Don't ever let anybody tell you that being an orc is easy. The typically hideous, often gigantic and practically always warmongering species tends to have a pretty bad reputation amongst fantasy enthusiasts, but they're not all so bad--in fact, comic book readers are about to meet a rather relatable orc in "Orc Stain," a new monthly series from Image Comics announced at this weekend's Baltimore Comic-Con.
Series creator James Stokoe, who previously wrote and illustrated "Wonton Soup" for Oni Press, spoke with CBR News about the upcoming story of One Eye, a thieving orc that is completely disinterested in the battle-strewn world around him.
"'Orc Stain' is a fantasy story set on a constantly war-ridden planet almost entirely overrun by orcs," Stokoe said of the book's premise. "It starts off following a spiritually broken orc who has the ability to find the weak point in any object, which he can then crack open with his trusty hammer. He has been making a living looting graves and rolling bodies, but soon gets chased by the massive armies of the Orc Tsar who needs his special gift to unlock the organ of a long-dead god."
The criminally inclined orc in question is known as One Eye, but not because his mother bestowed him with an undesirable name; in fact, the world's many orcs are more or less nameless. "The orcs in 'Orc Stain' crawl out alone from larvae-like sacs when they are born, so there is nobody around to name them--only the biggest and baddest of them get a number after they're dead, so the protagonist orc goes unnamed," said the writer-artist. "He's referred to as One Eye mostly, as fellow orcs will just sling whatever physical characteristic you have as a nickname. As the series starts, he's a morally confused grave looter who lives on the fringes of orc territory running odd jobs for a local gang. He's been burnt out on the constant violence of the orc way of life and tries to distance himself from it, but at the same time has to crack some heads open just to scrape by--so he's kind of a realist who wishes he didn't have to be."
One Eye gets an even bigger dose of reality once he finds himself wanted by the Orc Tsar, who is "basically the embodiment of everything he's trying to get away from," Stokoe said. The Orc Tsar's interest in One Eye stems from the orc's ability to crack open anything with one tap of his trusty hammer--but One Eye himself has no interest in the Orc Tsar's plans, causing him to run deeper into the unknown land of the orc-stained world.
"I've always been attracted to outcast and drifter characters that just mosey through on their own steam, regardless of what the world around them is doing," Stokoe said of One Eye. "It's been a running gag in my books that the main characters always avoid the big 'hero's call to adventure' at all costs, but this time I think I've woven it into a plot where he actually needs to avoid it. All my characters would probably be selfish, horrible people to hang out with in real life, but One Eye would be an interesting chum. He's a lot more of a thought out character than I'm used to writing, too. With 'Wonton Soup'--especially in the second book--most of the characters were very spontaneously dropped in to serve some gag or set piece, but with One Eye, I've had a solid year to sit down and figure out what I wanted to do with the character."
Even if One Eye is a more fleshed out character than Stokoe is used to, his origin story is no less spontaneous. "At its core, nerdily enough, ['Orc Stain'] started three or four years ago in Seattle as a joke argument between my former roommates and I about the unfair representation of orcs in 'Lord of the Rings,'" he explained. "So I did a ten page short where two orcs have an existential debate in the middle of a battlefield about their way of life and what happened to make them the way they are. One is really into salads and wants to replace scary rusted weapons with boomerangs, while the other takes the stance of a classic bloodthirsty orc.
"A couple of years later I had a lazy week, so I decided to dick around and draw a couple of pages of something fantasy-ish," he continued of the book's origin. "I'd drawn a couple of background panels of these giant Easter Island-like stone orc heads, so I figured I'd dig up those two old orc characters from before and do something with them. The comic got me stuck in and, after working on it feverishly for two weeks, I had over 100 pages penciled. A lot of it had to be reworked as I got a clearer idea of what I wanted to do, but it was the easiest and best time I've ever had working on a comic. I figured if I ever did an ongoing monthly, this should be it."
The etymology of "Orc Stain" as a title isn't quite as spontaneous, but it's no less of a natural fit given the premise of the series. "The title refers to how the orcs are regarded as a whole--just a massive stain on the landscape," Stokoe explained. "The orcs have been fighting each other for so long that they don't have the capacity to hold any kind of civilization together for more than a few years, so they just keep spreading out farther and farther into different lands. Many of the other races in 'Orc Stain' regard them as a violent plague--basically, a stain of orcs."
Aside from the previously mentioned One Eye and the Orc Tsar, there are plenty of other similarly named orcs to meet throughout the series. "Right now, there's Pointy-Face, who is One Eye's shifty looter partner at the beginning [of the series] who'd rather smoke crabs and backstab than work to pay off his debts," the writer-artist said. "Beard is the Orc Tsar's right hand who is basically just an orc covered with a massive battle beard, and The Norman is a local gang leader whom One Eye is running looting jobs for. I've also got an as-yet unnamed creature who wears a giant log as a helmet filled with attack woodpeckers, and a love nymph who runs a swamp brothel that I'm thinking of using more than once."
If the world of "Orc Stain" sounds fairly colorful, that's because Stokoe worked hard to make it that way. "The world is what I'm most interested in," he said. "I figure that with a book like this, I would need to know the setting inside and out before the characters were even established. When I first started drawing pages, I was living in Seattle and had just heard about parts of the old city that the new city is built on top of. That really piqued my interest, so I've been trying to add a sense of layers of history under everything in the 'Orc Stain' world--kind of derelicts on top of derelicts. Unlike in 'Wonton Soup' though, I don't want to explain every little detail; I just want to show it and have the reader try to figure it all out."
Of course, there are similarities between "Orc Stain" and "Wonton Soup," Stokoe's previous Oni Press comic book. "At its heart, both books are about characters who don't really fit into the world around them," said Stokoe. "But where Johnny Boyo from 'Wonton' embraces that and sets out to milk the universe for all that it has to offer, One Eye is left kind of broken from it and just wants to get away. Wacky shit happening is probably the easiest similarity to find [between the two books]. The first issue of 'Orc Stain' has One Eye having to break into a safe welded to the stomach of a vicious giant bear-monkey creature so he can liberate some hallucinogenic crabs which are locked away inside."
With an opening issue like that, Stokoe is understandably eager for readers to get their hands on "Orc Stain," but the writer-artist is most excited about the actual creation of the comic itself. "I'm at my happiest when it's three in the morning and all I have to do is draw an orc smashing shit with a hammer," he said. "There's really no better feeling than to selfishly work on something from the ground up that is entirely your own."
"Orc Stain" #1, written and illustrated by James Stokoe, is slated to debut in January 2010 courtesy of Image Comics.