Kel Symons is a producer and director and now at the helm of two great Image Comics books! Last year’s acclaimed The Mercenary Sea took at look at The Pacific Theatre in the days before the Big One, and this year’s Reyn (next issue, #2 hits shelves Wednesday, February 18) is a swashbuckling D&D fantasy affair with a hero who’s not going to be easy to root for.
Kel takes a ride on the Cosmic Treadmill to get to the depths of the sea and over yonder valley, sword in hand!
FOG!: So much to cover, Kel! Thanks for joining us! Let’s start with The Mercenary Sea. First of all, your pre-WWII sea adventure book got some great feedback last year. Not many stories take place on a submarine. How did you get to placing this story in an historical context and in a cool undersea boat?
KEL SYMONS: Yeah, I was surprised as anyone that readers seemed to dive right into it (pun sorta intended…). As for how the idea came about, I think mostly I missed my space-friends from Firefly, and also wanted to relive the thrills of my childhood with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The two came together rather seamlessly to form The Mercenary Sea.
A motley crew of adventurers and mercenaries trying to carve out an existence in the wild frontier of the South Seas against a backdrop of war.
People seem to be reacting well to the book, and I really enjoyed the collected trade. Is the series ongoing?
We’re hoping. That’s the plan, anyway. Mathew Reynolds is drawing issue 9 right now, and the plan is to resume publication when we’ve got a few issues in the can. I know we’ll at least do three more issues which we’ll combine with 7 & 8 into our second trade volume. It honestly depends on sales — if the audience is there we’re going to keep going.
I have about 35 total issues planned out for the series, broken into mini-arcs that fit into the larger picture, which is Jack’s search for the legendary island of Koji Ra.
With some of your Hollywood background, how did you end up bringing comics to Image. This is my way of asking the age-old…how did you get started writing comics?
Eric Stephenson is a friend, and knows I write and approached me with the idea for I Love Trouble a few years back. I’d never written comics before – my focus was always movies and TV – but I really enjoyed it. When that series was done, I pitched him The Mercenary Sea and showed him some of Mathew’s work – Eric loved it and we set to work bringing it to life
Placing The Mercenary Sea in The Pacific Theatre, and in a stolen Chinese submarine sets a certain tone for the book. WWII is right around the corner. What appeals to you about pulp stories told around that time?
One of the things that appealed to me most was that the world is going through this huge change that affects everyone. Every nation. There was an innocence to humanity that was about to be lost forever.
But more than the historical setting, there’s something romantic about a sea adventure set in this era. There’s no GPS. Not every corner has been mapped or explored. There’s no internet, so if you want to learn about something, you have to go over the horizon and discover it – you can’t just type something into a search engine or push a button for an answer.
It’s just a great time for adventure.
I love the cast, from our rugged leading man, Jack, to his tomboy mechanic Sam, they play off each other nicely. When telling a story with a team, are all of the story beats related to certain strengths of characters, or does the story just flow out of you? Do you start with character descriptions before you get into the nitty gritty?
I knew who the characters were when I started. I began with archetypes because it’s easier to keep track of everyone – the buccaneer captain, the gruff German first mate, the spunky engineer. Easier for me, and for the readers – we did introduce nine crew members in the first issue (plus the dog) in addition to five or six other characters that would become part of the story. That’s a lot to juggle and a shorthand helps.
I knew the broad strokes of the story – Jack’s history with the Chinese navy, his run-ins with Captain Tono of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and his obsession with Koji Ra. There was some plotting and mapping, but mostly the characters and story pointed me in the right direction as I was writing it. I love when that happens, when they take on a life all their own.
How did you connect with Mathew Reynolds? His art fits great and he’s not only nailing the small details but has great storytelling abilities. Not an exact parallel by any means but I see a bit of a Mignola influence. He’s great!
He really is. I saw his art on io9 then tracked him down through Deviant Art. He’d done some Indiana Jones adventure art – in that silhouette style of his, which really look like two-dimensional dioramas. We got to talking, and the story evolved from those discussions – talking about the stories and adventures we both grew up loving, and trying to recapture that spirit.
Your most recent book, Reyn (Image Comics) takes a sharp creative turn! It is hardly historical fiction at all! Dungeons and Dragons comics are quite literally flying off of the shelves now over at IDW, how did you get into fantasy storytelling?
Probably first from playing D&D.
It’s such an immersive and imaginative game.
In fact, I would say a lot of my writing skills and development owe a great deal to the world and character building the game instills in you. Playing it obviously fed a desire to experiences some of the fantasy realms the game incorporated into its construction and subsequently inspired.
I was probably more of a sci-fi fan than fantasy growing up, but I enjoyed The Hobbit and The Dragonlance Chronicles.
There was a book from the ‘70s by Andre Norton called Quag Keep that was rather meta – an adventure set in the world of Greyhawk with players becoming their characters through some weird, unexplained sorcery (seriously, they all have dice that can affect their fortunes and the outcome of battles).
But not in a ridiculous Mazes & Monsters kinda way. No LARPing Tom Hanks. For all intents and purposes, their adventures in Greyhawk were real.
People can get Issue #1 now, and Reyn #2 debuts later this month. Again, can we expect an ongoing? I imagine you are happy with remaining on Image with both of these books!
Oh absolutely. I’ve never experienced working for other publishers, but Image is so great I may never need to. Obviously a lot of great creators, writers and artists are flocking to their fold because you get to own the fruits of your creative labors.
Reyn is intended to be ongoing, but we designed an ending of sorts after ten issues, just in case we don’t get that chance. Something that will wrap things up sufficiently if we can’t continue. Nathan Stockman and I are so ahead of the game right now — before issue 1 hit the stands, we had the first 5 issues written, drawn, colored and lettered. This comprises the first mini-arc which will be our first trade volume.
Each of the five issue mini-arcs end on a surprising revelation.
We’ve got stories beyond that, but I guess we’ll see what the temperature is for continuing at Image. We’re hoping we can find a loyal readership who want the stories and characters to continue. Again, we’ll see…
What separates Reyn the man from other heroes we typically see in these types of stories?
I think first he’s not a hero. Yes, he’s the protagonist, and the last of this legendary group of warriors for good known as the Wardens. But he’s not the type to be fitted for the white hat. He wouldn’t have anything to do with his calling if not for the voices and visions in his head guiding him one way or another, usually down a just path. His encounter with the sorceress Seph will also keep him on that straight and narrow.
Reyn I always saw as like The Man With No Name character from the Dollars trilogy. The series is Leone meets Conan, and that’s basically how we pitched it to Image.
There’s a lot of western mythology ingrained in the story and character, like the lone and reluctant hero who does the right thing not because he wants to but because he has no other choice.
Without getting too spoilery, though, I can tell you the differences between Reyn and other fantasy stuff will become deeper and more refined as the story continues. I believe you’ve seen the first couple issues… Issue 3 we meet Seph’s people and after that things begin to veer off the rails the story had laid down previously.
You and Nathan Stockman worked on I Love Trouble (Image) before. Was he your natural choice for this kind of adventure story?
My desire to work with Nate on another project pre-dated Reyn, actually. I mean, I knew I wanted to do some sort of wandering swordsman tale after reading the original Conan stories a few years ago, but it wasn’t necessarily the project I brought to Nate.
Nate came aboard I Love Trouble when the original artist and co-creator was unable to complete the book. Paul Little, our colorist on I Love Trouble (and Reyn) recommended Nate to me, so he came in and batted clean-up on the series with the sixth and final issue.
But working with Nate was such a positive experience I knew I wanted to try to do something from scratch with him. When The Mercenary Sea was close to publication, I approached Nate with a few ideas we bandied about. Reyn emerged from those discussions. Like with Mathew on Mercenary Sea, the origin of the story for Reyn was developed as a true partnership with Nate. He was in love with the monsters and world-building he was going to get to do, and became integral as the characters and plot emerged.
I love the monsters, archery and swordplay in the book. Also I can appreciate that there is a bit of humor to the story. How important is it to you to have some funny moments in the book?
Unbelievably important. I’m not a fan of the one-liner action stuff – the Scwharzenegger “Stick around!” stuff. But I believe you can’t have a good action or adventure story without some amount of laughs. I think the humor will emerge more in the later issues as we got more comfortable with the characters.
Lastly, any other projects coming down the pike? And a silly question: Who would survive best from in the world of Reyn from The Mercenary Sea? My money is on Doc, but that’s because I think having an English accent would be an advantage there.
Ah, what makes you think the world of Reyn they speak English? I mean, we’re reading it as such, sure. But they probably have their own fantasy tongue. I’m sure Jack can handle himself in pretty much any situation.
But probably the best, most adaptive character in Mercenary Sea is Jarreau, the Venture’s scrounger and jack-of-all-trades. He can get anything he needs pretty much anywhere. Besides, there’s got to be a milk cow or two running around the land of Fate so he can finally get some of that real butter he craves so much.