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BAKER'S DOZEN for 03/24/2004
Sisters are Doing It for Themselves
Mark Smylie talks about Artesia
I like Mark Smylie's work, both visual and verbal, a lot. As evinced in his ongoing series, Artesia, Smylie's work has grit, a certain solid weight, that grants it a real gravity in every sense of the word. His characters appear to physically and emotionally inhabit an actual world, one which is foreign enough to be enticing and interesting, yet familiar enough to remain firmly rooted in within the Human Comedy's boundaries. As I noted in a [sadly unpublished] "Best Fantasy Graphic Novels of 2003" article for a media magazine, "Smylie has created perhaps the most fully realized fantasy world that I've ever encountered, be it in prose or comics. Boasting an original cosmology rife with believable and active gods and goddesses, his recreation of battle scenes, supernatural encounters and court intrigue is surpassed only by his layered characterization of the fearsome and alluring warrior-witch Artesia.... a triumph of richly woven plot, fully realized alien cultures, and all-out blood-letting.... It's an utterly immersive reading experience."
And, as the following conversation will surely prove, talking with Smylie about Artesia can be just as immersive an experience as actually reading the series itself.
Bill Baker: Let's start with the basics: What is Artesia the series, and who is Artesia, the character?
Mark Smylie: Well, I usually like to say that Artesia is an attempt at a swords-and-sorcery fantasy epic that you might find normally in book form, but in comic book form instead. I get asked for the quick summary of Artesia a lot, and I still haven't quite figured out how to explain the book in a few sentences, though at conventions I'll usually say that Artesia is kind of a pagan Joan of Arc story in a fantasy setting. The main character, Artesia, was born of a witch and raised as one in the Middle Kingdoms, but saw her mother burned at the stake and ran away to the Highlands, a land called Daradja, to choose the path of war rather than that of magic; she'd rather die by the sword than on a witch's pyre. She's become a war captain and now a Queen, and finds herself aiding the Middle Kingdoms against a common and ancient enemy, the Empire of Thessid-Gola, whose Sultan wants to restore the Empire to its former glory.
BB: What about the world Artesia inhabits is similar to, and what is different from, our own?
MS: The world of Artesia - I just call it the Known World, as the people that inhabit it make a distinction between a known world, mapped and fixed in history, and an unknown world outside the known, unmapped and undiscovered - is essentially a reflection of real world mythology and history, as most fantasy worlds are, so it should have an air of familiarity to most readers. It's different in that its myths are real and palpable, and the divine and spirit worlds interact with the mundane world on a regular basis (though in truth I suppose there are some who would argue our world is no different to those that are open to such experiences). I've drawn from all sorts of ancient and medieval cultures to create the setting: the Greeks and Romans for religious and cult practice, the ancient Celts, medieval feudalism, European shamanic and witchcraft traditions, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Venice during the early Renaissance, etc. I suppose it's true that virtually every fantasy world draws from the same sources, so the differences tend to come from the details. In fantasy worlds the main place to find those details and draw distinctions with our own world is in the maps that seem to accompany every fantasy world, and sure enough I've got some scattered throughout the various issues of Artesia. Originally I had intended to avoid the cliché of the fantasy map and only have maps appear when Artesia and her captains were looking at them, so that there wouldn't be a general overall map but rather a series of specific maps that had to be referenced by the reader, but decided while doing the second Artesia Annual that a few standardized maps, despite being a cliché, weren't such a bad idea after all, so that readers could get a better physical sense of the world, of the distances between places, of its imaginary geography, and from its geography a better sense of its religion and history and politics.
BB: Well, how important is that sense of specific place -- not just environmental sense, but also in the cosmological sense -- to the inner workings and feel of the book for you?
MS: I consider it vitally important; the Known World's history and cultures are supposed to be real and palpable influences on the daily lives of the book's characters, and the story is driven by the Known World's history. As much as possible I've tried to make the story a reflection of a specific fantasy environment, and one that is changing and evolving rather than static. For the most part the characters in the comic view themselves as living in a magical universe with a past and a future, and so they act accordingly - seeing spirits in the world around them, making the gods a part of their every activity, learning lessons from the past, or actively fighting the cosmological order and trying to shape the future if they don't like it. Heroic actions are meaningless bereft of their context, or for that matter without the risk of death, and I think the sense of risk, the palpability of death, comes from the richness of the setting; if the character is more important than the setting, then as a reader you kind of already know the character can't die, can't fail, because the story ends with them. But if the setting is richer and more central than the character, so to speak, you can really introduce the risk of death because the setting, their world, can continue without them. So I've tried to fill the setting with as much detail as possible, so that readers are subject to a constant barrage of names and places and historical references, to try and give the sense of a world with a past, where things are unfolding that have been ages in the making, that places existed before the characters arrived and will exist long after they've left and are independent of the particulars of the current story, and, indeed, that the main characters may indeed prove insignificant in the cosmological scheme of things.
BB: As you've noted, the gods and demigods and demons and other supernatural forces of Artesia's world are very much alive and present; is this device mainly just a way to add interesting twists or to represent the vagaries of natural forces acting upon humanity, or is it something much deeper, more profound than that?
MS: Well, I'm not sure if I want to make any claims to deeper or more profound elements in the story; I tend to think that the moment you try to make a claim of deepness or profundity in a work that you've probably abandoned the possibility of attaining it. Part of my ongoing interest in fantasy as a genre is that it's one of the few literary genres in which the nature of divinity can be comfortably explored ...horror, maybe, stands as another genre in which you can play with notions of the divine and the supernatural and not have people throw things at you, though fantasy and horror books are routinely on the lists of suspect books for social conservatives. Though of course, the modern genres of fantasy and horror really come from the same sources so I suppose that's not surprising: mythology, folklore and fairy tales, and the literature of the supernatural. One of the main background themes to Artesia's story and the Known World is the different ways we have of approaching the divine; the cult that Artesia follows, the worship of a goddess named Yhera and her pantheon, is modeled on the Greek way of approaching the divine, which is centered around sacrifice and the consumption of sacrificed meat, while the cult of the Divine King, which stands in opposition to Yhera, has forbidden sacrifice and instead approaches the divine through prayer and contemplation, though it retains votive offerings as a leftover from Yhera's cult practices. So there's supposed to be an underlying tension in the Known World's religions based on how you eat meat - whether you view the death and consumption of an animal as something done within a religious and sacred context, or whether you see the death of animals as a mundane and everyday act.
BB: So how exactly did the series come about? Where did the original impetus to create it come from, what was the development process of the series like and how long did it take before you began actually creating the first issue?
MS: Actually, the setting came first. I started developing it when a friend of mine worked at an RPG and board game company; I was going to pitch it to them as a possible setting for one of their role-playing games, but he left the company before it was finished. I kept working on it and decided to try using the world as a setting for some fiction, which had always been one of things I wanted to do with the setting anyway, so I started working on story ideas. Artesia as a character just kind of appeared; I don't really know from where she came, she was never part of the setting's original constellation of characters and political figures, but just seemed to fall into place from lots of little bits and pieces that were already floating around the setting. Because of my own personal interests and because of a lot of stuff that was happening in the early 90s - the first Iraq war and the Balkans Wars - I wanted to write a comic about war and religious identity, and Artesia, as a woman raised as a witch in a culture that views witches with suspicion, who has become a warrior instead as a way of escaping that suspicion and escaping the fate of her mother, seemed the ideal vehicle for that. When I first started working on it I was doing a lot of research on medieval witchcraft and culture, but I've come over the years to reinterpret much of my early thinking on the Known World in more of a Classical vein, looking to Ancient Greece and Rome and the Celts for inspiration and trying to move away from the medieval period as a source and guide.
For example, the cult of the Divine King, which started out as a thinly-veiled form of medieval Christianity (and still uses a lot of medieval King-of-Heaven rhetoric), has morphed in my thinking into something closer to the cult of Mithra, or perhaps even to the Egyptian story-cycles about Osiris or even the quasi-monotheism of Akhenaten, with elements of Herakles and the Argonautica. I was working on the Known World and the outlines of Artesia's story for maybe three years or so before I started the actual drawing work on the first issue, back in 1997, so the setting traces itself back to maybe 1993 or so, over a decade ago.
BB: Would it be fair to say that what you're doing is similar to what Dave Sim did with Cerebus; in other words, telling the life story of a single character in a series of comics, or do you perhaps have even bigger plans than that?
MS: Uh, bigger plans than Dave Sim's 300-issue story arc? Is that even possible? I've been inspired by many different fantasy epics over the years but the basic model is indeed Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, which was also the starting point for Cerebus as well though in a more satiric vein, so I suppose the comparison fits even beyond simply the scale of the attempted story. I think that Sim felt it necessary to outgrow Cerebus' beginnings, and to reach for something more 'obviously' literary and more complex, but I'm not sure if I find myself with the same impulse; there's plenty of room within the confines of the fantasy genre for me to tell the story I want to tell. Artesia is a fantasy biography, in the same vein as Howard's Conan stories, the story of a woman and her role in the end of one Age and the start of the next. I'm hoping that if it ever finds a large enough audience that the setting itself can continue on and be used for other stories, particularly as a role-playing setting, which was its original intent, after all.
BB: Well, I know that you've got a definite game plan for the series, an over-arching plotline that will guide everything you do in the series. So the real question is, how tightly do you adhere to your overall plan, why and in what ways might you have deviated from it -- and how have those changes, if any, effected your overall plan?
MS: I've got a Grand Scheme of sorts: 22 series, each series corresponding to one of the Book of Dooms, which in the Known World is a book of 22 plates created for the Oracle Queens of Khael, based upon the images in the Celestial Book of the Queen of Heaven; they're basically her world's version of the Tarot. So each Artesia series has background themes that correspond to one of her world's Tarot cards: the first series, Artesia, corresponded to The Magician, dealing with origins and moments of creation, as the series served as the starting point both for the books and for Artesia's career as queen, war leader, and world breaker; the second series, Artesia Afield, was The Great Priestess, hitting tangentially upon religion and the question of wisdom and self-understanding. The card for the third series, Artesia Afire, is The Empress, dealing with themes of fealty, sovereignty, vanity and seduction. The next series, Artesia Besieged, will have The Emperor as its theme card, and will have themes of power, law, and domination. And ideally on it goes, to the last card in her Tarot deck, The Fool, and the last Artesia series; I've altered the identity and placement of the traditional Major Arcana of the Tarot, so the Book of Dooms doesn't wholly follow the usual path that our own Tarot does (of course there are a variety of Tarot decks in the real world with slight differences in card and placement), but it's close. I'm trying to get it so that the plot lines I've been writing follow the psychological path of the Known World's Tarot, in effect, though the action can veer off course and the themes in some cases are fairly subterranean to the main plot. The plot lines of the first seven series are fairly well laid out both in my head and on paper, and the next seven a bit laid out as well, but I've got only brief notes and ideas about where the last seven plus one go, other than knowing how I want the whole story arc to end. No single issue of a series has ever quite gone the way I intended when I started writing the series, so I figure it'd be foolhardy to set the ending of the whole story in stone given how much the story could change, and how much I might change as a writer - hopefully I'll get better and the story will improve as it goes along, so I've left the end of the saga a bit hazy and vague so that I've room to maneuver as it gets closer. We'll see if I last long enough in this industry to actually finish all 22 series; I calculated it would take about 30 years, and that makes it seem very much a Fool's Errand.
BB: How do you create a typical issue of the series
MS: I'll usually write out the scenes and dialogue that I want to put in an issue first, and then I'll thumbnail the entire issue to make sure that everything fits. I usually have to cut or alter 1-2 scenes and maybe 50+ lines of dialogue from every issue (even from the issues that wind up with 30 pages of art in them), so there's no way I could just start drawing. I write the dialogue longhand on paper with pencil, usually in a big notebook so that everything is in the same place, then do the thumbnails on standard typewriter (nowadays I guess it'd be printer) paper that I can slip into a portfolio book so that it kind of creates a mock-up of the issue. That way I can sit down and read it as though it were a comic and see how the dialogue and action is flowing, and then it's also pretty easy to make changes to the mock-up by removing individual pages and shifting them around, redrawing on new sheets and slipping them in to alter the narrative, etc. I actually hate working on computers; the screen seems too small and confining, and the linearity of scrolling isn't how I think or write, which tends to be circular, coming back to an idea or a line again and again to tweak it. I find it easier to do that on a written page than a computer screen.
BB: How about some details on creating the art? For example, how rough are your thumbnails? Also, what kind of paper, pencils, pens and other tools do you usually use? Again, why?
MS: Yeah, the thumbnails are pretty rough, they barely count as drawing - while they're more involved than just stick figures, say, they're definitely not as detailed as the thumbnails and work sketches I've seen some guys do before they hit the final illustration. I pencil and then paint onto 2-ply plate Bristol, which is basically your standard comic paper, but I buy Strathmore 500 by the sheet and then cut it down to the size I need. Most watercolor guys don't use plate surfaces, I should really be using paper with a rougher surface with more tooth to catch the watercolor, but I prefer to ink using Rapidograph technical pens, and rough surface papers tend to catch the ink nibs and can ruin the really fine points making inking a real pain in the ass. But then, I also paint first and then ink second, which I think runs counter to a lot of other watercolorists; Michael Kaluta, for example, who's one of the best watercolorists in comics, inks his lines first and then sprays his pages with a workable fixative to fix the ink and then paints on top of the inks; I tried it that way and couldn't get it to work very well, so I went back to painting first and then inking on top of the paints. So basically from a technical perspective I'm a hack. I paint using watercolor and gouache (all from tubes, mostly Winsor & Newton, Sennelier, and Old Holland) using a bunch of different sable brushes, will lay down frisket (liquid mask) before hand for highlights, and use some colored pencil for details and effects and some colored inks (Dr. Martin's, mostly). I use the Wilcox Guide when picking out watercolors to use.
BB: I've always wondered, why did you chose to do Artesia as a comic rather than as a prose novel? Is there something about the concept that lends itself particularly to the graphic narrative format, or is this more indicative of your own personal interests and inclinations? I ask, because for a number of years now big, epic fantasy series have been quite popular with both publishers and readers in the traditional bookstore market, while that's not necessarily been the case in comics.
MS: Working a huge, epic storyline into 24-page chunks is extraordinarily difficult, as is asking readers to maintain their focus on such a complex story over so long a time (given that it takes a year plus of work to complete a single 6-issue series). In fact, the best form for Artesia as a comic is really the collected graphic novel, where you can have the full series story arc presented all at once to digest. But even though it might make more sense to do Artesia as a prose novel, I'm too visually oriented as a person to work well just with words. I'm fascinated by the visual elements of the story - armor and architecture, in effect - and that does make sense to present in a graphic rather than prose format, and panoramic vistas and huge formations of men may perhaps work best in a visual, visceral medium like comics or film. Though that does raise the question of why fantasy has never been that popular a genre in the comics marketplace, aside from the occasional title like Conan, given that as a medium it seems to be so well suited to convey the magic of fantasy settings and characters.
BB: What do you hope readers get from your work, generally, and from Artesia, specifically?
MS: Haven't a clue. I have no idea why anybody would want to read Artesia, as it seems too idiosyncratic to have a wide audience (though that might also explain my sales figures). I mean, in addition to the complexity of the plot and the setting, the book includes graphic violence, full frontal male and female nudity, and strong sexual content that pushes the envelope for a Mature Readers label - and while that might seem like a plug, I actually think that when those kinds of things are presented in an adult and realistic fashion (and not, say, in an exploitative or comical one) that they tend to make readers uncomfortable, and that for the last few years there's been an emphasis on 'wholesome, all-Ages' fare in the industry (perhaps despite or because of things like the Marvel Max line). Almost everything in Artesia is meant to be - how can I put this? - "subtly confrontational," if that makes any sense, so I'm always surprised when people besides myself seem to like it.
BB: What do you, both personally and as an artist-writer, get from creating Artesia?
MS: Well, I guess what I'm doing first and foremost with Artesia is writing and drawing the kind of comic book that I always wanted to find but have only rarely stumbled across: a serious attempt at a fantasy comic. It's an adult comic book - it always amazes me how the word 'adult' has taken on such a pejorative and pornographic meaning, though in the case of Artesia I will fully admit that the strong sexual content in the book does perhaps warrant that connotation - mostly in the sense that it's written with adult concerns (religion, death, politics, war, identity, ambition) and adult readers in mind. I've known a lot of people that will say they "used to read comics" or they "used to read fantasy" or they "used to play role-playing games," but have abandoned those genres and pursuits as they got older because they thought they were childish or adolescent things to be involved with or because they ceased to find anything in those genres and mediums that resonated with their adult selves. I think that's often because of the lack of consequences in most comics books (Superman's dead! No, wait! He's alive!), which tend to be written as zero-sum books so that no matter what happens you always wind up returning to the status quo by the end, and I wanted, as an adult reader, to read a fantasy comic that was true to the genre and took the genre seriously but that avoided the narrative pitfalls that undermine comics as a serious form of literature. I have no idea if that's what I'm actually producing, but it's been quite enjoyable to at least try, and of course it lets me write off most of my hobbies as business expenses, which is a neat plus.
BB: Anything you'd like to add?
MS: Well, let's see, more information about Artesia, the Known World, and the story so far can be found at www.artesiaonline.com. There's a lot of graphics on the site, including freelance illustrations I've done for companies like Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf, so approach with patience if you have a slow browser.
Should you be interested in buying them, issues from the series and the trade paperback collections of the first two series can be ordered through your local comic book stores from Diamond, FM International, and Cold Cut Comics Distribution, and links to some online sites can be found at the ASP website www.archaiasp.com.
The final issue of the Artesia Afire series appeared in stores on March 17, and the trade compilation of the series will be out fairly soon, and Artesia Annual #3 will be coming out June with a couple of short stories and an extensive History of the Known World (including a big timeline). I'm working on a Fuzion-based RPG for the Known World setting that is tentatively scheduled for an October release, and hopefully the end of the year will see the first issues of the next Artesia series, Artesia Besieged, making for another busy year in which, alas, I won't get out much.
For a further taste of the exotic and alluring Artesia, both the series and the character, head on over to Mark Smylie's home on the web at www.artesiaonline.com.
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