Comics have always been reflections of our society. They’re graphic stories produced in a real-time manner to dramatize, allegorize, and parabolize the human condition, to help us make sense of our lives and times. Few understand this better than Sara Kenney and neurobiologist and science communicator, Bella Starling, who with their new Webtoon series, Planet Divoc-91, seek to find calm amidst the calamity that COVID-19 has brought our world.
The nine-part Webtoons series tells the story of two siblings, Sanda and Champo, who are suddenly transported to a faraway planet – Divoc-91- along with 15% of the Earth’s young adult population, in order to protect them from an “extinction level event.” The duo must learn how to navigate their new lives on the planet, while also adapting to the new socioeconomic status quo imposed on them and unraveling the mystery of who runs Divoc-91. I assure you, the similarities to the world outside your window are intentional.
Kenney, Creative Director at Wowbagger Productions, and Starling, Director of Vocal at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, are joined by a cavalcade of the industry’s finest scribes and artists (including The Walking Dead‘s, Charlie Adlard!) and is jointly funded by the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, all in effort to elevate the voices of young adults in the time COVID and, to help their audience understand and cope with our present world.
Each issue of Planet Divoc-91 will also feature essays and editorials from pundits around the world, as well as young adults interviewing some of the foremost scientists combating the pandemic, including Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, in the first issue. The project’s ultimate goal is to build a community on Webtoons to empower young adults to be positive influences on their world, and to help direct research efforts.
Chapter one releases today and can be found right here: PLANET DIVOC-91.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Kenney and Starling, through email, about the project.
AIPT: Planet Divoc-91 is the first story I’ve heard of that addresses COVID directly. I’ve had the pleasure of reading the first chapter, and your writing is fearless. You face the socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic head on, and you quickly ask your audience many heavy questions. Do you feel any pressure being one of the first storytellers to address our current state of affairs?
Sara Kenney: Yes, totally. But this project is very much about the use of participatory arts to create change. If we want diverse, young adult voices to be part of the pandemic narrative, we can’t afford to wait and see how things play out. We’re quite transparent in saying we want to influence how this plays out – even if it’s just in some small and positive way.
We’ve got the ear of the UK Chief Government Scientist, and we’re supported by some incredible and global science orgs, so hopefully some good will come from this dialogue. I also think it’s important to say that we have complete editorial control. Once the funders agree to fund, they let us get on with it.
The story is meant to be allegorical rather than literal. Our protagonist Sanda’s story is deliberately distanced from the reality of what is happening on Earth right now. There is a different Extinction Level Event (ELE) threatening the Earth. Our starting point is Sanda and her sibling Champo’s experience of being zapped to another planet and not knowing who to trust. It’s interesting to see where the other creatives are taking it!
AIPT: What was the trigger moment (or moments) that led to your decision to address the pandemic and how did you decide that your message should be in comic form?
Bella Starling: Sara and I were already working on a project with scientists and communities in Africa, looking at how to creatively engage about infectious disease. So we were already deep in thought about which media has the potential to engage across continents and languages. When COVID hit, it was a quick next step to think about how comics could fulfill this brief in the context of the pandemic. Also – my son is a massive comics fan, and I could see how a comic would chime with him!
SK: Bella and I have both worked in science engagement for decades, and were collaborating when the pandemic emerged. We asked the young adult groups we’d assembled, what they thought about the comic format and they were keen. They also specified that they thought it should be a digital comic, so we dutifully obliged. I love comics and clearly millions of Webtoon fans love them too, so it was a no-brainer from there.
AIPT: How were you so effectively able to dissect and distill all of the aspects of the pandemic you wanted to explore and, more so, how did you decide to tell this story from the perspective of young adults?
BS: I’m part of a huge research infrastructure, and when COVID hit, scientists and researchers massively mobilized to answer the call for more knowledge about the pandemic. I was part of this mobilization and, along with Sara’s contacts, we were able to access, interact, and figure out some of the main themes and areas of relevance to people, and especially young people. From my end, choosing to tell the story from the perspective of young adults came from the personal experience of being a parent, and from already working with young adults, including those from relative health, educational, and socioeconomic disadvantage in science communication.
We were aware that young voices were absent from discussions about the pandemic and wanted to change this. Young people and [young] adults have hugely important perspectives to share about the world and to bring to science. They also have fantastic talent to bring to science communication.
SK: I’d covered some of this territory in a previous comic, Surgeon X, which I created back in 2016 with John Watkiss, Karen Berger, Warren Pleece, James Devlin and Jared Fletcher. “Wash Your Hands,” “Wear a Mask;” it’s all in there! The equity issues were also a big part of that story, so it did my head in at first to see it all play out.
It was the history, philosophy, sociology, and ethical aspects that people really engaged with, and these experts are also a big part of this story. These disciplines are represented through our charismatic aliens created by Charlie Adlard, Harri, Kahali, Bobbie and Tendai. It was brilliant to see what Charlie did with these characters. I’d quite like some figurines!
We wanted to tell the story from the perspective of young adults, as their voices are often missing from the conversation. Also, people keep saying this is a pandemic that mostly impacts the elderly, and that’s such a narrow way of looking at things. Whilst I’m perfectly happy sitting on my own for hours working, as well as looking after my young kids at home, I would not have been happy if this had hit me when I was 19, like Champo or 23, like Sanda – it would have changed everything. Not just in this moment, but in trying to imagine what my future might hold. Imagining what our future might hold is often a key to happiness, so I’d like to think we can work with young adults to help them imagine happier times ahead.
AIPT: What I respect the most about Planet Divoc-19 and your other work, is your genuine intent to inform. I mean don’t get me wrong, What are the most important things you’d like to teach your audience as they journey along with Sanda, and how much of the scientific and medical concepts behind COVID do you intend to present?
SK: Firstly, thank you! I think while there is a certain amount of informing by experts, the ultimate goal places the young adult in the position of power. We want them to inform the experts, and ultimately policy. I would say the emphasis is not on teaching the audience, but sharing some ideas from our experts and encouraging the audience to respond.
So far, our young adults have focused in on 1) equity issues; 2) use of military metaphors and whether they are appropriate or stigmatizing; 3) clarity of messaging from science/ governments – particularly when it comes to wearing a mask, and so much more; 4) immunity and vaccine safety/ethics; 5) mental health. It’s not hard to see how these areas of focus from our young people could drive the experts to think harder about how they research or make policy in these areas, but with young people’s specific concerns in mind.
BS: Planet Divoc-91 is really about exploration of some of the scientific, social, and ethical aspects of this pandemic, from an alternative and creative viewpoint focused on young adults. I’m not sure we – or science for that matter! – have all the answers to what we’re experiencing right now, but hopefully we can provoke some questions, some curiosity, and perhaps, yes, some edutainment!
The young adults involved in co-creating the stories and articles that accompany the comic have set the agenda themselves – deciding what type of researcher to interview, and which area of science they’d like to know more about. Importantly, our development process allows the view of the young adults involved in the comic, as well as readers, to feed back into science and policy process, to help inform future research and reimagine a world together with scientific and political institutions. Clearly though, themes that are likely to emerge include mental health, psychology, the science of behavior, vaccination and immunology.
AIPT: Would you be so kind as to speak a bit on your approaches to research? Something that many of us have struggled with is the barrage of information being thrown at us, but I’m willing to bet that’s nothing new for you. Do you have any tips for our readers to help them sift through some of the noise, and how to discern what a reputable source of information is versus one that may be questionable?
BS: The World Health Organisation has said that we’re living through a “massive infodemic,” as well as a pandemic, so your question is spot on! Deciding who to trust is a major factor in navigating how to judge the reliability of information. Mistrust is as important as trust, and scientists, the media, and politicians all need to earn people’s trust. I expand on this in my piece for The Hollywood Reporter, but some quick ways to spot misinformation are:
- Check your source. Be suspicious of vague or remote sources (e.g. “scientists say” without saying who), or places that show bad communication (e.g. poor spelling)
- How emotional is the information? Stories and messages that are highly emotional are really engaging and get shared the most. But fraudsters know this and such stories might not be true.
- Is the information widespread? Reliable information will be reported in more than one place.
- Spot the fake. Watch out for false social media accounts (that might seem real!), misleading images, and bogus web addresses.
- Who is behind the scenes? Who stands to gain from your belief in their information? The motive could be profit, for example, getting you to share online or buy something that is backed up by false claims.
- Fact-check. Headlines are often sensational – read a story to the end. Check Fact-checking websites. You can find a list of these here.
AIPT: What wisdom would you like to impart to your colleagues on how to express their thoughts and feelings regarding our present circumstances?
SK: Ha! I wouldn’t dare to tell my colleagues how to express their thoughts and feelings – it’s just so personal and we’re all situated differently. Also, I’m a storyteller who works in engagement with science, and although of course I want to tell compelling stories and I want people to be entertained, I’m also interested in positive action that can emerge from the process.
The first chapter of PLANET DIVOC-91 is out today!