Storybook legends remain known amongst readers of all stripes as being equal parts fairy tales and horrific snapshots of the past. And while many a little kid have acted out the ups and downs of classically creepy stories with their action figure collection, new publisher Th3rd World Studios' July-launching "The Stuff of Legend" places an army of toys front and center in a storybook battle chock full of resonant themes and raucous action.
"A little boy gets kidnapped by the Boogeyman, and his little toys head out to save him," co-writer Mike Raicht told CBR of the book's premise. "They head into a world called The Dark which the Boogeyman controls. When they do that, they end up fighting a war against the Boogeyman and the discarded toys that have joined the Boogeyman's army."
With a preview issue already having proved a strong word-of-mouth hit on Free Comic Book Day, "The Stuff of Legend" debuts with a $4.99, 52-page issue formatted in a similar size to David Petersen's hit "Mouse Guard," the first of two issues that comprise the concept's inaugural series.
Conceived by Raicht and his fellow scribe Brian Smith with art by Charles Paul Wilson III, the World War II era book mixes pieces of its kidnapped boy's personality with some stark realities as the cast of toys that includes a dashing hero called The Colonel, an unyieldingly loyal teddy bear named Max and a cutthroat jack-in-the-box clown called Jester turn into flesh-and-blood people once they've crossed the closet door threshold into the Boogeyman's world.
"I love the Dark realm, and we've barely scratched the surface of what you'll see inside. In this story, like in OZ, the environment really is a character itself," said Smith, who met Raicht when the pair worked as editors for Marvel Comics a few years back. Since then, each moved on to other jobs with Smith providing character designs and kids comics for places like Nickelodeon as well as art for the Penguin graphic novel series "The Adventures of Daniel Boom AKA LOUD BOY!" and Raicht scripting the monthly adventures of Ash in Dynamite's "Army of Darkness."
Both writers feel a kinship to "The Stuff of Legend" as their first epic indie series. "While Mike and I have already worked out the entirety of the story right down to the last page, we're already coming up with reasons to jump right back in again," Smith said. "Beyond that, the most unique and memorable aspect of this series has got to be the artwork. Charles Paul Wilson III is redefining what a comic can look like with this series. His work is absolutely stunning, both from a storytelling perspective and his ability to render these characters with such life and emotion. To me, It is unlike anything else on the shelves right now, and it's positively gorgeous."
These days, such small press books can be a hard sell in the comics marketplace, especially since industry distributor Diamond upped it sales threshold for books published by non-exclusive companies, but with a high page count and a plan towards short miniseries lengths, Th3rd World Publisher Michael Devito hopes to gain both retailer and fan trust with the new series. "We are extremely pleased with the numbers we did for FCBD. We did approximately 15,000 copies, which to me meant we had 15,000 people giving the book a chance. We made sure that they had a good chunk of the book in their hands in the hopes of hooking them. So far the results seem very positive," Devito told CBR."A large part of the strategy for this series was based around Free Comic Book Day, and is pretty much the culmination of everything we learned up to this point. The most important thing for us was visibility. If people see Charles' artwork on this series, we felt like we would have a good chance to hook them. But exposure is the single hardest thing to achieve.
"As for how we handled the actual format and price points, we wanted to make sure we gave retailers every reason to pick up this book. To a certain degree it is a gamble, but one that we heavily weighed the pros and cons of. Each issue of this book is probably as close to a trade as you can get without being one. We debated going OGN, but our feeling was that it would create too expensive of a price point for retailers to get on board with, but two 52-page issues would be easier to swallow price wise and would allow readers and retailers to get in and our without a long commitment to the series. We decided to set our price point at $4.99, which when compared to other books on the market seems fair given the length of each book. For our production model it adds minimal cost to add extra pages, allowing us to offer more content at a slightly above average price, and only nominally effects on our profits.
"We have also offered retailers a buy three get one free ordering incentive. It should help to reduce the overall cost and increase profit for them, and the hope is that will lead to more copies being pre-ordered. We also offset the books by a month, so rather than going back-to-back months, issue 1 should be available and on shelves before issue #2 pre-orders are due. This means, hopefully, that orders will be made based on what we hope will be increased demand and buzz rather than established drop offs."
Back on the story side of things, Mike Raicht and Brian Smith took the extra time to shape their bigger ideas and characters before the launch. "What really brought it together was when we both decided it should be set during World War II because there was a stretch where we had different types of toys that didn't work as well," said Raicht, referring to supporting characters including a wooden pull duck named Quackers and the savings minded piggy bank Percy. "These classic toys are things people relate to, and when we intermingled the World War II stuff into it and started to mirror the war, I think that really added the element that brought the story together.
"As you read the books, you're going to get a lot of glimpses of the boy, but they're glimpses through what he's given to the toys and what personalities and traits they've inherited from him by how he's played with them. So you will see the boy but in flashbacks dealing with why you see the toys making the choices in what they're doing whether it's the Colonel and how he's the hero in the piece or the princess and how she's always treated as the damsel in distress."
"The cast plays really well, I'm incredibly happy with the group dynamic Mike and I were able to work out," added Smith. "The biggest challenge I see when writing a 'team' book is making sure there's a reason for everyone to be involved, and I think we accomplished that nicely. No wallflowers here. [The teddy bear] Max is the boy's protector, the toy he would grab onto when things go bump in the night. All of the transformations in the Dark, when the toys change from their 'toy' forms to their 'real' selves, are a reflection of how the boy sees his toys while at play. Our story is based on the idea that a child 'completes' a toy by giving them a name, a personality - essentially giving the toy a life that they have created out of their imaginations. The boy sees Max as his best friend, more ferocious than any monster that hides under the bed. So when he enters the Dark to rescue the boy, Max is a giant grizzly, all fangs and claws. As the series progresses, we learn much more about Max's relationship with the boy.
"Out of all the characters, Percy [the piggy bank] is my favorite to write. He's going to have the most difficult road to travel in the Dark, some really tough decisions for Percy coming up. I think readers are really going to get a reaction from him, and not all of it is going to be nice. Our story starts as a rescue mission, and while that's always the main drive, all of the toys have gained something going into the Dark. Jester is liberated, no longer jailed as a jack-in-the-box. Percy is a piggy bank, the only thing waiting for him back in the real world is the eventual smash of a hammer. Over the course of the story we'll see how these newfound freedoms affect the decisions our characters make."
The choice of Charles Paul Wilson III as artist brought a level of freedom to the creative team, as the subject matter allowed the penciler to mix skills honed at the Joe Kubert School and on CBR's own COMIC BOOK IDOL to create a look evoking period picture books and modern action comics. "When [Devito] sent the project description my way I remember thinking something like 'Wait, is it my birthday?'" recalled Wilson. "I think I had been looking for just this kind of thing to draw for a good, long while. The concept, presented to me in text, was extraordinarily intriguing for me to visualize in my head as an artist, and although I was excited about the concept I was really, really excited when I had finished reading the early outline of the story itself.
"As far as traditional tonal rendering goes, I'd have to say I stray off the path a bit when it comes to how I do it, although I don't think it's entirely all that new as I think I've seen it done before. But instead of smudging and blending I try to look at it as though I'm pulling thousands of lines together to define whatever it is I'm rendering. Lots of bent cross-hatching and eraser dragging, influenced by Kevin Nowlan and Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary pen and ink drawings from my days in school."
Raicht said that many of the toys Wilson brings to life gained inspiration from '40s era toys found online or in garage sales. "A lot of what you see - especially in the Boogeyman's army - are toys they found online or actually went out and found to make sure they existed and were part of that world in the '40s. We put a lot of time into figuring out what could be there and what couldn't. That adds a lot to it. In the battle scene, Charles added a Nutcracker he found that he wanted to put in and he also found a baseball player bank that ended up being part of the story. When you're looking up the reference, you just want to add characters and tell more stories and learn about each thing and the backstory of that toy."
"The first thing I did was come up with The Dark versions of the characters based on the descriptions I received from Brian and Mike," Wilson added. "I had so much fun with that, I can't remember if there was much struggle involved. I knew there were going to be toy versions when I did the initial Dark designs, so I tried to give everyone patterns or looks to their designs that would translate well for their counterparts. Jester has checkers and stripes in his costume, the bear wears a big, red ribbon and the pig has striped pants. You'd still be able to tell who was who without any of it, I'm sure, but it was all to help solidify it in the reader's mind, to cast out any doubt or confusion.
"[The Boogeyman] was a little tough, and required a bit more thought than all of the other characters put together. He's been brought to life in movies and cartoons, he's lived under every kid's bed, and he's responsible for opening all of the closet doors in the middle of the night when you could have sworn you closed yours shut just before you went to sleep. Mike and Brian brought something really neat to the table regarding The Boogeyman's motive, so I wanted to put something together that would hopefully be just as interesting and creepy. Since he's always existed in the dark areas of every kid's bedroom, he has a black cloak that envelopes his body so he can disappear into the darkness. His cloak is composed of tar-like fiery stuff, and I thought it'd be especially creepy if the tar-like flames would creep up out of the ground wherever he was going to show up, to announce he was coming. I gave him a pale, white porcelain face that would look scary if it was peering out at you from the shadows and his facial appearance undergoes a transformation from somewhat easy-going to evil and serpent-like, depending on how foul a mood he's in."
Ultimately, "The Stuff of Legend" will live on beyond this first battle in the world of The Dark, as Raicht explained "Th3rd World is very smart. They promised us we could finish our story no matter what. They promised us this two-issue limited series, and once we saw how that did, we'd know whether we had to finish it in the next series - which would stink because we've got a lot of stories to tell -Â or we could based on sales go longer to do another two or three-issue limited series. Volume 1 is called 'The Dark,' which is the initial foray into this world. Then based on sales of stuff, we can either get through some elements and to our ending in the next series, or we could have a bunch of limited series put together. Our goal is to make sure we finish the story. We definitely have a beginning, middle and end, but we'd like to stretch this to five or six trades by the end of it."
"Our e-book initiative will be in full swing by the end of the summer, with most if not all of our current titles available for download," noted Devito. "Next year we are hoping to finally roll out Mike Raicht's, long awaited werewolf series, 'The Pack.' Scott Closter will also be bringing 'Space Doubles' back with our first 'Space Doubles Annual.' There are several other series that are too early to tell on just yet, but we are hoping at least one of will be ready for roll out in 2010. Additionally, all of our web series - 'The SuperFogeys,' 'Pinkerton,' 'Eskimo Dave,' 'Omega Chase' and 'Interagents' -- should be seeing additional collections and possibly TPB treatments in the coming months."
"The Stuff of Legend" #1 ships to comic shops this July. For more info on the book and Th3rd World Studios, check the company's site at http://www.th3rdworld.com/