Step aside, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad and Ezio Auditore da Firenze - there's a new assassin in town, and his name is Nikolai Orelov.
The battle-hardened Russian assassin comes to the forefront of the "Assassin's Creed" franchise in an upcoming three-issue comic book miniseries commissioned by Ubisoft and co-written and illustrated by Cameron Stewart ("Batman and Robin") and Karl Kerschl ("The Flash"). CBR News and a small group of journalists visited the video game company's Montreal studio last week to speak with Stewart and Kerschl about the property's first voyage into the comic book medium.
First approached by Ubisoft several months ago, Stewart and Kerschl initially set out to craft an "Assassin's Creed" comic book starring Ezio, the protagonist of "Assassin's Creed II" and the forthcoming "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood" video games. The studio mates went so far as to produce a fully illustrated and colored proposal, but the project was ultimately scrapped in favor of forging a new chapter in the "Assassin's Creed" mythology.
"I think we still would have enjoyed it, and I think we would have done the best job we could have done, but I was so much more intrigued [by creating something new]," Stewart told CBR of the project's origins. "From day one, I was far more intrigued by the idea of coming up with a new character. It ends up feeling like fan fiction and you're going through the motions, so there's definitely an excitement to creating something. Karl and I have experience with that - we've done mainstream comics, but we've also written and drawn our own comics as well. There's no comparison to when you have the reins and you're creating something and controlling it. It's such a satisfying experience."
Indeed, Stewart and Kerschl have a considerable amount of creative control over the "Assassin's Creed" comic book, as evidenced by the teaser video released last week, which was written and conceived by the creators themselves. "We came up with a Russian storyline, and it fit in with some things that have been mentioned in the game, just in an offhand manner," said Stewart. "There's a real event that was alluded to in the video - a massive, almost atomic bomb level explosion in Siberia. There's a brief mention of it in the game and it tied into the mythology, so we thought we could use that as a starting point and expand that. It happened right in the middle of a period of...social progress and social change, leading right up to the revolution and all of the czars and everything. The pieces all just started coming together very fast."
At the center of this story is 19th century Russian assassin Nikolai Orelov, the same bitter old man who narrated the teaser trailer. "The interesting thing about Nikolai is that we follow him through several years, his early years with the assassin order to the end of his career," said Kerschl of the character, with Stewart adding: "We go through three phases of his life. We start with him as a very young man, as a novice in the order. As the story goes on, he gets older and we see what the effect of being in the order has on him as a person and with his family."
In addition to his age and setting, Nikolai diverges from familiar assassins Altaïr and Ezio in terms of his arsenal - specifically, his use of a rifle. "We've only just basically started choreographic action sequences, and I feel already that the rifle in Orelov's case is a signature thing, if only visually," said Kerschl. "Playing with it in the choreography has been fun so far, but we'll have to see what happens. The thing is that a lot of the 'Assassin's Creed' combat is stealth-based, so I'm not sure. He's dealing with modern guards armed with modern weapons, so I think that will certainly come into play."
Naturally, the "Assassin's Creed" comic book will feature a healthy dose of action, but Stewart and Kerschl are just as interested in finding the humanity within Orelov and his story. "By all means, we have kick-ass action sequences that are in it. It won't be a bunch of characters sitting around talking," said Stewart. "But like everything, the action is only satisfying when it means something, when there are actual consequences and when the characters are actually well written. That's pretty important."
One way that Kerschl and Stewart are finding the story's emotional core is through Daniel Cross, the comic book's equivalent of the game's Desmond Miles. Just as the games feature the present day Desmond exploring his assassin ancestry thanks to the Abstergo corporation's Animus device, so too does the comic book explore Nikolai by way of Daniel's encounter with the Animus.
"He's young, in his early 20s. He's a bit of a down-and-out kind of guy, a recovering alcoholic and a slightly more than casual drug user. We first see him in a psychiatrist's office, which should kind of tell you where he is," said Kerschl. "When we were first concocting the story, we said, 'Okay, we've got all of this historical assassin stuff. That'll take care of itself: just action sequences. We need to make a guy in the present day that's interesting.' We went away and came up with a story and we got really excited about it. We didn't expect this. We're way more interested in the present day story. We became very invested in that character. At that point, Orelov became the blank slate. You have to balance these two characters and make them inseparable and equally important, and I think they are."
In addition to Nikolai and Daniel, the story's czarist Russian backdrop serves as a third main character of sorts. "For us, there's an atmosphere of melancholy and sadness to that era, the turn of 1900s Russia," said Kerschl. "Russia has a lot of architecture with the churches and the buildings and the baroque palaces there that are similar to the types of terrain that you're navigating in the other games, but completely different visually, which is cool already."
To add authenticity to the Russian setting, Stewart and Kerschl took a four-day trip to the city of St. Petersburg, where a very specific sequence in the miniseries' third issue is set. "We have a very specific route that Orelov takes through St. Petersburg that we wanted to document, partially for authenticity and partially to see what architecture exists there now that may not have been there at the time," said Kerschl, who found the Russian excursion very helpful for the creative process. "You don't know how it's going to affect you until you return [home], maybe weeks later. Stuff just creeps in. The way people speak and behave, certain cultural idiosyncrasies - it's very important."
"It'll add to the overall authenticity of it," Stewart said of the trip. "Something that Karl said while we were there, what we'd really like to have with this is for a Russian comics reader to read this and feel excited that their culture and their city has been accurately represented and honored. That's really important to us. It was important to me when I did 'The Other Side,' the three issues of 'Batman and Robin' I did that were set in London. When you do it truly accurately, it feels so much more real. The people who have direct experience because they live there, it's exciting for them. That's what we'd like."
With the trip to Russia still fresh in their minds, Stewart and Kerschl have officially started illustrating the "Assassin's Creed" comic book. The two plan to draw the series together, aiming to integrate their styles so that the reader won't be able to tell the difference between the artists' work. "We're going to be doing the bulk of this work digitally," Stewart added. "I'm more comfortable working digitally and now I'm moving into doing a lot of digital work, so we'll probably end up doing a lot of it digitally. That makes it easy because we can just literally swap files back and forth and add to it and so on."
The shared artistic approach reflects another unique aspect about the project - although "Assassin's Creed" is Ubisoft's intellectual property, Stewart and Kerschl have been encouraged to push boundaries and forge creative ideas they're both inspired by. Indeed, while some of Stewart and Kerschl's proposals have been shot down by Ubisoft due to the company's plans for the franchise's future, some other radical ideas have been accepted.
"Without saying too much, the Daniel character plays a very significant role in the two existing games, where they are currently," teased Stewart. "This is almost like a lead-in to those, so he has a very significant role."
Although Stewart and Kerschl were tight-lipped on how Daniel factors into the previous "Assassin's Creed" video games, they said that their idea caused Ubisoft to reconsider the franchise's ongoing story in a way they hadn't previously contemplated. The idea will have an impact on the perception of how the "Assassin's Creed" universe works, albeit "in a way that feels natural and not reverse-engineered," said Stewart.
"This is kind of the best of both worlds, because we're working with an established property but we have creative freedom within that. It's kind of a dream project," he continued. "A key thing is that Karl and I were already fans [of 'Assassin's Creed'] before we had even caught wind of doing a comic book on it - we'd already played through both games and really enjoyed them. I was a fan anyway. When it was offered, I was really excited about it, and when we went into that first meeting, they were very clear in saying that they're not interested in doing this if it's just some shitty thing that gets tossed off and has no thought or energy put into it. If they're going to do it, they wanted it to be done right and done well. They've been really accommodating with that. Any help we've needed they've given us. It's been super enjoyable to work on. How do we make it great? We make it great by having enthusiasm for the project. How do we have enthusiasm for the project? They let us do our thing and not meddle too much."
"It almost makes you suspicious when you go to this big company and they say you can do whatever you want," Kerschl said of Ubisoft's open-minded attitude towards the creators. "But that's what they said to us. 'Take whatever time you need to get this done.'"
Currently, there are no announced plans to pursue an "Assassin's Creed" video game featuring Nikolai. And though the Russian assassin's story starts and finishes with this miniseries, the creative team acknowledged that Orelov could live on in further comics and other forms of media should the need and interest arise. For now, however, Stewart and Kerschl are focused on creating the best comic book they possibly can, regardless of where Nikolai goes in the future.
"We've jokingly said a couple of times that we want this to be the 'Watchmen' of video games," laughed Stewart. "It's a tall order, but I think we have a decent chance of pulling it off."
Cameron Stewart and Karl Kerschl's "Assassin's Creed" comic book miniseries is scheduled to arrive at the end of 2010.
Comic-Con attendees can find out more about the miniseries at Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed: Behind and Beyond the Brotherhood" panel on Thursday, July 22, from 3:30 – 4:30 PM in Room 7AB.