NYCC: Neil Druckman, Faith Erin Hicks & Dark Horse Introduce "The Last of Us"

Dark Horse Comics' Director of Public Relations Jeremy Atkins opened the publisher's "Expanding the Experience: Video Games and Comics" panel at New York Comic Con by introducing Bioware's Mac Walters, Lead Writer for "Mass Effect," and Bioware's Community Coordinator Chris Priestly. As soon as the magical words "Mass Effect" were uttered, spontaneous cheers and applause burst from the audience.

Atkins smiled at the enthusiasm and announced Dark Horse's plans to release hardcover annotated editions for Mass Effect, noting, "All of these art books we've been doing, they've all been tremendous for us."Walters elaborated: "We're going back to stories we've done, putting in notes and giving the insider's scoop." Walters also added that there was good news for certain fan-favorite characters. "There's going to be some Blasto love coming from Dark Horse and Bioware. We don't always give a lot of love to minor characters people care so much about; Blasto's going to get his due."

Atkins then turned the floor's attention to Chris Priestly, who stood in for David Gaider while the latter is busy writing "Dragon Age." Dark Horse is publishing a third "Dragon Age" series, "Until We Sleep," on sale in Spring 2013 and featuring familiar characters from the Dragon Age Universe. There will also be a new hardcover companion guide, "The World of Thedas," with art from all three games. Atkins commented, "One of the things about Bioware is the really rich lore behind our games, the politics behind the game, the religion behind the game." In order to explore that depth, "we created a new series of lore books."
Dark Horse is releasing an American edition of "The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia" in January 2013. The existing Japanese version can sell for up to $400 online. Atkins said, with great satisfaction, that there were 20,000 pre-orders on Amazon, [temporarily] beating out "50 Shades of Gray." The room responded with laughter and applause to the news, and Atkins joked about the collective unconscious of America, where the bestselling books are "Zelda," "Fifty Shades of Gray" and "some psychology textbook." Checking the pulse of the ever-popular "Zelda," Atkins asked the audience who had played the game, and almost all hands in the room went up. Mirroring this enthusiasm and speaking for Dark Horse, Atkins said, "This is our first project with Nintendo, and we hope it's going to be the beginning of a nice long relationship with them."

Atkins gave a quick mention of "The Art of Bioshock Infinite" before changing the focus to an all-new project, asking two special guests -- Neil Druckmann and Faith Erin Hicks -- to approach the stage.

Druckmann and Hicks are at work on the video game and comic "The Last of Us," already introduced to the public through online trailers. Dark Horse approached Naughty Dog Games about producing a comic tie-in while the game was in production, and though he was initially wary, Druckmann said Dark Horse lured him into it because "they didn't want to do something tangential, but a real expansion of the universe. "The Last of Us" is character-driven, and Dark Horse offered the opportunity to give its characters greater coverage and history. Dark Horse also sold Druckmann on the project by asking him, "Who'd you like to work with?" One of the top names that came up was Faith Erin Hicks, known for her long-running webcomic "Demonology 101."

Hicks herself had already heard about the game, and shared her initial impressions with the audience. "I thought to myself, Ellie is an unusual character to find in a post-apocalyptic video game... I'd like to write a comic like this." Then, in a moment of serendipitous synchronicity, she received a one-line e-mail from her editor at Dark Horse: "Do you play video games?" "Yes!" Hicks responded, and she ultimately signed on as a co-writer and artist for "The Last of Us."

The comic occurs a year before the game, telling a story that takes place across the entire United States, exploring the characters of Ellie, Riley and Joel. Talking about the creative process, Druckmann said artists' sketches were helpful in figuring out the characters. Many of these drawings never make it into the game, but they serve as touchstones or inspiration.

Asked about the difference between writing a game and writing a comic, Walters said one of the joys of writing for comics is how there's "a single, linear story" and a quick turnaround from idea to production. The relationships between the writers and artists are more immediate and intimate, too, compared to the tens or hundreds of people involved in a single game production. Of writing game-related comics, Walters said, "Choices in games do matter, so, I ask myself, 'How do I tell a story that honors all those choices that [gamers] make?'"

Druckmann, who has published a few comics before "The Last of Us," explained that the pacing in games was more involved, due to character development happening alongside story mechanics that [the gamer] is unlocking at the same time, based on systemic variables. Hicks added her thoughts, saying she has worked primarily on creator-owned comics, but she is enjoying "The Last of Us" as well. "There's something very thrilling about being tossed into someone else's world."

Discussing the collaborative relationship between Naughty Dog Games and Dark Horse, Walters emphasized, "One of the tenets of development of Bioware is that we get better through iterations... I'm just there to make sure things don't go off the rails, like a principal [at a school]."

"What can we expect to see in the comic?" Atkins asked Druckmann and Hicks. Druckmann responded, "Ellie's day-to-day life in the quarantine zone is not explored in the game, so we wanted to explore these questions in the comic. Where is Ellie at this point, and what is going to happen to her to get her to the character that you'll see in the game?" In this time before the events of the game, Ellie turns thirteen, goes through middle school and faces a choice: become a soldier, or be kicked out to survive on her own. Ellie is drawn to another girl, Riley, who shows her a third way.

Hicks added that in her past work, she has split her time "writing about zombies and teenage girls, so it's great that I get to combine those two. ['The Last of Us'] is about the realities of being a teenager and struggling to find something else, some way out."

One of the reasons why the collaboration between Dark Horse and game companies has been so strong is because of the shared focus on characterization and world-building. As Walters said, "Storytelling [as a mission] transcends whether it's comics or whether it's video games."

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