'Planet DIVOC-91' Turns the Coronavirus Response Into a Sci-Fi Allegory

The nine-part webcomic, produced in association with the U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences, launches today.
Courtesy of Elsa Charretier/Webtoons
The nine-part webcomic, produced in association with the U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences, launches today.

When it comes to creative responses to the novel coronavirus outbreak, new webcomic launch Planet DIVOC-91 might be the least obvious — and perhaps the most entertaining — to date.

Produced in association with the U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences, Planet DIVOC-91 is a nine-chapter monthly series in which a number of creators — including The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard, Friendo writer Alex Paknadel and U.K. Comics Laureate Hannah Berry — work round-robin style to tell a story about a pandemic outbreak in outer space, as seen through the eyes of two young humans.

“This is not a story directly about COVID-19 but is obviously inspired by what is happening around us,” Sara Kenney, project producer and the writer of the first chapter, told The Hollywood Reporter. “The journalistic pieces by the young people do give us a glimpse into what some of the experts working in this arena think. But the drama of the comic, also inspired by the young adult’s thinking, is centered around two siblings Sanda and Champo, who are in a very different situation having been zapped to another planet.”

Sanda and Champo are part of the 15 percent of humanity that has been taken to an alien planet because the Earth faces an extinction level event, and the Board of Adversity Scientists for Intergalactic Leadership — BASIL, for short — has decided to ensure that some young people survive off-planet, as an insurance policy to keep the race alive.

“Stories frame our reality and help us to understand what's going on and how to process our feelings; in my chapter the character has just been told her planet is being threatened and she's got a job to do in order to alleviate the suffering around her...sounds pretty familiar in 2020, right?” Charlotte Bailey, who writes the second chapter, said. “I hope our readers get to learn things about themselves and their own reactions from this comic, as well as getting a fun dose of escapism.”

Kenney went into detail about the ways in which the two leads of the series differ in their responses to what’s going on. “The protagonist Sanda is struggling to trust those around her and just wants to find a way home,” she explained. “She’s jealous of the attention her sibling Champo gets as they are often perceived as the ‘intelligent’ one. But Sanda has power and good ideas — she just hasn’t learnt how to stick up for herself to hold her power. And she’s faced prejudice, which has eroded her confidence and made her feel afraid. She gets patronized and people underestimate her, which leads her to underestimate herself. She has to take time to reflect, to learn more about herself to figure out how to survive.

“From conversations with many people I think these times have led to periods of deep reflection for many of us. From dealing with our fears to facing our complicity in a white supremacist world; from judging ourselves harshly to fiercely judging others if they don’t conform to our notions of what is acceptable; from thinking about how we protect ourselves and our families to how we might work as a community to ensure no-one is left behind. It’s a lot to deal with isn’t it? But what we’re saying to our audience is that you don’t have to deal with it alone. We want to create a community to think about all this stuff together.”

That community extends beyond the webcomic; each chapter will be accompanied by articles, mixes from DJs and producers, and other supplementary material including links to videos and artwork, all intended to increase both education and conversation surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and its effects on the world.

“We’ve worked hand in hand with scientists, young people and comic creators to offer readers a way of making sense of the current global pandemic, its scientific, social and moral aspects,” said Dr. Bella Starling, director of vocal at Manchester University NHS Foundation — which produced the comic with Kenney’s Wowbagger Productions. “At the same time, the comic provides a platform to feed in the views of young people to future scientific research and policy and to help reimagine the world together. I can’t wait to meet the characters and find out where they take the story every month!”

“This whole project has been a joy to be involved with,” artist Hannah Berry — who writes and draws the third chapter in the series — said. “Joining such esteemed creators in reframing the global situation through a sci-fi lens has been the best distraction — even if I am still technically thinking about the pandemic…”

“I'm so proud to be part of this project,” agreed Bailey, whose second chapter is illustrated by Star Wars and Amelia Cole’s Nick Brokenshire. “The diversity of characters and collaborative input from the target audience is inspiring too...so much love and attention is going into this project. It's a wonderful legacy to create during these crazy times and I can't wait to see it brought to life. We're in for a treat!”

“Just like us in the real world, our protagonist Sanda has no way of knowing how this story will play out,” Kenney concluded. “As the months pass by and the news cycles take dramatic twists and turns — each creative team will respond based on how this pandemic has impacted them in a very specific moment. Sanda, Champo and all the characters will be a manifestation of a bit of our collective psyches at a certain time during this pandemic. We don’t know what all this means or what will happen — this project is not about trying to explain or figure that out. It’s just an opportunity for young people to think together about how our individual and collective actions could push things in a positive direction. I know some people might think this is a ridiculous notion, a pointless exercise, but history has shown that collective thinking and action can create positive change.”

Planet DIVOC-91 launches today at Webtoon. Read on for a preview of the first chapter, written by Kenney, with art by Charlie Adlard, colors from James Devlin, and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. The cover for the first monthly chapter comes from Elsa Charretier (November, Star Wars).