Dealing "Death" with Joshua Ortega

It's safe to say that when "Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer" #1 arrived in comic stores last month, retailers didn't know what hit them. Cut (or hack viciously) to just six hours later and "Death Dealer" is Image Comics' best selling title with over 40,000 in print through its first and second printing (in stores this week), a monumental achievement for the Berkeley, CA publisher. CBR News hunted down "Death Dealer" scripter Joshua Ortega and demanded answers to our questions about this seemingly super natural series.

"It's an amazing, powerful, and resonant image, and definitely one of Frazetta's greatest paintings," said Ortega, speaking to CBR News about the original Frank Frazetta painting that inspired the comic book. "There's so much mood and atmosphere in the piece, it's no wonder that it's inspired so much interest. Mainstream media and culture is just now starting to fully recognize the power and influence of Frazetta's work, and once that recognition is fully realized, the 'Death Dealer' painting will stand as one of the 20th century's greatest works of painted art."

Indeed, the Frazetta painting has since its creation in 1973 been seen at least once by probably everyone who reads comic books or genre novels; sees science fiction and fantasy films; or who's ever attended a comic convention anywhere in the world. It's everywhere. The iconic work has spawned many merchandise tie-ins including several statues and action figures, a life-size helmet prop, a series of novels and a number of comic books. Some readers may remember the "Death Dealer" comics published by Glenn Danzig's Verotik company, which featured stories created by Danzig, Liam Sharp, Simon Bisely and Arthur Suydam.

The new "Death Dealer" series from Image has nothing whatsoever to do with any previous literary versions of Frank Frazetta's creation, by specific request of the Frazetta family themselves. "They've asked us to create an entirely new mythology and world for the character," Ortega explained. "And since they've approved this book every step of the way, readers can be sure that they are reading the definitive story of the Death Dealer."

That entirely new and Frazetta-approved world is one of the reasons "Death Dealer" has been embraced so ferociously by readers. With his collaborators Nat Jones and Jay Fotos, Ortega has developed a highly imaginative fantasy world that is both captivating to genre fans and welcoming to the curious and uninitiated, sucked in by the magnetism of Frazetta's painting on the cover. "Shadows of Mirhan," the first story in the new Death Dealer franchise, takes place in the land of Iparsia. "It's a fantastic place where demons and devils do exist," said Ortega. "However, it's not overpopulated with fantasy creatures and the supernatural. There is a certain 'reality' to the world that allows the more incredible aspects of the world - like the Death Dealer himself - to really stand out."

"Epic" was the order that came down from the Frazetta empire, and Ortega & Co. have delivered just that with a sprawling and dramatic story. Long ago in this land of Iparsia, two kingdoms warred without end. As described in issue #1, "this was no ordinary war… entire villages were destroyed, countless bloodlines were lost forever, yet neither side was willing to yield or compromise with the other." As the legend tells, the mysterious and terrible Death Dealer appeared and put an end to the war, massacring untold numbers from both sides until they had no choice but to cease the conflict. Nine hundred years later, one side marches again on the other, and the Death Dealer is set to return once more. But how? Why? And what if this time, someone is expecting him?

"Shadows of Mirhan" features a rather large supporting cast for a six-issue series, but then again, you can't make an epic without breaking a few spines. "There is Duke Jared Atar, his daughter Adelia, and his two sons, Rian and Tomas," said Ortega, referring to the leaders of Oro, the kingdom on the defensive. "There's also the Duke's old friend, Lambeau, a very tough and worldly man-at-arms that I think readers are really going to dig - he has a wicked flanged mace and is quite adept at braining adversaries with it. We've also got two brothers, Haden and Kelland, who play a major role in the story and the origin of the Death Dealer, as well as a mysterious stranger who probably knows more about the Death Dealer than just about anyone.

"Then there's the major villains, Dazaka and Mirahan, as well as numerous side characters that come in and out of the story. It's definitely a tale that's epic in its scope!"

A compelling tale with engaging characters is just part of a success story like that of "Death Dealer's." As quality as the book is, "Death Dealer" still came out of nowhere to become a major seller. Ortega attributes the phenomenon partly to the faithful job he and his collaborators have done with bringing the character to life, noting the fact that the Frazettas themselves love the work they're doing speaks volumes to fans. The "Death Dealer" team has also undertaken a sizable media campaign, doing interviews and appearances, and previewing the first issue in "Previews," allowing readers to see the high quality work they've put into the book.

But chiefly, Ortega credits the success of Image's "Death Dealer" to the power of Frazetta and his creation. "This book has brought people out of the woodworks, some who possibly haven't bought a comic in years. Like the new 'Buffy' series, 'Death Dealer' is one of those books that not only appeals to hardcore comic fans, but also to mainstream readers as well, and that's largely due to Frazetta and the legendary painting."

Fans of Ortega's work on "Death Dealer" don't have long to wait between the writer's next projects. The author of "((FREQUENCIES))" is at work on his next novel, as well as innumerable comics projects including "Battlestar Galactica: The Cylon War" with co-writer and New York Times bestselling author Eric Nylund; a new "Star Wars" project for Dark Horse Comics; several video games including "Blue Dragon," the new game from "Final Fantasy" creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and "Dragonball Z" creator Akira Toriyama. Fans are urged to check in with joshuaortega.com for the latest updates, but not before picking up this week's second printing of "Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer," which features a gold foil logo on the cover. Additionally, a limited supply of 1,500 books will be shipped with an official "Frazetta Stamp of Approval" gold seal. One thousand of these variants have been produced at the request of the Frazettas so as to reward the nation's top one thousand comics retailers for all of the support they've shown the new "Death Dealer" project. Ortega notes that the remaining five hundred copies will go directly to the Frazettas themselves, and that "a few will go to me, Nat and Jay, and the rest will probably become a very popular item on eBay!"

"Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer" #2 sees release on May 16 th , and promises to be an action-packed issue in which the Death Dealer "really cuts loose." Also released that week will be the trade paperback of "The Necromancer," Ortega's Top Cow title. The collection comes with an introduction by fan favorite writer Mike Carey. "['The Necromancer'] is a book that seems to gather more and more buzz all of the time, as word spreads on the amazing artwork of Francis Manapul, and people realize that this is a Top Cow book where the story is every bit as important as the artwork," Ortega said. "Mike Carey compared the book to 'Buffy' in the most positive way and fans of that series and Joss Whedon's work are really starting to catch on as well."

"Death Dealer" fans can expect even more gory goodness in the future, Ortega confirmed. "We've beehinting that there's more to come for a few months now, but now we can officially say that this will not be the last Death Dealer story you'll see. Plans are already in the works for another series, and don't be surprised if you see us bringing other Frazetta paintings to life in the near future as well. As I've said before, the Land of Iparsia and the world of the Death Dealer is a very big place, and there are many, many stories left to tell. And man, wouldn't it be cool to see a story with the Silver Warrior in it?"

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