Meet Alison Wilgus and Wyeth Yates, creators of The Mars Challenge!

Alison Wilgus author portrait

Wyeth Yates Alison Wilgus author portrait








What initially drew you to comics?

Alison Wilgus: When I was a kid my dad made the critical error of renting some VHS tapes of the ORIGINAL Ninja Turtles cartoon show in an attempt to get me to care about something other than Transformers, and this massively backfired into an intense childhood obsession. These were also the days of grocery store spinner racks, and while I had never been remotely interested in superheroes or Archie comics (the only two options I knew of) one day at the shop in my little hometown I glimpsed something unexpected: NINJA TURTLE COMICS! After that, I single-mindedly pursued Turtle Comic Content, looking up comic shops in the phone book and begging my parents to drive me so I could comb through longboxes looking for the issues I’d missed. Over time, I grew to love the particulars of the medium, but I’m not gonna lie to you: the early days were 100% a matter of Turtlemania.

Wyeth Yates: We can change the lives of others without knowing it, and the person who changed mine was a librarian at the Farmington Public Library in Farmington, CT. Somebody who worked there from the mid 1990’s—early 2000’s was really into comics, and there was a whole shelf of both American comics and Japanese manga. I was already an avid fan of Toonami, and made the jump to reading comics with Sailor Moon. After that I remember checking out a volume of Ice Blade, which was absolutely not age-appropriate (and really freaked out my mom, who got curious). But what really sealed the deal for me back then was when I got to Akira. I remember reading the whole thing in a weekend, pouring over it until my eyes hurt. Something in me fundamentally shifted, and I started drawing comics (heavily derivative ones, as all beginners should do), and never looked back. Support your local library.

Design sketches for Nadia and Eleanor from THE MARS CHALLENGE by Wyeth Yates

What was your inspiration behind THE MARS CHALLENGE? 

Alison Wilgus: In the course of writing a novella about a crewed Mars mission, I’d done a LOT of research into the realities of human spaceflight, and ended up talking on Twitter about some of the cool stuff I was learning (as one does.) The very excellent Calista Brill, one of the editors at First Second, saw these tweets and shot me an email — would I be interested in pitching a non-fiction comic about Mars? The answer was an enthusiastic YES, and after that the two of use talked through a few different ways this book could go. Ultimately, we decided that rather than trying to gloss over the many technical and logistical barriers that stood between us and having humans set foot on Mars, we would instead just focus the entire book on exploring what those challenges are, and why I think they’re super interesting as well as important. Getting people into space and keeping them alive once they’re up there is very hard, but it’s also very cool! We wanted to make a book that captured that excitement for the nerdy details of a difficult endeavor, and the characters of Nadia and Eleanor — a teen who wants to go to Mars and an adult who supports the present-day Space Station from the ground — are an embodiment of that feeling!

What scene or panel sequence did you most enjoy drawing?

Wyeth Yates: My favorite sequence to draw in The Mars Challenge was pretty much all of Chapter Five, and I think (I hope?) it shows. Something about the International Space Station’s never-ending layers of stuff peaked my interest. And with Ali’s wonderful, truly alive script to do right by, I couldn’t resist pulling out all the stops so Eleanor and Nadia had a really fun environment to float in.
I also enjoyed drawing the pages of the Martian landscape. I remember getting a little spooked looking at the (extremely extensive and highly useful) reference that Ali provided; because it’s just so empty out there. But those colors! I was prepared for a study in rust, but the surface of Mars boasts pinks and purples when it feels like it. It’s wild stuff, so getting to paint all that in was a treat.
Overall, what I loved the most was making a book that spells out exactly what needs to be done to get to Mars in an understandable, matter-of-fact way. It becomes less of a nebulous idea and more of an attainable goal. I hope a younger generation will be inspired to take up that mantle, because getting to Mars and back is, for sure, a real challenge.