This month, Top Cow Productions launches the formerly digital “Bushido” as a weekly print series. The title, written by Rob Levin and illustrated by Jessada Sutthi, blends traditional Samurai history with a twist on vampire legends.
Set in feudal Japan, “Bushido” follows Kichiro, an orphaned boy adopted into a Samurai family after vampires kill his parents. Although Kichiro is prohibited from being initiated as a Samurai warrior due to his being a foreigner, he lives by their code of honor and trains diligently. Kichiro’s devotion to the way of the Samurai give him the skills and discipline necessary to lead a group of warriors in response to the vampire attacks against his family and rise above a wake of tragedy to restore justice.
Rob Levin spoke with CBR News about the first three issues of “Bushido,” the importance of balancing legend with history and his plans for moving the story forward as a printed comic.
CBR News: Tell me a little bit about the vampires in “Bushido.” What is their folklore based on?
Rob Levin: Part of what I wanted to do with the vampires in this was to make them feel like outsiders, and really embrace their otherness. They are an invading force, and a powerful one at that, and we wanted to play up the idea that it was hard for the Japanese people to even understand what they were up against.
I remember hearing a story, and I can’t verify whether this is actually true, that when Native Americans first saw European ships, they couldn’t actually see them. They knew there was something there, and that’s obviously where these outsiders came from, but the idea of these ships was so outside of their realities that they couldn’t actually reconcile the idea of what they were with the visual. I don’t know if it’s like a massive blind spot, or when they blur background faces out on “Cops,” but that’s always stuck with me. I think I wanted the Japanese to have these same kind of blinders on. They call the vampires monsters and refer to them as akuma and oni, but they never really understand what they’re actually up against. There’s a lot that’s left somewhat ambiguous in the book to accomplish this idea, but I think it’ll be clear that they’re both organized and highly dangerous.
In terms of specifics, the story features two different classes of vampires. The first is the standard, anthropomorphic vampires that were once human. They have pale skin, enhanced physicality and athleticism. On the other hand, we have the “Berserker” class vampires that are all sorts of monstrous. They’re the heavy hitters for the vamps, and we don’t give much hint into what they are in this story, but I have plenty of ideas for them, should there be more stories in this universe.
Your story has a great grasp on the history of Samurai and feudal Japan — what kind of research did you?
This is a tough question to answer, but I’ll give you the longish version. “Bushido” was actually the first book I was supposed to do for Heroes and Villains, but it kept getting held up for various reasons, so I ended up working on “Netherworld” first. Actually, Bryan Edward Hill, who I co-wrote “Netherworld” with, was involved in the very early stages of “Bushido,” so a couple of things — like the Berserker vamps and a couple of overarching ideas — came from his involvement. The first mention I have of the book in my e-mail is from January 2010, so there was some stuff I did early on when we gave our take to HVE, and then more since when the project actually got the green light.
In terms of specifics, I watched some anime — stuff like “Blood: the Last Vampire” — just to try and ground myself in a different visual language for the vampires. We don’t exactly have any shortage of vampire fiction in American comics and film right now, and the last thing any of us wanted to do was deliver more of the same. A few years back, I read Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings,” and that was probably the single most influential thing for me going into the series.
Beyond that, it was a lot of looking into dark corners of the Internet, really trying to ground myself in Samurai principles and the Bushido. It’s easy to read about the seven principles and take it more as philosophy than an actual way of life, so I tried to dive deeper and gain an understanding of it as a functional guide. I also watched a couple documentaries to get a better sense of the time period and various customs, but that becomes a slippery slope, so we opted to fictionalize things like who the Shogun was, and even some geography, late in the series.
One of the main areas where I did see a lot of creative license in terms of history is Mitsuko’s character. She is really outspoken and independent, which wasn’t necessarily the role of women in feudal Japan. What was important to you when creating her character?
It’s easy to take the macro view of history and think that there was no one fighting to change the status quo until the people that actually did so broke through, and the more digging you, do the more you can discover that these struggles were often widespread on an individual basis. One of the things I discovered years ago, that separated mediocre writing from great writing, was making supporting characters feel like real people, even if they’re only around for a scene. The late Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” That’s the approach I took to Mitsuko, the only blood heir of our shogun. She has things she wants for herself, independent of her duties to her father and Japan, and she’s a strong capable woman who goes after what she wants.
I know a ton of strong, capable women, and I’d be doing them all a disservice if I had one of the major characters in this story relegated to “Generic Love Interest.” Some people might still accuse me of that since her arc isn’t as fully realized as Kichiro’s, but I tried to make her an interesting and sympathetic character in the space allotted.
The last thing I ever want is for any character I write, even if it’s someone with no lines, to ever be a plot point. There’s a scene in the second issue where we visit a village after it’s been attacked, and while it only shows up for a couple pages, before I wrote a word of script, I stopped to consider what this village was like and who the people were that lived there. I don’t know if any of that comes through — and some it is filtered through choices an artist makes in the case of comics — but that’s how my process works. If I don’t take that time, it doesn’t feel like I’ve done my job.
In the first four issues, we see the tension in the relationship between Orochi and Kichiro drive them apart. Is it possible that they will repair their relationship in the future?
Orochi has resented Kichiro for a long time when our story really kicks off, so you have to keep that in mind when assessing their relationship. And then, two pretty huge things happen in the first issue, at least one of which is actually Kichiro’s fault, so I don’t see any hope for reconciliation any time soon. Each brother has his own journey to go on in this series, but I would have to say, if there’s any hope for reconciliation, it’s going to come from Kichiro. His belief in the Bushido is just so damn strong, and you’ll see that at several points in this series, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he commits seppuku on the last page just to get Orochi to stop being mad at him. Oh, um — Spoiler alert?
When you were creating this story, did you have a particular aesthetic in mind?
I started writing before we had an artist, so I knew things would change by the time I was scripting directly for someone. My initial idea was to do a sort of hybrid east-meets-west aesthetic, where we employed a lot of smaller panels punctuated by these splashy, widescreen images. Nothing too highbrow, but I wanted the storytelling to have that feeling since we were dealing with Edo period Japan and there are just so many ho hum vampire stories out there. Some of that changed based on the work Jessada Sutthi and Studio Hive actually did. I find it best never to be overly dogmatic. When I work with an artist, they’re my partner, and you could even argue that more of their work ends up on the page than mine, so I always want to find the right balance between what’s in my head, what they want to do and are good at, and what ends up on the page. We definitely moved away from my original east-west idea as the series progressed, but that was more a function of seeing what Jessada did best and knowing how he interpreted certain elements from the script.
How did you come to work with Jessada?
I come from an editorial background, so I know how quickly, and for how many different reasons, art can shift from your initial plan to what actually shows up between the covers. I always start with a list of 5-10 guys I think could handle the material and rank them in order of preference, then I work with my editors, and in the case of “Bushido,” with Mikhail, Markus and Dick at HVE, as well.They bring some names to the table, cross off anyone who’s unavailable and we reassess. I wasn’t actually aware of Jessada or Studio Hive, but when Filip Sablik (the book’s original editor) first suggested him as a possibilty, we all saw something pretty special there and an opportunity to further set our book apart from the vampire pack.
“Bushido” has been available digitally for the past few months — why are you making the jump to print?
That was totally a call by Top Cow and Heroes and Villains. If I recall correctly, they did the same thing on Robert Napton’s “Son of Merlin” miniseries, and I believe the digital sales were really strong on that, so they opted to do the same thing here. I am a huge fan of digital for a number of reasons, and I’ve been waiting for fans to catch up to where we’re just about to. It’s not about competing with print editions: It’s about supplementation and giving readers access to content in whatever format they prefer. I’m actually not buying any more print comics unless they’re collected editions. Everything I read in a monthly or serialized format is digital. I still want everything to be $0.99 a pop — $1 is an impulse buy for most people, $2-$4 isn’t — but I think we’re headed in the right direction. I should also take this opportunity to mention that “Bushido: The Way of the Warrior” #1 is available digitally right now for just $1.
But seriously, print was always in the plans for the book. I think it was a combination of the digital success of “Son of Merlin” and HVE’s confidence in the book that they wanted to get it out there sooner rather than later. I think it’s taken close to a year if not more to get this book fully painted and into stores, whereas with digital, you can send a book to comiXology and some of the other digital vendors and have it go up within a matter of days (or about four weeks, if you’re waiting for Apple to approve it). I’m thrilled to have it out there in both formats, because it’s a story I’ve been living with for several years now. The fact that it’s going to be released in print weekly in October is new to me. I’m usually happy when books I’ve written ship monthly, so knowing that we had the flexibility to hold off and release one after the other for five weeks is awesome. It’s like my own little event — with samurai and vampires!
[Full disclosure: Rob Levin is an assistant editor at Comic Book Resources.]