Part one of a lengthy Q&A with
Mark Smylie, artist and writer of the “Artesia” comic
Mark Smylie is the artist and writer for the various ARTESIA comics, including Artesia Annual Volume 2 which is available for order this month in PREVIEWS Page 298.
The Artesia comic is about a raven-haired witch who commands an army in a fantasy epic of surprising subtlety. This interview was conducted via e-mail.
Mark Smylie on Mark Smylie: I grew up in New Jersey, where I still live. I went to Columbia College in New York City for four years, but didn’t graduate (I blew off some of the required classes and decided against going back for another semester). I’m 33, which I guess is a bit on the old side to be a comic industry newcomer; I was nominated for the Russ Manning award for Best Newcomer in 1999 for the first series, and this year was nominated for an Eisner for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. ARTESIA is a full-time job, though I’m going to be looking into picking up some freelance work in the future to supplement my income. I work at home, where I’ve got a studio and library set up. The second Annual will be solicited for September; the trade of Artesia Afield will hopefully be set for January 2002, with the next series, ARTESIA AFIRE, out that spring.
Comics on the Brain: ARTESIA is a beautiful comic. It’s art, coloring and figure work is fantastic. Where and how did you develop your style?
Mark Smylie: Thanks! I don’t know if I can pinpoint where or how I developed the look of my art; I mean, on a certain level I’ve always drawn that way. I started working with watercolor and colored pencil for the first time in a long time when I started work on this book, so I sat down and tried to figure out how other artists did their work and experimenting with different paints and brushes and pencils. The first issue or two of the first series was mostly colored pencil work with some light washes on top, but as I got more comfortable working with watercolor, and now gouache, those mediums have moved to the fore.
COTB: Did you go to college? Where?
MS: I went to Columbia, in New York, though I never graduated. I was an English major, so I didn’t study art, except for some art history classes. Actually know that I think about it I did take a couple of drawing classes, but for a school in New York City, Columbia doesn’t really have much of a fine arts program, at least not for undergrads. I was pretty lucky to have a good arts program at my high school, so I’d already studied oil painting, etching and printmaking, and sculpture.
COTB: What other comic-book related work have you done?
MS: None that’s been published, except for a few guest spots on covers or back covers for friends of mine (back covers for AKIKO and EMPTY ZONE, cover for AVELON). Back in ’90, ’91 or so, soon after I left Columbia, I tried my hand at a kind of post-punk, post-apocalyptic comic that was kind of a cross between LOVE AND ROCKETS and THE ROAD WARRIOR, but I didn’t get any bites when I shopped it around to a few companies. It was black and white line work, very earnest; some of it was okay, but some of it is just embarrassing now.
The world of Artesia was created by Mark Smylie after a friend suggested he develop a role-playing game.
COTB: What was the genesis of the ARTESIA comic? What inspired you to create her and her story? Who is this book aimed at? Who are the people that have responded well to ARTESIA and its sequel, ARTESIA AFIELD?
MS: ARTESIA actually grew out of a role-playing game. A friend of mine was working for an rpg company and suggested I put together a world setting that we could pitch to the company, so I started work on what became the ‘Known World.’ But he left the company before it was presentable, and it just kind of percolated for a bit. I’d always hoped that an rpg would lead to stuff like fiction and comic books using the setting, so I just reversed it, and started work on the comic first. In a sense, I guess you could say the book is still aimed at a gaming audience; or at least, I figure that gamers and fantasy fans will be the folks who respond to it the best, and that seems to be the case, judging from the letters I get and the readers I meet at cons. A lot of them are either gamers or ex-gamers.
Have you gotten any really weird letters, such as “I read ARTESIA and realized I’m the reincarnation of her”?
MS: Gods be praised, no, not yet.
COTB: From your art style, It’s hard to tell whether you’re a comic-book fan, simply because you deal with such a different subject matter. Are you a comics fan? What sort of comics do you read? What ones do you remember fondly as a kid?
MS: Actually, that’s kind of a tough one to answer. When I was in my teens, I think I qualified much more as a comics fan than I do now; I was reading books like X-MEN and TEEN TITANS, MOON KNIGHT (where Bill Sienkiewicz was just starting) and DAREDEVIL (with Miller’s first work), and I followed the collector’s market. But by the time I left high school I was barely reading anymore; CEREBUS, LOVE AND ROCKETS and the TANK GIRL strips running in Deadline were the only things I read during college, I think; oh, and stuff like ‘THE WATCHMEN and V FOR VENDETTA. THE WATCHMEN kind of closed the book on the superhero genre for me; I still read some mainstream stuff every now and then, but it’s mostly just to look at the art, stuff like Alex Ross books, and I’ve certainly ceased to be a collector.
Nowadays I’m more interested in genre work, with HELLBLAZER and 100 BULLETS being the closest I get to mainstream superhero books. Right now my favorite books are things like AGE OF BRONZE, THIEVES AND KINGS, European stuff like Frezzato’s KEEPERS OF THE MAZE and Dufaux and Marini’s RAPTORS and Serpieri’s DRUUNA Oh, and anything with Hellboy in it, Mike Mignola’s brilliant. But oddly I don’t think of HELLBOY as a superhero book.
COTB: Who do most people compare your art style to? Who do you think you most resemble? Do you have any artists, from comics or otherwise, that you look up to?
MS: Most people look at it and go ‘Oh, it’s very European.’ Which I guess makes sense, since right now it’s mostly European artists that I look at. When I was growing up I looked at artists like Barry Windsor-Smith and Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller; they’re still the core of my favorite artists, but I’ve added a lot of mostly European artists to the list like Enki Bilal, Serpieri, and Frezzato who have a kind of realistic comic painting style that I like and try to emulate; then there’s folks like Alex Ross, Ray Lago, Joe Linsner, David Mack, Dan Brereton, and Mignola, who’s probably the one non-painter whose work I constantly study. There are non-comics painters like Luis Royo, Brom, and PhilHale I like a lot, and I also tend to look at a lot of Victorian and Symbolist painters and illustrators, like Alma-Tadema, Leighton, Waterhouse, Klimt, Mucha, Sargent, Burne-Jones, and Parrish, or even pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren or commercial illustrators like Andrew Loomis, but of course most of them worked in oil, rather than watercolor, so I can’t really take any techniques directly from
more a question of trying to capture a feel or a sense of style.
Artesia comic shows a warrior for the ages
COTB: Looking at your two books, ARTESIA and ARTESIA: AFIELD it seems that you must do a lot of research on arms and armor of the middle ages. Can you recommend any good reference books? Which are your favorites?
MS: I’ve got about around 30 books on arms and armor that I use, not including about a dozen or so of the Osprey Men-at-Arms books (which are really handy, actually; I’m a big fan of Angus McBride, who paints a number of the Osprey books). My current favorites are ‘The Medieval Soldier: 15th Century Campaign Life Recreated in Colour Photographs’ by Gerry Embleton and John Howe; ‘Arms and Armor in the Art Institute of Chicago;’ ‘Arms and Armor’ by Stephen Fliegel; ‘Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and His Contemporaries;’ and a new one I just got, ‘Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction: the 14th Century,’ by Brian Price, which is really fascinating and has some great close-up pics, though mostly of modern reproduction pieces, some of which are quite good.
COTB: A lot of your main characters have very individual looks to them. Do you have any character reference illustrations? Are any of your Artesia comic characters based on someone in real life? Can we see pictures?
MS: Thanks; I tend to think that differentiating lots of different characters is actually one of my weaker aspects as an artist. I have lots of figure reference books, but I don’t tend to use anything for characters, i.e., faces. And no, none of them are really based on anyone in real life, though one of my ex-girlfriends looks a bit like Artesia. It’s just a coincidence, though (ahem).
Reference material for the Artesia comic
COTB: Do you use any sort of magic or medieval reference books for your writing? Can talk you about the ones you found most useful?
MS: Yeah, I have a lot of books on magic and ancient religion and mythology. Joseph Campbell, Marija Gimbutas, and Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ (I lucked out and found the 12-volume set at a library sale) act as a kind of base; then any number of authors depending on subject. Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Walter Burkert to begin with on the ancient Greeks; Christopher Faraone and Fritz Graf to start on Greek magical practice; Jung on alchemy. There’s a lot of primary source material available, too: Agrippa’s medieval ‘Three Books of Occult Philosophy’ is the touchstone for virtually all magical writing since, and Greek, Coptic, and other medieval writings besidesAgrippa are pretty easy to get. Right now for ‘style’ I’ve got Roberto Calasso’s ‘Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’ in the back of my mind.
COTB: Are you basing your cosmology off any other religions, such as Wicca or a Celtic religion?
MS:: Not so much Wicca, though I’ve got a few books on it. There’s definitely a large Celtic influence, both on the cosmology (the Wild Hunt, the Horned God animal-keeper, the triple goddess of War) and on the story (Bran’s head on a stick is inspired by the Welsh tales in the Mabinogion, for instance). In fact, in some ways Artesia is herself inspired by the brief appearances of Queen Medb (or Maeve), who always ‘kept one lover in the shadow of another,’ in the Irish Celtic tales about Cuchulainn.
COTB: Those floating serpent ladies that hove above battles are pretty creepy. What can you tell me about them? Where did you get the idea for them?
To create an entire world, Smylie also created a pantheon of gods, including these goddesses of war.
MS: Those floating serpent ladies are the Gorgonae, the three goddesses of War — Mogran, the Riot Goddess, who inspires terror and confusion; Halé, the Goddess of Slaughter, who inspires rage and berserker fury, and who is kind of a proto-Hathhalla, the lion-headed Sun Goddess of vengeance; and Médüre, the Cunning One, the goddess of warlike skill and valor.
They’re essentially modeled after a combination of the Celtic Morrigan, the triple goddess of war in Celtic mythology that appear as ravens on the battlefield, and the Greek Gorgons; I sort of had this image of the Gorgons as beautiful women with snake hair and half-snake bodies, and after noticing the correspondence of threes between them and the Morrigan, I then decided to give them the Morrigan’s portfolio of war powers. The Greek Gorgons, in addition to their serpent hair, were usually depicted with something similar to a lion’s superciliary marks on their foreheads, so I found the evocation of serpents and lions — speed and strength and ferocity, scales as armor — and their association with madness to be something interesting to exploit and turn into a divine incarnation of war.
Artesia and Dungeons & Dragons
COTB: Have you ever played “Dungeons & Dragons” or any sort of game like that? Does Artesia have a tiny bit of her origin in an old character?
MS: Yeah, I will sheepishly admit to having played D&D. My fondest D&D memories are of the setting and scenarios put out by Judges Guild, stuff like ‘City-State of the Invincible Overlord’ and ‘Dark Tower’ (which I know also inspired the title of Jon Kovalic’s DORK TOWER). My favorite games were actually RuneQuest, set in the world of Glorantha created by Greg Stafford, which was a huge influence on me, and Call of Cthulhu. Actually, Artesia doesn’t have an origin in any of my old characters, though other characters in her world do, including Urech the Usurper and the Lord Mott and their crowd, who are based on characters some of us had in my friend Scotty’s campaign. Artesia comes up solely out of the Known World.
COTB You tend to put a lot of characters in every panel you can. Why? What’s your reasoning for this?
MS: Well, part of that is what I think of as simple realism: military and political figures are rarely alone, and they almost always have entourages. Aides-de-camps, adjutants, sycophants, whatever; powerful people tend to be surrounded by aides and allies. To some extent there’s also a point I’m trying to make about the differences between her world and ours; in the modern world, we’re very used to the idea of privacy, but I think the ancient world had a very different sense of what was private (think of the Romans and the very public nature of baths and bathrooms, or old traditions of wedding night behavior in which the bride and groom are carried off to the bedchamber and the soiled sheets are displayed afterwards to show that the bride’s virginity had been taken). In fact, for a war captain or a noble, the public and the private are almost the same – they basically live in public. Artesia is never alone, she’s constantly being watched — and if not by other people, then by the spirits and ghosts which surround her.
COTB: If there was an ARTESIA film made, who would you want to play the main characters? Have you ever seen anyone — celebrity or otherwise — that made you think “That’s Artesia!”?
MS: I haven’t a clue who would play Artesia; I occasionally see someone who has some part of Artesia – her nose, her hair – but I don’t think I’ve seen an actress, or even someone on the street, who has made me stop and say ‘that’s her!’ Occasionally people tell me they know or have seen someone who they think would looks just like her, but the perfect Artesia model is still missing. I have to admit I’ve tried to avoid playing a ‘Wizard’ with Artesia, and casting a movie in my head; for whatever reasons it seems an odd practice to me, almost as though you’re admitting that the final and right form of the story isn’t in the comic medium, but in film.
COTB: Have you been approached about a movie? Would yo
u be willing to do one? What sort of format would you want it to be?
MS: No, no one’s approached me about a movie yet. I get the feeling the book isn’t well-known enough yet to attract studio attention, and besides, the subject matter is a bit off-putting; it’s difficult fantasy material, aimed at adults, with nudity and sexual content, so I don’t know how studio scouts would react to it.
I don’t think I’d have any objection to a movie, but I can’t helpbut think that Hollywood would screw it up — I don’t think they do fantasy films all that well. ‘Excalibur’ is the best fantasy-related film ever, I think, but aside from ‘Excalibur’ I don’t think I can think of a good one. Ideally, an Artesia movie would actually be a series of movies, but I don’t think that anyone’s going to actually do 22 Artesia movies in a row.
Ethnicities in comics
COTB: One of the neat things about the Artesia comic is that each army seems to be represented by a specific ethnicity or family. Are these designs based on European ethnicities? What’s the hardest “family” of characters for you to draw?
MS: Yes, to some extent I’m drawing on real-world ethnicities to give consistent appearances to the peoples of the Known World; I think in most fantasy settings there’s a tendency to transpose race into ‘species,’ so you get elves and dwarves and orcs instead of different ethnic groups, though some fantasy settings will also use a kind of Orientalism to create different human cultures.
In a sense, that’s the path I’m taking. The Thessid-Golan Empire, in particular, is meant to evoke the Persian and Ottoman Empires; it’s actually intended as a deliberate evocation of Orientalist prejudices, in a way, so that I can later turn those expectations on their heads (if nobody minds a bit of foreshadowing). But I’ve tried to use real-world human variety as a way of distinguishing between countries and peoples so that readers have something to connect to, particularly given how many characters I have floating around in the backgrounds.
I think of the part of the Known World that Artesia is from as being a lot like the Mediterranean, so I try to give most of the characters shades of a Mediterranean feel: Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Semitic, North African. I don’t know if there’s any one ‘family’ harder to draw than another; it’s more difficult remembering who comes from where.
COTB: What’s your ethnicity? Does that come in to play in your writing and art?
MS:I’m half-Caucasian, half-Japanese. I don’t know if that comes into play in my writing and art, though I often find it amusing that I’ve met a lot of white guys in this business who draw in a manga style, while I’m half-Japanese and draw in a European style. I guess it’s made me to some extent an observer to Western culture, so I can dissect and reinterpret European and Western mythology to my heart’s content and not necessarily feel constrained by a need for reverence or ‘accuracy.’
COTB: Will we be seeing Asian- or African-style characters in any future Artesia comic books?
MS: Yes; I hope there’s already been a hint of that, in a few of the background characters. One of the dead concubines, now a ghost, was half black, and one of Artesia’s brother’s companions was black, and the other was meant to invoke a kind of Middle Eastern or Indian look. Characters from Amora, which is sort of modeled on Moorish Spain and Carthage, will appear in the next series. Asian-like characters will be a little further off in appearing.
COTB: In regard to the “family-look” of your characters, do you design one character and then base all of his or her cohorts on that one person?
MS: To some extent, yes; usually there’ll be an important character that I want to distinguish from the rest of the main characters, and I’ll do them first and try to give them some sort of specific look. Then I’ll try to give some sort of more generic but consistent appearance to their entourages, something characteristic about their hair or skin tone or clothing, so that there’s avisual thread that allows them to be identified as coming from the same place.
Coming next week: The second part of the Mark Smylie interview, where the award-winning artist-writer talks about his characters, his work and the future of Artesia.
Read another interview with Smylie here: Comicbookgalaxy.com
Official Artesia Web site: www.daradja.com