Talking Comics with Tim | Mark Sable & Paul Azaceta

I rarely get a chance to interview two collaborators for a project, but welcome to my latest fortunate rarity. Writer Mark Sable is back at Image Comics, collaborating with Grounded co-creator and Amazing Spider-Man artist Paul Azaceta. The two creators were kind enough to contact me for a joint email interview. As noted when this project was first announced: "In Graveyard of Empires, when a young lieutenant arrives at Combat Outpost Alamo, a remote outpost in Afghanistan, he learns a new kind of insurgent math. It’s said that in war, when you kill one insurgent, you create ten more by angering his family and friends. In this story, when you kill one, he comes back from the dead to infect ten of your fellow Marines . . . Graveyard of Empires #1 (APR110400), a 32-page full color horror/survival comic that will appeal to fans of The Hurt Locker and THE WALKING DEAD, will be available for sale in a comic shop near you on June 15, 2011." Sable and Azaceta also provided Robot 6 with a six-page preview from the first installment of the three-issue miniseries. Frequent readers of Talking Comics with Tim may notice that as of late, I have given the interview subjects a chance to ask Robot 6 readers a question. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sable took this opportunity to invite folks to ask him questions in the comments section. He has committed to answering any and all questions, as his schedule permits, so by all means ask him all that you want.

Tim O'Shea: You two clearly went with an eye-catching, iconic first issue cover. Care to discuss how you arrived at that cover?

Paul Azaceta: Thanks. I knew right off the bat that I didn't want a complicated cover. I wanted something that stood out and going with something simple and graphic was the way to go. I can't say where exactly I got the idea for the skull with the poppy flower but when it hit me I knew I had it. I drew a quick little sketch for Mark and he suggested adding the helmet. Actually, the harder part was carrying that idea on with the other covers. But that was my inspiration, simple graphic covers.

Despite the fact that the United States is involved in a couple of wars at present, are you surprised that the market does not support war comics (for example, Joshua Dysart's Unknown Soldier relaunch ended after 25 issues)? Why do you think there are not more war comics at present?

Mark Sable: I'm surprised only because comics has a long history dating back to at least World War II of not only dealing with war but being a head of the curve in terms of other mediums in doing so. From Captain America to Blazing Combat to 'The Nam comics have never been afraid to tackle the subject in an honest way and war have traditionally been one of the staple genres.

One of the things comics has going for it is that there is a relatively short turnaround time compared to other mediums, so you'd think that we could get almost real-time coverage of the wars we're involved in.

Part of the answer to why there aren't more war comics is the same answer to why there aren't more romance or sports comics - the market is dominated by super-heroes. I also think that post-WWII wars are much more divisive. I think you can date the beginning of the end of modern war comics to the combination of the Comics Code killing non-superhero publishers like EC and the less popular wars in Korea and Vietnam.

There ARE good war comics being done, though. Garth Ennis' Battlefields is some of his best work to date. Buying that, picking up the Unknown Soldier trades and voting for Joshua Dysart for an Eisner (full disclosure - Josh wrote Paul's BPRD: 1946 and is a friend of both of ours), and of course, checking out GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES is the best way to let publishers know you want to read books like that.

Azaceta: It could also be that these modern wars aren't as black and white as the other wars. World War 2 was something that had a real bad guy to hate. You can easily set up a good guys versus the bad guys story with that war. Iraq and Afghanistan aren't as cut and dry. That's my theory anyway. I also believe these new wars are better off for that very reason in that you can have real nuanced stories with real characters that aren't just cookie cutter heroes and villains.

O'Shea: It's been five years since the two of you last collaborated, what was it that got you both together again on this particular project?

Sable: I've been dying to work with Paul ever since we finished GROUNDED a few years ago. While that book helped launch both our careers, it shot Paul up to superstardom, especially his Amazing Spider-Man run with Mark Waid. For me it's been a question for working diligently to come up with an idea intriguing enough to tempt Paul away from the higher profile work.

Azaceta: Creator owned work has always been important to me and I never wanted to forget that. I've been fortunate enough to work on some great books with some great writers but my real love is creating comics from the ground up like I did when I was a kid. I think this was more about timing than anything else but Mark definitely helped pull me away with his pitch. who can resist the chance to draw Taliban zombies?

O'Shea: Can you see ways that the two of you have evolved in one's storytelling philosophies today when compared to your past collaborations?

Sable: Definitely. With GROUNDED I would hand dialogue-heavy, description-lite script pages to Paul and leave it up to him to make things interesting visually. And then go back and with editor Ivan Brandon's help, try to trim as many of the words covering Paul's art up as possibly.

We deliberately set out with more of a collaborative approach here. We discussed the story in depth before I sat down to write a script, shared research, and went back and forth through multiple drafts of treatments. Paul's contributions to the story were invaluable. He didn't just tell me what he wanted to draw, he gave me notes as good as any editor would.

Paul kept me honest, making sure each moment felt real...something especially important in a story with fantastic elements. He pushed me to up my storytelling game, and hopefully I did the same with him.

Azaceta: I think we both grew as creators since that first book and it's a pretty different collaboration now. We're both bringing what we;'ve learned in the past few years to the book. We really didn't know what we were doing the first time around and hopefully this time we've been able to put together a story that is on another level.

O'Shea: Given this is a creator-owned project, how hard is it for you two to pursue such work. For example, Paul, am I correct in thinking you are turning down mainstream paying work to pursue this project?

Azaceta: I did have to turn down some things but like I said before I was adamant at having a career that rode the fen between mainstream work and creator owned. It's tough when Marvel or DC is offering you work that's really tempting but I know that for me I wouldn't be totally happy unless I had something that was mine out there. I never want to end up just another cog in the machine. Being a comic creator is more important to me than just being an artist for hire.

O'Shea: Many of the pages in this first issue are quite sparse on dialogue--and I am also struck by the abundance of sound effects on those dialogue-less pages. Can you two discuss the pacing of dialogue and how you planned it?

Sable: There's always a balance of trying to have characters speak naturally, without exposition while making sure the reader is caught up. I generally prefer a reader knows what's going on, even if it means being a bit lest naturalistic. But with the first issue in particular, I wanted the reader to feel thrown into the chaos of war, where it's not immediately clear what's happening.

Where did that gunshot come from? What was your fellow Marine trying to say over the din of gunfire? Can that possible suicide bomber approaching the base understand the word "stop"? And why isn't the oustide world responding?

Azaceta: I'm never a fan of exposition, although I understand the need for it sometimes. I like not knowing what's going on all at once. Getting a clue here and a tidbit there, l always feel more engaged if you're thrown right in to the story and have to claw your way out. Frankly, we didn't have time to explain everything right away.We set up a story that starts with tons going on, gets crazier as it goes, with the big payoff by the end. Its a fun ride that you realize is a little more when you finally get to look back.

As for sound effects, I really can't get enough. I love the language of comics and sound effects is part of that. I think too many people forget that and with a war book it's almost essential. I actually have to stop myself from adding too many at some points because it's so much fun.

O'Shea: What kind of research did the two of you do for this project? Who concocted the tampon idea for the first issue?

Sable: We both research this book pretty heavily. Not just reading, but speaking to veterans of this and other conflicts, intelligence officers close to what's happening on the ground, and watching way too much emotionally arresting combat footage.

Using a tampon as a way to stop the bleeding from a wound is evidently something that really happens, which we learned from one of the more influential books on our comic, Sebastian Junger's "War". Almost everything that's not zombie-related has some basis in fact. But don't try that at home, kids.

Azaceta: You can't beat real life and with all the research we did it became about what can we fit in. There's so much out there now about these current wars and so many facets that we could have easily made this a much longer book. It was also important because we wanted that juxtaposition of ideas. Basing everything on real life as much as possible amplifies the fantastical nature of the zombies.

O'Shea: Am I correct that Graveyard of Empires will be a three-issue miniseries, with hopes to do more miniseries down the road, depending on response?

Sable: Yes. These issues tell a complete, self-contained story about a zombie uprising in Afghanistan. That said, we've got definitely plans to continue a larger story in the way that books like Criminal and Hellboy do. We have already discussed plans for a follow up set in the same world with another locale that's never been used in zombie fiction before. The analogy we like to use is The Wire, where the focus shifted each season to new characters, but we still follow the surviving characters in the background. That's assuming anyone survives GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES, though...

Azaceta: Mark's brain has already been concocting new directions for the story after the dust clears on this one and I really hope we have an opportunity to do more. The next chapter is something that would be a dream come true to draw.

O'Shea: Given that zombies are already a heavily used story element in recent years, did you hesitate at all injecting them in this story?

Sable: Yes and no. I didn't want to get tagged with "yet another zombie story" - although considering how many super-hero books are out there, you'd think we have a long way to go before the zombie genre is exhausted in comics. Plus, I think it's been done very well lately, with Chris Ryall's Zombies vs. Robots, Max Brooks' World War Z and, Robert Kirkman/Tony Moore/Charlie Adlard's The Walking Dead, in all it's incarnations. I give a lot of credit to Image for not worry about cannibalizing their own market by publishing this.

At the same time, this is as much a war story as it as a zombie book, maybe even moreso. Don't get me wrong - I do think we're doing some things with zombies that you haven't seen before. Even the title, which refers to the fact that Afghanistan has been the literal graveyard for centuries worth of armies, shows why it would be the worst place in the world for the dead to return.

But to me, despite the inclusion of the undead, this will be one, if not the, most realistic depiction of the War in Afghanistan in comics to date.

O'Shea: Paul, you recently wrote: "Speed lines, sound effects, action bursts, motion lines, dizzy stars, and even those little dark clouds over angry characters, are just some of the things I wish more people would throw into their work." Why do you think more artists should do this? Mark, what's your take on Paul's perspective on this, please?

Sable: I 100% agree with Paul on this. Comics aren't film, and shouldn't read as storyboards for movies even if there's a high concept like in ours. I love comics like Casanova that really embrace the form.

Paul asked early on if he could do his own sound effects and I said yes just because I wanted him to do the book. But very soon I saw how it paid off. Comics is a medium where sound is conveyed visually, and it allowed Paul to create a landscape of cacophony.

Azaceta: I got into comics because I love the medium. As much as comics borrow from other mediums it stands on it's own with things it can do. Sound effect and motion lines are the tip of the iceberg. I find it amazing how much you can play with the reader by changing a panel shape or moving a balloon. Why limit yourself to a simplified version of the language when you can use every bit of it's vocabulary to create an immersive experience for the reader?

O'Shea: Anything to discuss that neglected to ask you about?

Sable: I'd like to mention that Image is re-releasing GROUNDED, as well as HAZED my dark sorority comedy with Robbi Rodriguez. Also, Kickstart is doing the same with RIFT RAIDERS, my teen time travel adventure with Julian Totino Tedesco, at a 50% off. I hope readers will check those books out as well.

O'Shea: Any questions you'd like to pose to our readers?

Sable: Wow, I don't think a journalist has ever turned that around on me like that before, I love that.

I guess I'd like to know, what do readers want from war/zombie comics that they don't feel like they are getting from what's out there now? I'd also love to know what their favorite works are in either genre that they'd recommend. And finally, what can Paul Azaceta and I do as creators and share with you, to help make a better informed decision about whether to pick up this book? I promise I'll be back here to respond to any and all questions.[gallery link="file" orderby="title"]

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