Michael Alan Nelson Journeys with an "Outcast"

The king is dead, his soul stolen, and his body a walking abomination striving to recover what it's lost. In "Outcast," a new ongoing series from BOOM! Studios by "28 Days Later" and "Hexed" writer Michael Alan Nelson and Matteo Scalera, a faithful king is struck down in battle by a necromancer, only to be restored to an unholy existence. Now, he must recover his soul to save himself and his kingdom. The first issue goes on sale in December for $1, and Comic Book Resources spoke with Nelson about the series.

"The story of 'Outcast' is about, quite literally, a man searching for his soul," Nelson told CBR News. "Valen Brand used to be king.  He used to be alive.  Now he is neither.  A necromancer by the name of Korrus Null descended on Valen's kingdom with the express intent of stealing Valen's soul.  Now that the necromancer has it, Valen has to travel to Korrus Null's seat of power in the distant land of Wraithendal to get it back.  The problem (of which there are many) is that Valen is now an outcast.  He's a soulless, undead abomination that no one wants around.  He has to navigate through dozens of would-be kings that are fighting for his old throne and have turned his former kingdom into a roiling battlefield.  And the only help Valen has comes from his two reluctant companions: a self-exiled woodswoman and a flippant smuggler with a drinking problem.

"My approach to 'Outcast' has been to create a feudal world with the fantastical elements floating just beneath the surface, very similar to my series 'Dingo' and 'Hexed,'" Nelson continued. "The fantastic is there, but usually it's hiding in the periphery.  I know for many people, a certain image comes to mind when they hear the word 'fantasy.'  Though 'Outcast' is definitely fantasy, its tone leans way more toward 'Game of Thrones' than 'Lord of the Rings.'  Magic exists, but isn't very common, Good and Evil are more nebulous, and characters struggle with the moral ambiguities of the world around them."

While Valen Brand has become an outcast, such was not always the case, making his current situation even more difficult to bear. "He was a good king, which is sometimes a rarity in feudal societies," Nelson said of the series' hero. "An accomplished warrior and tactician, he could talk his way to victory just as easily as he could fight his way there.  He was fair, but stern, sometimes to a fault.  Not everyone loved him, though.  You can't be king without having some enemies.  But once he was killed, he became a man driven.  You'll see what I mean after you read the first issue.  The first post-mortem fight we seem him in isn't one he fights with his sword, but one he fights with sheer will power.  It's a struggle for control of himself."

Nelson said "'friends' would be the wrong word to use" to describe Valen's traveling compananions, the woodswoman Zjanna and Cordovan the smuggler. "Both join his cause out of necessity more than any love for Valen," the writer told CBR. "It will become clear in this first issue that Valen has an unpleasant past with each of these characters.  Though, what those pasts are is part of the mystery of the series.  So even though he has some help, he starts his journey very much alone."

Valen, Zjanna, and Cordovan will need to reach the Black Court of Wraitehndal to recover the king's soul from Korrus Null, a journey that is by no means easily accomplished. "Wraithendal is a land far away and what little is known about it would make even the most hardened adventurer think twice about going there," Nelson said.  "But Valen has more to worry about than just getting through Wraithendal.  His own country is plagued by war.  Nobles and knights from every corner of the country are fighting for Valen's old throne.  And even though Valen is an abomination, if discovered, most of these would-be kings would want him dead -- really dead -- so that he couldn't someday reclaim his crown.  He has to navigate through hundreds and hundreds of miles of people that want him gone for good.  Either because his existence violently offends their sense of the natural order or because he represents a threat to their ambitions."

As to why the necromancer cursed Valen rather than killing him outright, Nelson said discovering this purpose is at the core of "Outcast's" drama. "Korrus Null has a very specific reason for stealing Valen's soul and giving him unlife.  But that reason is the underlying mystery of the series that we'll be gradually revealing as the series goes on," the writer said. "But Korrus Null has definitely has a plan.  You don't go to war to steal a king's soul just on a whim."

The artist on "Outcast" is Matteo Scalera, who also served as illustrator for "Stan Lee's Starborn" at BOOM! Studios. "Matteo is able to bring that sense of scale yet keep the reader focused on the characters," Nelson said of his "Outcast" partner. "He has this great ability of showing complex emotions in characters' expressions, something that really comes through when dealing with some morally ambiguous characters.  Not to mention he knows how to bring the violence.  And believe me, there will be violence.  By the truck load."

Earlier this year, Nelson wrapped up BOOM!'s "28 Days Later" ongoing series, which he had written from the beginning and which bridged the gap between the film of the same name and its sequel, "28 Weeks Later." Asked about any similarities between that series and "Outcast," Nelson noted there will be affinities but the two are very different books. "For me, horror isn't so much gore and violence (though there will be plenty of that), it's the corruption of normalcy.  And when it comes to Valen, everything normal in his life has been corrupted," Nelson said.  "His very nature is horrific.  He's dead, his soul stolen, and brought back to unlife to serve as a thrall to this terrible creature who has dominion over death. All of that said, 'Outcast' isn't a horror series like '28 Days Later' was.  It's definitely fantasy, but the nature of our protagonist lends itself to weaving elements of horror into the greater tapestry."

Another difference, of course, is that "28 Days Later" was a licensed title while "Outcast" is Nelson's own creation. "As much as I loved writing '28 Days Later,' there is something tremendously freeing about writing your own concepts.  I can do anything I want, go in whatever direction I want, without having to worry if I'm damaging the IP," Nelson told CBR.  "Don't get me wrong, there are some nice things about having to write a story within a set of specific guidelines.  I think it helps improve your writing by teaching you how to work within a given set of parameters.  But with 'Outcast,' the sky is the limit.  I get to create the world and its rules, the characters, the heroes, the villains, and all the people in between.  But that freedom can be a bit overwhelming as well.  I can easily find myself walking in circles.  I also have to be careful to avoid the Black Hole of World Building.  World building can be incredibly fun, but it's the story that matters.  I've seen so many aspiring writers (myself included) spend months, even years creating these elaborate, beautifully detailed worlds but then no time on the actual story.  It's great to have created that kind of world (and, usually, necessary), but too often people will confuse that well-crafted world with a well-crafted story.  The world is the well-spring from which to draw stories from, not the story itself.  Otherwise, it's just reading an encyclopedia.

"Also, given that this is fantasy, I have to come up with the rules of the world.  It's part of the fun of world building, but difficult and very necessary," Nelson continued. "That's always the trouble when writing any kind of speculative story.  If you don't spend the time establishing the rules, a sudden appearance of magic (or super-powers or scientific wizardry, etc.) can feel like a cheat and turn off your reader.  But you don't want to spend too much time establishing the Rules of the Universe because then your reader will get bored.  So I have to find that delicate balance of explaining the rules in an interesting and entertaining way without launching into a diatribe of 'Okay, class.  This is how the world works.'  It's a bit of a tight-rope, but a fun and challenging one to walk."

"Outcast" #1 is on sale in December for $1.

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