Though it’s not the first thing to be called Black Star — just ask David Bowie, Michael Moreci, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and Black Star Burger in L.A. — the science fiction graphic novel Black Star (hardcover, Kindle) does represent some interesting firsts. It’s the first full-length graphic novel and sci-fi story for illustrator Arielle Jovellanos, and one of the first releases by Megascope, a new line of graphic novels that, its website says, “[is] dedicated to showcasing speculative and non-fiction works by and about people of color, with a focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror, history, and stories of magical realism.” In the following email interview with Jovellanos and Black Star writer Eric A. Glover, they discuss what inspired and influenced this sci-fi thriller.
Eric, I’d like to start with you: What is Black Star about, and when and where does it take place?
Eric: Black Star is about a bookish scientist who crash-lands on a dangerous planet named Eleos. The scientist, Harper North, is forced to race a vengeful wilderness expert to a shuttle built for one occupant. The stakes kind of transcend the two women, though, because North is hoping to not only get back home, but to also return with a flower that could help in Earth’s fight against cancer, which is still ongoing in the 22nd century.
Where did you get the original idea for this story?
Eric: I had a nightmare. I was an astronaut falling onto a foreign planet, and another astronaut was chasing me. I thought the terror I felt might translate to a cool story.
As I understand it, Black Star was originally written as a screenplay. What led you to change it into a graphic novel, and why a graphic novel as opposed to a prose novel?
Eric: My editor, Charlotte Greenbaum, read the script and believed it could translate into a great graphic novel, specifically. Thankfully, she convinced me to give it a try.
It sounds like Black Star is a sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Eric: “Space opera” is flattering, but I think it’s a little more intimate than that. There are no big interplanetary conflicts, no aerial dogfights, and no swaths of warring characters. This story is just about two women dropped into an impossible situation, and it happens to take place on a planet that intensifies the tension between them, because of its weather and terrain. I’d call it a sci-fi thriller, with some action sprinkled in there.
Are there any writers, in comics or prose, who had a big influence on Black Star but not on anything else you’ve written?
Eric: Not consciously, though I have plenty of writers to thank for shaping my tastes over the years. Jose Saramago’s Blindness stands out as a novel that moved me by investigating cruelty between people, without saying we should lose hope in all of them. Likewise with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The Dead Zone and The Shining by Stephen King also touched on the same kind of sentiment for me. Despite the violent conflicts I sometimes write about, I’m never interested in creating stories meant to harden anyone’s heart.
And how about non-literary influences; was Black Star influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Eric: Whew, take your pick. Alien goes a long way, because it’s a contained thriller with a minimal cast — and like that movie, Black Star doesn’t imagine interstellar travel in the tradition of The Jetsons. The spaceships in both stories imply that humanity is just trying its best with what it has. I really liked Gravity, which is about a woman who has to face her demons and push herself past her normal limits while on a space mission. After Earth gets a lot of crap, but I loved the idea of an isolated person having to trek across a dangerous planet for some kind of salvation, which Black Star absolutely takes on as well. Pitch Black, Children Of Men, and What Lies Beneath also deserve some credit.
Now, Arielle, how did you come to be the illustrator of Black Star?
Arielle: Our editor, the amazing Charlotte Greenbaum, reached out to me a couple years ago about the project. She had sent me the original screenplay, and also mentioned that she’d had me on her radar from a comic I had done a few years prior. It really just goes to show that you never know who’s looking at your work or where opportunities will lead.
What was it about Black Star that not only made you want to draw it, but also feel that you were the right person to do so?
Arielle: The throughline in all of my work has been an interest in drawing stories about women that allow them to have a full scope of complex emotions. I think I was drawn to the opportunity to design two women of color in a genre that doesn’t always feature them as main characters, and I was also excited about stretching my range and trying new things. Black Star represents a lot of firsts for me; while I’ve contributed short comics to various publications, this is my first full length graphic novel and also my first sci-fi story. I’m always interested in how stories can adapt from medium to medium and what visual motifs can be created to underscore the meaning of a text. As I read Eric’s screenplay, I found I had a bunch of ideas that would help Black Star translate visually.
Black Star is also published under Megascope, a new imprint of Abrams ComicArts, dedicated to speculative fiction made by authors and artists of color founded by John Jennings. The mission of this imprint resonated deeply with me, and so I knew I wanted to be part of it. I’m so proud to be in the inaugural Megascope line with Eric.
Are there any artists, graphic novel or otherwise, who you feel had a particularly big influence on what you did for Black Star?
Arielle: While I didn’t specifically look at her for Black Star, I always think of my favorite manga artist, Rumiko Takahashi whenever I lay out any comic. She’s such a master of her craft and transcends all genres — whatever she does, she does it with such a deep understanding of panel flow and structure. Her influence is inherent to my work.
Besides that, I also looked at the first volume of Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita manga just to get in that sci-fi zone and see if I could glean some shorthand tricks for drawing technology and machines.
What about other kinds of influences; was anything in Black Star — either the art as a whole or individual items in it — influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Arielle: My frame of reference for sci-fi comes more from anime and manga than western sci-fi classics, so things like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost In The Shell definitely seeped in there as well. I was also thinking of the plug suits from Neon Genesis Evangelion when I was designing the main characters’ space suits. I love how the characters in Evangelion are color coded from their uniforms; it was a neat trick that I wound up using to elevate the story in Black Star. Color-coding each character in Black Star was a handy way to immediately create visual opposition.
I also loved looking at Chesley Bonestell’s paintings of extraterrestrial terrain as inspiration. There’s such a quality of otherworldliness yet eerie familiarity in all his work.
As you were drawing Black Star, what was Eric’s biggest contribution to or suggestion about the art?
Arielle: Eric was a big help during the layout process. He has an incredibly detailed eye for seeking narrative clarity and emphasizing the right story beats, and so he helped fill in my visual blindspots.
When working with writers, I always ask them who they would cast in a movie adaptation of the work. I don’t necessarily stick to the actors they say, but it’s always a great way for me to pick up on the vibe and energy the writer feels for each character. I don’t know if Eric remembers which actresses he picked out for Black Star‘s main characters, but they were both lovely starting points to work from.
And Eric, did Arielle do anything in the art for Black Star that made you change anything in your story?
Eric: Yes. Arielle came up with the idea of North wearing a visor with augmented reality capabilities, and it was a game-changer. I leaned into it because it was such a fun visual element that helped with exposition and even emotional stakes. It was a brilliant take. It 100% improved the story.
Now, as you know, some sci-fi space operas are stand-alone stories, and some are part of larger sagas. Eric, is Black Star a stand-alone story or the first book of a larger saga?
Eric: This is a little painful to say as a man who loves sequels and sagas and never-ending comics inspired by my favorite superheroes, but as of now, Black Star is a one-and-done deal. It’s a complete story that doesn’t have a ton of room for “to be continued.”
I’ll admit, I’ve given some vague thought to how the story might continue if I needed it to, because I multi-chapter stuff fundamentally. But Black Star doesn’t need a sequel, so I’ve never been compelled to really flesh one out. Gun to my head, there’s one idea waiting in the wings. But I’m satisfied with the ending I have.
As we discussed earlier, Black Star started out as a screenplay. But since Hollywood loves turning graphic novels into movies and TV shows, I have to ask: Has anyone inquired about adapting Black Star into a movie or show?
Eric: A few people in the industry have expressed some curiosity about the existing screenplay, but there’s nothing to report at the moment. Who knows what the future holds, though?
If someone did want to turn Black Star into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Harper and the other main characters, and why them?
Eric: That one’s hard to narrow down, because there are so many talented black actresses out there. There are some who come to mind first because they’ve already starred in some established sci-fi: Zoe Saldana [Guardians Of The Galaxy], Thandiwe Newton [Solo: A Star Wars Story], Halle Berry [Cloud Atlas], Gugu Mbatha-Raw [Jupiter Ascending], and so on. I’d be so incredibly honored by those women bringing my story to life, and at the same time, I’d also be thrilled to have some lesser-known women (or older women, or darker women, or less movie-star-gorgeous women) make the leading roles their own, too. Maybe change what the “face” of sci-fi looks like a bit more.
And Arielle, if someone did want to turn Black Star into a movie or TV show, would you want to work on it?
Arielle: Sure, why not! If that ever happened, it would be fun to revisit my visual narrative choices and consult on the storyboard side of things
Finally, I always like to end with people recommending other things to read. But since this Arielle has a bunch of books out, while this Eric’s first…well, sorry, Eric, but if someone enjoys Black Star, which of Arielle’s other books would you recommend they read next, and Arielle, same question to you about your oeuvre.
Arielle: Oh gosh, this one is kind of a tough question since, as I mentioned, Black Star is my first sci-fi story and also my first full length graphic novel! I don’t think I’ve ever done anything quite like it.
If I had to pick something, tangentially, I recently provided some illustrations for an amazing YA prose novel called Drawn That Way by Elissa Sussman. It’s about a teen girl who gets an internship at her favorite animation studio, but winds up discovering it’s a boys club that doesn’t know how to handle her ambition and talent. If you’re a reader who loves graphic novels and art, and loves stories that allow girls the full complexity of their emotions, I think you’ll love this book. It comes out this September.
Eric: Ha, there was no way I was gonna do anything other than follow Arielle’s lead here. Check out Drawn That Way for sure, and while you wait for more of her (inevitably successful) projects to come out, sate yourself with her Instagram. It’s a damn pretty place on the internet.