Keith Giffen and Colleen Doran have set out to make “the best fantasy comic ever created in America.” Sometime later this year, their new ongoing collaboration, “Reign of the Zodiac,” will be published by DC Comics.
The year 2003 marks a Keith Giffen renaissance for fans of the writer/artist who once dominated comic racks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This summer will see no fewer than three new DC Comics series, in addition to “Dominion,” from Image Comics.
Fans of his scorched Earth style superhero books, whether it be the invasion of Australia in DC Comics’ “Invasion!” and “Justice League International” or life “Five Years Later” in the “Legion of Superheroes” are currently getting their gritty superhero comics itch scratched with “Dominion.”
Fans of his wildly idiosyncratic run on “Justice League International” can pick up “Formerly Known as the Justice League,” with original series artist Kevin Maguire, starting in May.
And the readers who missed his insanely over-the-top bad boy Lobo will get a new miniseries in June.
But for the fans of his “Five Years Later” run on “Legion of Superheroes” who miss the densely, even intricately plotted stories, the shades of gray, the mature themes and the sometimes frustrating (if certainly realistic) non-traditional resolutions to superheroic conflict, that’s been something that hasn’t been available. Indeed, on a number of projects in recent years, Giffen has taken pains to point out that they aren’t like the “Five Years Later” works.
That changes later this year. That’s when Giffen’s new DC ongoing, “Reign of the Zodiac” hits shelves. Written by Giffen with art by Colleen Doran, it’s a collaboration that has been “20 years in the making,” Giffen told CBR News. “I’ve been trying to find something to work on with her for 20 years.”
If it’s a collaboration that seems a little surprising — the muy macho Giffen and the creator who is still best known for the somewhat ethereal “A Distant Soil” series — that’s a good thing.
“I like that she and I are drinking from different wells,” Giffen said. “I like ‘A Distant Soil’ and it’s nothing like ANYTHING I’d ever do. … It’s one of the reasons I’ve kept my fingers out of the visual aspect of the series. I like that she’ll come back with something different that I can build on.”
But while the two haven’t worked on any major projects together, they’ve known each other for decades. Giffen was an artist on “Legion of Superheroes” back in the pre-World Wide Web days when the preferred vehicle for LSH fandom was Interlac, the APA or fanzine. And Doran was a frequent contributor.
“One day, out of the clear blue sky, from Keith Giffen, saying ‘I really like your stuff, how would you like to audition to be the new artist for Legion of Superheroes?'” Doran told CBR News. “And this was at a time when people still said stupid crap like ‘girls can’t draw superheroes.’ And Keith had none of that. But I had already other commitments to other publishers.”
Over the years, though, Giffen steered pin-up work to Doran, especially those featuring her favorite character, Element Lad, and the two collaborated on the “Five Years Later” issue featuring the revelation that the character’s police officer girlfriend was transgendered. (In the Legion’s 30th century era, sex changes can be achieved with pharmaceuticals.)
But “Reign of the Zodiac” is neither superheroes nor science-fiction: “‘Zodiac’ is a brand new ‘Dune’/’Lord of the Rings’-intricate cosmology that’s being built from the ground up,” Giffen said. “It’s an immerse fantasy for fans who like to visit and revisit a setting. Very much in the vein of the ‘Five Years Later’ Legion, but more sophisticated.
“Fans who like the ‘Five Years Later’ Legion are going to love this, because it’s deeper. It’s a lot deeper. Fans who like story-driven books, and not everything is spelled out for you, and each chapter is like you get deeper into the story, that stuff is all over the place. If you’re into the five minutes, sound bite, read it and it’s over [comics], do me a favor and stay away from the book.”
Or, to put it another way, it’s “‘Dune’ by way of ‘The Legion of Superheroes,’ but that’s so inadequate to describe it.”
“Basically, the book is about the 12 warring houses of the Zodiac. They are autonomous and independent nobles houses of this fantasy world,” Doran said. “We’ve taken some of the traditions and the social mores that are supposedly associated with various astrological traits and made kingdoms out of them. Boy, I’ve gotta tell you, this is one of the most complex and involved projects I’ve ever been involved in, and considering what ‘A Distant Soil’ is like, that’s saying something,” she laughed.
While fantasy isn’t a stretch for Doran, it’s a new genre for Giffen.
“I haven’t been doing a lot of fantasy work. I’ve always bumped up against it previously, and then backed away. I’ve always been comfortable doing ‘Lobo’ as one long fart book,” Giffen said. “We’re talking about fantasy, not sword and sorcery, but it takes a more sensitive touch. … It took me until this point until I felt like I could do a more sensitive book, where every conflict isn’t resolved through mindless violence.”
And this is a book that’s been a long time in coming.
“I still call ‘Zodiac’ the book that I’ve spent my entire career leading up to,” Giffen said. “It’s been percolating for quite a while. When you think about it, it’s hard to believe it’s never been done. All I’m doing is saying is ‘what if there was a reality out there where the signs of the Zodiacs were gods? What if there were 12 houses out there?'”
The reality is one of the key things both Giffen and Doran are trying to create. The 12 houses act in accordance with what astrology buffs say those born under a given sign are like, generally speaking.
“We’re trying to make the House of Capricorn act as much like Capricorns as possible but there are many, many astrological schools out there,” Giffen said. “So I’ve got my sourcebook, and not going to say which one it is.”
Giffen, as the series writer, is busy creating naming conventions, and giving the different houses their own ways of speaking.
“The fun thing is I found a book of all these antiquated curse words. One of these words I’m in love with is ‘spraints’ — you know what that is? That’s otter shit! There’s actually a word for otter shit! I’m like a mental patient with this stuff.”
Meanwhile, Doran, as series artist, is creating the visuals for this whole fantasy world.
“There are no costumes, there are clothes,” she said. “People change clothes from scene to scene. They have to still be recognizable as belonging to a certain house, and be a holistic part of this fantasy world. And because they change clothes, they have to have individual faces.”
And each house will also have their own style and traditional modes of dress.
“In a few cases, we’ve decided to go over the top, like with Leo, which is this over-the-top High Renaissance stuff with big hair,” she said. “I decided that Pisces is really the sign of the fisherman, since you see two fish on a line. So I decided to avoid the visual clichés that most people are using right now. … So I decided to adapt costumes from Finland, Norway and Tzarist Russia, which I don’t think anyone was expecting. … I’ve got kind of a Mongolian look for Sagittarius. For Gemini, they’re kind of high tech and modern. For Cancer, being sort of ethereal, we’ve tried to go high fashion.
“The goal is that everybody gets a different face, a different body type and different fashion. … I’m going berserk, I’m going absolutely insane,” she laughed again, “but it is absolutely one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done, because it’s so challenging.”
Fortunately, though, she wasn’t caught totally unprepared for the project.
“Keith just called me up one day, and said ‘I’ve got this great project for you,'” Doran said. “A year ago, I’d done some design work for a new age magazine that wanted me to do all this stuff for the Zodiac.” While the project didn’t end up panning out, “I said ‘you’re not going to believe this, but I’ve already got all this research and reference material.'”
One thing about “Reign of the Zodiac” that Doran wants to make sure of: It will not look like most of the fantasy books on comic shelves today.
“Most fantasy done in comics right now, really almost all of it, is just spandex,” she said. “There’s very, very little of it that’s about world-building. That’s what we’re doing in this book; we’re trying to create a complete holistic world.”
“If this book fails, it won’t be because of the heart we put into it,” Giffen said. “This is the one if it fails, it’ll hurt.”
“He’s an obsessive wordsmith, and I’m an obsessive visualist,” Doran said. “When you’re trying to create a world, that’s just what you need.”
With two individualistic writer/artists working together, it’s certainly possible that they might end up butting heads, but both say the collaboration is working out fantastically.
“He has not asked me to change a single thing,” Doran said. The only thing I get from Keith is ‘I love what you’re doing, I knew you’d be right for the project.'”
“The only other artist that I have 100 percent confidence in that will nail anything I can imagine is [‘Formerly Known as the Justice League’ artist] Kevin Maguire,” Giffen said.
“So the first issue is going to be this big, expansive, double-page spread stuff with ‘AND THEN ATLANTIS SANK!'” Doran laughed. “‘Lawrence of Arabia!’ ‘Lord of the Rings’ Helms Deep! Make it big! Make it epic!’ It’s grueling, actually.
“When I say it’s the hardest book I’ve ever done, I mean it. ‘Orbiter’ was pretty difficult, but it had a fairly limited cast. I may have drawn the space shuttle 50, 60 times, but eventually, I could draw it in my sleep,” she said. “I’m continually having to create new costumes, having to create new characters, having to create new buildings. And if I create something, it has to be something I can live with. … I’m not cheating, and saying ‘what’s easy to draw.’
“At the same time, it’s incredibly fun. We are SO jazzed. When we sat down to do costumes, I sat down with a sketchbook and did like 100 costumes. … We said ‘nothing Japanese, nothing Japanese inspired.’ Because Japan in comics has been done to DEATH. So no crinkly kimonos.
“And the storytelling has to be as clean as a whistle. Because Keith’s storytelling is very dense. And some of the characters don’t have normal ways of talking. … So I have to be very careful in how I present things.”
As for whether the big ambitions both creators are bringing to the book will pay off, they don’t know.
“I’ve been promised 12 issues, and have been given 12 issues to get this book off the ground,” Giffen said. “I can’t predict the audience. I think our hope is to get out of the comic market and into the astrology audience, and have them see that ‘hey, they’re making a book here for me.’
“I’m just having way too much fun on this, and this makes me worried, because the books I have a lot of fun on have a tendency to go away. But I get 12 issues, which is more than a lot of people get, so props to DC.”
Those 12 issues make up the first of the planned 12 six issue story arcs, one for each sign of the Zodiac.
“Were I God, I would like to be able to look at the bookshelf one day and see 12 graphic novels for the 12 books of the Zodiac,” he said.
They know “Reign of the Zodiac” won’t be for everyone — with the financial risks that implies — but that’s sort of the point.
“If I wanted to play it really, really safe, I would have pushed ‘Formerly Known as the Justice League’ to be the monthly series, and stick to the formats that I’m comfortable with. But then I stagnate,” Giffen said. “But let’s see if there’s a market out there for this sort of stuff.”
Giffen and Doran intend to do anything but play it safe:
“Let’s try and make the best fantasy comic ever created in America,” Doran said. “If we don’t achieve the best, we sure gave it everything we had.”