TALES FROM NEW TROY
What epic fantasy series, in comic book form, has sold millions and millions of copies over the past fifteen years? If you guessed "Bone," you probably wouldn't be wrong. But there's another fantasy series -- a series that you've never heard of -- that has sold tens of millions of comics. How could such a sales juggernaut exist outside your vast and expert knowledge?
Well, it's French, and it hasn't been translated into English yet.
It's certainly not the only gigantic sales phenomenon in the comic book industry that has yet to be published in America, but Soleil's "World of Troy" will surely arrive on our shores before long. It's inevitable, what with its epic scope, international success, and the current relationship between Soleil and American publishers like Marvel. Perhaps Marvel itself will publish the "World of Troy" translations, or perhaps Soleil will partner with another American company for this project, but I suspect that, before long, we'll hear a lot more about the heroic Lanfeust and the magical world in which he lives.
Created by prolific writer Christophe Arleston and artist Didier Tarquin in 1994, the first "World of Troy" series -- "Lanfeust of Troy" -- presents a world in which everyone has a power. But just one.
Intrigued by this fantasy franchise that I knew almost nothing about, I met up with Arleston and Soleil Managing Editor Olivier Jalabert at the New York Comic Con last week. At a crowded dining area in the deep recesses of the Javits Center, Arleston and I talked about his concept for the series, his storytelling tendencies, and whether or not he was inspired by any American superhero comics.
"Lanfeust of Troy," said Arleston, "is the story of a blacksmith in the village that discovers by chance that when he touches the ivory hilt of a sword, he gains a certain power. In this world, everybody has a power because it's ruled by magic. Just one power for one person." "It could be a ridiculous power," continued Arleston, "you could change a color, say, or shoot a blast of fire. Everybody knows their power, and Lanfeust's power is to melt metal. He's a blacksmith, so that's logical. Everybody in the story uses their power to get a job."
For Arleston, the key to writing this kind of fantasy story lies in the world-building: "I'm always trying to find the most original way to put him into danger. It's a big world, but I take a sociological approach, and I look at the traditions of the people in the village. I like crazy things." Arleston said that he always begins by drawing a map of the fantasy world he's creating. "After I have the map, then I write," he added. "I was very influenced by [prominent fantasy and sci-fi novelist] Jack Vance," said Arleston, "and by the way Vance thinks of an entire world."
Arleston grew up as a fan of heroic fantasy, but he doesn't have the traditional influences you might expect. He didn't read Tolkein or Moorcock growing up. "I was more inclined to be influenced by the original material that would later be used by Disney," said Arleston. "And the tales from Grimm," he added.
Though the "Lanfeust of Troy" series (and the expansive "World of Troy" spin-offs that now number in the dozens) has led to the production of "Troy" role-playing games and even cosplay conventions in France, Arleston admitted that these kinds of things were nowhere near his thoughts when he began. "When I started to write fantasy," said Arleston, "I wasn't trying to start a serious thing for game players. I was just doing it for fun." Arleston terms it "a naïve way of writing those characters," "Fortunately, it touched a lot of people," he added, "and the mass market got into that because of the way I treated it."
With its dozens of spin-offs, including "The Conquerors of Troy" and "Trolls of Troy," the "World of Troy" franchise hits pretty much every age group imaginable. I asked Arleston how he approaches each series differently, given that the target audience for each series seems so different. "I'm not really thinking in terms of the marketplace or trying to appeal to that specific audience," he said. "I'm writing things that I like, that make me laugh, and they find their own natural way to the public."
Arleston explains that the widespread appeal of the "Lanfeust of Troy" series probably has to do with its classical structure and the comedy that structure allows: "I'm very interested in comedy," said Arleston. "The reason for Lanfeust's success is that the boy is 16, and he's a very heroic boy, but he's very naïve and silly with girls -- there are two girls, a blonde and a brunette, two sisters, and he's the fiance of one but in love with the other. He can fight dragons without any fear, but in front of girls [he is useless]."
"Lanfeust" began as a single open-ended volume, which Arleston thought might last for three episodes depending on reader response. But it was so successful that it ended up spawning seven more volumes plus the numerous spin-offs.
At first, said Arleston, "the publisher wanted to make a spin-off with another character and tried to find an artist who drew in the same style as the original series, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something very different."
The result was the second series in "The World of Troy." While the first series focused on a young blacksmith and his various heroic and romantic adventures, the companion series would focus on…a troll. Hebus the troll, a character from the "Lanfeust" series "was a great success," said Arleston, "so we went with the story of his grandfather. I didn't want to have a spin off with the same character. I prefer to have the same type of character. It's a troll. It's his grandfather, but it's not actually Hebus." The tone of the follow-up series diverges quite a bit from the first series, according to Arleston. "With 'Lanfeust' we have 50% humor and 50% adventure, but [in 'Trolls of Troy'] we have 90% humor and 10% adventure. We have a fantastic artist [Jean-Louis Mourier]. It's very animated, very alive." The more cartoonish "Trolls of Troy," even though it's one of his favorites, will probably be one of the last series to make its way to America, lamented Arleston, simply because American comic book audiences tend to prefer the more straightforward adventure to the silly and often grotesque troll sense of humor. In the sample "Trolls of Troy" page provided by Jalabert, a troll child tries to eat a bowl of human fingers, using chopsticks. It's "very gross humor," emphasized Arleston.
Arleston writes most of the "World of Troy" books himself, but to reach an even broader audience, the series has spun off into manga directions as well, and he lets "World of Warcraft" artist Ludo Lullabi handle the manga-style "Lanfeust Quest." An enhanced adaptation of the original "Lanfeust of Troy," "Lanfeust Quest" fuses the Arleston/Tarquin original with the conventions of Japanese comic book storytelling. Arleston said, "I wanted to do something in the spirit of manga, but I don't really know much about manga, so [Lullabi] was better off without me." Other than checking the coherence and accuracy of the series, Arleston is hands-off on "Lanfeust Quest."
But that's certainly not true for the bulk of the "World of Troy" books, most of which spring from Arleston's mind, a few pages at a time. "I always jump around," said Arleston. "This morning I wrote two pages of 'Lanfeust' and two pages of something else in my hotel room. I prefer to advance at the same rate as the artist." "It takes a year for the artist to illustrate one volume," explained Arleston. "If I write it in one piece, it would take me a month. But I prefer to go at the same pace at the artist, because sometimes I see the art and get new ideas and I go further."
I asked Arleston about other inspirations -- comics that mattered to him as a young reader. "I liked Belgian comics," said Arleston. He cited "Spirou" and "Asterix" in particular, before declaring, "I don't like 'Tin Tin.' I never liked it, even when I was a kid. I'd read it only when there was nothing else to read."
As far as American comics are concerned Arleston mentioned that he was a big fan of the things that came out at in the late 1970s, early 1980s. "I liked Neal Adams and Joe Kubert," said Arleston. "I liked John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala's 'Conan,' but only when Alcala was doing the inking. And the 'Green Lantern' of Neal Adams. I really loved that, because it was a very different kind of superhero." "I liked 'Daredevil,' too," Arleston added, though he admitted that Spider-Man was never one of his favorites.
European comics have been a tough sell in America, and though I don't know the sales figures for the first batch of Soleil/Marvel releases, I suspect that they aren't setting the Diamond sales charts on fire. "World of Troy" looks like a fascinating series of books -- comics that my family, in particular, might enjoy -- but I asked Arleston why American readers should be interested in what his volumes have to offer. "I think it can give them a different taste of story," he said. "For us, in Europe, it's natural to go in very different ways, without rules." He explained that American mainstream comics seem to have a lot of rules: "it's always the same thing," he said, "and I think it can be boring at times." If they sample the "World of Troy," "they can taste something made with a different spirit."
He admitted that one of the problems they have in bringing the books over to America isn't the content of the stories, it's the physical format. "In France, it's a big book, and when we work for international release, we'll do five or six panels per page, but in the original it's 14 or 15 panels per page," says Arleston. "It's a big deal for me, because we want to do a big spectacle. This a Steven Spielberg story, it's on a large scale and it doesn't always fit well in the smaller size."
But ultimately that problem will be solved, and the widespread appeal of the "World of Troy" comics will have a chance to win over American audiences as they have in Europe. "The fabulous thing for me is that a lot of girls read it," said Arleston. "40% or so, because of the story of Lanfeust and the two girls. Usually female readers aren't as interested in fantasy, but these books have touched a lot of girls, and another thing I'm very proud of is that it's touched all the ages. The kids read it and enjoy the adventure and humor, and then when they read it as teenagers, they find other things in it and find other humor they didn't see the first time. I didn't do it on purpose, but it works."
I have no idea when "Lanfeust of Troy" or any of the other books will make their way over to our shores, but I'm interested in it based on the small glimpses I've seen so far. Arleston is a major force in the European comics world, and though his "Ythaq: The Forsaken World" series has recently debuted from Marvel (through its Soleil deal), he's largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I suspect that might change. And soon.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
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