Being the first of anything is an exciting prospect. There’s the thrill of forging a new path, the pleasure of knowing you were the first to do something, and the satisfaction of knowing others might be able to follow in your footsteps. For Benson Chow, the protagonist of Paul Tobin and Ron Chan‘s new graphic novel, Earth Boy, being the first Galactic Ranger from Earth has been his dream for as long as he can remember. But when Benson is accepted into the Kayrus Academy, the elite school that trains future Galactic Rangers, he finds that being a trailblazer comes with its own unexpected set of obstacles.
Earth Boy is the latest Dark Horse Comics collaboration between Tobin and Chan, who have previously worked together on seven Plants vs. Zombies graphic novels for the publisher. The Beat chatted with the writer and artist about the development of Earth Boy, addressing real-world issues through sci-fi, and the team’s long working relationship.
Joe Grunenwald: Where did the idea for Earth Boy come from? How long have the two of you been developing this book?
Ron Chan: Earth Boy came about because our friend and Dark Horse editor Daniel Chabon liked our work on Plants vs Zombies and asked if we’d like to pitch him on an original idea. Paul said he’d love to do something almost along the lines of a space-adventure shonen manga, to which I jokingly replied “If you’re asking me to draw Mass Effect High, my answer is YES.” Earth Boy isn’t exactly either of those things, but that’s where the thought process started! At the time, I still had several Plants vs Zombies books on my plate, so Paul actually completed work on the script about a year before I started drawing it, and then I took another couple years to draw it in between other work I was doing.
Paul Tobin: Ron sums it up pretty well, there! I’ve always loved his art, and the way he creates environments, so I knew I wanted a story where he could really cut loose, and I’d been thinking about stories with a true “outsider” protagonist, and the ideas for Earth Boy slowly developed from there, somewhat flipping the usual “outsider” aspect on its head.
Grunenwald: Talk a little bit about Benson. What inspired the two of you as you were developing him? What drives his desire to become a Galactic Ranger?
Chan: Paul wrote the story, but I got to choose his name! There aren’t a lot of American comics starring young Chinese boys, so if we were gonna do this, I wanted Benson to be like me: a Chinese kid with a somewhat old-fashioned English name, which is a pretty common occurrence with children of Chinese immigrants. Ronald Chan. Benson Chow. Benson is actually the name of the high school I went to, and Chow is a nod to Hong Kong action movie superstar Chow Yun-Fat. His green hair is inspired by green-haired anime protagonists like Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop and Midoriya Izuku of My Hero Academia.
Tobin: I think what drives Benson to be a Galactic Ranger is much the same that made him a good farmhand: he likes to keep things in order, and to do right by everyone and everything: not just his friends or other people, but all animals, all of nature, literally all of the universe. He wants to find his place by helping everything and everyone else find their place. These were themes that I felt I could explore, since I’ve had some touches of it in my own life, coming from a tiny little town in Iowa and first getting “lost” in college, my first trips to New York, an extended vacation in Paris, areas where I had to begin to understand what a tiny speck I am in the greater world (or universe) and how that’s actually a good thing, because then you’re free to find your own place and create your own world.
Grunenwald: This book is brimming with new things – concepts, alien species, locations, history, and more – on nearly every page. Is working on a story like this intimidating? How do you approach tackling it?
Chan: It’s a little intimidating! I mostly tried to not overthink it. It’s easy to get bogged down with iterative visual world-building (and it’s a worthwhile venture when you’re talking about massive budget/scale media like movies and video games,) but for me, most of my time is better spent just producing comic pages. I kept some ground rules for myself: I used common design elements and colors to link together uniforms and the architecture of Kayrus Academy, and several “main” alien races that made up a large portion of the Kayrus population. These were thought about and designed ahead of time, but the majority of everything else in the book was improvised on the spot upon drawing the pages.
Tobin: I think it’s important to introduce elements that both are, and aren’t, explained. Like, when you’re visiting a friend in a new city, and they’re giving you a tour, there’s a mix of things you do and don’t understand. Like, “That’s the place with the best donuts!” Okay. Got it. Best donuts. “And over there is where Unsettling Harmonica Guy used to be.” Okay, what? Unsettling Harmonica guy? I think it’s fun to introduce elements, too, where locals know things and just assume everybody else does, whether “local” means a part of the galaxy or even a point in time. Like, go back to caveman times and, yeah, we all understand it would be tough to explain cell phones, but it would also be tough to explain sandwiches or shoelaces. In Earth Boy, I tried to tread the line between Benson being lost and excited by all these new elements.
Grunenwald: At the same time, Earth Boy has some pretty relevant themes at play, including, among others, unconscious bias and systemic racism. How did those elements of the story, and their presentation to readers, evolve as you developed the book? Were those baked in from the beginning?
Chan: I think the idea of Benson being an outsider is baked into the concept of him as the first and only Human at the academy. I think we can all relate to the feeling of not fitting in, sometimes because of our own feelings, but sometimes as the result of another’s actions. I think Paul’s script does a nice job of introducing these themes without being too heavy-handed about it.
Tobin: Definitely baked in from the beginning, both in the aspect of Benson being the sole person from Earth, and also the academy not caring about him as a person, but only as a checkmark for administrative purposes. They don’t see Benson Chow: they just see an Earth Boy. It’s identity with a loss of individuality.
Grunenwald: After seven Plants vs. Zombies books, this is your first original property as a team. How did working on those previous licensed books prepare you for working together on Earth Boy?
Chan: Though Paul and I are real-life friends, our working relationship is actually relatively hands-off! It might come as a surprise to some that we don’t have a lot of back-and-forth after years of collaborating, but I think that comes down to a having lot of trust in each other’s work. Paul knows the kind of moments play into my strengths, but also he won’t shy away from difficult scenes that push against the boundaries of my skillset because he trusts that I can figure it out.
On the other side of that, I will try my best to bring the script to life as best as possible even if it’s difficult, but also I know that if I want to take a little artistic license with some of it, Paul will still be happy with the result as long as the spirit of the comic is maintained. In Plants vs Zombies: Petal to the Metal, I had a real hard time with it at first because I really didn’t want to draw a bunch of cars and zombie tech!! But in the end, I trusted the script, worked hard, and once I finished it, was really proud of the work. Also, I tweeted at him that we should have a suplex in the book and he wrote me an entire page of zombies getting suplexed.
Tobin: Complete trust is, I think, what we have for each other. I know Ron is going to build environment, and I know the characters will have real emotion, and feel like they exist as real people. More than anything else, I know the art will have the little details that bring things to life. And I think he knows that if I write a particularly hard page to draw, there are storytelling reasons for that, just as I know that when he changes parts of my scripts, there are reasons for that. Also… dang! Whether it’s humor, or drama, or quiet moments, or explosive moments, Ron can really design a page and a panel to play to the strengths of the story. Maybe the real reason I love working with Ron is that he’s so good that it challenges me to be better!
Grunenwald: You two must like each other to have done eight books together. What’s your favorite thing about working together?
Chan: Haha, see previous answer. We trust each other as collaborators!
Tobin: Right! What Ron says! I think it’s great, too, that we’re real life friends, so that we have a lot of other things to talk about rather than just whatever project we’re on. It means that working with Ron is automatically fun, and that translates into better stories.
Grunenwald: What do you hope readers take away from reading Earth Boy?
Chan: I just want people to love my space kids!
Tobin: That the world and the universe are big places, and that we can find our own spaces while still making room for others!
Published by Dark Horse Comics, Earth Boy is available in stores and digitally now.