Warning: Adult language used in the following story.
When Keith Giffen restarted "Legion of Super-Heroes" for DC Comics well over a decade ago, one of his goals was to add verisimilitude to the superheroic 30th century. He created a grungier future, one with a new-to-readers line of personal robots and other aspects of a lived-in world that didn't solely revolve around teenagers in Spandex (or whatever replaced it in the 30th century) fighting with other people in Spandex. It was a fair amount of work.
It also was peanuts compared to the work going into "Reign of the Zodiac," his new DC ongoing launching this summer. Giffen is creating a new world from scratch, along with 12 noble houses, each with their own distinct culture. The good news is that he's not doing it alone, but is teaming up with artist Colleen Doran, fresh from her success on "Orbiter."
"I'm taking a lot of chances that I wouldn't take in other books," Giffen told CBR News. "It's really a chance to do things 100 percent my way as a writer and then see how it's interpreted by one of the industry's most talented artists."
Giffen and Doran previously talked to CBR News about the series, but with its first issues now solicited in Previews, the pair is giving CBR readers a more in-depth preview of what to expect from the series.
The series begins with a first issue that introduces the universe of the 12 houses of the Zodiac.
"The first issue was really exciting, because it consists of big epic pages, and they really stand alone as splash pages," Doran told CBR News. "There's a big double page spread of the sinking of Atlantis, and there's these big double-page city spreads, and these battle scenes that were really really fun to draw."
The series' first six issue story arc begins with the second issue, centering on House Aries, House Virgo and House Capricorn.
Giffen sums up the plot thusly: "Star-crossed lovers inadvertently set events in motion that bring the war that is raging between the Zodiac to Earth." Or, to put it in more dire terms, "What if Romeo and Juliet inadvertently started World War II?"
In this first arc, readers get a first look at how in-depth Giffen and Doran have gone with their world-building, and establishing a different subculture for each house.
"House Aries, I patterned it after Sparta," Giffen said. "The government is a Senate-run democracy. They're basically a warrior race. That doesn't mean that everyone's a warrior, but they've got a culture that comes from their militaristic past."
"Aries is very classical," Doran said. "Their clothes are very simple and Greco-Roman influenced. The architecture is all Greco-Roman.
"Aries being the sign of the ram, the sides of the heads of the adult are often shaved, to indicate the horns on the head. ... Interestingly, although we associate the symbol with being warlike, it's a feminine sign, so it's a matriarchy."
Giffen has even gone so far as to find archaic English words to use in the slang of each house. For instance, House Aries uses the word "spraints" as Earthlings would use the word "shit." (The word is actually a specific term for otter feces.)
Giffen didn't end up using using "milt" (fish semen) or "merkin" (a vaginal toupee -- no, seriously) "and you know, somewhere down the line, I'm gonna come up with some superhero whose secret identity is Milt Merkin."
The utilitarian look and feel of House Aries is night and day compared to House Virgo.
"Virgo is Middle Eastern inspired. Lots of puffy pants, flowing tapestries, turbans," Doran said. "There's nothing in Virgo that would indicate that they would wear great big flowing costumes of the Middle East. But because Virgo is a sign about flowing and rounded shapes, and I thought ... to echo that in the architecture in onion domes and rounded shapes."
And while "Reign of the Zodiac" is a fantasy book, some of the noble houses will have an affinity for technology, including House Capricorn.
"I guess because I tend to skew darker, I tend to get a big kick out of doing House Capricorn," Giffen said. "There's good and bad in all these houses, but House Capricorn tends to be a bit more draconian in its government character. ... Guys who might not be doing great things, but tend to justify them for doing them for the greater good.
"It's kind of an aggressive house. One of the things we deal with the most when dealing with House Capricorn is the Caprican Oblige, which are kind of their secret police, but not quite at that level. Keepers of the peace, or order. ... If there's a house that's going to be aggressive for possibly the wrong reasons, or be a little more brusque in its approach, it'll be House Capricorn."
From a design standpoint, "Capricorn is very different," Doran said. "The original [astrology] design of Capricorn is half-goat, half-fish. Since Capricorn is somewhat a more techno-based society ... I tried to incorporate elements in the clothes that incorporate the two. ... The toes of the shoes and gloves of the hands split the hands and feet. ... Their clothes often have scales to reflect the fish element of the costumes."
While the above three houses dominate the first story arc, other houses will be seen in passing, and will get their turn in the limelight later.
"Right now, when the story begins, the dominant house is House Scorpio, in that they're the only house that's occupying another house. By the end of the first arc, Capricorn takes advantage of some things to get into a better position," Giffen said.
"Just because a character is saying 'all Scorpians are cowards,' that doesn't mean that all Scorpians are cowards," Giffen said. "Take it for what it's worth, you're getting the information from people."
"Leos are these big expansive showy sun people," Doran said. "So House Leo is composed of this combination of Louis XIV and Italian Renaissance showy over-the-top costumes with crowns. ... It's incredibly fun to draw, but I'll tell you, after an hour of drawing just one costume, you're ready to put a gun in your mouth. 'Oh my god, what have I done designing this costume?'
If all this seems like a lot of work for Giffen and Doran to be putting into the series, they don't disagree.
"I sit down to work on it every day, and say 'Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?'" Doran said. "And every day at the end, I say 'wow, that was so good.'
"It's like running a marathon. About 15 miles into it, you're always saying 'why did I get myself into this?' ... It's exhilarating, but it's grueling."