The Geography of Space Exploration: An Interview with Matt Fitch & C.S. Baker
In preparation for my use of the Apollo graphic novel in the classroom, I caught up with its writers.
Released in June 2018, Apollo is a non-fiction graphic novel about the first mission to land humans on the Moon, Apollo 11.
The book is a beautiful product published by independent U.K. publisher SelfMadeHero. It combines a well-researched telling of true events with engaging narrative structure and character development. Additionally, the interior art of Mike Collins(not the astronaut!), colorers Kris Carter and Jason Cardy, and letterer Ian Sharman make for an immensely enjoyable read.
In preparation for my use of the book as a class reading in GEOG2090: Space Exploration at Western University (#Space2090), I was able to catch up with the writers of the book Matt Fitch and C.S. Baker. The creators were nice enough to share with me their thoughts on the creative process and their interest in the Apollo program.
DB: How well did you guys know the details of the Apollo program before you decided to create a story about Apollo 11? What made you want to do so?
Fitch & Baker: We grew up in the 80s, during the age of the Space Shuttle. Back then space exploration was still quite prominent in the public consciousness and the Apollo missions were only about 20 years in the past, so most school kids were at least aware of the basics. But fast forward to the 21st century and, until recently, space has not been front of mind. The Apollo missions are fast becoming ‘ancient history’, experienced only via grainy news footage, and we wanted to do our bit to rectify that. The Apollo story is so exciting and emotional it already reads like a best-selling novel and we were actually surprised nobody had done a comic book version yet. Of course, with the 50th anniversary approaching, space is having a bit of a resurgence and we’re even getting a Neil Armstrong movie starring Ryan Gosling, so that’s great.
DB: Given the immense amount of material available on Apollo 11, one could see knowing where to start (or end) as being a daunting task. How did you decide on your research process and sources? Did you talk to any astronauts or people at NASA?
Fitch & Baker: The idea to adapt the Apollo 11 story into a graphic novel came while Matt was reading James R. Hansen’s Neil Armstrong biography ‘First Man’, so that became our key text and opened the door to the rest of our research. From there we decided to seek out the astronaut’s own accounts of events — Neil never wrote an autobiography but Buzz has written a few and Michael Collins’s book, Carrying the Fire, gives a real insight not just into the events but into the man himself. Thanks to the internet we also had access to original transcripts and flight data as well as contemporary footage and interviews, and because we wanted the book to have a cinematic feel we also looked at films like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and HBO’s from the Earth to the Moon miniseries. When we couldn’t find the info we needed in the public domain we contacted NASA directly, their History Office are extremely helpful and sent us reams of information and data to help us fill the gaps in our knowledge. After working on this book we feel like semi-experts on the subject!
DB: Many of the events around the mission, as well as the mission itself, have detailed accounts, even transcripts, of the dialogue that was spoken. Did you take any of these into consideration? How did you decide when, or when not, to use them?
Fitch & Baker: We read all the transcripts and did lift dialogue from them for certain scenes, but when you’re creating a book or comic it’s important that the reading experience is enjoyable as well as informative, so we had to be careful not to just copy and paste pages and pages of dry chatter. To that end, we edited the transcripts for readability and dramatic effect while ensuring we were never changing their meaning or putting false words into people’s mouths.
DB: There are a number of brilliant visuals from artist Mike Collins and the art team that temporarily move the reader away from the main narrative. Namely I’m talking about the Apollo 1 astronauts in a burning field and (astronaut) Michael Collins’ visions of the man in the Moon. These were my favorite parts, what was the inspiration for these “trippier” visuals?
Fitch & Baker: We’re glad to hear you like those bits because it was a somewhat risky creative decision to go in that direction. Our opinion while writing was that anybody can go on Wikipedia and read the facts of the mission, so there was no point in us just retelling the story in that way. What we wanted to do was explore the human side of the mission, it’s effect on the key players, their loved ones, and America (even the world) as a whole. We chose to do that by going into the minds of the astronauts and imagining what they must have been going through during that time. As you know, Apollo 11 launched in 1969, which was a very interesting and ‘trippy’ time visually and culturally, so that gave us a great basis for these ‘in the mind’ moments.
DB: A few swears aside, the book is essentially appropriate for all ages, and perhaps more family friendly than some of your other work like Adventures in Science, Last Driver and your contribution to the Corbyn Comic Book. In making the book, who was your intended audience?
Fitch & Baker: Well, we’re both Fathers of young children so maybe we’ve cut down our swearing generally! But yes, we did always intend for Apollo to reach a wide audience and maybe even form part of a learning journey for readers so we were careful to only use certain language when it was necessary — it makes sense for soldiers in Vietnam to swear and use racial slurs, that’s part of who they are and says something about the situation they were in, so we felt that was ok. Likewise, hearing the President of the United States use expletives in the privacy of his own bedroom made for a more interesting and three-dimensional character. But there’s no need to have the astronauts swearing because that’s not who they were, nor do we need to see the deaths of the Apollo 1 Astronauts in gruesome detail because that’s not what this particular story is about.
DB: You took what, today, could be considered a bold approach and did research before writing something. Instead of reading the material you list in the references, did you ever think about just watching like 2 or 3 YouTube videos and deciding the whole thing was a hoax?
Fitch & Baker: It was important to us right from the off that this book was as accurate and respectful to the real history as possible. Plus, learning is fun so why wouldn’t we go deep? This is a story that hooks you and drags you down the rabbit hole, from the lives of the people involved to the technology they used, every aspect is just so fascinating you can’t help but want to fid out more.
As for the hoax thing… don’t get us started. We’ve actually both on separate occasions overheard people spouting this nonsense in public and we just couldn’t help but interrupt and point out the flaws in their arguments. “Oh yeah, well what do you know, buddy?… “Well actually, I’ve written a book on the subject” Haha.
DB: On a recent post for your blog talking about creative influences you pointed to David Michelinie and Erik Larsen’s 1990’s Spider-Man run. Given how old I think you are, you probably, like me, grew up reading comics in the 1990’s. Did you ever consider having variant hologram and foil covers for Apollo?
Fitch & Baker: That would be great! Foil covers and fold-out variants by Jim Lee and Todd McFarlene. The 90s were a great time for comics with a new generation of artists and writers pushing boundaries and bringing a bit of a ‘rock n roll’ vibe to proceedings. Maybe we could do Apollo trading cards, too…
DB: Closing by going back to a serious question. True story graphic novels have grown in popularity over the past decade, what do you think they have to offer that other mediums don’t? And do you think you guys will write another?
Fitch & Baker: The problem and misconception with history is it can appear boring. Kids think they don’t want to learn about all that ‘old stuff’. But when you put it into a comic of graphic novel format it suddenly becomes accessible. It becomes something people want to pick up and engage with. And on the flipside of that, people who think comics are dumb or ‘kids stuff’ but are interested in a historical subject can have their eyes opened to the virtues of this wonderful storytelling medium. So it’s win win.
We do have a couple of ideas for other ‘True Story’ graphic novels but they’re still in the early stages of development. If we do it again we want to put as much time and care into our research and presentation as we did with Apollo so for now we’re focusing on some fiction stories we want to tell. Watch this space.
Apollo is available now in bookstores and at SelfMadeHero.com.
Danny Bednar is a PhD Candidate and Lecturer at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. His study areas include: climate change adaptation, environmental applications of space technology, the geopolitics of outer space, and governance theory. His teaching areas are: environmental policy, geopolitics, space exploration, and environmental science. All views are his own.