At their best, independent comics are awesome. They’re distinct, hugely personal pieces of craft made by folks with deep knowledge and passion for comics as a storytelling form. The work they do is theirs – idiosyncratic and wonderful. So, when an opportunity arises to celebrate that work, it’s an opportunity worth seizing.
Sarah Horrocks is a comics creator and critic. On Thursday, March 11, Horrocks will release issue #3 of Aorta, her ongoing mecha comic, which she describes as a book “for fans of emotions screamed defiantly through mechs across the empty void of space.”
Aorta is a heck of a comic. As an illustrator, Horrocks has an impressive command of vast spaces — whether the endless sky of a planetside ranch or the infinite deep of space itself — and the way bodies move through them. Fleets of warships lock in a desperate battle. A lone pilot braves a furious storm to rescue a friend. As a writer, she shifts from the grand and the cosmic to the quiet and personal with skill. Aorta‘s first issue opens with a key moment in a war whose conclusion echoes for centuries, before moving to everyday life as a space rancher.
Aorta‘s first and second issues are excellent science fiction comics. Before issue #3 makes its debut, we sat down with Horrocks to talk about the process of her craft, the history of Aorta‘s world, and Gundam, among several other topics.
AIPT: Aorta is a vast comic, one that takes place across centuries and planets. Simultaneously, both issues you’ve released so far tell a great deal of their stories through individual, specific moments (the race into the storm that closes issue 1 for example), be they pivotal to the book’s conflict or just another day among many for the characters. As a writer, how do you balance those two scales with each other?
Sarah Horrocks: Well, right now, I would say it is not very balanced. So far all told, the Adleena Uprising section is like 200 pages, and the other section, where the story mostly takes place is only a fraction of that. In fact, the ending of the third issue of Aorta was originally supposed to be the end of issue 1 as it introduces one of the main characters. That was a big reason why issue three ended up being so long too because I badly needed the end of the frame from the first issue to finally mix back into the Adleena Uprising stuff. Just so people didn’t finish that issue and then just have no connection to the first issue, which is the most important one! So I guess right now I’m kind of taking my lumps when it comes to re-balancing things, but it’s okay. I try to think a lot about the narrative flow of everything in the micro and macro, so even though there’s the story that I’m telling, there’s the way that it’s being told, and that’s the important part for me. I feel pretty confident that in the end it will all make sense and flow logically, and the pacing will be enjoyable. But who knows.
AIPT: In the introduction to issue #2 you mention that the Adleena Uprising (a conflict that takes place 190 years after Aorta opens and 10 years before the comic’s present) was originally meant mainly as backstory but “Cassidy Wynn was not someone who would sit silently within history.” Subsequently, issue #2 takes place during what you described as “the first half of that last battle,” with issue 3 delving into its end.
How did shifting a major event in the book’s history from backstory to main text affect its shape as part of Aorta‘s world? What did you elaborate on? What did you discard? How has the Uprising’s increased role in the story affected Aorta as a whole?
SH: I think the main effect of it was that the book kind of tilts in toward Cyrus’s perspective. Which is kind of there in the first issue to an extent, but a lot of the emotional beats of the Adleena Uprising end up belonging to him I think. Which may not be the case for the book as a whole. But because of that shift, I was able to do a little bit on his backstory in issue three which I think is the best part of the book so far–for me anyways. So hopefully people react well to it. It also gave me a very natural introduction of another character who will become important later on. So it worked out really well, my main worry with it is, is that having to imagine a backstory like that is sometimes better as a reader than knowing it so thoroughly.
So I’ll have to be careful not to give too many things away like that in the future. The history of the world this book takes place in is a history that I’ve had in my head for 15 years at least…maybe more. All of the sci-fi stories I’ve done are set in this world at different time periods. The unfortunate thing is maybe that all of those stories are spread across a lot of anthologies. Whenever I have to do anything sci-fi, this is the world I come to, so the forces of it and its general flow are something I’m very comfortable with moving in and out of. I’m not sure why that is exactly. I don’t have a horror world that is necessarily linked in one world. So I’m not sure why I have a sci-fi one. Some of my earliest comics when I was learning to make comics have references to this world. It’s really interesting to me. Hopefully, I’m able to present it well.
AIPT: You describe Aorta’s world as your go-to setting for science fiction comics, one that you have returned to time and again, and one that has been in your head for 15 years. Where did this world start for you work-wise and how did Aorta’s story shape within it? Is it the setting’s core text?
SH: I think the first published instance of this world was the short comic I did in the back of Prophet: Earth War #1. And no, I wouldn’t say it is the core text of the setting. It’s just a core part of this particular era(the galactic era). There are these different key moments of time during the galactic era that are defined by the emergence of Aorta units, sort of similar to Gundams–where they appear and herald some kind of great change. But I would say it’s less tangible than a Gundam. Kind of like a mixture between a Gundam and a Newtype, in that it is kind of a cosmic divine occurrence between pilot and mech unit, that is evident to everyone present.
This was a problem that was created by Omau Castill, who was said to be an Aorta Unit, despite piloting a basic mass-production model that performed well beyond its specs. Before that, it was thought that Aorta Units were specific mecha. This is all covered by the historian at the beginning of the first issue of Aorta. Meredith the Orange. My story is about the third Aorta of the Galactic Era, which ushers in the entities that define the back half of the galactic era before giving way to the Titan Era, which is when the story that I did in the Jazz Creepers anthology for Douglas Noble happens. I can’t remember offhand when the Prophet: Earth War story takes place in relation to everything. I think it would be afterwards. But the entity that appears there also appears in the third issue of Aorta, and will have a big role in how things play out later on. But I don’t want to say too much at this stage.
AIPT: Shifting from writing to illustration, Aorta is an incredibly striking book. Some of your compositions, especially the ones where you work with the vastness of space, are downright breathtaking. Would you please talk a bit about how you conceive and execute set pieces on massive scales in an environment (i.e. high orbit or full-blown space) that can be highly malleable – i.e. the fleet battle that opens issue 2 or the end of the storm sequence that closes issue 1?
SH: It’s just the kind of things I like. I live in Oklahoma, which is a place with the biggest sky I’ve ever seen. So the idea of a shifting scale between my body and the space around me is something I’ve always liked. That’s one of the things that I love about the mecha genre is that it is people’s huge emotions in their tiny bodies in giant machines, lost in the vastness of space. There’s such a beautiful natural telescoping to the genre both thematically and aesthetically.
AIPT: Aorta‘s cast and machinery are a stylish crew, and their style has range. Would you please talk a bit about the design process for the book’s assorted factions? What sort of influences and resources did you draw from as a character and costume designer? What sort of influences resources did you draw from as an environmental and mechanical designer? How did you unify the factions’ looks? How did you divide them? Did the design process involve any interesting surprises?
SH: Obviously, a lot of stuff fits within the conventions of things like Evangelion, The Five Star Stories, and Gundam–but those are all Japanese and have kind of a Japanese bend to their aesthetics in ways that I didn’t feel comfortable in as an American. I wanted to make something that comes from me, where I am — the mythologies and things that surround me, and then kind of feed that back in through these conventions from the mecha stuff I love. So I wanted to mix in this kind of cowboy, 80s Americana style. Part of why I have the crew as ranchers in the first issue is because that’s kind of more what I grew up around. I didn’t grow up in huge dystopian urban areas. And usually, you see space is kind of at a premium in most future takes–but I like kind of technology as a small thing within an environment. There’s some cool parts of Cowboy Bebop that kind of do that. I like the idea of the southwest of the plains being technologized but in very barbaric ways.
It’s justified anyways. Because Char was a cowboy.
As for the mechanical designs. I think Makoto Kobayashi and Rei Kawakubo are maybe the biggest influences. With some Alexander McQueen.
AIPT: To close the Aorta portion of this interview, I’d like to ask a question of you as both an illustrator and a writer. How has the book moved for you, what have been your biggest creative challenges in working on it, your biggest creative satisfactions?
SH: I think in 2020 it was very hard to work effectively on the book because I was constantly distracted by the apocalyptic things happening around me. I think people thought fascism and a pandemic would bring out creative energies–but it had the opposite effect on me. That s--t drained me a lot. I think because of that this third issue will always have its attachments to this place and time. Getting through all of that and finishing it was I think satisfying. I also think taken with the second issue, you won’t read very many American comics that are longer more sustained pieces of uninterrupted action. I mean we are talking almost 200 pages of non-stop fights. Aorta was maybe the comic where I became an action comic artist.
AIPT: To close the interview as a whole, I’d like to ask about one of Aorta‘s big influences, Gundam. You made a comic about your experience working your way through the franchise in the course of getting ready to make Aorta. Having done so, I’m curious about your take on Gundam‘s mutability as a text. Mobile Fighter G Gundam is every bit Gundam as the upcoming Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway movie and last year’s Gundam Build Divers Re:RISE, even though there’s a significant amount of tonal dissonance between those three specific shows and the franchise as a whole.
What’s constant across Gundam? What’s variable? And on an admittedly lighter note, do you have a favorite Gundam series/”hero” Gundam? If so, what makes them shine for you?
SH: I think Evangelion sussed it out properly that all of these shows are ostensibly about “get in the robot, Shinji”–they’re all about challenging yourself to express yourself. Doing the thing you don’t want to do, because it is necessary to confront the demons of the world both within and without. Even Gundam Build Divers is like that to a degree. It’s this idea that in expressing yourself you can speak to the connection in all of us, and hopefully elevate yourself and the world around you out of depression and misery. For me, the mecha genre, in general, is screaming your emotions through a machine across the void of space, trying to be understood–which I think is a very extremely right now kind of story.
My favorite Gundam series are Iron-Blooded Orphans, ZZ Gundam, and Zeta Gundam. My favorite hero is probably Judau.
My favorite Gundam… I usually like the Zeon mobile suits the best–the HyGogg is my favorite (as you might be able to tell reading Aorta), with the Qubeley as a close second. But for Gundams, I like either the HeavyArms, Banshee Norn, or the Barbatos Lupus Rex.
Aorta # 3 launches on Thursday, March 11. You can find it here once it’s live.
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