Interview with Lower Decks Comics Artist Chris Fenoglio
I recently spoke with Chris Fenoglio, the artist tapped for the new Lower Decks comic series. The debut issue is part one of a new trilogy that will continue over the coming months. It’s a pleasure to chat with someone so passionate about Star Trek and excited about contributing to the Lower Decks world, collaborating with author Ryan North.
What drew you, no pun intended, to comic art?
I’ve always wanted to draw comics. Starting at about six, I was really into Ninja Turtles. [At first] it was just Ninja Turtles, but then I’d wonder, What else do they have? I remember the guy at the store pointing me to Groo [the Wanderer]. From then on, I wanted to either do animation or comic book art because I was always good at drawing, even before comics. [Prior to illustrating professionally] I always liked drawing Spiderman for some reason; he’s just fun to draw.
I saw on your Instagram and on your site that you’re a huge Trekkie, so of course, I’ve gotta ask: what’s your favorite series?
For me, comfort food is Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s the one I grew up on and it was always playing in the house when I was a kid.
Do you have a favorite Star Trek character?
Captain Picard. That’s the reason I kept coming back to Next Generation.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters you depict?
I did a webcomic about me and my wife. I try and put myself or my kids in the comics someway. If you look very carefully at some of the LCARS screens, I’ve pushed my kid’s names in there, but I hid it, so an “e” would be a “3”.
How did you learn about Lower Decks having a comic?
I watched the first season when it came out. I didn’t expect much, but I loved it. I was working with the then-Trek editor Chase Marotz, so I wrote, “If you guys ever do a Lower Decks comic, please let me try out.”
After Heather [Antos] took over as editor, she put out a call for folks who wanted to draw Trek. Heather encouraged me to try out by drawing characters, and that’s where the Sisko drawing from my Instagram came from. I also drew Michael Burnham, Saru, and Picard. I brought up the possibility of doing Lower Decks to Heather and she didn’t explicitly say it, but she asked, “Why don’t you try out?”
I did a Mariner piece and a Boimler piece, which are also posted to my Instagram. That’s when Heather told me they were doing a Lower Decks book, Ryan North is writing it, and that she would campaign hard for me to be attached. She went to bat for me. The licensers and creator Mike McMahan, they all signed off on it. I got the outline that detailed the plot Ryan put together, and it was perfect. I had no notes. The script was also perfect. [Ryan] understands the characters and the world they live in.
Was the entire collaborative process online, or did you ever meet Ryan North in person?
No, I’ve never met him. Most comic work is done online. I don’t live near Ryan, he’s in Canada, our editor is in New York, and the assistant editor is in California. So, I’ve never met the people that I’ve been working with for the past six months.
Ryan wrote the script, and he had a lot of feedback notes from the show’s creator. They would talk back and forth, same with the editor. All this happened before I was even signed.
Nobody ever does the script as it’s written. I’m coming to it with my own storytelling aesthetic and sometimes, something works on the page, but when you draw it out, you think, No, this doesn’t quite sing. My part was adding Vulcans or, in a lot of the storytelling, taking two panels and making them one or splitting one panel into two. Things to make it read a bit better, have a nicer flow so the visual storytelling makes sense.
Ryan has a good visual storytelling sense. He knows how to sell the humor. I can’t take a lot of credit for that.
Your character design and settings fit very well in the world of Lower Decks. It feels like a fan is making this. How does it feel to be able to contribute to something you’re such a huge fan of?
It’s great and kind of surreal too. Even with licensed comics, you expect there’s a difference. The show is a show, the comic is a comic, and the overlap isn’t there, but I’m hoping there’s a bit of overlap. Maybe they’ll see the stuff I’ve done and think, Oh, that’s cool! Let’s put that as a background character. There’s no guarantees. It’s just nice to be able to play in that world. I’ve been such a huge fan for so long, I was really excited to play with these characters.
The first cover you’ve done for Lower Decks is beautiful. How long did it take you to illustrate?
That one took a while. I had to move some elements around. It took about two days, but that’s stretched over emails. What took a long time were the painted ships. There’s that little painted Cerritos on the bottom, and that’s the first time I had done something like that.
I wondered if you’re watching along with when the episodes are released to the public, or if you receive them in advance?
I have no prior knowledge of any of this. Maybe Ryan got to see the episodes early, but not me.
I guess that makes sense for Ryan, because they likely wouldn’t want storylines from the show and comic to conflict.[Ryan] mentioned writing a pitch and Trek said no to it because it was basically Picard Season 3 or something. They’re careful with things not crisscrossing, because the fans are so dedicated. If you get something wrong, they’re going to tell you. That’s part of the reason I’m explicit about doing research and making sure that things look right.
There’s a couple of pages where the crew goes into space in EV suits. There’s one shot of Mariner without a helmet on. I thought I could just make up what it looks like. No one’s going to care. But then I saw a screencap of Boimler without a helmet and realized, “Oh, shoot – I got this totally wrong!” You think no one’s going to care, but treklover38 at yahoo.org is going to be angrily posting, “You got this totally wrong!”
I know a bit about Trek, but I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge that Ryan has. In the cold open [in Issue 1], the aliens that are trying to destroy the space hippies were from one episode of Next Generation, and you only see a two-second glimpse of them as they’re disintegrating. He sent me a single screencap and just said, “Draw this.”
Was that the most difficult thing to depict?
No, it was easy because I only saw the face, so I could make up the rest. You only ever see them on the viewscreen. I guessed what their ships looked like. It’s sometimes easier when you don’t have that much information, because then you can cheat it a little bit. But if I had to draw a Romulan or Romulan city, I’d be like, “Oh, god!”
How much of a thrill was it to illustrate the bridge of the Enterprise in the first issue?
That page was hard! It was three shots and three different Enterprises: The Original Series Enterprise, NX-01 (from Enterprise), and the Enterprise-C. The TOS one is pretty straightforward. There’s multiple versions of the Enterprise NX-01, and none of them really match up – it’s a confusing layout. The Enterprise-C was only in one episode, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, and you could tell it was only meant to be shot from one angle.
I thought it was neat you included Arex in the TOS bridge.
That was in the script. My addition was that I put Spock in the corner. In the next one, I put T’Pol. The Enterprise-C didn’t have any Vulcan characters, as far as I could tell. I think I could sneak Tuvok on there.
In the first issue, there’s a joke about, whenever characters visit the holographic Enterprise NX-01, they have to play the chef. Is that a reference to the Enterprise series finale, “These Are the Voyages…”?
Yes! I totally forgot about that. I’m glad he didn’t have me draw Doctor Phlox with that weird smile that he did! I thought that was so unsettling.
It was a great idea for the explanations of references to be at the back of the comic. Did you work on some of the back pages?
That was all the design team. I didn’t touch that. I like the easter eggs, but I don’t think you need it to enjoy the series. For example, they discuss Moriarty in this issue. They give a one-page synopsis of the character, and I think that’s all you need to carry on with the story.
On the show, they said, “Quit trapping people in games!” That was a Deep Space Nine episode. That’s not something a casual viewer would understand unless you’re a super-nerd, but I don’t think it affects the story that much.
Was the cliffhanger in Issue 1 a deliberate effort to differentiate from the Lower Decks TV series, which is more episodic rather than serialized?
Not exactly. Most comics are single issues, twenty pages. This is thirty, but it’s hard to tell a complete story in thirty pages. So, this is a three-issue mini-series – all three issues will be like one long episode.
Do you think jumping in the middle is an issue unique to television shows as opposed to comics? If someone started on Issue 2, would it present the same problem?
I think Stan Lee said something like, “Every comic is somebody’s first comic.” That’s why every issue of Spiderman has “Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider.” They over-explained things. That made sense in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. It all assumed you were coming in fresh. With streaming services, nobody’s coming in fresh. They’ve been watching since episode one.
With Lower Decks, I didn’t feel the need to over-explain. The people who are coming to buy this comic are not just dropping by a comic book store and choosing it at random. Lower Decks itself works as a great intro for Star Trek. Lower Decks is funny and has a lot of action, so it’s more accessible for a new audience member to be able to jump into that world.
The show pokes fun at the sillier stuff in Star Trek, but it’s never cynical or says it’s stupid or you’re stupid for liking it. The characters are real characters. It’s a little bit there in Issue 1, but Issues 2 and 3 are super Star Trek-y, in a Lower Decks way. If you like Star Trek, I think you’re really going to like 2 and 3.
Do you have personal projects that you feel passionate about?
I’m trying to put together a couple of childrens book pitches for more kid-centric graphic novels. I think that’s a great way to get kids to read, and they’re fun stories to tell.
Before Lower Decks, I did a lot of kids books. I did two Goosebumps series, and an X-Files series that was for younger readers, Origins. I wish we could have finished it. That was a lot of fun to do. It was my first series where I was doing the art. I was a colorist before that. I sent some samples to the editor, [saying] “Hey, I draw, too!” He said he didn’t have anything that fit my style but would let me know if something came up, and [Origins] came up.
If Paramount contacted you tomorrow to work on either of the animated Star Trek TV series, would you be interested?
I’d probably die from happiness! I’d trek across the stars to get to LA!
Chris, thank you for taking the time to talk to us!
Issue 2 of the Lower Decks comic is due to be released on 12 October, with the third issue to follow in November.