The woods have long been home to not only adventurous teens but also fears of things that go bump in the night. It’s also one of the featured locations in James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas’ long-running (and aptly titled) comic series, The Woods.
“It’s about a high school in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin that gets transported into the middle of an Alien Forest, with all the kids and teachers locked away inside,” explains Tynion of the series’ premise. “It’s the story of a group of teenagers from that high school trying to find out why they were taken there, and trying to discover if there’s any way for them to get home, all the while dealing with the typical pains of growing up.”
(Or as Dialynas prefers to sum it up: “Breakfast-Club-in-Space-with-elements-of-Lord-of-the-Flies-and-a-few-Space-Monkeys-and-alien-ghosts-thrown-in-for-good-measure.”)
The BOOM! Studios series — which is scheduled to end with issue #36 —is currently about to enter its final arc with issue #32, making it the perfect time for EW to catch up with both creators. Below, Tynion and Dialynas delve into the building of their world, what readers can expect, and what it was like winning the GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic Book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What are some of your inspirations for the world of The Woods and some of the creatures in it?
TYNION: Mostly when describing the monsters in the book, I’ll just throw a few different animals together and see what Mike comes up with because it’s always freaking perfect. As for the world… I know it was my idea for the bright red gas giant that would come up over the horizon, but I really think it was the first cover by Mike — the wraparound image that made the woods and sky purple under the red moon — that brought the entire planet to life to me.
DIALYNAS: James is right. After drawing the cover for the first issue we kinda nailed down the look of the world. We looked to old sci-fi novel covers for inspiration on that and just wanted the Alien Forest to look very Earth-like but also have a feel of “Something’s not right here.” The same goes for the creatures that live there. They all have a “That’s-a-big-bear-oh-no-it’s-also-green-with-six-eyes-and-horns” quality. I was aiming for an unnatural evolution look to everything because I think creatures that look familiar to something you know are scarier than going full sci-fi with their anatomy. Once we finish the series, I plan to draw a survival guide to the Alien Forest with all the weird flora and fauna. It’ll be cool.
The series has a group of teens at the center of it. How did you guys settle on that as opposed to a group of adults?
TYNION: To be honest, I never once considered a group of adults at the heart of the book. This was always meant to be a growing up story. The Woods was a metaphor for the winding dangerous paths taken once you leave the clearing of being a child in school. I’ve always loved that moment in senior year where teenagers think they’ve figured out EVERYTHING and what their whole lives have in store for them. They believe with total assurance that their assumptions about themselves are right and if you try and contradict them, they’ll fight you over it. That’s what I wanted to play with: a world in which the young characters are the only ones brash enough to cut a path into the unknown because they’re young and stupid and idealistic enough to believe that there might actually BE answers. But then they find people who have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, and even they have no idea what this world is. So then the book becomes a struggle between youthful idealism and accepting their place in the universe, and the benefits and hindrances that come with each. That kind of story wouldn’t have the same power if it was just “grown-ups” from the start.
A lot of the characters are dealing with romantic or personal issues that one might go through at that age. What is the benefit of setting that kind of story line in the midst of this larger story of survival in a strange world?
TYNION: When you’re a teenager, every problem feels life or death. You ask somebody out, and they say no, and then you have to go sit next to them in class the next day and you literally feel like you’re going to die. I still remember that feeling — it’s so pure and emotional. But then you put those same characters with those same little dramas in the middle of actual life-or-death situations, and you’ve got some A+ drama going on.
DIALYNAS: This was one of my favorite aspects of The Woods. I got to illustrate a lot of emotional and painful moments. The character, Karen Jacobs, had some of the best in the book and drawing them had me get into a weird headspace where I would reminisce about high school and not want to talk to anyone for a couple of days. So, you can say James had me relive parts of my teens in order to emote our characters on their journey.
The world of The Woods can be quite brutal, and we’ve lost a few of the characters along the way. How far ahead have you had each character’s arc planned out? Have there been any occasions where you’ve chosen to save a character?
TYNION: Hah, it’s usually been the opposite, actually. It’s been in the process of writing an arc or laying out a year of a book that I realize that a character’s story has ended and that there’s a perfect moment to cap that drama with a death. One of the best moments for my development as a writer was around issue #12 when I suddenly realized that one of the characters, Adrian Roth, who I was building into the chief villain of the story, needed to die. I had plans for him for all three years of the book (and readers know that his presence is still felt), but I had this character who knew in issue #8 what the rest of the characters are just figuring out now in the early 30s issues. So, I threw out my outlines and killed him. That’s when I realized that there needed to be a year gap between issues #12 and #13 and that the whole series really coalesced around Karen Jacobs.
The only story I have that’s the opposite is that originally, Calder was going to be more of a bad guy; a bit of a hard-edged bully and the one recruited to join the expedition out into the Alien Forest because he might be able to hurt things if it became necessary. There was going to be a big monster attack that killed him around issue #4, the first, “Oh-wow-main-characters-CAN-die” moment. But Calder was too interesting a character. And it became clear there was chemistry between him and Karen. So, the plan shifted. We ended up killing him off at the end of year two — a 20-issue reprieve from death!
There are also often time jumps every couple of series, with occasional flashbacks. How do you know when it’s time for the story to jump ahead, or take a step back?
TYNION: Part of it came with writing the first four issues of the series. We had two concurrent plots that would cut back and forth, but not necessarily comment on each other. I think that arc two is when The Woods becomes The Woods, and it’s with those flashbacks, intricate character work, and ability to play the past off of the present in strange and interesting ways. Every arc since then, we’ve focused on a different way to show the past or show dreams or show some distortion that can comment on the present story line, and the book has been that much stronger for it.
Michael, does this impact your approach as an artist in any way?
DIALYNAS: With the flashbacks, not really. But I did have fun and got to approach the Gazer Root visions with a different look, which also incorporate a lot of scenes from the past. Like in the issue coming out this week [#32], the first few pages start off with a scene from Karen’s past that bleeds into a green mist that engulfs her battle with Taisho, the Horde leader. Every time we had the Gazer Root drug is an opportunity to go a little weirder visually.
We’re nearing issue #36 but readers still don’t know how or really why the kids ended up here. What can you tease about that?
TYNION: At this point, we know that there’s an artificial intelligence at the heart of this world, and we’ve seen a few flashes of what the beings that lived on this world before were like. They were dangerous warmongers, who had their emotions stripped away. The artificial intelligence found a form of life in the universe intrinsically similar to its creator and has taken a sample set of the human population once every 100 years, dating back to when man still lived in caves. They were waiting for the moment that humanity could rise up and replace its creator. Right now, in the series, the A.I. has more or less overwritten Isaac Andrews, believing that, in Isaac, it has the kind of being that wants to shed its humanity in order to achieve a kind of perfection, and a final war is building between mankind and the Black City (the heart of this world), and the A.I.
How would you describe this upcoming arc?
TYNION: Everything comes to a head, and I find out whether or not I can pull the damn thing off! This is the last stand of mankind. Their last chance to maybe go home. Not everyone is going to survive, and it’s going to be sad, and hopefully beautiful.
DIALYNAS: James, it’s going to emotional, beautiful, and weird… I got to do a lot of cool stuff with this series and to say goodbye to it. We’ll have connecting covers on issues #33-35 that will make “the” definitive cover, in my opinion of the series. It has most of the characters, front and center, and generally, shows off the woodsy weirdness of the book.
The series also won the GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic Book. What does this series winning mean to both of you?
TYNION: Honestly, I’m still taken aback by the whole thing. Queerness has been intrinsic to this series since the first issue. We have a very queer cast, but we’ve done very little to make any of the series have that “very special episode” feel. It’s always just been a part of the world. As a queer creator, I really appreciate the GLAAD Media Awards supporting a book that is just passively queer, where there’s good representation and both good and bad people in the mix. I was always just trying to reflect the world I live in, and I’m honored to have received the award.
DIALYNAS: I was pleasantly surprised to wake up that day with my phone flooded with messages. It’s a real honor that our characters got supported this way.
The Woods issue #32 will be available for purchase May 3. You can read exclusive pages from it below.