SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains spoilers for Valiant Entertainment's "The Book of Death."
It turns out that when CBR last spoke to writer Robert Venditti about "Wrath of the Eternal Warrior," we weren't quite being given the whole truth about the new November-launching Valiant Entertainment series. You see, whilst the ongoing title will see Gilad Anni-Padda in an unusual, desolate landscape we've never seen him in before -- one which will test his spirit, and reveal hidden sides to him which nobody could have expected -- at the end of "The Book of Death," it was revealed exactly where he's headed:
In order to protect the world and save the Geomancer, Tama, the Eternal Warrior sacrifices himself. But you don't get called "eternal" without good reason, and so Gilad's story will continue on, beyond death. But how? To learn the hidden secrets behind the character, CBR News has the exclusive first interview with Venditti about the end of "Book of Death" and how it shapes "Wrath of the Eternal Warrior," along with never-before seen art from the new series.
CBR News: "The Book of Death" has a huge scale to it, but in the final issue, everything came down to just Gilad, Tama and Master Darque. What was it like building up Tama and Gilad's relationship during the series?
Rob Venditti: I'm a parent myself. I have a daughter who is exactly Tama's age, so I really enjoyed the quieter moments, where there's almost a parent-child dynamic between them, even though they aren't blood relations. He is her sworn protector, a father figure for her, and she is a daughter figure for him. I loved the moments where I could tap into that. This is possibly not the scene that most people will remember -- I think most people might focus on Master Darque being turned into a tree -- but there's a scene where she's in a car with Gilad, about to open the book, and he tells her to put on her seatbelt. Things like that are the moments I enjoy writing the most.
She's brought out a different side of him. When we first saw him, his mission statement seemed quite simple, but over time we've seen him really start to be impacted by the Geomancers themselves, as he identifies more and more with them as people.
I think we're talking about it as if he was a real human being! As far as how we've seen him portrayed in various storylines throughout Valiant, I'm not sure if it's a fair comparison, because in the "Archer and Armstrong" arc you're talking about, he was the adversary of the arc, and the story was told from their point of view rather than his. "The Book of Death" is very different, as it's told from his perspective. So we now get to see that side of him. I think you see it in "The Valiant," as well, as it went throughout history with the various geomancers he tried to protect, but ultimately failed to. I think you can see the pain.
When we last spoke, you said that you felt his greatest power was his ability to learn. How do you feel he's developed even further over these issues, and going into the new series?
The best moments when writing are when the characters act in a way you didn't originally expect. For example, one of the things we had a hard time with initially in the series was the question of how Darque was tracking them. Once I figured out that it was the Book itself, and that every time Tama read from it, Darque could see her from the other side; that was when things really came together. I could make the story into Gilad figuring that mystery out -- it wasn't in the original outline, and didn't come together until I started writing issue #2.
It became the moment where he was no longer the runner, but instead became the hunter, as he can now track down Darque's location. Moments like those really show the strength of the character. He isn't necessarily an inherent genius, but he's a very intelligent guy and he learns from his experiences. He's very much a "burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me" sort of guy. You can only fool him once, and that's what makes him so hard to get hold of. In a lifetime of 500 years, you succeed a lot but also fail a lot, and Gilad has learned from each one of those failures.
And he ultimately succeeds here, although at the cost of his own life. When you were first planning this story, did you always know this was how things would end?
I did know that he was going to die at the end, and I knew we would be launching this series, where at the start, he would be dead. That was actually the only information I did know going in! That was the target I knew we had to hit.
Then, of course, it becomes a difficult task -- you want him to die in a way which is heroic and gut-wrenching. Throughout the entire series, we see everyone die in some way or another -- in the main narrative, in the passages we see from the book, or in the tie-in issues. They all die, everything dies. We even see Gilad die once, but he gets back up again because he's the Eternal Warrior and that's what he does.
What we did here at the end of the series was to invert him. He became the character who dies, and in doing so has averted the deaths of everyone around him.
How did you decide the actual way he died? He jumps into a pit, isolated from Tama, and has to just trust that she can prevail without him.
Faith is a big part of the entire story. You have Gilad, who believes in the geomancer and what her mission is, whilst the rest of the Valiant Universe are skeptical and think Tama is the cause, instead of the solution.
This is Gilad showing the ultimate extent of his faith in her powers and who she can be. By jumping into that pit -- knowing it won't end well for him, but doing it anyway -- he has to believe that she can handle Master Darque, one on one, by herself. Which she does. This is a victory for him, because this child he loves has survived and become the geomancer that he believes she could be.
His final word is "victory."
I didn't know when I started writing the first issue that these would be his last words, but his whole mission statement is that he's going to keep coming back, again and again, until victory at last. And now he has it.
But as the new series proves, this isn't actually the end. So what's next for the character?
We're going to see exactly what the cost of his immortality is, and what he has to sacrifice to come back and protect the living world.
Immortality stories are a familiar trope in literature, but we always see it from the perspective of the living world, and not this perspective. We're going to see what the cost of immortality is, and what he has to sacrifice every time he lives again. The story will be very much about that -- where he goes, each time he dies.
He goes into an afterlife which is a paradise, where he is surrounded by his loved ones. He has the sight and sounds and smells of home, and this is the place where, if any of us ever think of an afterlife, this is the idyllic place we'd want to go to. In order for him to be immortal and return to the living world, he has to leave that behind and return through a hellish nightmare landscape, and fight his way back.
I think that's incredibly heroic of him. He could easily say, "Hey, I've had a good time, and I'm going to stay home now because the food's real good and the bed's real warm" -- but he can't do that. He knows he has a choice, and he's the only one given that choice to go back and fight for those who are unable. That's a warrior's mindset.
I think it also shows that he's an eternal optimist. He wouldn't choose to keeping coming back if he didn't think the world could be better. He believes we are inherently good and can improve, and can be better. I think that's interesting for someone who has seen as much warfare as he has.
It's a new side to the character for us. It's almost a more romantic, tragic aspect to his existence.
I think it's a totally new perspective on the character. In the days of old Valiant, we always saw him as a hero who charged into battle, but I don't know that the motives were always clear -- and certainly not the cost. We'd look at him and think sure, I'd want to live forever. But as we go through this series, we see what he has to sacrifice to be immortal -- and we also see how his loved ones all eventually pass on, and what he has lost over the centuries. He has regrets, failures and losses for a hundred lives.
It's a different look at him, and I think there is a romantic aspect there. We have this hardened warrior of the centuries, who has fought in all sorts of battles -- and yet he's this optimist. He's not driven by anger, revenge, fear; he's driven by belief that we can be better. I think that's really admirable.
So is this afterlife actually Elysium?
No it's not. It's not Elysium, or Heaven -- we're building our own afterlife, with unique rules. This is an afterlife which is -- whether consciously or not -- created by Gilad's desires, his loves, and the things he truly cherishes. We're not rooting him in any one mythology, religion or faith. This afterlife operates outside of all those, has its own rules. Does the afterlife have rules? I hear there's a book somewhere which explains that, maybe I should read it!
You mention that he has a wife, a family, even a dog -- what's been your approach to them? How do they operate as characters?
Everybody in the house has their story. There are a lot of plotlines laid out in this story, much like in the first issue of "X-O Manowar." I can pull on these threads two years from now if I want to. Some we'll see in issue #2, others we'll see far further down the road. Beyond that, I think I really wanted to ground this as a story. He's almost like a traveling businessman -- for my own job, I have to leave my home for long periods of time, and you hate to have to leave your family behind. There's an element of that, here.
There's a scene in issue #1 when they're all sat round the table, and Gilad feeds something to the dog from off the table. His wife says, "Do you have to do that? When you're gone, I have to teach the dog manners again." He's not used to that! He's just this traveling figure, and when he gets home he just wants to relax and mess around and play with the dog. I think there's that push and pull there, which anybody who has had that kind of job can relate to.
He has to turn his back on his family to do the job that has to be done. That's the position he's in. He is the only one who can do this job, go to work, and that's where that aspect of the character comes in.
There's some fantastic storytelling from the artistic team at this point, as well. In particular a scene where he's almost lured, summoned back into the hellish side of the afterlife by the creatures that live there.
The whole art team -- Raul Allen, Patricia Martin, David Astruga and Borja Pindado -- I don't even know what you can say, they're such unique voices in what they are able to do. The way I scripted that scene has the demons taunting him because they know that when he leaves his family and walks back into their hell,it'll be game on again just as it has been in the past. I wrote the scene that way where he hears the demons calling out, and then Raul and the rest of the team render the scene in a way which is so perfect.
And that's the same throughout the issue -- we have this double-page scene where we tell the story of "The Book of Death" within two pages. It starts with Master Darque, and we see him up-close with the two triangle tattoos on his forehead. But then the two pages are designed to resemble those two triangles, the first being right-side up and the second facing down, so when you get to the second page the point of that triangle looks as though it is stabbing Gilad. It's just -- for me, I can't script that. I can say we'll do a two-page sequence where we'll do a recap, and I can say what's in each panel -- but in terms of how they render it, design it, and make it function as an art piece, that's all them.
Did you collaborate closely on how the afterlife would look?
We did. We worked a lot on what the demons looked like, what Hell looked like, and also about things like what Gilad's house itself would be like. Little things like that he has a stone hearth rather than an oven. A metal oven is rather modern in terms of Gilad's lifespan, so for someone like him, he'd be more used to having a stone hearth. That's what he thinks of when he thinks of an oven -- he'd had thousands of years of that lifestyle, and only a few years of modern technology.
We also wanted to focus on the idea of his senses. We really wanted to portray not just his afterlife but also his sense of it -- the smells of home, the sensation of sound, of touch. That was how we knew we'd be able to make it feel like a fully-realized vision of a paradise for readers. How Raul communicates that is he has ten small panels at the top representing each different sense, and then one larger panel at the bottom. Those were his layouts, and his way of interpreting the script. We had quite a bit of back and forth in terms of what it was emotionally and narratively that we wanted to communicate.
And a lot of the nightmarish nature of Hell is on Raul, obviously. He was just kicking influences in so many different directions. He's not just a talented artist, but he has such a knowledge of art history and is capable in so many different art styles. He comes across to me as a scholar of the art form, as well as a practitioner of it.
Will we be spending most of our time in the afterlife as the series moves forwards?
I think what you're asking is if he's going to be in the afterlife for the entire series, and the answer there is -- no. We are going to see how that family is ever-present in terms of how they came to the afterlife to begin with, how he met them in the real world, and the eras in which they lived. We're also going to continue to see them in the afterlife. But, I would say the majority of the series will take place in the living world, where other heroes co-exist. We're showing how Gilad gets back to that world.
It's interesting that we're focusing as much on the word "eternal" as we are "warrior." The creatures of Hell view him as a known entity.
Very much so. I conceive of them as having an afterlife, too -- but theirs is much more miserable! They don't get soft beds, or good food to eat. All they do is hang out in a torturous nightmare landscape -- the only entertainment they get is when this heroic dude comes out, and they all get to take a crack at him. Him dying and entering the afterlife is the best thing that can happen to them -- they're like wolves circling a coop, excited for what might happen.
Aside from that, the danger is that if they do get him, what does that mean for his chances of getting back to the living world? We'll see more on that in issue #2 and issue #3.
Ultimately, what do you want readers to take away from the first arc?
I want to build up the mythology of the characters in ways we haven't seen before, in surprising ways. I want to build him as a hero -- potentially the most heroic of all the Valiant heroes, because of what he goes through just to be a hero. I've also laid down these plot threats, which I hope we'll see bear fruit a long way into the series. The second arc of the series will be a lot different from the first!
As we constructed each arc of "X-O Manowar" to be a new jumping on point which still builds off the prior arc, so we'll be doing the same here. We want to tell a good story, develop who Gilad is as a person, a character, build up the mythology -- and then bring him to the next level.
"Wrath of the Eternal Warrior" #1 arrives November 18, 2015 from Valiant.