Talking about BLUE BOOK, Part 2
James Tynion IV and Michael Avon Oeming go behind the scenes on the creation of their new non-fiction comic series, BLUE BOOK, and talk about their life long fascination with UFOs.
We are one week out from the debut of BLUE BOOK.
I just wanted to lay out a bit about what you can expect when we get things rolling in the clearest possible terms… Excuse me as I switch into third person for maximum clarity…
WHAT IS BLUE BOOK? BLUE BOOK is the first original comic book series released as part of James Tynion IV’s Substack Pro deal, running exclusively as part of his “The Empire of the Tiny Onion” Newsletter. It is a “non-fiction” series adapting UFO encounters from the testimonies of those who experienced those encounters. This project was created by writer James Tynion IV (Department of Truth) and Michael Avon Oeming (Powers), and will be lettered by the incredible Aditya Bidikar.
WHY A COMIC ABOUT “REAL” UFO ENCOUNTERS? James Tynion IV and Michael Avon Oeming share a lifelong fascination with UFOs. While both of them are skeptics, they believe there is a power in sharing the stories of encounters with the strange and the unknown. James has taken to calling stories like these members of the “TRUE WEIRD” genre, which he sees as the strange cousin of the True Crime genre. Several of the projects James will be developing on Substack will be “TRUE WEIRD” stories.
WHY IS IT CALLED BLUE BOOK? The United States Air Force ran a program called Project Blue Book from 1952 to 1969, with the goal of determining if there was any validity to the UFO phenomenon gripping the country, and whether it posed a threat to National Security. The existence of this project, the continued work of J. Allen Hynek, and hundreds of encounters that the USAF was unable to identify, continues to act as a bedrock of scientific inquiry for the field of UFOlogy. While the BLUE BOOK comic borrows its name from this military investigation, the comic will not limit itself to cases studied by the real Project Blue Book. The name is meant to signify the broader goal of cataloguing these strange encounters with a clinical eye, and also refers to the approach to the art in this project, which will all be in shades of black, white, and blue.
WHAT WILL THE FIRST CHAPTERS OF BLUE BOOK BE ABOUT? James and Michael are starting by adapting the famous story of the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in 1961. We will be launching the series on the 60th Anniversary of the original encounter, as reported by the Hills. The Hill Encounter was the first widely reported UFO abduction case, and the details of the case shaped many key elements of UFO lore in the decades that followed.
HOW LONG ARE BLUE BOOK CHAPTERS, AND WHAT WILL THEY ENTAIL? Every chapter of BLUE BOOK will be roughly ten comic book pages. You should consider these ten page chapters as more of an excerpt of a longer graphic novel. The BLUE BOOK team is working to make sure each chapter stands on its own to a certain extent, but the goal is to serve the long form story more than the individual chapters.
HOW WILL I READ BLUE BOOK? If you have subscribed to James Tynion IV’s Substack, and have opted in to emails, you will receive a newsletter in your email inbox. The pages will be included in the body of the email for you to scroll through. We will also be offering the chapters as downloads in at least PDF form, and potentially CBR/CBZ as well if there is a demand for it. The BLUE BOOK team is also exploring the possibilities offered by making the most of Substack’s new partnership with the Panels app. The team has not determined how they want to use the app yet, but are excited about the possibilities.
DO I NEED TO BE A PAID SUBSCRIBER TO READ BLUE BOOK? The first chapter of BLUE BOOK will be released free of charge to give interested readers a taste of what James, Michael, and Aditya are building with the series. All subsequent chapters will only be available to readers with a paid subscription.
WILL BLUE BOOK BE RELEASED IN PRINT? Yes. Eventually. But the Blue Book team isn’t going to make any firm decisions about how they want to release the book until they are further into the process of making it. Once a decision has been made and they are contractually allowed to tell you what decision they have made, they will do so. But be patient, part of the fun of this experiment is to let the book determine the format it will ultimately be released in.
Okay! This is James again. Did all of that convince you that you should sign up for the paid edition of this Substack already so you don’t miss any Blue Book Chapters? How about the fact that this is only the first of a whole BUNCH of original comic book projects paid subscribers will be able to read here on the site? Hit the subscribe button right now so you don’t miss ANY of the good stuff!
Anyways… Writing in the third person always gets me feeling a bit like Doctor Doom. But I’ve digressed enough! Last week, we ran the first half of an in-depth interview about the creation of BLUE BOOK between myself and series artist and co-creator Michael Avon Oeming. This week, we’ve got the back half ready for you, transcribed by the infinitely patient Greg Lockard for your reading pleasure… If you haven’t
JAMES: Let’s talk about the first image you drew for the project, just a few days after I sent that first email. Even as a sketch, it captured such a specific tone right from the start. And I'm talking about the illustration with the figure pointing up at the triangle ship, which you made without prompting or any direction. Can you talk me through your thinking in making the piece? Originally I was going to ask the question, “Why go with the triangle UFO?” But after you explained your family encounter, I think I know the answer. But was that image meant to tie back to your family encounter and all of that? I’d just love to hear your thoughts about the creation of the piece. Like, what drove towards that image?
MICHAEL: That's what I was thinking about. I was thinking about, what was sort of the earliest point of reference for me? My wife, Taki, is also a writer. And when she talks about stories, the way she finds her compass is really breaking it down to: “What is the thing that originally got you excited about this idea?” Forget all the sort of side things and the characters and the surface stuff. What is that emotion or feeling? And how do you dig into that? So, the first thing I thought about was that was my mother's story.
I kind of wish I drew my mom and my aunt actually pointing at it, you know? But I was just doing a quick image. I just need to get out of my system. It was the triangle, which I don't remember if they saw it as a solid shape or it was just the lights. I'm not sure. But that was definitely the influence going back to those early, early days, “what got me interested in it?” and trying to hold on to that feeling through everything. That sense of wonderment, the sense of you're being watched, you're being followed, there's something bigger than you. That was the origin of it. And the blue tone just made sense because it was about “Blue Book,” right? I think you even mentioned that in your email! It's like you were already there in my head before I started it. You were like accepting the style.
JAMES: We've been digging into the lives of Betty and Barney Hill for the last couple of months now, and I'm curious what struck you the most about their story as we work to bring it to the comic page.
MICHAEL: I was just finishing listening to “Captured” on audiobook, which is another Betty and Barney Hill book by Stan Friedman, I think he co-wrote that one [Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience by Stanton Friedman and Kathleen Marden]. And the thing that really struck me was all the stuff that I didn't know. When you know the story, there's a couple of things that stand out to you. It's generally the first modern-day abduction story that has all the sort of landmarks: there's the false memory stuff. Their dreams are slightly different than their hypnosis confessions. I forget which way it goes but in the dreams, they're seeing them in weird, kind of spacey outfits and they look pretty human. And the other one, they appear as we now know of as “the Gray.”
So much of what we know now of the folklore goes back to this original story, which also has parts that happen previously as well, like sightings of these different crafts and beings. But this is the first full narrative that we have. What was interesting to me was the stuff that I didn't know, like afterward, how involved Betty was in UFO support groups and other witnesses.
And then the weird stuff, because the reports of Betty and Barney Hill usually focus on the fact that this was an interracial couple in the early 60s. They both worked with civil rights and stuff. So, they are targets of derision in all kinds of ways. It's dangerous that come out and talk about this stuff in the first place as people think you’re nuts and you can lose your job. But on top of that, you've got a dangerous time to be an interracial couple and all this other stuff, that all lend to the story’s authenticity. Like, why would you lie about this? Why would you make this kind of thing up? That narrative goes out the window right away. The weirder stuff came afterward. I didn't know they had more sightings, they didn't have other abductions, but they had more sightings. And then there was other weird stuff, where you start seeing other phenomena, and if you pay attention to the Skinwalker Ranch stuff, which is a mixture of paranormal and UFO events. They started having weird paranormal stuff. And paranormal stuff would happen to people who are close to them, who are helping them look into the UFO stuff.
So again, this is where it gets thrown is how weird this stuff is. That was such a surprise to me as there's more to their story than the narrative that you're always getting. Their lives were just interesting as regular people. Betty reminds me a lot of my mom and my aunt in different ways. The way I draw her, she reminds me so much of my aunt, who passed. Because I was close to my mother and my aunt, who were, I think just a generation or two after her, maybe just one generation after Betty. It really helped me understand what I'm drawing and like how they how she would carry her purse, how she looked around the room around her, and other stuff.
All of that stuff started to fall into place afterward. It was a lot of the minutia, the bigger weird stuff that wasn't reported or well known, how much of our foundation of UFO culture is really built around them. Kind of endlessly fascinating. What was some of the stuff that was a surprise for you?
JAMES: So, when I started working on Issue #7 of the Department of Truth, I started really going back and looking at some key UFO source material and one thing that I realized very quickly is that more than modern sources, the ones that I found the most valuable were the books that were actually published contemporaneously in the 50s and 60s. The books that are skeptical but optimistic. They do want to believe in all this stuff but they haven't quite gone all the way down the ultraterrestrial rabbit hole. Which I find deeply fascinating, but it's definitely alienating when you're sort of thrown in the deep end of the pool right from the start. One of the first books and that I saw was “He Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers” I think was the title? [They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers by Gray Barker]. I was researching early Men in Black encounters, because obviously for Department of Truth, stories about the Men in Black were the real area to mine and reinterpret in the lens of the Department of Truth mythology.
I enjoyed reading those early accounts. So, that really opened the door towards me kind of going down an eBay rabbit hole in quarantine, which I did a lot, buying a bunch of old UFO books that that really interested me. And one of the key ones that I picked up was “The Interrupted Journey” by John G. Fuller, which is the first book-length account of the Betty and Barney Hill case. And I responded to the material pretty. I was reading the opening sequence which really has a lot of drama while still being a grounded approach. It didn't feel sensationalized. The actual account of the initial encounter, even before the abduction stuff, before they even realize they were abducted. I was seeing it through the context of “this would make a really good comic.”
I literally sat down, and I had to stop myself because the Department of Truth is about so many different things. It's about conspiracy culture. It's about magick with a K. It's about it's a smorgasbord of weird stuff, that I'm interested in. But I had to stop myself because it was just like, for a second, “what if I just bring all the UFO stuff in and dial it all up to 20 and make that the core focus of the book?” But I thought, “no, no, no. I need to do what's right for the book, not just follow this one rabbit hole.” This happens to me all the time. It's just I start researching for something without knowing that I've started researching for something and I am just accumulating all these thoughts. The concept of digging into the story was sitting in the back of my head for a long time. I didn't think that A) I had the bandwidth or B) I had the right way of bringing it into the world. And this whole Substack experiment has sort of opened the door to that.
There's something so visceral about that initial encounter and it's frightening in a very human way that I don't feel any depiction I had seen in film or television or History Channel specials have ever properly captured. I think if you gave this the time and a little elbow grease, I think you could make something really cool here. It really was that initial encounter, that's the thing that wormed into my head and kind of lingered there.
MICHAEL: I also think going back to the basics is great. One of my favorite researchers, Richard Dolan, says he thinks the best cases are in the past for a couple of reasons. Weirdly, there's a lot of military involvement in this stuff, on record that you can find, where they're either acknowledging or at least acknowledging. Like this latest round in June where they said, “yeah, there's things out there, and we just don't know what they are,” an official statement from the government or the Air Force or something, but that's happened before. They've done that before. They have acknowledged that there's stuff in the sky. There's like this Twining memo, which is super important, that's out there. So going back to the basics, one of the great things about it, too, is that its pre-Internet noise. There's so much noise to signal with stuff. Now you can't really, like, pictures and photos and videos don't matter anymore. If they're too clear, they're fake, it's not clear enough... they could be fake.
And then there's so many personalities and weird politics, and it's a circus like it's never been before, and it's really hard to just cut down to the nitty-gritty. Looking back on those earlier things, like the Hynek Report, that stuff you can kind of trust. And it had a certain amount of time to sit out there so that it's been examined a bunch of times versus how now it’s often stuff attached to personalities for better or for worse. That's how it's delivered, you know?
JAMES: Yeah, absolutely. Can you talk to me a little bit about your approach to the pages themselves and sort of developing the style for the book and what you've learned now that you're a few chapters into the project?
MICHAEL: One of the things I was excited about was for a while I've been wanting to work on something analog again. I've been working digital for a long time for several reasons, one of which is the most mundane of reasons: I'm just getting older, right? My eyes, they suck. And 20-something, actually, 30-something years of drawing this close to the board is beginning taking its toll. I've been leaning more on digital because I can zoom in. It's just easier on the eyes. But I wanted something that wasn't so intensive as your usual sort of superhero or crime stuff, or people are running around, and there are giant scenes of cityscapes and you’ll have a few crowd scenes and cities and stuff but it's not like every single page. This is my chance to go back to some basics.
Style-wise, I'm loving using brushes and pens again and even though I can't get that same sort of control out of brushes and pens the way I can digitally, it lends itself to the material in ways that other material doesn't. Again, going back to the influence of “In Search Of”... it's all grainy and the films we run through UHF channels and stuff by the time I saw it, so it was all beat up. So even the imperfections are serving a purpose here, it makes it feel more real, more relatable, and more tangible. That part was really exciting.
Then the other part was tackling the challenge of telling a very straightforward narrative that doesn't rely on people leaping off the building, somebody shooting a gun, somebody punching somebody else. Right. How do you make an action sequence out of somebody driving down the street thinking they're being followed? That's what I was trying to do. You got a scene here, a couple of scenes where they've seen something and then they're leaving the scene and they're weirded out by it.
It's a certain level of paranoia, but it's not like in your face, you're being chased by spies and wheels are spinning. You have to find how do you create a sense of paranoia? You start looking at the car through trees like you're witnessing them. You set up shots so that it looks like they're being followed, not being pushed too far. Then as the story starts to unveil and you start to see the light in the sky in the UFO, then you start to see stuff like reflections of the light on the car instead of just showing the UFO. Show this sense of there is something and you don't know what it is yet. They don't have a clear view of it yet. So you don't let the reader have a clear view of it yet, you know?
Those were the fun challenge! Those are the things that I love when people talk about. An artist will talk about how they hate drawing talking heads or a conversation. I'm like, “give me that, man!” To me, a character turn happens at the dinner table when somebody reveals something about themselves and you don't just draw the body language. But what is the language of the emotion that they're telling you? You tell that through the camera, you tell that with how it's set up. Those are the things that I love more than anything else and so far this is just full of that. Here's Barney and Betty Hill. They're in a diner and the scene is them leaving. The waitress gives them a dirty look and that's all I got to go on. But I feel like I can pull more out of that. I can say more fresh things with these interactions than superheroes and car explosions and stuff like that. The challenge was, how do we take the mundane, straightforward stuff and make it exciting, make it interesting, and engage the reader. Hopefully, that's what we're doing here together.
JAMES: I love hearing all that because it's something that I've been thinking a lot about recently. I'm co-writing a couple of projects coming up that I'm bringing in people. And I was sort of explaining some of the principles behind a lot of what I've been doing in the creator-owned space. And one thing that I finally articulated the other day that I think I kind of knew, but I didn't know until I said it out loud is after so many years, a decade working in superhero comics, the thing I find most exciting on the page or the quiet moments, because then, especially if you do your job in the quiet moments and really let the tension linger and build and let the characters really speak for themselves. Then when the shit hits the fan, it hits the reader so much harder. With the superhero stuff, if give your editors an issue that's just all quiet moments, then their bosses are going to yell at them and you're a bit of an asshole.
MICHAEL: And we're not saying we’re bored with superheroes or with action. We're not saying we don't want to do those things but you need contrast. Contrast is so important. And to have those strong quiet moments contrast against when they do get to the UFO. Then there is this big freaking splash page, and it's a strong image or... the punching and the jumping out of windows. It matters more when you have something contrast against it.
JAMES: I also think that there's an extra power in it, especially for a generation who's grown up with a lot more genre movies, TV, books, and everything that existed when I was a kid or when you were a kid, just so much more stuff out in the world, which means that weirdly I think there's a rising generation who are not used to seeing the world that they live in reflected in the books or comics that they read. And so, when you can actually reflect that real world back at them, it grounds them in a way that surprises them.
And I think that there's tremendous power in that. I can see myself slipping down the road… We'll see five years from now, I might just might just do human dramas, or... I'll get sick of it. And I'll just be back to people in capes and tights. Or I’ll do both. That's the joy of it. But it is something where I do think that actually reflecting the world and grounding the reader in the world as it exists, allows you to contextualize what's happening in a way that feels much more visceral.
I have a big stack of Stephen King books behind me while I’m talking to you, and that's always been a thing that I've loved about Stephen King's horror is that the first hundred pages of every Stephen King novel is just a nice family drama and it fully grounds you in the world and the characters before things really start going to hell. And I've always been envious of novels being able to take that time in a way that comics often can't. And once again, one of the privileges here is, I think, that we have absolute control over the length of the story, the length of each chapter of the story and we can really dictate how we want to sell it. And that's incredibly exciting.
JAMES: Last question, not limited to the original “Blue Book” cases at all, because that project, for readers, Project Blue Book was a real United States Air Force program that studied UFO encounters and all that. But “Blue Book,” as the title of this project is we're painting with a broader brush, and it's going to be non-fiction stories about UFO encounters of all stripes. It does not necessarily have to be covered by those global “Blue Book” cases. I was wondering is there another big UFO encounter that lives in your head that you're interested to bring to life in a story like this, or at least that we should start talking about and start thinking about?
MICHAEL: I don't know if it would actually fit. What's weird is like the venn diagram for UFO stuff and other weird shit... it's almost just a full circle. It doesn't take you long to start seeing all this other weird stuff. Like all the sort of pre-UFO, the pre-modern time UFO accounts, I am fascinated with. It started with what used to be a really fun campfire story kind of TV show, Ancient Aliens (which has turned into some other thing at this point). But looking at the Bible stories, the Old Testament stories that are clearly metaphors for this same sort of stuff, the Ezekiel wheel stuff and what happens with... what's his name, who walked with God? He just didn't die. He just went away. Super Old Testament stuff. The name is slipping my head. That's super interesting.
The accounts in the 1800s of the airships, which mirror exactly what was going on with UFOs. That stuff fascinates me. Basically, the shorthand version of it is in the Old West newspaper accounts of people, an airship was a floating balloon thing and they would abduct people. They barely looked human, and they have fake beards on, like a Men in Black thing. They're imitating humans, they're talking about being from Venus. It's the same sort of narrative. All the get up and stuff is different. Again, it seems to be some sort of weird consciousness thing.
I find those kind of stories really fascinating. It's not one specific one that lives in my head, but it's like the phenomena itself has been around for a long time, one form or another. Those things that really stick in my head for the most part, and then whatever new thing is happening, like with the Nimitz stories now, I just keep my eyes on those but I've learned that they're like wine: you have to wait to see if they're going to spoil or if they're going to turn into something very quickly. The whole Nimitz thing, I have a strong suspicion, is just some security issue. There's a lot of the UFO stuff and top-secret, very grounded alien, very grounded technology stuff gets into the hands of private corporations. That's how you keep government and FOIA out of the system. If you're a military person and you keep bumping into all these clearances that you don't have because it's in private hands, well, what do you do? Knock down that house of cards so that you can rebuild the security thing.
I think that's probably what the new thing is. It's just it's something that has nothing to do with UFOs... it's some sort of manipulation of information. That's a really long way of saying I don't have one specific story. But what about you? What is the one that you keep going back to?
JAMES: There's the Rendelsham Forest Incident in the UK that I really like. And the thing I really like about that is there are multiple accounts of it. One of my favorite things about working on this story on Betty and Barney Hill is I'm working from five primary sources rather than just relying on one newspaper interview that then has been passed down through the game of telephone through a bunch of other books that didn’t do any of their own research. So that one really interests me. And then honestly, it is those early men in black encounters. I would like to play around with a few of the shorter stories, because this first Blue Book story will be multiple chapters. Doing the ones where it's just here's a little spooky account, a ten page story and then we’re out..
MICHAEL: ...And they are spooky, they're weird. The men in black stuff is very weird, very unsettling. And the Rendlesham case, for anybody reading this and they’re interested, it's kind of a bulletproof case of UFO lore. One of the guys, in that case, John, I’m forgetting his name offhand, he got sick from this UFO encounter and he got some sort of weird sickness. In a nutshell, he was able to finally get some sort of military record to cover the health problems that came out of this encounter.
And in that thing, the military had this phrase about a UAP thing, like an encounter with these objects. So basically in the thing that's medical records, they admit that there's some sort of or they've defined some sort of unearthly, that you can come in contact with that can cause health problems. It's fucking nuts, man. It's all there. You kind of don't need anything else, but that that there's something going on. So, you're right. That's one of the best cases as far as you can't poke to many holes into it.
I'm so happy to have somebody to nerd out over this stuff with. I’ve always wanted to work with other creators on this stuff and I just feel like a lunatic trying to explain it all.
JAMES: You fall down the rabbit hole where it's like, “all right, now I'm going to try to explain what I just read in this John Keel book.” And you know you’re going to lose the person you’re talking to unless they’re really steeped in the lore. There's some Mothman stuff coming up in the Department of Truth. And all of the material in Mothman Prophecies, I really feel like I have to explore through the lens of The Department of Truth, because if I was trying to be literal about a lot of that stuff around the Mothman, I don’t know that it would actually capture the real essence of any of it. It would lose something. But that’s what is special about all of this. There's just so much weird, fascinating stuff out there.
MICHAEL: Yeah, the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks so much, Man. Thanks for having me on board.
JAMES: Man, thanks for being on board!
So, yeah… Blue Book Chapter One will drop in your inbox next Friday, and then will continue to release twice a month for a good long time. If you want to make sure you don’t miss out on a single chapter, you should hit the subscription button right now.
I picked up a book I’m very excited about at Skylight Books last night, which appears to be something that I’ve been looking for for a while. It’s a book about UFO books, specifically the kind of UFO books I talk about above, the ones written contemporaneously, that built the lore around it all that we all know without really knowing where any of it came from. I haven’t started flipping through, but was happy to see some of the books already on my shelf appearing inside. I’ll let you all know how it reads as I dig in deeper.
As I mentioned above… Yesterday, Substack announced a partnership with the digital comics app Panels. Here at Tiny Onion, we’re figuring out exactly how we want to use that partnership to get the comics in your hands. I wonder if brief, ten page chapters accumulating would be too much, or if we should wait to upload our stories to panels in heftier chunks, closer to 30 page “issues.” I’m going to be having some conversations with my teams about all of it. So please bear with us as we experiment with exciting new ways for you to read all of these rad Substack comic books.
I’m going to be signing at THINGS FROM ANOTHER WORLD at the Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, CA from 5-7pm later today (Friday). I can’t wait to see you all and sign some comic books for you!
Finally, I goofed this past Monday and accidentally only fired off our free TINY UPDATE to my paid subscribers, rather than the full email list. I fixed the post on the site, so now you can all give it a read, but didn’t want to fire it off again and put two emails in a bunch of your inboxes. But if you missed it, you should go check it out and listen to me ramble a bunch about the Fear State event in Batman!
James Tynion IV
Los Angeles, CA