Talking About BLUE BOOK, Part 1

James Tynion IV and Michael Avon Oeming go behind the scenes on the creation of their new non-fiction comic series, BLUE BOOK, talk about their life long fascination with UFOs.

For the next two weeks, we’re going to be running an in depth interview between myself and BLUE BOOK artist and co-creator, Michael Avon Oeming, banging the drum toward the official release of the first chapter on September 10th!

For those of you just checking in, BLUE BOOK is a comic series that will adapt true life stories of UFO encounters with an eye to capturing the strange essence of those stories which often get simplified out or altered when they get adapted into other media. Our goal is not to sensationalize, but interpret the events as close to the primary sources as we can muster. It is the first Tiny Onion project that sits in the TRUE WEIRD genre that I’ve talked about quite a bit between the last behind the scenes Blue Book post, and the announcement of the series here on Substack.

BLUE BOOK will be available to read for any and all paid subscribers here on the platform. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you should do so now!

We’ve been hard at work at the series behind the scenes, and could not be more excited to see it get up and running. I’ll be peppering in some pages from the project as we go. But let’s dig into the interview…

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JAMES: Let's start big. What do you think UFOs are? And why are you excited to tell stories about them?

MICHAEL: Wow, I'll do the second part first. When I was growing up, my mother and my aunt had a UFO sighting. They saw a triangular-shaped thing. And one of the things I remember about them telling me the stories, is that my aunt is legally blind and, at the time, she can kind of see some stuff but not really. And they were walking back home from Bingo or something like that. So, they're in a rural neighborhood or might have been up in North Jersey at some point, I don't quite remember.

But the thing that struck me about the sighting is that they just saw this thing floating in the sky for a couple seconds as it moved out of sight. My aunt said it was the sound in your mother's voice because she can't see it. But she was freaked out and she said it was the sound of your mother's voice that she knew that she was seeing something real. And that was sort of the kicking off point in my head. And my mom just always liked weird stuff. We'd watch any Sci-Fi thing that was on TV, Twilight Zone and that kind of stuff. But especially this old series “In Search of” that Leonard Nimoy hosted. By the time I was seeing it, in the late 70s/early 80s, it was in repeats, so all the film was degraded and it had this weird, extra creepy level of “what-ism” around it. Those are the curiosity points that I grew up with, my mother really fed into why I was thinking about this stuff and that and that phrase “what if?” is really where I landed in my adulthood.

So, it's not so much that I believe specifically in one theory or another, it's more of a sort of the “what if” thing that something's going on. I don't know what it is. I do think in my later years somebody might be visiting us or several cultures might be visiting us, maybe, I don't know. But I think that there is some very strong psychological element and I don't mean psychological as in your mind playing tricks on you. It might be some sort of consciousness thing. In this way we know that magnetism, strong magnetism, and certain other sorts of weird waves and stuff can create hallucinations.

And again, I don't mean that these are hallucinations, that the world and the universe is probably a lot more complicated than we think it is. You know, we think we have certain answers and stuff. But I think there's a bunch of stuff going on that we just don't understand and will never be able to understand. And there can be weird interactions with other parts of the world that's either showing us different things, or I don't know, it really comes out to I don't know this is a long answer to say, “I don't know.”

JAMES: I love that. And honestly, I think we land in a very similar place. Like, I think that ultimately what fascinates me about UFOs and a lot of the related material to UFOs is that I do think that we, as a species, can only perceive so much. And I think that there are moments where we see things that are outside our normal realm of perception that we don’t know how to categorize.... I think that human beings want to come to easy answers on lots of things.

What fascinates me about UFO encounters, or Cryptid encounters, and everything that ties into what I'm doing in THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH... Is that there are these moments where people brush up against something that they don't understand, and then they tell stories about those moments, and it’s the stories themselves that I find so interesting. Less the actual thing they saw, or the literal truth of it, but the act of storytelling and folklore that comes from experiencing something outside the natural order of things. 

And I do think those stories speak to a kind of base truth, which is that there is more to everything than we know. And frankly, I prefer a universe, where there’s a lot more that we don't know than we do know. A universe that has a little bit of, you know, strangeness to it. I would rather live in a strange world. I definitely don't think of myself as a true believer, but I'm an eagerly fascinated skeptic.

MICHAEL: That's what blew my mind. One day somebody said, “Do you believe in aliens?” when I was talking about all this stuff, right? And I was going to answer, “you know, I don't know.” And I know that sounds like bullshit and it sounds weird, as somebody who's so obsessed with this stuff and studies all these things. Like, you think I'd have a hard-core answer but what I've noticed not only in my own studies, in the people that I like, whether it's a John Keel, Allen Hynek or Jacques Vallee, they all end up going to this area of consciousness instead of some nuts and bolts hardware kind of stuff that gets around the speed of light or folds space.

They've gotten to a place where things are much more consciousness driven. And that idea that our brains are receivers of our consciousness, it's not where consciousness resides, but we're part of something else, right. Because a lot of the stuff doesn't make sense. There's no consistency through all of this. And yet there it is. Did you have, like, early influences on you that you can trace to you becoming interested in all of this this? Or was it just a slow evolution?

JAMES: This feels like such a corny answer, but I think it started with Spielberg. It was when I was very young, I saw both E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which scared the crap out of me. And then I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I adored. And I was too young to adore that movie. Like, I don't claim to have understood the plot or anything as a four year old, but I wanted to watch that movie over and over and over again. And it just had this really strange quality that captured something truly alien, which frightened and fascinated me, but it was still kind of utopian.

Like, even though it has the scary government agency covering things up, there's still the people working in that agency that want to experience this incredible thing for the right reason, they want to be open to this message from the stars. And I like the idea of being open to the message. When I was really young, those were the early influences when I was a kid and I saw those things for the first time. My mom always showed me movies when I was way too young for them.

But that's when it all started to form. I was a kid in the early 90s when X-Files became as big as it was. And even though I was too young to watch X-Files at that time… I came to X-Files a bit later in my teenage years when I picked up the box sets of the seasons… But because it was such a big force in the culture, there were all of these books that were being made for kids that told the real stories of UFO encounters. I was obsessed with those stories, the real encounters. And when I was in elementary school and middle school, me and one of my friends would sit down and tell each other all of these stories that we had researched in our separate stacks of books. And on top of that, I would tell him I would have some nightmares about UFOs. And we’d play a sort of game that wasn’t a game guessing how my nightmares about UFOs related to the real secrets of UFOs we were reading about. I remember this particularly kind of dumb thing. Like, there were lots of Amoco gas stations all around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up.

And me and my friend decided that the symbol of the Amoco station was actually like a message from the UFOs. And it was telling us the name of the UFO. So the name of the UFO was OCO because the sign read “I AM OCO” with the torch as the “I”. And that was sort of my way in. I definitely fell off the wagon a little bit as I got into High School and beyond (or rather, I was a lot more interested in Ghosts and Tarot than UFOs in High School), but anytime something sort of hit that core interest, it would all come rushing back to me.

I loved the Men in Black movie when it first came out, because it's really fun and all of that. But I remember having read all of these books about real stories of the Men in Black, which are terrifying. They are absolutely terrifying. And it was definitely one of those moments where I was like a kid being pretentious, telling my friends that this action comedy blockbuster was fun, but wasn't the REAL story about the Men in Black.

MICHAEL: Yeah. It also helps that I've not had any experiences. And I tried. Like, I've gone to “Contact in the Desert.” It is a big UFO convention down in Joshua Tree, and there are a lot of sightings statistically down there. It was an interesting trip. That's all I could say about it. Really. We do a lot of star gazing in hopes of seeing something, but you don't get to see anything but some great stars. And we've seen a few things that were weird, but nothing that I felt is even worth really repeating.

But I have friends and loved ones who have had REAL experiences. It’s that Fox Mulder poster… “I want to believe”… Yeah, let's see something! Right? Like, you’ve got to be open minded and be patient and stuff. And I guess that shows part of the pull. I have not had those experiences, but I'm still drawn to it because of people who I know have. And it’s slightly off topic but near here there's this weird place called Mount Adams and it has all these weird sightings.

There's a lot of Bigfoot sightings. And we went out there with a friend of ours who is a cryptozoologist, Alex Mistretta. And the day before we arrived, they found a Bigfoot print. They had the cast and everything. Yeah, Taki [Soma] and I were so excited because we had just grown up watching all these things about Bigfoot and all the different stories and stuff. Actually, seeing a print, seeing the classic mold of a print, that is just mind blowing.

So, we keep trying to have experiences. And part of me thinks if there is a psychological or consciousness aspect of it. I may never see something because there a weird... I think when you get too objective about something, maybe these things don't have an effect. I've been in a room where something has moved before on its own, and very quickly I just go, “I don't know why it moved or how it moves, but I don't care.” I'm going to keep working or something. I'm not scared of that stuff because something moves. It moves. It doesn't mean that there's a ghost or spirit, like the labels that you're talking about. Everybody wants an explanation. 

So, if I see something weird in the sky, the weirdest things we've seen are two things. One, I've seen a star just get very, very bright, and then disappear. That could be an atmospheric thing or something. I don't know. I've seen a meteorite moving really, really slow, but it was still clearly a meteor, but it just seemed too slow. But again, that's nothing. So, every time I see something, if I dismiss it… I don't know, maybe there's like, if there's a consciousness part, maybe there's somebody who needs to see it, will see it, right? I don't know if that makes sense either.

JAMES: I think that cuts right to the heart of the idea that the pursuit of the objective in all of this is, I think, often kind of a Fool's Errand. Ultimately I think, what makes more sense to capture is the sort of essence and the feeling. That is the thing that taps into something far more universal, because I've definitely had my own share of weird encounters. The weirdest encounter that I have ever had was in college was me and three friends were driving and it was spring break. We had two weeks and we wanted to do a slow drive across the country from LA to New York. But we needed to pick up my car in Milwaukee to start that trip, so to kind of speed the trip up, we did the first leg of that drive, the Milwaukee to Los Angeles straight, 32 hours straight, driving without stop... which was dumb.

MICHAEL: Even for young people, that’s hard.

JAMES: Especially hard, since it was March and involved driving through the Rocky Mountains at two in the morning. We couldn't tell the difference between sky and mountain and it's just snowing and all this stuff, it was terrifying. And semis were racing by. They have been doing that drive for years and years and years, so they don't blink. But I'm driving 35 miles an hour, terrified, going around these turns on the highway through the Rockies in the middle of the night and we're all exhausted out of our minds already.

We were coming around all of these bends high up in the mountains. And my friend was driving and we came around this bend, and there was this figure standing in the center of the road that looked like it had a giant dog's head and it looked like it was wearing some sort of plaid shirt. It seemed like it was about nine feet tall. And we just started screaming, waking up our friend who was sleeping in the back seat and pulled off the road. But the thing we saw was gone. And at the time, I was a smoker, so we were chain-smoking and pacing, trying to decide what to do. But there wasn’t anything TO do, so we just kept on driving. Ever since, we referred to it as “the Dog God of the Mountains” that we saw up there. 

Four years after that event happened, someone said it was probably a horse with a security blanket wrapped around it. And that's probably what it was, but there is something very strange about just seeing something that you cannot sort into the regular order of your brain. And in that moment, there's a jolt of real electricity, of “I don't understand what I've just seen.” And you remember those things forever then because your brain is almost scarring that memory into you. So that it's just a giant question mark scarred to your brain. Then you kind of go back to it over and over. But beyond that, my partner Sam grew up in a house with lots of hauntings... they talk very casually about the Shadow Man that lives in the house. Stuff like that. And all of it just always fascinated me.

I always want to hear every story of an encounter with the paranormal.

MICHAEL: My mother had some poltergeist activity stuff that freaked me out as a kid. And she told me about having a drawer in the kitchen open up and all these pennies started flying at her. There was sort of an evil presence in the trailer that we lived in. And she walked into the room and she said she felt such cold and evil that she was frozen in fear for a minute before she could get me and get out of there. And then she moved from the place, it freaked her out that much. 

So, you hear those things and, yeah, it does... you know, it gets so hard to get those questions out of your head. And then when you look at them objectively, it really fucks with you. Because in the field that we're looking at with this UFO stuff, so much of it just doesn't really make sense. The big narrative that we've had for the last 20-30 years was about DNA testing, right? Like, aliens abducting you taking your DNA. But now think about what we know about DNA. If I want your DNA, I don't have to abduct you into a van or something and do all kinds of crazy shit to you to figure it out. I just need to break into your house when you're not there and take some skin samples or a hair from the bathroom or something. Right? So why are aliens running doctor tests that we are aware of? None of it makes sense. The screen memories and all that stuff. I'm not saying I don't believe these people at all. I'm just saying it's got to be something that we're trying to order in our head and our thoughts in a way. But we're missing so many parts of the puzzle.

JAMES: It really feels like it's people trying to explain their dreams. And it's something more than a dream, and it has the feel of something more than a dream, but it still applies by that strange logic of just, yes, I'm standing over here and then the room is something entirely different. And then your third grade teacher standing in the corner. It's one of those things where it is kind of a mental process of trying to order something that can't be ordered.

MICHAEL: Some scientists are saying that time may not be linear, but it's just the way that we construct it in our head so that things happen one after another. Weird stuff like that. That's one of the reasons why I love DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH was you stumbled across something obvious to anybody in our field, but just nobody, including me, has ever put together is that reality is a tulpa. The reality is the thing that we can make happen. And it’s one thing when you've seen it in folklore, but we've seen it in real life, too. How many times have you written something, and then it happens? And it's because it seems like when the consciousness gestalt, that thing out there, whatever it is, starts to think about something, it will start to happen and it'll start to come into fruition.

I don't know if that's true or that's just pattern recognition, but it seems to be a part of what happens, you know? That's again why I think this stuff is weirder than any particular star system coming to see us, which might be in there, too. I don't have any doubt that that's also happening, or I don't discount that that could be happening, along with this weird consciousness stuff.

JAMES: Yeah. In building out that idea and kind of leaning into it, it's also made me revisit a bunch of really formative comics and fiction to me, especially like THE SANDMAN and PROMETHEA, those really got my brain turning and thinking about... because both of them are really about the ways stories and storytelling can sort of affect reality, because obviously stories literally affect reality all the time. I was even reading the comic adaptation of the book SAPIENS, which is very good.

And it was really talking about how fiction and storytelling is the thing that actually allowed Homo Sapiens to become the dominant form of human on the planet and then basically take over the planet. And it was the idea that we can come up with a metaphor and we can come up with a fictional idea that then allows us to overcome our tribal instincts and all of that. And it's sort of taking a step further and just sort of looking at... you start seeing that so much of our lives are fiction and so much of it is interpretive. And you don't want to pull out too many of the lower Jenga blocks in that tower. There is something to the idea of how fiction really shapes reality and how beliefs really shape reality. And even more than that, how beliefs shape how an individual interprets reality.

MICHAEL: We're seeing all that in a very practical way right now with social media stuff for the last however long. Not just right now, but social media can craft a reality that people will follow. And I'm not even pointing to any one specific thing, whether it's in comics or politics or social or any job you might have that's attached to social media. So maybe we're just reverse engineering signals that we're picking up along the way and then we're writing it. It's not like we're writing to create a reality, but maybe we're sort of canary in the coal mine kind of stuff.

Bendis and I talk about the SCARLET book all the time in Portland and what's happened is they just read his book and reality just took his cribbed notes or something. It was bizarre. And I’m sure it’s happened to you! Hopefully it will happen with Bigfoot from the new Department of Truth story... 

JAMES: When I'm up in the Pacific Northwest soon I'm going to be looking anxiously at the Woods to see if anything comes out there.

So, let's go back a few months. I reach out to you about this nutty idea to do non-fiction adaptations of UFO encounters in black, white and blue. What goes through your head after you got that first Blue Book email?

MICHAEL: Honestly, it was a “W.T.F” moment. What is going on in my life that this can happen? I had just recently done a very, very niche, not the philosopher Nietzsche, but like a niche storyline that I've always wanted to do that I thought would never get done. Never! I had wanted to do a mythological story about Jim Morrison in the afterworld talking to gods and being poetic and drunk and shit. But I knew that would never happen. And then one day I get in touch with Rantz Hoseley from Z2 and they're doing a Doors graphic novel. And Leah Moore is going to write the story about Jim Morrison in the afterworld interacting with gods while he's getting drunk. Right? So, that happened, but that has to be one of these that's never going to happen again. I was so happy. I'm not going to bother try and pursue these other things. And this particular story. Not only did I want to do real life UFO stuff, I wanted to do it almost as a journalistic thing. Journalist comics, not taking something like Betty and Barney Hill and putting an extra spin on it or what was really going on behind the scenes with the government and people who are interacting with them.

I just want to tell these stories but that never works, not in the Direct Market. It's nothing I could do. For free on my own website or something... But I've got to do these other things. This was never going to happen. James, and then you send me this email and I'm like, “this is everything I wanted.” And it's in a style specifically that I wanted to do with the color blocking thing and to get back to drawing completely analog lines. This is the first analog thing I'm drawing in years.

And, so it was just a heavy checklist wish dream come true and you fulfilled it. Man, so I can't thank you enough. And I was just too blown away by the whole thing, you know, we were going to do it no matter what. I didn’t even understand Substack or what it meant, as far as, people actually seeing the work, I didn't get any of that stuff. It was purely about the project first and everything else after. This is awesome.

So, yeah, thank you. I just couldn't believe you came to me with this project. I just didn't think it made any sense to be possible.

JAMES: And honestly, I think that that's one of the things that I'm excited about here, because I think this would be a tough sell in a world where we did it as a monthly comic in the Direct Market and all of that stuff. I keep having that thought in the back of my mind. The pressure of trying to cater something to come out in single issues or even just come out initially as an OGN, because for people don't know, some of the economics of putting together a comic, a lot of the reasons that it is nice to release something in single issues and then release it in a hard cover is that you have more bites of the apple to make back the money that you invest in the project to start with. So, a lot of times the singles really do matter for the budget of the book. And they help supplement and support the entire project, because otherwise it's investing a bunch of money into a project that they might not start paying out for well over a year after you start doing it. The idea that the grant here will allow us to sort of do that and then make all of those decisions about how we want to distribute it and all of that in a way that cater directly to the book. There are lots of big, fun conversations we're going to get to have in terms of how we take this first section of BLUE BOOK and then deliver it to the world.

Is it something where it's kind of CRIMINAL-style graphic novel that has its own, like, the Betty and Barney Hill story... Do we give it its own title? That's the main title. And it's just like it's “yada, yada, yada... A BLUE BOOK STORY,” like that? Or is it something where it really is BLUE BOOK VOL. 1? And I love all of the potential and the story being able to dictate all of that. And then the hope is that people want to get a nice chunk of interesting UFO stuff in their inbox every few weeks.

And that's going to help us over time, maybe build a library of these books or even just build a few of them that we are really, really proud of.

MICHAEL:  Absolutely yeah, and we get to serve two different audiences. There's people who don't really read comics that's largely what we're trying to reach is “the Norms” out there or whatever. But we are going to obviously publish it and print it in time. So we'll be serving both audiences, which is great because you can't always do that. Sometimes you do some web comics when they get printed, they just don't get the attention or it doesn't hit the right thing because it's about a certain subject. It won't hit the same way.

I feel like here we'll have the safety net of both and still be able to serve the audience that we came from, our roots, which is still the direct market.

To be continued next Friday!

I’ve been a fan of Sophie Campbell for ages, and was very excited to see that she would be continuing her series SHADOWEYES here on Substack. If you haven’t been following Sophie’s work, now’s the time to jump on board (There’s a link to a PDF of the whole first volume in the first post!). You should also hunt down her incredible TMNT work, Wet Moon, and Glory. (I’m also very happy that the teaser for the new book matched the Black, White and Blue vibe we’re shooting for in these Blue Book posts!)

I’m traveling to the West Coast tomorrow for the first time since January 2020, which is freaking wild. Excited to see some pals, sign some comic books, and have some VERY exciting meetings. Next week, I’ll start banging the drum for the Fear State event over in Batman. Everyone have a great weekend!

James Tynion IV
Brooklyn, NY
8.27.21