The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is one of the most often retold legends as well as one of the most adapted. The tale has been around almost nine hundred years, but its popularity grows every year when another person discovers it. Today, Arthur enthusiasts range from school children learning about Arthur and his supporting cast in the innumerable young adult books to the scholars debating the historiography of the original myths -- not to mention the countless filmgoers who first discovered Arthur in a movie theater.
Hollywood screenwriter and executive Sam Sarkar is bringing his Arthur revision to comic books with Radical Comics' “Caliber.” With a drastic setting change -- from Britain in the eleventh century to the Pacific Northwest in the frontier times -- Sarkar's “Caliber” is a new kind of Arthur story. The Knights of the Round Table are gunfighters sworn to protect the innocent, with (Ex)Caliber itself depicted as a magical six-shooter that never misses, but only when drawn by a man with justice on his side.
Sarker sees the Western as to America what Knights of the Round Table are to England or what Samurai are to Japan. “It's a period where America looks at itself today through a lens of the past. I felt this was the moment to do it again,” he said, discussing with CBR News the series and his own history with the Arthurian myths, as well as the experience of coming to comics after Hollywood, the medium's potential for storytelling and why it's the perfect fit for “Caliber.”
Art from "Caliber" #1
In “Caliber” #1, you start with a young Arthur. Why?
This first issue is really about introductions and setting up the world of “Caliber.” In some ways, this can be thought of as a prologue to the second issue, where we really begin with Arthur's story seven years later. But because the world of “Caliber” is not only about Arthur, and we eventually plan to tell other stories within this world, it made sense to start on the entrance of Caliber, the gun. It was also important to give the story an epic feel, so it was good to start off some of the characters, especially Arthur, at a younger age. That was part of the idea of translating the legend. I felt it was important in establishing the back-story, that you saw this early Arthur. That's partly the T.H. White version of Arthur. You see Arthur as a boy and then you see him step up and become the man Arthur. That's almost like act two. Even though it'll be truncated in some ways when you read the other four issues, Arthur's of age in issue two since it cuts to seven years later. In a sense, you can look at issue one as an elongated issue #0, before the Arthur hero of the story rolls in on issue #2.
After having read the first issue, one can't help but wonder how Arthur is going to get Caliber -- given how dramatic his acquisition of the sword Excalibur usually is in the traditional legend.
It's funny, because there's various ways the sword gets to him. There's the sword in the stone or the lady of the lake. I didn't want to translate it quite that literally. You'll see when you get to issue two. It has all the elements -- it has the recognizable elements of that sense of destiny. The difference is, with Excalibur the sword, you could use it the second you pulled it out of the stone or the lady of the lake gave it to you. It was a sword in anybody's hands. The thing that makes “Caliber” unique is it only fires for the right person, under the right circumstances. It took away the need to add another supernatural explanation of him getting the gun out from something or someone.
One of the most familiar things about the Arthurian legend is the cast of characters. Though they appear in “Caliber” #1, it isn't in gratuitous cameos. How did you go about updating the characters from twelfth century Britain to the Pacific Northwest?
A) Everybody sort of takes a twist. Even when you look at the history of the retelling of the Arthurian legend, each character shifts and becomes something new. That's part of the evolution of any myth; they translate differently. You recognize each character, but in “Caliber,” when everything is updated and put into our time and how we view women, particularly, we look at it differently. Even “Mists of Avalon,” which is one of my favorite retellings of Arthur, really looks at the whole Arthurian legend from a very different perspective. People are cast differently -- Morgan, in “Mists of Avalon,” is quite different from the Morgan of old, the pure evil witch. So, I looked very specifically at how I would translate main characters from the recognizable Arthurian legend to this new version, which stands on its own. Each of the characters is unique, even though you see the extraction of Arthur, Lance, Gwen and Morgan. Each has a real back-story within the world of “Caliber.”
With a few recent exceptions, King Arthur stories are usually infused with magic. In “Caliber” #1, it's there too -- but it's very muted. How did you approach magic in the comic?
That's one other balancing act in it and another part of the research was all on magic. What are real spells like? Going back to the old Dungeons and Dragons days, if you had a really strict dungeonmaster he'd be like, "You can't do those kinds of spells that fast, it doesn't work like that." So, I was really conscious of the fact that magic requires a lot of effort. A lot of the time, when you see wizardry brought up in movies or comic books, guys can just hurl lightning bolts and things like that. I thought, let's take a different tack, that goes back to the old school versions of magic, where spells took days. If you look at Shakespeare, things take time to set up, incantations or whatever, it takes a lot of time.
So Whitefeather -- Whitefeather's an interesting mix because he's half-French and half-Native American -- so he actually represents both traditions of magic, European and Native American. His ceremonies can be a blend of both, but they take time. In the first issue, where he summons a storm, you see him spending time beforehand preparing that. He doesn't just snap his fingers and it happens. I think that balance helps, because it doesn't make magic more powerful than a gun. Even Lance, who's only got a six-shooter, he's equal to anybody else.
The setting of “Caliber -- the Pacific Northwest -- is, while both Western literally and literarily (many American film Westerns took place in the locale), it's not the first thing people think of when they hear Western. Why did you pick that location?
Part of it was I spent a lot of time in the Northwest and Canada, Vancouver especially, traveling up and down the coast. In doing the research for “Caliber,” I studied a lot of the history. Many people don't know this, but the end of the Indian Wars wasn't so much the Southwest as it was the Northwest. It went further and further West. And some of the final battles, some of the big battles -- as in the opening in “Caliber” you see -- the Indians won a few of them, more than a few of them. In fact, there are some standoffs that are here on the west coast, where the Indians actually made great stands and then they're forgotten. We only tend to see them portrayed where they all get wiped out, but they were actually pretty steely right up until the very end of the Indian Wars.
I chose that location for that reason, but in keeping with Arthurian legend, I didn't want it to look like a dusty, one-street town in Arizona. It needed to have that lushness and mist, the winter and cold -- things you would more associate with Arthurian legend. Even the name of the town, “Telacoma -- that's not a real place, but you can imagine it as a real place in this region. Telacoma also has an interesting tie to the Arthurian legend… I don't want to give away. That's another reason I picked it.
The other thing, specifically as it relates to the opening of the comic -- you can see that location, that's Crater Lake, which is a real place in Oregon. I visited Crater Lake years ago and it always struck me as a really magical sort of spot. As I did research on it, it truly does have a big place in Native American lore.
You had two different areas with a lot of history and theory written about them -- the American West and King Arthur. Was the research intensive?
This was stuff I'd been doing for a long, long time. Arthurian legend goes back to my childhood, after reading “Lord of the Rings” and things like that. Going further back and saying, "What were the roots of all these things?" Of course, everybody knows the story, but when you read different versions of it, you get different things out of it. The other thing that a lot of people don't realize is how much further beyond just Arthur, Lance, Gwen and the world of Arthur really spread. There were many other knights and many other adventures that fascinated me too. To do this as a comic, it opened the option to do off-shoot adventures of other people. The comic medium was very appealing in that sense of being able to expand the world and characters without compromising the root of the material.
Something I noticed in my underlying research work was there's a big correlation between Arthurian principles and the propagation of law. Arthur is symbolic of law and order. Around the time the myth really started to be decimated, in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is around the time the Magna Carta was being built up. I actually make reference to it in one of the upcoming issues. That always fascinated me, the tie between the telling of this story and the social need for an embodiment. It was difficult to explain to an ordinary person what the purpose of the Magna Carta was -- in the same way that the Ten Commandments is told in the way of a story -- so that people get it, Okay, there are these laws we're supposed to follow, but here's why and here's where they came from. It's channeled through a story. For me, doing all this research lead to finding all these connections between American law and American character as it leads into the twentieth century. Touching on how it came out of the Civil War, the post-Civil War, and a lot of contact between Native Americans and the early settlers of the U.S. A lot of people don't know that the U.S. Constitution has ties to contact with the Iroquois. Part of the framework that the founding fathers built on, came from the oral constitution of the Iroquois, which was a group of five nations. If you read it, you'll see little bits and pieces of it that made their way into the early founding fathers' thoughts -- the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States.
You mentioned previous adaptations, but King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are one of the most famously adapted stories. Not just in movies, but in literature as well. Did you look at any of these adaptations, “The Sword in the Stone,” “Excalibur,” things like these?
I've seen them all. Of all of them, the one I like the most -- I don't think any of them have really hit it because it's so big, it's a big world -- but my favorite of them was the John Boorman one, “Excalibur.” There's some element of the Boorman thing in what I've done, but it's a culmination of reading some of the early mythology and then there's the T.H. White version and the Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I love. It's a culmination of all of those.
Did Westerns influence “Caliber” as well?
When I was in college, I wrote a paper on “Pale Rider.” “Pale Rider” was one of those first viewings, when I was young, that it didn't really occur to me what I was seeing. Later on when I studied it in college, I could see how really impregnated it was with Biblical references. It's really nice when you look at those great classic Westerns and there's a supernatural element, an unbelievable element to them, but they're so grounded that you accept it. That's something, in doing “Caliber,” I'm trying to be really careful of. There are a few fantasy elements to it, but I'm trying to make sure the logic of all of it holds together in a very solid way so it's not too outlandish.
What's your writing experience been?
I've written mainly for television, I've written screenplays. I wrote a science fiction movie under a pseudonym. I wrote for "Beverly Hills, 90210." I've done a few things like that. As an executive, I oversee a lot of screenwriting. That's my main focus these days.
In recent years, Hollywood has sort of rediscovered comic books. What's that been like from the L.A. perspective?
In our world, in features and television, there were certain events that were really key to the business. There are book fairs, film festivals, E3 and more. Everyone started to see how all of those things paled in comparison to the power of material talked about or buzz generated on at Comic-Con. More and more Hollywood people started to go, "Comic-Con, that's where we need to make our presence known." They realized the value of announcing things down at Comic-Con and having their properties tied to graphic novels and comic books. What would happen sometimes, if you took a very commercial approach to that, comic book fans would catch wind of what you were doing and they could be very sharply critical if your graphic novel or your comic book wasn't up to par. If the artwork was subpar or the writing was subpar, they'd get you for it.
I think you have to be careful about that, it's not about trying to use the comic book medium as a launch pad, you have to be respectful of the medium. That's something with Barry's background, and all the people who are working on “Caliber,” I feel very comfortable we aren't just doing something intended to be a launch for a film. It stands on its own as a comic, for sure, and will as a trade paperback also.
What's your experience been with the comic book medium, before “Caliber?”
I worked with a lot of really fascinating artists and writers, especially in the last few years at my company. I've had a chance to work with Kurt Busiek, met Grant Morrison as well as some other really great and inspiring people. Dave Elliott, who's editing “Caliber,” has been really wonderful in getting me adapted to the form as a comic writer. The team that Barry [Levine, Radical's publisher] put around me has been really wonderful, I couldn't have done it without them. I tip my hat to the Imaginary Friends team, Edmund, Garrie, Stanley, Stephen, all of the artists that have done so much to realize this project with us.
How much collaborating have you done with the artists?
A lot. We went back and forth with the group from Imaginary Friends Studios a lot. Again, the experience of having to create a comic from scratch is different -- well, I'm gathering -- then writing something pre-established. If you enter into something where the characters are already known, the artists know how to draw them, they know how to draw the environment and all of these questions have been addressed. When you're creating all these characters from scratch and a lot of looks of Caliber aren't traditional to Westerns, it take more time conceptualizing through trial and error. It was on purpose as we wanted it to avoid traditional Western looks. We went back and forth on costume, on lighting, on atmosphere. The artwork inspired certain things in the writing and vice versa. We would ask the artwork to take certain directions because of the way it needed to come across.
Your book is one of Radical's first two books out. How do you feel, leading the charge?
I think it's great. For Barry's company, Radical Publishing, and for the properties of “Caliber” and “Hercules,” it's nice to come out with that strong sense of branding. I think what he's done is really smart. Rather than come out with too many titles, it's very focused. He's got a lot of other great titles to come out after these two, but the really tight focus is on these two pieces… I think it's great. It's nice to be in that association with the launch of Radical, it's very flattering. It's smart to have an identity built up immediately, so people go, "Okay, this company is about this level of work, this level of art, this level of energy." I couldn't be happier with being one of the first to go out.
Do you have any ideas for sequels?
This is five issues and I have ideas for the next five and the next five after that. Eventually, what I'd like to do, after I've established the base of the Knights of the Round Table, which is essentially his circle, is start doing other adventures that branch off of the main story. Even explore deeper the whole concept of “Caliber” as an instrument that follows through history. You won't see this in any of these comics, but the notion is that this gun is from the metal of Excalibur, the sword. So somewhere between the original King Arthur throwing the sword into the lake at the end of his life, to this Arthur, there's these periods where the sword pops up in a different form or takes a different form. That translates into the future leaving a lot of my ideas of how the world of “Caliber” continues.
Like I said, what's interesting to me is the connection between this myth and the evolution of morality and law. Ultimately, the fun part of the Arthurian myth is how this notion of perfect morality runs up against human fallibility and gets undone. That's the challenge. Arthur has this perfect notion of an ideal world, Camelot, and it comes apart because his wife has an affair with his best friend. That starts to throw everything off. I love that human character and morality are at odds with one another but we strive to try and make them fit together.