October 24th, 2012

LF Meets... Jim Francis

Interview by Bernice Watson

Liberation Frequency catches up with Outsider creator Jim Francis for a chat about making web comics, the influence of Star Trek, and the likelihood of an alien invasion…

Liberation Frequency: In Outsider the humans are in a fairly precarious position, do you think this is a likely scenario for humanity when/if we finally encounter aliens?

Jim Francis: The problem with a real-world alien encounter is that given the vast timescales required for biological evolution (millions or billions of years) compared to the very short timescale of technological evolution (just a few hundred years for us to go from the industrial revolution to spaceflight and nuclear technology), it’s incredibly unlikely that any aliens we meet will be at a similar level of technology to us. They will be either “apes or angels” (as Arthur C. Clarke put it) from our point of view, and either they will be no threat to us at all, or we’ll be no threat to them, and they can pretty much do with us whatever they want. Any conflict would be extremely one-sided. The universe in Outsider is specifically constructed to avoid this problem, using a “Fall of Rome” type scenario in which the fall of a precursor empire essentially reset the technological clocks of almost all the alien species, so that at the time of the story they are mostly on an even footing with each other, making a galactic war even possible. 

LF: October is Sci Fi Month on Liberation Frequency, as someone who writes science fiction, why do you think stories about space exploration and aliens are so fascinating? Why do we love science fiction?

JF: I have always been fascinated by space and technology and science ever since I can remember. I love the sense of wonder that comes with contemplating new possibilities. I think it’s more than just escapism or intellectual exercise (though it is certainly that as well); humans are explorers by nature, and wanderlust is part of our makeup. We are the descendants of the people who went over the horizon to see what new lands were there. In addition to this element of wonder, science fiction and fantasy are vehicles by which you can tell any kind of story that you want to tell, in which there are no rules, except those you invent for yourself. 

LF: This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, are you a fan? Has Star Trek ever influenced your work?

JF: I’m a big fan of the original series, and I also enjoyed Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.  It has certainly been a huge influence; every modern story that attempts to tell about life aboard a starship must pay homage to Star Trek in some manner, even if it’s only used as an example of what not to do. I think the most important lesson to take away from Star Trek’s success is that science fiction, like any good storytelling, should be first and foremost about characters and the interaction between them. 

LF: Comics, and print media in general, are going through a time of change at the moment with the rise of digital media. Why did you decide to produce your work in digital format alone?

JF: I was a pencil-doodler my whole life, but the colossal amount of work required to created “finished” pieces in real media was very daunting to me; there is no “undo” button when you spill ink all over everything. It was not until the advent of Photoshop, scanners and stylus/tablets that I was finally able to produce any significant quantity of finished, polished color work. I can’t even imagine trying to produce a comic in traditional media. My head would explode.

LF: As an independent comic producer, how hard do you think the comics industry is to ‘break into’ as it were?

JF: I’ve never tried to get a job in the “real” comics industry (by which I mean the American print comics industry), so I don’t have much information about that. I’m not particularly interested in superhero comics, and from what I’ve seen the jobs are very specialized – if you’re a penciller, that seems to be all you’re ever allowed to do. But if your question was about how difficult it is to “publish” a webcomic and get people reading it, I don’t think it’s difficult at all. Making a comic is difficult, but putting it online is very simple; if it’s good, and you give it enough time (and a minimal amount of promotion), people will find it and read it.

LF: The Loroi reminded me a little of Vulcans, particularly the way Beryl keeps putting poor Alexander on the spot about things, what influences led to the creation of the Loroi?

JF: The Loroi are an amalgam of the space sirens from various computer games (Master of Orion and Star Control), various elves from Tolkien to Wendy Pini’s Elfquest, and various blue-skinned aliens of Japanese animation (Reiji Matsumoto’s work in particular). When I asked myself what would be fun and visually engaging for an SF comic project, “blue-skinned alien elf-babes” was the answer I came up with. The rest was the result of thought experiments about how and why such a race might exist, and in what ways they might be different from humans. The gender difference and telepathy were the primary elements that I thought would make interaction with the aliens interesting, and their society both familiar and yet very different from ours.

Vulcans were not a direct model for the Loroi, though they certainly share some of the same archetypes – they’re both humanlike with nonhuman attributes and abilities that are very recognizable from human legend. And there’s a parallel that can be drawn between Spock and Beryl in particular, because she is, after all, the science officer. But Vulcans are devoted to peace and emotionless logic, whereas the Loroi abhor the suppression of emotion and are quick to answer with violence.

LF: You use a combination of 2D and 3D animation in the series, tell us about the creative process and how you decide which approach to use in which panel.

JF: Most panels use 3D for the background elements (the ship interiors), and hand-drawn 2D characters. I start with rough page layouts that are drawn by hand. For each panel, I create a new camera in the appropriate 3D scene in Lightwave (the 3D software I use) and set it up so that it matches the layout, and then I capture a wireframe preview of that shot and bring it into Photoshop, and I draw the characters on top of it. I usually then ink and flat-color the characters, then do a full render of the 3D background, and then bring that into Photoshop before I do the lighting/shading on the characters. When the characters directly interact with the environment (such as casting a shadow), that is painted by hand directly on top of the 3D render.

For the starship exteriors, I started out with the idea that they would all be fully modeled in 3D, but given the large number of different ships, the amount of work would be prohibitive, so I find it’s much more straightforward to draw them by hand, and I’ve found I prefer the way this looks anyway. I often do use rough 3D models as reference, however.

LF: The name of Alexander’s ship is the Bellarmine. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was the man who commanded, on the orders of Pope Paul V, Galileo to abandon his Copernican doctrine in 1616. Is the naming of the ship after Bellarmine an allusion to humanity’s youth as a galactic civilisation? That only a few hundred years previously the idea that the Earth orbited the sun was so scandalous it was repressed?

JF: Unfortunately, it’s nothing quite so clever. I wanted the Earth ships to have unusual names (instead of rehashing DiscoveryIntrepid, etc.); I figured they would be named after prominent future explorers whose names we would not recognize. Bellarmine was the name of a character in a collaborative comic that I had worked on in the past, and I chose it almost at random because I liked the way it sounded, without really considering its historical significance. 

LF: Alexander seems rather inexperienced to be representing the interests of the entire human race in diplomatic negotiations, how do you think he’s going to cope with the pressure? Is he up to the task?

JF: Alex isn’t a brooding sort of character; he’s just conceited enough to believe that he can pull off almost anything. Which is a good thing, because he’s in for a lot more than he’s realized at this point in the story. 

LF: Last question, which do you think is more likely to happen in reality: a hostile alien invasion or a rise of the machines scenario where our own technology attacks us?

JF: Honestly, I don’t think either scenario is very likely in reality. I doubt that faster-than-light travel will ever be possible; if it was, alien ships would be zipping by every day (and I don’t believe this is the case). Slower-than-light star travel may eventually be possible, and we may eventually set up colonies in other star systems, but the distances are so vast that it will be impossible to communicate with them on any meaningful kind of timescale, so each world will be very isolated, and there won’t be any kind of “interstellar community.” Someday some far-flung descendants of humans might meet an alien civilization, but this will have little impact on the people of Earth, who will only learn of it after many centuries. Even if the aliens were hostile and had in mind to wipe us out, it would be a slow-motion process unfolding over many thousands of years.

As for the Rise of the Machines: technology has no will of its own, so any malevolent acts performed by machines will always be on behalf of some human will. Sentient computers don’t build themselves, and they also don’t build themselves automated factories or give themselves the launch codes to our nuclear weapons, so if someone builds a sentient computer and gives it automated factories and the launch codes to our nuclear weapons (despite 75 years of science fiction literature warning us not to do this)… then clearly that somebody wanted something bad to happen. Luckily, mad scientists can do very little without extensive funding from more sane people who will hopefully know better.

I think the challenge for future society will be what it’s always been in the past; the struggle to keep civilization from destroying itself as increasing technology puts ever more-potent agents of destruction into the hands of individuals and small groups who seek to create chaos, and how to counter the increasingly destructive power of the individual without turning society into a police state that seeks to crush that individuality in the name of order. The most dangerous enemy of humanity will, I think, always be other humans.

Check out Jim Francis & Outsider at

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