Talking Comics with Tim | John Jackson Miller

Over the past several years, writer John Jackson Miller has built a loyal base of Star Wars comic book readers, through his work on Dark Horse's Star Wars comics line. This Wednesday, January 11, marks the release of the first issue in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic-War five-issue miniseries (a project which teams Miller with artist Andrea Mutti). While I had Miller's attention in this email interview, I also opted to pick his brain about the realm of circulation and its related implications. Once you've read the interview, please be sure to peruse Dark Horse's preview of the first issue.

Tim O'Shea: What's the most enjoyable aspect of returning to the Knights of the Old Republic world?

John Jackson Miller: Zayne Carrick is a fun character to write. He was the Jedi student that didn’t make the grade, but who became a hero in spite of those low expectations. Zayne starred in the fifty-issue Knights of the Old Republic series — available in digital and nine TPB collections — and it’s fun to return to him here, where, once again, he’s completely out of his depth. This time, he’s been drafted into the Republic’s war against the armored Mandalorians. Not good — especially if, like Zayne, you’re against killing under any circumstances. That, too, makes it fun to return to telling Zayne stories — he has to think his way out of situations. Brute force is rarely an option for him.

It’s also a nice change of pace from writing about Sith. I’ve been writing the Star Wars: Knight Errant comics and novel for the last couple of years — and also the Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith prose collection due out from Del Rey this July — and while it’s fun to come up with new and interesting ways to depict Sith evil in those series, the Sith aren’t the main enemy in the Knights of the Old Republic-War period. The Mandalorians differ in a lot of ways but most importantly, they’re not evil — they just have a different philosophy that is having serious trouble coexisting with the Republic’s. So that makes for an interesting difference.

I should note that we’ve crafted War so that you don’t have to have read the previous Knights comics — Zayne starts out all on his own, and we learn about the galaxy as he does. We will have some treats for readers of the previous series, but the aim is to make a jumping-on point here.

O'Shea: While the Knights of the Old Republic saga plays out several thousand years before the movies, would you say there are certain elements of the characters and the universe that are still able to tap into the appeal of the movies?

Miller: Oh, sure. Humor is one; Zayne’s master once said he was walking proof that the Force had a sense of humor. Zayne isn’t in a funny situation, at all, but his outlook is such that he’s fun to follow. He’s not intense, like Anakin Skywalker or Kerra Holt (from Knight Errant) -- and I think his perpetual underdog status and earnestness recalls a young Luke Skywalker in a lot of ways.

And here again I think we try to convey events of galactic scope, as the movies did. War begins with a battle to try to stop the Mandalorians’ advance on the Republic — but as we’ll see as the story goes on, there’s a much bigger game afoot. So we have that drama playing out as well.

O'Shea: How excited are you that the book is being released digitally as well as in traditional print, allowing your potential audience to seemingly broaden to a wider range?

Miller: I think it’s a good thing. The reach of the comics expanded dramatically during the last decade, with trade paperbacks giving everything a second life; I think the expectation is that digital will become another leg of the table in this decade. Personally, I’m very much committed to the print format — where some house-hunters look for workshop space, I look for a good place for my library. But I think having the additional option for readers is the right thing to do.

O'Shea: You've dabbled in the Star Wars universe for a number of years, but still it clearly is a set of characters and worlds you love exploring. Why is that?

Miller: It’s because it’s open-ended, with a lot of opportunities to tell different types of stories. Knight Errant, for example, has given me the chance to explore life under totalitarian rule, and resistance against it. The Lost Tribe of the Sith stories are very nearly a sociological experiment, seeing how a group of Sith stranded on a planet with no technology survives generations without imploding. And Knights of the Old Republic has given us a chance to deal with the Republic more or less intact, but under threat from a different kind of external enemy. So the playing fields are very different and allow for very different kinds of stories to be told.

That said, it’s all Star Wars, whenever it’s set. The big themes of good and evil are always there, they’re just interpreted though different lenses.

O'Shea: I'm impressed with your restraint as a writer, in that you construct a series of pages full of action, but no dialogue or thought balloons of substance. Is that something you would have been comfortable trying earlier in your career--and how good did it feel to be able to do that with this issue?

Miller: I’m a big fan of old comics, but I always thought it was crazy to have long debates raging in the middle of a fight scene between combatants. There’s a place for repartee in a fight scene — we see it a lot certainly in Star Wars, during the escape from the Death Star — but Zayne is very much on his own for a lot of this first issue, so I wanted to let the action flow without getting in the way.

That said, something I did with War that I haven’t done in previous KOTOR comics is that Zayne is our narrator. I made a conscious decision in the previous series not to use a narrator during long stretches, because there were many characters in the story who weren’t what they appeared to be, and I didn’t want an omniscient narrator telling people what was true. But here, Zayne is on his own, and while there are definitely many surprises in the series, we’re discovering them just as Zayne does. So I give the microphone over to him.

O'Shea: Speaking of the art, how quickly were you and artist Andrea Mutti establish a narrative rhythm/rapport? Also, I was really struck by the coloring work of Michael Atiyeh--how satisfying is it when a story fires on all production cylinders (art, inking, color and lettering)?

Miller: Andrea’s work has been great. With any artist it’s just a matter of studying their work and then crafting pages that will play to their strengths. Every artist specializes in different things — the more you can match the story’s staging to an artist’s approach, the better.

And I’m glad you mentioned Michael Atiyeh, who really was a huge part of the success of the Knights of the Old Republic and Knight Errant series — as well as the Mass Effect books we worked on. Colorists are important in helping to maintain a consistent look on a title that has more than one artist, true — but they do so much more. Michael adds to the drama of scenes with his choices, and I try to work in a lot of opportunities in the script where lighting makes a difference. Another Michael, letterer Michael Heisler, is also aboard — he’s lettered just about everything I’ve ever done at Dark Horse, and always adds a lot to the package. And series editor Dave Marshall managed KOTOR and Mass Effect — so this really is a veteran team working together on this.

O'Shea: It's interesting that the first issue of this project publishes letters about your Knight Errant work. Was it important to you and Dark Horse to reassure fans, in a sense: "I am starting this miniseries, but I am not turning my back on Knight Errant!"

Miller: Yes, I think so. There’s a five-months-on, five-months-off dynamic with some of the series, and in this case we scheduled Knights of the Old Republic - War exactly into the Knight Errant gap. War fits into the slot between Knight Errant-Deluge, just ended, and Knight Errant-Escape, which ships in June and is our best, most impactful story let in that line. So this is a logical place to put those letters.

O'Shea: You are a circulation expert, no doubt, but I am curious do you monitor the numbers on your sales or do you avoid looking at them--and just not worry about month by month sales too much?

Miller: One of the things that I preach on The Comics Chronicles is that while the month-by-month numbers of books that Diamond Comic Distributors ships are interesting, they aren’t the whole picture. And so while I certainly look at the monthly figures, I’m also aware of their limitations: first-month orders are impacted by the shipping calendar, time of year, and the volume of other releases just to name a few. But many more things go into the circulation of a comics story. In the years since the first issue of the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series came out, for example, that story has now sold in more trade paperbacks than it did comic books — and the number of comic books is a lot larger than the initial number, too, due to reorders and reprintings. Something else we never see in the Diamond charts is the multiple foreign licensed magazines these stories appear in — and then, of course, there’s digital. So it’s a definite patchwork. I clearly think the monthly numbers are important, given my research work, but I tell people to put a lot more focus on what they say about the market in aggregate. The reach of any individual comics story is a lot farther than current sales charts can capture.

O'Shea: Which characters are you most pleased to get to develop and explore in this new Knights of the Old Republic--War story?

Miller: Dorjander Kace, the Jedi Master who’s volunteered to join the Republic in its war against the Mandalorians, is a character we’ll be seeing a lot more of. One of the big events of this era involves the Jedi renegade Revan rejecting Jedi neutrality and going to war against the Mandalorians; we saw that moment in the original series, and of course the character plays a big role in the later video games and in the just-released Revan novel. Kace is the highest ranking Jedi to go rogue and go to war against the Mandalorians — but as we’ll see, he comes at it from a unique angle.

I also have fun with Zayne’s superior officer, Republic Captain Dallan Morvis, who we introduced back in the original series as a secondary character — rich, entitled, arrogant, and thoroughly unlikable, Morvis hates Zayne’s guts. Which makes him an interesting foil for Zayne. It’s easy to tell a story where the allies like each other; this amps up the conflict.

O'Shea: Is there anything you'd like to discuss (that I neglected to ask you about) or thoughts you'd like to leave with Robot 6 readers?

Miller: I think the intent with the whole Star Wars line is to tell good stories — I think new readers will find that there aren’t many continuity demands in War. Yes, there’s a rich tapestry that we’ve all been working on developing — readers will find lots of moments in the original series that point to things we’re doing here. But we also tell a complete story here that stands on its own. Hopefully, it’s a first step into a wider world, as Obi-Wan once said!

Readers can find out more about the series at the official Dark Horse site and also my own website, where I maintain a behind-the-scenes page for every comic book I’ve ever done. There’s a lot of fun background there. Readers can also follow me on Twitter and catch my comics history work.

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