to give it to Nancy and have her direct it, and act it, and set design it, and do all those things, and then work with her in editing it and refining it.

Nancy, what interested you in the project when Mark first approached you?

Nancy Ahn: When Mark first sold me on the story, the fact that there was going to be a geeky girl heroine was appealing to me. He also mentioned that the setting was going to be based on Bennington College, so that was also pretty appealing. I just liked the really relatable human characters. Obviously, they're a little bit more intense. The story takes place during spring break, so I think in the story they refer to it as a Noah's Ark of college stereotypes. There are jocks, goth kids, artsy girls. It was a fun exercise in drawing people that we all know.

Did they give you a full script? Did you have a lot of freedom to interpret what they gave you?

Ahn: Since the two of them have a lot of experience in screenwriting, they have very vivid descriptions of what action they wanted in the panels. But as far as pacing them on the page, they gave me a lot of freedom. I think it is worth noting that this is a first graphic novel for all of us -- and also for [publisher] Scribner, which gave us a lot of freedom. They let me do my thing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Everyone was very cool about the whole process.

King: I think sometimes we felt like we almost had too much freedom. No one had ever done it before, so we all had a lot of learning to do. I had certainly read a lot of comic books in my life. and I had a good idea about how it ought to be paced, but it's one thing to go from reading them to writing them.

Did you get to design the characters, the aliens?

Ahn: I did. That happened pretty organically. Maybe because they did such a good job of describing them, but they were on board. They had a few notes on how to tweak the aliens, like make them more lantern-jawed, or the hair style for the some of characters. For the most part, pretty much anything that I showed them, based on their feedback, it was pretty close to what they had in mind.

King: There was some sort of insect living in Mark's garage that was very disturbing. Mark took a picture of this and sent it to Nancy. That was a big inspiration.

You mentioned that your problem with developing this as a film script was that studios wanted the film to be one thing, but this book is satire and romance and action. Was it a big challenge in writing and drawing the book to balance these elements?

Poirer: The people that we were dealing with in Hollywood really wanted to pigeon hole it. That quickly became very frustrating for us. How did we balance them all? I think they balance naturally if you really know your characters. Owen and I spent a long time developing the protagonist of Stacey, and we knew what kind of story we wanted to tell. We knew we wanted there to be legitimately scary parts and real action sequences, but we both like humor and satire and cracking jokes. I think it was pretty organic in terms of balancing them out. Because we adhered to the three act structure of a screenplay, I think that helped in balancing the action sequences, the satire and the other aspects.

King: And once we did start transforming it into a comic book script, that allowed us to expand on a few things. We didn't want to blow the story out and make it humongous and follow every possible path. We liked the way that it felt like it was going to be something you could sit down and read in a day. We didn't want to blow out the narrative, but we did expand on a few things which was nice. I feel like the college became a little bit more of a character in the comic book than it was originally.

In some ways, this is a dark story. A horribly misogynist, sexual harassing professor unwittingly unleashes an alien on the campus, and then tries to kill everyone to keep it quiet.

King: When you describe it that way... [lLaughs]

I describe it that way, because in reading the book, it doesn't feel like a brutally dark story.

Poirer: Nancy's art is more whimsical and more cartoonish, and that does something to mitigate the darkness. The professor is the way you described him, but he's also an idiot who wears clogs and conditions his hair. I think that helps mitigates the darkness as well.

King: I think if you've read the other work that Mark and I have written, either the prose we've written, or if you've seen the movies that Mark has written, I think tonally it's not going to be a big surprise. What I love about Nancy's artwork is, she makes everything so fun. Even when aliens are exploding, it's just really funny. I can't exactly put a finger on it, but she makes even the most disgusting, horrible things really hilarious.

Ahn: Thanks. [lLaughs]

Were you conscious of this?

Ahn: I've always been conscious of my style and people's reactions to it. My friends are always very supportive of me, and I do things for them, in a way. I'm aware that my style is a little cutesier than action comic books, but I also think I can be a dark person, and this is a way to make dark things palatable. When I read comic books that are drawn in a really dark style, it's not fun for me to read. I just make comics that I would want to look at.

You mentioned the main character, Stacey, earlier. Who is she?

King: She was one of the foundational elements when Mark and I first started talking about the story. What we wanted to do was write about this character who, in a lot of stories, films, books, ends up being a side character, or a joke, or, in pretty much every case, not the star. In real life, someone like Stacey, who's so intelligent and in her way very driven, we felt like she would actually thrive. We loved the idea of having this heroine who you don't get to see be a heroine very often in stories. And especially not in stories with space aliens.

Poirer: We did a great deal of thinking about her before we committed anything to the page, and we did a great deal of talking about her. I think that she turned out to be someone that Owen and I would each like to know. She's someone who would actually thrive in a college like Bennington, which this is and isn't based on. In a college like Fenton College, in the graphic novel, that has fraternities and sororities and that has a very cliquey atmosphere, she's just lost in the shuffle. We wanted her to transcend the shuffle. I think we did that consciously.

Owen and I were joking before the interview about the model for Fenton. Was it actually based on Bennington?

Poirer: I think it was a way to lure Nancy onto the project. [lLaughs] Bennington is where I met Nancy, and where I taught, is very much a place that would celebrate someone like Stacey. It celebrates individuality. There are no grades unless you want them. There's a clothing-optional policy. It's a very progressive place. So yeah, I tricked Nancy into joining the project, but I think she pretty quickly realized that. I mean, Bennington doesn't have any jocks, because it doesn't have any sports teams.

King: It's a Twilight Zone Bennington College.

Poirer: That's a good way to put it.

We've been talking about all the different story elements, but what is your pitch for the book, exactly?

King: I always feel like that's a tough question. It's something I always think about when I have a book come out. Should you read our book, or should you read "As I Lay Dying?" [lLaughs] I think the obvious answer to that is, yes, you should read our book. We obviously think it's terrifically funny. We think it's exciting, we think it's a different mix of elements, and we think it's a little different than what people are used to and fun.

Poirer: It's fun. The way I've come to think about it is, if you look at the cover, you kind of know what it is. But it's a really, really good version of that. I'm a lot more proud of it than I thought I would be. The more I think about it, the more pride I have. As a group, I'm really proud of u,s and I'm proud of the book.

King: Nancy's a fabulous artist, but she's a genius at directing. Her choices of angles and the way that she shaped and tweaked the things that we scripted the way is amazing. It really was like working with an amazing film crew. I just feel so lucky to have had her take control of our stuff.

Poirer: We were always pleasantly surprised. The pages that she sent us, were always better than we had imagined. I don't think there was a single page where we were like, oh. They were always funnier and always more exciting. Like Owen said, the angles she chose and where she puts the camera was always way smarter than what we had imagined. That was a really fun part of this process. Every few weeks, we'd get new pages from Nancy that were way better than what we'd imagined.

You two have been finished writing the book for a while now. Have you started working on something else, or talked about it?

Poirer: Both. We've written a complete screenplay together, and we're talking about some other projects.

King: We'd love to do another "Alien" book if the public demands it.

Poirer: We've been talking about "Intermediate Alien Invasion." We have ideas for the sequel.

Ahn: I learned a lot over the course of this one, so I would be way better prepared. Also, I'd be excited to read the story.

Nancy, what are you working on now?

Ahn: I'm working on a website for myself and working on some personal comics. Mark is urging me to pursue this one: a story of a breakup that I went through with an ex-boyfriend who now identifies as female, and telling the story from both of our points of view.

"Intro to Alien Invasion," by Owen King, Mark Jude Poirer and Nancy Ahn, is available now

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