Smash Pages Q&A: Marc Bernardin on ‘Adora and The Distance’

The writer, filmmaker and journalist discusses his latest graphic novel, which comes out next week from comiXology Originals.

Marc Bernardin has had long, varied career, from his years as a writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter, to co-hosting FatMan Beyond with Kevin Smith and the Battlestar Galacticast with Tricia Helfer. In recent years he’s established a reputation as a television writer on series including Alphas, Castle Rock, Treadstone and the upcoming Masters of the Universe: Revelation, which launches in July on Netflix. Some of us, though, know him as a comics writer, co-writing Monster Attack Network, The Highwaymen, Genius and other works for more than a decade.

Bernardin’s new project, which comes out next week from comiXology Originals, is the young-adult graphic novel Adora and The Distance, which he created with artist Ariela Kristantina. A fantasy adventure that has its own twists and surprises, it’s a book that is familiar and unexpected in startlingly beautiful ways. Next week Bernardin’s Kickstarter campaign for his short film Splinter ends, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work.

Marc, to start, how did you come to comics?

I think I came much in the same way that many people did: My parents. Specifically, my dad, who knew I liked sci-fi and fantasy stuff as a kid and, one day, brought home a bag of comics. I don’t remember much of what was in the bag other than an issue of Savage Sword of Conan, which was far too mature for my pre-teen eyes, but I devoured it anyway. I was pretty much an exclusively Conan fan, comics-wise, until Marvel’s Secret Wars came out. And that pretty much cracked the world open for me.

You mention in the afterward to the book that you’ve been thinking about Adora and the Distance for many years and that your daughter was the impetus for it. When did you start working on the book, or when did you realize what the story was?

It was a couple of years after she was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. This would’ve been about 13 years ago. I was still a journalist at the time and a few colleagues suggested that I write about the experience. We’re all looking for stories to tell, aren’t we? But I knew I didn’t want whatever I wrote to be about me, a parent raising a child with autism. I’m just a dude, you know? I’m the least remarkable person in this scenario. I wanted to deal with the thing that’s mysterious to me, the question that I couldn’t already answer. Which led me to, naturally, a mythical fantasy quest.

What were the fantasy and adventure stories you loved and that you drew on when writing and thinking about this book?

I was a big Tolkien fan growing up. Specifically, The Hobbit. (It took me a while to roll with The Lord of the Rings because that Tom Bombadil kept derailing my momentum.) Lay that on top of the Conan fascination, add some side servings of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and there you have it.

One reason I ask that is because initially the book seems to take place in Al-Andalus or North Africa or some place familiar to us, and then it quickly becomes apparent that we’re in a very different world. 

Al-Andalus is precisely right. As I described it to the amazing Ariela Kristantina when we first began building the look of Adora, the story starts in a port city in the Spain of Spain’s own memory. And I sent Ariela images from the astonishing Sandman #50, which tells of the Baghdad of myth and lore that’s been lost to time. That feeling of a place that fabulous, in the literal definition of the word.

Talk a little about working with Ariela and Bryan, and how their work shaped the story and the characters.

It probably sounds a bit trite, but Adora and the Distance wouldn’t be what it is without Ariela and Bryan being part of it. There are so many decisions they made that I wouldn’t have even thought to make — the details of the wardrobe, the texture of the colors — that are essential to making a fantasy world feel real. And Ariela felt such a responsibility to get those details right; I will forever be in her debt for taking Adora and the Distance from an okay script to what I feel is a great book. 

You mentioned that when you were talking about and shopping the book, some people questioned whether it should be told.

There were a fair number of rejections along the way, from publishers big and small, but those were less from a position of denying that this was a story that should be told and more because of the manner in which I was telling it. They all saw that there was a market for a graphic novel dealing with autism, but I think there was more a desire for the Fun Home or Persepolis version of it. More like a graphic memoir. But for all the reasons, I wasn’t interested in that. And then there were publishers who turned it down over structural reasons—namely, why can’t we introduce autism earlier in the story? And while I understand that impulse, it came down to my personal taste. It was just the way the story was asking me to tell it. 

You had a Twitter thread a while back about being valued where you are and how companies demand loyalty they don’t return. I couldn’t help but think of a character confronting nothingness and being attacked, of trying to outrun it and face uncertainty, that you could relate to some of that very personally. 

I am an inherently collaborative person, which comes from years of working in journalism and then television, which are absolutely not solitary pursuits. And so there are things in each story that are negotiable, if we’re working towards making it better. But then there are things that are so vital that to change them would make the project completely different. And I’ll always circle the wagon around those things. It’s crucial to identify those things and protect them and I think that value system extends to how you deal with publishers or studios or networks or whomever. “I know there’s something here. I believe it can be great. If you do too, then let’s make it together. If not, then I don’t owe anything to you, just as you absolutely don’t owe anything to me.”

Now because I’m old I actually owned a copy of Monster Attack Network, and I voted for Genius in Pilot Season. You’ve been working in TV for years now; what made this story a comic for you?

I can absolutely see a TV or movie version of Adora and, fingers crossed, those will follow. But the idea first came to me as a comic. I don’t know why, but I could see it on the page before I could see these characters walking and talking. So I stuck with that original impulse.

Right now you’re also Kickstarting a short film, Splinter. Did you always want to direct? And want to be this writer/director/producer/storyteller?

I wanted to be a filmmaker once I realized that I couldn’t really draw. I wanted to be Frank Miller, a comics writer-artist, but once artist was off the table, I then decided I’d be Spike Lee. Or whatever the nerd-version of Spike Lee might be for a kid coming up in the early 1990s. I made a couple of shorts when I was in college, but they were profoundly student productions at a school that wasn’t known for filmmakers. So they left something to be desired. Flash forward 30 years and I found myself in a position where maybe I could indulge those old dreams and see if there’s anything still there. I don’t know if this means that I want to shift my career into being a big screen writer-director. But life can present new opportunities at any time and we’d be fools not to take advantage.

Just to close with Adora, do you have a favorite scene in the book? Or is there a moment where when you go the art back, you had that moment of wonder you hope it gives the reader?

Not to give too much away, but there’s a moment early in the book, when Adora throws open the curtains in her room, revealing the city in all its dawn splendor, and says, “The day is waiting and we have a lot to do.” It’s sort of the beginning of the story, proper. That image, and the sequence that follows, shows you Adora’s world and how she loves it – and shows you the things she’s going to leave behind when she goes on her adventure. Seeing those pages come back, in every stage, from pencils to inks to colors, made the book real for me in a way that nothing else did. Beginnings are a very delicate time and for Adora to begin on such strong footing gave me faith that we’d finish even stronger.

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