Lessons In Alien Diplomacy: An Interview With The Creators Of ‘Cosmic Cadets’ Book One
by Rachel Bellwoar
It’s one thing meeting an alien from another planet on your home turf (like Elliott does in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.). Jamil and his friends actually sneak off to another planet to make first contact with an unknown alien species. That’s impressive, but then so is writer, Ben Crane, and artist/letterer, Mimi Alves‘, new book, Cosmic Cadets: Contact!, which comes out later this month. With colors by Priscilla Tramontano, learn more about Mimi’s designs for the aliens and Ben’s favorite Yoda quote below:
Rachel Bellwoar: For a ship charged with carrying out diplomatic missions, Captain Majida’s officers are awfully quick to pull out their weapons when faced with a “threat” they don’t recognize. Is it fair to say it’s been a while since they’ve had to make diplomatic overtures?
Ben Crane: We’re jumping into the big questions right out of the gate here! Majida and her crew have had many successful diplomatic missions, but they’ve had others that have not gone well.
She is definitely a leader who values decisiveness and bravery. Now those are lovely qualities, but if not tempered with self-awareness, they can definitely lead to problems. Majida has had people under her command die. When she thinks she sees a threat, her first priority is to protect her crew.
One of the things we wanted to do with this book was present alternate models of heroism. We wanted to draw a contrast between the adults, who are very heroic in the traditional adventure story sense, and the kids, whose heroism is more varied, but always born of empathy.
Bellwoar: Whether it’s aliens or members of your own family, communication can be tough. Jamil (Captain Majida’s son) wants to be able to talk to his mom but doesn’t know how to make himself heard. As an all-ages book, what do you think both adults and kids can take from their relationship?
Crane: Communication is really hard! It can be incredibly scary both to open yourself up and speak honestly and to be vulnerable enough to truly listen to someone else, especially if they’re telling you something you might not want to hear.
What I hope people take away from Majida and Jimmil, though, is that it’s worth it. You can’t have a real relationship unless you do those hard and scary things, and it requires both sides to be open with each other.
Bellwoar: While uniforms tend to be pretty prevalent in sci-fi, Jamil and his friends each have their own personal style. What made you want to give them more freedom to express themselves through clothing?
Mimi Alves: Because having them all dress the same would be boring! Clothing is such a great avenue for conveying character. I didn’t want to give that up.
In universe, characters’ uniforms are determined by their rank. Since the kids don’t have ranks, they don’t have to wear uniforms. It’s a special privilege for Jimmil to get to wear his mom’s uniform, but of course that comes with its own pressures of her expectations.
Bellwoar: Fear is so potent in Cosmic Cadets that the entire layout of the page changes when a character is afraid. Why was it important to you to acknowledge that everyone feels scared sometimes and that fear is no joke?
Crane: I’ve always loved Yoda’s line, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” But that leaves something out. I don’t think fear is the core of the problem. So often we fear something only because we don’t understand it, and then we come to hate it.
When I was growing up, I never felt comfortable expressing my own fears, and I think that’s really hard on a kid. But if we can talk about what scares us, maybe we can find out why it scares us, and then maybe we can understand it and see we have no reason to be afraid after all.
We didn’t want to tell a story where bravery means not being afraid, but we also don’t want to say bravery means ignoring and suppressing fear. That’s even worse. It’s totally OK to be afraid. Real bravery to us means not letting that fear close you off to the world.
Bellwoar: Without giving away too much about the aliens in this story, I love how (like humans) they all share certain characteristics but aren’t identical. How did you strike that balance, of allowing for variation while also making it clear that they are of the same species?
Crane: As humans, we’ve generally got our two arms, two legs, a torso, a face, and maybe some hair. These aliens generally have a big blobby body, some markings and frills on it, two arms, two antennae, and two blobby mandibles. As long as any alien individual has those core things, the rest of the shape doesn’t matter. Curly, crinkly, bubbly, flowing… they’re all clearly the same species because they have those core features.
It was honestly more fun designing the alien characters than it was human ones since their shapes could get so much wilder.
Bellwoar: While we haven’t yet gotten to the point where the average person can send holographic messages like Princess Leia in Star Wars, it’s fun to imagine a future where that will be possible. Do either of you have a favorite piece of future tech from Cosmic Cadets?
Alves: The ships, especially the smaller ones. Why do we still not have flying cars? Are we not in the future? It was fun designing them and figuring out how they were powered. (It doesn’t come up, but the answer is magnets.)
Crane: Is “space travel” too broad of an answer? I think I’d say the ship’s translator—even though it dramatically fails in this book. I just love the idea of being able to talk to anyone without any language barrier.
Bellwoar: I really appreciate how this book expands the idea of what bravery looks like. Do you think that people are too limiting sometimes in their definition of what it means to be a hero?
Crane: Oh, absolutely! That was actually our starting point for this whole book. The very first thing we did was make a list of all the ways that people can be heroic and all the qualities we wanted to celebrate that we didn’t see being valorized in adventure stories.
Alves: I really hope kids reading this can see a part of themselves in the Cadets that stories aren’t always so great at recognizing. There are so many more ways to be brave and strong.
Bellwoar: Cosmic Cadets also never minimizes how frustrating it can be, as a kid, to have your age used against you, or to have to learn how to work as a team. Those frustrations don’t go away as an adult, and it’s important to have strategies for dealing with them. What was it like working as a team on this project?
Crane: We have an advantage in that we’re married, so we had plenty of practice communicating before we started this book together. I’ve absolutely loved working with Mimi on this. I can’t tell you how many times I put something in the script with no idea how they could make it work, but every time I was absolutely floored by what they came up with.
Alves: With projects, I’m usually at the end of the pipeline, making sure the end look is the best it can be. But I was not the colorist on this project. There are many different shifts in style throughout the book which I wanted to have radically different coloring styles. It was a leap of faith I’m not used to. Our colorist, Priscilla Tramantano, truly blew me away with what she was able to do with that.
Crane: This is what I love so much about comics, or really any collaborative medium. Everyone brings their own strengths, and it makes a better result than anyone could do on their own.
Bellwoar: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Ben and Mimi!
Cosmic Cadets Book One: Contact! goes on sale April 26th from Top Shelf.