Interview: Sara Kenney Takes On The World With PLANET DIVOC-91

Planet DIVOC-91 Chapter 1 dropped on WEBTOON yesterday for FREE, and Monkeys Fighting Robots was able to catch up with the writer of the first issue, Sara Kenney.

About the series:
PLANET DIVOC-91 is a new sci-fi comedy. The 9-part series is published monthly. This comic follows the adventures of Sanda Oung, a 23-year-old girl from the UK and Champo Oung, Sanda’s 19-year-old, non-binary sibling. Each chapter features the work of a different creative team and is interspersed with short interviews with experts about this pandemic, written by young adults.

Planet DIVOC-91 – Chapter 1: Transparency Is For Windows is drawn by Charlie Adlard, with colors by James Devlin, and you will read Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s letters work.

The goal of the series is to both entertain and build a community on WEBTOON where young adults can get empowered and drive positive change by helping direct research.

“We’re so excited to see Planet DIVOC-91 on WEBTOON CANVAS, not only because of the incredible talent behind it, but also because it’s an opportunity to educate WEBTOON readers in a fun and engaging way. We can’t wait to see what the series has in store!” – Danika Harrod, the Community Growth Manager for WEBTOON’s CANVAS platform.

Kenny has worked as a filmmaker on documentaries, drama, and animation (BBC, Channel 4, Discovery). In 2017, Image Comics published her first comic book, Surgeon X. Also in 2017, Kenny became a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow exploring comics, health, and the human condition.

Planet DIVOC-91 is a grand project as each chapter features the work of a different creative team and cover artist and is interspersed with short articles, links to videos, and other pieces of art by young adults about issues related to COVID-19, and mixes from DJs and Producers. Kenny is part of the production staff putting the book, but it is more than a book, together.

Sara Kenney interview

MFR: Sarah, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. The first chapter of Planet DIVOC-91 debuts on Webtoons next week (July 15), what’s your emotional state going to be like on this particular ‘new comic book day?’

Kenney: Well interesting, I’m actually writing this on launch day, and my emotional state is pretty, pretty good. Luckily, we have the brilliant Paolo Arru on social media, from Vocal the NHS Org who are producing with me – or I’d be having a middle-aged meltdown by now.

I’m most excited for the young adults tbh and the audience/ community we hope to build on Webtoon Canvas. We’re currently bombarded with so many grim and negative words and images during this pandemic, and it’s not good for the psyche. This project is here to offer hope – to help young adults find their power in all this. Like Sanda, our protagonist she has to figure out her power and how to use it. By that, I don’t mean superpower – she’s a down to earth girl from Birmingham in the UK. But she has no self-confidence, she’s afraid and also a bit paranoid, but this is all driven by her experiences in life. It might take traveling to another planet to change all this!

MFR: The first page encapsulates my feelings during the pandemic (alone, angry, helpless) – can you talk about what your script looked like for the first page?

Kenney: This might be more fun if you have space…

Page One, Panel One
It’s a gorgeous starry backdrop with Sanda (23), mixed black/Asian – in a fetal position floating in space.

No spacesuit or protective gear, Gen Z/ urban attire, floating – eyes closed, she’s framed by stars, serene. Earth in the background.

1) Champo (off-panel): She’s not a fainter. What’s wrong with her?

Page One, Panel Two
Sanda has her arms spread – she’s yawning, stretching, so relaxed, eyes still closed. Earth in the background.

2) Champo (off-panel): Her name? Sanda. She’s 23, she’s my big sister.
2a) I said already, I’m 19.

Page One, Panel Three
Sanda now hangs upright in space, she’s facing something we can’t see, her arms flailing in alarm, like she’s drowning in water. A terrified look on her face.

3) Champo (off-panel): My days, is she having a seizure?

I also had a character and story world document that I bounced back and forth with Charlie Adlard with more detail about the characters – their personalities and their favourite sayings, but Charlie designed their look of course!

Interview: Sara Kenney Takes On The World With PLANET DIVOC-91

MFR: Sanda Oung is a great lead character for the first issue, what are the elements used in creating a main character that readers can relate to?

Kenney: I’m from a TV background, so I’m still learning about what an audience responds to in terms of comics. For me, what makes Sanda endearing is that she’s outwardly tough and in control, but you can sense an internal struggle. Her desperation to get off the planet and back to Earth, her suspicious mind.

When I’m creating main characters, I think of people I know – their traits, their mannerisms. But I also love inventing new types of people based on characteristics that I think will be funny, interesting, sad, creepy – whatever. I’d spoken to a lot of young adults before I started writing, and all their thoughts were in my head. I hope people will relate to Sanda; she’s complicated, a product of what she’s had to face – people underestimating her, patronizing her, always thinking her sibling’s the smarter one. All stuff that both crushes her soul but also puts a bit of fire in her belly…

MFR: I’m starting to notice angst in comic books that reminds me of the grunge and hip hop movements of the early 90s. Sanda fits that mold, how’s the youth of the UK doing, and how has that influenced your writing?

Kenney: Ha well, I’m definitely a product of the 90s – Ride, The Pixies, Wu-Tang Clan, Massive Attack, Stone Roses, Aphex Twin, Beastie Boys, and Andy Weatherall all the way! Sorry just appeared to have a flashback! I’m actually writing a comic at the moment with James Devlin on art, which is set in the early 90s. A friend I know who is a historian of fashion Amber Butchard told me that fashion tends to run in 30-year cycles, so perhaps it’s the cyclical nature of life?

The youth of the UK, I imagine like young people around the globe are hanging in there, but research reveals that their mental health is being eroded. But some of the young people I spoke to are doing really well.

I think this influenced my writing by creating siblings that deal with their predicament in very different ways. One of them is struggling, while the other appeared to take it all in their stride.

MFR: Page 4, is a full-page headshot on Sanda by Charlie Adlard, with colors by James Devlin – what was your reaction to the finished product?

Kenney: Just Wow! I’ve said this before, but Charlie is amazing at facial expressions. I wonder if he stands in front of a mirror pulling faces at himself and taking pics or if you get to a point where you can just imagine it?! I think what he captures here is a combination of emotions confusion, horror and uncertainty. Jimmy does such a good job with the colour – I love his work and also can’t wait for you to see his art too as he’s going to be drawing one of the chapters.

Interview: Sara Kenney Takes On The World With PLANET DIVOC-91

MFR: The last page of Planet DIVOC Part 1 had me grasping for the next part. How did you decide where to end the first issue so that Sanda’s words carried so much weight?

Kenney: Finding the right words for the end of a chapter can be agonizing. You know when it’s not working, and you just have to keep going back to it. I hope these words encapsulate this whole project well. Young adults in the age of a pandemic, are being told what to do on a constant basis – whether they can go to school, see their friends. Many no longer have control over their grades as exams get canceled, and minority groups tend to suffer more as evidence shows their predicted grades are often underestimated. That loss of control, isolation, loneliness, worry for family are all things the young adults, we are working with have talked about.

Part of this work is about strengthening resilience and encouraging good mental health for the young adults we work with. Services are all focused on physical health, and when people are dying, this is no surprise. But for our team, losing a young generation to poor mental health is not something we can stand by and watch. This is a big area of exploration for us going forward.

For this final scene, I also wanted the action of what Sanda does as well as what she says to mean something in this moment in time. It will be interesting to see how others interpret this ending!

MFR: It’s one thing to bring a pandemic influenced story to life, but when you add all the other elements to the mix (articles, videos, pieces of art by young adults about issues related to COVID-19, and mixes from DJs) – this is next level. Why was it important for you to go so big with Planet DIVOC-91?

Kenney: Well, it started as a comic, and I love a playlist or mix, and music often inspires ideas or scenes. We wanted to find a way for the young adults to be able to interrogate what’s going on and then respond to that – so interviews with experts and articles felt like a good way to do this.

The project has expanded in the last month to include a team in India and South Africa. When speaking to Sarah Iqbal from Wellcome Trust/ DBT India Alliance, we worked through what young adults in India might respond to, and she felt rather than articles that videos were the way to go as lots of YA in India have been expressing themselves through film. Nabeel Petersen from Interfer is our project lead in South Africa, and Nabeel works with young adults who use street art, poetry, music, and painting to shift narratives around health. Each country needed to embrace the art techniques that work for them, and we’ll be sharing all their outputs.

MFR: What’s the pressure like to put together a grand idea like Planet DIVOC-91, and how’s it feel when you have a big group of creatives rallying behind you?

Kenney: Massive pressure, but I also really enjoy collective working and pulling together teams full of good, creative, and kind people. For me, the best projects are always about amazing teams. I must admit I am often surprised when people say yes to my hare-brained ideas, but there you go! The great thing about this project was getting to collaborate with Bella Starling. She’s an inspiring leader and organizer of ideas – I think we work well together.

Writing a script for Charlie Adlard to draw, was of course, a lot of pressure. When we started, we had a tiny pot of money, so it was up to me to build the story world and get it up and running, or you might have seen a more famous comics writer work on Chapter 1. So this was a nice bit of situational luck!

David Hyde from Superfan Promotions brought on most of the cover artists bar VV Glass and Anand RK. What a superstar list of cover artists we have, and it will be amazing to see what they come up with.

MFR: We are in a time when the term ‘leadership’ is used loosely when talking about big government. Do you think we need more grassroots movements like your project to lead by example, and if so, why?

Kenney: Yes – because leadership, when it comes to a lot of governments, is clearly BROKEN. I’ve been talking a lot about power with another colleague working on this project called Anita Shervington. She is about as grassroots as you get and has been doing the work for decades. She runs an organization called Blast Fest, who take science events to carnivals and has been working around ‘science, social justice, culture and creativity, and the importance of STEM for sustainable development.’ We’ll be working with Anita to explore how the young adults can learn more about this grassroots work.

Why – because a friend Adeel Amini (works in TV) said recently, ‘we can no longer wait for a seat at the table, we need to build our own table.’

MFR: With a project like this, how do you measure success?

Kenney: The audience will let us know whether it’s successful.

It’s the usual metrics – but for us, it will be seeing whether we can provoke some positive change. That’s in terms of influencing research and policy and helping the young adults to take control of some of the narratives during this pandemic. This can be tricky to measure, but we have access to some experts to help with that…

MFR: Sarah, thank you again for your time, and best of luck with Planet DIVOC-91.

Kenney: Thank you for such brilliant and thought-provoking questions.

Did you check out Planet DIVOC-91 yet? Again, you can read it for free on WEBTOON. Comment below with your thoughts.

Matthew Sardo
Matthew Sardo
As the founder of Monkeys Fighting Robots, I'm currently training for my next job as an astronaut cowboy. Reformed hockey goon, comic book store owner, video store clerk, an extra in 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' 'Welcome Back Freshman,' and for one special day, I was a Ghostbuster.