Allegory is among the proudest traditions in science fiction, having permeated the genre for as long as it’s been a genre. It makes sense, of course. In a genre that allows you to frame issues outside of their familiar, contemporary context, it’s naturally easier to encourage your audience to consider them from a new perspective. Sometimes that means slipping some obvious-in-retrospect social commentary past Standards and Practices. Others it’s about embedding themes in a work that may only become apparent on the third or fourth read.
In any case, it means that science fiction is often uniquely equipped to address the issues of the day. And in this day, one of the biggest issues is that of immigration. That’s where ‘LaGuardia’ – the latest collaboration between writer Nnedi Okorafor and artist Tana Ford – comes in. Set in a near future world in which aliens have – more or less – integrated with human society, ‘LaGuardia’ interrogates issues surrounding immigration in a manner reminiscent of ‘District 9’.
We had the opportunity to speak with Tana Ford about the book, which is now available in trade paperback. Our conversation covered the origins of the story, Tana’s artistic influences, and the trials and tribulations of dealing with the TSA.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did ‘LaGuardia’ come together?
Nnedi and I had collaborated before, at Marvel, with a Black Panther character, and she had this idea to do a science fiction story that cut very close to the real world. It technically takes place in her Binti Universe, which was well established in a novel trilogy. But the germinating incident was a TSA event that she experienced where they pulled her out of line to pat down her hair – she has these huge, beautiful dreads. So she had this very uncomfortable thing happen at the TSA, and that scene happens in our opening issue of ‘LaGuardia’, and it just sort of from there became this big alien immigration story, but that would be the incident that started it all.
Was it something the two of you developed together or was it already pretty fully formed?
She had the idea and I was brought in as the artist after, I think because she knew my style from what we had done before. She knew that I’d be a good fit for what she was envisioning.
One of the things that always interests me in comics is the creative back-and-forth. Was there anything in the script that you ended up taking in a completely different direction?
[laughs] I feel like I’m a little notorious for doing that. I definitely put my own stamp on things. But one of the interesting things about working with Nnedi – who is a novelist by trade – was that her instincts for storytelling didn’t quite translate to comic books in a very specific way. So you have five panels on a page, let’s say, and somebody knocks on the door. My instinct as a storyteller is to turn the page and then see who’s at the door. You have that tension of “Who’s it going to be? What happens next?” with that page turn. And Nnedi would just like, complete the scene. So for the first issue of ‘LaGuardia’, there was a lot of… the final panel of page seven would become the first panel of page eight, because there were these moments of “Who’s in the car? What happens next?”, you know? So I think that was a really beautiful way that the visual storytelling and word storytelling blended and informed the process.
Is there a page or a panel… some story beat in the book that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s this moment where Future gets called out, she has smuggled an illegal alien plant called Letmelive into the United States and is trying to hide this fact from her grandmother. But of course her grandmother can see right through what Future is trying to do and tells her matter-of-factly “You’d better put that alien in a pot of soil or it’s going to die.” And there’s this moment visually where – I didn’t change the script but it wasn’t in the script – he kind of pops out and they both have this shocked expression of being called out by their grandmother and so I’m particularly proud of that moment. I thought it was a good [chef’s kiss].
You’ve got some pretty wild designs in the book, both for the future tech and the various aliens. Is there anything you’re drawing on when coming at something like that?
A lot of the natural world. So animals are crazy. Like there are spiders and birds and turtles and fish and flowers that are just crazy. So I would look at a lot of natural things, like a lot of creepy mushrooms. There’s a mushroom that exists within our world that looks like it has all these red pustules of blood on it, and if they burst they leak. It’s gross. And I was like, “This is an alien already! I’ll just draw it bigger and make it talk! The work is there already!” So I had fun taking spiders or natural things that occur in our human world or on our planet and just tweaking it a little bit. I think it makes it a little more realistic and makes it feel like ‘LaGuardia’ could happen in our world.
I did get sort of a ‘District 9’ vibe from it.
Yeah! A little bit, right? And that was intentional. I wanted it to feel not too much like a fantasy world. I wanted the sort of boring hazing that you go through waiting in line at the TSA to feel as normal and mundane as it does now, but there’s a giant fish alien behind you and a bat person is arguing with the TSA agent. I wanted it to feel real but also have that fantasy element as well.
That really came across, especially in the first issue.
Thank you so much! That means the world to me! Like I had some goofy alien with a lot of eyes scrolling through its iPhone or its tablet, so thanks man!
You said a lot of the story was drawn from Nnedi’s experiences with TSA, immigration, and so forth. Is that something you’ve had to deal with in your own life?
Oh, so your readers can’t see me, but I am a very sort of genderqueer seeming woman, and so I often get misgendered. People think I’m a dude and I get “randomly selected,” in air quotes every time I fly. They always think that… I don’t know. So I get a pat down all the time because I am a masculine-presenting woman. So yes, it was easy for me to imagine a really annoying event with the TSA! And I think part of that scene, too, is because they’re so focused on Future’s appearance, they miss what’s right in front of them. She’s got this alien plant in her bag, and they don’t even look at the bag. They’re too busy, you know, focusing on an actual human person to notice the alien that’s right in front of them.
And lastly, do you have any other projects coming up?
Yes! Right now I am working on a series called ‘Livewire’, which is being written by Vita Ayala and edited by Heather Antos over at Valiant Comics. When I’m done at New York Comic Con I’ll be finishing up the last of the four issue run I’ve been on there. That’s been a lot of fun and it’s a wonderful story and you guys should pick it up!
‘LaGuardia’ is available now in trade paperback from Dark Horse Comics.