“Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” is a bit of advice that has been proven sound throughout history. Therefore, “Beware of 6’8″ barbarians in wolfskins carrying four foot broadswords” should likely be heeded as well. And if, by chance, this piece of wisdom isn’t completely clear for you, it will be after reading Warren Ellis‘ “Wolfskin” from Avatar Press.
While existing barbarian fantasy characters like Conan and Red Sonja seem to have been enjoying a renaissance of late, leave it to writer Warren Ellis to bring readers a totally different spin on this bloody genre – with extra blood! CBR News checked in with Ellis to find out more about the origins of this story and its Wolfskin character, and artist Juan Jose Ryp chimed in to answer a few questions as well.
With regards to the story’s inspiration, Ellis explained, “It came directly from a dare from Avatar publisher William Christensen, which was framed something like, ‘I bet you couldn’t write a Conan-style heroic fantasy book for Juan Jose Ryp, you effete English fop.’
“I had him sexually assaulted by Garth Ennis (“Preacher,” “Punisher,” “303”) for his cheek, but the insult still burned. So I sat down and thought, ‘What would a heroic fantasy book for the manic detail-fiend Ryp look like?’
“I read all the ‘Conan’ books in my youth, but hadn’t gone near them in more than twenty years. I remember reading a bunch of books in that mode around the same time, mostly bought out
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of the Oxfam in Rayleigh for ten pence a go. But it was Conan that worked – a miserable bastard from the frozen North. Living in chilly England as I do – well, if you know my work at all – you can understand how it appealed to me. All great British fiction is, at heart, about a miserable bastard.
“But Conan was always from further north, I felt – despite his black hair, I always associated his home with Scandinavia. I’ve long had a fascination with that region’s culture. So, starting from that point, I began assembling a mash-up of history and fantasy.
“Imagine, then, a Pangaeic prehistoric single continent, all the world’s land-masses still fused together. Part of the attraction of that kind of fantasy is the idea of a period of history lost to us. People still pore over Robert Howard’s maps of his Hyrkanian era, just as they do Tolkien’s maps – there’s strange magic in that kind of thing. People are still enthralled by that 1500s map of dubious provenance that shows a land-bridge to a green Antarctica. It lights the imagination.
“So you take a world of medieval civilization that we never knew of, a place where all the peoples of the world move freely without the necessity of naval technologies. And you take a man from the north – and here I gave in to my weakness for Viking culture, having grown up in a village that began as an English Viking settlement – and you send him walking south, into what is now Europe.”
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In discussing the story, it seems Ellis uses historical facts and the mythology of various regions in creating his tale. As for which parts are fact and which are fiction, they appear to blend together in a way that makes the two indistinguishable from one another.
“As I said, it’s a mash-up,” said Ellis. “The Wolfskin is a Viking-like warrior; ‘wolfskin’ was in fact one term for the famous ‘berserker’ warrior of Nordic antiquity. Like the ‘warp-spasm’ warriors of ancient Ireland, the berserkers were said to transform into animals, in some accounts, like werewolves. What it seems they did, of course, is to take psychoactive mushrooms, which drove them nuts.
“Historically, they were far from alone in the concept of getting out of their heads before battle; some eastern cultures would give their soldiers sugar, which sent them absolutely haywire, as humans just didn’t eat that stuff at the time. And, of course, there were the hash-head killers of Hassan I Sabbah, the hashishin from whom we take the word ‘assassin.’
“But never assume the Vikings were just primitive drug-suckers. They were treated as freaks by other cultures because they washed every day. They were literate, and good with languages. I lifted a lot from the period and put it into a fantasy context: an elite Northish soldier, a Wolfskin, walking south into temperate Europe – speaking several languages, having adopted elements of other cultures as his own, and yet somehow excommunicated from his people.
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“There’s the other thing in ‘Wolfskin’: the Chambara. Chambara is a particular kind of Japanese drama about a wandering swordsman. ‘Zatoichi’ is an excellent example. ‘Yojimbo’ counts, too, and that’s what I came down to: Conan in ‘Yojimbo.’ A swordsman entering a village cut in half.”
From Ellis’ description of the ‘Wolfskin,’ you can see that he lays out his story in intricate details. Having to draw images based on these descriptions could be a challenge, as you might imagine. Thankfully, artist Juan Jose Ryp indicated that he loves a challenge.
“Well, ‘Wolfskin’ is my second work with Warren Ellis,” said Ryp. “Our first work together (which was ‘Angel Stomp Future‘ from Apparat) I enjoyed a lot, and it is a book for which I have a very special affection. I think that it is the best book to date that I have drawn for Avatar Press. Then, when William proposed for me to work another time with Warren, I didn’t think twice. To work with Warren the first time was risky for me; he uses a rich language and full of shades of interpretation.
“I still don’t have a mastery of your language [English is not Ryp’s native tongue], and I sometimes pass hours trying to understand the whole content of a description. Reading them – the ideas and his forms of expressing them – always feels new. Warren has that virtue, all his books seem an absolute novelty in any genre, although he writes about a topic that it is very common (e.g. ‘Wolfskin’ = sword and sorcery). He knows the form of giving a new focus – a surprising take that nobody thought of before. It always ends up being a pleasure to draw for Ellis and the art itself is easy – the pencil draws itself based on his words. It is an honor for me, and a privilege.”
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Speaking of Ellis’ words, readers may be curious about the characters that populate this barbarian fantasy. The scribe gave us the lowdown on who the tale’s main players are: “The Wolfskin himself, and the Noi. Noi is a region of the world roughly analogous to east Asia – China, Korea, Japan, etc. The man called The Noi in ‘Wolfskin’ is an old man of that region who journeyed into the Midland, the European region, some years previously.
“They brought with them a new technology, alien to the Midland: gunpowder. When they chose to settle in this High Midland village, it was essentially to run the quiet little place. The two brothers (running the village) had something of a falling-out, prior to the beginning of the story, and, as I say, the Wolfskin wanders into a village that’s been cut in half.”
When asked about the cause of brothers “falling-out,” Ellis refused to divulge details. He replied, “I’m not going to tell you what they’re fighting over. But the Wolfskin is prevailed upon to stick around. The manner of his arrival leaves the Noi’s half of the village somewhat short in fighting men. He is coerced into replacing the men he killed with himself in order to restore the balance of power somewhat.”
Part of what makes a barbarian fantasy tale great is the swordfights. Trying to choreograph these fights, however, is a challenge that must be met by both the writer and the artist. From Ellis’ perspective, it seems to be a matter of focus, simplicity, and beauty.
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“I choreograph the moves, panel by panel,” said Ellis. “The trick is to keep the thing in focus – you can’t have twelve people going at each other in a single panel when there are five panels on the page, and the fight has no beauty that way. Look at the way most Asian films build their fights – it’s a cascade of individual scenes, not just nine guys hacking at one guy all at once. You build it up, give each crucial action its own moment.”
Ryp is humble in explaining his part in this choreography. But for readers who have seen Ryp’s art before, they know his contribution to the success of any comic story is significant – especially when it comes to action scenes. The artist explained, “Just as I said before, the most complicated thing is to understand exactly the idea that Warren wants, then I try to express it my way. The whole choreography is generally in the text, maybe I change some small shades or I include back planes that are not in the script. But I try to be true to the writing of Ellis. I don’t use any special technique.
“I make quick sketches where the actions are like the writer seeks,” continued Ryp. “I generally make two different sketches for each panel, but a very quick-and-dirty work, without details. Then I choose the most appropriate, and I add clothes, weapons, details, etc. Nothing special, but I am a very diligent designer. I draw two or three pages of pencils a day. I cannot spend a lot of time in previous sketches. The artisan simply must produce pages.”
When writing in this particular genre, writers must make a decision when it comes to the characters dialect. Do they speak like pirates (“Avast, ye varlets!”), like Shakespeare (“Thine blood dost run…”), or like the Hulk (“Barbarian SMASH!”). Ellis had his own thoughts on the subject.
“I’m attempting to use a limited, simple vocabulary. Colloquial English, but without sophisticated terms. And a lot of swearing. English has always been a filthy language. You have to get into their heads and find the metaphors a pre-industrial society would use. Historicizing the dialogue and having people call each other varlets just didn’t sit right. I didn’t want to restructure sentences – I needed it to be raw, not distancing.
“‘Your mother must’ve laboured mightily to make shit come out of a donkey’s cock’ is one line I still quite like.”
With language as…”salty” as the above, fans can expect a barbarian tale geared for adults. Since barbarians are, by their nature, barbaric, this makes sense. CBR News questioned Ellis about how he makes decisions regarding story content. Specifically, we asked if he ever worries about publishers restricting his content, and if this is something he takes into consideration when writing stories for the marketplace?
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“Well, since it started with Avatar, I knew there’d be no content restrictions,” said Ellis. “But what I’ll usually do is write what the story demands, and then look for someone who’ll publish it. I’m lucky, though, to have a relationship with Avatar, who are reliably fearless about content. Go and look at ‘Stranger Kisses’ and see if I’m kidding.
“In terms of ‘Wolfskin,’ though – have you ever seen anyone cut by a sword? It’s nasty. I didn’t want anything remotely clean, comforting or safe about the swordfights. Have you ever tried lifting an old sword? They’re bloody heavy. Those things made a mess because of the weight of the sword as well as the edge and the muscle behind it. The Wolfskin scares the shit out of people in an early section of the book because he takes a classic two-handed heavy sword and holds it in one hand while drawing a short companion blade of the Japanese style.
“I’m still working through the last part of the serial, trying to work some bows in there. It’s still a mildly disturbing experience to draw a longbow and hear the arrow smack into the target, because you suddenly become aware of what that arrowhead must’ve done to flesh and bone. That’s what I’m hoping to get across, in those bloody action sequences; we tend to forget how hard and scary and painful that kind of life was.”
Ryp also offered his thoughts on drawing “extreme” content. “When I received the first descriptions of ‘Wolfskin,’ it was unavoidable for me to think of Robert E. Howard, and especially of ‘Conan the Barbarian,'” said Ryp. “Years ago, I worked in Spain on several covers about this character (Red Nails). Seriously, I need to say that this stereotype – masculine, hard and wild – is not my favorite thing to draw. But, I hate the artists that always work in the same genre or with similar characters, it is also the incentive of working next to Warren.
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“I assumed this work would be a challenge, a challenge where I try to make my best work. And now we are here,” said Ryp. “I learned how to draw looking at the spectacular pages of Buscema – they’re a great reference; the movement of his warriors is unbeatable, his planning of each page, the anatomy is great. But in the end, I prefer the technique of Barry Windsor Smith. I have tried to be inspired by his illustrations for this work. Mainly, I am fascinated with his graphic elegance. About the gory panels, I use my normal technique. Anyone who knows my work will know that I am very bloody and gory.”
“Wolfskin” is a three-issue miniseries, with the first issue arriving in shops this April. And while the price of each issue is $3.99, Ellis is happy to offer readers a free piece of advice in closing:
“Never drink Viking Beer in Iceland…it’s piss water.”
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