Steel, Blood, Magic, Sex and Death: Mark Smylie's 'Artesia' Returns to the Battlefield

Thu, May 22nd, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Beau Yarbrough, Columnist

It sounds like a cynically commercial "high concept": A beautiful female warrior, challenging the male-dominated status quo with swords, sorcery and an army at her back. The course of events sweeps her from mistress to general to roles she couldn't even imagine at the beginning. Oh, and there's more than a little graphic violence and slightly less graphic sex.

Cover to "Artesia"
paperbackfrom Archaia Studios
by Mark Smylie

Instead of being a Hollywood high concept -- starring Eliza Dushku in a film slated for a summer 2005 release, perhaps -- it's the plot of an independent, arty and highly idiosyncratic comic by Eisner nominee Mark Smylie, "Artesia."

"'Artesia' is a swords-and-sorcery fantasy epic, for lack of a better description," Smylie told CBR News earlier this week. "The basic model is Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and I think it can be described as a fantasy biography, if you will, the story of a woman and her role in the end of one age and the start of the next, though in some ways Artesia is actually a war comic, about medieval and Renaissance war-fighting in a world with magic and divine intervention. I've always been fascinated by fantasy as a genre; when I started working on Artesia back in 1997 or so there weren't that many fantasy comics out, though there are thankfully more of them now. I was trying to create in comic book form the kind of epic fantasy story that I normally found in novels and role-playing games, with as much an emphasis on setting and history and cosmology as on the principal characters (which I think tends to be the forte of most fantasy comics, as with the early Conan comics)."

Smylie earned a 2001 Eisner award nomination as a Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition on the strength of the original Artesia series -- his only work in comics. A second Artesia miniseries, "Artesia Afield," appeared in 2001, but Artesia has been absent since then in the wake of Smylie leaving his original publishers (Sirius) and setting up shop on his own.

"My self-publishing imprint, Archaia Studios Press (ASP), will be putting out a reprint of the first Artesia trade paperback, the new Artesia Afield trade paperback collecting the second Sirius series, and the new series, Artesia Afire, which will be a six-issue series. Copies of Sirius' Artesia Annual #2 are still around, but Artesia Annual #1 is sold out and won't be reprinted. One of the short stories in it will appear in the Artesia Afield trade paperback, however, so virtually the whole story to date is still available."

The new paperback of "Artesia" invades comic shops this June, accompanied by "Artesia Afire" #1. The TPB of "Artesia Afield" arrives in stores the next month.

In an era where creators go years between issues of an "ongoing" series, Smylie coming out with a third linked miniseries seems ambitious enough for today's market, but his sights are set much, much higher.

"Actually, the projected length of the saga is 22 miniseries. I tend to call the whole thing, all 22 series, the Book of Dooms, so that the Artesia series was the first Book of Dooms, 'Artesia Afield' was the second Book of Dooms, and Artesia Afire is the third. I had only toyed with the idea before of officially calling the saga this name while Sirius was publishing it, and decided to make it official for the ASP productions of these books, so they'll have references to the Book of Dooms in them. The Book of Dooms in the setting of Artesia's world is a book of 22 plates created for the Oracle Queens of Khael, based upon the images in the Celestial Book of the Queen of Heaven, and are in effect the basis of her world's version of the Tarot. So each Artesia series has background themes that correspond to one of her world's Tarot cards, in effect: the first series corresponded to The Magician, dealing with origins and moments of creation; the second was the Great Priestess, hitting tangentially upon religion and the question of wisdom and self-understanding; and the third is the Empress, dealing with themes of fealty, sovereignty, vanity and seduction. And ideally on it goes, to the last card in her Tarot deck, The Fool, and the last Artesia series."

Fantasy in comics tends to be, as a general rule, rather lightweight, featuring more or less contemporary people wearing swords but otherwise talking and acting much like someone in 21st century America would talk and behave. "Artesia," on the other hand, is a much denser and immersive fantasy, sometimes to the point of overwhelming would-be new readers.

Cover to
"Artesia Afire" #1from Archaia Studios

"Well, in the intro to the new issue I admit that Artesia is a sink-or-swim kind of book, and ideally readers would be best off approaching the new series having already read the first two. However, I've included a short prologue, a summary of Her Story So Far, and a glossary at the end to help ease new readers into the story as much as possible, and I wrote the story knowing that new readers might be picking it up for the first time. But part of the way I've tried to write 'Artesia' from the beginning was with a minimum of explication; people in her world talk as realistically as I can get away with, which means they are often obscure or speak in short hand about things they expect each other to be familiar with, the same way we would when speaking to each other about politics or history. The story and its setting were always meant to have density, layers and depth; this is an exercise in Middle-Earth-style fantasy writing, I suppose. The most detailed info on the world as a whole appeared in 'Artesia Annual' #2, in a 16-page Tour of the Known World that included a big map. The new glossary in the first issue of Afire is three pages long, for example, and it can only cover the bare minimum in trying to reference a blizzard of names and places; on the web at Artesia Online (www.artesiaonline.com) readers can find all sorts of background material culled from the various series and organized in one place by the site webmistress, Lisa Webster."

But for new readers interested in taking the plunge into Artesia's world of steel, blood, magic, sex and death, he sums up the series so far thus:

Page 8 of
"Artesia Afire" #1

"Artesia, as the title of the book might suggest, is the main character, and she was born of a witch and raised as one in the Middle Kingdoms, but she saw her mother burned at the stake and ran away. She wound up nearby in the Highlands of Daradja, and she chose the path of war rather than that of magic; she'd rather die by the sword than on a witch's pyre. Though initially a concubine to a local petty king, she's become a war captain and now a queen, and finds herself aiding the Middle Kingdoms, the place she ran away from, against a common enemy, the Empire of Thessid-Gola, whose Sultan wants to restore the Empire to its former glory.

"The world is a fantasy setting but as with just about all fantasy settings it's based in large part on our own, as a kind of Renaissance-era world in which monotheism never really took hold, or at least not in the same way as it did in ours. The setting -- it's just called The Known World, as its inhabitants make a distinction between a known world (mapped and fixed in history) and an unknown one (unmapped and outside of history) -- actually came first, as a setting I was creating for role-playing games. That might explain some of its density, in that the world as a whole has seen some fairly heavy development in terms of its cultures and histories. The main religious tension is between the Old Religion, centered on a goddess named Yhera and her sisters, daughters, and consorts, and the worship of the Divine King, which is loosely based on a cross between Christianity and Mithraism. The Known World's history and its religions are meant to motivate the characters in their daily lives in the same way we are motivated by ours, along with more prosaic concerns like greed and fear and ambition and lust.

Page 9 of
"Artesia Afire" #1

"Artesia herself is filled with ambitions and desires, though I suppose like most of us she doesn't always want to admit that is the case, and ultimately the story is really about the consequences of those ambitions. Artesia has a sizeable entourage to keep her company: her bodyguards, captains, soldiers, assassins, magicians, priests and priestesses constantly surround her. As befits a captain and a Queen she's almost never alone, and even if no one living is near her, she is haunted by bound ghosts and spirits. The ghosts are the household of her former king: his enchanter Lysia, who acts now as a kind of shaman's helping spirit, and three of her former fellow concubines, whose spirits she has bound to save them from Limbo; and the spirits are War Spirits she summoned when young to teach her how to fight and wage war. They are collectively meant as the manifestations of her ambitions and her guilt, her own personal Greek chorus of a sort."

This summer, the story continues with the third miniseries, "Artesia Afire."

"The story picks up soon after the end of the last series, with Artesia and her captains victorious over one part of the Empire's armies, but faced with a series of problems: the remains of the vanguard they defeated, which are still an effective fighting force; the larger army of the Empire led personally by the Sultan, which they still have yet to face; and the continued tensions with their hosts, the lords of the Middle Kingdoms. The title of the series, 'Artesia Afire,' is really meant to invoke a feeling of Artesia coming into her own as she tries to deal with it all, reaching a peak of sorts having openly declared herself a Queen, and the series is meant to correspond to the Tarot of the Empress, so there are underlying themes dealing with oaths and fealty and sovereign power, with the flip side being vanity and hubris. I tend to think that sex is a fundamental aspect of power and it's certainly present in the connotations of the Empress Tarot, so there's also a fair amount of sexual content in the book, more graphic than in the two previous series (which were already fairly explicit) but still, I think, in the Mature Readers category (and thankfully Diamond has agreed with me so far on that). I hope it's nothing that will shock prior 'Artesia' readers, though newcomers to the series may be uncomfortable, as it's not the sort of stuff you usually find in comics outside of the Adult bins."

Page 10 of
"Artesia Afire" #1

In the period when Smylie was between publishers, he did illustration work for Dungeons and Dragons publishers Wizards of the Coast, and his distinctive art style can be found gracing the pages of a number of the game's rulebooks. As there's a strong potential crossover between the audiences for those books and "Artesia," one might think he'd pick up some new readers for his comic.

"Honestly, it's hard to tell whether the freelance work I've been doing has been helpful as regards promoting 'Artesia' other than anecdotally; I know that people walk up to my table at cons and say 'oh, hey, have I seen your stuff in D&D books?' and that's helped entice people to look at the book, but I'm not sure if doing freelance work has really had any significant impact on raising the book's profile. Of course, I have yet to reach the point where I'm doing cover work as a freelance illustrator, which is probably where you'd expect the highest impact."

Nowadays, nearly every artist and writer with any professional contact with Dungeons and Dragons has put out their own book for use with the system (known as the D20 rules system), and Smylie's felt that same temptation.

Page 19 of
"Artesia Afire" #1

"An Artesia D20 book has been in the works for a while, but the basics of the D20 system, particularly as regards magic and religion, don't really translate well into her world, so I've been rewriting and expanding some of the rules (much to the exasperation of the playtesters who've volunteered to help out, I'm sure). I've had enough qualms about using the D20 system that I'm actually in the process of licensing the Fuzion rules from R. Talsorian Games; Fuzion was a system developed out of a combination of the rules R. Talsorian used for Cyberpunk 2020 and Mekton and the Hero System from Hero Games, and I think it has elements and flexibilities that make it much more suitable as the basis for an Artesia [roleplaying game]."

And unlike most creators, Smylie has no plans to pursue work outside his main project.

"'Artesia 'is kind of my life's work. I suspect my instincts as a writer tend to be different than other writers; when a theme or a new subject for a story pops into my head, I don't think of writing another book, I think 'how can I fit this into Artesia?' There are a few exceptions, and one day I might try my hand at a cyberpunk story, but I'm more than satisfied with Artesia as an all-encompassing project. There might be some stuff to one day announce about a possible Artesia film or a prequel of sorts, as the rights have been taken by a friend's production company, but as with all things film-related I tend to think a certain healthy skepticism is in order, so nothing official will come from me about that until someone actually shows me some dailies ..."

 
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