Smash Pages Q&A: Michael Avon Oeming

The award-winning writer and artist discusses his latest work, ‘After Realm,’ the influence of Norse mythology on the story and much more.

Michael Avon Oeming is the award-winning writer and artist of books like Powers and The Mice Templar, Takio and Hammer of the Gods, Bastard Samurai and The United States of Murder, Inc. In recent years he’s drawn Cave Carson for DC’s Young Animal imprint, and wrote and illustrated Dick Tracy Forever at IDW. His current ongoing project is After Realm, which comes out quarterly from Image Comics.

The story of an elf named Oona, After Realm takes place after Ragnarok. Oeming has been using Kickstarter to help fund the series, but other readers can pick up the third issue this week. It’s a story of battling trolls and other creatures, a tale of exploration and crafting maps, of rediscovering what has been lost. As Oeming and I discussed, Oona is very much a hero for this moment, in ways that he never could have anticipated. We spoke recently about epic fantasy, how the meaning of myth is in the telling and the personal nature of a story that might seem anything but.

To start, I always ask people as a first question, how did you come to comics?

I began really early on. I had moved from New Jersey to Texas in the sixth grade. It was a really hard adjustment for me so I kind of locked myself away from the world. At some point, we ended up at a flea market, and I saw some comic books. Spider-Man; I think it was the Web of Spider-Man and Peter Parker. I really dug them and started to trace every page. Then I found Art Adams’ X-Men Annual #9 and that was it, I knew I wanted to be a comic book artist. From there on, it’s all I concentrated on. No parties, few friends, no sports, just fully committing to understanding comics from that point on.

I’m curious about where the idea for After Realm started and how the idea of it developed, along with Oona and her character.

I’ve always been attracted to fantasy. As I said earlier, I often locked myself away from the world, living in my own headspace and fantasies, always daydreaming, rarely in the moment. After Realm began just as the Mice Templar was ending. I was already looking to escape into another fantasy world, but this time one that was all mine, and deeply personal in the way I formed the world. It began as a slighter more adult version, influenced by Heavy Metal and European comics, but slowly the idea of leaning on all of my childhood influences came into play. Young Oona was intended as an infinite scroll comic to help promote the main comic, but it got out of hand, really long, so I decided to integrate that into the main story I was telling, which actually begins with issue #3! So the whole process has been very organic, plotted out with a compass rather than a tight blueprint. 

What do you like about this quarterly format? Besides the fact that it’s obviously longer than a monthly comic, how is the approach different?

My main reason for that was just time. I still work on several other projects, but I couldn’t do that monthly, but I knew that making it quarterly would be a good way to handle it, even with the extra-long format. The next issue is going to be 65 pages!

You’ve referenced Dungeons & Dragons and Thundarr the Barbarian when talking about the book and the world. What about those two do you like, and how do they inform After Realm?

It all comes back to influences that informed my imagination as a kid. Playing D&D certainly did that for me. Even the dice, just staring at the shapes, would get my mind going, sometimes even pulling me away from the game. The same with the little metal figures and the Monster Manual, they almost meant more to me than the game itself. And Thundarr was just so perfect for a kid. Kids don’t need to be pandered to with cuteness and simple, safe stories. Thundarr began with the END OF THE WORLD! I mean, how crazy is that? I loved how they set up a world that allowed them to mix genres from fantasy to sci-fi. I wanted After Realm to be a world where I could primarily explore my love of mythology, but also elements like sci-fi, folklore and whatever other fun stuff I wanted to write and draw. Thundarr was a good roadmap to an adventure where anything could happen. 

With the character of Oona, you seem to enjoy playing with this idea of the elves.

Totally. Again, it goes back to anything that takes me out of real life, even just a hint of it. Elves look like us, they can even be relatable to us, or more alien if we choose. I try and make Oona, even as a child, very “human like” compared to the other elves. Only Oona uses contractions and some semi-modern terms. I try not to push it too hard, though. I’m sure I’ll have other elf-inspired stories, too.

You’ve played with the Norse myths a lot over the years. When did you first become interested in the mythology, and what about it keeps you fascinated?

I was always interested in mythology. When I was really young, it was all the classic Greek heroes. Later, I discovered comics, and it was X-Men Annual #9, drawn by Art Adams. It not only made me want to be a comic book artist, but also really got my love of Norse mythology going- and then there was Walt Simonson’s Thor… those comics drove me back to the source, like the Eddas, and I’ve been hooked ever since. 

I was also reminded of Rapture, the book that you co-wrote with your wife, Taki Soma, which she drew and is very different from this. But it plays with the idea of dealing with things collapsing, of picking up the pieces in a new and different world, and the relationships that continue and change.

Oh wow, I hadn’t even made that connection before. There must be something to it because picking up after destruction is not only a theme in our works, but in our lives!

This is you trying to make a big epic fantasy tale, and as you’re making the new issue and plotting out ideas further down the road, what are the comics or the works that you look to as you’re thinking about tone and structure and different approaches?

After I establish some things about this new world, like our secondary characters and our bad guys, I’m looking to stripping these down to very self-contained stories. Issue #3 actually has a self-contained story as a back up, and that is the sort of structure I’ll be looking to get to. Self-contained comics, be it a floppy or a graphic novel, are the way I want to go in general. 

I think the oversized quarterly format is great for a lot of reasons, but how does it require you to think and work differently?

It allows me to take my time telling the story. The story may move a bit slower at first, but it allows for space to play out; I don’t have to rush through a moment. I think from issue #5 or #6 they will all be self-contained. I have to establish some larger world-building stuff first, so all of those self-contained stories have some weight to them. 

Do you script After Realm differently than when you’re drawing a book vs. when writing for someone else? Do you approach a script differently as an artist when you’ve written the script vs. someone else?

This is really different. George R.R. Martin talks about “Architect writers” and “Gardener writers.” I’m usually more of an architect, where I carefully plan out and plot out every beat. After Realm is proving to be much more of a garden, where I have a general direction, but I’m planting seeds along the way that turn into stories. A line came to me when writing dialogue – it was just an insult from Oona to a troll where she mocks his wife. Well, now he has a wife, and I end up using her against the troll later. Oona’s sword never had a story until I broke it and made a big deal out of it, and now there’s a whole new subplot! I know what direction I’m going, but not the specific plot beats along the way, so it keeps me on my toes as I make discoveries along the way. 

Your wife Taki Soma is coloring the book, and I think of her as primarily an artist but she colors your work in this very expressive style. I’m curious what you like about that approach and how it affects your storytelling choices.

I know I’m in good hands with Taki’s colors because she is a writer and artist as well, so she knows how to tell story THROUGH her colors. She knows what I’m going for and how to enhance the storytelling and composition. So I don’t put much thought into it as I’m drawing, I just know she’ll improve it and kick ass. Her and Filardi always know how to make me look better! 

Mythology is all about how people ask and answer questions, and this feels like a very personal book in ways I’m not sure I can articulate. Does it feel personal to you, beyond bring influenced by things you like?

For a story steeped in mythology, it is all filtered through my young self’s imagination. So it ends up becoming more a reflection of me than the mythology I’ll dive into. Like in issue #2, the spirit guide was originally Auðumbla, the first mythological being in Norse mythology. I ended up swapping her out for my Aunt Carol, who passed away in 2017. In the context of this world and series, it made sense to me [laughs]. It’s becoming very Terry Gilliam or Terry Pratchett in some ways, which I’m loving.

I know you didn’t write her this way, but Oona feels like a hero of this moment. She longs for how things used to be, but never quite fit in, she wants to explore but is held back. Between COVID and the rise of authoritarianism over the past decade, she and the book are very much about the present.

True, but I can’t say I did it on purpose. Those are pretty universal feelings and they only get more and more true especially during troubling times. Maybe as an adult, I’m reaching back to my childhood imagination to escape the times we are in now. A reversal of my Oona story. But I guess those are the times we live in now, right, everything feels like it’s running backwards as we all search for the new normal. We need to make our own maps, like Oona, or we’ll get lost.

Issue #3 is out this week. Do you want to say a little about what’s in it?

All I’ll really say is that the world starts to open up to my original intention of the series. In fact, I’ll give you a little scoop – this issue was originally our issue #1! We’ve also bumped the page count up from 56 to 64 pages!

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