The pen is mightier than the sword, except when writer Ron Marz's characters are swinging those swords.
With the holiday season around the bend, Marz is treating fans to more samurai themed work in the vein of Crossgen's "The Path," which earned him critical acclaim. With the release of Devil's Due Publishing's "Blade of Kumori" and Dark Horse Comics' "Samurai: Heaven & Earth" not far away, CBR News spoke with Marz to learn just why he loves those pesky samurai.
"Too much sushi and sake," laughs Marz who says this focus on samurai isn't a result of watching too much of Tom Cruise. "Really, it's just a matter of timing and me being fortunate enough to work on the kind of material I'm excited about.
"I've been a fan of samurai stuff since college really. That was when I got exposed to my first Kurosawa films. The first one I actually saw on the big screen was 'Ran,' which had epic battle sequences that completely blew me away. I was also taking Asian History classes that dealt mostly with Chinese history, but touched on Japan as well. Obviously I'm still fascinated by all of it.
"Let's face it, though ... opportunities to write samurai stories are pretty few and far between in American comics. When the notion of doing 'The Path' first came up at CrossGen, I was pretty insistent on being the one to write it. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I was working within certain parameters that were handed down -- the main character was a monk rather than a samurai, and it wasn't historical Japan, it was really a fantasy setting. 'Samurai: Heaven & Earth' is a result of me wanting to do a samurai story that was historical adventure, starring an actual samurai."
While we'll return to "Samurai" in a few moments, one of the more high profile launches from Devil's Due is Marz's "Blade of Kumori," which the writer explains is more than it seems. "Devil's Due head honcho Josh Blaylock got in touch and explained his plans to launch a new super-hero-oriented universe. Which I thought was nuts. Of all the things this industry needs, 'new super-hero universe' did not spring to mind first. But I agreed to take a look at the concepts, and two in particular jumped out at me - 'Kumori' and one other, a concept we eventually decided to fold into the 'Kumori' storyline. The short version of the book is a clan of samurai has survived in secret to this day, and now acts as a freelance organization for hire. Kumori is the only daughter of the clan, and its best warrior. And she might even be more than that.
"So there was a concept that intrigued me. Mark Powers was brought in to serve as editor, which I thought was a real plus because Mark's got years of Marvel experience under his belt. I was comfortable with the other writers who were being wooed for the launch books. But I didn't officially commit until an art team I was excited about got nailed down. As soon as I saw what Dub and Pierre-Andre Dery were capable of doing on pencils and color respectively, there was no way I could say no."
The cast of characters will also touch upon various classic samurai archetypes and Marz says, "I mentioned Kumori, who is definitely the focus of the book, with the other characters orbiting around her. Her father is the clan leader. Kumori's brother, Shigeru, is also a warrior in the clan, but he already realizes he'll never be his sister's equal. An adopted member of the clan, Hiro, is Kumori's boyfriend when the book opens. In the second issue we introduce an American, a self-styled 'hero,' though he's less a super-hero than he is modeled on an adventurer or pulp hero like Doc Savage. And there's a mysterious female adversary for Kumori introduced in the first issue, but at this point her name isn't even revealed."
Blaylock and Marz's collaboration was a unique one, as the scribe explains, because of the virgin nature of the new superhero universe and the point at which Marz entered the creative process. "Josh came up with the 'bible' for the Aftermath universe -- the overall framework and the general concepts. In the case of 'Kumori,' it was two or three paragraphs describing the scenario, the main character being a woman, and a few other details. Beyond that, Josh was trustworthy enough - or maybe crazy enough - to let me run with it. I changed a few things here and there, but it was mostly a process of building on the foundation that was in place.
"I had more freedom than you're usually going to get on a project for the Big Two, because we're playing in a completely new sandbox. The parameters aren't fully established, the rules don't exist yet. I really felt like my job was to come up with the best book possible, rather than worrying about fitting into continuity or serving some needlessly complex backstory."
While the series has the possibility to go in many directions because of the new universe's "blank slate," Marz says the book will have a direct focus. "It's really Kumori's story, about her coming to grips with who she is. I always think stories about people becoming who they're going to be, rather than already being that person, are a lot more interesting. That's the drama, the character growth, and that's what makes you care enough to come back every month. Kumori's fate is going to be tied to the fate of the clan as a whole. As the series progresses, we'll reveal the clan has its share of enemies arrayed against it, so we're really talking about the survival of not only these characters, but this ancient way of life they adhere to."
While Kumori herself is an attractive lead, Marz promises that this series will not exploit the sexuality of the character and won't be a "bad girl with a sword" series because, as he explains, "Chiefly because I don't have a lot of interest in writing just another super-hero comic or bad girl with a sword story. If this was going to be more of the same that you could get from any other company, there's no sense in even bothering. But the Aftermath books are pretty firmly grounded in the reality outside your window. Having looked at the first issues of the other titles, there's a pretty realistic tone to them. It's a good place to start, because you can build from there, you can raise the stakes over time, and make it feel natural. If you start with an invasion by an immense alien armada, or maybe Norse gods walking down the street, how do you raise the stakes from there? One advantage these books have is that everything is new. Every story in the universe hasn't been told over and over and over.
"And as far as 'bad girl with a sword,' I guess if that was the intention we'd have her running around in a thong instead of cargo pants and combat boots."
There's a lot of criticism surrounding how male writers portray female characters, but that isn't something that concerns Marz who says he treats all his characters equally. "I just try to write characters as real people, whether they're men or women. Truthfully, it's a little easier to do that when you're creating the characters yourself, because you're not saddled with characterizations from a half-dozen other writers. I think I tend to write women -- at least main characters -- as a little smarter than men, and certainly more emotionally mature. But that's just a generalization, and it's certainly not true in all cases. Kumori's interesting in that she's probably one of the deadliest people on the planet, but the cloistered life she's led has left her naïve in a lot of ways."
It's also worth noting that Marz has been passionate about the fact that this series won't be twenty-two pages of talking heads and explains his perspective on that trend in comics. "The trend seems to be toward more character-driven material, certainly more dialogue-driven, rather than plot-driven. Why is it that way? There are a lot of answers. I think the commercial success of trade collections has made it acceptable -- at least to some people -- to have one big action event every six issues or so, rather than something exciting in every issue. I think there are writers who seem almost embarrassed to be writing super-heroes, so they do everything they can to avoid anything super-heroic. And I think there are writers who don't have a clue how to make their stories visual. There are working writers in the business today who can't properly break down a page for their artists. I know, I've seen the scripts.
"So you end up with banter comics, rather than comics that have something visual on the page. There are no budgetary restraints on a comic page. It costs the same amount to draw Superman taking on an alien armada as it does to draw a nine-panel grid of two people chatting over coffee. I'm certainly not saying you need a fight scene in every issue, but there should be something visual in every issue, something to make the readers feel like they got their money's worth. If it's just blah, blah, blah, they could be reading prose or watching an episode of 'The West Wing.'
"On 'Kumori,' I'm going to do what I always try to do -- balance character and plot. To put it another way, balance the talking and the doing. Your characters should be revealed more though their actions than their dialogue. Comics have outgrown the 'obligatory fight scene' method of telling a story, but they should never outgrow the elements that make them exciting."
While Crossgen's comic line wasn't a super hero line, it did feature a lot of super powered characters and Marz compared launching that line with the launch of "Aftermath." "I didn't have to move to Florida to launch this one," he smiles. "In fact, we're going to be moving out of Florida! As I said before, the Aftermath books feel real. I think readers are going to be able to plug into them very quickly, because the people and settings will have some familiarity to them. At CrossGen, a book like 'The Path' looked and felt like feudal Japan, but it wasn't. 'Ruse' looked and felt like Victorian England, but it wasn't. I think that sort of thing served as a real barrier to the audience.
"I told Josh that if there was a primary lesson to be learned from CrossGen, it's that of 'too much, too fast.' Doesn't matter how good your books are, or how loyal your audience is, you can't grow beyond the audience's ability to keep up with you. You cannibalize your own sales. But for a guy who's still pretty young, Josh has more business sense than a lot of people. Anytime you launch a new line it's an uphill battle, but I don't see this one collapsing from self-inflicted wounds."Page 14
The artists on the series provide a unique European look for "Blade of Kumori" and Marz is happy to have the Canadian art team on his book. "Dub and Pierre-Andre are both with Studio Grafiksismik, which is based in Quebec and had provided some previous work for Devil's Due. They're doing amazing work together, which I'm sure is aided by them being in the same studio. The book has a fully-painted look that you just don't see anywhere else in monthly comics. When the first colored pages started coming through, my jaw hit the floor. They really look like they came out of a European album that's produced at a rate of 48 or 56 pages a year. On 'Kumori,' they're producing 22 pages a month.
"It's definitely more of a European feel, but there are certainly elements of American comics there as well. Quebec as a city kind of has one foot in Europe and one foot in North America. I think that combination of sensibilities is present in the book. I try to tailor every script I write to whatever artist I'm working with, play to that artist's strengths. Dub and I are still pretty early in this collaboration, and so far he does everything pretty damn well. Having seen the color from the first issue, I know in my writing I'm paying even more attention to the lighting and palette for a particular scene."
Now if you're wondering how this is different from one might expect from Ron Marz, then, well you'll have to wait for an answer. "I don't know, what do people expect from Ron Marz? You know, for the first ten years of my career, I wrote super-heroes almost exclusively. Then I went to CrossGen and wrote genre material, mostly stuff with a fantasy aspect, for four years. I don't want to do any one thing, because doing one thing over and over gets boring. I think of myself as a writer, not as a writer of super-hero comics, or a writer of fantasy comics."
The other samurai project from Marz, the December Dark Horse debut titled "Samurai: Heaven & Earth," is a personal project for the former "Green Lantern" scribe. "'Samurai: Heaven & Earth' is historical adventure, or maybe historically-based is a better way to put it," said Marz. "It's about a samurai whose lover is kidnapped and spirited away after a battle. He vows to find her, and the journey takes him from feudal Japan, to China, across Europe and eventually to Paris in 1704. It's my first creator-owned project, so I'm thankful to Dave Land and Dark Horse for giving the book an opportunity.
"It's a love story. 'Kumori' is a coming-of-age story. Yes, they both have plenty of action, and yes, 'Kumori' will have a love story in it, but at their simplest, that's what the books boil down to. And, this didn't strike me until just now, but both books deal with the samurai out of his, or her, element. In 'Samurai: Heaven & Earth,' the samurai is literally a stranger in a strange land. In 'Kumori,' the samurai are almost an anachronism, warriors adhering to an ancient code in the modern world."
There are also musketeers appearing in "Samurai" and we can only hope this will answer the question of who'd win: Tom Cruise's Nathan Algren in "The Last Samurai" or Chris O'Donnell's D'artagnan from Disney's "The Three Musketeers?" "Seriously, I'm pretty sure I could beat up Chris O'Donnell," laughs Marz when asked about the former Robin. "I actually thought the Musketeers movie with O'Donnell was pretty tepid. I'm a lot more fond of the Richard Lester films from the '70s, which were an inspiration for the book. So were the most recent versions of 'The Man in the Iron Mask' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo.' I'm still not sure where the notion of a samurai facing off against Musketeers came from, but it's one that popped into my head and just stuck there. The good ideas do that. They're the ones you don't have to write down."
As he mentioned earlier, Marz has based much of this series on fact, though he's not being held down by history. "Everything's as accurate as we can make it in terms of the settings and costuming, and even historical personages like Louis XIV. The rest ... well, a samurai didn't really show up in Versailles in 1704. But we want to make you believe one did. The research has been intensive, especially for Luke Ross on the art, because we're dealing with not only Japan in 1704, but China and Paris as well. It's a lot of ground to cover, no pun intended. But Luke has done an amazing job so far, and every page is better than the last."
On art is Luke Ross, who's worked on previous projects with Marz at Crossgen such as "Scion," though they didn't quite collaborate. "Luke actually took over Scion once I'd left the book, but he did do a 'Sojourn' issue with me, and we worked together on the six-issue arc on 'Green Lantern' that just finished up. We met in person when he visited the CrossGen studio in the summer of 2003. Once he was back in Brazil we stayed in touch, which led to 'Green Lantern' and now this.
"Luke is easily one of the most talented guys I've ever worked with, and I've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of talented guys. We also have very similar storytelling sensibilities, as cinematic as possible. It's like working with my long-lost Brazilian brother. People certainly took note of Luke's 'Green Lanter' issues, but what he's doing on 'Samurai: Heaven & Earth.' blows that out of the water. It's by far the best work he's ever done. I also have to mention the color work by Jason Keith, which is equally amazing. Luke and Jason and I plan on being a team for a long time."
Marz fans, dubbed "Marzians" by some, have a lot to look to from the veteran scribe in the upcoming year. "The first issue of 'Samurai: Heaven & Earth' will have a preview of my next creator-owned project, 'Dragon Prince' with Jeff Johnson. That one debuts in February, and it's more of a modern fantasy. I'm starting my run on 'Witchblade' with issue #80, which will be on the stands at the end of the month. I've also got a few more issues of 'Star Wars: Empire' to go, there's the 'Superman/Darkness' crossover coming up, and a story in 'The Ride' one-shot in January. And there are a few other irons in the fire, including a mini for Wildstorm, but it's all stuff for later in 2005."
If you're not quite sure about either project, Marz says he feels confident that a broad readership will enjoy the books. "There are a lot of books out there where an editor picks a writer from column A, a penciler from column B, a colorist from column C, and throws them together to hammer out 22 pages. We've all been part of that. Sometimes that's just the nature of doing monthly comics. But 'Samurai: Heaven & Earth' and 'Blade of Kumori' don't fall into that category. Everyone working on these books is committed to them. Everyone is doing the best work they can do because they believe in the projects. And I think that always shows."