Stjepan Å ejiÄ‡'s art has captivated readers of of Top Cow's "Witchblade" universe for years, and his new, creator-owned series, "Death Vigil," has him focusing on the supernatural realm yet again -- but this time, he's writing and illustrating what ends up in fans' hands.
"Ultimately, I'm in this business to tell stories, not be an illustrator," Å ejiÄ‡ told CBR News, explaining that Top Cow approached him about publishing his creator-owned title after the online buzz he generated by publishing a large chunk of the first issue on his personal DeviantART page.
"When they told me they were interested, I thought it was pretty cool," he said. "I've been working with Top Cow for ten years, and they've always treated me right. Basically, we just make a good team -- and if it ain't broke, don't fix it!"
The series follows the members of the Death Vigil, a team of supernatural heroes, and their ongoing war against an ever-growing primordial evil attempting to enter the mortal realm.
"I've got the weirdest way of creating stories," Å ejiÄ‡ said. "For me, there are days when I'm just really bored and I start doodling stuff. And one day I doodled a sketch of [the character] Sam pulling on the chain of a boat of Medieval Vikings. I just thought it was really cool."
From that image, Å ejiÄ‡ began to build a mythology around the Death Vigil and the otherworldly beasts they try to keep from consuming the mortal plane.
"Initially, it was more like zombies and vampires, but once I got the story rolling it became bigger. This Lovecraftian aspect started emerging, with this bigger threat outside trying to be let in," Å ejiÄ‡ said.
So far, he's taken two approaches to the beasts attacking the mortal realm.
"There are so called 'archetype beasts' -- they have a pattern to their form and how they fight and the vigil knows what they are," Å ejiÄ‡ explained. "But then there are 'chaos beasts,' ones that were never touched by purpose. That thing that exits the tear at the end of the first issue is one of those, an unformed litch."
The series' first issue opens with Sam dressed in a police costume for Halloween. He's against a wall, bleeding out from a gunshot wound he sustained when he tried to use his costume to stop a gunman from robbing two women in an alley. In his final moments, a Grim Reaper named Bernadette (Bernie to her friends) appears and offers him the chance to join the Death Vigil. Sam accepts, and when the story resumes 12 years later, he's patrolling a cemetery as an immortal warrior, wielding an ethereal shovel and pickaxe as weapons.
"In the second issue, there's a scene where I show how Sam got his weapons," Å ejiÄ‡ said. "They're called Veil Rippers. Bernie creates them from her scythe, based on something important from the vigil member's past."
Each Veil Ripper is unique; one uses a quill pen while another utilizes a deck of role-playing trading cards. Eventually, it will be revealed that necromancers have been systematically killing off members of the Death Vigil in order to acquire Veil Rippers they can use in some arcane ritual.
"Readers should play close attention, because my longtime fans have kind of already figured out that I hide a lot of small details early within my stories, with huge payoffs," Å ejiÄ‡ said.
As dark as it may sound, Å ejiÄ‡ doesn't consider "Death Vigil" a dour, humorless comic. "I'm going to try and keep the book fun, with quite a bit of humor, even though the story will be kind of dark," he promised. Some of these light touches will be found in Sam and Bernie's acerbic banter when confronting various horrors. Å ejiÄ‡'s reasoning for the vigil's fondness for stupid jokes is that both fear and laughter are contagious emotions.
"And if the Death Vigil has to choose a contagion they'll laugh and mock the madness around them," Å ejiÄ‡ said, explaining that this is especially true of Bernie, who has been fighting against these otherworldly evils for thousands of years.
"That's the thing -- she has to keep looking for the reason to fight. That's hard for her. She's not death, but she's very old," Å ejiÄ‡ said. "Once you reach a certain age -- imagine how much you change in the span ten years. Now, try and imagine you're thousands of years old. How do you even keep caring, to find a reason to fight at a certain point?"
Bernie's attempts to find little things to keep her anchored and caring about the mortal world are one of the story threads Å ejiÄ‡ wants to focus on as the series progresses. For instance, at one point in the first issue, Bernie is playing with an MP3 player she got for her "birthday." In future issues, we discover other aspects of the character, including the fact that she crashes concerts in her non-corporeal form.
"She's been listening to lots of different music; that's one of the very important beats for the story," Å ejiÄ‡ said. "I don't want to spoil stuff, but there is a reason she does this."
"I'm going to keep having these characters constantly fight the madness around them and the fear form within with humor," Å ejiÄ‡ said, explaining that his plan is to tell a large, finite story in three distinct arcs. "Things will get really dark, and if everything goes right and I publish all three arcs, the final one is going to be insane. But even in those dark moments there's going to be humor, because I want to write a fun book."