Rob Worley’s a man of many hats. He pioneered the successful Comics2Film column here at CBR. He was part of the Epic Comics initiative at Marvel Comics. He helped former Marvel head honcho Bill Jemas launch 360ep. But is that enough for Monsieur Worley? Nope. This summer, he’s back with the illustrated novel “Heir To Fire” from Actionopolis, which tells the story of Ryan Morales, a teenager growing up in Gila Flats, Arizona. Of course, this is an adventure story, so you know that the status quo is going to be shattered really quickly, and as Worley’s shown in the past, there’s no limit to his imagination. Speaking to us from his home in Detroit, Worley told CBR News what to expect in the future of young Ryan Morales.
“No matter how hard Ryan tries to act ‘normal’ and fit in, he always seems to trip up and cause some embarrassing situation,” said Worley of his lead character. “Then, almost overnight, things get worse for our kid. Bizarre spiders turn up everywhere. Gila monsters march the streets at night. A crater opens up in the nearby desert. The alienation he felt before is nothing compared to what happens when the entire town turns on him…seemingly bent on killing him. Ryan has yet to learn that his uniqueness is much more blessing than curse, when it comes to freeing the town from the dark forces that have overrun it. If that all sounds very ‘Saturday Matinee’ or ‘Late Night Creature Feature’ then your getting a picture of my inspirations for it.”
Though Mr. Morales will be our main protagonist, he’s joined by a diverse cast of characters…not all human. “Ryan’s partner in crime is Donut, his best friend and fellow social outcast. Donald’s a bit of science nut with a special fascination with bugs…and spiders. Corrine is Ryan’s new friend. She’s someone who usually has a unique perspective on things. It’s her quick thinking and the ability to piece things together that saves Ryan’s life. And there are about a million little spiders, and each one has a name…”
The role of Ryan as a “chosen” one may seem familiar to those of science fiction and fantasy stories, often featuring an initially unlikely hero who turns out to be perfect for the job. If you’re a fan of those genres, or those types of stories, Worley says you need not worry that “Heir To Fire” will retread those same tales of old. “I’m having fun infusing that character with this weird science/1950s monster-show vibe. That’s one thing that’s always great about science fiction and fantasy…inwards struggles can be externalized and vice versa. Ryan’s sense of social separation becomes very real in the second half of the book, and his outward struggles with the villain have to be resolved internally before he can win the day.
“It’s appealing to me because I spent much of my childhood and young adult life feeling like Ryan — like the one who doesn’t fit in. I was slow to learn that striving for someone else’s idea of normalcy just makes you crazy, especially if it drives you to go against your nature. So to me it’s a gas to watch Ryan embrace his uniqueness in a very powerful way in this story.”
While the previously discussed Actionopolis books seem more adventure-driven, “Heir To Fire” aims to knock you off your chair with some very big action sequences. C’mon, when you have millions of spiders to kill, can you blame Worley for being creative with their deaths? “It’s sort of like an early Spielberg movie, which starts us off in a very normal and ordinary place and slowly replaces those bits of the ordinary world with the fantastic,” says the scribe. “Things go from weird and somewhat comical, to a scary and thrilling, and we end up big, spectacular action…giant monsters and superpowers! All I can say is that when the villain commands a 40 foot long spider with a wrecking ball scorpion’s tail, the hero better come up with something huge too.”
To give a greater sense of scope and authenticity to the story (you need to believe a 40 foot spider can fly), Worley combed through some actual literature and also appealed to one of the comic book medium’s greats. “Most of my research was centered around learning about spiders and gila monsters, both of which figure into the story. And just basically learning about what a small neighborhood in Arizona might be like. I also looked into the origins and early writings and theories about the ‘Ancient Elements’: Earth, Air, fire and Water, which may give you some insights into where future installments of ‘Heir to Fire’ will go.
“As far as mythologies go, I’d say it was heavily influenced by the creations of Jack Kirby. In this book it was more the big monsters Kirby drew in the ’50s and ’60s. There were definitely visions of Goom and Fin Fang Foom and the like in my head while writing this. And where the series ultimately goes will be one of those ancient but technologically advanced places that Kirby imagined in many different incarnations. Places like New Genesis or Attilan.”
Keep in mind that “Heir To Fire,” like all Actionopolis stories, are meant for a wide range of readers, so the book may be action packed, but it won’t be gory. For some, that might mean reining in a lot of violence they’d like to include, but then again, Worley isn’t most writers. “It actually felt like there was less to reign in. I suppose if I was writing horror for an R-rated story I might have made those beats more lurid and gruesome. So where I might have let the story drift that way for adults, I just let those things happen off stage in this book.
“But in a way it was freeing and whenever I had some crazy idea…some thing that I would love to have seen as a kid, I put it in there. I’m not really worried about the readers getting all Bill Nye on me and saying, ‘Oh…that creature could never be that big because it would crush itself under its own weight.’ You just let the big, fun stuff happens and make sure the rest of it’s grounded with stuff kids can relate to.”
That chance to expand the market is a big reason why Worley chose to work with Actionopolis. As mentioned earlier, Worley has worked for a variety of companies, but says that Actionopolis’ desire to expand the market appeals to his sensibilities. “Shannon Denton and Patrick Coyle, who created Komikwers/Actionopolis are both great guys, so I’m really happy to be working with them on anything.
“I think bringing comic-book-ready stories to the young readers book market is a cool idea. These concepts should be right at home on the comic shelf, yet the comic market has sort of drifted away from this kind of storytelling. I pitched a kids concept to Marvel a few years back and they were like, ‘that sounds nice, but let’s talk about Ghost Rider.’ When I told my comics retailer about the chilly reception he wasn’t surprised. His question was, ‘if Marvel did a kids’ book like that, who would buy it?’ Kids weren’t really coming into his store to buy comics in any great number.”
Joining Worley on this endeavor is Mike Dubisch, the artist putting the “illustrated” in the “illustrated novel.” The Actionopolis crew knew Dubisch from previous convention meetings and when “Heir To Fire” came to fruition, he seemed to be the natural choice. “His background is in horror illustration and also fantasy art for Wizards of the Coast and Dragon Lance and the like,” said Worley. “In other words, he’s got plenty of experience drawing big, cool, scary creatures. So he was perfect for this book in every way.
“I think I was only half-way into my first draft when Mike came on board. So he had a few chapters and an outline, and some conversation to get him started. Before long he was cranking out these great spider and lizard designs, which really just inspired me to hit those creature elements harder. He’s been great to work with. Not only is his art great, but he’s fun and a real pro to boot.”
Worley continues to keep busy with other projects. Keep your eyes open for the writer to continue to release more original work this year. “‘The Legend of Tigerfist’ is my next book for Actionopolis, returning to the kung fu and demons genre that I love (as does Shannon). I’m just breaking ground on the second draft of a horror screenplay I’m working on with all-round-scary-talent Hans Rodionoff (“Lovecraft”, “Mnemovore”). And, I’m circling two new comics projects for indie publishers, but those are too early to talk about.”
And if you’re debating pre-ordering the August shipping “Heir To Fire” (available under the “Komikwerks” listing and with Diamond Order Code JUN06 3237), Worley simply says, “Man…didn’t I already tell you about the giant spiders!?”