R. Alan Brooks, the local writer, rapper, teacher, artist, podcast host and cartoonist who writes the strip “What’d I Miss?” for The Colorado Sun, has announced the launch of his new graphic novel, “Anguish Garden.”
Brooks already has found success with “The Burning Metronome,” a supernatural murder-mystery, which led to his position with Regis University’s Master of Fine Arts program, where he teaches graphic novel writing.
His newest effort, set in the future, tells the story of a woman named Zola. In the aftermath of an alien invasion, which Earth has just repelled, many humans become infected with a disease transmitted by the invaders. Zola’s job is to track “infected” people who show no symptoms and quarantine them in a place nicknamed “Anguish Garden.”
But while she’s convinced she’s doing good, she slowly comes to realize that may not be the case. The story is an allegory about white supremacy.
Brooks will crowdfund the graphic novel, which includes artist/collaborators Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl, with a Kickstarter campaign beginning on Feb. 2, to coincide with Black History Month. From 4-6 p.m. on that day, he’ll host a kickoff party for the campaign at the Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway in Denver. Kickstarter also helped him produce “The Burning Metronome.”
The Sun and Brooks found a quiet place in the basement of Mutiny to chat about his new venture, his approach to his art and, of course, the weekly strip he does in collaboration with artist Cori Redford for the Sun.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Colorado Sun: Your new graphic novel features a woman as the main character and takes place in the sci-fi realm. Tell us about those decisions.
Alan Brooks: I was wanting to do something that had a female protagonist because I want to diversify the different leads of my stories. But I also read this book about Derek Black. It’s called “Rising Out of Hatred.” Derek Black is the son of Don Black, who created Stormfront, which was the largest white nationalist, white supremacist website in the world.
CS: How does he figure into your work?
AB: So Derek Black was sort of like the chosen one for white supremacists. When he was 11, he learned how to code and he created a kid’s corner on Stormfront — a kid’s corner on the white nationalist website. When he was 14, he came up with the term “white genocide,” which has clearly proliferated. He hosted a white supremacist radio show with his father for years. They thought that by sending them to college they could legitimize a representative for white supremacy.
CS: Did that work?
AB: Not exactly. He goes to a liberal arts college and for the first time he meets the people he’s been taught to hate all of his life. And he started moving slowly away from white supremacy by interacting with the people who he’d always been raised to hate. He eventually renounced white supremacy. But what was interesting to me was that he really thought he was doing something noble. And when he came face to face with the humanity of these people that he had been taught to deny, he had to rethink. So I wondered: What is it like to have a character who thinks they’re doing something good, and has to come to the understanding that they are not the hero, that they are the villain? And that they have a choice to make whether they’re going to continue to be the villain, or whether they’re going to try and do good things? That was kind of where I began.
CS: So there was a central theme you wanted to explore here about race, but you’re framing it as an allegory.
AB: Right. I followed the “Twilight Zone” model. Rod Serling, the show’s creator, was always getting censored. He wanted to write about Emmett Till and sexism and issues like that, but he was constantly getting censored, which is why he created “Twilight Zone.” He found that if he’d encase these messages in fantasy and sci-fi, he wouldn’t get censored. His quote was, “I found that I could have Martians saying things that I couldn’t have Democrats and Republicans saying.” So in the case of this book, what I wanted to do is a sort of a post-apocalyptic Western, something that was just fun to read.
CS: Give us the basics.
AB: In the aftermath of an alien war, a certain population of the planet is infected by the aliens, but they don’t show any symptoms. And our hero, Zola, her job is to hunt down those people and force them into a quarantine called Anguish Garden — that’s the slang name for it. And so she is in a position of hunting down people who the government tells her are affected and forcing them into this quarantine. This gives me a place to do commentary on family separations at the border. But are these people actually infected? Are they actually a threat? At the beginning of the book she thinks that they are. So she thinks that she’s protecting healthy humans and making it safe for them. And as the book goes on, she kind of comes to this realization and it starts to unravel.
CS: How did you approach the challenge of writing a female character and making her authentic?
AB: As far as the artists for this project, I wanted to make sure I had women working on it with me, because I knew that they would bring insight and dimension to the character that I couldn’t think of. So the pencil ink artist is a woman named Dailen Ogden. On top of the layouts, she’s doing all the character work and the “acting” — the facial expressions, the body language, the emotional moments that are important to make a reader connect with the story. And then the color sets emotional tones — it’s kind of like the soundtrack of a comic book. The color artist is Sarah Menzel Trapl, and she is really good with making things feel so deeply emotive.
CS: Can you give me an example of how that worked?
AB: Sure. In a seven-page preview we did, Dailen put these dark marks under the character’s eyes. And I was like, “Why are you doing it?” And she said: “Well, based on how you’ve described the character, she seems like someone who would not be diligent about taking her makeup off. So there would be remnants.” Something I would never think of. So then, I communicated that to Sarah (Menzel Traipl) and Sarah colored in support of that. I want to be thoughtful about how I am writing a female character. I feel supported by having half of the creative team be women.
CS: Tell me about the process here. This is part one of what you envision as a trilogy. How much is done at this point?
AB: I’ve written the whole script for the first book of the three. I’m waiting to write the other ones, until I see how the art comes out. The collaborative nature of comics means that I may have a vision for something in my mind, but the reason I’m working with artists is because they can come up with something that I couldn’t have thought of.
CS: So there’s some back and forth with the script?
AB: Exactly. Sometimes the art will say more than I thought it would, so I can take off some of the dialogue, because the acting is showing it. Other times, they might miss something like a subtlety that I wanted to get across. So then I will add more dialogue. So seeing the first book in its wholeness will inform how I write parts two and three, because it is very collaborative and it develops that way.
CS: The first installment is all written?
AB: It’s all written. The art is the thing that needs to happen. And that’s part of what the Kickstarter is for. I have to pay these three artists for seven months of work.
CS: What influences pointed you toward graphic novels in the first place?
AB: When I was five years old, my father — who’s a journalist who was at USA Today for 30 years — decided that he wanted to make sure that I was interested in reading. So he bought me comic books. He bought me The Flash. That was the first comic book I ever read. And I’ve been a fan of comic books ever since then.
CS: You eventually broke through with writing your own graphic novel, “The Burning Metronome.” And among other things, that success got you the job at Regis University. What other reactions did you get?
AB: Probably the best the best story I have, the most moving to me about somebody who connected with the book, came from a woman I met at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018. She bought the book, and she had just had a stroke, so she had aphasia — difficulty communicating, switching words around, you know. So then I saw her this year at Comic-Con. A year later, she’s speaking better. And she tells me that she uses my book for speech therapy. A therapist reads a chapter, then she reads a chapter and she has to try to describe it in her own words. Just the idea that something that came out of my heart has the significance to somebody in their lives that they’re using it for healing, that’s not something I could ever have imagined. It’s so beautiful to me.
CS: With science fiction, it seems like you can infuse social commentary, or you could go strictly for entertainment. How do you weigh those?
AB: As I think about it, both are valid. But for myself, I feel like there’s so much going on in the world, that if I’m creating art, I want it to be something that adds value to people’s lives and makes us all think about how we’re treating each other and living our lives, while also being entertaining. Because if it’s not entertaining, then I might as well just be writing a sermon.
CS: When do you work best? Late at night? Early in the morning?
AB: I don’t believe in the morning. I stand against it. So mostly afternoons and nights. I basically just try to write for as long as I can and after a while, four to six hours goes by pretty easily and then I just know that I can’t do anymore that day. Because if I force myself, it’s not gonna be good.
CS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about “What’d I Miss?”, the weekly strip you do for The Colorado Sun. How does this differ from your graphic novel work?
AB: The challenge in creating a comic for the Sun was, what can I do in short bursts that still feels like it sustains itself, right? Because something like “The Burning Metronome” is a long narrative, and so I have time to develop characters and conflicts and pitch to bigger things. And so the social commentary thing definitely is still there. That’s something that I want to do. But I had to figure out how to not overcomplicate it, and make it something that could work weekly.
CS: You came up with an interesting premise: 50-something Myra has been in a coma for 30 years, and she strikes up a friendship with 20-something Ossie. She’s white, he’s black. Where did that come from?
AB: I thought about how can I approach issues that are specific to Colorado, and then sometimes go wider with a fresh eye. And so, that’s kind of how I came up with the idea of Myra having been in a coma, so that she’s having to learn what this world is like, and explore it. And then it creates a natural connection between her and Ossie because emotionally, she feels like she’s his age. She doesn’t necessarily have the experience of age, but she does have the experience of having been alive at a different time. So all of that I think has worked really well for being able to ask hard questions.
CS: You certainly don’t shy away from hard subjects — especially race. Do you get much pushback?
AB: Someone said to me, “Not all things are about race.” And I said, I find the argument “not all” is almost always flawed, because it makes you focus on the exception rather than the fact that there’s a problem, right? So if a woman’s trying to talk to me about sexism, and I say, “Well, not all men are sexist,” then that is me ignoring the fact that there is a problem with sexism. And sure, not all men are sexist, but that argument usually is made just to derail discussion.
CS: What kind of discussions are you trying to foster with “What’d I Miss?”, and with your art as a whole?
AB: A lot of what I’m trying to do with that comic is not pretend like I have all the answers. I think it’s more about raising the questions in an intelligent way and letting the reader decide what their answer is. I can identify things that are wrong or that I’m not sure about. And again, these characters talk about it from different perspectives. And sometimes their conversation might point to what I think is a good answer. But I definitely don’t want to be in a position of using these characters as a mouthpiece for how I think it should be. You know, I feel like good art encourages us to think and to consider for ourselves. And that’s what I’m really trying to do.
CS: Where do you go from here?
AB: I’m looking forward to building what I do with comics and graphic novels. There’s this thing I’ve been saying for the last couple years: I feel like when it comes to any -ism, racism, sexism, ageism, whatever it is, it’s either a result of a failure or a refusal to see the humanity of the other person. If you have refused, you’ve already made a choice. So I’m not really trying to reach you. But if you’re just failing to see the other person’s humanity, art is an excellent way to build a bridge and put you in someone else’s shoes. So many stories I love to tell in a way that communicates the humanity of other people. And what I’m really most excited about is expanding the reach I have, in order to do those kind of things.