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 07/21/2004
Blood, Sweat and Iron
Mike Malbrough on Fire Proves Iron: Grounded Stars
I was first introduced to Mike and Page Malbrough a few years back at the Pittsburgh Comic Con by J. C. Vaughn [and, yes, for those who might be wondering, the very same J. C. Vaughn who created and writes the intermittent and very fine McCandles and Company mysteries]. I had only a few moments to glance through Mike's portfolio, but was convinced by what I'd glimpsed, albeit it briefly, that here was a young artist who not only had the basic chops down pat and knew how to use them, but one who also seemed to really "get it" in a palpable sense. That inkling was only reinforced later that night when the Malbroughs and I ended up sitting next to each other during dinner, leading to a wonderfully rich and wide-ranging conversation.
In the ensuing years, my first impression of Mike and his work have only been bolstered by the work he's shown me. And, apparently, I'm not the only one who's gotten that same good impression from Mike's samples; I've heard Mr. Malbrough's name being linked with several forthcoming projects since then.
In spite of all that, I was still a bit surprised when I learned about his and Page's original graphic novel project, Fire Proves Iron, earlier this year. Not that I didn't know in my bones that he would be doing one eventually--I just hadn't expected it to happen so soon. And the addition of Page's name only added pleasantly to my surprise, since when we'd last spoken on the topic of her writing and I'd asked her about the possibility of seeing some comic scripts by her in the future, Page essentially said that, while she enjoyed reading them, she really preferred writing poetry to creating comics.
Now, I knew they both were good at what they do, but even that foreknowledge little prepared me for what they put in my hands during this year's edition of the Pittsburgh Con. That graphic novel, Fire Proves Iron: Gounded Stars, is not only an excellent comic, it also demonstrates a maturity and command of the medium that belies the collective age of all the creators combined. It is, of course, well drawn and solidly scripted. However, that's just scratching the surface. On deeper reading, it becomes readily apparent that this work doesn't just borrow a number of well-used tropes from science fiction, fantasy and a variety of other genres, but vigorously reinvents them before applying them in new and interesting ways to create a world and characters that, while often quite alien, clearly operate according to an internally consistent system of laws and logic...which only heightens that universe's sense of reality, making Fire Proves Iron: Gounded Stars quite believable and totally engrossing.
Not too shabby for a freshman effort, if you ask me.
Bill Baker: How would you describe Fire Proves Iron?
Mike Malbrough: Fire Proves Iron: Grounded Stars follows Rex Creedon through his average life in New Promise City, an awkward megalopolis of fantastical industry and exhausting oppression, on his way to becoming a revolutionary hero. As with all other Precarians, or "skimps", Rex is held down in servitude by the Mechans, an evolved breed of Precarians composed of mineral and machine as much as man. Grounded Stars explores how the mysterious and the unknown can lure one out of automation into whatever lies beyond, regardless of the cost. Rex doesn't want to be a hero. But he wants his life to be something other than it is.
Widening the lens to view the entire saga, without giving too much away, Fire Proves Iron is a tale of reclamation, reconciliation, and the costs of such ends.
BB: What can you tell us about the main characters, the world do they inhabit, and what's going on there?
MM: The story mainly centers around two characters. Rex, a young laborer in the Mechan City of New Promise, who goes through the growing pains of heroism and leadership, while Madeline, a Precarian girl forced to become part Mechan by a horrible accident, searches for an escape from her duality as the Precarians and Mechans set the stage for a divisive confrontation.
As Fire Proves Iron unfolds, the scope will broaden. Outside of New Promise City is a twisted landscape of bizarre danger and wonder that awaits the Precarian heroes, and the readers, should they ever escape their prison of industry. One of the things we are really excited about is an area in development on our website dedicated to elaborating on the world of Fire Proves Iron. A place where a reader can explore New Promise City by means of an interactive topographical map, search through Mechan and Precarian historical archives, or ask questions pertaining to the world behind the story.
BB: One of the things that struck me about this book is its organic nature. The world of Fire Proves Iron is very strange and alien, yet somehow still eerily familiar and naturally inhabited, and it's all presented without too much of a reliance on the typical "history lecture" or heavy use of exposition. Was that something that you all worked hard to create, or is it perhaps just one of those happy accidents which occur when a creative team is hitting on all cylinders?
MM: We definitely made an effort to trust our audience and ourselves. One of the great things to me about stories, and specifically Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, is that they have the potential to draw you in and have a conversation with you about something, to explore with the reader and to go on a journey. I think that you hit the nail on the head. That "history lecture" jargon, key word being lecture, is usually way too heavy handed, and keeps the reader at arms length. How can the reader identify with a character struggling to do the right thing, when they see the entire order of the cosmos?
BB: So what provided the seed idea that grew into this tale, how did it evolve into the present volume, and what was that journey like; how much did the original impulse get changed, and why, and how did that process work?
MM: Fire Proves Iron stems from volumes of notes I had about this grand story I was going to write. I just compiled it over time. Pieces of failed stories resurrected and worked into something new, kind of like a rubber band ball. During that time I met my wife Page, a poet by trade, who patiently dealt with all of my rambling ideas at the dinner table, midnight brainstorms, and all of the depression and frustration that followed when I couldn't write the darn thing. Finally, in desperation, I begged her to take everything I had and make it hers, to make it work. That's how Fire Proves Iron started. Page at the time wasn't a comic book reader, so it really kept things fresh in a way that we really cherished, and now strive to honor as we move forward with the project.
BB: A lot of couples might have ended up hating each other, if they didn't outright kill their spouse, trying to work this closely together. So I gotta ask--how did you two manage to not only pull it off so well, but remain the "couple that's so happy it's almost sickening"? Or, put another way, was it all fun and games, or were there some real disputes and differences of opinion on some aspects of the project? And how'd you decide what route to take?
MM: Well, we must be better actors than we thought. Just kidding. We definitely had our rough spots, mostly involving me blabbing out ideas a mile-a-minute until Page thought her head would explode. Constant effort is pout to making sure that FPI isn't the only thing we ever talk about or do together. Working a day gig, and only having evenings and weekends together is hard enough, throw a graphic novel series on top of that, and you have to be purposeful about your down time.
BB: How'd G. W. Fisher get involved, and what particular skills or knowledge did he bring to the table that made him the perfect man to do the finishes?
MM: We met G.W. through a company that was originally going to publish Fire Proves Iron before we decided to do it ourselves. He and a bunch of other really cool people jumped on board with us to help get this engine moving.
G.W. is a wonderful inker. Reliable and open-minded. He's always after you to critique his work, and really makes an effort to represent the penciled work, by taking suggestions and asking questions, and checking the ego at the door. He's also fast and consistent and pushes me because I tend to brood over a page. Also, with me doing the final graytones on the book, it was a blessing to have G.W. on board because he was not opposed to me making corrections, completely changing panels or making last minute decisions about the work. He's all about the final result. He's the best.
BB: Perhaps the only frustrating aspect of the book, for me personally, was the simple fact that this is but the first volume of a longer tale. So how long is this particular story...and when are we going to be seeing the next installment?
MM: We have it written as nine books split into three arcs. Our goal is to make each book stand on its own as much as possible, much more like a film from a trilogy, like Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, than an out and out cliffhanger. It is harder, of course, with the first book, because it is all new to the reader.
Book Two will be finished by early spring 2005, and we want to close out the first arc that fall.
BB: What do you hope that Fire Proves Iron gives readers generally? Might it also provide them with some things that they might not necessarily get from other titles at present? I ask, because I got the impression, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that ultimately you're all hoping to provide perhaps more than sheer entertainment with this project?
MM: Very true. I think that what most, if not all, storytellers want is a dialogue, or a relationship with their audience. As we are just getting off the ground, it's very important to us that we respect the readership. We are happy to occupy the place made available in the industry. Creating this saga, and making it available on a large scale is us doing our part to support an art form that we both have come to love and want to see grow.
BB: What do you get from doing this kind of work, personally and professionally?
MM: Wow. It's been remarkable. Personally, anytime you can share in something with those closest to you, the world is alright, and being able to team up with the "wifey" has been wonderful. Professionally, I encourage anyone interested in working in comics to self-publish at least once, because there is a lot to learn.
BB: Anything else you'd like to add?
MM: We welcome everyone to visit www.FireProvesIron.com to find out more about the book, and to let us know what you think. We encourage retailers and readers who might be interested in picking up Fire Proves Iron: Grounded Stars to find us in the July Previews on page 286, Order # JUL042927 F
I will be debuting the final edition of Grounded Stars at Wizard World Chicago in August. And Page and I will be in attendance at both the Baltimore Comicon and SPX in the fall.
We are also interested in hearing from retailers about any ideas they might have about getting our book onto and then off of their shelves. Our commitment doesn't stop with our Diamond orders. If a retailer supports us, I want to support them with specific incentives for their needs. We feel that FPI has the potential to draw new readers to the art form, and we are ready to do what it takes. Page and I can be contacted through our website.
And lastly, in about 9 months there will be a new little edition to this Malbrough family production, who I intend to teach digital prepress before he or she can walk.
Thanks for the support.
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