In Rocket Girl, Amy Reeder and writer Brandon Montclare present a very specific view of the future—not as we would imagine it today, but rather how we envisioned it back in the 1980s. You may remember how in Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly zipped around suburbia on a hoverboard while his Nikes laced themselves. Well you may not remember that was supposed to be 2015. That future is now and, sadly, we still aren’t hovering. But where director Robert Zemeckis was going for whimsy, Rocket Girl’s future is a darker place. “It’s sort of a masked dystopia, so it looks utopian but theres something wrong with it,” Reeder said. In the series, the New York of 2013 is a metropolis of the sky, from flying cars to—obviously—jet packs. The cops are teenagers, and everything appears to be run by the shadowy oligarchs atop Quintum Mechanics, a corporate overlord if there ever was one. Enter DaYoung Johansson, a feisty, ballistic young cop sent back to 1986 to stop QM and hopefully re-write history.
Artistically, this project calls for Reeder to create two opposing worlds, or more specifically, the same world in two disparate time periods. She has experience drawing different eras from her previous work on Vertigo’s Madame Xanadu, but this is her first stab at tackling the future and, to a large extent, the ‘80s. For either timeframe, the process starts off similarly: watching movies, taking screen shots and building a library of reference points. “I have a whole bunch of folders for references. Some are related to just the ‘80s, some are just related to New York, some are fashion, policemen at the time,” she explained. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve researched the ‘80s so much I can kind of narrow things down to which year something came from.”
Movies allow Reeder to picture herself in that neon-streaked world, to get a sense of how it moves and behaves. For instance, the New York of 30 years ago—dirty, crime-ridden, menacing—is a much different place than today’s gentrified streets. So she turned to films like Ghostbusters and Beat Street, as well as TV shows, like early Law & Order, for the old police cars and uniforms. Miami Vice helped capture the fashion of the period. At the same time, the grit that separates the two worlds presents Reeder with new artistic opportunities. “I had a lot of fun drawing the subways, which was harder, so I’m glad I enjoyed that. It was something really different for me, and it was really fun to draw or color a bunch of graffiti.”
The two worlds—future and past—even inform each other to some degree. Reeder turned to movies like Akira, Blade Runner and Back to the Future Part II—all made in the ‘80s, set in the 2010s—to get a better handle on the futuristic world she would have to build. “I really tried to immerse myself in what people in the ‘80s would have thought was futuristic,” she said. “But at the same time, it can’t look campy to us.” Unlike the scenes set in the past, founded in history and concrete fact, the world of the future allows her to play with far different forms. The future scenes are clean and geometric, built on the idea that this world has access to the sky, whether it’s jet-propelled people or flying cars that park in or on the tops of buildings.
Other parts of the world-building process are coincidental, including the robotic bodyguards of the future. “I didn’t know what enforcer meant at first,” Reeder said. “I was picturing a little R2D2-thing that becomes really vicious.” Montclare had been thinking of something large and heavily armed, more akin to ED-209 from Robocop. With a main character that’s a teenager, not having things look too “kiddie” was a concern. The middle ground that emerged was one violent R2-style bot and another far more intimidating one. “I actually did think of something that was totally different. It was this combination of a car and a crab, because I love crabs.”
Character & Shape
When Reeder was young, other kids made fun of her for clinging to ‘80s fashion past its prime, but now that so many of those dated styles have returned, they’ve created a surprise challenge for her. “I’ll actually come up with different styles and they look like they’re modern,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t even tell if I pulled it off because so much has come back.” Annie, the grad student scientist who befriends DaYoung in 1986, could just as easily be the barista in a hipster coffee shop today with her vintage rockabilly style and pink hair. Annie was intentionally designed to be a counter weight to DaYoung. “Since DaYoung is a teenager, even though she’s really pretty, you don’t want people to think, ‘Oh she’s hot.’ So I think I consciously figured I’d do that with Annie,” Reeder said. “And also, make her an original type of hot, because she’s not your Michael Turner—long torso, six-pack— type of girl. She’s got some meat on her, and she’s not in any funky poses either.”
Shape was a major factor for Reeder while designing the cast of Rocket Girl. “It’s important to me that even their shape is going to distinguish the character,” she explained, citing the influence of European comics, where a character’s silhouette does more to distinguish them. That is why when designing DaYoung, she turned to characters like Mega Man and Astro Boy, whose shapes are more defined by their equipment than their body. Even her hair is made to look like helmet hair. The biggest influence over the look of DaYoung, however, was from Frank Quitely’s work on Inspector Shimura. Traces of that character, especially the wide future-samurai helmet, are visible in DaYoung. “I don’t even know if it was intentional, but that whole thing Frank Quitely did blew my mind. It was one of those life changing comics to read,” she said. Another prominent design element of DaYoung is her uniform. The black pattern on the front is actually her name in Korean, which Reeder studied in college and thought looked suitably futuristic.
But inspiration can come from anywhere, even the dregs of society. The look of the armed creep that DaYoung confronts in the arcade shortly after arriving back in 1986 came from a simple trip down the Google rabbit hole. “Maybe it was ‘creepy face’ that I was searching – and I fell on this one guy and found out this whole story,” she explained. “He was a real creeper and would kidnap kids unfortunately. There’s something about him that’s really unsettling.” Or, for a much less horrifying example, a lot of the movement we see from DaYoung, and the flying hawkcycles that pursue her through the air, was modeled on Reeder’s experience with water sports. “That’s one of the things I would use when I was showing how [hawkcycles] move, and how she moves, kind of pretending that they were in the water,” she said. “I guess because I’ve gazed into the wake of a WaveRunner or a powerboat, I kind of know how it might work with a stream of fire coming out of a jet pack.”
The Power of Personality
One of Reeder’s main focuses, and surely one of the artistic strengths of the book, is how expressive her characters can be. Her aim for DaYoung was to have her be fiery but also “unintentionally adorable.” She proves how much can be conveyed in a matter of a few lines. Whether DaYoung is rolling her eyes or poking her tongue out in deep concentration, Reeder reminds you that while our hero is a fearless badass, she’s also still a kid. And she often does it in a single panel. It boils down to acting, she says, and it’s often a point of frustration for her as a reader. “So many times I’m dissatisfied by the acting and I’m surprised how little emphasis is put on that, because if you see a movie and there’s bad acting, it doesn’t matter how good it is, it just ruins the movie,” she said. “It’s weird to me that people are so able to look past that in a comic book.”
With a new story arc launching today, we can expect to see a lot more of Reeder’s singular design sense on display as DaYoung explores more of New York and we learn more about the future she’s trying to prevent. What Reeder especially loves about this new chapter is the evolving character dynamics and ensuing drama, which allow her to fiddle with all her favorite things. “I get to take people into the world of people and play around with my expressions,” she said. The second arc looks like it’ll be big on new situations, like a lot of DaYoung in plain clothes and even, Reeder teased, Annie getting into a fight. We’ll also meet new characters, like DaYoung’s former partner, Tasha. “Arcs one and two go together a lot,” she said. “I think everybody’s questions are going to be answered. I think it’s going to be really beautiful and powerful, but also tons of fun.”