I had the opportunity to interview comics legend Matt Wagner about his new book from Legendary Comics, "The Tower Chronicles." You all know Matt Wagner from his years working on books like Mage, Grendel, Trinity, and with many of the heavy hitting characters in the comics world. The Tower Chronicles for Legendary is the latest step in his long and storied career.
You can read my full review of the book soon over at The Huffington Post, but even if you don't get a chance to read that piece, you should still give this book a shot. You can pick it up at Amazon or your local comic book store. It's drawn by the incomparable Simon Bisley and I think it's some of his best work.
Without further ado, we'll get to Wagner's interview:
Bryan Young: So, as far as Legendary goes, the Tower Chronicles, this is the first book from Legendary that you’re fronting it, so I think a lot of people, well not a lot of people, but some people are cynical about it saying, “Ah, this is a big Hollywood movie company. Why is the Tower Chronicles not what the cynics think it is?
Matt Wagner: Well, any of those cynics probably don’t know my work then. I’m a very well established comic book creator, 30 years of experience in the biz, and I don’t have a single movie adapted from my work yet, so that has never been my aim. I don’t write stories that are movie pitches. And I will say that from the very beginning, both Thomas Tull, the owner of Legendary Entertainment and Bob Schreck, editor in chief, presented that to me as well that it would be great if someday we branch this off into other media, but that’s not our initial concern. Because, the very fact is, it’s impossible to branch off into other media if we don’t deliver a kick ass product at the beginning. You can’t build a 20 story building if you don’t have a great foundation at the base of it. So, I never ever write, this is gonna sound weird, I never ever write considering my audience. I write what’s gonna thrill me and what I’m having fun with, and I write what I feel is narratively sound, and narratively resonant and emotionally engaging, and thrilling and fun as well. So certainly, those cynics can look at the project with those jaded eyes, but hopefully once they read it, if they actually read it,they’ll see that we’re doing our damndest to deliver a really great comic book story that has a vast scope, kind of an epic saga that’s very core, but also has a main character that is tough and bad-ass and yet has a very distinct and overwhelming humanity buried underneath all his tough guy exterior. And that’s kind of the whole point of the story that as we go along, John Tower is a character very much shrouded in mystery and as we go along, little by little, the veils and layers of his mystery start to unpeel, and we dig into the humanity at the core of his character.
BY: It’s gorgeous book, for one, it looks really good, it’s a really fun read, there’s imagery in it that’s going to stick with me for a long time, particularly that owl coming out of that lady’s mouth.
MW: I will say that was a cool idea that Simon just rendered the hell out of that thing, it just delivered on all fronts.
BY: But that central mystery of the character seems to be what’s driving that cliffhanger. It’s enough to keep me thirsty for more.
MW: Yeah, good! that’s our goal
BY: You’ve raised more questions about about him than you’ve answered, and I see that it’s the first of 800 pages of comics, you keep saying, but how much through this first arc are we going to get into the characters and still going to be …
MW: I’m a big believer in not spilling all your narrative guts right off the bat because part of the thrill of good storytelling is to keep the reader intrigued, but at the same time, you can’t leave them dangling on a hook all the time. You have to keep dishing more information so that people can make connections, make theories. So certainly in the second issue, we get a little bit more, in the third one, a little bit more. I will say that at the end of the first four volumes, which is the first book, no, all the questions are not answered at that point, but part of them are, and certainly enough to make you want to come back and follow John Tower through the second book, but here again what I do is kind of weaving these puzzles that hopefully keeps the reader intrigued enough to want to come back and also delivers on the fronts they enjoy.
One of the big troubles, just to refer to another narrative like this in recent popular culture was the tv show LOST. I thought LOST got lost. It set up too many mysteries for itself and then neglected to answer all of the mysteries, but you can rest assured at the end of the Tower Chronicles, all of the questions will be answered everything will be crystal clear as to who is he and why he does what he does. You mentioned in the first one there that there’s this definite sense of mystery. One of the feelings you get is maybe hunting down monsters isn’t really his goal. It seems like he does it, but it seems like there’s an ulterior motive, and what is that? When you have these bad-ass, tough-as-nails characters, like Batman, or Clint Eastwood’s whole roster of film heroes, you usually find that underneath that tough, dour exterior, there’s a very passionate soul at the center of all that, and usually that passion has been disrupted or enflamed or fractured in some fashion that drives them to very desperate ends, and certainly we’ll find that’s the case with John Tower as well, and the question is, what situation led him to this stage in his life.
BY: It’s certainly a fascinating question. Switching gears a little bit, can you describe the difference and sort of the work process here versus, say your more creator owned stuff like Mage, or how is the creative process you’ve …
MW: Well, luckily, I kind of started out the opposite of a lot of my contemporaries, like Frank Miller or Mike Mignola in that I started in the indies first and then eventually branched into working with the big guys on projects like Batman and such, so it’s the only way I’ve ever known to work on things. I’m the boss of the narrative ship, and I don’t book a whole lot of editorial interference, and truthfully, working with Bob Schreck, who is the editor in chief of Legendary and has worked with me since the very earliest days of ComiCo he trusts me and knows me enough just to back off and leave me alone.
Occasionally there’s a comment like ‘Hey, have you considered this?’ but working on John Tower here, I might as well be on Grendel. I’m absolutely in control of the ship, and part of that is the respect that comes from having a career as long as I’ve had.
You know, people just kind of let me go, but I’m involved in every stage of it too. I see every stage of the pencils, I approve every page of the inks, I see every stage of the coloring, the lettering, I mean literally everything. And I know no other way to work on these kinds of projects because that’s how I started out. It’s not like I’m working for a corporate ship here, even though I am. They want a pure, undiluted creator vision, and that’s what they get from me.
BY: Simon’s work hasn’t necessarily been the most long running. How do you convince a guy like that to come on board with a book that’s as massive as this sounds like it’s going to be?
MW: As you pointed out there, this will be the longest sustained narrative Simon’s ever done. I guess we’re just lucky that the story appealed to him enough from the beginning. The way he came on board was that two years ago, at the San Diego convention, we were having the initial launch panel for Legendary, and of course their first project was Frank Miller’s Holy Terror book, and that was already finished and there was plenty of art to show, but Tower Chronicles was slated to be there next and first all original, newly generated project as Holy Terror had been under production for years, but we didn’t have any art to show, and of course, that’s what you want to show. So we had my story outline and some original scripting, but we didn’t have an image yet. So Bob Schreck had worked with Simon back when he did covers for Hellblazer, Bob was an editor at Vertigo still, so he contacted Simon just to do a publicity painting, here just give us a character shot, and Simon just completely nailed it, just absolutely right in every regard. Captured the atmosphere, captured the ferocity, captured the mood and mystery and the sense of adventure. All in a single image, and that’s so tough to do. And so we really kind of got our hopes up and asked him if he would consider drawing the whole thing.
And of course, when we started, we weren’t quite sure whether he would end up drawing all three books, but now that’s the direction we’re going because he just so fits the material, that we really can’t imagine anybody else drawing it. The entire series is kind of a genre masher; in thatwe have a costumed adventure, but not everyone’s a superhero, there’s a dark, gothic fantasy and there’s bits of horror, and Simon just handles all of those aspects really, really well. And in fact, he has said to me, ‘God, this feels like you’re just writing it, just for me. You’re just delivering for me, all the stuff I like.’
And I will say, there’s probably more sequential and expository work than he’s done before, but, God, he’s cooking right along on it. I’m done with the first 2 books of 4 volumes each, so I’m 500+ pages, into the scripting, and he’s just wrapping volume 3, so he’s 200+ pages into the art, so at this point, we’re definitely in sync, and it all seems to just be flowing beautifully, easily. As a writer/artist, this is one of the greatest thrills you can possibly have. I get pages in from him, and I’m just like ‘holy shit!’ that just looks better than I expected. I described what I wanted it to look like, but he just took it and knocked it a little farther up the creative ladder and made it so, so, so much better than I could have hoped for. That’s just the best you can hope for as a comic book writer.
BY: So you’ve lived in this world for a long time, and people are finally going to start wading into that world, so this release must feel huge.
MW: Yeah it does, at the same time, just this weekend, finally got the printed copy for the first time, so I went to bed and read it the other night, and it was so strange because my narrative sense is so much down the road from where the beginning is, that it was strange to go back and reread the beginning, but as you said, we’ve got a great start here. What’s really thrilling for me is that my feeling is that every single volume just gets better, the story gets better, the art gets better, Simon and I get better as a team. I just really think this is going to carry people, narratively, into a very exciting place. And again, that’s the best I could hope for as a storyteller.
BY: It’s absolutely gotten me on board, and Legendary seems to have spared no expense with the printing. I received a copy a few days ago, and I was actually kind of startled by how great it looked and how well they put it together.
MW: That’s something I can actually comment on. Thomas Tull, from the very beginning, wanted everything that came out of Legendary comics publication roster as being of champagne quality. He wanted everything to just look fantastic, to deliver the best writers, the best artists. So the initial idea was for everything to be published as an OGN, which in the comic book industry biz means as an Original Graphic Novel, as opposed to serialized in the monthly comic book format. And certainly, with Holy Terror, that was easy to do because it was already all done and there was already an existing publicity buzz about it because Frank had been working on it for ten years or so.
With this, both Bob Schreck and I, well we couldn’t really do that with this because we had a brand new character, complete unknown, to the reading public, and in this economy, especially, you can’t be asking people to shell out $30-$35 for a maybe on something that they might like, or they might not like. And so we convinced them that we don’t have to do it as a monthly comic, we can do it in the prestige format so everyone gets a nice chunk in each installment, and we can dress it up with really great paper, we can do the flapped covers, we can do embossed foil on the cover, we can still dress this up and be a very classy, quality product, and yet still offer it in a serialized version to make it a little easier on the buying public. And I think we got that, and I am very pleased with the way it looks.
BY: With the cover, was that your idea, or Bob Schreck’s to get Jim Lee in for that very striking cover, which for a lot of people, is gonna be that first window into John Tower?
MW: Thomas wanted to stride deeply into the comic book market. As I said, they’re on a learning curve, in many regards, but they wield a lot of muscle, and he just wanted to go for the best cover artist, his favorites and also the industry favorites. Jim had turned in some sketches, and wasn’t quite hitting the introductory dynamic power; he was getting a little too arcane with the character, a little too deep in the psychology of the character rather than just a great BOOM, introductory image. So I actually jotted, since I’m an artist too, I jotted down a quickie thumbnail layout and said, ‘Here, take it in this direction.’ And of course, Jim being Jim, delivered a gorgeous rendition of my very primitive sketch. I think that fully captures our character really well, this moody adventurer standing on a bible of trussed up monsters. And of course, we have Alex Ross on the second cover, so I guess from both your last questions there, the summation is that Legendary puts their money where their mouth is; they’re delivering quality on all fronts.
BY: For someone who has a built a career as equally a writer and an artist, I can see your name associated with a book across the board, as a cover artist, as an interior artist; at this point in your career, do you prefer this sort of arrangement where you’re just writing, or do you still like to go back and draw everything from the ground up? Where do you feel like you’re the most comfortable.
MW: I’m comfortable with both; it’s apples and oranges for me . For the last couple years, I’ve been writing more than drawing, but that’s by no particular design, I just kind of fell into that. I will be back to drawing, I still have the third volume of Mage to do, that’s probably next on the horizon for me after this. With all of my projects over the years, I’ve had both situations where it’s my one man show, on Mage, and then on the various projects I’ve done for DC like Trinity and the Dark Moon Rising Batman series I did. And then I have a situation like Grendel which is sometimes I write and draw it, and sometimes I write for other artists. To me, it doesn’t really make any difference, I’m just happy telling stories. And I like playing with other people, and I like playing by myself. I’m really good at deciding ‘this is one I need to draw’, or ‘this is one I’m gonna have fun with somebody else drawing it’. And in this case, I can’t rave enough about how Simon is the perfect artist for this book.
BY: It really shows. It really is a gorgeous book across the board. I hate coming into interviews like this and it’s like, ‘Wow, I really loved the book’ but this book really hits you right between the eyes. It’s that perfect mash up of enough intrigue and mystery to keep you going, the art just looks great, the coloring and inking works together, and it’s in a really nice format. I was really surprised when I sat down and read it.
MW: I’m totally thrilled to hear that! At the same time, I absolutely stand by ‘it only gets better’. The story only gets better, it gets more engrossing, more emotionally involving, more exciting, and I get better at figuring out just amazing things for Simon to draw. This is just one of these projects that, from the creative end, just feels like it climbs and climbs and climbs.
BY: Is it frustrating on some level that you guys have risen to a certain altitude and the stuff you’re putting out is the baseline?
MW: No, because we know the rest is coming. No, it’s not like we weren’t very happy with the first volume when we did it, but then -- that first Beatles album is fucking great, and the second one was better and the third one was better, etc etc. So no, I don’t feel any frustration. Again, like I said, I’m always just all about the story and all about the creative process, and there’s just no downside to the fact that I get more satisfied with every step of a project, and that is certainly the case.
BY: That’s not a bad way to be; isn’t that the dream? Is there anything you think I might have missed or anything you’d like to add?
MW: No, I think we covered most of the good stuff. Again, I’m pretty sure our release schedule is every 2 months, but again, it’s a 68 page volume every 2 months, and I’d have to check with Legendary, I’m not quite sure what the gap between book 1 and book 2 is, but we’re well ahead, production wise, on the schedule, so once this train leaves the station, it’ll hit every stop on time. I know that’s another bit of cynicism from people in this industry where a new company, new project launches real great and then just stalls production wise, and that’s just not the case in this instance.
BY: That’s encouraging to hear. There’s a lot of X factors there, yeah it’s a new company, this is the longest thing Simon’s ever done, but seeing you guys out as far ahead as possible.
MW: A big factor here, is I want to give credit to Bob Schreck as well. Bob and I are just old time pros; we know how to do it. We’re not young frivolous start ups, and we know how important it is to comic book shops, especially, that they get their product on time.
BY: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you, and I’ve enjoyed your work over the years and I look forward to the rest of the Tower Chronicles.
MW: Thanks, man!