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FOG! Chats With MATT WAGNER About Legendary Comics’ THE TOWER CHRONICLES

In just over a decade, Thomas Tull’s Legendary Pictures has become a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry.  Since 2005 Legendary has co-produced and co-financed over three dozen films for Warner Bros. including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Watchmen, The Town, 300, The Hangover, and the upcoming Man of Steel and Pacific Rim.

Now, after an announcement over two years ago at San Diego Comic Con, fans can get a chance to see Legendary’s first original effort.  Book One of The Tower Chronicles: GeistHawk, a 68 page OGN from comic legends Matt Wagner, and Simon Bisley under a cover by Jim Lee, will be in stores tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to chat with Matt about the project, his own creations and his place in the comic industry.

What was the genesis of The Tower Chronicles

Well, Legendary Entertainment wanted to set up a comic book division and made the very smart decision of reaching out to Bob Schreck to be their editor and chief.

Bob of course has a long and storied history in the industry and has a long storied history with me.
We go back to… I think the second Ice Age in fact, and Thomas (Tull) had an idea for a character and asked Bob to find him a writer who he respected and was accomplished, but would also not be just a “yes man.”  He wanted someone who would come in and give as good as he got and challenge Thomas on ideas that he had. So I was the first guy who Bob called and they flew me down to Burbank, and we had an initial meeting and everything went just swimmingly. We got along great and yeah, there were a few ideas that I had to say – “okay no, we can’t do that one”.

Truthfully, the general outline was just that, a general outline; it was an idea for a character, it had some cool shit, but what was missing was a real sense of humanity and an over-arching story.

I said, “Thomas, this is all great. We have this cool, badass tough-as-nails supernatural bounty hunter, but we have to give a damn about him. There has to be a core backstory there that will engage readers and will and help empathize with the character.”  So, I think we got that.

As we continued to develop the story, it seemed evident that it was going to be too big of a story for a single graphic novel.

We then decided to bring out a trilogy, and part of that was again, we developed this really terrific deep and richly textured backstory for the character. But we also didn’t want to skip any of the exciting, cool, contemporary stuff you know? As I said to Thomas, ” if he’s fighting monsters – I want to see him fight a lot of monsters, I don’t want to see him fight just two monsters.”  So we did a lot of that.

And again, the main character is very kind of aloof and mysterious but as the story continues to unwind the many layers of his mystery are slowly peeled away and we get to find the reason behind why he does what he does.

I know you only got to read the first 18 pages (Editor’s Note: I’ve since read the entire book, which is fantastic), but in the first volume which is 68 pages, you know we see him confront of a variety of threats . We keep getting this idea that, it’s not really his purpose – it feels more like the means to an end. He is after something else, but we don’t know what it is yet. He’s after that thing, and the way he pursues it is by hunting monsters, and what could that possibly be?

That’s the core of our story.

What do you think really makes the character of ‘John Tower’ so unique?

The one thing that runs through all my characters, what makes them unique and yet binds them together is all my characters have a common humanity and again, there has to be some human emotion there that you identify with.

You know if you live with this sort of character – you know, you asked what makes them unique – these sort-of characters in these sorts of story lines can be somewhat ubiquitous.  But, if you look at a character like Batman, if you look at Clint Eastwood’s various taciturn tough guys; underneath all that kindt of ‘aloof coolness.’ There’s a burning passion there that readers and viewers kind of pick up on, that they are troubled by some kind of usually tragedy, and that is what drives them to desperate means which these are in.

And again, I think that in the end, the backstory we have for Tower makes him unique and I think delivers a real emotional and narrative wallop and a good pay off.

When you mention that the story kind of grew organically and that it was bigger than a graphic novel – at that point did you realize that it was really an epic tale and does it actually have a clear beginning, a middle and an end?

Yes, I mean yeah definitely has that. I mean although we are kind of starting in the middle, and then the beginning gets revealed via flashback –little by little – which leads us to the end.  We really wanted to approach the comic book field with certain ’champagne’ standard.  We originally wanted to do everything OGNs, (original graphic novels), and this story had gotten so big, that both Bob and I tried our hardest in convincing Thomas (which we did successfully) that we needed to serialize this.  In this economy, you can’t ask people slop down 35 or 40 bucks for volume 1 of a trilogy on a character they know nothing about. That’s why we ended up going with a prestige format, because we really wanted you to get a chunk of our story, with every offering; more than what monthly floppy comic book would give you. Then also with a prestige format book you can dress it up and give it that ‘champagne treatment’, and make it seem like you are getting something special. But yeah, we realized early on that it was going to be big, and yeah definitely has a beginning, middle and an end.

My stuff normally has a beginning, middle and an end, you know?

You are collaborating with Simon Bisley, and his work in the book that I’ve seen is fantastic. What brought him to the project? 

I will say, just to get back to your comment there –it only gets better. Simon and I get better and better at working with each other. I get better at writing for him, he even said to me, “ it feels like you are writing this distinctly for me”.

He came onto the project two years ago at the San Diego convention.  We had our inaugural launch, and  the inaugural panel launch of Legendary Comics and introduced the company to the comic-book world and their first publication, Frank Miller’s Holy Terror and that was already done, so they had plenty of visuals for that.

And this point, we had no existing art for The Tower Chronicles. We had my story outline, we had some initial scripting, I’m pretty sure we even had a logo generated at that point. But we had no interesting art other than my initial character design. I designed the characters, but it was all very basic, my character designs were meant to just be a springboard for the actual artist to utilize and adapt their own style and embellish on. So we didn’t really use those as our out of the gate image.

Bob Schreck had worked with Simon on covers for Hellblazer when Bob was still at Vertigo.  He contacted Simon and Simon did this painted piece which was the first image we had of Tower and he just nailed it, absolutely nailed the character in one single image, captured all the atmosphere, all the ferocity, all the mystery in one image.

That’s really tough to pull off, and he just seemed to do it effortlessly. So Bob and I were conspiring, saying “God, wouldn’t it be great if he could just draw the whole thing?,” and luck would have it his schedule just worked out that way and so now he’s been working with us quite some time. And I think this will ultimately be the longest single narrative Simon has ever done.

Is Simon doing all the books? All 3 volumes? 

That is the plan right now.  I’m done with the first 2 books, so I’m done with the first 8 volumes, so I’m over 500 script pages in, and Simon is just wrapping volume 3, so he’s a little over 200 pages in. So it’s nice to know that we are so thoroughly meshed in it. That we feel that this is our overwhelming focus for now and for quite some time to come.

By working with Thomas Tull on the project, now that you have pretty much established it – is he involved or is Bob basically overseeing everything ? 

Yeah, Bob is usually the point person.

At first Thomas had a variety of notes for us, and part of that was because he wasn’t used to working with me and he also wasn’t used working in a comic book format.

For instance, one of the notes had to do with the fact, this isn’t in the preview because it’s another character that comes in later, but we had 2 different caption voices; 2 different narration voices – and the note was it wasn’t clear who was talking, and my response was just because you aren’t used to doing comic books. We changed the shape of the box, we changed the font, we changed the color of the box, and it will be – believe me- totally clear who the 2 different voices are, you know? So, its just a matter of mechanics in that regard, but then also he challenged me and asked me about a few things and I was like Okay, now you just don’t realize I’m going to do that in issue 3. And pretty much since then, you know I get a few notes from Thomas but it’s all has been smooth sailing.

Is this creator own worth or is this worth for hire?

No, Thomas and I co-own it.

You know, you’re one of the few guys – especially when it comes to like, independent comics – that has two very clearly defined properties with Mage and Grendel. Do you have any plans for either of them or will the comic market kind of dictate the return at this point?

I actually thought I was doing Mage 3 at this point, but then Bob approached me with this, and then it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up on for a variety of reasons.

One of course, professional, but also creatively, because you mentioned Mage and Grendel there, I have Mage, I have GrendelMage is pretty much my one-man-show – and Grendel is my ‘cluster fuck’ of collaborations.

 [Laughs]

I’ve worked with so many different artists on Grendel, and this has been one creative collaboration that I’ve never pictured before.

Somebody approaching me with the basis of an idea, and then me grabbing that ball and developing it from there, and that seemed like a great challenge and I’m always looking for a narrative challenge. And again, professionally it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I knew Legendary was determined to make a mark in the comic book field and this will be their first all-original property so I would have been a fool to pass up their flagship book, you know?

But you know, Mage 3 is right around the corner for me, I’m pretty sure.

On the Grendel front, we just started releasing the Grendel Omnibus Edition, which collects in common format all the Grendel runs in chronological order.

You know, back when I was first doing Grendel, you know I was switching it up narratively all the time, but I would also change the format here and there, and at that time way back in the days – that was a strength because it was an oddity, you know. Nowadays the market’s been saturated so it’s a weakness.

We needed to regularize the format so that people would recognize it, and also put it in chronological order, because a lot of people look at the vast amount of Grendel material and think “Oh god, I don’t even know where to even start.”

Well these omnibus editions start at the beginning and its all in chronological order and very easy to follow. So those are coming out and they vary between 550 and 600 pages a piece for a really good price, I think the first one is only 25 bucks.

And they come out every six months, first one just came out, the next one’s six months, and the next one is six months after that, et cetera.

You spent the last, I would say close to a decade it seems, doing writing and covers. Do you miss doing sequential art?

Yes, I do. It is the fact that I have been doing writing and covers certainly wasn’t by any intentional design – it just kind of happened that way.

I like sequential storytelling, but I’m just a storyteller at heart that it’s just kind of apples and oranges for me. I mean I love working with other artists, the fact that I’m an artist too means I can readily understand what they’re going to do well, what they are gonna give me. I know how to ask for changes without being an overpowering asshole about it.  I enjoy that sense of collaboration. Apples and oranges.  So yeah, writing is just as fulfilling to me on many many levels as drawing is.

And I will get back to Mage when I’m drawing and writing my own thing.

And of course, what was it… three, four years ago? 

I did Trinity, and then I did those two Batman series for DC.  (Trinity was released in 2003, Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk were released during 2005-2007, time flies)

Yeah yeah, that’s right. Those were great.

And then for the 25th anniversary for Grendel, I did an 8 issue Grendel thing that I wrote and drew as well of all new Hunter Rose stories.  So, it’s not that long ago that I did sequential art.

It’s been 30 years since Primer #2 came out…

Amen, brother. [laughs]

At this point now, where do you see yourself in the industry? What is your take on corporate, Big Two comics, and independent work and also digital comics?

Well, digital comics for me, that’s just a technology issue.  I don’t really have any opinion about that. I tend to still prefer print, but I’ve seen my stuff done digitally and I like looking at it that way too. You know, that’s just a medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with content.

You know, I’m lucky in the fact that I entered the field by starting off in the independent world having to bite and scratch and claw my way to the top on that side of things. Before going to play with the big boys and work with the big boy toys, you know unlike a lot of my contemporaries like (Frank) Miller or (Mike) Mignola or Alan Moore, et cetera who all started in the mainstream world and then came to the independent side of things. As a result,  everytime I’m working with the big guys I’m always working with an editor who respects me enough to leave me the fuck alone, you know.

When I was doing Trinity and those Batman projects with Bob Schreck and editing those as well, and might as well have been working on Grendel for all the editorial interference that I got. But I’m in a real happy position in that regard.  As for my place in the industry, it’s kind of for other people to judge, but I feel like I’ve got a great spot – I can do whatever I want, I get to pick and choose my own projects and it’s been that way for a long time. So, really couldn’t be happier.

It’s been 30 years since Primer #2 came out. 

Amen, brother. [laughs]

At this point now, where do you see yourself in the industry? What is your take on corporate, Big Two comics, and independent work and also digital comics? 

Well, digital comics for me, that’s just a technology issue.  I don’t really have any opinion about that. I tend to still prefer print, but I’ve seen my stuff done digitally and I like looking at it that way too. You know, that’s just a medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with content.

You know, I’m lucky in the fact that I entered the field by starting off in the independent world having to bite and scratch and claw my way to the top on that side of things. Before going to play with the big boys and work with the big boy toys, you know unlike a lot of my contemporaries like (Frank) Miller or (Mike) Mignola or Alan Moore, et cetera who all started in the mainstream world and then came to the independent side of things. As a result,  everytime I’m working with the big guys I’m always working with an editor who respects me enough to leave me the fuck alone, you know.

When I was doing Trinity and those Batman projects with Bob Schreck and editing those as well, and might as well have been working on Grendel for  all the editorial interference that I got. But I’m in a real happy position in that regard.  As for my place in the industry, it’s kind of for other people to judge, but I feel like I’ve got a great spot – I can do whatever I want, I get to pick and choose my own projects and it’s been that way for a long time. So, really couldn’t be happier.

What are you currently geeking out over? 

Actually my music listening has leveled off quite a lot over the past couple of years because I’ve been writing so much, and tend to listen to music more when I’m drawing. I can’t listen to music at all when I’m writing. So I’ll have to play ignorance on that one.

I’m a veracious book reader, I’m actually part of a book club here in Portland, Oregon and Portland is lousy with comic book artists, you can barely sit without hitting one of us. And a group of us are part of a book club.  Our general agreement is not comics, that’s a little too-close to home, you know. But we get together every 2 or 3 months and read books and discuss it and just sit around, chew the fat and eat some good food and have a good time. We just finished David Copperfield, right now we are reading one of Steve Martin’s book called An Object of Beauty so its not always as high-falutent as David Copperfield. We’ve been really kind of all across the board subject matter wise. We read Lolita, we read Cloud Atlas, we read The Omnivores Dilemma, we read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. We really read kind of a wide-range of stuff and some of the other participants are the Allreds, Joelle Jones, Jamie Rich, Shannon Wheeler who does Too Much Coffee Man, Craig Thompson and his girlfriend Sierra Hahn, who works at Dark Horse, and Chris Roberson and his wife, Allison Baker just moved to Portland and joined our little gang of idiots as well.

That’s a great group of people.  Just a lot of opinions the room, that’s a great thing to have in a book club.

TV, let’s see… Well, last week I just watched the first episode of the new season of Broadwalk Empire and I can’t get enough of that shit, I just love that to death. Well, Mad Men and I haven’t made the leap into Breaking Bad yet.  Everyone really loves Breaking Bad. My wife is in love with Downton Abby, that British kind of soap opera thing. The Walking Dead; Nurse Jackie is a lot of fun…

Films.  Oh, let me tell you, I had more fun at The Avengers than out of any other comic book movie  I’ve seen since I was a teenager seeing Superman: The Movie for the first time.

They did a really good job nailing the fun aspect which was pretty cool.

It just hit all the notes exactly right, you know?

And it showed you all the cool shit you wanted to see, all the characters had an individual voice and an individual role in the team, and it had just so many great pay-offs you know.

So, I really enjoyed that.

The Tower Chronicles: GeistHawk Volume 1 will be released at comic book stores tomorrow.
To locate a comic book store near you, call 1-888-COMIC-BOOK or https://www.comicshoplocator.com
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