Local storyteller contributes chapter to global sci-fi comic based on Covid-19 pandemic
Cape Town - A local storyteller has teamed up with international scientists and comic book writers to create a sci-fi satire webcomic about the health and mental health issues faced by young adults during the coronavirus pandemic.
Welcome to Planet Divoc-91, where a group of young adults representing 15% of the earth’s population wake up after being “zapped” there by a committee of alien leaders. They have been transported to the planet for safety because Earth is facing a possible extinction level event.
In the comic, siblings Sanda and Champo Oung have to navigate their new reality amongst fears of misinformation, hoarding of toilet paper and groceries, and distrust of their leaders.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the comic is based entirely on recorded conversations from young adults in South Africa, India and the UK about their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Published in association with the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, the comic launched in July this year on WEBTOON, the world’s largest community for online comics. It features many stars of the comic industry, including The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard, FRIENDO writer, Alex Paknadel and UK Comics Laureate, Hannah Berry.
It is a nine-part series, and Cape Town’s Nabeel Petersen is responsible for writing chapter 6, about misinformation that spreads like a virus in times of crisis.
“On Zoom, young adults from India, SA and UK participated in a conversation with a senior official from WHO about their response to misinformation,” Petersen said. “I listened to all of those audio tracks and then translated that into the comic book, where the aliens see humans as coming to the planet to spread Covid, and there are fears about 5G and how human tech has infiltrated this alien community.”
Petersen is co-founder of the non-profit organisation, the Pivot Collective, and director of Interfer, a company focused on storytelling and research, which leads on the project.
“What I love about the book is that the central characters are black, and one is non-binary. It’s great to see these shifts in a global project,” he said.
Petersen hosts a group of young adults from around the Western Cape and they collaboratively explore issues around mental health and stigma, their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how young adults are perceived by older adults in terms of their capabilities.
“The project is using visual storytelling to speak to young adults in a way that they can relate to and understand, talking about topics and sharing information that is often difficult for young people to engage with and relate to,” he said.
Petersen said he was drawn to comic books because of their capability to communicate health messaging in a way that doesn’t rely on words or language.
“In the last five years I’ve become intrigued by comic books and the innate ability of comics to tell stories,” he said. “Living in a country in Africa that is so varied in languages, I became interested in visuals which could potentially surpass the language issues in SA. That brought me to comics.”
Petersen said he hopes the Planet Divoc-91 comics will keep growing in their reach around the world, and particularly in South Africa.
“The ultimate win for us would be if these books can be translated into every language in our country, and maybe an animated series,” he said. “Currently, we’re suffering with Covid-19, but post pandemic, I hope we can continue the story to be continuously reflective of young adults and their conversations.”
That said, the comic’s bold visual identity and action-packed narrative keep the pace upbeat, according to UK-based project producer Sara Kenney, who wrote chapter 1.
“Although the topics we’re discussing in the series are incredibly serious, Planet Divoc-91 is full of humour and is occasionally ridiculous,” said Kenney.
“We’re aiming for more of a District 9 or The Good Place feel than, say, Star Trek.”
Planet Divoc-91 is accessible for free at webtoons.com