Note: Last week, we began an interview with Mark Smylie, writer and artist on ARTESIA and its spin-offs ARTESIA ANNUAL VOLUME 1, ARTESIA AFIELD and the forthcoming ARTESIA ANNUAL VOLUME 2. At this year’s San Diego Comicon, which starts today (July 19), he’s up for an Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition.For last week’s interview, click here.
Getting to work with ‘Artesia’
Part two of a lengthy Q&A with Mark Smylie
Comics on the Brain: What can you tell us about Artesia’s bloodline and how those around her are connected to her?
Mark Smylie: Well, that’s part of the story, really, so I don’t know how much I can say. She’s the daughter of a woman who was burned at the stake as a witch in the Middle Kingdoms, in this place called An-Athair, and she ran away from home into the Highlands soon afterwards. As she burned at the stake, her mother cursed her father – or at least the man she thinks was her father – with madness, and indeed he eventually went mad and wandered off into the Erid Wood and hasn’t been seen since. But the true identity of her father is something she’s going to discover later, as well as some things about her mother that she didn’t know.
COTB: What do you have the most trouble drawing?
MS: Just about everything. I think of myself as a hack artist, in comparison with most painters who work in this industry.
COTB: When and where do you usually work? What sort of things do you have sitting on your drawing desk?
MS: My drawing tables don’t have anything on them, except for some paint trays; I’ve got one of those movable carts to handle most of my paints and art supplies. I’m surrounded by books, mostly, though I’ve also got a small selection of visual aides: some six-inch high models of European arms and armor made by a Japanese company, some horse models, a reproduction bascinet helmet, two swords (a two-hander and a hand-and-a-half war sword) and an axe.
COTB: Out of all the panels you’ve illustrated in the ARTESIA line, what’s your favorite?
MS: Hmm, that’s a toughie; actually, it might be the top panel in Artesia Afield 4, page 9, where she’s kind of hoisted on the shoulders of some of the Blackhearts Highlanders, kind of crowd-surfing. I thought it turned out well, and kind of crystallized this tension of both her as a commander and a woman sdealing with an army and bunch of men.
Mark Smylie is modeling Robert E. Howard
COTB: What are your goals as a writer?
MS: I don’t know at this point, my only goal is to finish the story. In my mind, I’ve got this idea of Artesia’s saga as a 22-series story, describing the whole arc of her life, with my model Robert Howard’s Conan saga. I think it would be quite something if I can pull it off, but given the nature of the comics business, I’m not even sure I’ll be able to get the next few series to come out, let alone another 20.
COTB: Will Artesia always be at war? Will she ever be at peace?
MS: Well, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. I mean, not every part of the story is going to directly involve war, that would get tedious pretty quickly, I think, but Artesia is a warrior and her story is a war story. It really is meant to be a war comic, albeit a fantasy war comic.
COTB: Have you ever drawn Artesia smiling? It seems strange to ask, but I don’t think she ever has.
MS: [laughing] Oh, I don’t know, I’ve drawn her smiling before; though there are few genuine smiles from her, that’s probably true. In fact, almost none, probably, since the ‘harem’ scene in the first issue; since then, all her smiles probably have a rueful or feral quality to them that prevents them from being genuine, being from joy or sheer happiness.
COTB: How important are the supporting characters to your stories? Could Artesia ever have a solo adventure?
MS: Since it’s a war story, I tend to think of the company as being central to the story, both in terms of the actual narrative and in terms of the style of the book. I mean, it’s not exactly SGT. ROCK AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS but war stories are almost by definition about masses of people; wars are fought by groups, nations, whole cultures. I find something peculiar about solo heroes in comics; I guess there are a few of the world’s mythological heroes who operated by themselves, but I tend to think normal human instinct is for companionship.
Odysseus comes to mind, but his solitude is in effect a curse, brought upon himself by his own actions, and he spends the whole of ‘The Odyssey’ trying to reunite himself with his community. The story of Artesia is more like ‘The Illiad’ (probably why I like Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze so much), though there will be several Odyssey-like moments in it when Artesia will be off doing her own thing for a while.
Mark Smylie on Drawing Armor
COTB: Is drawing all that armor hard? When you draw a figure, how do you determine how the armor twists and turns?
MS: Yes, it can be hard to draw a lot of armor; in fact, normally it takes me two afternoons to finish painting and inking a page, but if there are a lot of figures with armor then it’ll take three.
To some extent the twists and turns of armor in motion are just guess-work on my part; a number of the books I have include shots of posed suits, or actual folks in motion wearing actual suits, but a lot of it is just studied extrapolation – trying to understand how the pieces of armor connect to each other, and how they would look with an arm raised, etc.
I know enough to know that I get some of the details wrong, so one day I hope to have enough money to have someone custom make a suit of Artesia’s armor (if I can find the model to go in it, that is).
COTB: What’s the art process like?
MS: I’ll usually have worked out all the dialogue and thumb-nailed the entire issue before sitting down to start work. I’ll pencil in the evenings, and then start painting the pages in the afternoons as soon as they’re ready, so that the issue sort of appears slowly over the course of the two months.
I know some folks like to go and pencil an entire issue first before inking or painting it, but I tend to trust my thumbnails to have gotten the flow of the narrative down, and since I don’t like to paint in the evenings it makes more sense to do it this way for me. I put down the watercolors directly onto the pencils, then finish it off with colored pencil and gel pens for detail work and ink for the lines. The dialogue I print out and then cut-and-paste directly onto the page.
COTB: What do you do to unwind after a day or work? What are your hobbies?
MS: Hobbies? Once I was talking to Michael Kaluta and asking him about techniques and work patterns and he asked me if I had time for a social life and I said “Social life? What social life?” and we spent a few moments commiserating.
In a sense, drawing a comic is my hobby, so I don’t really feel the need to unwind after work the way I remember feeling the need for that after nine-to-five jobs.
I’ll try and make time to get some reading in every now and then or a film, and I enjoy cooking (which is a good thing, since I can’t really afford to be eating out a lot; some friends and I occasionally throw dinner parties, we’ve done five-course meals for as many as 18). When I have the money and some free time I pop into Manhattan or Brooklyn to go eat or go drinkin
g to catch u
p with my friends.
COTB: Why was issue No. 5 of “ARTESIA AFIELD” so late?
MS: Afield 5 and 6 ran late simply because I got thrown off my schedule. Conventions are the main culprit, actually; I forgot to factor them in when we were planning out the production schedule on the series. I tried to time it so that I’d be finishing up Afield 6 in December 2000, the month it was solicited, so that it might cutting it close, but we had wanted to have the first issue in time for the start of the summer conventions.
I forgot that a convention, including travel and down time, can take a week out of my work schedule, so all I needed was a few of those and suddenly I was a month behind where I should have been. AFIELD 6 was finally finished in mid-February; I don’t know why it took until the end of March to get into stores, the production process there seemed to go a little slower than usual.
COTB: What’s your relationship with Sirius, your publisher, like? Is “Artesia” work-for-hire or is it creator owned? What services does Sirius provide you?
MS: My contract with Sirius lies somewhere between work-for-hire and creator-owned. It’s essentially a creator-owned project, and I have full editorial control and get paid based on royalties, but Sirius and I share any licensing and development deals.
Sirius handles advertising and promoting the book, convention appearances (so far; they’ve cut down on their convention appearances this year, so I’ll be striking out on my own to a couple), the graphic design and preprinting work (done with Mark McNabb at McNabb Studios), and the actual printing and distribution of the book. Basically they handle everything else, so I can spend all my time writing and drawing.
COTB: Tell me about Web site, www.daradja.com
MS: I would have used ‘artesia.com’ or .net or .org, but it turns out there are at least two towns in America called Artesia so almost all the ‘artesia’ site names I could think of were already taken. The site was designed by Wendy Wellington and Lisa Webster, and it’s got the beginnings of an Atlas provided by Karl Bilawski, a reader who started putting his own Atlas of the Known World together after reading the first series. Lisa runs her own fan site, as well, Artesia Resources at www.angelfire.com/ar2/artesia, which is how I met her and her husband Tim.
COTB: Magic is an important part of Artesia’s story. What sort of reaction have you gotten to the way she uses it, in particular, sex magic and necromancy?
MS: Actually, there hasn’t been any specific reaction to the way she uses magic. Readers have written in with generally positive reactions to the portrayal of magic and quasi-pagan religion in the series overall, but I can’t recall anyone taking issue with her use of magic that revolves around sex or the manipulation of the dead. The most controversial thing so far seems to have been aspects of her costume (e.g., the seeming lack of undergarments under her plate harness in the first issue).
COTB: Do you consider ‘Artesia” a risqué comic book?
MS: I suppose; I mean, it’s clearly aimed at a mature or adult audience, though I would seek to avoid it ever having the ‘adults only’ label, which seems to be associated only with pornography in this industry. But the story is meant to subtly push the boundaries of what people expect in a fantasy series.
I don’t mean simply by including sex and violence, which could actually be considered fairly standard at some level, but rather by treating subject matters that people might not expect in a fantasy comic — subjects like ambition, grief, guilt — and doing it hopefully in a critical and adult fashion. For the current comics scene (that) might make it risqué.
COTB: There’s some nudity in your stories. How do you decide when to use it and how much is too much?
MS: Well, as a general rule of thumb I tend to figure that if people would be naked in a situation in real life, then they should be naked in that situation in the comic — particularly given that some of the cultures of the Known World are much more comfortable with nudity than our own slightly confused view on nudity and sexual matters.
Someone once commented about scenes in films and TV when two people finish having sex in a bed (almost always under the sheets) and then one of them will get up to go to the bathroom or answer the phone and they always wrap a sheet around themselves before they get up, so they’re never actually naked in front of the camera; it’s simply unrealistic. It’s an oddly hypocritical and deceitful moment, to me; in comics, the recent parallel seems to be shower scenes with female characters where the naughty bits are conveniently obscured by steam, which to me just comes across as an adolescent tease.
Men and women are sometimes naked, that’s just a fact of life, and I tend to think that the body and sex are joyful things to be celebrated, not be ashamed of. But I do realize that the industry, because it is so often perceived as a children’s medium, has some special problems, so I’ve tried to work with Diamond whenever there were going to be scenes of nudity or sexuality. I knew the sex scene in Artesia Afield 1 would be problematic, for example, so I had the folks at Sirius send Diamond the thumbnails of the scene and we went over panel by panel what would be considered ‘adult’ versus what would be considered ‘mature readers,’ and the scene wound up a bit toned down from what it was originally.
Mark Smylie on Spirits
COTB: What are your thoughts on ghostly visions in the real world?
MS: I’m not sure. I’ve never had one myself, nor can I recall ever having spoken to anyone personally who has ever claimed to have had one. But I’m reasonably familiar with the long history of supernatural and paranormal experiences, and try to be open minded about such stuff.
COTB: Judging from your extensive notes in each issue, it seems like you’ve got a lot of stories to tell. Do you think you could work on Artesia for the forseeable future?
MS: I think of Artesia’s story as a life-long project, actually; I really do intend to put out a total of 22 series, and I figured out it’ll take me another 30 years or so to do it. As I’ve said to other folks before, I know that sounds crazy, but I guess I’ve found enough in her story and her world that the story arc as I’ve got it in my head now seems to make sense, and I kind of like the idea of doing one big piece of work. And yes, I’m a fan of ‘Cerebus.’
MS: Yes, actually, part of the reason for doing the Annuals – one Annual is supposed to follow every series – was to create a place where some smaller stories involving other characters could be showcased. There are a few other characters that I’d kind of like to do entire series based on, particularly her brother Stjepan; I’d love to do a kind of spy-adventure series based around him,following court intrigue in the Middle K
ingdoms and its Universities, sort of a ‘Name of the Rose’ meets ‘Flashman’ or something.
I’m also beginning work on an Artesia D20 supplement, a world book that would be adapted to the new edition of D&D put out by Wizards of the Coast. I think having the Known World available as an rpg setting would be interesting, allowing readers to create parallel stories as Artesia’s saga unfolds over the rest of the series. Rpgs present an interesting opportunity, allowing readers to actually participate in a world and a story, and it seems a natural extension of a fantasy setting.
COTB: Is the paperback for the first ARTESIA series still available? How can we get it?
MS: Yes, the trade paperback of ARTESIA is still available; in theory, you can have any comic book store order it through Diamond, it should still be available on backlist, though of course that seems to be easier said than done. The book can actually be ordered online through sites like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (www.bn.com), and Sirius just set up a new website, www.cosmictherapy.com, through which Artesia items can be ordered.
COTB: The design of your covers changed between your annual and ARTESIA AFIELD. What was the reasoning for that?
MS: Well, I decided I wanted every series to have a specific look, a visual motif that would tie all the covers together, and as I was laying out some of the first covers the idea of black borders cropping the backgrounds behind the foregrounded figure of Artesia came to mind – kind of letter-boxing the backgrounds to help the key figure leap out at the reader. For the next series I think I’m going to do a sort of superimposed circle on the front covers.
COTB: What comics would you say are your competitors? What do you think of them?
MS: Actually, it seems as though there aren’t that many pure fantasy books out there right now. Dave Napoliello over at Peregrine comes to mind as a consistent publisher of good fantasy work, in the ‘Books of Lore’ series that he does with Kevin Tucker and Phil Xavier, and there’s also Mark Oakley’s THIEVES AND KINGS, which is one of my favorite books. But of course THIEVES AND KINGS is also much more oriented towards a younger audience, like Linda Medley’s CASTLE WAITING or now classic works like BONE and USAGI YOJIMBO.
I think that’s always been the trend in fantasy comics, towards a kind of all-ages book with an emphasis on humor. Kenzer & Co. was putting out AVELON, which I miss, and now has its D&D comic out, but those books also represent more of a gaming-oriented comic, written around the adventuring party concept.
WARLANDS might be the only other fantasy war comic out there, though I tend to think it’s operating in much more traditional fantasy terrain than my own book; oh, and I just stumbled across CrossGen’s SCION, which I’ll have to track down more issues of to figure out what kind of story it actually is.
RED STAR oddly comes to mind as book operating in the same vein as Artesia, though it’s a science fiction/science fantasy war comic.
COTB: Have you been offered any work for the more commercial publishers since the first ARTESIA?
MS: No, not really. I haven’t sought anything out, and the only folks that have approached me about work have been collectible card game companies. I’ve avoided looking for freelance work before now, largely because of time constraints, but I hope to begin hooking up some freelance work for gaming companies in the near future, partly for the money but largely just to help introduce my art, and hopefully the comic, to the gaming audience.
COTB: What conventions are you planning to go to this year?
MS: I’ll definitely be attending the San Diego Comic-Con International, the Wizard show in Chicago, Dragon*Con down in Atlanta, and the New York National. I’m also looking into maybe going to the Toronto Comic Book Expo, and a buddy of mine up in Boston has been trying to get me to do a Boston area con and someone just sent me some info about a Boston con in October, so those might also be possibilities. I was going to try to do the gaming show GenCon, but it’ll be too expensive to go as an exhibitor, so I’ll probably just go there to walk around with my portfolio and talk to art directors.
COTB: When’s the next ARTESIA series due? What will it be about?
MS: We’re aiming for sometime next spring, at the moment I’d say March or April.
I’ll start work on it as soon as I’m finished with the second Annual, which is almost done and will be out in September, but to avoid the lateness problem that happened with the last series I don’t want to even begin the solicitation process until the first three issues are in the can.
The next series will follow Artesia and her company deeper into the war with the Thessid Empire; she’ll meet the High King and probably encounter the Sultan, so most of the major players in her story will finally be introduced. But the series will be about Artesia beginning to come into her own as a Queen, a captain, and a magician; hence the title, ‘Artesia Afire.’ I want there to be a really ripe, edgy quality to the series, as though she’s overreaching herself.
COTB: Anything else to say, mention, or plug?
MS: [laughing] Actually I hope at this point we’ve covered it all. Thanks for your interest in ARTESIA