ALL COMICS EVE: Nicholls & Flood Battle "Orcs: Forged for War"

On ALL COMICS EVE, CBR News turns to First Second Books which has just released a new title that seeks to humanize creatures who, in the fantasy work of J.R.R. Tolkien and others, have been reduced to savage, evil horde.s In "Orcs: Forged for War," orcs may be the toughest, fiercest warriors in the land, but they're also non-magical outsiders, trying to make the best of things.

Stan Nicholls made a name for himself as novelist with his acclaimed "Orcs: First Blood" trilogy and the final volume of a second trilogy, "Inferno," is coming out soon. The books are grand adventure fantasy, detailing the exploits of The Wolverines, a unit of orc warriors in the conflict-ridden land of Maras-Dantia. "Forged for War" is a graphic novel prequel to Nicholls' two trilogies and manages to capture the books' combination of action and quiet moments, proving that the orcs are far more than simply battlefield warriors as they struggle to make it through the day in a world where humans are the biggest villains.

Nicholls' story was adapted and illustrated by artist Joe Flood, perhaps best known for his contributions to Image Comics' "Popgun" anthologies and "Don't Eat the Electric Sheep" and "Hellcity." For those familiar with the artist, it may not seem his work would lend itself easily to a fantasy adventure, but Flood managed to make it work beautifully, something he makes immediately obvious with the four-page opening battle sequence. CBR News spoke with both creators about the book.

CBR News: Stan, what made you interested in writing a graphic novel?

Stan Nicholls: I've loved comic books even longer than I've loved novels, and the form was an early and significant influence for me. So of course I always hoped I'd get the chance to work in the medium. Actually, I already had to some extent; I wrote a couple of short scripts for "2000 AD" way back, and a few strips for small press magazines. Plus, I was the adaptor for the graphic novel versions of "Legend and Wolf in Shadow," based on the books by the late fantasy author David Gemmell. They gave me a taste for something full-blown and entirely my own.

So I was thrilled when First Second suggested that my Orcs series could be suitable for a graphic novel incarnation.

One bonus that came from the process of creating "Forged For War" was gaining some understanding of the differences between the mechanics of a novel and a graphic novel. Things like the relationship between words and pictures, and not making the narrative stiff with plot. Not to mention having dialogue that's sparse but not purely functional. It's been an interesting learning curve, and hopefully the lessons will prove useful for some further projects in the medium that I have in mind.

What exactly did you give Joe? Was it a short story?

Nicholls: It was a short story, running about 25,000 words. I wrote it in a fully realized form, as though for publication. I did it that way because I wanted to convey to Joe and the editorial team exactly where I was coming from in my take on the race of orcs, and to flesh out the characters, setting and underlying themes. I was aware that the graphic novel would likely be read by people who hadn't encountered my orcs novels -- and in any event, this is an original story, not an adaptation of the existing books -- so I had to kind of reinvent the wheel and explain the concept all over again for this different audience. But I assumed that people who had read my books would also gravitate towards the graphic novel, and they wouldn't want it to go over old ground they were already familiar with. It was a balancing act.

My intention, once everyone was happy with the story, was to then use it as the basis for a proper script, but Joe felt he had enough material to do the adaptation himself, which I think he managed really well. After that, it was a case of a back and forth between us as the project developed.

As you explain in the introduction, orcs have an older history than just Tolkien. Was there anything that you drew from those varied tales and legends in your own creation of the orcs?

Nicholls: When creating my orcs, I made a deliberate decision not to do any research, and I studiously avoided re-reading Tolkien. It was the concept of orcs that interested me, and the idea that this supposedly evil race was unjustly maligned, more sinned against than sinner. I wanted to start with that simple premise and, without watering down their reputation as ferocious warriors, present them as sort of misunderstood outsiders. I always felt that orcs got a raw deal, not only because they were portrayed as mindlessly wicked, but for the fact that for all his brilliance, Tolkien, and his successors, never made them what you might call rounded characters. What was their history? What kind of culture did they have? What about their hopes, fears, spiritual beliefs and social organization? I wanted to give them all those things, and without reference to the traditional view of orcs, save the perception that they're formidable fighters. I saw orcs as dangerous, certainly, but adhering to what you might call a code of honor. I know that goes against the grain of the accepted view of them, but as I said, this is my personal interpretation of the race.

Besides this, you also have a new Orcs novel coming out soon, "Inferno." Could you tease a little about what readers can expect?

Nicholls: Bearing in mind that "Inferno" is the sixth novel in the sequence -- the seventh, if you count the graphic novel, which is also part of the saga -- and there have been several short stories as well, any summary's rather difficult! So it might be better to give some sense of what I've tried to achieve. One task I set myself from the outset was to write books that packed in as much action as the narrative could support. I wanted them to be thrill rides, but I didn't want to do that at the expense of a coherent plot and depth of characterization. It's a balancing act, again. I work to make my stories function on several levels. On the surface, they're fantasy adventures that I hope have a good pace. If that's all the readers take away from them, I'm quite happy. But a little deeper down, I'm attempting to say something about the way we view those who are different, and to convey certain thoughts about the nature of faith, environmental concerns and the morality of violence. Not in an in-your-face way, because diatribes are boring, but it's there for people to pick up on. "Inferno" has that same mix of elements, along with some twists and what I hope are a few surprises.

Joe, just to bring you into the conversation, I know you've done some other comics work but I just wondered if you could introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?

Joe Flood: I began self-publishing comics shortly after I graduated from the Cartooning/Illustration program at the School of Visual Arts in 2002. I wrote and drew five issues of "Don't Eat the Electric Sheep," telling the story of an android living in a mental hospital. I was sidetracked from that endeavor in 2006 when I was offered to draw "Hellcity," a project spearheaded by Rick Spears ("Pirates of Coney Island," "Black Metal") and intended to be published by Rick's imprint, Gigantic, as a three-part series. Both myself, the writer, Macon Blair and Rick had fiercely committed ourselves to the book, and despite some crushing setbacks, "Hellcity" was finally published by Image Comics in August of 2010. Some of my most known work is from the "Popgun" anthologies -- I contributed a two-part story to Volume 4, which won the Eisner this year for Best Anthology. I'm originally from New Jersey and I've lived the past 12 years in NYC, but just recently I moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

What was the appeal of "Forger for War" for you, and in what way do you think the book played to your strengths as an artist?

Flood: The appeal of the book is that all of the main characters are monsters, and I love drawing monsters. On top of that, the rest of the world is populated with all kinds of creatures; dragons, griffins, centaurs, trolls and ogres, all of which Stan Nicholls has left to his readers' imaginations, so I was given carte blanche to come up with the character designs as I saw fit. Stan has taken the usual sword and sorcery tropes and turned them on their head, and I wanted to live up to that. I attempted to take my influences and my style, which is a far cry from the typical fantasy realm, and at the same time give the reader something familiar. I wanted to service the quick pace of the story with dynamic and efficient art, boiling down the characters and movements to their essence, rather then getting bogged down in the details.

It seems like one of the big challenges is character design, what with you having to draw thirty orcs, who look very much alike, for the most part.

Flood: Stan made it easier for me by limiting most of the dialogue and action to the five main orc officers. Their personalities and back-stories are all so unique, it was really enjoyable to develop each individual orc, most of whom wear their experiences on their faces. The broken-noses, wrinkles, scars and boils give each orc a different tale to tell. I wanted them to function as autonomous beings but also as one larger entity. A big part of making the orcs seem like a cohesive fighting force was their uniforms. I wanted them to have sturdy and practical yet lightweight clothing and gear. I wanted the reader to see the orcs as a formidable and deadly horde moving in concert, but also be able to pick out the individuals within the group.

What was the thinking behind the opening four page spread?

Flood: I wanted to give Stan's orcs the introduction they deserve. The story starts off with a battle, one of many that the two sides engage in for the domination of Maras-Dantia. As the viewer scans their eyes across the chaos and the bloodshed on the battlefield, they come to the final page of the spread where the fighting has ceased for a handful of soldiers. Their attention is fixed on the viewer, as if something is coming towards them and is so terrifying the battle raging behind them is pale in comparison. The soldiers are then hacked, slashed and bludgeoned to death by their unseen assailants, only to be revealed on the following page as the Wolverines, Stan's band of orc protagonists.

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