REFLECTIONS: Ron Marz's "Samurai" Style

Reflections, Volume 2, Number 13

I don't like samurai stories, I really don't. I've dropped almost every book about samurais I've ever read (including writer Ron Marz's other martial arts book, "The Path"). But that didn't stop me from picking up the first issue of "Samurai: Heaven and Earth" over a year ago and being completely floored. It was the best book Ron Marz had ever written. It was the best book Luke Ross had ever drawn. It was the best book Jason Keith had ever colored.

Lengthy delays between issues didn't mean a drop in quality from the creative team (despite hurricanes, illnesses and more). The book ended just as magically as it began, and now I consider the five-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics one of the few masterpieces of the new millennium. In honor of the trade paperback's release, I sat down with Marz to talk about the origins of the book, and just what took so darn long to get the miniseries completed.

Robert Taylor: Hey Ron, how's life?

Ron Marz: Better than the alternative.

RT: How did you form the idea for "Samurai: Heaven and Earth?"

RM: This was one of those ideas that was just there one day, pretty much full blown. The image of a samurai facing down the Three Musketeers stuck in my head, and then it was a matter of puzzling together the pieces of the plot to make that happen.

RT: Tell us about how that idea changed from your original concept to the finished book.

RM: Not a huge amount, truthfully. The basic premise stayed the same, and the details got hammered out in the creative process. I think it's always good to have an idea where you're going, but without having the route mapped out too specifically. A lot of times the best stuff comes about by happenstance, which is I guess why they call it the "creative" process. This is one of those times when the story took on a life of its own and pulled me along with it.

RT: How did Luke Ross and Jason Keith come onboard as the art team?

RM: I met Luke when he spent a few months in the CrossGen studio in Florida, even though I think we only ended up doing one issue together. Once that house of cards tumbled, I found out Luke had been left holding the bag for a large amount of money, and needed work, so I suggested him for the "Green Lantern" arc I was about to start on. Once we were a few issues into that, I asked Luke if he wanted to do something creator-owned, and I sent him the pitch for "Samurai," as well as one for a book with more of a science-fiction theme. Luke picked "Samurai," and then we brought in Jason, who's another CrossGen refugee, and for my money, one of the three or four best colorists working today.

RT: What happened to that other concept?

RM: As it turned out, the other concept, the sci-fi one, just got a green light from Dark Horse. It's called "Pantheon City," and artist Clement Sauve is working on it with me for release as a mini-series later in the year.

RT: How do you feel about the overall finished "Samurai" product, artwise?

RM: Easily one of the two or three favorite art jobs from anything I've written. Every time a new page showed up in my inbox, it was like Christmas. That's absolutely the best part of a writer's job, the first time you get to see the art. You get to see the ideas that came out of your head made concrete. Luke and I seem to have an almost identical sense of storytelling, so sometimes it's almost like two halves of the same brain at work.

RT: "Samurai: Heaven and Earth" shares some similarities to your Crossgen book, "The Path." Will the book appeal to "Path" fans? Who else would like it?

RM: I imagine the people who read "The Path" checked out "Samurai." It's not like there are that many samurai-based tales on the stands. But I think the essential difference is that "The Path" is a war story, while "Samurai" is a love story.

I've put "Samurai" in front of a number of people who are in no way comics fans, and they've all taken to it. I think something like "Samurai" seems a lot more real and relatable to a casual reader whose eyes are apt to glaze over if you hand them a typical superhero comic. Superboy punching at the walls of reality? The average guy doesn't know or care. But what you would do for love, how far you would go? Everybody relates to that.

RT: With such a straightforward plotline, how did you avoid making the two main characters into clichés and give them their own voices in the story?

RM: Obviously you try to make any character you write as three-dimensional as possible. With Shiro and Yoshiko, it was a little trickier because we didn't have that much "screen time" for Yoshiko before she was spirited away and disappears from the book for a few issues. So, we had a very small window of opportunity to make the reader believe that Shiro would follow this woman, literally, across the world. Shiro presented a different sort of challenge, because we played him as fairly stoic and a loner, particularly in later issues. We had to make readers empathize with him, even though everything about him is understated and internalized. So much of the credit belongs to Luke, because he's so good at visually portraying the things we didn't come out and say. I think the moment in the story is when Shiro and Yoshiko's eyes meet again at the end of the fourth issue, and it's a silent sequence. Everything you need to know is shown to you. Words would've ruined it.

RT: Why did you choose the places you chose for the book?

RM: More than anything, they were places I wanted to write about and Luke wanted to draw. I've also been to both Notre Dame and the palace at Versailles, so those were scenes I could write from personal experience. Luke does a wonderful job at creating a sense of place, so I think everything feels quite genuine, whether it's Japan, China or Paris.

RT: How did you balance the emotion with the action properly?

RM: The emotion and the action go hand-in-hand, each needs the other. If you don't establish some emotional connection with the characters -- if you don't make the audience care about the characters -- the action is meaningless. It's all just sound and fury. You wouldn't give a damn about this samurai fighting the Three Musketeers if you didn't know that he has to defeat them if he ever wants to be reunited with the love of his life.

RT: What made the book spark like it did? The finished product is one of those rare moments where a creative team captures lightning in a bottle and everything goes perfectly.

RM: The real answer is -- I don't know. Sometimes it happens that way, all the pieces click, and you just thank your lucky stars. Bernie Wrightson told me once that there are times like that when he's drawing. When it clicks, it's less like he's drawing a new picture from scratch, and more like he's uncovering a picture that's already there. It's almost like archaeology.

If there's any answer beyond that, I'd have to say, at least in part, it's because this is a creator-owned project. We weren't working within a shared universe, or within any sort of editorial constraints. I picked the team -- including Dave Lanphear, the letterer -- and everybody meshed perfectly. We told the story we wanted to tell, in exactly the way we wanted to tell it. Dark Horse and in particular our editor, Dave Land, were great in letting us do that.

RT: What was up with those delays? Normally a five-issue miniseries shouldn't take over a year to ship.

RM: Partially it was underestimating how long it took for Luke to draw each page. We printed from Luke's pencils, rather than having the pages inked, which I think brought a great texture to the work, but the level of finish Luke had to bring to each page was that much more. And the other part was Luke contracting toxoplasmosis and being quite ill for a while. Sometimes real life interferes in these made-up stories we tell. When it was apparent we were going to go off schedule, Luke and I talked about it and made the decision to maintain the quality of the work, rather than bash through it to get it done. Looking at the collection now, I think it was obviously the right decision.

RT: Let's talk about the ending (spoilers follow). The obvious reaction would be that the ending was a bit of a gyp, though if you had reunited the lovers it would have been nothing more than a cliché. How did you balance the need to not cave into clichés and how did you make the ending work without making it too obvious a setup for a sequel?

RM: We did reunite the lovers. I think it would've been completely unsatisfying if we'd set up this epic quest for Shiro to find Yoshiko, and then never paid it off. So we did reunite them and then wrenched them away from each other due to the machinations of the villain.

RT: True, true. Let's move on to the collected edition. What's new in there?

RM: We included the four-page prequel story that appeared on the Dark Horse website, a sketchbook section by Luke Ross, and a 10-page pin-up gallery with pieces by Jim Starlin, Cully Hamner, Lee Moder, Keu Cha and a bunch of other terrific artists. I was adamant in wanting the collection to have enough extra pages that we could have a generous helping of additional content. I love the "DVD extra" stuff in collections. Just reprinting the issues seems kind of pedestrian.

RT: A little birdie told me Dark Horse is publishing a sequel. The entire creative team is remaining intact?

RM: Absolutely. We just started on the sequel, which will be another five-issue mini, now that Luke's "Jonah Hex" and "JSA" commitments are out of the way.

RT: What are your plans for the sequel?

RM: Sand. Swords. Yoshiko has been taken by a Spanish nobleman who must flee his homeland because of the events in the first mini-series. He's on the run, with Shiro in pursuit, so the question becomes where can he possibly go that Shiro won't find them. The setting is 1704, so it's a pretty wide world. Luke said he wanted to draw the desert, so I'm going to make sure he gets his chance.

RT: More sequels after the initial one to come?

RM: Let's hope! We initially mapped out a story that would take at least three mini-series to tell properly. Now we might have even a little more than that.

RT: What are you most proud of in the book?

RM: That we got to do it the way we wanted to. So often, comics are an assembly-line process, and you don't have as much control over the finished product as you'd like. You're playing with someone else's toys, and you do your part and just hope for the best. Very, very rarely does something come out exactly the way you intended. With Samurai, I can look at every page of the collection and say it's the way we wanted it. I can say it's ours and we're proud of it.

RT: Has there ever been a comic book that touched/changed your life? What was it?

RM: "Dark Knight Returns" made the light bulb go on for me, really made me see the possibilities of graphic literature.

RT: If you could only write one book for the rest of your career, what would it be?

RM: Tarzan, with a John Carter of Mars backup feature.

RT: Who would be your artistic collaborator?

RM: On Tarzan and John Carter? Frank Cho. Frank gives good gorilla.

RT: What's the best comic book movie ever made?

RM: "The Incredibles."

RT: What is your weirdest convention experience?

RM: Why tell you when I can show you?

RT: If you were remembered for only one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

RM: What I do in my career isn't anywhere near as important as what I do as a person. Being a husband and father is a lot more important than writing comics.

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