Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan have a fun series going with Birthright. Debuting in October from Skybound, the fantasy is in the middle of its first arc, introducing Mikey, a boy from our world who crossed over to a fantasy world at age 10, only to return a year later as a 30-year-old warrior hero. After a rocky reunion with his family — his father Aaron, his mother Wendy and his “older” brother Brennan — Mikey escaped police custody and went out on the road, on a mission to take out five evil wizards who found their way into our reality.
However, not all is as it seems: Mikey is under the influence of the Nevermind, an evil presence at the core of problems in the other world, and his mission is anything but transparent.
ROBOT 6 spoke with Williamson about the direction of Birthright, balancing different aspects of the story, and the importance of choice and family as the series moves forward. Skybound also provided us with exclusive pages from Issue 4.
Robot 6: Josh, the third issue of Birthright introduced a whole lot of story elements, including the fact that young Mikey will have to choose to let the Nevermind in. How important is that choice going to be in both sides of the story as the series continues?
Joshua Williamson: Man, I’m so glad you noticed that. I talked to some people who didn’t pick that up. I wanted the reveal of what the Nevermind was, and the plot elements of it — I didn’t want Mikey to explain it or for the Nevermind to explain it. I wanted it to be something that you learned when he learned.
[The choice] is really important. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but I think people think that Mikey is possessed, or that he lost and was taken over. It’s a little different — he’s not completely possessed, there’s more going on there. He made a choice to join the bad guy and that’s important to what happened in the past. What happened to this kid who’s supposed to be a hero, the savior, to join the bad guy?
I don’t want to give away too much stuff, but it allows you to know that he’s much more conflicted. It’s not going to be easy. That’s something I want people to understand. He made a change of ideology. He realized something about that world that we’ll eventually get into that Lore was able to make him join the dark side — that’s a bad example to use, but he made a decision. No one forced him. He made a choice, and we’ll get into that more in issues four and five, of what led him to that choice. Eventually, you’ll see more and more of what happens with him.
I don’t want people to think this is as easy as curing him. You can’t just go and remove the Nevermind and he’ll say, “Welp, now I’m back with the good guys!” No, he still made a choice. You’ll see more of that as the series goes on. You’ll see some stuff with Mikey and Kallista, who also made a choice. You’ll see more with her and her relationship with Mikey as the story goes on.
It really feels like choice is an overarching theme in Birthright. Was that something you were thinking about as you developed the story?
Yeah. Family stuff was a lot more of the overall thing I was going for, but the idea that you choose these things — you choose the life you have, you make a lot of decisions of what your family is. This is a theme that a lot of other people have done better than I have, I think — but [the theme] that you make your family, you’re not born into your family. You make choices about who you’re friends with and your family and a lot of the stuff about destiny.
A big part of this book is about destiny and what you would do if you were told something was your destiny — and then you accomplished it. What do you do after you accomplish that thing? Do you now have free will? Did you ever have a choice in the life you were going to lead, or was it always your destiny? And can you change that? Would you?
There’s a lot of elements of choice and destiny in there.
The issue also had some incredible action sequences, both as Mikey escaped from the feds and with Kallista slaying the baby monster. What’s the challenge for you in each of these issues to balance action with story beats?
That’s one of the bigger challenges when I’m working on it, because I want to make sure that there is a certain level of drama — and sometimes drama can be action. There are certain things that can happen between two characters that fill that need, that desire to have action. Action doesn’t always have to be two dudes with swords fighting each other. It doesn’t have to be exploding cars. You can have that stuff in a comic — or any kind of story — and it’s popcorn, it’s fun, but there’s also drama of action.
You can have two guys having a superpowered epic battle where they’re running into each other and there are gigantic sonic booms happening. And then, you have two people in the room arguing with each other, and one of them is about to hit the other one — but hasn’t yet — and that could feel like more action than the other. That’s the balance I try to find. The drama of action is more important to me. So, always trying to play that up and making sure those action scenes have a certain level of drama and aren’t just cars exploding.
I think about the balance of the issue and the flow of the issue a lot. When I’m writing the comic, I try to imagine that I’m reading it at the same time. I want to make sure the page turns are happening. I just think about me as a reader and what I want from a story, and how the actions of you actually reading the comic and turning the pages can play into the action of the story and the drama of it.
One thing I’ve been curious about are the flashbacks — are all of them influenced by Mikey’s memory of them, or are they actually what happened?
They’re influenced by Mikey’s memory. That’s mentioned in Issue 6 — that his memory’s [that of] a little kid. For all of them — for Brennan, Aaron and Wendy — it’s only been a year. But for Mikey, that was almost 20 years ago. Let’s say you’re 30 and someone asked you, “How well do you remember your entire year of being 10?” You’re going to remember some stuff, but you might realize as an adult looking back, you remember things differently. You might talk to somebody who was there at the same time or was older, and they’re going to remember it differently than you do. That will play a big part as we go on.
A lot of the stuff we’ve show so far has been through Mikey’s little kid lens, and we’ll probably see different versions of it as it goes on. You’re going to see these different things. Mikey is somewhat of an unreliable narrator — but it’s not like he’s doing it on purpose. Really, it’s what he believes. What he remembers is through his little kid mind.
The third issue also set up a pretty significant mission for Mikey, Brennan and Aaron as they head off to destroy the evil incarnate wizards. What kind of surprises lie in store for them as they continue to stay on the run?
Well — [Laughs] They’re going to meet one of the mages. That’s going to happen. I think Aaron is going to have a little bit of a reality check as to what’s going on, because Aaron wants to believe so badly it’s his son, has such blind faith, and wants everyone to forgive him. He wants everyone to let it go. “Look, I was right, I wasn’t a bad father, I did not do these things.” He’s just embraced this idea so badly, that he hasn’t slowed down to think about it. Whereas Wendy, you see in Issue 4, she’s thinking about it. She’s a little more tied in to the reality of the situation. In the next few issues, I think Aaron is going to start seeing things a little better and slow down. Things are moving so fast in the book in [issues] 1 through 3. In the fantasy world, that’s a few days, but in the real world, it’s a couple hours. Once they get to the police station, you could probably argue that all of that happened in two hours.
Issue 4, there’s a time jump, there’s some stuff between 4 and 5, then there’ll be a time jump in 6. It’s not a huge time jump, it’s a day or two. Time has passed. I think those are things we’re going to start building up to. Them being on the run, man — it’s going to be interesting. Things happen in 4 and 5 that change big parts of the story, because of Mikey being on the run.
In a way, Mikey is proof of a fantasy world, and there’s no way something like that can just be on its own out in the world. His presence alone changes things, and that’s something they have to deal with and what it means to our world.
Wendy staying back really underlined her skepticism of the whole fantastic concept of Mikey being stuck in another world. What’s her motivation at this point? On some level, does she actually believe that Mikey might really be back?
Part of what you have to understand is that she believes on certain levels. She is conflicted. She’s a realist, right? She’s sitting there, thinking, “This can’t be possible.” But she is questioning every step of the way. So even if she’s starting to get into the idea, she’s questioning every single step. I’ve thought about that, having scenes where she just wants to analyze it, wants to understand it, wants to question every little bit of it. But there’s also the problem of even if she does completely dive into the idea that it’s Mikey, she still has issues with Aaron.
Her issues with Aaron go deeper than just this situation. So, trusting Aaron is part of the problem. She doesn’t trust the father. It’s also part of the reason why she doesn’t just go with them. She’s shell-shocked at what’s happening.
Me and Sean Mackiewicz, the editor on the book, we’ve gotten some people who have talked about hating Wendy. Here’s the thing, it reminds us a lot of people hating Skyler in Breaking Bad, and how the actress who was playing Skyler was getting death threats. It’s so crazy because — are you talking about the woman who’s upset her husband is a meth dealer; a crime lord? She has every right to be upset! In the real world, if you sat down for a second and looked at the facts on paper, you’re looking at a woman who is questioning things, suspicious and cautious because her husband is a drug lord meth dealer. In that, you recognize that Skyler was completely in the right for the way she was acting.
Don’t get me wrong, Skyler’s guilty of certain things, and she made mistakes as that show went on, but as you look at the big picture, she was right to be suspicious and right to have the issues with Walt that she had. It’s funny to think that there were people who were so angry at Skyler because she had these realistic emotions and reactions.
I feel like that’s how Wendy is. Wendy is looking at this thing and going, “Slow down. We’re talking about a fantasy land. None of this can be real, right?” Even though she’s confronted with some information, she’s continuing to question it. Her not wanting to go with them is because she can’t just dive into it. She has to question it. In issue #4, she starts talking about how she has to deal with it, and that’ll be a major theme in the second arc — #6 through 10 — Wendy dealing with it and what she decides to do to no longer be passive, to be aggressive, will be a major theme in those issues.
Readers and also the characters have really had the chance to see how Mikey is adjusting to being back in his own world after 20 years. What’s that going to be like for him when we finally see it?
It’s going to be humbling for him, I think, and really weird. It’s going to take time for him to get used to people and not being in a constant state of war.
I’ve talked about this before, but Mikey straight-up has PTSD. He’s been in this fantasy world for 20 years where he was at constant, constant war — not only at constant war, but the expectations that weighed on him. When he got there, he was basically told, “Every single person here needs you. Their lives depend on you.” From the moment he got there! That weighed on him a lot. Now he’s back in the real world and he has his family.
What sucks is that he was broken. He was a broken person and he was hoping to come home, find his family, and his family would help him. He came home and his family was just as broken as he was. So he wasn’t ready for that. He was having to figure things out, and as we started seeing him deal with day-to-day life — which is sort of the second arc, him just trying to deal with little things and talking to people and trying to live some kind of life. It’s going to be interesting.
A lot’s going to happen with him and how he reacts to certain things. We see a glimpse of that in issue #4 — you see a glimpse of a man who is still dealing with, like I said, the PTSD. There are some tricks we have coming down the line that will surprise people and make this really interesting.
It’s tough to talk about Birthright without also mentioning Andrei Bressan, who’s really crafting some gorgeous interiors. Talk a bit about the way he separates the fantasy world from the real world and the challenge of making both equally exciting.
I got so insanely lucky with Andrei and Adriano Lucas, the colorist. He took this story and ran with it. Everything we talked about design-wise completely influenced what I was doing. I was working on Issue 4, and I was having a tough time figuring out what Rook looked like, and he came in with all these drawings. Eventually, we’ll have a book where we release his art — there’s so much that he did. There was a picture of an orc that was going to be with Lore, and I said, “No, that’s him.” The moment I saw him, I was able to find a personality for him.
We did little visual tricks when it came to the way the worlds looked. In the real world, everything is dark and blue, everything is kind of sad looking. Whereas, in the fantasy world, everything has fall colors or seasonal colors. In the first issue, it was fall. The second issue and on is all snow, and eventually we’ll get back to having fall colors or spring colors. That’s the thing, so much of the fantasy stuff is outdoors that we wanted to make sure we upped the seasonal colors. In spring, there are going to be a lot of colors to represent spring, whereas in the real world, everything is — the light sources are weird and everything is just blue and gray.
Another trick we did is that in the fantasy world, all the panel borders are missing. There are no panel borders. We did all these visual tricks so that you could tell the difference between the two worlds. That was important for later on when things do start to mix up a little bit. We’ll play with it and make things different.
But working with Andrei, he’s so good and he’s such a nut. It’s funny with him, because he will go off — he’ll do crazy stuff. We’ll give him something, and he’ll come back with way more than we were expecting. It’s just amazing. We’re doing something for the second arc right now — it’s a two-page spread. It’s funny because he’ll be restrained sometimes when you don’t want him to be restrained. It’s like, “Cut loose, dude! Fill that page, do anything you want.” He’s so fast and passionate about this book. It’s amazing. He’s so good, and we’re so lucky to have him on this book and with Adriano coloring. It all kind of clicked. There’s a lot of faith and trust there with them to know that they know what they’re doing, and be able to walk away and let them cut loose.
That’s the thing with Andrei — with the fantasy stuff, we don’t give him very much direction. We’ll just be like, “This is what’s going on, cut loose.” Like the way Kallista looks. Her companion, her ride was originally going to be a giant white gorilla. I was like, “I want her to ride a gorilla. I don’t want her to ride a horse.” Andrei was like, “I got this.” and he came back with the most awesome design.
I can be a control freak with a lot of stuff, but with them, I’ve learned to let go and cut loose and they come back with amazing stuff. That’s the thing with the real world and the fantasy world. He’s done a good job of keeping the real world grounded. The only elements of the fantasy world you ever see [in the real world] other than Mikey is the Nevermind, but that’s something we do. We make sure there are rules with what does appear and what doesn’t appear, and keep it all very grounded in the real world, and then let him go crazy in the fantasy world. Which he does. It always comes back better than we’d imagined.
With all these major story points in place, what can readers expect from the book when it returns in the New Year?
Five is the big fight issue — a lot happens in that issue. In four, you get to see a little more emotion with the characters. One through three was all set up. We’re able to slow down a little more, get to know the characters and have some more character beats before we get into more action with issue #5. We wanted to make sure 4 had some more character beats, get to know the characters better, like Wendy. Just the family, I wanted to make sure we took a moment to get to know everyone’s tics a little more.
Thank you for reading the book, and I hope people stick with us, because we’ve got a big story planned.
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