The fantasy genre has undergone a bit of a comics makeover in the last year at Image Comics. Books like “Rat Queens,” “Saga,” and “Umbral” have given the usual genre tropes a much-needed spit-shine by embracing classic fantasy storytelling while introducing relatable characters in tales full of depth, diversity and humor. In 2014, several new books on the Image line-up plan to follow in the same tradition, including “Sovereign” — debuting this month from Chris Roberson and Paul Maybury.
“Sovereign” isn’t a typical fantasy series, but a patchwork of different cultures, ethnicities, traditions and histories that intersect with a supernatural threat. Set in a 16th century-inspired world, three separate stories weave together as magic resurfaces from a long-forgotten past as the threat of civil war rises.
Roberson spoke with CBR News about his plans for “Sovereign,” including his draw to various historical periods, his connection to characters and his passion for embracing diversity.
CBR News: Chris, what is your connection to fantasy stories? What about the genre inspires you?
Chris Roberson: Before breaking into comics as a writer a few years ago, I was a science fiction and fantasy novelist for a number of years. And while I played around with various subgenres in novels and short stories, I never worked with what is usually called “secondary world epic fantasy,” which means a big sprawling story set entirely in an invented world. I spent a long time working on building a world in which to tell stories, inventing cultures and philosophies and magic systems, and then put it all in a drawer because I couldn’t quite make the story come together. Fast-forward a few years, and I realized I could make an interesting comic book out of it, instead, and “Sovereign” is the result.
In “Sovereign,” you pull influences from multiple cultures. Specifically, which cultures did you look to for inspiration? What about them was intriguing for you?
I’m always drawn to stories about cultures in collision, and in thinking about possible historical models for the kind of setting I wanted to create, I kept coming back to the Mughal period in India, during which the primarily Hindu people of the subcontinent were ruled over by Muslims who had invaded from the north. This was the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, as well (and the Shogunate period in Japan, as well), and so there was all sorts of cultural contact going on between these vastly different groups of people. The world in which “Sovereign” takes place isn’t based exactly on that moment in our history, but I definitely drew inspiration from that period.
Why do you think so many stories in this genre lean toward largely caucasian casts? Do you feel like diversity opens up more narrative possibilities?
I think it’s largely because the epic fantasy genre draws so much inspiration from medieval European stories and cultures, but in an overly simplified way that disregards the fact that Europe at the time was far more diverse and interesting than we’re usually told. (There’s a fantastic Tumblr all about this, by the way, which is well worth checking out). But real history is always more interesting than simplistic fictions, and when writers and artists try harder to make their fictional worlds as rich and interesting as the real world, whether their stories are set in the past, present, or future, than I think the stories that result are that much richer for it.
Since there does tend to be a common thread of sameness in many fantasy works, why do you think it attracts such a large following?
Oh, there are actually loads of great fantasy novels that include very diverse casts and cultures, and arguably have been for decades. And the same could be said for animation and anime. But when those works are translated or adapted into other media, they’re often white-washed (see Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” stories or the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series). I would just like to see more diverse fantasy comics, as well.
Tell us about the main characters we meet in “Sovereign”–from the first issue, it seems like a fairly large cast with three separate narratives. Who are the main players?
There are three different narratives that end up interweaving in the first few chapters. There are the Tamurid, the so-called “Horselords” whose ancestors conquered the land of Khend a few generations before. There are the Albelunders, visitors from a distant island kingdom, including an ambassador and a young natural philosopher (what we’d call a scientist, in other words). And three Luminari, sword-wielding undertakers who wear masks and dispose of the remains of the dead.
Their world isn’t much different from ours in the 16th century, except that magic used to be common, and strange creatures abound. Magic had all but vanished from this world, but as our story opens it’s beginning to come back, in a big way.
Which character do you relate to most?
My two favorites are Sister Wren, the young Luminari, and Pol Ravenstone, the young natural philosopher. Both are just venturing out into a broader world for the first time, and trying to make sense of what they’re encountering.
How did you come to work with Paul on this? The art style is different than most fantasy comics — there’s a really playful Jeff Smith quality to it that instantly drew me in. What was the development like on the art?
When I first started talking with Image about doing the project that eventually became “Sovereign,” Paul Maybury’s was the first and only artist who I thought of for the job. I had been looking at things like Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa,” Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” and Moebius Aedena stories as specific inspiration, and wanted to do something that had a unique look and feel to it. Paul’s art fit the bill perfectly!
“Sovereign” #1 debuts in March from Image Comics.