It's often remarked that the artists at CrossGen grow by leaps and bounds once they join the company, but rarely is the spotlight shone on the writers that have been amassed by the Florida based company. Once known as only a superhero writer, scribe Ron Marz has been flexing his creative skills on a variety of genres from fantasy, with "Sojourn," to Japanese-feudalesque war time stories in "The Path." The latter has drawn a lot of acclaim from fans and CBR News spoke to Marz to shed some light on what is one of his most ambitious projects.
"'The Path' is a samurai tale centering upon a monk, Obo-san, who has seen his warlord brother slain by the very gods to whom he prayed for salvation," explains the former "Green Lantern" writer. "Now Obo-san has not only sworn vengeance against the gods, and is also embroiled in a rebellion against his nation's mad Emperor. Lots of flashing swords and epic battles, but with a subtext dealing with, among other things, loss of faith, and concepts of honor and duty.
"Obo-san is obviously the focus. He's leading the rebellion, which is rooted in the very earthly concern of saving his land from a man he believes will lead it to ruin. He's also wrestling with his own loss of his religious faith, which gave structure and meaning to his life, and his vow to destroy those he now sees as false gods.
"Obo-san is aided by Wulf, an outlander, a barbarian who's patterned after classic Norsemen; Aiko, a female samurai who was raised with Obo-san's family but seems to be harboring romantic feelings for him; and Yama, a disgraced, mentally-challenged sumo.
"The Emperor is Mitsumune, a boyhood friend of Obo-san, but now seemingly quite mad. Mitsumune was resurrected from the dead after committing seppuku, and has displayed instances of unexplained, incredible power. Serving Mitsumune is General Ryuichi, also a boyhood friend of Obo-san. Ryuichi believes Mitsumune is mad, but won't allow himself to turn away from his sworn duty of serving the Emperor."
The cast of "The Path" is diverse enough to make it stand out from CrossGen's other comics, but one thing about the characters differentiates it from most comics on the market today- the lead character is motivated by religion and his strong religious background is a prominent factor in the series. But how much of Obo-San's beliefs are derived from Marz's views on religion and God? It's something many fans have wondered and Marz is happy to answer the question. "I'm sure my religious feelings creep into my writing, just like my feelings about duty, honor, responsibility, truth or anything else you'd care to name. When you write, you're pulling from within yourself. Who you are and what you believe is grist for the mill. But the vast majority of the time, all of it goes into the story in a subconscious way. I don't sit down to write a story that reflects my religious beliefs, I sit down to write a story that I hope will be entertaining. I'm not up on a soapbox here."
Marz has made a great effort to expand his creative horizons with "The Path" and the exploration of spiritualism is a way he's doing just that. "Spirituality isn't something that gets dealt with a lot in mainstream comics," contends Marz. "Or any mainstream entertainment, for the most part. But it was one of the real focal points of 'The Path.' I was really drawn to the idea of the main character having his entire belief system shattered, of having this man of god be forced into being a man of war.
"The Path' is a very different book for me to write, which is probably one of the reasons I'm enjoying it so much," says Marz. "The subject matter itself leads to different ways of telling the story, things that just feel right for a samurai tale. The pacing is more deliberate, there are more silent sequences, the visuals linger a little bit more. Some of the most important parts of the story are told through what the characters don't say, rather than what they do.
"Making Obo-san the focus allowed me to touch on both aspects of drama - the internal and the external. Obo-san's external conflict is the rebellion, the battles. Internally, he's wrestling his loss of faith and his sense of duty. The strictures that framed his life have been knocked out from under him.
"Making Obo-san the lead also allowed me to stretch different muscles as a writer. I've done 'hero in the making,' with Kyle Rayner and with Ethan in 'Scion,' and that's always a story that has great resonance. But Obo-san is cut from very different cloth. He was content living a simple, meditative life, but all that's been taken away from him."
Something that you'll find similar to Marz's other works is the theme of duty, coupled with honor. "I actually think a lot of the stuff I write explores duty and honor. 'Scion' and 'Sojourn,' certainly, and even 'Green Lantern,' were to a certain extent about doing the right thing. It's just that much more overt in 'The Path.'
"The concept of honor, and even more so, responsibility, are important to me. Not just in my writing, but in my life. I try to live an honorable, truthful life and live up to the responsibilities I have. Mean what you say and say what you mean."
The inspirations for the series may not surprise some, but the original concept for the series isn't exactly what you see today. "In a practical sense, CrossGen wanted a samurai book, and this is what we came up with," smiles Marz. "But the inspirations, for me, are myriad: Kurosawa films, 'Lone Wolf and Cub,' Clavell's 'Shogun,' all the Japanese reference I could get my hands on.
Of course, the question remains, how much is "The Path" modeled after Japan's feudal era and how much will it adhere to Japanese traditions? "I researched Japanese religions, and got a lot of advice from a fan named Benjamin Junk who had lived in Japan for a while, teaching English. I met Benjamin at the Chicago convention a few years ago and he's been invaluable providing reference material and answering all manner of questions.
"There's an entire shelf in my office dedicated to feudal Japan research, as well as an entire set of 'Lone Wolf and Cub' and plenty of Kurosawa DVDs. We're trying to be as accurate as possible, but the fact that this isn't historical Japan gives us some latitude. If we tried doing something totally historically accurate, I'm sure we'd constantly trip ourselves up. I think we're more interested in the overall feel of the period than in every last detail."
Those who have been reading the series, or perhaps picked up the affordable Traveler edition of the first story arc, with notice that Marz and artist Bart Sears took a different approach to panel layouts- cramming in more panels, having readers read across pages and providing very robust adventures each month. "The visual tone of the series was established by Bart Sears, who certainly pushed his work in a different direction for 'The Path,' says Marz. "We've been friends for years, and he's one of my favorite collaborators. We've worked together before, so we can work in almost a shorthand style, a little looser in terms of the actual plot and panel description. And being in the same place helps a great deal as well. For action sequences I'd just give Bart a general description of what happens and let him cut loose, no pun intended. It was a very organic way to work, playing off each other's strengths.
"Again, what we did felt like the right way to tell this story. I think it's the writer's responsibility to write to his artist's particular strengths and the demands of the story. The plots I wrote for Bart were different than those I wrote for Greg Land or Jim Cheung. What I write for Matt Smith is different than what I wrote for Bart. It's different because this is the way this story needs to be told. What I do, what the artist does, ultimately needs to serve the story. And Bart Sears and I were aware from the first page that we needed to do some things differently on this book"
Speaking of artists, Matt Smith has recently taking over the duties from Bart Sears and Marz explains the difference between working with both artists. "I guess a lot of readers thought Bart's stuff on 'The Path' was a big departure, but to me the same structure and the same story sense was there, even if the finish was a little different. Different icing, but the same cake.
"In many ways, 'The Path' was the kind of story Bart and I had always wanted to tell together. The subject matter and the visuals are something we both respond to, and I think we pushed each other to do better work. Every issue we did together was a pleasure, and those issues are among those I'm most proud of.
"Matt Smith took over from Bart. Big shoes to fill, obviously, but Matt's really stepped in and made the book his own. Matt initially drew issue #9 for us as a fill-in. I sought him out because I remembered his Lobster Johnson stories in Hellboy, and his 'Day of Judgment' mini for DC. I'm a big Mignola fan, and Matt's work has some of that sensibility to it - dark and moody, which is the right look for 'The Path.' Matt did a great job on his issue, and we offered him the regular assignment. Since he's come into the studio, he's been pushing himself to grow as an artist, and I think every issue looks better than the previous one.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Mark Pennington, our inker, and Mike Atiyeh, our colorist. They've been with the book since day one, doing tremendous work. 'The Path' wouldn't be what it is without them."
If you're already a reader of "The Path" or wondering what's next for our intrepid heroes, Marz is willing to tell you some things and keep you guessing about the rest. "Lots of battle! We're ramping up to full-fledged rebellion and all that goes with it. Issue #19, which we just sent off to the printer, is a real mood issue, and a good place for a new reader to jump on to the series. The whole thing takes place in a driving rain, as our characters find themselves on the inescapable road to war. Issue #20 shows the first battle, but from the perspective of a village of peasants caught in the middle.
"The following two issues feature an appearance by Boon and Po Po from 'Way of the Rat,' then we get right back to the rebellion. Issue #23 has a 'Clint Eastwood/Man With No Name' feel to it, and #24 is the biggest battle we've featured yet."
Though the main conflict in "The Path" may seem like a finite one and something that couldn't be stretched out for too long, worry not- Ron Marz is on the same page as you. "There's definitely an end to the tale we're telling right now. There will be a conclusion to the rebellion and Obo-san's conflict with Mitsumune, which should come within a year or so. At that point, the series by necessity will go in a different direction. I definitely have other stories I want to tell in this setting.
"I expect the rebellion storyline to come to a climax within a year, which feels about right. Any longer and I think it'd seem like we were treading water. The resolution of the rebellion will have major effects on all the characters, and dictate what kind of stories we tell afterwards. The next stage of 'The Path' will grow from how the previous stage ends."
You can walk "The Path" on Wednesday, September 24th when issue #18 goes on sale.