As the three previous installments in this series has demonstrated, one of the chief strengths of the Archaia catalog, aside from the pervasive quality of craftsmanship displayed by each of its offerings, lies as much in its diversity as its depth. Given the fact that this is a company that’s just over a decade old, it’s truly astounding just how many genres are represented in their backlist.
But for some readers—and particularly for those who are fans of David Petersen’s incredibly popular Mouse Guard series—the anthropomorphic epic fantasy comic is perhaps the most representative Archaia story at present.
Still, that kind of generalization overlooks the simple fact that comics about talking animals are not necessarily bound to any particular genre. Like the comics medium itself, they are infinitely malleable, capable of being transplanted successfully into any kind of story, from the hardnosed noir mystery to the drawing room social allegory, from the epic medieval adventure tale to the cloak and dagger machinations of the classic spy thriller.
Iron is one of those rare creatures: a chimera that melds anthropomorphic characters with the settings, set pieces and the subtle yet oh-so-deadly spymaster machinations so typical of a certain type of Cold War-era tale of espionage to create something entirely engrossing and utterly unique. Filled with believable and realistic characterizations, moments of quiet introspection and startling clarity, shot through with a sense of foreboding and tension broken only occasionally by the odd moment of primal brutality, this beautifully rendered graphic novel offers a reading experience unlike just about everything else out there at present.
In other words, it’s a great deal of fun, and one hell of a debut.
How do you describe Iron: Or, the War After to those who are unfamiliar with it?
Given that all of the characters are anthropomorphized animals, and the fact that your bio states that you live with a fair number of different beasties, I take it that you’re a huge fan of all creatures great and otherwise. So I have to ask, what do you find fascinating about animals personally, and what about their behavior and bodies makes them such good subjects for storytelling?
I think animals are interesting in a storytelling sense because they are basically a Rorschach test. We see human qualities in them, or at least we imagine that we do. I think the fact that we think the crow is laughing or the lion is proud has more to do with us than it does with them.
Now, please do correct me if I’m wrong, but I found Iron to be strongly reminiscent of a certain kind of English mystery, the thriller which focuses on wartime or postwar cloak-and-dagger clandestine affairs of state and spycraft. And that led to me wondering what influences are at play in your work, generally, and in this book in particular?
Well, definitely the works of John le Carré. I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold when I was finishing Iron: Or, the War After, and the somber narrative was definitely an inspiration. I hadn’t actually read any le Carré while I was writing Iron, which was probably for the best. When you’re making a graphic novel it’s always better to check out things that have nothing to do with what you’re doing. You don’t want to get too attached to an influence. I read Bone again and again, and a lot of Haruki Murakami novels.
Well, how’d all of the above come together as this book? When did the idea make its first appearance, and how did you develop it into the book as it stands today?
I’d worked on Iron for a couple of years before it came together as a story. I started off drawing a crow figure, and it kept popping up. I made a small mini-comic with these characters to see what it would be like if I used them in a story. The comic came out decent, and I decided to tackle a much larger project with these characters.
So, how did you craft the story itself? Did you start by outlining everything before writing out a full script and then sitting down to draw it, or was it a bit looser than that?
I did an outline for the book, but I didn’t do a full script. I don’t really like writing everything out because it ruins a bit of the fun for me. I plan things out in my head pretty completely, but I only write a few pages ahead of where I am. I do a lot of re-writes after I finish all the art. It’s fun to see the drawings take on different meanings when you change the dialogue.
How about the art? Did you start by doing rough layouts, then move on to final layouts and coloring? And what tools did you use? Is this all done the old fashioned way, strictly on the computer, or was it a bit more complicated than that?
I’m pretty terrible in that I also do not like laying things out too much. I’ll draw about four or five pages, and then go back and paint them. I usually tackle a whole scene so that things line up, but I don’t rough out the whole book. I use traditional watercolors, but for Iron, I also used digital media. It was a mix, and some pages have more digital aspects than others. I don’t know if I’d recommend this process, but it works for me, somewhat, so I use it.
Why do it that way? Do those particular materials or methods allow you to do things that you’d otherwise be barred from employing, or ?
Well, working digitally is a time-saver, and it’s incredible for editing or fixing mistakes. I wish I could have painted the whole thing traditionally, but I’d never have gotten it done. It would have just taken me too long.
Comics are a relatively fast medium; they are usually read quickly and executed fairly quickly. Some people take a very long time, and that’s cool for them, but they’re usually much farther along in their careers. When you’re starting out, it’s important to keep working in order to be visible.
One thing that struck me immediately was how the story began with a late attack, in other words, pretty far into the main action, which means that the reader is expected to piece together not only the central plot, but the historical background which informs everything that happens on the fly.
So, why take that particular route to tell the tale? Why not just start earlier and spell things out a bit more for your readers?
I was positive very early on that I did not want Iron to be a historical allegory. There are so many great books that deal with real conflicts, written by people with much more insight than I possess. I wanted to use the war as a tool, so the history of the war that looms over these characters, to me, is not actually very important.
I know some people have had a problem with this, and would rather read about what happened in the war, why it happened, and so on—but the point I am making is that in life, our actions stand alone, for good or bad. Giles and Pavel are my two favorite characters because they are the most conflicted about their history. I think if you knew what happened to them, you would want to weigh in, to judge them. But because you don’t actually know what the characters went through, you can only judge them based on their actions, or their moralizations. Justifications seem to carry a lot less weight when you don’t know the history firsthand. That was why I did that.
Something else that might be a tad surprising is that, in many ways, you’ve avoided some of the more typical traits that many past creators, in both prose and visual narratives, have assigned to specific animals, such as the idea that all dogs are loyal, cats are aloof, etc.
Again, am I off base here, or was that one of the things you were trying to do—and if so, why? What were you trying to achieve?
I used the individual animals to give the reader insight into the characters. In lieu of history, we have animal mythology. Charlotte, the fox who leads the resistance, is cunning. Engel, the tiger who crushes down on them, is strong and proud. But these are just cues to inform the reader, they do not define the characters. They give the reader context, an angle to approach these characters from.
Well, what’s next for you, and for the denizens of Iron? Will we be getting more glimpses into this world, or was this the only story you wanted to tell set in that universe?
I’d love to continue with Iron, but that really depends on the audience. I’d like to see what happens to Charlotte, James Jr. and Patricia. It would also be fun, in a different book, to go back and see what happened in the war.
I’m also working on an unrelated story that features humans and magic.
What does making art provide that you can’t find elsewhere?
It’s something I love doing. There’s not another job I’d want. There’s no better feeling than stepping back from the drawing table for the night and believing in what you’re doing.
How about from Iron: Or the War After? What has this experience given you?
Well, Iron was my first book, so it was a completely unique and important experience. I’m not sure I can really do it justice. But it’s definitely made me a better artist, and I think that whatever I work on next will be even better.
What do you hope your readers get from this book? How about your work, generally?
That’s up to the readers. I do my best to make sure that what I want to say comes across, but if they pick something else up, or miss it entirely, I can’t control that. Of course I wish everyone read Iron the way that I do, but that’s impossible. All I can hope for is that they’ll read it, and hopefully, like it.
Anything else you’d care to add before I let you get back to work?
You can check out my work/blog for updates.
I’m also currently working as the colorist for the Image Comics miniseries Five Ghosts. Issue #1 has just sold out and gone into a second printing, so that’s awesome, and I was fortunate enough to have painted the cover for the issue #1 reprint. Five Ghosts is a great pulpy adventure comic, and tells the story of Fabian Gray, a treasure-hunter, haunted by five spirits of literary archetypes: the Wizard, the Archer, the Detective, the Samurai, and the Vampire. It’s one of the funnest books of the year, in my opinion.