Talking Comics with Tim | Paul Azaceta and Mark Sable

It's been nearly two years since Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta first discussed the Image miniseries Graveyard of Empires with me. This time around we're looking at the project through the rear-view mirror, given that the 128-page trade collection will be released May 1 (Diamond code MAR130502, ISBN 978-1-60706-739-9), featuring a new short story written and drawn by Azaceta. The collaborators were ambitious with this project, which pits U.S. Marines in present-day Afghanistan against the Taliban ... and a sudden influx of the undead. It's interesting to learn the interaction that the creators had with military veterans in the wake of the miniseries' release, as well as their decision to dedicate the collection to Tim Hetherington.

If you haven't read Graveyard of Empires, you're in luck, as Image Comics and comiXology have made the first issue available for free.

In addition to chatting about the upcoming trade paperback, Sable takes time to chat about his current Kickstarter project with Salgood Sam, Dracula: Son of the Dragon. Azaceta also reveals his plans to write more stories when his schedule allows, as well as his upcoming Conan work with Brian Wood.

Tim O'Shea: We first spoke about Graveyard of Empires back in 2011. Now in 2013, the trade paperback is about to be released. How good does it feel to be at this point with the project?

Mark Sable: It feels great. Graveyard of Empires started out as a three-issue miniseries with 22 pages each, grew into four issues with 124 pages of story. In an age where Big Two issues are now 20 pages and often decompressed, that's like six issues' worth of content. We wanted to make the trade worth the wait that expansion caused, so we're not only including the original story and your usual extras like sketches, but an all new short story written and drawn by Paul. It makes his comics writing debut, and I have to be honest, it scares me that he's going to put me out of a job.

Paul Azaceta: It was a lot of work to get it together so looking back on it I'm very proud we were able to put so much into it. Every book has a level of satisfaction when you put that last brushstroke down but this one was more than that. It's a product of long conversations, batting ideas back and forth and getting to get my hands dirty in the coloring and final look of the book. It's actually changed how I want the rest of my career to go.

You both did a great deal of research for this project. Without spoiling anything, which research element were you most pleased to work into the tale?

Sable: The Taliban's perspective. It's extremely hard to research the Taliban. They don't talk to journalists -- they behead them. Also, one of the people who helped us track down that kind of information was war photographer Tim Hetherington, who was nominated along with Sebastian Junger for the Afghanistan War Documentary Restrepo. He was killed covering the fighting in Libya, and the book is dedicated to him.

Azaceta: It was kind of a shock when I read about his passing after referring to his work so much during the making of our book. Delving into the research was a bit daunting at first but the work he did, especially with Junger, was really compelling and made it easy to get a clearer picture of what it's like over there. Getting that right and representing what it's really like in Afghanistan was something we both tried really hard at.

Again, back in 2011, you expressed an interest in exploring more of the  Graveyard of Empires universe after this first story was done. Is that still an interest for both of you?

Sable: I'm going to get a chance to explore the story in another medium, which it's killing me I can't announce yet. But I still have ideas for where to take the comics, we need to do convince Paul to come back (hint, hint). I'm a patient guy, though ... It took six years between our first collaboration on Grounded and this one.

Azaceta: Being on either coast meant long phone calls brainstorming about each plot point and story moment in the script. I still feel like we've only scratched the surface. There are tons of things we had to cut or gloss over for fear of this becoming a 500-page monster. We still have a few things up our sleeve that we could easily make a book two with. That's one reason why I wanted to do the little short story for the trade. It was a chance to play a little more in the world.

Looking back at the story as a whole, can you pick out a favorite scene and/or character?

Sable: My favorite scene is a two-page spread in the first issue (below) that depicts an ordinary day in the life of the Marines at Combat Outpost Alamo before the zombies attack. Read horizontally, it shows each the range of activities different Marines are engaging in at that particular moment, from cleaning their weapon to burning the waste from a Porta Potty to looking at porn. Read vertically, you can follow an individual Marine as he goes from the day. The same marine that was inking his fellow leathernecks with badass tattoos in the morning might be praying by himself at night. It allowed us to do a lot of character development really quickly, and I think shows off Paul's storytelling chops.

Azaceta: That was a bit of a challenge, and I like how it turned out. I don't want to give anything away but there's a two page spread in the final issue that I was pretty happy about. Basically anytime I could draw the mayhem of the situation I had a blast. Although, there are some shots jam-packed with zombies and I'd curse Mark for having had the easy part. "Zombies attack the base" is really easy to write.

The extras include a bonus story written and drawn by you, Paul. Do you have a desire to write more?

Azaceta: Desire is too light a word I think. I got into to this business to tell stories and that means from start to finish. I really enjoy collaborating with writers like Mark and feeding off each others energy but there's just something about starting from scratch. Molding the clay into something appealing with no help from anyone is as creative as it gets for me. I'm not sure I have any desire to write anyone else's characters but I have a ton of stories flying around my brain that are screaming to get out. This short story happens to be the first but I already have other things written and ready to go as soon as I get the chance. I hope to get at least one more thing out this year that I'll write and draw but that's just the beginning.

Given how politically and culturally charged the story is, what's been the quirkiest or most passionate response you have gotten from a reader?

Sable: Even though Image was far and away our first choice as a publisher, I was really surprised at the number of "edgy" publishers that we talked to that were scared to do this story. So it was a relief that reader reaction was so positive. The best reaction was from one of the many veterans that came up to us in San Diego, which a city with a big military presence. After showing us his shrapnel scars, he asked us if he could use Paul's iconic cover image -- the helmeted skull with the poppy growing through it - as a tattoo. He wanted to ink the names of the fallen members of his unit in the roots of the poppy. I've never been as moved by a reader's response to something I've worked on.

Azaceta: It's hard to top that one, but in general the response from veterans or active military has been a real pleasure. Getting to meet some of them at cons has been the biggest treat from working on this book. I remember one mentioned that he had done a couple of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was set to go back soon after we met him. It was heartbreaking, and I felt a little silly and guilty getting to sit in my home and draw these crazy things that he himself has to go live through. Seeing how much he enjoyed the book made me feel relieved that we in some way captured some reality that he recognized which made him happy. I don't mean to get sappy but that was an unexpected pleasure.

Can you two discuss your collaborative approach?

Sable: When Paul and I started together on Grounded, I threw pages at him and hoped for the best. I was unsure of myself, and I think afraid to cede control over to someone else. His work exceeded my expectations, and as the book went on I tried to get out of his way. Paul still put his stamp on that book, but it was in spite of our communication and not because of it.

With Graveyard, Paul made it clear (in the most polite way possible) that he really wanted to shape the story with me. By that point, there was no one I trusted more. Paul and I would go back and forth on the scripts, and he could be as ruthless as any editor I've ever worked with. Letterer/designer Thomas Mauer was also part of that process.

To use just one example, it was particularly a big deal to him that, since we had a fantastical element with zombies, everything else be firmly rooted in reality. If something didn't feel real to him, I either had to justify it or cut it.

In the first issue, I'd written a scene involving a suicide bomber with an IED surgically implanted in his abdomen. Paul didn't believe it, and I had to show him evidence that, as unbelievably scary as it sounds, it's indeed possible and actually a concern.

That kind of back and forth not only made the book better, but made me a better writer.

Azaceta: Yes. You win, Mark. Surgically implanted IEDs are real.

I came into the project a little beaten down by the cold process in the mainstream. I'm sure it's not like that for everyone but for me it was like working in a well. All alone and in the dark. Just working away with no contact to the outside world. I think Mark maybe had the unfortunate luck of following that period and maybe I was bit more vocal than I would have been normally. But I think it was all for the the betterment of the story and in the end made the book 10 times better than if I kept my mouth shut. It's changed how I want to make comics and credit to Mark for not flying across country and strangling me while I slept.

How challenging was it to shift from the story's present day to the historical periods?

Sable: Part of the reason for the title is that Afghanistan has earned the nickname "The Graveyard of Empires" because every empire that has invaded it -- from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union -- not only failed to hold onto it but fell as well. I asked Paul to help me weave that into the story to give the modern day events more context. And ... I really wanted to see our heroes fight and our artist draw zombies from different time periods.

I knew that was asking a lot. I bombarded Paul with reference, and I think he and colorist Matthew Wilson did an amazing job with the flashback pages. You can tell you're in a different era without having to read any of my captions or dialogue because of their work.

Azaceta: Mark really saved the day by sending me reference for everything he wanted to include but it still took some doing. I'm not one to make things up if it's a real thing or place so I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I still have a huge stack of books and a ton of JPEGs littering my computer, but hopefully it was worth it and we were able to capture the reality.

Mark, care to discuss your new Kickstarter with Salgood Sam?

Sable: It's called Dracula: Son of the Dragon, and it feels like a natural follow up to Graveyard of Empires for me. It chronicles the transformation of Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula, from impaler to vampire. Although it's set in the 15th century, it's a similar mix of war and horror as Graveyard, I'm trying to apply my newly collaborative way of working with Salgood, and Paul is doing guest art for it. We're using the Kickstarter to fund exclusive, limited editions of the first of graphic novels and could really use people's help to make the a reality. You can check it out, and hopefully help us back it, here.

Paul, what is on the creative horizon for you?

Azaceta: Right now I'm knee deep into Conan the Barbarian with Brian Wood. It's a fun story with lots of mystery and blood. The best part of gearing up for this project was reading the whole run Brian and Dark Horse put together. Just good comics. Besides that I have a few things simmering but too early to talk about.

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