John Cassaday may be known across the English-speaking comic crowd as the illustrator behind big action hits like "Astonishing X-Men" and "Planetary," but one of the artist's most acclaimed projects is a comic book that's never seen full print in the United States.
In January, Devil's Due Publishing makes a move towards remedying the situation when it releases "I Am Legion" #1 - the first of eight issues serializing the three-volume graphic novel originally published by French comics house Humanoids.
Set in the later days of World War II, "I Am Legion" presents an unconventional vampire tale about the Nazi's race to control the powers of 10-year-old vamp called Ana, while Allied forces scramble to uncover how their own ranks have been infiltrated by Hitler's elite.
Created by French screenwriter Fabien Nury, "I Am Legion" saw its first graphic novel published in English by DC Comics as part of its failed Humanoids partnership, but Devil's Due hopes to lure readers to this new edition by publishing the story (and many more Humanoids titles to follow) as pamphlets first.
To get a story perspective on the first comic in the DDP launch, CBR News caught up with John Cassaday on the history of "I Am Legion," from when he drew it to what it means to him today.
CBR: Could you place "I Am Legion" chronologically in regards to your English work? The look reminds one of your 2002 "Captain America" run, whose covers used a lot of World War II posters as a visual starting point. Did the two works influence or play off each other in any way?
John Cassaday: There was no influence involved, other than the obvious WWII connections. I started "I Am Legion" Book One in 2003, amidst some "Planetary" issues and right before beginning "Astonishing X-Men." "IAL" Books Two and Three happened through the duration of "AXM" and "Planetary," with the final pages wrapping up in the early fall of 2007. As you might imagine, it was an insanely busy few years!
What was it about "I Am Legion" that drew you to the project as an artist and as a storyteller? The story certainly does upend a lot of the square-jawed, Nazi-smashing heroics of other genre stories set in WWII. What did you want to contribute to that paradigm?
The sophistication of the script and the interplay of genres are what primarily pulled me in. I've always been a bit of a WWII buff, and the way Fabien inserted the supernatural element into a wartime thriller made it an easy choice. I didn't want to be a part of any cliche run-of-the-mill horror story. There's nothing out there quite like it, at least not in comics.
While the book is in some ways a "vampire comic," it breaks the mold other efforts have helped create. Was redefining that genre a major starting point for you and Nury, or was the genre more a hook to hang a conspiracy story on?
The genre wasn't our main concern. Never intending to illustrate the vampire myth in its traditional forms, it serves as a fictional mechanism to create a believable threat within our plot. And we never have sold it as a "vampire tale." I think that would be unfair. It's an element that triggers a lot of what's happening, but it isn't the focus of our story.
For readers who are entrenched in American superhero comics, what do you think "I Am Legion" offers that can excite them in a similar way, and what do you think it offers that they can't find in the capes-and-tights books?
Obviously, you don't need masked men to tell a good story, but I suspect we've got enough suspense, wartime espionage, horror and blistering action to keep the pages turning. It's a unique story with all the trappings a comics reader requires, but hopefully we've inserted an added air of believability and realistic intensity.
There are a wide variety of characters in the book from everyman secret agents to rugged wartime freedom fighters. Are there any in the book who really connected with you as the creation of the series went on?
There are two main characters in my mind: Stanley Pilgrim is a British investigator who, while mourning the death of his wife, is assigned a homicide case - one that leads him into the world of conspiracies, horrifying truths and governmental cover-ups. Karel Ricek is a mysterious resistance fighter in Romania who we follow all over the European countryside as he works to assassinate the key Nazi official in charge of the mysterious "Project: Legion." Aside from a disturbed past, you'll quickly discover in the first book, he operates with a severely grim determination. Neither are angels, but both have bold streaks that make them very interesting to me.
At the same time, what did you do to make the supernatural characters and elements strike in a disturbing fashion?
The more realistic, the more disturbing. If you let the characters or scenery slide too over-the-top, then melodrama takes hold and nothing makes you blink. I did strive for an extra element of realism by adding more gray-tones, bleaker backdrops and a fairly muted color palette. A lot hinged on Ana being believable. She had to be played visually straight, that is to say, consistently childlike and innocent looking, while delivering dialog from an entirely different mind. A voice that, for very disturbing reasons, doesn't seem natural.
For the later volumes of the series, Nury scripted the book screenplay style with very little panel-to-panel direction. How did that change, if at all, your approach to this particular story as it rushed to its conclusion?
Fabien, being a French screenwriter by trade, wrote the entire story initially in screenplay format. He broke down the first volume into comic pages and panels, but after that, I asked him to give me the screenplay to break down myself for Books One and Two. It was tedious going, but well worth it. The only changes I made were adding or subtracting a shot here and there, just to let the graphic narrative flow easier and get the idea across as simply as possible. With such a complex story and so many characters, simplicity was a must.
As "I Am Legion" was originally published in France, did you speak French, or did the language barrier make it tough at times to draw what Fabien had scripted?
I don't speak French, so the script was translated for me. Fabien speaks English quite well, so there was no issue with communication... until he asked about freedom fries.
"I Am Legion" #1 goes on sale in January from Devil's Due Publishing.