Written by Arvid Nelson and illustrated by Juan Ferreyra, the Dark Horse series "Rex Mundi" is biblically and conspiracy-laced murder-mystery set in a alternate-history Paris of 1933, when feudalism still reigned, the Inquisition crushed the Protestant Reformation before it could begin. The series protagonist, Dr. Julien Sauniere follows the mystery of a friend's death as it leads him on a trail to the mythical Holy Grail.
The critically acclaimed title, which is preparing to begin its concluding storyline in October's "Rex Mundi" #14, is not the first comic book created by Nelson with overt ties to Christian mythology, nor the first with a latin title. Nelson, who didn't have any "burning desire" to write comics, co-created one while at Dartmouth College with a few friends called "Vox Populi Comix," featuring a character called Gawain, after the knight of the Round Table. The title referred to Dartmouth's motto as well as St. John the Baptist. Translated from Latin, it means "the voice of the people."
Nelson and his collaborators formed the student publication at the behest of a friend who was really into comics, and the school paid for the printing, just as it did with other such student endeavors. "It was a great learning experience and one of the happiest times of my life; not a care in the world, staying up till three in the morning, consuming copious amounts of caffeine and junk food and working on comics," said Nelson.
After graduating college in 1999, Nelson got a job working as a production assistant on a Woody Allen film in New York, a gig he characterized as "the lowest rung on the ladder." Nelson's job included such uninteresting tasks as turning away irate pedestrians who wanted access to the block in which Allen was filming. The writer wanted to do something more creative, so his thoughts turned to comics. "I had some experience doing the comic in college and comics were a way to tell a high-budget story at a relatively low-budget price. Looking back, everything was leading me in a certain path," said Nelson.
Nelson also spent part of that summer in Paris, working on a documentary of the influential literary magazine, The Paris Review, but the film wasn't the point of Nelson's visit. Rather, taking in the history and culture of the legendary city was foremost on the writer's mind. "All that history seemed real to me all of a sudden, and I realized that Europeans have a different sense of time than we do," he said. "America is just as ancient as Europe is, but we pretty much eradicated all the indigenous cultures here and swept them under the rug and pretend they don't exist. I think in Europe, there's a continuity there that goes back to the Bible."
Nelson became fascinated with the conspiracy theories surrounding Southern France and the Holy Grail, concocted by a Frenchman named Pierre Plantard, but he remains skeptical of such things. These conspiracy theories were popularized in the book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" in 1982 and later in "The DaVinci Code" in 2003. "It was totally bogus, but this whole idea that the Merovingian Kings were the first Christian kings of France and they descended through Jesus," Nelson explained. "Basically, the guy who invented this whole thing claimed that he was a descendant of the Merovingian Kings and his name was Plantard (like the villain in 'Rex Mundi'), and his claim was that he was therefore a descendant of Jesus Christ, the true lost king of France and of the entire world."
And the term "rex mundi" means, of course, "king of the world."
These pseudo-historical tales inspired Nelson's "Rex Mundi," which references real people in France's history. The main character, Julien Sauniere, is what Nelson calls an idealized version of himself -- "kind of cool in the ways that I'd like to be cool" - but also based on a rogue priest named Francois Berenger Sauniere, whose name recurs in the Grail conspiracy theories. Priests of the time would routinely perform masses for a small fee, which would then be donated to the poor or used in some similarly charitable way. The real life Sauniere accepted money for thousands of masses that he never performed, accumulating great wealth. A character called Sauniere appears in "The DaVinci Code" as well.
Nelson said he undertook a copious amount of historical research, but eventually tired of reading about the conspiracies that he didn't really believe - although he admits they make for good fiction. "I don't personally believe in any of that stuff, but there's definitely a lot of interesting circumstantial evidence and people keep building layers and layers upon that stuff," Nelson said. "I freely admit that weird things happen in the world, but my analysis of the Holy Grail conspiracies anyway, is that it's probably all nonsense."
Nelson likens the Grail mythology it to H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon, a fictional book Lovecraft references in many of his stories, but one that many people believed to be real. "People would go to rare book stores, asking if they had 'The Necronomicon.' And that's the power of great fiction. The best affirmation a writer could have is that people believe the things you write are true," said Nelson.
The summer Nelson spent in Paris was the same summer he met illustrator Eric Johnson (better known as Eric J) at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and the pair started working on "Rex Mundi" together. "We just started working on it together and he was an absolute rock through the whole thing," Nelson remarked. "He did an enormous amount of work for very little pay. He definitely helped me formulate a lot of the story. It was always great bouncing ideas off of him."
Nelson and Johnson self-published the first issue in black-and-white and sold some copies at San Diego the following year. The writers acknowledges that first effort was very raw, and he and Johnson ended up producing the first issue all over again before bringing it to Image Comics a couple of years later. "We kind of looked at it and cringed with embarrassment and re-did it. But it was great and people would come up and buy it and support it and come back the next day and tell us how much they liked it. It was really encouraging," said Nelson.
Indeed, one of the fans that bought and supported the primordial "Rex Mundi" from the beginning was "Violent Messiahs" writer Joshua Dysart, who would later write the introduction to the first Dark Horse trade paperback collection.
Nelson and Johnson revised their creation and worked on it for nearly two years, refining the script and art, and going from black-and-white to color when they submitted "Rex Mundi" to Image Comics. "They accepted it for publication based on the strength of the idea. Neither of us had a name for ourselves," Nelson said. "That's one of the things I like about their comics, especially the self-published ones. You know people are doing it just for the love of the story. It's a double-edged sword, because it's a lot like self-publishing. They definitely gave me a lot of support, but you do a lot of it on your own. I am grateful for the editorial oversight [from Dark Horse]."
"Rex Mundi" moved over to Dark Horse in 2006, after Nelson and Eric J split over creative differences.
Aside from Lovecraft, Nelson cites other literary influences on his writing, including Lovecraft contemporaries Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. Though Smith is not as well known as his venerable peers, Nelson considers him the best writer of the three, and "a real wordsmith." Smith wrote a series of stories based in a fictional province of France called "Averoigne," a neighbor to the historical province of Auvergne. Nelson described Averoigne as "a historical, medieval setting where magic is real, but its dark magic, vampires, and necromancy and demonology."
Nelson was also inspired by a movement of French films from the 1930s called Poetic Realism, an antecedent to American film noir of the '40s and '50s, and was characterized by very dark detective stories. Indeed, "Rex Mundi's" Julien Sauniere is also influenced by Raymond Chandler's legendary private eye Philip Marlowe. "The whole idea of 'Rex Mundi' was to do an American-style noir fiction, but set it in Europe," Nelson explained. "In European detective stories, the cops are always the good guys; okay, they're idiots and their bumbling, but they're not bad. In Sherlock Holmes, he's always working with the police, but they just happen to miss the bloodstained handkerchief or they can never put two and two together, and Sherlock Holmes is always superior. It's very binary; there's good and then there's evil. Sherlock Holmes was good and the bad guys were bad. There was never any question about that, and the cops always work on the side of good, even if they're always meddling with Sherlock Holmes.
"In American detective stories, the cops are really smart and have everything figured out. By the time Philip Marlowe shows up, they've already figured it out, they've already been paid off, and they've already confiscated all the evidence. So, the main character is always walking a very fine line. You have the criminals and gangsters, who are very dangerous, but the cops are just as dangerous, and they're in league with the gangsters. So, it's very grey.
"That was the idea behind 'Rex Mundi,' where the cops (the Inquisition) are not really good guys, necessarily."
Religion informs "Rex Mundi" in ways that are not so obvious, given its Biblically-inspired subject matter. Arvid Nelson practices a religion called Ba'hai, which he converted to during college. "Ba'hai is very much in the tradition of all the world religions, whether it's Buddhism or Christianity or Islam or whatever," Nelson explained. "On a very deep level, 'Rex Mundi' is a Ba'hai allegory for the formative years of the faith. Ba'hai looks at Revelations in the Bible as the advent of the Ba'hai faith. I see Ba'hai very much in the tradition of Christianity. I certainly don't consider it to be a cult. I see it so much as part of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition that binds so much of the world and tears it apart at the same time."
Before the first issue of "Rex Mundi" came out from Image in 2002, Nelson and Eric J released a webcomic called "Brother Matthew, Blessed Are the Meek," which Nelson credits as integral to the first issue of 'Rex Mundi" selling out. "Image didn't make a commitment beyond the first issue. They said; if sales are bad, we're going to axe it. I lost all my hair to that year. I'm totally bald now," Nelson remarked. "But I think 'Brother Matthew' helped ['Rex Mundi'] sell out and it sold out pretty quickly, which is why it became an ongoing series."
In stores now, "Rex Mundi" #13 sees Nelson come full circle, bringing Brother Matthew back in a short story that continues online at both Comic Book Resources and the Dark Horse website. Issue #13 is also a stand-alone story, inviting new readers to jump on before delving into the final storyline of the series. "We did a fill-in issue for issue #13, because [Juan Ferreyra] needed time to catch up, and I had this story lying around and I said, we could start it in the comic book and continue it online," Nelson explained. "The story was definitely very raw, and the synopsis went through several rewrites, but it's pretty intense and I'm really pleased with the story now.
With respect to moving "Rex Mundi" from Image Comics to Dark Horse, Nelson said he benefited from the editorial oversight and so did his writing. "I was so much dying on the vine at Image. I so much admire people like Robert Kirkman that can make Image work for them. I just never could," Nelson confessed. "I was always suffering and scrambling to get my act together. Every issue that came out with Image was just a pound of flesh and a pint of blood. It was great, because I actually made money on it. All the profits I made were mine and that was great, but 'Rex Mundi' has never made any money. So, Dark Horse offered to take care of a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff, like the pre-production and the press. I have an editor now, Scott Allie, and he's been a huge help to me. The writing has taken a huge quantum leap forward because of his help."
"Rex Mundi" has been optioned for a film adaptation, produced by Johnny Depp with a script by "Fight Club" screenwriter Jim Uhls. Depp will presumably star as Julien Sauniere. "I can't think of anyone else who would be better to play the main character," said Nelson. "And like I said, the main character is like an idealized version of me, so Johnny Depp is like the idealized version of me, on my better days. I like to daydream."