Alien in the Outfield mostly takes place in the summer of 1986. We initially conceived of the story as a forgotten eighties movie so it was always visualised as a period piece. The eighties was the decade of my actual childhood and – probably not coincidentally – the period I most associate with the classic family genre movies that influence our story.
Whilst I hope we successfully captured something of the style and tone of storytelling from that era without resorting to cheap nostalgic callbacks, I nevertheless found myself seduced by the inclusion of ever more opaque period details.
There are many hours of needlessly detailed research and reflection behind each movie or music poster on Joel’s bedroom wall. The Iron Maiden poster above the bed, for example, is from the World Slavery Tour (1984-85). Joel is too young to have attended the British heavy metallers March 1985 gig at Tingley Coliseum in nearby Albuquerque but the proximity of the venue means it’s plausible he could have gotten hold of this poster.
Making Joel into a closet old-school hard-rocker seemed appropriate: I also come from a small provincial town and growing up I shared a similar disconnect and disinterest with the prevailing fashions of the time. When I look at family photographs from the eighties they mostly look like they were taken a decade earlier – right down to the hand-me-down clothes and seventies footballer haircuts. I suppose it takes a while for the fashions and fads of big cities to spread out to the rest of us – but this is a cultural delay that has to be carefully managed in shorthand portrayals of an era.
As a young outcast in a small town, I’m not certain Joel would have been particularly exposed to more instantly era-defining post-punk and new wave – or even been very much aware of fashion at all. For this reason, the defiantly unfashionable but perennially popular Iron Maiden seemed a perfect unpretentious choice. I did make a last minute appeal to Jack to include Mötley Crüe as a slightly more contemporary Hair Metal compromise, but we couldn’t agree on any imagery suitable for an all-ages book. As I said earlier, this was a disproportionately agonising decision-making process over a single partially obscured background poster…in a single panel…in one issue.
As this story is being told in comic book format, I felt a responsibility for ensuring that we paid appropriate respect to the medium itself. Great care and attention was made to include Iron Man #212 and Spectacular Spider Man #144, both from 1986. Lovingly rendered covers of these two comics were placed in the paws of Rendell, a wise-cracking and comic-loving member of the Roswell Rockets.
You’ll have to trust me on this detail. Once these already tiny images are scanned and the page reduced to US comic size, it is barely possible to discern the identity of the superhero never mind the specific issue. In retrospect, this is something of a relief as it turned out that Iron Man #212 was actually published in November ‘86 whilst our story takes place at the beginning of baseball season, sometime in March. You might think there is little reason to be concerned about such a pedantic goof but I can assure you that any reader who would bother to take note of the year and issue number of an in-panel eighties Iron Man comic will almost certainly also take issue with the fact it is eight months out of continuity.
This reflects a problem with the inclusion of increasingly detailed set and setting: the higher the level of detail you use and the more you attempt to fully represent an objective reality, the more evident and jarring any inaccuracies become. The use of broad caricatured strokes sidesteps this problem but if you want to evoke a clear sense of time and place, you’ll have to find a balance somewhere in between.
Take the much loved Hanna-Barbera animated television series Top Cat as an example. The storyline of this cartoon featured the ineffectual attempts of local beat cop Charles “Charlie” Dibble to evict a gang of anthropomorphic feline hustlers from their New York alley. There is no attempt to give Officer Dibble an accurate representation of a New York beat cop uniform. The specific location itself isn’t important to the story and there’s simply no need to establish that level of detail to the set and setting. Dibble is simply representative of a generic police officer, so his inauthentic uniform could not be considered a goof, error or anachronism by even the most fanatical pedant. However, if just one specific realistic detail is introduced then all other omissions become suddenly incongruous. If, for instance, Dibble was given an accurately detailed Badge and precinct number on his uniform then suddenly he should also be wearing the correct double breasted jacket, the correct epaulettes and regulation belt, buckle, shoes and nightstick. If we follow this uncanny valley for long enough then eventually we have to ask just how come these darn cats can speak human in the first place…and where the heck are they getting those feline-fitted gangster suits?
I suppose that the “Dibbles” of Alien in the Outfield are the military and FBI. Whilst a handful of our antagonists are drawn in more detail, there are a literal army of…er…army personnel whose sole purpose is to provide a sense of jeopardy for our poor little sports-alien. I showed a great deal of restraint in my portrayal of uniforms, weaponry and tech. Some comic artists have made a whole career from their vast knowledge and meticulous representations of this subject. Personally, I wouldn’t even know where to start, so I hope our more military minded readers will be at least satisfied that the use of the FBI Glock handgun and M-16 Assault Rifle are correct for the period. Less military minded readers – who share my ambivalence towards these kind of things – will be relieved to discover that these weapons are not fired and are as much harmless set dressing in our story as Dibbles crude cartoon revolver.
I hope readers will equally appreciate the consideration taken over the vehicles in the story. I’m particularly pleased by the inclusion of a 1980 Chevrolet Step Van. These odd little “bakery trucks” were often used to comic effect in eighties action movies and – outside the US – looked ridiculous yet strangely futuristic at the same time. Selecting the vehicle with the right character for our characters was a surprisingly difficult undertaking. I am also mindful that automotive-geekery is almost as common and often as severe a condition as comic-geekery. Once I had finally settled on a 1981 Chevrolet Citation Hatchback as an appropriate period car for Joel’s mom, I spent so long debating the specific choice of model that I didn’t notice I’d accidentally drawn a right-hand drive! I recall reading there was a similar mistake made during the making of Terminator 2. That had required very costly digital correction to an already expensive practical stunt – at least it was quick and easy for me to reverse the offending panels in Photoshop.
Independent comics 1, Hollywood Blockbusters 0!
It was an enjoyably nostalgic guilty pleasure to mine my hazy memories of the decade: even if the many nods toward ALF, the walkman, Rubik’s hateful cube and the obligatory deference to Star Wars were likely to be lost on our younger audience. It was also important to pay our respects and acknowledge some of our key influences. Given the subject matter, it was a particular challenge to find a fresh and subtle way to pay homage to Steven Spielberg’s endlessly homaged ET – possibly the patient zero of all extra-terrestrial coming of age caper movies. As a result, ET is the source of both the most clunkingly obvious and the most satisfyingly obscure visual gags in the first issue. The former can be found in the name of our hero Joel’s Middle School, the latter in the midst of the alien’s escape from the airbase.
Of course, all of these details are secondary to our story. In most cases, they are unlikely to even be noticeable at all. These layers are less in the service of authenticity and more a form of Easter Egg to reward re-reading. As this is intended to be an all-ages book, we want to ensure that if the older reader isn’t charmed by our simple foreground tale then they will hopefully enjoy the background in-jokes and references to the era.
At the risk of spoiling all our suprises – and exceeding the wordcount of the comic itself – I will stop here and hope you will discover the rest for yourselves. I’m currently deep into the layouts for Issue Two and losing myself in a whole new world of defunct soda brands and 8-bit video-game aesthetics. As an artist, I’m reasonably adept at conjuring myself into imaginary worlds – the biggest problem is finding my way back out of the rabbit hole again.
I guess I don’t need to worry about that until the conclusion of the series in December.