Somewhere Over the Storm Clouds: Innovative Climate Storytelling

By Quentin D. Young

For many years now, I’ve mulled over the question of how to write a fictional narrative about the climate crisis in order to successfully reach people’s hearts and minds, and inspire real action. On the one hand, the current state of the Earth demands urgent action from us, which means that the climate stories we tell need to help audiences consciously draw the links and join the dots. In my opinion, being subtle about climate change and featuring it merely as a background element or a subliminal theme is a luxury we don’t have anymore. On the other hand, being didactic and preachy is usually a huge turn-off. Striking the right balance is something of a puzzle – one that I find I must solve anew with each and every climate storytelling project I begin.

MEET THE AUDIENCE HALFWAY

Coming from a screenwriting background, I typically see my stories as visual narratives for the screen. Some years ago, I began work on a climate story in the form of a short film script. Instead of a live-action film though, I envisioned a charming animation with cute and colorful artwork worthy of a Pixar movie. If we’re going to challenge audiences and get them thinking about something as depressing and anxiety-inducing as global warming, we have to meet them halfway and make it easy for them to engage with the material. We need to make our stories entertaining and, yes, “fun.” In my view, this is where there remains plenty of space for storytelling innovation.

A second way I decided to meet the audience halfway was in loosely basing my story on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. My Oz re-imagining would be an affectionate parody of Baum’s work, and my climate story would function by, first and foremost, engaging audiences through the much-loved source material. But on discovering the prohibitive cost of making an animated short and the scarcity of producers willing to back such a project, I opted to adapt my story into a comic book. A comic book was something I could manage myself while remaining in the pop culture category, which includes popular mediums such as television shows and video games. This was a parameter I had set for the project because, given the scale of the climate problem, I wanted the story to have as much reach as possible. Below is the cover artwork that artist Jean Lins and I eventually created for our charming Oz-meets-climate comic.

Written and lettered by Quentin D. Young with artwork by Jean Lins.

Of course, not every climate story needs to riff off a pre-existing work. The draw of the familiar can be achieved in genre terms alone, which could result in some unexpected and fascinating mash-ups. Zombies and climate change? I haven’t tried it myself, but it already sounds interesting to me. In the case of our project, I found that the original Ozmaterial lent itself so well to an environmentalist’s reinterpretation that the satirical opportunities were too delightful to resist. For example, in our story Emerald City has been renamed “Green City.” Having adopted the optimistic philosophy and aesthetics of solarpunk, the Wizard’s society now runs on clean energy and coexists with abundant plant life, as shown in the splash page below.

Artwork by Jean Lins.
FIND A NEW ANGLE

As many others have said, not all climate stories need to be apocalyptic dystopias filled with doom and gloom. There’s a place for such a perspective, but there’s also a place for whimsy, humor, and hope, even in the face of climate catastrophe. Taking the lighter approach can indeed help audiences engage with an otherwise dark and depressing subject. This is what we wanted to achieve with our comic, so we embraced comedy and eccentricity. As shown in the panel below, climate deniers are depicted as fat Munchkins in carbon(ara)-excreting robotic suits, which help them move around faster. Crucially, instead of being demonized, these beings are shown to be capable of redemption by the end of the story.

Written and lettered by Quentin D. Young with artwork by Jean Lins.

Despite our general aversion to doom and gloom, however, extreme weather does make an appearance, not only as a symbol of climate change but as the main antagonist in the story, shown anthropomorphized in the splash page below. But with a moniker like the “Wicked Weather of the West” and as an echo of Dorothy’s tornado from the original Oztale, climate change is reframed in a meta-fictional light and with enough self-referential humor that, hopefully, audiences won’t recoil from didacticism and, instead, will be more deeply engaged with the story’s satirical point-of-view.

Artwork by Jean Lins.
MAKE IT PERSONAL

Hundreds of people perishing in a natural disaster is a statistic, but the needless suffering of one person is a tragedy. As individuals, we are hardwired to relate and empathize with other individuals. Because of this, a huge phenomenon like global warming tends to be hard to depict and grasp in a story. To engage our audiences, we need to bring everything back to the realm of personal human experiences and life lessons. In the case of our comic, the heart of the story isn’t climate change primarily, but the emotional journey of a girl named Dolores. Through her encounters with the fat Munchkins, the Wicked Weather of the West, and the Wizard of Green City, she eventually finds the courage to tell the truth and to apologize for her fibs. In our post-truth times, where the climate issue is itself obfuscated by lies and unscientific misinformation, the story of Dolores as an individual can speak to the larger cause.

THE FINISHED BOOK

It’s been a long journey from my short film script to the comic adaptation, but The Wizard of O2 is finally a finished book. I must thank the many readers who read my drafts and provided feedback along the way, including the climate storytelling team behind the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Rewrite the Future initiative. They helped with script development early on, when the project only existed as a film script.

As a comic book, The Wizard of O2 is now published under my imprint, Truth/Dare Media. We’re a publishing startup that focuses on telling important stories through pop culture mediums like comics and audiobooks. The Wizard of O2 is our debut comic, and it’s currently available digitally through major online bookstores including AmazonApple BooksKobo, and Google Play. It’s also been released on Comixology, an Amazon platform dedicated to digital comics, and the world’s largest comic readership. We’ll be donating a portion of the profits to Fridays For Future, the global youth movement begun by Greta Thunberg. Some of the kids involved with the movement have now read the book, and their feedback has been great!

As a climate storyteller, my mission is to share the story of the climate crisis with new audiences through the wide reach of popular entertainment because, yes, I believe that pop culture can help us save the world. So if you enjoy The Wizard of O2 and agree that it contributes toward this cause, please help us spread the word!

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Quentin D. Young is an emerging comic creator and a represented script writer whose screenplays have been accepted for submission by leading Hollywood companies including Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Studios (formerly Fox), and Participant Media. The Wizard of O2 is his debut comic, and he is currently working on a graphic novel titled Dreamstormer. Formerly an environmental engineer, Quentin writes stories with the aim of entertaining mainstream audiences while also raising awareness and understanding of the unfolding climate crisis.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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