Talking With UK Comic Laureate Hannah Berry About ‘Planet Dovic-91’, The State Of The Industry And More

by Oliver MacNamee

Planet Dovic-91 is a nine-part webcomic series designed to entertain and inform readers about the current pandemic, but set against the backdrop of science fiction and backed by the UK scientific community. This month’s third issue is written and illustrated by the current UK Comics Laureate, Hannah Berry, who I spoke with about her contribution to the comic, her role as Comics Laureate and more.

Olly MacNamee: Hiya, Hannah. Great talking with you again, even remotely like this. You’re the writer behind this week’s PlanetDivoc-91 comic, aren’t you? It’s described as “an offbeat sci-fi satire about a pandemic outbreak in the far reaches of outer space,” and funded partly by a number of scientific institutes right here in Britain, but how did you get involved in this project?

Hannah Berry: Olly! Nice to ‘see’ you again too! I miss the IRL times, don’t you? When you could see a person, hang out with a person, not worry especially about catching diseases off a person…good times.

I got involved when Sara Kenney got in touch – I’ve worked with her before, and she always manages to put together these incredible, multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary projects with lots of moving parts and a real sense of social responsibility. Planet Divoc-91 is no exception, and it’s been a great project to focus on during all of this bat-shittery.

OM: It’s a comic that tries to capture the whole pandemic situation, but in a more entertaining, albeit informative way through the eyes of two earthlings, Sandra and Champo Oung and through the genre of science fiction? Does detaching this project from our current reality help the story you are all telling do you think? 

HB: Definitely. You get a lot of freedom to manoeuvre and a lot more angles to explore different themes and emotions once you detach yourself from straight-up reality, plus the moment you look at something through a sci-fi lens all bets are off in terms of possibilities. There’s enough in there to draw a distinct correlation between what’s happening now and elements of the story, but enough distance that it offers some form of escape. I’ve put jokes in there, for example, and I don’t know if I’d have been as comfortable doing that if it was set in the here and now…

OM: How does scripting work when you have to incorporate specific scientific elements and follow on from a previous writer like some kind of comic book relay team?

HB: That was a lot of fun! Normally I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to writing a story – all the plot elements have to be just so – but because I had no control over the story I was given, and no control over how the story I’d written would be followed up, I just had to relinquish that control. It was surprisingly liberating! As far as I’m aware, none of us have had any contact with each other, although I did get a phone call from Karrie Fransman (writer of chapter 5) asking if she could do a terrible thing to the awesome character I introduced. If you’re reading this, Karrie, NO YOU CAN’T YOU CAN’T PLEASE DON’T DO IT.

As for the science, my specific background is a GCSE and sci-fi films, so my first draft involved me saying, “This happens for Science Reasons,” and because Sara does not mess around and has actual scientists involved with the project we were able to ask experts, “Could this thing happen in this way?” and they were able to advise us on current technology or practices that could be advanced to that state. So although the Transfuser (terrifying) is obviously not real, it’s a fantasy that has some grounding in reality.

OM: And what short cuts can you take when scripting for yourself as the illustrator of this month’s edition of Planet Divoc-91?

Ha! None, because I’m an idiot who always forgets that whatever I write I’m also going to have to draw.

OM: And, as I’ve got you here, many readers in the States will not know of your role as Britain’s current Comics Laureate following in the footsteps of Dave Gibbons and Charlie Adlard. Under your magnanimous rule you went to the great trouble of creating a survey amongst comic book professionals. What were some of the major findings from that report and what will you be intended to do with this valuable information?

HB: Well the nicest find is that everyone feels extremely strongly about the medium and the community: the word ‘love’ appeared in the literal responses 196 times. Heart-warming! Unfortunately it turns out that everyone is pretty much just doing this for love because only a handful are able to make a living from comics alone (87% of creators rely on other sources of income alongside comics). Right now I’m holding a series of online public discussions to examine the main issues raised in responses – lack of money, lack of access, lack of audience and lack of professionalism – and see if there is anything we can do; any changes we can make to improve our situations. Some things might be quite straightforward, like setting up advisory sessions around contracts etc, others are more systemic like improving visibility of comics to a wider readership and bringing freelance payments more in line with other artforms. It’s a big task, but we have to start somewhere!

OM: And what are you plans as Comic Laureate going forward? I imagine it’s tough in these unsure times?

HB: Sadly my term expires in March. It’s frustrating, as a lot of the plans and schemes I’d hoped to set up, a lot of the things I’d hoped to be involved with, have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely, so it feels like I’ve only had half a term. I shouldn’t really complain, though – a lot of people have it a lot worse, and I’ve really enjoyed my time in post!

OM: Other than Planet Divoc-91 #3 and your work as the UK’s Comics Laureate any new projects on your drawing board? 

HB: Why yes! I’ve been involved with another really ambitious sci-fi project for kids aged 9-14 called The Rez, made up of a comic (written by me and drawn by the excellent Rachael Smith) and podcast series (I wrote an episode featuring – I think? – the most farts SFX ever recorded) and an interactive website. It should be coming out extremely soon, so watch this space I guess??

 

OM: As ever, thanks or your time, Hannah. And, I do hope to see you again soon at a comic convention in the future. Nt too fare into the future, though.

HB: I hope so! I look forward to hanging out with the comics crowd again, catching up with everyone and coming home with a nasty bout of con-flu that is definitely just con-flu…

You can catch up with the previous two free issues as well as read today’s new release on webtoons here.

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