“Spectacle Only Matters If You’re Emotionally Engaged”: Heading Skyward With Joe Henderson & Lee Garbett

by Hannah Means Shannon

Flight has a special place in the history of comics, not just due to superhero comics, but also due to speculative fiction which bred characters like the Rocketeer. It’s hard not to cheer when you see a comic artist tackle a mid-air scene and sell it so completely you believe a man can fly or a web-slinger can swing. Creators Joe Henderson (showrunner on Fox’s Lucifer) and Lee Garbett (Lucifer, Loki: Agent of Asgard) have taken that visually riveting possibility in comics to a new level in creating a story entirely based around very low gravity as a kind of catastrophe that befalls earth–before society sucks it up and moves on with a series of innovations that make it possible to survive. Henderson and Garbett are joined on the book by Antonio Fabela on colors and Simon Bowland on letters.

In Skyward, the Low-G world is the only one Willa has ever known, and it’s one she’s come to love. Her father, Nate, has been scarred by the tragic outcomes of the arrival of Low-G, and is also one of the scientists who predicted its arrival, but failed to avert disaster. In Willa’s upbeat existence as a courier, the sky is the limit, but there are dangers and problems lurking concerning her lineage and those who profit from keeping the world Low-G.

Both Joe Henderson and Lee Garbett join us today to talk about their stunning new ongoing Image Comics series arriving in April:

Hannah Means-Shannon: Something I notice right away about Skyward is that even though it is a relatively up-beat comic, due in part to Willa’s buoyant (sorry) nature, it doesn’t soft-pedal some pretty horrifying ideas. How did you decide what the tone of the series would be and how much suffering and danger to include?

Joe Henderson: She IS buoyant, which I love about her! I really wanted her personality to mirror our low-G world. Also, I’m tired of dystopias, so I wanted to tell a story in a near future where a terrible thing happened…and then humanity survived. In some ways, it thrived. This world isn’t really better or worse than ours, just different. Different horrors, different joys, different hopes, different dangers. And it’s the only world Willa’s ever known.

So much of Willa’s journey is her optimism being tested. Like most coming-of-age stories, your protagonist thinks they can take on the whole world. In Willa’s case, it’s a world turned upside down, so she’ll face familiar dangers in unfamiliar and gravity-defying ways.

Lee Garbett: That hopefulness was a big part of the story we wanted to tell, too. It’s what’s so attractive about this character. We both felt it was time to tell a story of hope and heart, despite the crazy backdrop. It felt timely but refreshing and I think we could all do with a little hopefulness in our lives, right now.

HMS: So, how much footage of the international space station was involved in trying to really conceive of what living in zero G would be like? Did other sci-fi narratives influence you at all, whether in fiction, TV, or film? It seems like the details are so important to render this story interesting and shocking, so really digging in must have been a necessity.

JH: Oh man, I watched all the footage I could find—how they eat, sleep, wash their hair in zero G. The fun they have playing with water globules! And Velcro everywhere—it’s so obvious, but it didn’t occur to me until I saw it in a video. But the most important part to all of it is Lee—he’s so great at adding little touches which help the world feel lived in.

As for influences… where to begin? Lee and I are both big Star Wars nerds, and that’s one of my templates for tone—adventure, danger, humor, and tragedy all mixed together. Oddly, The Matrix was an influence for me structurally because it’s also a hero’s journey story in a world turned upside down. And Jason Aaron’s Thor was really instructive. Big, crazy ideas are everywhere, but the book has such a strong emotional core. As fun as it is to watch Jane Foster fight her way through frost giants, it’s WHY she’s fighting that matters. It’s something I tried to instill in Skyward. Spectacle only matters if you’re emotionally engaged.

LG: With the zero-G research, it was the smaller stuff, for me, that was the biggest help. The shots of the astronauts trying to make a peanut butter sandwich or taking a drink was hugely helpful as their solutions to those problems would actually be used across almost every aspect of life.

As Skyward is set in reduced, but-not-absent gravity, I found underwater footage—and the way objects behaved in that element—the most helpful. Objects that would suspend but eventually return to the ground, rather than tumble forever.

HMS: Lee, regarding your artwork, how do you set up those hair-pin turns between comedy and tragedy? How did knowing you’d be veering between the two influence the art style you set up for the series?

LG: It felt very comfortable from the get-go, to be honest. I used to draw cool characters floating amongst city blocks for fun, before I even started in comics. Once I had started in the industry, I found what I loved most was trying to hit those character beats and really selling the emotional impact of a scene. This is literally the combination of the two things I love doing the most.

HMS: What challenges did you face, working with this concept and making it your own, visually?

LG: The hardest part is to keep things moving around. In that sense, the layouts for the book take me a lot longer to stage. But, conversely, when there are poignant, emotional, or intimate moments, you can’t have your characters pinging around all over the place, so it’s finding the balance, the right time to have someone upside down, talking to someone who’s horizontal, and the time to have them make that connection in more familiar, less jarring ways.

The other thing I have to watch is not going too sci-fi and making sure it’s looking like the world we sort of know, trying to cope with the reality of low-G. Normal clothing becomes a problem there, but most of our main characters are not rich, so they’re adapting what existed before.

To deal with that, I’ve tried to show areas where there are magnets or connectors that run from cuffs or hoods—things to stop bits of material flying into the characters faces—but that never feel too wacky or futuristic against the grittier backdrop. Down on the ground, where the rich folks live, is a slightly different matter but even then, real world first, techy tweaks after.

HMS: Could you tell us a little bit about designing the appearance and movement of Willa as a central character?

LG: Willa is ebullient and optimistic and a little immature, so these are elements I like to get across in her mannerisms and body language—and her hair. Her hair behaves like she’s underwater, so, like her, it’s constantly on the move and I can use that to help convey mood and emotion.

It’s such a great advantage to have something that adds weight (ahem) to the character beats.

As she’s a courier for Rocket Messengers, I wanted to design a uniform that was familiar as something a UPS or FedEx driver may wear but, with her added flourishes and homemade kit, was also a bit like a hero’s costume. The balance of colors on her was something I took a lot of time to work out. She does change clothes as we go, but that vibe is pretty much maintained. I want her to be recognizable and would love her to become someone they’d want to cosplay.

HMS: Joe, the story is steeped in this extraordinary situation that the world and its people are dealing with, but there’s a pretty grounded (sorry) element about human psychology interwoven into the narrative.

For instance, we have two men who discover that tragedy is about to strike, and one tries to stop it or solve it, and the other seeks to profit by it. We also have people taking pleasure in the greater cruelty zero G allows them to inflict.

Maybe the biggest adaptation humans display in the comic is the ability to remain assholes? That’s quite an achievement under the circumstances. Why doesn’t this crisis bring people together?

JH: I think that’s the perfect summary of human nature! Some will try to profit, some will try to solve it, and a lot of people will be somewhere in the middle. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

I think early on, G-day did bring people together, but greed and ambition always spring up in a crisis, don’t they? But there’s also the simple question of survival. In a world where the sky is deadly, everyone wants to be as close to the ground as possible. No one wants to be in the penthouses anymore—that’s where the poor cluster now. So, what are you willing to do to feel safe? To keep your family safe? Desperation can change people. But I think a lot of people also survived by looking out for each other, which we’ll speak to in the book.

HMS: I love the fact that we have a character in Skyward whose life is vastly improved by a lack of gravity. Can you tell us a little bit more about Edison and that choice of character? I know we might have to avoid spoilers here…

JH: I really wanted a character who, like you said, represents the upside of low gravity. Edison would be in a wheelchair with normal gravity, but in Skyward, he’s able to soar through the air! To me, so much of the book is the mix of wish fulfillment and danger, and Edison definitely represents that first part. But if someone could actually bring back gravity…that would be bad news indeed for Edison…

HMS: How crazy is Willa’s father, Nate? In some ways he seems like the survivor of a wartime experience or a nuclear holocaust given the anxiety he suffers that limits him. When he says he thinks he knows a way to bring back gravity, should we believe him? Could it really be as simple as that?

JH: That’s exactly the question Willa will be asking—her dad LOOKS crazy, he SOUNDS crazy, he SMELLS crazy (dude could really use a shower), but as she goes on her journey, she starts to wonder if he might be right. There’s no question G-day broke him—both because of the loss he suffered and his own personal guilt at not figuring out how to prevent it. But he could be crazy AND still be right. That’ll be for Willa to figure out.

HMS: Joe, can you tell us a little about working with Lee and Antonio Fabela on the artwork on the series? How difficult is it to provide feedback on what “works” or looks realistic enough when you’re dealing with such a world turned so upside down, literally?

JH: Early on, Lee and I talked a lot about the rules of the world, and really tried to nail down how everything works, so we have a consistent rule-set. Since then, I haven’t provided much feedback to Lee, because I haven’t needed to—he’s absolutely amazing, and works so hard to balance the realism and the spectacle.

I also think the most important part for selling the realism is the emotion Lee brings to the characters. With Willa in particular, there’s such a warmth and strength to how he depicts her. Because I connect with her, she feels real, and I think that makes the world feel real.

And Antonio! He’s coloring with such a beautifully vibrant palette, which I love. I want the images to pop off the page, for this to feel like a world people want to live in, even if it is dangerous.

HMS: How do you see the emotional arc for Willa progressing in the comic, as far as you’re able to reveal? She’s courageous, naïve, but possibly as driven as her father. Where might that take her?

JH: She’s wonderfully, amazingly fearless. Her father is terrified of everything. Hopefully, they’ll meet in the middle—learning that a little fear can be a good thing, but you can’t let it cripple you. If they survive their journey, that is…

And when it comes to Willa in particular, for someone who can soar through the air, her father makes her feel trapped. She wants to see the world, be able to be her own person, and not her crazy dad’s caretaker. Be careful what you wish for…

HMS: How far out are you and the team thinking on Skyward? How many issues or arcs are a possibility at this point?

JH: Lee is already penciling issue 6, which starts the second arc. That’s where things go truly CRAZY. The book is planned as on ongoing, with at least 15 issues, that’ll give a beginning middle and end, with the opportunity to continue if the sales gods are kind! I want to make sure people buying the book know there’s a plan, and questions will be answered.

We’re having such a blast on this book—it’s a passion project for all of us, and we hope people check it out!

Many thanks to Joe Henderson and Lee Garbett for humoring us by answering our strange questions for Comicon.com!

Skyward #1 will arrive in comic shops on April 18th, 2018.