A Different Kind Of Girl Power: Barbara Kesel talks 'Meridian'

When you talk about the comic book market today, it's hard not to notice the work being done at CrossGen, whether you're a fan of their comics or not. They're getting comics into schools, trying different, affordable full-color formats for their comics and making sure many of their comics are available for viewing on the Internet. But with "Meridian," they've done something that's not seen often in any of the major companies these days- kept the same writer on the series since day one and grown the audience. CBR News caught up with series writer Barbara Kesel and spoke with her about the thinking behind the series and got an introduction to the layered comic that a lot of readers might not have caught onto yet.

"'Meridian' is the story of Sephie, Minister of Meridian," explains Kesel. "The island of Meridian is one of many floating city-states that dot the skies of Demetria. It's a coming-of-age story about a motherless young girl who suddenly loses her father, gains a mark with ties her to great power, and discovers that her loving uncle is actually her world's greatest villain.

"Sephie is the girl adventure hero I always wanted to read about and rarely found in stories. She does stuff; she doesn't wait for someone else to suggest it, and she's not waiting for her boyfriend to help her or save her. She has an introspective bravery: although we see her bold actions, we're privy to her inner dialogue that reveals what she's thinking about what's happening, her dreams, her fears, and her general perceptions.

"Ilahn is her uncle, a fantastically successful businessman and the villain of the piece. Even though he was born on Meridian, he is now the Minister of Cadador, a neighboring island city-state he gained through marriage...to a woman who is now dead. He was poisoning his brother Turos (Sephie's father) to gain Meridian, and still hopes to do so through control of his niece. He will do whatever it takes, moral or immoral, for the 'greater good' of putting all of Demetria under his control, which he feels will best serve his world.

Fans have often remarked that their favorite aspect of the series' writing is the complexity of the characters and the fact that the shades of gray found in the characters are not so far removed from reality. This realism is something Kesel works hard to achieve and she explains that the surprises are far from over. "I like to think that every character's complex, with differing shades of gray. Sephie herself is impatient, prone to bolting before thinking, and sometimes a little too slow to act. While she always tries to make the right decision, what she decides to do isn't always the right move.

"Ilahn is a better 'villain' because he perceives himself as a hero. He's smarter than everyone else, has a better idea of just what they need, and therefore he must act on their behalf. (Or that's his take on things.)

"As we will see, the goodwill and good business practiced on Meridian are an anomaly, not the status quo for Demetria. Back-room deals, assassins and poisonings, alliance-building and power plays are the norm. As Sephie grows, she will begin to notice levels to situations -like discovering that her uncle is not the man she thought he was - and respond accordingly."

When trying to ascertain the inspiration for this series, many will assume that Kesel wanted to make a "girly" comic because she's, well, female, but that's not exactly true- Kesel says she wanted to make a comic that also appealed to girls. "We wanted to make a book that girls would want to read without alienating the prime direct-sales comics audience: older boys. I was given a few 'givens' to include in 'title four:' young female lead, floating islands and ships, parable about commerce, and evil uncle. I worked all those together into the story we have now. Looking back on it, there's a lot of 'Heidi' at its roots: good girl from mountains goes to city, kindly 'grandfather,' no mother, boyhood chum. Add to that what I dreamed for myself at ten: being an astronaut, being an explorer...being active. Actually, that's still what I dream about, except I realize now that astronaut is out of the question, because you can't go outside for a walk."

It's still not easy making female leads into strong characters without many fans complaining that they're clichés or "it's all been done before," but Kesel explains the reasons why she feels Sephie is a perfect protagonist for "Meridian." "She thinks for herself, asks for advice but doesn't always follow it, dresses appropriately for the occasion, and isn't particularly concerned that everybody 'like' her. The more specifics you add to a character's reasoning and behavior, the more likely they will be to emerge as a character and not a cliché. I just try to make her specific and consistent from the inside out."

There's a strong focus in "Meridian" on character and how character's affect each other, as opposed to big action scenes, and by making the series arguably more personal, Kesel isn't worried about driving away readers. "I keep repeating a grand stereotype that has a lot of truth to it: boys want to see things blow up, girls want to know how the people involved felt about the disaster. Girls tend to like to get into characters' heads. The narrative device of Sephie's commentary adds both the "had I but known" bittersweet note and the 'Dear Diary' quality us girls really dig. Then there's a pacing device I use deliberately in this book: I slowly lurch toward inevitable violence, then cut away from the battle to another scene with people, then return for the aftermath of the conflict. I do a lot of displacing where violence is concerned. We're not as often in it as viewing it. Some people love 'Hulk smash' action, but I can't turn the pages fast enough, nor could most of my childhood friends. We wanted the 'people' stuff, not the 'hitting' stuff. 'Meridian' delivers up the 'people' stuff."

"Meridian" also bucks the trend by actually having the characters of the series grow as time goes by, though Kesel admits, her stories moving a bit quicker with the help of some friends. "The story is all about the growth and change of these characters in what will forever be the most chaotic and catastrophic year of Sephie's life. If left entirely to my own devices, I'd only have made it about as far as the incidents in issue 14 by now...I love to linger on the little incidents that make up the bigger ones. Other people manage to speed me along at a rate that keeps things moving at a reasonable speed."

She also smiles and adds that she intends to stay on this series as long as she's able to write. And even then, Kesel will find a way- "There is no set end for this series in my mind, but as Sephie's story unfolds, a specific ending may evolve. She will age, and that will help determine what comes next. And yes, I'll continue to write this book until they discover my corpse curled over the keyboard...(or as long as I have ideas to explore through it.)"

The conflict between Sephie and her uncle Ilahn has been explored deeply thus far and it may leave some readers wondering what's next, especially when the "maybe he's dead!" angle has been used. But with the tenacity of Sephie herself, Kesel responds by saying there's a lot of uncovered ground and explains, "Well, off the top of my head, here's some things I haven't fully explored yet: A) What happens when they have to work together? B) What happens in a situation where Ilahn is right and Sephie is wrong? C) What happens when they use up all of the local supply of the universal energies? D) They are, at the core, each other's only living family. How important is that to each of them? E) Sephie is the last vestige of the woman Ilahn couldn't buy. She will eventually choose a mate and start her own family, the continuation of the bloodline. Does that make him love or hate her more?"

Kesel's current storyline, which has seen Ilahn learn some neat new tricks, has dealt more with politics than action, but there will be some more of the latter too, the scribe reveals. "There will be a mix of each. As Sephie runs off to explore a mysterious pocket of this world, Ilahn gathers a few powerful friends to finally get rid of her. Then..."

Unlike "The Path" or other acclaimed CrossGen comic books, there haven't been any spin-off series related to "Meridian," but Kesel says there is one factor that would convince her to create another series. "I'd rather not dilute the magic of this book by opening up too much of this world at once - and it's a toy I won't share with others without pitching a fit - but if Steve McNiven says he wants to return to work on it again, you'll see me dropping everything to write a second story track for him."

In support of CrossGen, there'll be a lot of merchandise shipping soon- new Heroclix, a collectible card game and even a role-playing game. But as Kesel reveals, Sephie and her pals are going to be brought to the real world in more ways than that! "I've seen part of the 'Meridian' DVDs, I've heard that Sephie's on the future Heroclix list, but I haven't seen a prototype, I've been talking with the toy group here about a 'Meridian' project they're sculpting, and, of course, there's the development of the animated movie, but none of those items are available in stores yet. Good stuff is coming..."

Many critics of CrossGen comics often say that the comics are glacially paced as to make for better collections in trade paperback form and that orders come from "up top" to keep the comics going slowly. "I've never been pushed to make a story longer - I'm usually hounded to speed up!" laughs Kesel. "While we don't allow the trades to rule the story, most of us generally try to bring each six issues to a sense of mini-conclusion so a trade doesn't leave the reader absolutely hanging, but no on is encouraged to go slower."

Though his pencilling duties on "Meridian" are complete, Steve McNiven made a huge impact on fans with his work, but no one was more impressed than Kesel, who can't stop gushing about his work. "When Steve was in house doing his Associate Artist training, I saw in his work a humanity and reality that perfectly suited this title. Not that I ever though he'd draw 'Meridian,' but I imagined another book like it, with the same 'mostly real, but a lovely dash of fantasy' approach.

"Steve's first fill-in stories only reinforced that he'd be best on a book that leaned more toward 'ordinary' people. When 'Meridian' became available, we hired Greg Land to draw it, but there was a gap before he could begin and poor Steve got thrown onto a series that was behind schedule with a demanding writer who wanted too much in every issue. As Steve progressed on the pages (and went through phenomenal growth as an artist!), we decided to leave Steve in place on 'Meridian' and create a new book for Greg. Which seems to have worked out okay for both parties... When Steve's wife got a wonderful offer from a Canadian TV network, the original 'offer you can't refuse,' I kicked, screamed, cried, and threatened to camp out in Mark Alessi's office. Mark, in his infinite wisdom, suddenly decided to make an exception to our "you must work in house" policy to allow Steve to continue on 'Meridian.' Steve had made it clear that he didn't really want a monthly assignment, and he went over and above the amount of work he wanted to do so he could draw as much of this series as possible, but we eventually decided on an end date for his work on this book...issue 34. As you can see, we got a couple of extras out of him, and his work on those issues especially is the best work of his career.

"He was perfect for 'Meridian' because he captured the humanity we needed to have in these characters; drawing Sephie is tough, since you have to capture a girl in the process of transforming to woman without making her too young or too old...or too developed. Josh Middleton set the pace, but Steve really exceeded all my expectations for what could be done with this title. I'd give him reference for places or settings and he'd blaze forward with it, delivering a real world that doesn't exist."

With McNiven exiting the series, a new artist is onboard and his debut issue is "Meridian #39," available August 27 and something Kesel and Co encourage fans to tell their retailers to orders as early as possible, since the window is still open. "Enzo Cucca [the new artist] has a tough job: living up to Steve's legacy. Luckily, Enzo's another imaginative and fearless artist, so there's no question he's going to be up to the task. The Steve/Tom (Simmons)/Morry (Hollowell) team set the bar high; the Enzo/Don (Hillsman II)/Sumi (Pak) team is ready to win over the fans and make this book their own."

Something else that Kesel believes will win over fans is the writing of future issues and she teases at upcoming events. "Well, we're going to spill the mystery of Sheristan, Sephie kisses someone… and Ilahn and Sephie meet on the battlefield with a dramatically different ending to that conflict!"

In the end, Kesel sums up the reason to read "Meridian" simply by saying:

"Because not only can you enjoy it, it's safe to pass along to kids.*

*Not necessarily true in all locations; local mores apply; see dealer for details."

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