The world is in ruin, decimated by unimaginable monsters. Monsters infecting the living and the dead. Monsters that are as gigantic and immovable as mountains. Monsters that are flying fortresses. Monsters that need to be stopped. A group of alchemists engineer the perfect solution, creating a woman from dark magic and powering her with a strange Lovecraftian engine — a “Dark Engine.” The woman, Sym, feral with her rib sword and trained to kill, is their only hope to stop the devastation of the monster brood. By sending her back in time, the alchemists hope to slaughter their enemies before they are even born.
Ryan Burton teams up with the talented John Bivens to bring their first series to life via Image Comics. Although the interview routine is old hat to Burton, who has written for CBR since 2012, we turned the tables to dig into the series, finding out more about the creepy, primitive world he and Bivens have created. As Bivens said while describing the series, “‘Dark Engine’ is Sam Becket from ‘Quantum Leap’ having a love child with H.P. Lovecraft, and said lovechild likes to set stuff on fire and stab things.” Clearly, we need to know more.
CBR News: “Dark Engine” is told from three different narratives — a dragon, Sym and Jin. Tell me about each of these characters and how their personalities and perspectives create different narratives.
John Bivens: Ummmm — yeah, Ryan, how do they do that?
Ryan Burton: The three narratives interweave, really. This approach is only taken in the first arc. Since the story starts in the middle, the perspectives help form a better idea of what has happened, what’s happening and what will happen.
Our lead, Sym, is brutal, merciless, horrible. Since we’re dealing with someone who was made in a dark corner in a dark world, just to be sent off into the past on a killing mission, we’ll get to see her develop from the ground up. Jin is an alchemist, those who are responsible for making Sym, but he’s a bit saner than the rest. He’s a teacher, he’s effeminate and he’s empathetic. He also asks questions, which makes him dangerous. The dragon is waiting for Sym’s return to the present, and we’ll find out why in issue four. From the dragon’s narrative, we’re going be delving into the bestiary of “Dark Engine.”
I’d like to talk about Sym exclusively for a second, because her character fascinates me. She reminds me a bit of Jungle Queen Julie from Sam Keith’s “The Maxx,” with a healthy dash of Red Sonja. Tell me about how you developed her.
Bivens: When drawing her, especially since she’s been the strongest source of action for me in the book, I picture her as a force of nature. On the visual side, Ryan asked that I approach Sym as a barbarian with curling locks. She has had to forage for any weapons and clothing, so everything is a hodgepodge.
Burton: Her physical appearance had to be just right. I saw a short Moebius did, and in that story, a little girl had the hair style we would end up using for Sym. Secondly, as John mentioned, she needed to be a force of nature — a Beowulf, a Conan, a Kratos. Stripped down so that all that was left was rage, all that was left was fury. John took it from there.
You describe her as the “ultimate survivalist savage.” What sort of things is she surviving? As her time/space location changes, how do her skills apply?
Bivens: She is battling ever-changing environments that bring about a variety of predators. Some of the threats are prehistoric, some are human and some are — other.
Burton: In her travels, she’ll be acquiring relics, period clothing, even alterations to her physical appearance. When she’s among the Scyldings, she’ll be prying a fur cloak off a dead chieftain. Things of that nature — all in an effort to survive whatever situation or environment she’s in so that she can complete the mission she was made for.
The title, “Dark Engine,” I am assuming refers to the sentient engine of the time travel device powering Sym. The idea of sentient machines is something we’re seeing a lot of in comics, and something that is becoming more and more a part of our reality as we make movements toward actual transhumanism. What is the relationship the characters have with technology? Is it a blessing and a curse?
Bivens: Oh, it’s a curse. I would say that for even characters whom use and abuse the technology, it’s a curse.
Burton: The engine that powers her is organic, it has a pulse. It is unlike anything anyone else has or will come in contact with. As far as the other characters go? John’s dead right. No matter what they are dealing with in our story, be it technology or what have you, that thing will have its cost — its curse — and the coin will be of no small value.
You’ve said that you built your writing direction based on John’s artwork — how did you guys come to work together? What about his style inspires the story?
Bivens: This crazy guy named Ryan kept emailing me. I was scared for my life and asked what he wanted — he told me there were three pitches to pick from and I needed to choose.
Burton: I’ve known John through Internet circles for about five years now. I had a couple of stories that I wanted to pitch to him, but I knew one would be more to his liking — the one that involved honest to God monster autopsy scenes, macabre set pieces, endless swordplay. What I’ve seen him do — be it character design, or pacing of particular scene — John’s an animal made of nightmares, and folks are going to lose their mind when they see his work.
There are so many fun visuals in the first issue — this blend of sort of prehistorically botanical wastelands with dragons and dinosaurs and swords and skulls. It conveys an excellent sense of surreal primitiveness. For John, what parts of “Dark Engine” have been the most exciting to draw? And Ryan, how much freedom are you giving John with the look of the book?
Bivens: This comic has been one big sketchbook for me, I get to go into a page and take the art in directions I want to go. Even in the backgrounds I can hide fun abstracted areas. Drawing the engine itself has been the most entertaining for me.
Burton: There are a few things I’m particular about, but on a whole, I’m pretty easy going. John’s co-owner of the book, so neither of us have final say. It’s a collaboration. The only thing I was heavily invested in was Sym’s look and the design of the engine itself. Other than that, I shoot John links of cool things other folks in other industries are doing or send him a quick email about something I think is rad.
What was your reaction like when Image picked up your book?
Burton: At first I wanted to grab a beer, but I celebrated in a different way, a better way. I met my wife and my boy out for a slice of pie at a local diner. We just smiled and laughed the entire time.
Bivens: Working for Image has been a goal since my high school years. Pretty sure Ryan and I spent two days going, did this just happen? Is this real?
Since this is your first major comics project, how are you self-managing the editorial process of a creator-owned book?
Bivens: Are we dealing with an editor?
Burton: As you said, since this is our first major gig, we’re treating it quite seriously. We’ll text or phone one another often about any particularities or discrepancies in either the script or how we choose to represent a scene. We also hold a bi-weekly Skype session, where we give a bit of status update, talk comics and drink our coffee.
Ryan — you’ve worked here at CBR for a while, and in the periphery of comics — what has that taught you?
Burton: I’m often reminded how essential it is to look outside the industry for inspiration; I’m reminded how important it is to have new experiences.
Most importantly, though, I love how comics can’t be pinned down. There are no rules. I think of comics like DeForge’s “Ant Colony,” or Conley and Gentry’s “Sabertooth Swordsman,” and I get so excited that there is no one way to do comics. God, just look at JH Williams’ work on “Sandman: Overture.” It’s comics like these, fucking brilliant works like these, that show us the potential of comics. And the absolutely insane thing is, it feels that we’re just scratching the surface.
“Dark Engine” #1 arrives in stores on July 16.
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