When asked to give a 30-second summation of “Mandala,” writer Stuart Moore laughs. “Among the creative team, we’ve had a discussion about that. We all have different ways of doing it,” he told CBR News. “To me, it’s the story of one man’s quest to set the multiverse right and avoid a nightmarish future. But, to do that he has to delve deep into himself and his own past, and learn some things that he may not want to know. It’s basically science fiction, but it has conspiracy and superhero elements to it. There’s even a bit of a noirish element to it.”
“Mandala” seems to be about more than that, though. The first chapter, released digitally by Dark Horse Comics, does focus on the wonderfully named Michael Morningstar, but the world appears to be one where every conceivable form of magic, every god, every conspiracy theory, every kind of mysticism and every fear is utterly and completely real. And if it’s not real in this universe, then it is in the universe next door.
As the comic opens, Earth has been taken over by malevolent aliens known as “GRID.” They and their human collaborators hold our planet in an iron grip that involves repression and, occasionally, cannibalism. “The main character is tasked,” Moore said, “with gathering a group called The Thirteen, who will basically be humanity’s guides and be the ones to lead us to a new and better future as opposed to a horrific dystopian future, which is where the story begins.”
If the whole thing resembles a kind of cramped epic, that’s because “Mandala” is precisely the sort of dark future that would come out of deep paranoia, and/or a bad experience with hallucinogens.
“I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories and big, cosmic stories,” Moore said. “I’m very influenced by the works of Philip K. Dick — he’s one of my favorite writers. Also Robert Anton Wilson. He wrote the Illuminatus! Trilogy, a seminal series of novels on this subject. I also like his nonfiction, his essays which are all about reality shifting and ways to train yourself to look at the world differently.”
While the main character does sometimes sprout wings, multiple arms and has a giant sword, that’s not necessarily what makes Michael Morningstar the hero of the piece. “Mandala” is very much the kind of story where there’s a clear line between those who know that the world is a lie, and those who remain asleep. “This series is being compared a little bit to ‘The Matrix,'” Moore said, speaking to the most obvious parallel. “In story, they’re completely different, but in concept, both of them are about a single character who learns that the reality that he can see and hear and taste and touch around him is not the only one.”
The artwork supports the story’s grand concept, suggesting a psychedelic yet menacing multiverse. “Bruce [Zick] all along has had significant freedom to break down the story,” Moore said about his artistic collaborator, who utilizes his freedom by creating images of gods, demons, and mystical symbols from throughout human history. It’s a crowded, dense world that hints at ultimately unknowable complexity. “He’ll often take my scripts and expand them quite a bit, adding pages and adding panels. The style he was working on with this was somewhat influenced by Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City.’ As we’ve gone along, I’ve provided him with looser and looser stuff to work with. Bruce works best when he isn’t restricted too much. I try to give him room to move.”
Having debuted the first chapter of “Mandala” digitally, the rest of the six-chapter story will be released in a collected edition. It’s an unconventional way to publish comics, but to Moore’s mind, it makes sense for this project. “I spend a lot of time thinking about this. For a while, it seemed as though single issues were fading out a bit and everyone was getting collected editions and original graphic novels, but digital sales have kind of changed that. If I were [publishing ‘Mandala’] myself, I’d probably serialize it digitally to see if it made sense in the market to do a printed edition, and then do a collected trade paperback. In this case, [Dark Horse] has only made chapter one available, and used it as a teaser for the graphic novel. That’s an interesting experiment. This is all changing and evolving very fast. I have the feeling that if you were to ask me about this in a year, I’d have a completely different answer.”
Moore says that while the first book’s story does have an ending, he hopes that it will by no means be the last we see of his multiverse. “The way it’s structured is that the first six issues gel a more or less complete story, with a few plot threads dangling that could set up something later on. Hopefully they tell a complete, self-contained satisfying story in and of itself, but there are plenty more stories. We’re already working on the next one.”
The first chapter of Stuart Moore and Bruce Zick’s “Mandala” is available digitally, now. The full graphic novel will be released May 14.