Introducing BLUE BOOK

James Tynion IV explains the thinking behind the creation of his first Substack original comic book series, BLUE BOOK.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about where to begin this post. I guess the easiest place to start is to catch folks up on what we’re doing here.

BLUE BOOK is the first comic project that I am going to be serializing here on my Substack. I am writing it, Michael Avon Oeming is drawing it, Aditya Bidikar is lettering it, and Greg Lockard is editing it. BLUE BOOK is a non-fiction comic series. It is going to release in 10-page chapters, twice a month, usually about two weeks apart. The goal with BLUE BOOK is to take true accounts of UFO encounters and adapt them to the comic form, without sensationalizing or altering the course of events to suit our narrative. 

For the next few weeks we’re going to be going behind the scenes on the creation of the series, with thoughts from the whole team about the principles behind what we’re creating here, released each Friday in the run-up to the launch of the series itself on September 10th. These behind-the-scenes updates, and the first chapter of BLUE BOOK will be free posts to help get everyone excited, and after that, the project is going to go behind the paywall, and you’ll need to pay the $7/month subscription in order to stay up to date on the latest UFO news. Heck, why wait? You can sign up right now.

We are going to start with one of the most famous UFO encounters of the 20th Century. The sighting and alleged abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in September 1961. Right now, the plan is for this story to run over eight chapters of Blue Book, taking us first through what Betty and Barney recalled and reported about their initial encounter, and then taking us through the nightmares they had about the encounter, and what further stories they told when placed under hypnosis. The Hill Encounter is notable for being the first widely reported incident of an alien abduction, and the details around it shaped how alien abductions have been discussed and portrayed in media over the last sixty years.

I’ve been pulling together a lot of resources to tell this story right, but the one that really inspired me from the start is THE INTERRUPTED JOURNEY by John G. Fuller. I got my hands on an ancient copy of the hardcover late last summer as I was working on the first UFO-centric issue of The Department of Truth, and reading about the details of the Hill Encounter it struck me over and over how much drama there was in it. I originally considered trying to adapt pieces of it in the issue of DOT, but I needed Men in Black stories for that series, and this wasn’t one. But the idea nestled into the back of my mind that I wanted to adapt a UFO story into a non-fiction comic book.

I think the stories of UFO encounters have been tampered down over the last few decades in the public consciousness. They’ve become too shaped by science fiction movies, and nailed down into something far more tangible than any real encounter ever is. The stories that people who believe they have encountered a UFO tell are deeply, deeply strange. And that real strangeness is always more compelling to me than the artificial strangeness that we see in fiction inspired by the events. And it’s that essence, that strangeness that I want to try and capture and translate to the comic book page.

In the post where I announced the BLUE BOOK project, I said a few things about my aims with the project, and my thoughts on what genre it sits in… Something I’ve coined as “TRUE WEIRD” marking it as True Crime’s strange cousin:

People have always been fascinated by the strange and the frightening. I know I have. In grade school and middle school, I got my hands on every book about aliens and ghosts and cryptids that I could. Around 5thgrade, I did one of those “what do you want to be when you grow up” papers about becoming a Cryptozoologist (I got very grumpy when I realized this was not a degree you could get from a reputable school). I think a lot of people recognize the impulse to explore the strange borderlands of modern life when they get invested in True Crime, particularly stories about Serial Killers, because “Human Evil” is the most explainable strain of dark curiosity… But I think there’s a stranger cousin to True Crime brewing out there, just coming together… I think it speaks to the success of The Department of Truth, and podcasts like The Last Podcast on the Left. I’ve taken to calling this genre “TRUE WEIRD.”

Now, we can quibble on the “True” part of “TRUE WEIRD” – But I’d say that’s often the case with stories that brand themselves as “True Crime.” Another name you might call the burgeoning genre is “STRANGE BUT TRUE.” What I am talking about here are stories taken from true accounts and testimonies of people who have encountered something strange, outside the bounds of the order of things. Whether or not their experience happened the way they think it happened is sort of secondary, the story they tell is what enters our collective unconscious. There’s just something compelling about the idea that you could live a completely normal life, and then one day you encounter something outside the rules you’ve accepted. There’s a thrill in imagining a brush with the abyssal unknown. And there’s a value in the weird stories we tell each other, beyond their objective truth, and it feels to me that there’s a deeper truth that lives in that space.

I am a skeptic. When we tell these stories in BLUE BOOK, the goal isn’t to purport that these things absolutely happened, definitively, in the manner we are telling them. The goal is to keep these stories, themselves, alive, maintaining all of the strange details that tend to get washed out of abbreviated tellings on episodes of History Channel TV shows, or in small entries in UFO reference books. The value lives in recognizing the value of the stories themselves. There are things that happen every day in this world that go unexplained, and encounters that do not fit easily into the order of things, and letting people engage with the strange stories people tell each other of those encounters. I think it is genuinely important to recognize that there are things we do not know about the universe around us, and really, truly grapple with that knowledge.

Beyond that, I think this is a type of comic that fits PERFECTLY on this platform, in this delivery system. As I outlined in my launch post, I shot off an email to Michael to see if he was available to work on this book hours after my first conversation with Substack. Not just because I thought that this is going to be a cool fucking project to work on with him, but because I thought this was the perfect platform to bring this idea to life.

When talking with my collaborators about my approach to doing comics on Substack, I keep bringing up podcasts. The idea of bite sized, fascinating content that will arrive on your chosen device a few times a month. I think, if we do our jobs right here on Substack, the core audience we have here is going to be functionally different and separate from the direct market comics audience. I think the direct market audience that has signed up on substack is going to see the chunks of comics that arrive in their emails as what they are… You’re getting sneak peeks at a book mid-production, but the thing you REALLY value is the hard copy of the book you’ll get in hand later next year. You’ve signed up for the bragging rights of early access (and for fancy variant covers, if you signed up for the founder’s tier). Which is great!

But I believe there is another audience that exists out there that is looking more for bite-sized comics in their inbox. I don’t think they are looking for comics particularly, they are just looking for digestible bits of fascinating information, delivered in interesting ways, to get their brain cooking in between the other things they’re doing that day. Just like a podcast does on your commute home from work. I don’t think they are necessarily comic book people. I’m not going to get anybody on that track to sign up for the Founder’s Tier and those fancy covers. But there are people passively interested in comics, who I think will pay $7 a month to read comics about a subject that interests them. Not because they like comics, but because they like the subject.

One thing I believe wholeheartedly, and evangelically is that literally ANYBODY can read and enjoy comics. Another thing I believe wholeheartedly, with great frustration, is that not enough people are AWARE that literally anybody can read and enjoy comics.

Comics are a medium, and as a medium it isn’t bound to any particular subset of readers or chained to any one subculture. As a fringe medium, it has structural advantages within certain subcultures, particularly the geek, horror, and queer communities, because it often hasn’t been bound by the same cultural morays or mass market considerations that more popular forms of media have been. This is all shifting, and we’re going to find out what happens when millions and millions of kids grew up reading Dav Pilky and Raina Telgemeier reach their teenage years, start having some pocket money, and the agency to spend that money on what they want. But that’s the world of tomorrow, and we’re not there yet.

We work in a niche medium, for niche audiences, and we do best when we are catering to niche audiences who aren’t being served by mass market media. I think this is honestly one of the big reasons behind the decline of superhero comics as the dominant mode of the medium. The Superhero geek audience is being served amply by mass market media, so comics just get to pick up the scraps, rather than drive the conversation.

Which brings me back to the idea of the TRUE WEIRD genre. 

I think there are people out there, who are fascinated about UFOs, cryptids, and what have you, who would like to learn more, and find out about other real encounters, and I don’t think that audience is being catered to nearly enough. There are podcasts in that arena (another shout out to Last Podcast on the Left), but most of the time the subject matter makes its way to the big or small screen it’s fictionalized to the point where the visceral “truth” of the original story is kind of wrung out of it, and you can see the stories are more shaped by fictional stories than the real ones. I feel like the existence of this audience is part of the reason that DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH has become the success it’s been over the last few years.

Ultimately, I’d say a good half of what I’m going to be doing in this space is going to live in that TRUE WEIRD arena. Because I think there’s gold in them there hills, and I want to keep digging for it. I also am just deeply, deeply fascinated with the strange corners of the world, so ultimately if I’m just a weirdo and I’m making this book for a few other weirdos out there, I’m satisfied. But I do think there’s an audience waiting to be catered to, and frankly, I don’t think the “True Weird” space is the only niche market worth chasing with comic books. It’s just the one that speaks to me the most. I hope folks using this platform try and build the bridges from other subcultures to the weird and wonderful world of comic books…

But anyways, before we go, I want to give you your first look at a few of the INCREDIBLE pages that Michael has been dropping in my inbox over the last few weeks… Just look at this…

It’s all coming together… I thought you all might also enjoy this excerpt from the notes I wrote to Michael at the top of the first script I turned in to him…

Beyond that… One of the big things I plan on focusing on here is trying to put a name to this genre of story as a cousin to True Crime… “True Weird” is what I’m cooking with right here… But I think the key element here is to capture a kind of documentary quality to what we’re doing. I think our color pallet is going to help a lot with that, but I think we need to steer away from sensationalizing the events to the best of our abilities, while still keeping things compelling… I keep imagining the emotional flow as a little more muted and strange. Detached is the wrong word, but I think there’s a kind of clinical distance that we can capture, and then dial up when things get a bit more emotional. 

The three primary emotions we want to explore here are: Fear, Suspense, and Awe. The most incredible thing about this encounter is how there wasn’t any real language for a UFO abduction before this case. All the tropes come from this, and they’ll shape how people talk about abduction cases for the following sixty years. But at the moment it’s happening to them, it’s all completely strange and novel, and they don’t have a language for it. That is deeply strange and frightening, and when they see the unearthly sights they are going to see, it should be overwhelming awe and terror. We want to feel that with them. We want the aliens to seem “alien” first and foremost, and we want to lean into the strangeness of it all… Obviously, this isn’t The Department of Truth, so we don’t need to lean into subjective reality or any of that, but there’s an element of this which is them recounting things and explaining things that are dreamlike and impossible. We are doing our best to translate their recollections, but we are playing a game of telephone from a moment where two ordinary people bumped up against the extraordinary and were changed by it in profound ways.

To visualize that, I wonder if there’s an extent that we can make the UFO a little blurry and indistinct until the key moments when it’s not, if that’s a kind of effect we might be able to use to distort the image like we’re looking at it though slightly crossed eyes… In our UFO issue of DOT, we had some “shaking” effects that might be worth looking at while we’re thinking about things – Especially in Chapter Three, when the beeps start, bringing us to the close of this initial encounter. I just want to figure out a kind of way to message that the UFOs aren’t a part of the natural world, following the same rules as other things. They defy physics, and operate outside of the norm. Witnessing them is a dreamlike experience, more than something very tactile and literal. We want to capture that feeling throughout, in ways that we can replicate when we tell other stories of other encounters.

I think the final thing we want to try and capture here is a kind of deep love of the mysteries of the night sky, and how small we all are in the face of it. Being awed by your smallness in the face of the infinite strangeness of the universe, that feeling of vertigo you get when you’re standing on the brink looking into an abyss that has no depth, and the horror and the wonder you feel at that is what we’re trying to capture more than anything… 

So, My hope was to have this up before noon, but today kind of started sideways and kept turning. But I didn’t want to bump this to tomorrow. I’m aiming for Friday to be the standard release day for all things Blue Book. My big goal is to get a bit further ahead on my newsletters so I can get into a more steady rhythm posting, but wrapping up all my commitments while starting some brand new stuff for this platform definitely has me wishing there were more days in the week. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m not there yet.

I want to thank everybody who hopped in the comments section on yesterday’s post about my information diet online… I’m hoping I get some dedicated time soon to set up Feedly and really test it out. I tried it back in the day (like literally directly following Google Reader shutting down), and got turned off by the ways its functionality was different, but now I’m far enough removed that I think this is going to be a great tool for my internetting.

I also got recommended a great looking book in the comments called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport that am going to dig into right when I finish Reign of Terror by Spencer Ackerman (which continues to be excellent). Please recommend me more good non-fiction!

James Tynion IV
Brooklyn, NY
8.20.21