When author and showrunner Gillian Flynn was adapting Dennis Kelly’s U.K. drama series “Utopia” for Amazon Prime Video, the areas she wanted to lean further into were the titular comic book that united her core characters and revealed a dark conspiracy about the outbreak of a global virus, as well as the backstory of a key character, Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane).
“It was an opportunity where we can really tell a whole other layer of story on top of story,” Flynn says.
While Flynn and staff writer Ryan Enright penned the comic book script, the visuals came from artist João Ruas. Flynn was a fan of Ruas’ work from Bill Willingham’s comic book series “Fables,” and the fairy-tale style he used there perfectly matched what she had in mind for “Utopia.”
“I remember saying, ‘I want this to look like Arthur Rackham on acid.’ I grew up with his illustrations,” Flynn says. “I remember thinking, ‘How amazing that would be to take advantage of a really screwed-up children’s story?’”
Ruas created all of the “Utopia” pages by hand, first sketching a page based on the script and sharing that sketch with Flynn for approval before moving on to the final version, which was painted in watercolor. The aesthetic for the pages was purposely different from his own, even though he was working in his usual medium.
“The artwork reflected the person who created the art, and it was somebody who was a little schizophrenic — a little unstable mentally — so it needed to have this conflict of drawings that were full of little details and drawings that were not that detailed. It’s a reflection of his mental state as he did the comics,” Ruas says.
Ruas also had to fashion a version of Jessica as a young girl. For this, he used reference photos of Lane and “imagined her as a kid,” he says. “The artist is drawing from memory, and in his mind her face and her
features are changing [as] his memory is mixing with his own ideas. So I created a character that is sort of based on the actress but not completely.”
And Ruas embedded Easter eggs Flynn wanted within the comic panels — everything from virus symbols to locations through the use of a country’s shape or flag colors. The images had to be hidden enough
that a character wouldn’t notice them on first glance at the page, but detailed enough to read on camera.
“We’d say, ‘This tree needs to have five leaves,’ and if it’s the shape of a country we’re trying to hint at, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but you have to be able to recognize it,” says Flynn. “And we made a rule that we don’t put anything in an Easter egg that the plot hinges on. We didn’t want it to be a frustrating experience; we just wanted to sprinkle in enough so that it was fun for anyone who wanted to look for those hints.”