Last year, Virgin Comics and MySpace invited fans to collaborate with writer Mike Carey on a new comic book. Under the banner of Coalition Comix, every aspect of this new title, including setting, genre, and the protagonist’s defining traits were put up for vote and discussion. With the scripts now completed and finished artwork coming in, CBR News caught up with Carey for a status report and to discuss the Coalition Comix experiment.
The product of the Coalition Comix initiative is “Queen’s Rook,” a Victorian spy thriller in which the hero, Peter Ruthven, gains enhanced powers by ingesting capsules containing denatured human blood. The series is illustrated by Virgin artist Edison George, whose credits include “John Woo’s Seven Brothers” and “Deepak Chopra’s Beyond.”
Carey confirmed the setting and genre of “Queen’s Rook” were based on fan votes, but not in the winner-take-all fashion some might have expected. “We decided on a historical setting, we decided on super heroes as the genre but with spy thriller coming up as a very, very close second to super heroes,” the writer said. “So what we decided then was that, look, something like 85% of the vote went to super heroes and spy thrillers between them, why not have a super hero spy thriller? Set it in the 19th century, and have super powered secret agents.
“The idea for the setting - Eastern Europe, sort of edging into Asia, came from an article I’d been reading about the so-called Great Game, the diplomatic maneuvering and battling between the British Empire and Russia during the mid-nineteenth century for the control of India. Britain was ruling India at that time and they were terrified that Russia would come to control the countries around India, control land routes to India, and eventually invade and take it over. And so there was an awful lot of skullduggery around the leadership succession in countries like Afghanistan and Iran, and Turkey. It seemed like sort of a promising backdrop for a historical spy thriller.”
Carey said his existing relationship for Virgin Comics, which includes writing “Voodoo Child” and “The Stranded,” led to his being tapped as the first Coalition Comix writer. Asked about the collaborative process and how the resulting story compared with his solo work such as “X-Men: Legacy” and “Lucifer,” Carey suggested that “Queen’s Rook” was similar yet apart. “Ultimately, it is my script. So I would suspect that the dialogue and the pacing to some extent bear my usual hallmarks. Having said that, though, we tried to make it as open and collaborative a process as we possibly could, both in terms of having votes early on and things like plot and scene, setting and characters, and in terms of posting story outlines, then script segments on the site, and inviting comment. At each stage we’d have a closed vote on certain aspects of the story but a more open discussion on the forum about each segment as it was written.”
Despite the too-many-hands-in-the-kitchen syndrome that some would expect from a project like Coalition Comix, the experience proved particularly stress-free for Carey. “I think mostly it’s worked very, very well, without any real difficulties. There was no aggression, and there was no argument at any stage. People just seemed to be getting behind the project and enjoying the process of feeding their ideas into it.
“It is harder, inevitably, to write a story in this way, because you have fixed ideas and you have to not let them dictate the direction the story goes in. So, in several cases, we’d post up a vote, and I’d look at the result and think 'Oh my God! But, if we do it that way, then…’ Because I’d already have a sense of a certain direction and I’d have to take the story in a different direction. But that’s part of the fun, I think, that what you come up with is not necessarily what you thought at first you’d come up with.”
With multiple-choice voting on the Coalition comic’s fundamental pieces and the opportunity to explore the choices more in depth on a message board, the experiment seems to have succeeded in giving fans a role in the creative process. As the story began to gel, though, Carey’s MySpace collaborators let him bring the comic to completion. “I think we got the fullest discussion early on, and that makes sense. What you have, really, is a gradual narrowing down, a lot of ideas being discussed early on and then the decisions made at those early stages gradually constraining what happens later,” the writer said. “People were a little more shy about [commenting on the scripts]. I think that’s the benefit of having the closed votes, as well, that people that don’t feel confident coming forward with elaborated ideas of their own are still able to have a part in the process through the voting system.”
“Queen’s Rook” is currently being presented on the MySpace Coalition Comix site in a panel-by-panel format, with ten panels per chapter. A print edition is planned after the digital version wraps up, but the question of how the current format will translate has not yet been resolved. Several options are available, as Carey revealed.
“Obviously the effect of the panel-by-panel sequencing is that no one image claims prominence on the page. They all go one at a time, each one fills your viewing space,” he explained. “On the comics page you build around the key panel, you tend to have one moment which is the focal moment of the page and everything else is subordinate to that. I don’t know how that will play out, whether we’ll resize some of the images, or maybe in extreme cases redraw certain panels to create a more dynamic printed page. Because you’d have to go back all the way to the 1950s, I think, to the EC comics, to find a comic that’s based on an absolutely regular grid. No, there’s a more recent example, of course, in 'Watchmen’. And it worked brilliantly in 'Watchmen.’ But I think to some extent it’s a difficult model to emulate in the modern market.”
With the script to “Queen’s Rook” completed and only a few more chapters left to illustrate, it may be time to start looking forward to future Virgin/MySpace collaborations. “I’m sure that there will be other Coalition projects,” Carey said, while also suggesting he wouldn’t mind returning to the world of “Queen’s Rook.”
“I would quite enjoy writing some more stories about Peter Ruthven, he’s quite a cool character and we developed a fun supporting cast for him, as well. There’s a very strange little girl who plays a part in some of the later episodes. There’s the other English spies, Mr. and Mrs. Heath, who are not actually married, that’s just their cover story. And the Soviet agent, Aratun. It would be quite fun to go back and revisit some of these characters. I think it’s definitely a world that you could explore further.”
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