Smash Pages Q&A: François Vigneault on ‘Orcs in Space’

The creator of ‘Titan’ discusses his newest collaboration with Abed and Rashad Gheith, Justin Roiland and Michael Tanner, which arrives in stores from Oni Press this week.

Orcs in Space is a new ongoing comics series from Oni Press, starring three orcs who happen upon an advanced space craft, and chaos and hilarity ensues.

The comic is drawn by François Vigneault, who is best know for his comics like Titan, and he said working on a book with a different tone and approach from his own work was part of the appeal. We spoke recently about playing with the idea of orcs, expectations and color.

So how did you get involved with Orcs in Space?

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, honestly! The co-creators/writers – brothers Abed and Rashad Gheith, Justin Roiland (Rick & Morty), and Michael Tanner (Junior Braves of the Apocalypse) – had been slowly developing the concept for a few years, and I get the impression that suddenly it was “go time!” Oni Press was moving forward with the series and an artist had to be found right away. I was already working with Oni on my graphic novel Titan, and my name came up as a potential good fit. The series editor Amanda Meadows contacted me, I did a couple test drawings to see if my style meshed well with the writers’ vision, and then we were off to the races! It came at a really good moment for me, I already had not only Titan but also 13e Avenue, created with the writer Geneviève Pettersen, under my belt at that point, so I had that all-important experience of working with other writers, so I was able to slip right into this collaboration.

It’s different from your own work, with its own tone and approach. Was that part of the interest for you?

Absolutely, this is definitely light years away from my own writing – pun very much intended, sorry! For me, Orcs in Space is bringing me back in many ways to the kinds of wild adventures and crazy stories that first got me into comic books, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles traipsing through space, or even the feeling of playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons with a bunch of really funny friends late into the night. There is an “anything can happen” vibe to the stories Abed, Rashad, Michael, and Justin are creating that is really inspiring for me as the artist. With Titan I was always connecting the action to real-world conditions and a fairly “realistic” universe, but with Orcs in Space it’s like no holds barred, you know what I mean? Working on this series is giving me permission to be less serious, to reconnect with being a kid and just wanting to tell a cool story and draw fun stuff. It is very refreshing!

How much visual or aesthetic freedom did you have when it comes to designing the characters and the world?

Almost complete freedom. Early in the discussion we talked about how we definitely wanted my work to connect with Justin Roiland’s visual aesthetic for obvious reasons, and we did a couple of early test drawings to see that we were all on the same page, but other than that very loose directive I was really free to design the characters and universe as I saw fit. With each issue there is a bit of a discussion between me, the writers, and the editor about the look and feel of certain things, but I think I am very lucky that I have collaborators that trust me and my instincts when it comes to the visuals. Sometimes a character will go through a couple of rounds of edits as we hammer out some details – usually to make sure my designs work with the writers’ intentions, for instance I initially drew the character Mongtar way too short to make sense with the jokes the writers had in mind for him – but in general the process is very intuitive and fast-paced.

Orcs are interesting creatures. I’m curious about your thinking about the main characters, about what they mean, and playing with people’s understanding/expectation of orcs.

I definitely agree, I’ve always been both fascinated and rather appalled by the predominance of the “evil race” concept in fantasy – and to a somewhat lesser degree in sci-fi too. There is definitely a disturbing throughline in the literature from Tolkein onwards where orcs are used as a stand-in for the dehumanized “other,” a debased monster that the heroes dispatch without a second thought. I always remember that I found that really nasty when I would play role-playing games back in the day. Happily, I think that those ideas have also been really interrogated and deconstructed over the years, from something as simple as the fact that the player could choose to play as an orc in later RPGs and video games – I was definitely one of those kids who always played as the orc faction in Warcraft – to more in-depth examinations like Christine Larsen’s awesome comic series ORCS! 

While I am not sure that Orcs in Space is trying to do any heavy lifting on that front, I do think that just simply the fact that Mongtar, Kravis, and Gor are the central characters here is an interesting reversal of the usual status quo, being the protagonists they have the space to develop as personalities over time, and I have the feeling that the writers and I will be exploring that more and more as the series progresses. I think no matter what the reader’s initial expectations about orcs might be, this trio will have some fun surprises in store for them!

As you were envisioning what this science fiction world should look like, there are plenty of Star Trek and other references but was there a style or an artist you were thinking about?

Since I got to design this world from the ground up, it was really fun to mix and match elements from all over. I am really lucky in that the writers are referencing things that have been foundational to my own creative development, from the D&D fantasy elements to science fiction like Star Trek, Star Wars, and more, so I already have a bit of a mental map to draw on when I started working on the series… Sometimes I feel like I have been practicing my whole life for this gig, I’ve been doodling barbarian orcs and laser-toting robots for 30+ years, haha! 

Another element influencing the look and feel of the series is the fact that nearly every issue takes place in a brand new environment, from the orc’s homeworld Muckball and their ship the Aarken to a swanky star nightclub and the reaches of outer space, and I want each of those to be as distinct as possible. Furthermore, the characters are also coming from all over the universe, so that is a big influence on the designs as well… The orcs for instance have a “barbarian” style that is really different from the more advanced enemies they face. 

Probably the artist that most influenced how I draw the book on a page-by-page level is Stan Sakai; Usagi Yojimbo was a huge favorite of mine when I was a teenager (fun fact: I interviewed Stan Sakai for the never-published second issue of my very first zine, he also drew a cover for it!). When I sat down to start drawing the first issue I immediately thought about how Sakai’s work balances really simple characters with lots of immersive details in the backgrounds, and also the way he handles action; it’s all very cartoony but there is a sense of place that comes through in all his work. 

The book is very colorful and I was curious how you work with colorists. Do you think about how the final book will look? Are you giving any thought to the colors?

It’s so much fun working with colorist DJ Chavis, and his flatter Dave Pender. He is always surprising me with the way he tackles elements of the book in ways I would never have thought to do. There is a real fun, close collaboration going on there that I find really invigorating. I definitely think a lot about the final color as I work on the drawings, and I will be sure to separate out elements that are going to be represented in color only, without black lines, things like laser blasts or holograms or the far background. I also colored the cover for the first collection, so that established the look of the main characters. With every issue I will send the black and white art to DJ along with my color notes, which can sometimes get a little complicated (for instance the nightclub scene in issue 2 had tons of background characters that reappeared multiple times, so I made a numbered chart for DJ so it would be easier to keep track of the different colors), but in general I try to not interfere too much, I’ll give suggestions like “I was thinking sparkle-y purple for this character” or “make sure the Space Rat ship contrasts strongly with the Aarken” but I also try hard not to go too overboard and still leave DJ a lot of freedom to bring his own ideas and creativity to it, that way the final product is can be something greater than the sum of its parts, hopefully. I love the feeling of getting his colors back and just being like “wow, is this the same comic?!” The color makes such a huge difference.

This may just be me, but having been raised on The Muppet Show I keep hearing the title like the announcer on Pigs in Space. (If you don’t get the reference, this will sound like gibberish and I apologize).

Hahaha, don’t worry, I get you 100%! “PPIIIIGS INNNNN SSPAAAAAAACE!” Absolutely that was the very first thing that I thought of when I read the title myself, and it’s come up in a bunch of interviews already, so I don’t think we are alone! Interestingly enough in an interview we did the other day Rashad (who had the initial idea for Orcs in Space) mentioned that it wasn’t really in his mind at all when he came up with the title, haha. I think there is really something appealing about the title, it’s just so simple, it gives you the elevator pitch right there. Of course, “orcs in space” was how people initially described the video game Starcraft, and recently there has been a kind of meme/theme in science fiction called “humans are space orcs” which I wasn’t aware of until I started working on this project… Sort of a fascinating rabbit hole to fall into. 

So what’s your favorite thing you’ve drawn so far? What are you excited for people to see?

I think one of the most fun things to draw so far was the Starclub 72 scene, there was just soooooo much going on. I counted at the time and I think there are something like 100+ individual characters on a double page spread! So that was just so fun, like all the different aliens hanging out, the different fashions, shapes, etc, it really gives a sense of the scope of the universe that the orcs have found themselves in.

I think readers should really watch out for issue 4, which closes out the first arc with a bang. There is a ton of action squeezed in there, some of it quite bloody and just plain over-the-top, and some really funny twists as well. I think people are gonna dig it. Beyond that I won’t give anything away, but I will say that I am nearly done drawing the second arc of the series and the action only gets bigger as it goes along!

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