When artist DON PERLIN recently had surgery to stop bleeding in his head, I contacted him after the operation to see how I could help. He indicated that he was fine. But he wasn’t. They discovered more bleeding and today, as Don described it, they removed a piece of his skull the size of a creditcard and then put in a Titanium plate. He’s stuck in rehab now which his Medicare and insurance do not cover. So let’s help this man.
Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:
Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.
Advent Calendar Day 16: Jeanette, Isabella
“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” is a lovely five hundred year-old French carol in which we see two villagers hurrying to pay their respects to the newborn Christ child.Aside from shepherds and magi, the canonical gospels (and, really, the majority of the apocryphal ones, too) are absent visitors and homage-givers. Yet in some cultures, especially France, there is a tradition of villagers and laborers spreading the news of the holy birth and flocking to participate.I haven’t had any luck finding the root of this, but it goes back at least as far as the late middle ages, and I suspect that it developed by the late 13th century. Beginning in 1315, Europe suffered a series of crises –the Great Famine, the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, populist revolts, and dynastic wars – that slashed the population by at least half.Before this, though, Europe’s population had drastically increased, health and mortality had seen marked improvement, and a long period of warmth and increased growing seasons coupled with better farming technology and a lack of external raids meant that enough food could be produced to support and encourage this growth. By 1300, Europe was more full of people than it had ever held, and this, I believe, would have put a strain on Nativity organizers.There would not have been many religious ceremonies in which peasants and laypeople could have been officially involved, but a living Nativity would have been such an avenue. If you have a handful of folks eager to participate, then you have your kings, shepherds, and possibly angels. If the greater part of a large high medieval population boom congregation wishes to involve themselves, you have to get creative.It’s also important to note that the Feast of Fools (ostensibly started as a liturgical observance meant to remind clergy of scripturally prescribed humility, but more likely it was an internally hilarious moose-lodge type of endcap to the Christmas season by the subdeacons from whose feast it likely evolved) had cemented itself in France as a public festival in which the lower stations were permitted unprecedented social rights during the feast day. Just as they would with Christmas in the mid-19th century and Halloween in the 21st, the ruling and upper classes took umbrage with these short designated periods of social revolution, and began to try to implement rules curtailing those rights, and over the 13th century you see increased resistance to the Feast of Fools from the Church. Though the feast isn’t officially outlawed until 1431, there’s definitely a movement to see its raucous side diminished if not extinguished, and I believe that the villagers-in-Nativities movement is an attempt on the part of religious and community leaders to shift their population’s energies from the Feast of Fools to Christmas (either that, or the communities themselves shifting their energies from one celebration to the other in order to retain as much of their practices as they were able). There are two points that I think support this assumption:1. Many of the social switcheroos (mayor is beggar/beggar is mayor) that form the heart of the Feast of Fools become standard European and, later, American Christmas traditions (though we don’t have them anymore, with their last remaining vestige a carol about demanding figgie pudding under threat of perpetual occupation).2. The tradition associated with the villagers evokes the Feast of Fools itself. There is a makeshift parade (the carols associated with the villagers nearly always focus on the journey to the manger) to the home of the highest in the region. Only in the nativity, the social subversion of the Feast is itself subverted, and the peasants are willfully going to the highest (who is, by virtue of his humble birth, also the lowest) not to demand food and presents but to instead offer them.That the villagers don’t bother to try and Bible it up so far as dress or naming conventions go gives further credence to the likelihood that the one tradition evolved from the other. The villagers of the French tradition are French villagers, provincials, not ancient Hebrews. Even today, French nativity crèches boast santons, which are depictions of near-modern provincial characters. And Jeanette and Isabella, with their decidedly medieval European names, bolster that tradition.I didn’t want the anachronism of putting turn-of-the-14th-century French girls in this nativity set, so I took their names and matched them to the regions from which those names later sprung – France and Italy, or, at the time of the first Christmas, Gaul and Rome (and dressed them accordingly). Daughters of citizens of Rome in Jerusalem, Jeanette and Isabella are in Bethlehem to get some country air, accompanying their dads who are occupied administering the census. They’re best friends and I reckon that this is one chapter in a childhood filled with many.
When I was a kid, my dad ran an opera company, and every Christmas (at least most of the ones that I remember) he put on a one-act Christmas opera by Gian Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors.
I know this opera backwards and forwards, having watched it who knows how many times, sat in on many of the rehearsals leading to those performances, and even being in it, one season as Amahl (I think it was only once, but it may have been twice) and another, later, as a camel driver.
Amahl is the story of a crippled boy whose livelihood (goats and shepherding) has been slowly whittled away by economic hardship until his only avenue is begging, which he intends to undertake the next day (though he is an unrepentant liar, so he’s probably just going to lounge on a rock or something).
The Three Kings stop at his house on their way to Bethlehem and seek lodgings. The impudent Amahl pesters them with a series of comic interactions, and the poor mother, with no other means by which to support her sickly child, makes to steal a little of the treasure being taken to some baby who won’t even appreciate it. She’s caught, and the kings forgive her in Christ’s name. Amahl, moved by this show of mercy, decides to give Jesus a present, too: the only thing he has: his crutch. When he reaches out to pass it to the kings, he stumbles, and catches himself on his previously lame leg. Miraculously healed, he dances around and leaves with the kings for Bethlehem.
Oh! And there’s one of those villager parades mentioned in the last essay.
The opera was the first ever commissioned for television, and, airing on Christmas Eve in 1951, had the largest audience ever for a televised opera. It was a yearly tradition on NBC until 1966, when disagreements between the network and composer led him to take the broadcast rights away.
Advent Calendar Day 18: The Cherry Tree
The cherry tree has come to be associated with Christmas through the Cherry Tree carol, a six hundred year-old ballad set during Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. In it, Mary, passing under a cherry tree, gets a pregnancy craving for one, and asks Joseph to reach up and grab her one. Joseph, either doubting her tale of divine conception or not yet having been told of it (both versions exist), tells her that if she wants a cherry so bad then she ought to have the baby daddy get one for her. At this the cherry tree bends down to allow Mary to pluck a cherry from its branch. Joseph either then repents of his momentary doubt and spitefulness, or an angel appears and tells Joseph of Mary’s miraculous, dadless pregnancy.
This story stems from yet another apocryphal infancy gospel, but doesn’t have a Christmas or pre-Christmas setting. It’s set later, during the flight to Egypt. Mary’s craving isn’t a natal whim, but a nutritional necessity, and Joseph is upset over his inability to provide the family with food or drink in the desert, their supplies of both exhausted. The tree, not cherry but date, is called upon by little Jesus to bend down and give them fruit. Also its roots break the surface and provide plenty of water.
This is one of the many lil’ Jesus miracles.
The drawing here is, like in the carol, a cherry tree intended for a Christmas setting. I like the idea that the tree, its sentience activated, wished to continue it is worship, and followed them, providing food and shade and standing really still when anyone else was looking.
The message of the carol “The Little Drummer Boy” is a good one: let each person make gifts of his or her means or talent, however meager.Its single accolade upheld, I can now dwell on how much I dislike this song. For me, it’s likely a mix of irritation as a listener (it’s SO boring and repetitive and dirgey) and frustration as a singer (as a bass, any choir I was in that performed it saw those of us on the low register relegated to the endless and identical onomatopoeia). In either instance, my time would have been better served doing literally anything else on the planet. Come on, choir, get a drummer. Heck, even beat-box if you really, really need vocal percussion. That pa-rum-pum-pum-pum needn’t double the song’s length.I’m not alone in my contempt for this song. I’ve many a friendship whose bond has strengthened in our mutual dislike. David Bowie’s “Peace on Earth” was written for his duet with Bing Crosby because he famously refused to sing such obnoxious drivel. So why is this song so terrible?Well, it’s NOT terrible when it’s used for its intended purpose: children’s amateur choral performances. It’s a deliberately simple and repetitive song crafted specifically by its composer, the great and prolific music educator Katherine K. Davis, for youngsters whose musical and cognitive abilities don’t yet permit greater strain. And, so far as an elementary-age choir piece goes, it’s fine. But it shouldn’t be sung by adults without drastic alteration to the arrangement (which the song rarely, if ever, sees). It’s the Christmas equivalent of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”So despite how much I dislike the song, it’s not the song itself that I dislike, but the purpose to which it’s been turned.A similar song, but far more interesting in its complexity, is “Patapan”, a 300 year-old French carol which also has vocal instrumentation AND the central character of a little drummer boy (his name is Willie).
Listen here: https://youtu.be/
SO! You’ve been tricked. The little drummer boy in the Nativity set is actually Willie of “Patapan” fame. Bwahahaha! I guess he could still be the kid from the other song, too. Santa has eight gazillion songs about him, drummer Willie can certainly have two.
Advent Calendar Day 20: The Caganer
The caganer is a staple of Catalonian Nativity scenes, which, traditionally, have a lot of specific characters, including a weaver spinning thread and a woman washing clothes. The caganer, however, isn’t undertaking a professional task like the others; he’s hidden off to the side, pooping.
The figure, which likely began appearing in Nativity scenes in the late 1600s, seems to me a commentary on the pastoral motif that had become very popular during the baroque period. City folks, artists, and the nobility were enamored with the idea of a simple country life, but their romantic depictions rarely reflected its struggling, dirty reality. The caganer could easily be seen as a representation of the “real” within the idealized, tethering the first Christmas to reality in a way that the contrived and emotionally manipulative Nativity arrangements were failing to do.
There is a wonderful modern narrative that not only sweetens (Christmasises?) the idea of the caganer but which ties him to another poop-centric Catalonian Christmas tradition, the Tio’ de Nadal, a smiling log that poops candy on Christmas morning. As there is no earthly way to improve upon this juxtaposition of these two regionally and thematically linked characters, I’ll simply link to it. It’s a short, brilliant read:
In Survivors’ Club, writers Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen and artist Ryan Kelly set up a very modern story about the child protagonists of 1980s horror movies. It begins with a meeting of six people, each of whom had a horrific experience in 1987. Chenzira, who called the group together, played a video game that created a catastrophe and is finding evidence that the game is making a comeback. This is the first clue that the dark forces of the past are returning to the present, and the six main characters of this book, the only survivors of the horrors of 1987, are being drawn together not just to solve the mysteries of their past but also to face a new threat in the present day.
Brigid Alverson: You have described Survivors’ Club as sort of a “what happened next” to the protagonists of the great horror films of the 1980s. How did you decide which tropes and characters to use, and how did you refine them to make them work together into a unified story?
Halvorsen: We wanted each character to be representative of a genre of horror: slasher, J-horror, haunted house, creepy neighbor, cursed artefact, gates of hell. You don’t often get to see these interacting, like, Freddy vs Exorcist, for example. That’s what interested us, how we could play around with this.
Beukes: I think we’re both big fans of the mash-up and I’m known for genre-blending in my novels. It makes things fresh and interesting and subversive. We looked at what films we loved and how we could match up those different genres with our characters; what would suit them, what would be hideously uncomfortable for them.
Given that horror films are your biggest influence here, what parts of the story are pure Lauren and Dale—what makes it unique to you as a creative team?
Halvorsen: We both share a love of horror films. Lauren is more of a horror connoisseur, but I’ll watch anything. Part of what I bring to the storytelling is my encyclopedic bad film appreciation, throwing in suggestions from Basket Case or EvilSpeak.
Beukes: I don’t think you can separate us out. Our brains have commingled into one evil story-telling sentience. We riff off each other, the collaboration becomes play. We act out dialogue or stage block action. Dale says I’m the dialogue queen, but I can tell you that the wittiest and punniest lines are all him. I sometimes have to rein him in.
I’ve really been enjoying the collaboration and the way our minds work together. We’re always leveling up. It’s very different to the loneliness of solo novel writing.
Being from South Africa (although I know you have traveled to the U.S.), how did you perceive these films at the time you were first watching them, and how do you see them now? Did you think of them as foreign films or just part of the mass culture? How do you think the fact that you are viewing them in South Africa changes your point of view—are there particular things that resonate with your own world view?
Beukes: In pop-culture, we all grow up American. (Especially if you’ve been deprived of British television as a kid because of the UK’s sanctions against the apartheid government). We both have a very low tolerance for torture porn because the reality of violence in South Africa is so horrific, especially against women, those films demean what real people go through.
Halvorsen: Horror films are our generation’s fairytales. We all grew up with them, we all know those monsters. The good horror films are social commentary, like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Beukes: Oh yes! A lot of good horror is really about the monster within.
Why is Vertigo the right home for this comic? How do you think it fits with their line?
Beukes: [Vertigo editor in chief] Shelly Bond is a genius. She’s an amazing editor who has pushed for me to develop my own original title at Vertigo for years. But she also sees to the heart of the work, she knows how to push the story further and deeper, in the writing and the art. Vertigo has published some of my favorite adult comics and many of my favorite creators including Ed Brubaker, Paul Pope, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, G Willow Wilson, David Lapham, Pia Guerra, Tara McPherson, came up through Vertigo.
Halvorsen: We’re like the vampires who needed to be invited in by the publisher who saw the potential in our story. Hopefully they Let The Right One In.
Once you pitched the concept to Vertigo, how did Shelly Bond (or any other editor) help you refine it? Did you just go ahead on your own, or did they have any suggestions or guidance for you?
Beukes: Oh, Shelly had suggestions. So did our associate editor, Rowena Yow. 96% of the time, they’re absolutely right. The other 4% it’s because we haven’t explained our long game properly and they come round to why we’re doing a particular thing this way. We regularly have hour long Skype chats and they both push the story. We’re relative rookies (I’ve written one six issue comic arc before, Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom with Inaki Miranda) so their experience in the best ways how to tell the story are invaluable.
Halvorsen: They’re our first readers and they have a lot of questions that we take seriously.
Your writing process is very collaborative. What unique attributes do each of you bring to the team—does one of you sort of specialize in humor, action, snappy comebacks, creepy details?
Beukes: We’re both witty but Dale dials it up to eleven. Sometimes I have to reach in and dial him right back. The creep factor comes from both of us. What’s exciting is when we elaborate on each other’s ideas. “Yes! That’s so horrible and awful and twisted and what if we also did this?” Dale’s more visual so he thinks about what the panel looks like to better brief Ryan Kelly, our amazing artist, so we don’t drive him to distraction with conflicting actions or impossible camera angles. Dale does a crazy amount of research and brings all these weird articles or true crime podcasts to the table that we can feed into the story. He’s also a horror trope master. He’ll say things like “We need to bring in the prophet of doom”. Not forgetting that he’s the one who came up with the concept in the first place.
Halvorsen: We’re good at all of those things, dark humor, creepy details, snappy comebacks. I’m good at plotting. Lauren is the alien queen of dialogue and is an actual award-winning novelist, which means that words are her power. I’m learning a lot working with her.
The Bozz Chronicles
By David Michelinie, Bret Blevins, and John Ridgway
Foreword by Brandon Graham
The Bozz Chronicles, which writer David Michelinie described to CBR as “sort of like Sherlock Holmes meets The X-Files,” is a double period piece: It’s set in Victorian London, so there’s that, but it’s also very noticeably a comic from the 1980s, in both style and sensibility.
In fact, you can’t get much more 1980s than this: Michelinie says, in the introduction to the Dover edition, that his initial inspiration for the comic was the movie ET. That was just the initial spark, though. Michelinie’s Bozz is a space alien who crashed to earth and can never return to his home, but that’s where the resemblance ends.
For one thing, Bozz (that’s a human approximation of his unpronounceable alien name) is suicidal. He’s a highly evolved being trapped in a world filled with inferior beings, and he’s never going back. When we first meet him, the noose is already around his neck, but he is rescued by working girl Amanda Flynn. Amanda is bringing a reluctant customer up to what she thinks is an abandoned loft when she finds Bozz; the john flees in terror, but Amanda, displaying that heart of gold that prostitutes are famous for, takes charge of Bozz and saves his life.
Somehow (details are kept to a minimum), Amanda and Bozz set up a detective agency which serves the dual purpose of making money (thus relieving Amanda of her former obligations) and keeping Bozz supplied with mysteries to solve. Boredom is deadly to him, and Amanda worries when the work runs dry, not because of the cash flow (well, maybe a little because of that) but because Bozz becomes despondent and suicidal without the distraction of solving mysteries.
Don’t bother thinking you can sleuth along with Bozz, though. These are not “fair play” mysteries where the reader knows as much as the detective; they all involve supernatural elements, often caused by humans meddling with the occult, and Bozz uses his rather eclectic powers (talking to animals, dowsing for electricity) to solve them.
Bozz is an almost perfect personification of depression. He’s huge, dominating the space around him, yet smooth and passive. He looks at the world through half-lidded eyes, only coming to life when presented with a puzzle to solve or a desperate situation to get out of. The other characters, by contrast, crackle with energy, and they are as over-the-top as Bozz is subdued. Amanda, whose spaghetti straps and low-cut dresses are not really true to the period, is the one who pushes the story along, getting the jobs, making the arrangements, and doing most of the talking (although her lower-class accent would be a much bigger impediment in the real Victorian London than it is in these stories). The third member of the team is Salem Hawkshaw, a consonant-droppin’, chili-cookin’ American who supplies the brawn, if very little brains. There’s also a sort of adjunct member, Inspector Colin Fitzroy, a wealthy member of the gentry who went to work at Scotland Yard, to his family’s dismay, so he could make a difference in the world.
Indeed, the idle and evil rich vs. the industrious and more-or-less virtuous poor is a theme that pops up in various ways in these stories, which fits in with their Dickensian setting; Michelinie even throws in some orphans for good measure. And there are plenty of surprises, including (not to spoil things too much) a Jimmy Hoffa reference and a 19th-century hippie commune.
Artists Bret Blevins (who drew five of the six stories) and John Ridgway (who illustrated the fourth story) do a splendid job of bringing the characters to life, including the supernatural aspects. Nonetheless, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this comic has a very 1980s look and feel, in the character designs, the paneling, and the coloring. That doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of reading it, but it does look very different from a modern graphic novel.
The Bozz Chronicles was intended to be an ongoing series, with each issue a complete story. It came out bimonthly, but there were only six issues (one year’s worth) before the project came to an untimely end. This collection throws in a few extras, including a foreword by Brandon Graham, new introductions by Michelinie and Blevins, an afterword by Ridgway, and some bonus cover art. With this collected edition, Dover has done a great job of making these stories accessible to a new audience, as well as longtime fans.
Forbidden Planet has some background and a preview here.
In this week’s edition of The Moment, I detail how in some ways Huck reminds me of Mark Millar’s 1998 Superman Adventures run.
Superman Adventures remains the high point so far 0f Millar’s work, serving return to that form dating as far back as 1998. Huck is an incredibly likeable character in the way he is characterized in these first two issues there’s an unseen optimism to him I don’t know if it will last but all I know is it’s really a refreshing change from a lot of comics currently on the market. The moment that hooked me was from issue 2 when he could have quit but he chose to presevere and help people as he always does.
Rafael Albuquerque on art is merely icing on the cake.
Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:
Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.
Advent Calendar Day 13: The Midwife
The midwife appears in the apocryphal mid-2nd century Gospel of James, as well as a variety of other non-canonical books that likely used James as one of their sources for nativity stories.
In the story, Mary goes into labor and Joseph leaves her with his sons (plural, which I missed earlier; I ought to have included at least one more in the set. Whoops!) in the cave to find a Hebrew midwife. He comes across one walking (the first woman he sees, luckily), and they race to the cave. Joseph is pretty darn open about the whole conceived-by-the-Holy-Spirit thing, laying all his business out without much prodding, and the midwife seems dubious until they get to the cave and Mary’s nethers are all aglow, lighting up the cave.
The midwife is understandably awed by glowbaby Jesus and the story told by Joseph, and runs to spread the news to some close friends.
When I was in early college I stumbled across the Gospel of James and was floored by it, mostly because, so far as Jesus fan-fiction goes, it’s pretty solid, filling in a lot of the gaps in the canonical gospels, satisfying genre conventions (annunciation of pregnancy to an old but pious couple, etc), and, most of all, adding elements that gave it an earthy and ancient realness (the stable being a cave, for instance, and the logistical necessity of a midwife). I copied it longhand in order to help with memorization. For some reason, who knows what, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to be able to recall.
Advent Calendar Day 14: Salome
Though the apocryphal Gospel of James doesn’t dwell on the medical details save for the description of a bright light accompanying the delivery, future books do, and Jesus goes from being “born” in the traditional sense to either phasing through Mary or beaming out of her, Star Trek-style, depending on the source.
The midwife, having witnessed temporarily intangible nightlight Jesus appear in this manner, runs out of the cave and encounters Salome, whose relationship with the midwife isn’t fully articulated. Is she a friend? An acquaintance? A relative, maybe? I kind of like the idea that she’s a nosy neighbor frenemy.
Anyway, the midwife tells Salome about Jesus’s miraculous conception, and Salome ain’t buying. So we get a scene that’s basically narrative apologetics for the Virgin Birth: The midwife, alerting Mary to the fact that she’s a subject of “great controversy” (highlighting the symbolic nature of this tableau; two people who’ve been talking about something for forty seconds do not a great controversy make), asks Mary to “show herself,” and Salome checks for a hymen.
Salome’s hand then withers up and seems likely to fall off, which I consider pretty darn fair payout for anybody keen on subjecting someone to the humiliation and discomfort of a physical virginity test, though contextually it’s Salome’s doubt, not the act, that causes it. Salome, freaked out and in pain, cries up to God to forgive her for doubting, and reminds him of how good a person she is. An angel appears and tells her to hold baby Jesus, which she does, and is cured.
Salome served a very important narrative role for early church followers, which was to give a scene in which the met-with-skepticism-Virgin-Birth is directly addressed not by pronouncements but by hard proof (albeit internal anecdotal proof).
I considered drawing her screaming at her dying mummy hand, but I thought it might pull too much from the hopeful solemnity of the crèche scene. Also, because the notion of a hymen being evidence of virginity is, biologically, an errant one (and one that I think has a negative social impact for both genders), I didn’t want any parents to have to explain it to their youngsters, probably necessary given its centrality to this particular story.
Unrelated, today is my thirty-fifth birthday.
Advent Calendar Day 15: The Druggist
In one of the apocryphal infancy gospels, the 8th or 9th century Arabic First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, there’s a lot of crazy stuff that bolsters then-current theological traditions (infant Jesus gives a speech about his own divinity, chases off a robber band, brings to life toy animals, thwarts a vampire, and turns his hide-and-seek playmates into goats), especially the burgeoning emphasis on relics as a standard part of altar construction/veneration in the church. Some folks want to date the Infancy Gospel a couple of centuries earlier, but aside from the statistical unlikelihood of pre-Islamic written texts that could have been translated by westerners in the 17th century (which is when this one found its way to Europe), the motive of any scripture is always colored by the situation of its author(s), and the Infancy Gospel practically reads like a J. Peterman catalog of potential relics, explaining how they would have come to be preserved. This, I think, is the most striking indicator of a post-second-council-of-Nicaea (787 CE) date of authorship, when relics became official church policy rather than merely accepted church policy.
In this book, Jesus’s circumcision is given a specific location: the cave of his birth. The midwife takes the foreskin (yep!) and/or his umbilical cord, and puts it in an alabaster box full of oil-of-spikenard (muskroot). She then gives this to her druggist son and tells him to never sell it. The verse that immediately follows tells us that Mary of Bethany procured the box and used the oil on Jesus when she washed his feet and head, so apparently the druggist didn’t listen to his ma.
Basically, this is the origin story of the Holy Prepuce, which is what the church called Jesus’s foreskin, a relic of which there were, as might be expected, many (after all, what church wouldn’t want a divine weiner flap on the communion table, legit or not?). There’s a lovely article by oft-mentioned Christmas expert Benito Cereno about controversy surrounding these, and you really should read it, but this story is the evidence of its preservation, the eBay certificate of authenticity of the 8th century:
Kings and Canvas is a monthly, ongoing digital comic by Neil Kleid, Jake Allen and Frank Reynoso, published by Monkeybrain Comics and released via Comixology. It explores the lengths a man will go to find purpose after liberty and career have passed him by. I was pleased to interview Kleid.
Tim O’Shea: What were the vital criteria were there for assembling the creative team?
Neil Kleid: Generally, when partnering with an artist, I like to make sure of three things: 1) That the artist is open to a collaborative partnership which allows for push and pull from both sides of the creative table. 2) That the artist is passionate about the material to not only invest his or her time and energy into the work, but also feel strongly enough about it to embellish on it, add his or her own signature touches, and 3) Finally, that my partner on the piece is dedicated, communicative, open and honest enough to tell me when something needs to be rewritten or whether or not the process is breaking down. Obviously fast, good, talented and savvy all help — but those three points always serve as the mark for whether or not the team can and will survive.
It’s funny, with KaC, I actually went through two creative partners before Jake and Frank. The series has been in the works for over three years now, ever since I began banging out a series bible in the wee hours of the night. There were starts and then stops, and though at the time I feel downhearted when a partnership fell apart, it helps now to know it was all leading to the right team. Jake’s linework has evolved in leaps and bounds since we collaborated together on BROWNSVILLE, our first graphic novel for NBM Publishing. Back then we were both learning what it meant to simply make comics. Diving into Mammoth’s world, allowing your eyes to roam over the landscape and linger on backgrounds and character details, it’s clear that this is the work of a mature, educated illustrator who has spent the intervening years honing his craft and process. And Frank, friend of a mutual friend, came along at the right time when we had lost a colorist and were casting about for the correct palette that would bring life to the bleak, gray wastes of Gaol and then the vast, lush, verdant environs of the Training Grounds. I couldn’t be happier and more privileged than I am to be working with them both…I imagine one day they’ll both be too famous for the likes of a young, humble writer from New Jersey.
Would you say Mammoth and Nik have a buddy picture vibe?
Oh, sure. There are elements from Bing and Bob (“on the road to Queensbury”) and more importantly, classic trainer-fighter matchups most vividly brought into focus by Balboa and Creed… or maybe more specifically if you’re referring to Stallone’s filmography, because of the age gap, Lincoln and Michael Hawk. But then, you can get that vibe from a great number of fantasy or action stories with dueling personalities tossed at some point within an epic journey or adventure. Hell, you’ve got Star Wars’ Han and Luke (and Leia and Chewie, et al), or Game of Thrones’ Brienne and Podrick (or Jon and Sam, or Tyrion and Varys, or…). Of course the Fellowship of the Ring could be the most classical of buddy pictures (Sam! Frodo! Sam! Frodo!) and if you hearken even further back, good ol’ Moses and Aaron, wandering in the desert for forty years with thousands and thousands of their closest, biblical buddies. Look, you get two disparate individuals whose fates have been joined together (Riggs and Murtaugh, Cagney and Lacey, Fred and Barney, so on and so forth…you’re gonna get that buddy vibe at some point.
But let’s not forget—Mammoth and Nik are only the first of our boon traveling companions we meet on the road to Queensbury (or wherever they should finally, inevitably alight). Issue #2 introduced us to Milla, our would-be polar bear boxer from the North, and I daresay even more stalwart associates will join the cast as we wind down the first arc of our series. When we say “buddy picture,” it suggests give and take, comedy and a bit of friction. There’ll be plenty of that to spare, but also a great deal of emotional turmoil and perhaps a tragedy or two. Here’s looking forward to walking down that road together.
When you take characters to a new town, do you give a glimpse into your world building process?
Generally, we start with the idea — whether it’s larger or small, a hook or place or line or in this case, a visual that inspires. For Kings and Canvas, the world began with an image. Someone, somewhere on our wonderful world wide web tossed out two subjects in tangential relation to one another: “Frank Miller” and “dinosaur.” I believe it was in discussion of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the graphic novel in which the Atom fights a dinosaur. Those two phrases made me think of “Frank Miller’s Dinosaur,” as a story concept which immediately put me in in the mind of an aging brawler, past his prime, bandaged and bruised with hands like cinderblocks and lonely, wounded eyes. That was my first-ever picture of Mammoth, the lead character in Kings and Canvas, and simply typing out a character description led to my winding an entire world and history around his desperate, despairing, yet-to-be-molded form.
After the character, I needed a reason for him to exist. So I started fashioning the place that he was —a hole, a cell (physical or metaphysical) from which he needed to be released, and started painting outward. The room outside his cell. Then the town, then the nation. I knew I wanted it to be in some version of America—having been influenced at the time of the bible’s creation by the landscape of Millar’s Old Man Logan —and so I grabbed a map and started naming towns and charting the path Mammoth might take once he escaped that dreary little cell…and more importantly, the reason for why he would take that path. And were there other paths, paths with which Mammoth’s might cross? And if so, why? Did it have anything to do with the vast history I was spinning for my beloved, broken lead character? And what did the world look like ten years ago? Twenty? Thirty? What would it look like in fifteen?
The bible became a tool I’ve adopted on other projects since finalizing the one for Kings and Canvas, because it serves as a map to not only place and location, but also time and space. It allows me to flesh out social norms, currency, etiquette for a particular town or watchtown on the edge of the Western Kingdoms, for example. The bible charts ties between every settlement in the Training Grounds, and connects the dots from one point of Mammoth’s journey to the next…stretching back to the cell from which he’d escaped at the beginning, even farther than that—ten years, twenty, thirty…the steps and dots that led him to the cell in the first place.
A proper history—a fleshed out map—is key to understanding where your characters stand, where they’ve been, where they might be going. I’d get lost without it, especially on a journey of such scale. And my partners—Jake and Frank— help ground me to where I’m standing with amazing visual landmarks, intimate and culturally specific color tones and architecture (the town of Southporte in issue #2, for example, is much different than the town of Westgate mere pages later). Merging all of that—the history, the factoids, the map of culture, progress and society along with incredibly diverse and yet completely relatable illustration—helps bring a vivid, unique and exciting world to life not only for our readers, but also for the creative team as we navigate the journey at Mammoth’s side.
What do you most enjoy about being published by Chris Roberson?
Chris —and Allison—really have amazing taste. Not saying that as a brag, honestly, but merely as fact when looking at the wealth of truly incredible stories they’ve shepherded under the Monkeybrain banner. I’ll be blunt: many of the creators working with Chris are friends or tangential colleagues of mine, and each of them have produced a library of work that I love, consume and respect. That includes Chris, by the way, a writer and creator whom I’ve followed even before Monkeybrain came into being.
I always knew that I wanted to do something with Monkeybrain after digging through some of the titles in their stable…and because I knew I wanted to do something specific for a digital audience. But I didn’t want to self-publish—I’d been down that road before and quite loathed the idea of taking that path again. Working with Monkeybrain seemed like an ideal scenario: fit a project I was passionate about into a family of books and creators I admired, generally be able to chart my own course and focus on making the story sing while not having to worry about the distribution, and get to work with and know publishers I dug and partner with them on a project that not only I, but they felt extremely passionate. I couldn’t be prouder to put Kings and Canvas out under the Monkeybrain label. I respect what Chris and Allison have done with the company, and hope to continue providing more great issues for them to publish in the future.
In what ways have you most improved as a storyteller in the past 3 years?
Rewriting, trust and consuming more than my usual fare.
The first is obvious: your first draft is never your best. I developed a method in which I allowed myself time to backtrack before driving forward—write 4 pages one night, and on the second night I polished those pages before writing 4 more. Then the third night I polish pages 1-8 and then write 9-12. And so on. Overlap, backtrack, tighten and polish. Your first instinct might not be your best. Edit the fat, trim the superfluous dialogue. Rewrite until it’s ready — even if the deadline looms. Rewrite all the way until it has to get delivered.
Trust. So, I realized this last year and a half that my LARGEST fault when working with a collaborator was having the tendency to give too many notes. I’m talking about art and attempting to micro-manage an artist/partner to the point where I was focused on getting a specific picture or angle in my head down there on the paper. I didn’t trust my partner enough to let them get their vision on the page—I wanted what was in my panel descriptions (and in my head) down there on paper. I know I lost one collaborator on Kings and Canvas that way, and I nearly lost Jake as well. The email I got from Jake, explaining that the pages he was working on would be his last, really gave me a wake up call and made me realize that I needed to let go of the red pen. And I couldn’t be happier (and, I hope, Jake feels the same way). We have our own great process now — I writer the script, doing my best to get as much character/location description into the document without obsessing about angles and layout. Then we discuss the script on the phone, walking through it together to make sure we’re on the same page. Jake sends thumbnail layouts which I review and discuss with him, as well. Then he takes it to pencils and inks, which are usually stellar. I’ve learned the last two years really to let my partner breathe. And, well, you can see the results, right?
Finally, consuming more than my usual fare. Books I would have never read—many non-fiction, mostly in worlds through which I’d never traveled. Movies, comics, music, television…I exposed myself to challenging topics, interesting opinions and often, somewhat tedious research and legwork designed to expand my horizons. Writers write, but writers also read. And they experience — if you don’t have the funds to travel, then travel inside a book to a land you’ve never known. Politics not your thing? Force yourself to make sense of the front page news. Study up on what exactly happened to Lehman Brothers in 2008—not the sound bytes, but the economics involved. Writers read, but just as the greatest challenge is to write something out of your comfort zone, so too must writers consume. Because only then do you learn and grow…and that’s what I’ve been doing the last few years.
What characters if any grew beyond their original scope because you saw untapped potential?
The character of Argos Dane, who appears in issue #2 for the first time, went from being a kind of tall tale character to someone who could be a fan favorite should the series skyrocket in popularity. He was really a one-note character who served a specific purpose but as Jake, Frank and I started fleshing out the series we all kind of took a shine to him…and I realized how much more he had to offer to Mammoth’s past and future. If we compared this to Rocky, Argos might be Mammoth’s Apollo Creed. Or more to the point, if Mammoth were my Ned Stark, Argos might be his Robert Baratheon. Loud, boisterous, coarse…but wise, loyal and takes no bullshit, if you please.
The other character that surprised me was that of Milla, our polar bear apprentice boxer from the North. I had originally plotted other students for Mammoth to train on his road into the West…but I knew we were heading toward a specific direction by the end of the first arc, and the idea of a boxing polar bear was a notion that had survived from the bible’s very first paragraph—the pitch document. What I didn’t know was how much I really wanted to bring that concept forward, to diversify Mammoth’s world and make it plain as day that this journey would be something special…and that we might see it through a few different eyes. Mammoth’s, tired and jaded and weary; Nik’s, idealistic, spunky and youthful; and Milla’s…wary, more unsure of herself than anyone else in the band of would-be champions. There’s a reason that MIlla wants to become a boxer, and a reason she’s so out of her element—she’s a polar bear traveling and living in what is essentially the American south, a mite warmer than a locale she is used to. All of that will open up and get explored in our second arc, sure, but as I started adding her story to the original I realized that her relationships with the others—Mammoth and, more specifically, Nik—gave me an entirely new view as to what she could not only offer the trajectory of the story, but also the growth of the character with whom she would study, fight and travel. I’m intrigued by how much more I’ll learn about Milla as we head further down Mammoth’s path. For now, though, I’m pretty excited by the notes I’ve taken along the way
Anything we neglected to discuss?
Kings and Canvas is a monthly, ongoing digital comic by myself Jake Allen and Frank Reynoso, published by Monkeybrain Comics and released via Comixology. It explores the lengths a man will go to find purpose after liberty and career have passed him by. Punching his way out of prison, Mammoth journeys across a changed frontier in which honor is gained not by using weapons but rather fists and wits, to dethrone an unjust monarch and win back both title and family stolen from him years before. “Game of Thrones meets Rocky Balboa,” but with sea dwarves, rhinoceros-mounted kings, boxing polar bears and a healthy dose of revenge, Kings and Canvas journeys across the frontier of a changed America in which honor is gained not by using guns or swords. but rather fist, wits and the courage to change.
The comics can be purchased here (issues #0-2 are currently for sale. Issue #3 comes out on January 13th, 2016):
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According to Down the Tubes website:
“We’re sorry to report the passing of Spanish comic artist and editor Luis Bermejo Rojo (frequently credited as Luis Bermejo or, simply, Bermejo), best known in the US for his work on titles such as Creepyfor Warren Publishing. His work for British comics included strips such as “Heros the Spartan” for Eagle (taking over from Frank Bellamy), and “The Missing Link”, which became “Johnny Future” for Fantastic in the 1960s – but who also drew for titles as diverse as Boys’ World, Girl’s Crystal, Tina, Tarzan Weekly and the private eye stories “John Steel” for Thriller Picture Library.
He was also notable for his war stories for Fleetway’s Battle and War Picture Libraries, and strips such as “Phantom Force Five” for Buster.”
Down the Tubes has far more info.
Last week saw the release of the first issue for Peter Milligan’s latest Vertigo project, The New Romancer. Fired from a cushy job in Silicon Valley, Lexy becomes a coder for New Romancer, an Internet-dating app that’s seen better days. To create fake profiles, she plunders characteristics from history’s most notorious lovers. Using little-known writings by Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, Lexy pushes the boundaries of coding and accidentally unleashes history’s greatest lover: Lord Byron. Online dating meets courtly love in this paranormal rom-com by Vertigo veteran writer Peter Milligan and rising art-star Brett Parson. Milligan made some time for a Q&A.
Tim O’Shea: The use of Ada Lovelace seems like such an inspired choice how did you arrive at that character in particular?
Peter Millgan: I’ve always been fascinated by Ada Lovelace: the fact that father (Byron) and daughter (Ada) were so stellar in their fields. On the face of it their disciplines – poetry and mathematics/computer programming – seem poles apart but maybe there is a kind of unexpected connection: Byron used a number of poetic forms, often Spenserian stanzas of 8 lines in iambic pentameter, and one iambic hexameter. In other words numbers and patterns were at the centre of his work. And Ada Lovelace‘s programming breakthroughs surely required a kind of remarkable creative genius. So perhaps, though ostensibly very different, this father and daughter did share some important traits. I was also fascinated by the fact they Byron and Ada never met as adults. That distance – and the longing it occasionally caused in Byron – seemed a telling metaphor for Lexy’s own longing for Byron, who was separated by the greater – or so you would think – distance of time itself. Byron was proud of Ada but never – for a whole series of reasons – conspired to meet her. In NEW ROMANCER we put that right and poet and computer genius, father and daughter DO meet.
Did you ever consider anyone other than Lord Byron for this story?
Byron was always at the heart of this story. A few years back I was working up an idea called BYRON IS DEAD. That never progressed beyond some first pages and ideas but I’ve always been intrigued by him and his story potential. NEW ROMANCER was born out of the memory of that earlier unfinished germ of an idea and several e-meetings with editor Shelly Bond. Of course, the moment I saw Brett Parson’s drawings of Byron I knew our hero could never have been anyone but that complex compelling romantic poet.
How important was it creatively for you that this be a 12 issue maxi series?
It’s a six part series to begin with. I like this. I think some fine Vertigo series and ideas have first expressed themselves in this length. It gives you the room to establish a new and possible outlandish idea and see if it works in the real world.
What makes Lexy such an enriching character to tackle?
She is both an enriching and a difficult character to tackle: I’m neither 23, female, American nor a loveable computer nerd. But that’s what made her so interesting for me. She is also at once an incredibly modern young woman, working on programs for a computer dating site, but also something of an outsider, a throwback almost, being such a romantic and obsessing about long dead poets. She had a strange upbringing – which we find out about in the story – which goes a long way to explaining why she is the way she is.
How much did you research Silicon Valley for the story?
Enough so I felt fairly comfortable. I read, and I watched some documentaries and spoke to someone who uses the same hairdresser as I do – Jimmy Memphis! – who has worked there. Luckily I’d already immersed myself in quite a bit of Byron before I started writing this. But I had to ask around about the whole internet dating, Tinder thing. Ashley Madison has been quite in the news and that’s been a useful insight. This is a new world and it’s probably the future.
What elements of Brett Parson’s art has you most enthusiastic.
So much of it. First, his art has that almost indefinable thing: charm. A lot of people who go for charm just get saccharine and self-consciously cute, which I hate. Brett is way beyond that. He can really get across a sense of character and humour, but he can also pull off those moments when the story veers towards the more twisted or dark. You get the idea: I think he’s great.