|"Free Realms" #1 on sale now|
From the slick neon superheroes of its '90s arrival to the widescreen shades of gray action of later hits like "The Authority" and beyond, WildStorm Productions has never been known for producing comics aimed at kids. But with the ever-expanding waves of TV and video game adaptations that have become such a vital part of WildStorm's publishing plan over the last few years, the DC Comics imprint created by Jim Lee will take a swing at kids comics this week with the release of "Free Realms" #1.
Adapted from the massive multiplayer online game from Sony Entertainment, "Free Realms" follows the adventures of Dane and Maya – two kids sucked into adventures in an off kilter fantasy world packed with monsters, fairies and magic filtered through a kid-friendly series of tongue-in-cheek twists.
At the helm of the 12-part comic is funny book newcomer J.S. Lewis, a writer transitioning his skills as the scribe behind the popular Young Adult novel series "Grey Griffins" to one of his first loves. Lewis wanted to work in comics since he was a kid. "Probably since I was five or six-years old watching 'Superfriends' every Saturday morning back when they didn't have cartoons on 24/7,” Lewis told CBR. “Saturday morning was the time to watch that, and I'd get out my Captain Crunch. I had a Marvel Superheroes lunchbox. I actually just talked about that because someone was arguing that the Falcon had to be on the lamest characters in the history of the Marvel Universe, but I was like, 'Wait a minute! Falcon was on my Marvel Superheroes Thermos that I used to get Spaghettios in when I was in Kindergarten, so he can't be that bad.' A combination of that stuff and George Lucas got me wanting to be in the creative field."
"Free Realms" launched for online players on April 28 of this year, and Lewis was there from the beginning to get a grip on the world so he could deliver a comic book matching what kids see on screen. "There's cart racing in this world where you can play a kind of classic, 'Pole Position' style game that has missiles and things like that, and overall that's been a really fun element – to balance a modern world with this fantasy setting,” Lewis explained. “It's also really kind of light. There's a lot of comedy in it, and I think that's important too. There are funny settings like the Yetis who you find in their caves and their just watching TV and hanging out. It's a really great juxtaposition of the traditional fantasy novels with modern technology of where kids are at today. The thing about 'Harry Potter' is that it's fantasy in the real world, and the more you can connect with that element, the better you are."
|Pages from "Free Realms" #1|
Relatable characters that kids can put themselves in the shoes of much like they control their avatars also played a strong role in how Lewis developed his lead characters. "From the boy's standpoint, I thought he'd be a little overconfident, a little cocky – trying to show off for the girls," the writer said. "But at the same time, I wanted a little bit of that Spider-Man/Peter Parker element where he's always chattering and sarcastic. A little bravado that plays along with people. I thought that would be a fun archetype that every boy would want to be. But inside, he's not half as confident as he comes across, which I think is something that we as humans all deal with – out insecurities.
"With the girl, I wanted a real strong female lead, not a damsel in distress. So she's more of a Wolverine-type character who's a bit more hardnosed. She's going to go in and scrap, and she might look like she's not much on the outside, but when comes through, she's really going to come through. But she's still cute and has a lot of femininity about her. She maintains everything about being a great female lead while still being very strong."
And while Lewis collaborates with artists for his novels, adapting his writing to feed the visuals of artist Jon Buran presented new storytelling problems to solve, a story heard from many writers who come to comics after working in other media. "The thing that was scariest for me was that when I write a novel, I've got 300 pages to get the story across, and when I write a comic book I have 22 pages, most of which is art and dialogue. It's a completely different writing style,” Lewis said. “And because there's pride at the heart of it, I kind of want to go in and hopefully sound more like Geoff Johns than some goober. I want to sound like I know what I'm doing. So that's the scariest part of this. The daunting part has been more style than subject matter.
"Sony is actually going to take a lot of the stuff I've been writing and apply it to their game, which is fun to hear," Lewis said of the connection between "Free Realms" the comic book and “Free Realms” the game. "They sent me some reference art and story arcs that were happening the game, and it's probably one of the instances where it's been a great partnership. And I know sometimes these tie-ins can be a really big pain because it gets bogged down with companies that can be difficult to work with, but Sony's been great. Probably because of my work and because I have kids that fit the target age 'Free Realms' is going for, it was a pretty easy fit.
|Pages from "Free Realms" #1|
"I wanted to use some great archetypes and then build the story around them. Basically, I take elements the characters are actually playing in the book. Something is really easy unless it creates an interruption from the people getting to known their storyline and character in a deeper way. I think they have over three million users already. From that standpoint, I came up with some things I thought would be interesting as a storyteller because you get to feel the aspect of being a character in a book or a movie that you're actually playing. That's cool. And I think that's what Sony is doing with this, which is combining the safety that parents can trust with Webkins but you don't have to chat in it. There are pre-populated phrases you can share back and forth as kids, so parents can feel comfortable that their children aren't being preyed upon. So it takes those elements and combines it with the adventure elements of 'World of Warcraft.'"
Beyond bringing the 8 to 14-year old kids who have made "Free Realms" a part of their game playing diet into the world of comics, Lewis also aims to introduce his other work to comics readers with a new installment of his Grey Griffens series set to hit in March 2010 from "Twilight" publisher Little Brown. There’s also another book set for the fall, a story he describes as "a retelling of David and Goliath by way of the Iron Giant."
Overall, Lewis sees thematic connections between his comics and novels. "There's quite a bit of what I'm doing in my Grey Griffens series [in 'Free Realms'], which is adding an element of technology within a fantasy world. In my books, I'm going with more of a steampunk route, which offers an alternate technology based on Charles Babagges' early work with computers. The thing that's scary about technology is that if I had wanted to put in cell phones six years ago, they would have been these giant brick phones. Today it's a totally different technology, so I'm always conscious of that. I'm at the point in my career where I'm at least able to pick and choose a little bit of stuff, and I really enjoy working with people who have a similar philosophy that I get along with well."