Regular CBR readers know about the number of interesting anthologies that have been produced in the past year. For a long time it seemed the anthology format had grown out of favor with publishers and audiences, but these days the anthology appears to be back with a vengeance, appearing in a variety of formats. Be it in comic-sized anthologies like "Western Tales of Terror" or "Digital Webbing," or original graphic novel sized books like "Flight" or "Project: Superior," the anthology seems to be back with a vengeance.
Later this month Image Comics will release "Four-Letter Worlds," a one-shot anthology which will explore four different themes - Love, Hate, Fear and Fate. "Four-Letter Worlds" is a 144-page graphic novel edited by Eric Stephenson, who spoke with CBR News about this unique anthology.
"I got the idea from a song by a band called Echobelly," Stephenson told CBR News. "The song itself was called 'Four-Letter Word' and the chorus ended with the line, 'This is a four-letter word,' but I originally misinterpreted it as 'This is a four-letter world' and the idea kind of grew from there. I thought it would be interesting to examine how those four words impact the lives of different people and while I initially wanted to write the whole thing myself, it eventually became clear to me the best way to pursue the project was to enlist different writers to offer different takes on each theme."
Enlist different writers he did, pulling together an extensive list of talents from all over the industry. The full line-up follows:
written by B. Clay Moore art by Steven Griffin
written & illustrated by Jim Mahfood
written by Joe Casey art by Mike Huddleston
written & illustrated by Jeff Parker
written by Jay Faerber art by Steve Rolston
written by Robert Kirkman art by Matt Roberts
written by J. Torres art by John Bernales
written by Eric Stephenson art by Mike Norton
written by Mark Ricketts art by Phil Hester
written by Amber Benson art by Jamie McKelvie
written & illustrated by Steve Lieber
written & illustrated by Scott Morse
written & illustrated by Chynna Clugston-Major
written by Jamie S. Rich art by Andi Watson
written by Antony Johnston art by Mike Hawthorne
written by Matt Fraction art by Kieron Dwyer
As you might guess, bringing together all those creators wasn't easy. "I started out by asking as many creators as possible to participate, because I knew that a lot of people wouldn't have time, might not be able to due to contractual obligations and that kind of thing," said Stephenson. "I knew people would sign on and drop out along the way. I just kind of went after people cold, sent out emails, called them, asked them at cons and then once B. Clay Moore signed on, he started suggesting people and then hitting them up himself. There was actually a point where I was fairly resigned to the fact the book wasn't going to come together, but it eventually fell into place over the course of the last several months."
As expected, a number of Stephenson's original creators had to drop out, nearly shuttering the project all together. "At one point we were going to do the whole 'Hate' chapter with Jay Faerber, Geoff Johns, Brian K. Vaughan and Devin Grayson," said Stephenson. "I thought it would be cool to do that, because they were all kind of friends, y'know? Well, Geoff and Devin both wound up signing exclusives with DC and Brian became one of the hardest working men in comics and they were suddenly unavailable. Things like that took the wind out of my sails and made me think it just might not be worth pursuing."
In spite of these significant set backs and the sheer amount of work it takes to put together a book of this size, Stephenson pressed on. "I had my doubts, but I stuck with it," he said. "Clay was helpful in that regard, because he'd actually written his story and he kept saying, 'What's going on with this 'Four-Letter Worlds' thing?' We briefly discussed creating a different anthology, a monthly thing that we could incorporate some of these stories into, but I ultimately felt the best thing to do was just keep going. I think we actually got a better book out of the delays and all the soul-searching and what have you. I'm really happy with the creators we've assembled for the book."
In his role as editor of "Four-Letter Worlds," Stephenson says he took a very hands-off approach and tried to limit himself to making sure creators were hitting their deadlines. "There was no stage where I was telling a creator what to do or what not to do. The only real guidelines were 'make it eight pages long' and 'use a four-letter word as your title.' We're not editing Joe Casey or Chynna Clugston. These are creators who know what they want to say; they don't need someone like me getting in their way."
In case you didn't already know, Stephenson not only serves as the editor of "Four-Letter Worlds," but he's also the Executive Editor of Image Comics, the anthology's publisher. Stephenson's been working on this project for a long time, the idea coming to him back when he was the publisher's Marketing Director. Originally, he felt that self-publishing was the way to go, feeling that publishing the book at Image would cause some to cry "nepotism." He noted that it's still a concern and he doesn't want it to be perceived as a project done because he's on staff, but once his position changed at Image, Stephenson felt it would be inappropriate to do work outside of the company.
Stephenson's own contribution to "Four-Letter Worlds" is located in the "Hate" section. He wound up creating a story in "Hate" by default, since it was the last section that needed one. Stephenson's story is titled "Junk" and deals with his divorce from six years ago and no, his ex-wife doesn't know anything about it.
"I don't speak to her and haven't done so in a few years," admitted Stephenson. "That's not due to any real animosity on my part -- we were divorced in 1997 and continued talking on the phone for a couple years after that, but you move on. She got married again and had a kid -- I've changed house something like four times since we last spoke. You move on. I don't hate her, which may seem odd since my story is in the 'Hate' chapter. What I do hate, though, is the process of getting divorced and what it does to people. We set out to have an amicable split, but through thoughtlessness on both our parts, it became a pretty painful ordeal."
Last Summer, Image released the "Flight" anthology which was a surprise hit despite a line-up of creators that didn't feature a marquee name and in a market that hasn't always been welcoming to anthologies. Stephenson thinks he knows why "Flight" was a success and hopes some of that transfers over to "Four-Letter Worlds."
"'Flight' was a great book by a fantastic group of young creators who were smart enough not to listen when everybody said, 'Anthologies never sell.' They were doing their thing online and they're just part of a growing community of artists who have abandoned the traditional approach to comics in order to do what they want to do. They're doing something original and new, and despite the fact most of the industry still seems to be clinging to yesterday's ideas and trying to find ever newer ways to polish old wood, I think there is a readership out there that appreciates originality. It's that readership that made the first volume of 'Flight' a success."
"Four-Letter Worlds" was initially planned as a four-issue mini-series, but ultimately Stephenson felt the book would work better in graphic novel format. From both an editorial and financial standpoint, the graphic novel makes a lot of sense. You're asking for more money up front from readers by asking them to purchase a $10+ comic versus a $3 monthly, but with a four-issue mini you're liable to see diminishing returns on subsequent issues. Stephenson added, "And readers are eventually going to resent getting graphic novels on the installment plan, the same way record buyers eventually decided they didn't really need singles anymore. With something like 'Four-Letter Worlds,' it's not like there's going to be extra pages or a sketchbook or whatever in the book -- it would have just been the four issues under one cover. How is that not a rip-off?"
While he has ideas for other anthologies, Stephenson said readers shouldn't expect a second volume of "Four-Letter Worlds." "I hate the notion of doing a sequel just for the sake of doing a sequel, y'know? I think 'Four-Letter Worlds' will stand on its own quite well and doesn't need another volume."
While "Four-Letter Worlds" may not contain any superheroes or anything of that sort, Stephenson feels the book has a very wide appeal and thinks that will bring readers in. "It's a book filled with stories that just about anyone can relate to, though, and I think that's what will draw readers to it."