When last we saw the titular heroine of writer-artist Mark Smylie's "Artesia" cycle, the warrior queen was mortally wounded, betrayed during negotiations with a hostile ruler. Then the fantasy world of the series was assaulted on all sides by outside forces. Smylie, as co-founder of Archaia, found his business responsibilities preventing him from advancing to the drawing table. When Archaia went dark for a time before its acquisition by Kunoichi, "Artesia" fell similarly silent. Now, more than two years later, Artesia returns with "Artesia Besegied" #3, which hits stores this week. CBR News caught up with Smylie to discuss the current miniseries and long-term plans for Artesia.
"Artesia Besieged" is the fourth miniseries of Artesia's fantasy epic, following the heroine from her origins as a concubine and witch to her current role of warrior woman and queen of Dara Dess. She has joined her armies to those at the city of Abenton, where together with the forces of that city's ruler, Elizabeta, she is keeping the Empire's advancing troops at bay. But issue #2 of "Besieged" ended with Artesia stabbed at a truce meeting with the Empire's King Euwen, casting doubt upon the ability of the combined forces at Abenton to hold off the siege.
"Things are looking kind of sketchy for Artesia and her crew, but they could be worse," Mark Smylie told CBR. "The army besieging them is made up of the knights of King Euwen and a huge horde of barbarian mountain warriors allied with the Empire. Fortunately King Euwen isn't a great military tactician, so he has yet to put a serious dent in their defenses. The defenders of Abenton are outnumbered and increasingly fractured, but so far Artesia has held them together. With her now stabbed and poisoned, the besiegers begin pressing on the outer walls of the city in earnest, sensing their first real opportunity to drive Artesia's army off of the outer palisades and back into the city proper. But so far they've managed to avoid the infighting, starvation, etc., that often plague besieged cities."
Though "Artesia" takes place in a stylized fantasy world, it draws inspiration from real-world feudal conflicts and war tactics. Some of the characters' names, as well, have something of a middle English or Gaelic inspiration. "I think most people tend to have some kind of familiarity with the Middle English, Celtic, and ancient Greek and Roman worlds, so using both written and visual cues from those periods becomes an easy way to add some depth into a fantasy world," Smylie said of the influences behind his series. "A short hand reference to something historical can act as a quick way to suggest to readers elements and aspects of the world you're creating; if you call someone a 'knight' it brings to mind a whole system of government and arms, as opposed to if you call them a 'legionnaire' or a 'cavalier' or a 'samurai.' They're all the same thing more or less, but each brings with it a different set of cultural memes. The same thing is true, I think, with place and personal names; a character named Mike Smith is going to be pictured differently in a reader's head than someone named Mykhal the Smith.
"There's a lot of grist for the mill in that historical period: the mix of religion and early science and superstition, the visual appearance of medieval and early Renaissance armor, the elements of pageantry and heraldry, the sense that economic and political systems are being built and created, eventually culminating in the birth of modernism," Smylie continued. "Oddly the modern world may be becoming more and more medieval: gated communities (castles), wealth concentrated in the hands of oligarchs, weak national governments and institutions vs. strong international ones, religious motivations for conflict. So that also means that fantasy storytelling using medieval settings can potentially strike a resonant chord with modern readers."
In addition to its fantasy elements, "Artesia" features some fairly graphic sex (not to mention violence), but the title character acts from a position of strength, using sex to relieve her tensions rather than having it be something that's simply "done to her." "I suppose that, like most people, Artesia approaches sex for a variety of reasons," Smylie said. "To some extent Artesia thinks of sex as a sport, though there is also a religious component to sex for her (it's literally a sacred act for one of the goddesses in her pantheon), and then also the ghosts that she has bound to her are also subtly manipulating her desires. Then she has often used her body to in effect seal alliances and connections with men of position and military strength; historically male rulers and leaders have used that tactic before, offering marriages to their sisters or daughters to seal alliances, or dangling dalliances with available women as bonuses to help close a deal, and queens and other female rulers have also had the offer of marriage as a political tool. Artesia just happens to use herself as the bait, so to speak, on (well, more than one) occasion.
"Women who rule, or who lead in military contexts, have historically often been described as either chaste (and applauded for it) or promiscuous (and condemned for it) - while in contrast I find that male political and war leaders (or other so-called male heroes) are usually applauded for their 'virility.' Most writers tend to prefer their heroines chaste, so I was intrigued by the notion of going in the opposite direction and trying to write about a woman who had a healthy (read: prodigious) appetite for sex, but in such a way that hopefully left her still sympathetic to the slightly Puritanical audience in the US. I've gotten both good and bad reactions from readers; some have found it refreshing, while others have occasionally thought that things have gone a bit far (with 'Artesia Afire' in particular)."
However, Smylie revealed there would be repercussions for Artesia's promiscuity. "Without giving too much a way, the unity between Artesia's army and their allies in the Middle Kingdoms gets tested pretty severely when factions at the High Court bring charges against her of fornication and adultery," he told CBR. "While her own culture is for the most part sexually open, that of her allies is much more rigidly patriarchal and controlling when it comes to women's sexuality, and a strong backlash to her open sexuality and choice of partners is on its way at the Court. One of the ongoing themes of the 'Artesia' series has always been about the consequences of our actions, and Artesia isn't immune from having to deal with the repercussions of her behavior. She will eventually be confronted with the question of whether her appetites are out of control, perhaps being driven by her ghosts, or are a part of herself she finds defensible and desirable."
Acknowledging that his duties running Archaia -- along with the publisher's yearlong restructuring process that culminated with Archaia being purchased by Kunoichi -- led to a significant delay between issues, Smylie assures fans that "Artesia" is now on track for a bi-monthly schedule-or something very near to it. "Work on Archaia as a company really took away the time required to work on the series," he said. "The bulk of 'Besieged' #3 was completed back in December and January, and now I'm about half-way through 'Besieged' #4, so I'm a little bit behind schedule. One of the nice things for me personally arising out of the restructuring at Archaia has been being able to get back to the art table for the first time in quite a while, but we're still getting everything into place for our new publishing schedule and things aren't quite yet to the point of allowing me the time I would like to work on the series."
At the current pace, "Besieged" is due to wrap up in March 2010, with a collected edition in the Spring.
"Artesia" was originally planned as 22 six-issue miniseries, with "Besieged" being the fourth. Smylie told CBR that, despite delays and setbacks, this is still the plan. "I'm a stubborn bastard when it comes to the book, at least. I've always had a few 'termination' points where particularly story arcs come to an end: the first seven books comprise the first major arc of the series, the second seven is the next arc, etc., and so in theory if it's looking impossible to finish the whole thing then at least there are stopping points that can give readers closure. 'The Book of Dooms' is a term for the Tarot of Artesia's world, and so each series is tied to one of the cards from this version of the Tarot. I see the Tarot as a psychological narrative, following the soul or spirit on a journey of experience and discovery, so each series has a theme or a resonance with the Tarot card with which it's associated. The fourth series is tied to the Tarot of the Emperor, a card that I associate with power, dominion, loyalty, domination, and the Law, and so the story is going to hinge a lot on the Court's attempt to apply the laws of the Middle Kingdoms to Artesia, and how she chooses to respond - how she chooses to exercise power in response."
Unlike some epics, all 22 planned volumes of "Artesia" will focus on Artesia herself rather than following a multi-generational saga. "If something becomes generational at this point it might have to be the production of the series, rather than the story itself," Smylie laughed. "At the moment it's still intended as a series of connected story arcs centered on Artesia, though I have toyed with the idea of splitting the series up and following her descendants (or some sort of incarnation of Artesia herself) at other points in her world's military history - following the medieval/Renaissance style of the current story arc with stories set in a Napoleonic era or its equivalent and a WWII era as well ('cause I like to draw tanks). But at the moment I'm content with the 22-series arc as it's currently in my head and on paper."