Mechner Hatches a Historical Heist in "Templar"

Picture yourself in 14th century France. You are a weary Templar Knight, returning home from the Crusades only to find the love of your life has married someone else. The Pope is now persecuting your order, once regarded as the finest in the world. Instead of coming home a hero, you return an outlaw, narrowly avoiding capture and imprisonment, torture and death. Two of your fellow knights stand beside you while the rest of your brothers are shown little mercy. What's next for you? You could turn yourself over to the king's men -- or you could band together with your cohorts to swindle away the Templar's secret treasure out from underneath the greedy hands of your betrayers. That is exactly what Martin, the rank-and-file star of "Templar," decides to do.

Publisher First Second Books originally intended this story, written by "Prince of Persia" creator Jordan Mechner, to be a trilogy. The first volume, "Solomon's Thieves," was released in 2010. After reconsideration, it was decided not to release the subsequent volumes, and instead publish the entire story as one massive tome. The result is stunning; a nearly five hundred-page epic adventure, beautifully illustrated by husband and wife team LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, who also collaborated with Mechner to illustrate "Prince of Persia," the graphic novel inspired by the 1989 video game.

"Templar" arrives in stores July 9th -- with an impressive thud, thanks to its page count -- and Comic Book Resources spoke with all three creators to learn about their own heroic journey bringing this tale to life.

CBR News: What was the working dynamic like among the three of you while creating this book?

Jordan Mechner: LeUyen and Alex were dream collaborators for this project, because it was such a huge book -- intimate character moments and big action set pieces, battle scenes and teeming medieval streets, tragedy and lightness and humor -- and they can do it all. They maintained incredible focus and attention to detail for five years and almost five hundred pages. I would give them a complete script for each book -- basically in modified screenplay form, with dialog, action, and scene description, but I left it to them to figure out how to translate that into panels and pages.

They would start by doing pencil thumbnails, and then we would discuss before they'd go on to draw the final pages. Often, in thumbnails, they'd propose changes to the action or dialog or sequence of events -- which led to lively discussions and invariably ended up with something better and stronger than what we'd started with. They're not only amazing artists, but consummate storytellers as well. They were happy to rewrite and redraw certain scenes and pages over and over until we were all satisfied.

Alex Puvilland: Jordan, LeUyen and I had a very positive work relationship on "Templar." We fully collaborated on every aspect of the book, and had many long conversations about each part of it. Jordan has been extremely open and generous with us and encouraged us to make any suggestions to improve the story, even if that meant rewriting major chunks of the script as a result. When it came time to stage and draw his story he gave us a lot of freedom as far as staging, acting and pacing were concerned.

We tried to reciprocate on our end and included him as early as possible in the illustrating process, not waiting to be done with the pages to get his input.

LeUyen Pham: I'm not sure how graphic novels are normally done, but I feel like the way we all worked on this book was ideal. Jordan is one of the most generous writers I've ever met, and one of the least egotistical. He took our suggestions for the story seriously, and would always return with rewrites that addressed exactly the issues we would have. I don't know many writers who are so free with their writing, and I'm sure Jordan has spoiled me for other writers.

Not only that, but he's pretty boundless as far as energy is concerned, and that was really helpful in the long haul of this long story. Alex and I work of course as a team, but that didn't mean we also didn't have many of our opinions among just us two. Alex is a perfectionist, willing to redo something over and over until it's right, whereas I'm the opposite. If I don't hit the nail on the head on the first shot, I let it go.

Having two such extreme dynamics while working together will of course ignite lots of debates over which way to go with the story, but it also produced a much more well rounded and balanced level of art and acting. And of course, being husband and wife, and new parents to boot, we were pretty well versed on how to compromise.  But what really made it so much fun was to see the results of our styles emerge.

We took the best parts of what we know how to do, and did it better, just to make the other's work look better too.

Jordan, what was it about the history and legends of the Templar that appealed to you?

Mechner: Growing up, I sort of knew about the Knights Templar, in the sense that I associated them with a sense of vanished ideals and ancient mysteries, but I didn't know their actual history.

Templars were always showing up in the third acts of books and movies, like the very old knight guarding the goblets in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," or the end of "The Da Vinci Code" or "National Treasure," where it turns out that something or other has been hidden by the Templars in a medieval conspiracy that's lasted for centuries. Usually those revelations were kind of nonsensical, but I loved the way they made me feel. That sense of awe. I think we all feel a powerful desire to believe in something higher than our ordinary lives, something noble or even mystical, and the Templars somehow still evoke that for us, just as they did for people in the thirteenth century.

When I learned the real history of the Templars, the trial and what happened to them, I was blown away. That was a story I wanted to see. To me, it was way more interesting than the made-up Masonic, Dan Brown-type stuff. I couldn't believe no one had ever done it as a book or a movie.

You cited "Ocean's Eleven" as a source of inspiration, and I can certainly see the parallels quite strongly between the "never surrender" attitudes from both groups. Did you know that the heist element would play a large role in your story?

Mechner: What I knew from the outset was that I wanted to do a story about rank-and-file knights, people I could believe in and care about as human beings -- not some kind of master planners, secret leaders plotting the fate of humanity, who are more based on genre cliches than on anybody who ever actually existed. Reading the medieval trial records, I felt very clearly that the Templar leaders screwed up.

They were taken by surprise and completely outmaneuvered by the king's minister Nogaret, who is an incredible historical villain. The few Templars who escaped were underdogs, small fish who slipped through the net. Today's equivalent of the Knights Templar, insofar as we have one, would be the U.S. Marines or Navy SEALs. You join out of idealism, because you want to be part of something heroic and noble, or to escape from a bad situation in your own life, or maybe a bit of both. And what actually happens is you get sent into battle in a war zone far from home, you endure horrific things, and if you survive, you become very good at fighting. What must it have been like for those guys to come home from the Crusades to suddenly find themselves fugitives, hunted by the king's men? I was fascinated by their situation.

The story of the inquisition and the trial and the politics is so grim, it needed something to lighten it in order to make an entertaining adventure. For me, the key was to realize that the Templars who survived were probably not the most noble and serious guys in the regiment. The ones who kept faith and trusted in authority got burned at the stake. Once I started envisioning these guys as troublemakers, it was easy to imagine that some of them might turn thieves -- thieves with special military skills. And that led to the heist plot.

When you were planning "Templar" was there ever a time where you thought it would be a video game, like "Prince of Persia," or was it always meant to be a graphic novel?

Mechner: I actually thought of "Templar" first as a film. I'd just written the first screenplay for the "Prince of Persia" movie, and I envisioned "Templar" as something that could make a fun, swashbuckling historical action-adventure movie. But then when Mark Siegel [Editorial Director for First Second] introduced me to LeUyen and Alex and I saw what they were able to do with the "Prince of Persia" graphic novel, I realized that a graphic novel was the perfect way to do "Templar."

With comics, I could go much deeper into the real history, the legal and political machinations of the Templar trial that gave Nogaret's villainy its particular flavor that I found so fascinating (and extremely relevant to today) -- on a bigger canvas than a 110-page screenplay permits.

We've seen some incredible graphic novels, such as "Persepolis," really blend the academia of history and the visual medium of comics perfectly. What makes comics a unique form for telling historical fiction?

Mechner: Stories that transport us to a different time and place have always been especially well suited to graphic novels, for the same reason that they make great movies: a picture is worth a thousand words. Where comics have the advantage over film is that an artist, with pen and ink and imagination, can create a historical spectacle that would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to shoot as a movie. This liberates graphic storytellers to push the envelope and take artistic and creative risks -- for example, telling a story that's personal, or historically accurate, or dark or nuanced or unconventional, in a way that few big-budget movies are.

Film as a medium is just as capable as comics of pushing the envelope in all those ways, it's just that it's much more expensive -- especially for a period piece -- so it's rare that a filmmaker gets that opportunity, without coming under pressure to simplify or conventionalize the story somehow to make it more easily marketable. In a graphic novel you can go deep, you can go dark, and still be spectacular and fun.

Alex and LeUyen, were either of you interested in medieval history before "Templar?"

Puvilland: I like history in general but didn't know much about medieval history in particular. We did a lot of research on what we needed for the book. Fortunately for me, everything taking place in France I was pretty familiar with -- the general setting if not necessarily the specifics of that time period.

I remember reading a great series of French historical novels called "Les Rois Maudits" right before starting on the coming book. What's funny is that "Les Rois Maudits" picks up almost exactly where "Templar" ends and you find a lot of the same real characters in both books even if they are treated very differently.

Pham: I actually didn't have much interest in the history at all, other than having studied a course of medieval art and architecture in college. I knew a little about the Templar Knights, as that subject matter was much in vogue for a while, thanks to the Dan Brown novel. I never read that novel, but I did read other books about the history, mostly keeping their mythical origins intact. So I was hardly well-versed in the subject when I started.  But of course, since then, we've spent five years with the history, and now I find that stuff pretty fascinating.

What kind of research did you have to do when illustrating the costumes, characters and surroundings?

Puvilland: We did a lot of visual research. What did that and that look like at the time? How were things constructed or made? Jordan lent us a bunch of books on the subject. One was about medieval Paris and was very detailed, down to which business was conducted in which corner of the city at the time.

For example, during the 14th century the Chatelet had a butcher district that surrounded the jail. This informed us on what one would see in the streets around the prison. The blood from the butchers running down the cobblestones was helpful in depicting the mood of despair surrounding the Chatelet. We also found a whole encyclopedia of medieval architecture from the 19th century with lots of illustrations.

We watched lots of movies set in the Middle Ages -- "The Name of the Rose," "The Return of Martin Guerre," "Robin and Marian", which were great for visualizing the small details about every day life, like what kind of underwear people wore or what typical medieval food looked like, etc. A great deal of research usually goes into these productions and what's interesting about them is that they offer full representations of medieval life, from the costumes and props to the architecture, not just separate details here and there as you would find in books or on the Internet.

And of course, we visited Paris and looked for examples of the wooden houses of the time and tried to find the different locations to be featured in the story.

Overall the research helped us to get a sense of what looked right or not. At the end of the day we had to find a balance between historical believability and the needs of the story. Rather than using everything we found literally, it worked better to cherry-pick certain elements. It was not because something was authentic that it looked right. We ended up cheating a lot and taking a lot of liberties with reality, but I think it worked for the kind of story we were telling.

The book is visually exciting and quite fun to read. Was there awareness for keeping the story aesthetically approachable while still keeping it accurate?

Puvilland: From the beginning of the project we had to work to visually combine all the elements of the story together. "Templar" goes from almost comedic scenes to some pretty dramatic historical elements. We had to find a drawing style that could work consistently in different genres, allowing the book to shift gears when needed to follow the story and characters in a believable way as fluidly and clearly as possible.

What we came up with was somewhere between cartoony and realistic; characters that were designed to act and emote, but also to be simplified in shapes and silhouettes when needed. By playing with the lighting (shadows, cross hatchings, etc.) and colors we could affect the general mood of scenes and maintain our style.

We toned down the darkest scenes of the story a bit and kept the blood and the gory stuff to what was necessary. Some parts, like the burning at the stake or the torture scene, would have been way too dark for the book had they been treated realistically.

For each of you, what were your favorite parts to illustrate?

Puvilland: All the urban settings in Paris were a lot of fun for me. The last part of the book, with the heist and all the business that came with it, was fun too. Stuff like that is always a lot of fun to figure out.

Pham: I loved scenes that contained all the characters together. They were designed to be read singularly as well as apart from one another, and so putting them together was a design challenge.

Believe it or not, I really appreciated working on the scene where the Templar Knights are burned at the stake. It was a massive crowd scene, and slightly chaotic, but there was something very touching about drawing these men bound together, some facing death bravely, others in despair, while the audience watched. I've never done a scene like that before, and found it very moving. On the flip side, it was really fun drawing the bath scene. All those strategically positioned clouds of steam -- so funny!

"Templar" goes on sale July 9.

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