Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/19/2003
Note: As a special treat, Bill presents previously-unseen piece which was originally intended to be part of the "5 Minutes with ..." series of short interviews he did a while back for the now moribund www.WizardWorld.com for your enjoyment and edification. Not too surprisingly, it's just as fresh today as when it was first created, at the turn of the millennium.
Tales of Brave Ulysses
Eric Shanower on Age of Bronze
Until recently, Eric Shanower was perhaps best known for applying his lush rendering and compelling storytelling skills to a series of utterly gorgeous and simply charming adaptations of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz tales. And, while he's no stranger to mainstream characters, or critically lauded projects, his joining the growing ranks of creators publishing under the Image imprint a few years back raised more than a few eyebrows ... and questions. The result of this strange fusion is a book that is deeply rooted in tradition, yet remains one of the most original comics projects in years. Called Age of Bronze, this ongoing series details one of the most famous wars in the entire history of Western Civilization, the siege of Troy.
Shanower recently took a break from the reference books and photos to discuss how the project got started, what kinds of research has gone into its creation, and his working process. He also provided ample reason why modern readers might find a story dealing with the actions of a bunch of long-dead Greek guys and some beauty queen named Helen much more compelling than they ever expected it could be in this day and age.
Bill Baker: For the uninitiated, what is Age of Bronze about, who are the major players, and what's their world like?
Eric Shanower: Age of Bronze retells the complete story of the Trojan War, drawing from the earliest sources of Greek mythology -- such as Homer's Iliad -- and incorporating many of the additions, extensions, and variations of the story which have accumulated over the centuries.
The names of the main characters are the familiar ones you'd expect: Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, Paris, Priam, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, Ajax, Hektor, the list goes on and on -- Age of Bronze is an ensemble production, so I don't focus on one or two main characters; I follow many of them. Most of them, though, are royalty, or attached to royal families. The legends of the Trojan War don't deal much with the common man or woman, so while I have to draw plenty of commoners in the backgrounds, I don't often focus on them.
The world of Age of Bronze is the Late Bronze Age Aegean (eastern Mediterranean about the 13th century BCE). One of my goals in Age of Bronze is to be as archaeologically accurate as possible in my depictions of the people and settings of the Trojan War story. It was a time when great empires existed alongside small but powerful city-states. Sea trade was quite extensive, though sometimes it looked more like piracy than trade.
BB: What led to your taking on this particular subject? Were you just trying to fill "historical saga" gap in the market, or is there more to it than that?
ES: I thought the Trojan War would make a fascinating comic book. No market considerations were involved -- I don't usually think about market considerations when an idea grabs me -- thinking about the market comes later.
I listen to books on audio tape often when I'm working. In February 1991 I listened to an audio tape version of the book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by historian Barbara Tuchman. When I heard her chapter on the Trojan War, I got the idea for Age of Bronze and my fate was sealed. It wasn't long after that I began researching Age of Bronze in earnest.
BB: How did you develop the project for comics? Also, did it present any unusual challenges, and what kinds of research did that process entail?
ES: First I just gathered material, mostly versions of the story and its evolutions through time. That in itself was a massive undertaking. The Trojan War has fascinated Western Civilization for nearly 3000 years, so that's plenty of time for the greatest artists and writers in history to retell and add to the story.
I had to gather the archaeological material as well. I was happy to learn that the site of Troy (Hissarlik in Turkey) had been reopened in 1988 for the first major excavations in decades. The modern methods the current excavation team has been using have greatly increased our knowledge about Troy.
Mostly the research has been reading books, both at home and in libraries, but of course there have been many plays and operas dealing with Trojan War themes, so I've attended performances and watched videos of those whenever I could. In Feb 1997, I attended a symposium in Washington DC which featured the leaders of the current Troy excavations. I've made contacts through an e-mail list called AEGEANET, which deals with all subjects related to the Bronze Age Aegean. And I listen to Homer's Iliad on audio tape often.
Basically it's an ongoing process of gathering information and then sorting it. I'm not sure there's been anything really unusual. Every project is a new challenge and demands its own particular process. Age of Bronze is a very large project, so the research is massive and will probably continue up until the very end.
BB: How's a typical issue of the book created? Are you working from a basic outline, or do you create a detailed script and thumbnails before you start drawing?
ES: Well, I have three outlines of the plot of varying degrees of detail. One outline is very basic, with one written line per episode with plenty of space between lines so that I can add and alter as I go along. The second outline is more developed into scenes and incorporates the motivations of the characters so that the flow of the story is indicated more naturally. This second outline also incorporates the questions I don't have answers for yet, questions about puzzling character motivation and how to handle scenes that seem irrelevant to or dissonant with the rest of the story. The third outline is very general and broken into issues, to help me pace the series so that each issue gives a satisfying chunk of story. But all this changes and evolves as I go along.
When I sit down to work on an issue, I check my outlines to see what I hope to cover in the issue. I usually then write a list of the scenes I plan to show, adding in any new details or ideas that may occur. Then I gather my references for that particular section of the story and reread them while taking notes, so that I have an overview of how that section of story has developed over the ages.
Then I usually write a line-by-line synopsis or at least a list of points to cover scene by scene. When that's done, I write the script for that issue. Some of the individual scenes get rewritten many times. Up until the point I send the art to the printer, things are subject to rewrite. I don't think an issue has gone by that doesn't have rewritten balloons pasted up on the artwork.
When the script is finished, I go through it and list all the characters, locations, and important props. Then I design them -- at least the ones that haven't appeared in a previous issue. Sometimes characters need to be redesigned because they've aged between issues. I often have to design new costumes for already-designed characters. Location design sometimes entails archaeological research -- for buildings that actually existed -- and sometimes geographical research -- for specific places on the globe. Props usually demand archaeological research, and often this is the most frustrating part because many times we don't have remains of an object that the story calls for. One example is musical instruments from Greece other than the harp. I had to use instruments from Ancient Egypt -- which were plausible, I believe, though I don't know how probable.
Then I do thumbnails of each page, and when I'm reasonably satisfied with them, I begin drawing. Then lettering, inking, clean-up, last minute changes, and send the thing off to the printer, usually after I've spent at least 36 hours straight finishing the thing and rushing around at the last minute to get to Federal Express on time.
Of course, all this process is subject to variation. And I haven't mentioned the covers -- which are usually done weeks before I start an issue -- and the letters pages, etc. which get fit in whenever I can. Sometimes I begin drawing before I've designed all the props or characters for that issue. In that case, I have to stop drawing and design that particular item or character when I get to the point it's needed.
BB: What kind of challenges, as both an artist and writer, does this series present to you? Is it forcing you to develop some new chops, or approaches, or is it pretty straightforward work?
ES: Every project is different, so of course I'm learning new things, forced by the project to reach farther, to achieve new results. Writing and drawing Age of Bronze builds on all the writing and drawing I've done before, so I hope I am developing, moving onward.
I've never worked this long on an ongoing comic book series before, so the end of the story is a lot further off than usual for me. Sometimes it seems that I'll never reach the end, but I knew when I began that it would be a very long project; I wouldn't have begun it if I didn't think I could finish it.
I am pulling more all-nighters to get issues finished than I've been used to pulling in the past. And since Age of Bronze doesn't sell enough for me to live on, I've been challenged to juggle my finances.
One of the greatest artistic challenges with Age of Bronze is to design the characters to be immediately recognizable without relying on any particular costume or hairstyle. I have not been completely successful with this -- a lot of people have trouble telling apart the Trojan princes. But I recognize the problem and will keep working on it.
BB: About how long will it take to tell the whole story of the Trojan War? Do you plan on tackling the sequel [i.e. Homer's The Odyssey] then?
ES: I estimate that Age of Bronze will run for 50 issues -- that's only an estimate -- it might be more or fewer. I don't plan on doing The Odyssey or any of the other sequels to the Trojan War such as The Aeneid or The Oresteia. When Age of Bronze is complete, I think I'll be pretty well finished with Greek mythology by then and ready for something different.
BB: What does Age of Bronze and its cast of ancient heroes offer modern readers that they aren't going to be getting from other books out there?
ES: Age of Bronze retells one of the greatest and most fascinating epics of our civilization in a way that it's never been told before -- the complete story dramatized against a background of archaeological fidelity. Age of Bronze includes everything an epic should have -- love, lust, suspense, betrayal, huge battles, sweeping scenes of both lyricism and horror, and dozens of characters all struggling to fulfill their destinies.
Age of Bronze Volume 1: A Thousand Ships is collected as both a hardcover and softcover. For more information on this series, and other work by Eric Shanower, go to www.age-of-bronze.com.
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