When “Rex Mundi” debuted at Image in 2002, no one quite knew what to make of the book. Co-creators Arvid Nelson and Eric J intrigued fans with the layered tale of religious conspiracies, murder, mystery, and an unexpected man as our hero. Now before you can say “Da Vinci Code,” keep in mind that not only did “Mundi” pre-date the best-selling novel, it also was making the rounds in Hollywood before “Code” was a household name. With the departure of Eric J as series artist, Nelson teamed up with new artist Juan Ferreyra to continue the book, moving it to Dark Horse Comics earlier this year. That move not only resulted in a new publishing partner for “Rex Mundi,” but also a new feel for a not-so-old book. Doctor Julien Sauniere is still investigating those involved in the murder of his close friend, and the mysterious cover up surrounding the death of Jesus (was Judas really a traitor?), but now the book has added a strong action/adventure component as Julien and sometimes girlfriend Genevieve Tournon search for more clues. Meanwhile, back in their home of France, the Duke of Lorraine’s true heritage has been revealed as he takes over the country and moves to fight the Islamic threats facing his country. Suffice it to say, this book has moved far beyond what the “Da Vinci” comparisons would suggest. CBR News recently spoke with Nelson about the new direction, as well as revealed his thoughts about the differences in working with Dark Horse.
“The production is more routine now, more predictable,” Nelson told CBR News about working with Dark Horse. “That’s actually a good thing — it means the story is more consistent, and of better quality. But at Image I had an intense, personal connection to each issue, because each was such a struggle. That’s gone now.
“By the far best thing is the editorial oversight at Dark Horse. I had unbelievable creative freedom at Image. I’m so thankful for that, but it was terrifying, too. After six years of being my own editor I’m profoundly grateful to Scott Allie and Mike Carriglitto at Dark Horse for all their help.”
Those changes in production and editorial may not be readily apparent to fans, but they have taken notice of “Rex Mundi’s” new direction. Though some of the stories may seem like social critiques – the insightful debates on combating France’s enemies seem almost disturbingly familiar and relevant – Nelson told CBR that this was planned from the beginning. “I was a nerdy kid who loved ‘The Legend of Zelda’ and ‘Castlevania’ and wasn’t good at sports. I never really grew up, I never lost my love for those escapist fantasies. I like to think I’m writing for the overgrown nerd in everyone.
“The change is something I’ve always planned, right from the very beginning. The fact that the change came as I switched to Dark Horse is just divine providence, I guess. This, the second half of the story, is going to be a lot more action-oriented. More Indiana Jones, less Philip Marlowe. I think if I had started with a lot of action it would have been boring. The action needs to mean something, and in order for it to mean something, you have to care about the characters. I’ve always begged and pleaded with people to ‘hang in there.’ Well, now we’re at the good stuff, and if I did my job you’ll actually care!”
With the heaps of social and political commentary, comparisons have been made to television’s new “Battlestar Galactica” series, which also features fantastic adventures intertwined with engaging and thought-provoking commentary. While “Rex Mundi” reflects Nelson’s views very strongly, he said that doesn’t mean readers should think he’s preaching from his pulpit. “The story has to be about characters, not politics,” he explained. “A lot of stories fall flat because characters become mouthpieces for ideological points of view. That’s so boring! I try really hard to make ‘Rex Mundi’ enjoyable for everyone, not just people who agree with my world view. As for current events, it’s remarkable how much things change and how much they stay the same. The Greeks had the Persians, the Romans had the Parthians, and the Crusaders had the Saracens. I really believe we’ve been fighting the same war for three thousand years, like the Biblical giants Gog and Magog.”
It’d also be a mistake to assume that Nelson’s writing is an attack on organized religion, or specifically Islam and Christianity. ” I have a different perspective on this from most people because I converted to a religion called Bahá’í in college,” he explained. “‘Rex Mundi,’ at its deepest level, is a reflection on my faith. Anyone interested in Bahá’í can Google it; I’m definitely not trying to convert anyone through ‘Rex Mundi’. All I can say is that the perceived ‘clash of civilizations’ or ‘clash between science and faith’ are completely chimerical from a Bahá’í point of view. They are false choices based on false pretenses. I think that’s a very powerful message, regardless of your beliefs. I’ve had a few cranks make absurd accusations, saying things like Rex Mundi is ‘anti-Catholic,’ but that’s probably normal for anyone who presents a story for public consumption.”
With all that subtext, in addition to some very intricate plotting, “Rex Mundi” has gained a reputation as a complex book, which has scared off some comic fans. Nelson rejected any claims of the book being “inaccessible,” explaining. “I’ve tried to jump into a lot of so-called ‘episodic’ superhero comics and failed just because I got so confused. So yeah, I would argue ‘Rex Mundi’ does a much better job of breaking in new readers than most capes-n-tights fare, even though it’s a lot harder for me, working with a more involved storyline .
“If I fail, it’s not for lack of effort! Each issue has a synopsis, a list of important characters in the front, and a ‘newspaper’ in the back into which I slip little tidbits of what’s come before.”
While the world of “Rex Mundi” isn’t populated with a bevy of female characters, the few that have appeared made sure to please the audience. The aforementioned Genevieve is as complex and motivated as the male characters, with nuance generally reserved for male leads in most stories. Newly introduced troublemaker Isabelle, daughter to the series’ antagonist, may seem like the typical rebellious teen, but Nelson has made sure that fans see there’s more going on with her. Asked about the key to writing such authentic female leads, Nelson explained, “I guess it comes from having a lot of complicated relationships with a lot of very wonderful but complicated women. Every character in ‘Rex Mundi’ is made up of bits and pieces of the people I’ve known and loved. When I write about a particular character, that character becomes me in some ways. I feel very close to Isabelle, even though she and I are very different. Julien is definitely an idealized version of myself. I definitely live through him – he says the things I wish I could say and has the kind of adventures I’d like to have.”
Finding an artist to fill the shoes of Eric J wasn’t easy, but in Juan Ferreyra, Nelson believes he was successful. “Juan’s involvement is completely the result of Jim Di Bartolo, the artist for ‘Rex Mundi’ Issues 14 and 15 and one of my closest friends,” he explained. “Jim first told me Juan was coming off another series, and he lobbied hard to make sure Juan accepted my offer. Juan is a godsend in so many ways. He puts in a lot of time research too – the army uniforms, for instance, or the beautiful backgrounds, are all the result of his devotion to the story. I’m really flattered he’s taken to it so keenly.”
Speaking of Eric J, the two are still on great terms and there’s no behind the scenes animosity, assured Nelson, who still feels quite warmly about the “Mundi” co-creator. “Eric and I don’t talk nearly as much as we did when we were working on ‘Rex Mundi,’ but that’s to be expected. There’s only love and respect between us. No, no definite plans to collaborate. Eric’s got some really exciting projects of his own coming up, so I think he’ll be pretty busy for a while. But who knows what the future holds?”
As CBR News reported recently, a “Rex Mundi” film is on its way to the big screen and Nelson was happy to provide an update for fans. “In a few weeks we should be making an official announcement. If I said anything more, the producers would abduct me and cut off my balls. And you know what? I’d deserve it,” explained Nelson. “Jim Uhls, who adapted ‘Fight Club,’ will be adapting ‘Rex Mundi.’ So that’s a good sign. ‘Fight Club’ wasn’t exactly an easy adaptation! His biggest challenge, I think, will be distilling the sprawling story into a manageable film. All I can say is ‘I’m glad it’s not me.’ The film will probably be based most heavily on the first three books. If it does well, I don’t think anyone will argue with making another!”
When it comes to the comic book, each issue of “Rex Mundi” changes things “forever,” and Nelson promised that upcoming issues will continue that trend. ” ‘Rex Mundi’ really does begin where something like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ ends. ‘Da Vinci Code’ stuck pretty closely to the details of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. ‘Rex Mundi’ is going a lot farther. The first real hints of that will come in the next issue.”
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