Collecting Stokoe's "Orc Stain"

If the one-eyed man is the king in the land of the blind, what role does the one-eyed orc occupy in a world filled with snarling, thieving, murderous beasts that would just as soon lop off your unmentionables than breathe in your general direction?

It's a question that comes up at various points throughout "Orc Stain," the Image Comics series masterminded by writer and illustrator James Stokoe. In "Orc Stain," Stokoe tells the story of One-Eye, an incredibly skilled thief that can crack open any safe with a single tap of his trusty hammer, just as long as he finds the right vein. But One-Eye is just one orc living in an orc-stained world, a barbaric landscape populated by opportunistic murderers, swamp-dwelling poison throwers and other creatures at varying levels of danger. Where the majority of orc-kind is constantly looking to get ahead no matter the expense, One-Eye isn't interested in the cruel and crude ways of his peers; no, he's just looking to get by.

With the first five issues of "Orc Stain" currently on sale in trade paperback form, the first issue of which is available to read here on CBR, we reached out to Stokoe to discuss the series to date, his world-building process and the future that One-Eye faces. Plus, Stokoe talked about the over 100 pages of comic books he released on his official blog for free earlier this month!

CBR News: James, bring us back to the beginning, if you don't mind. What was it that got you started on "Orc Stain" in the first place?

James Stokoe: I've always had a liking for orcs. They're those kind of nasty bizarre creatures that I'm always drawn to in stories. A couple of years back, I drew a short comic with two orcs, that looked a lot like One-Eye and Pointyface, who were debating their lot in life during the middle of a battle. The Pointyface orc was the very stereotypical 'Graah, smash!' type, but the One-Eye orc was a bit different. He didn't see why they had to fight with rusty weapons and live in rocky volcanic wastelands. He proposed boomerangs and lush green valleys.

A few years later, I had some down time and was interested in branching off from sci-fi, so I started work on a fantasy project. I couldn't get those two orc characters from years back out of my head and just started pencilling like mad for a week, finishing with outlines of what would be most of the first three issues. I can't remember a time where I drew so much so fast, so I figured that this would be a good project to base a series off of, but other books demanded attention first so I had to put it on hold. But now, its time has come and all is right in the world!

The first arc of "Orc Stain," which is captured within the pages of this trade, introduced readers to One-Eye and the world he inhabits. How would you describe One-Eye, both as his own entity but also in terms of his relation to his orc-stained surroundings?

One-Eye is pretty much an outsider to the other orcs. He seems more thoughtful and is guided by a moral compass which just makes him the more confused, seeing as how none of the other orcs seem to share it.

Somebody likened that "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" quote about him which I thought was clever, but so far he has no ambitions of power or ruling, only to get by. Thankfully, he's got the strange ability to sense weakness in anything and exploit it with a tap of his hammer. So far he's used it to crack bear safes, shanty towns and to knock the dick off a rival orc. Very handy!

We should note that One-Eye isn't actually a birth name, but rather a name given to him because of his physical attributes. That's how all of the orcs in this world are named, actually. For you, what's your character creation process like in coming up with new orcs - does the design come first, then you name them based on physical attributes? Are there some physical attributes that just leap out at you ahead of time, and you create the rest based on that idea?

It's a little bit of both. The Norman's guards, Lobe and Schnoz, I had named beforehand, so obviously they were drawn with big earlobes and noses respectively. Sometimes I base them off of real people, like the linemaster Beard talks to in issue 4 was made to look like Johnny Rotten. It's really just a nice way to avoid weird fantasy names that are hard to remember. You see an orc with a big beard and his name is Beard? Easy!

Two of the main characters we meet in this first arc are Pointyface, who is One-Eye's blood rival, and Bowie the poison thrower, who has a score of her own to settle with One-Eye's current captors. Can you take us through the development of these characters? As "Orc Stain" currently stands, both of them remain principal players. Will they stay that way for the foreseeable future?

Pointyface is pretty much the embodiment of the classical orc; greedy, selfish, opportunistic, etc. My intention for him was just to show the contrast between One-Eye and the rest of orckind. I've got bigger plans for him in future issues, so hopefully he'll eventually come into his own. Or he might just get eaten in issue #6. It could really go either way!

Bowie is probably my favorite character to write, and she'll be around in one way or the other for a while. Initially, she was a much different character. For a while, she was going to be the owner of a brothel in the middle of the swamp that One-Eye comes across after his escape from Skrubtown, but I had this major lack of strong female characters so I rewrote her completely. I plan on getting into what the nymphs and poisonthrowers are all about after the first arc wraps up, so Bowie will be explored in more depth soon.

What were some of the goals you had in mind with this first arc of "Orc Stain," both from a storytelling standpoint and also a world-building one? Do you feel you hit the notes you were striving for?

Really, I just wanted to establish a beachhead of sorts for the overall story. I'm personally a fan of slower paced openings where you have a chance to familiarize yourself with the setting and characters before getting on with the plot, and that's what I tried to go for with the first four issues. Now I've got to try and build up some forward story momentum, which looking at my past books like "Wonton Soup," is not something I'm entirely familiar with. It should be interesting.

The aesthetic of "Orc Stain," and really your work in general, is amazingly intricate and often disturbingly detailed. How long does it take for you to cut into pages of "Orc Stain?" I imagine it takes a good amount of time and effort to get that detailed!

Well, I'm definitely not the fastest person in the world, but once I get a feel for the particular scene I can move at a reasonable pace. It's usually the coloring that kills me. Anything having to do with computers makes me feel like I'm working with crab claws for hands. 

The level of detail goes beyond the visual side of the book. It feels like every single component in the world of "Orc Stain" is fully fleshed out. I'm thinking about that informational comic you did on the Gronch, and how you turn those into Chits, for example. That's some fairly close attention to detail, needless to say! What goes into the world-building process for you, James? Does everything in the world of "Orc Stain" need to have an explanation, if only in your mind?

I think that's one of the major advantages of being a writer and an artist. To take the "chits," orc money, for example, I had written down in my notes something along the lines of "One-Eye finds a bag of coins" and didn't give it a second thought. Then when I got to drawing, I had to visually design the coin and that spurred on a lot of ideas. Should they be vegetable, animal, mineral? Well, these orcs are obsessed with dicks, so it's only reasonable that their currency should somehow be made of them.

It's fleshing out little mundane things like that that bring on stories within stories which I love doing. Some of the best ideas come out when you're forced to take the time to visually construct something that you otherwise wouldn't really think about. Of course, sometimes a teapot is just a teapot. If I had to come up with an elaborate scheme for every button on an orc's fly, I would go quite mad.

Going back to the Gronch comic, I'm curious about the kinds of extras you're including in the trade. Can you tease some of the bonus features that we'll find when the "Orc Stain" collection drops?

I wasn't able to fit in as much extras as I had originally wanted to without bumping up the overall price range of the book, but there's a few new shorts and spreads which are kind of like encyclopedia entries about the orc world. Also, if you go to my blog, you can read part of the original unfinished short I had planned for the trade before the length of it spiraled out of control. I plan on finishing that story up sometime this year as a full length one shot issue.

Speaking of your blog, you recently released some comics through it called "Murderbullets" and "Nomad of the Domes." Can you tell us more about those stories and if we'll ever see more from them?

"Murderbullets" was done between "Wonton Soup 2" and "Orc Stain." It was originally for an anthology whose theme was "the last comic you'd ever draw." I took that literally and did a short about a mad comic artist living in a nuked wasteland whose drawing a book that will grant him entry into the afterlife, while a loud obnoxious moose is chained to his toilet. It was fun to draw and I kept thinking about how this situation came to be, so eventually I had a whole 5 part book series planned out. I only managed to finish the prologue before "Orc Stain" called and frisked me away, so it's been on my hard drive ever since.

"Nomad" I started about two years ago after a hilarious argument with a friend. After making fun of his hair to bare skin ratio, my comics were accused of  "just being all, y'know, Zor cycles and Zoobilee shafts!" Of course, I immediately had to draw a Zor cycle and a story just sprung from that.

I'm not sure when I'll get the chance to finish off either story, but the great reaction I got from people online has kicked my ass into gear a bit.

So "Murderbullets" and "Nomad" both came before "Orc Stain," then. How did they help shape the story of "Orc Stain" and yourself as a creator?

They both came out before, "Nomad" happening right around the same time I picked "Orc Stain" back up again. I cannibalized quite a few elements from "Nomad," like the main characters gooey spaghetti arms for the Shakatuu and the organic telephone poles for issue #4. I should probably find a way to squeeze in a Zor cycle sometime too. Thematically, it's very similar, too. They're both stories where everything is seemingly stuck in the same endless cycle and the main characters attempt to break out of it.

For "Murderbullets," it was much more of a predecessor for the visuals in "Orc Stain" than for the story. It was basically the first comic I full-on colored. Up to that point I had just done grey toning, spot colors or really badly applied markers. I applied the same coloring technique there that I did for "Orc Stain," so that helped shape the overall look quite a bit.

What's the philosophy in tossing up over 100 pages of comic books for free on your blog? Kind of a take the message to the people approach? Do you have many other already completed stories that you could post online if you wanted to?

"Murderbullets" was just one of those things that I wasn't comfortable with printing and having people pay money for. I look at it as part of an incomplete story with no other chapters coming out in a reasonable time. Online is perfect for that as it gets the work out there for people to see for free, and kind of jump starts my will to get the story finished and in book form.

Getting back to "Orc Stain," this first arc ends with One-Eye in a bit of a jam and on a collision course with Pointyface, who previously declared poxa gronka on our hero. Bowie, meanwhile, is looking for some help to further fuel her vengeance against the orcs who burned her hut down. Where do we go from here when "Orc Stain" #6 drops?

Issue #6 is going to be a big, action-heavy issue where everybody kind of collides together. I finally get to draw Beard in action, which I've been aching to do from the start. After #6, a bunch of new characters are going to be introduced and new lands with new tribes of orcs will be explored. I'm pretty excited about all of the upcoming issues and hopefully fans will dig how I'm planning to end the first arc.

Starting in issue #8, there's going to be a series of guest covers and shorts from some of my amazing artist friends. I've already got a few from Brandon Graham, Michael Deforge and Michaela Zacchilli. It's great seeing them shame me in my own book!

The first trade paperback for "Orc Stain," written and illustrated by James Stokoe, is currently available in stores, and you can read the first issue in it's entirety on CBR. "Orc Stain" #6 arrives in early 2011. Check out "Murderbullets" and "Nomad of the Domes" on Stokoe's official blog!

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