Archaia Entertainment's "How To Tell A Better Story Through World Building" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego was not to be missed by up and coming creators seeking to produce their own original stories. Hosted by Archaia Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Christy, the panel featured three experts on the subject of world building: "Mouse Guard's" David Petersen, "Rust" creator, Royden Lepp, and "Cursed Pirate Girl's" Jeremy Bastian. The three creators shared their intricate thoughts on what went into creating their unique, rich worlds to a standing room only crowd. Archaia's Marketing Director, Mel Caylo, was also on hand to run the slideshow, showcasing artwork from the three titles.
Christy began by citing key elements which go into successful world building and the implementation of those ideas on the printed page: Characters and costumes, culture, history, language and colloquialisms, and location and architecture. Christy said the process is almost theatrical in nature -- what goes into making a great world in the sequential format are all elements representative in the best stage productions throughout history. He cited William Shakespeare and how each of these elements are integral to his works; even in 2012 his works can be altered to present the same play in a different context (such as a western-themed "Macbeth").
"This is a different discussion from plot or story," Christy said before posing a question to his panelists. "That's part of it -- but you have to start from scratch with a blank page. How did you guys do it?"
"I started late in terms of design," Petersen said. "'Mouse Guard' is a comic about medieval mice with swords. My main characters all wear cloaks. I originally had them naked but then thought it didn't work." He continued to describe how each city in "Mouse Guard" has a unique culture. At times he had to get literal in creating the environments of these locales -- what do they provide naturally? If it's sandy, the garb of the locals and the look of the buildings should represent that element, coarse and rough.
On his influences for "Mouse Guard" Petersen said, "There wasn't very much. It's obvious 'Mouse Guard' isn't based on actual history -- I have mice walking around on two legs swinging swords around. I don't have to be a slave to anything, which gives me the freedom to draw."
Bastian's major influence in creating "Cursed Pirate Girl" was classic story books. In his own words "Pirate Girl" is, "an extremely detailed and textured world. It's an 'Alice in Wonderland' type of story about a girl who tries to find her father, a pirate captain."
"Rust" by Lepp takes place in an alternate 1940s where the military turns to robots for additional firepower. "Rust," set in all sepia tones, is a testament to how the look of a book can reflect the world's mood, culture and societies. "I don't have many locations in 'Rust,'" Lepp said. "There's the Taylor farm and flashbacks to where robots are marching with soldiers. I referenced both World War I and World War II eras so it was familiar but not specific -- there's familiarity but also the fantastical element. For the farm settings, I went back to look at my dad's clothes when he was a kid with my grandpa. On the farm everyone is wearing overalls, so it seemed appropriate even to the point where we put overalls on the robots as well."
Each of the three worlds created by the panelists focus on a tight core of characters who are continuously appearing in the stories. Christy raised the issue of consistency and its importance on the look of books' protagonists.
"Consistency should be important," Bastian said. "Sometimes you're not able to make them look exactly the same throughout the book. It's a learning process. I've gotten better with how my main character looks and her facial structure. She's the only dark haired character in the book, so readers can tell her apart." Bastian also mentioned he sculpted busts to get a handle on his other characters.
Lepp brought up his background in 3D design and how it helped keep his characters in line from page to page. "I created any solid structure in 'Rust' out of 3D so I could mold it. It's a challenge. We always try to strive for consistency but it's always a challenge."
Petersen was the first to comment on the world history in 'Mouse Guard' and how it developed. "It goes back to my initial concept of 'Mouse Guard' in 1996. I didn't start working on #1 until 2004 because someone handed me the first 'Redwall' book and I thought, 'Oh. Somebody's doing this better than I ever could so I'm not doing this project anymore.' For 9 years my mice lived in my mind. They developed and germinated and the puzzle pieced together loosely in my mind. So when it came time to start, I had this massive thing to figure out how to introduce to readers. I actually got rid of most of it -- a lot of 'Mouse Guard' wasn't written down, but I'd use the ideas as a suggestion box. When it came time to do something new, I'd pull from the box and think about how to use those ideas in the story."
"And that's the way you're supposed to do it," Lepp commented. "That's not the way I did it. I had a nugget of an idea, images and scenes in my mind, but the world was not built. I started telling the story as a comic before I had built the whole world." Given "Rust" takes place in a pseudo-WWI/WWII setting Lepp added, "There's still an element of mystery -- you don't know about the War or what caused it. Throughout the series I'll let slip the details of the world as I figure them out."
Bastian took a similar approach with "Pirate Girl," "I wrote out the full six-issue arc and eventually came to the decision it was big. I had the first script to seed with ideas which could flourish later. [The history] is a mystery. The way I tell history in my story is it's all word of mouth, so it's all up to interpretation."
When asked which was more important, continuity or a good story, Petersen said, "A good story comes first. It gets really boring having one talking head and one listening head to keep things straight." The other two creators agreed.
Language and dialect is important throughout all three works, and Lepp said he makes it personal. "My character tells narration through writing a letter to his dad. So I think back to my dad and what I would write to him. I had to position myself as a character and a narrator."
"I write out lots of different versions of the dialogue, trying new things, until I'm like 'OK, this is it,'" said Petersen. "I send some of my scripts to a friend to proofread to make sure I was consistent with dialect. I have different species of animals. The mice in 'Mouse Guard' are very mouse-centric -- they don't really associate with other critters, who are either predators or competition for the same food source. The greater the difference an animal is from the genus of mouse, then the stranger the language is to the mice. It's foreign.
"So if it's a snake, it hisses. It's how the mice would hear it -- you don't get the snake saying 'I'm going to eat you.'" Petersen continued. "When it's a species closer to a mouse like a hare or ferret or something similar, their dialogue is written in English [to show] the mice can understand, but I use a different font so the reader can see it's in a different accent or like a second language to them. A variety of fonts are used to give the idea things sound different to the mice."
On environment and architecture, Petersen admitted to browsing the architecture sections in book stores until something clicked. Part of his style includes creating cardboard models of his settings to get the right angles and designs.
"The world should be a character and have a personality to it," Lepp said of his ideas for "Rust." "I wanted to make this big prairie landscape feel claustrophobic -- like you can't get off the farm." He added he uses computer graphics to build and alter environments.
"When I design things, I was designing it like a movie. If a scene takes place in a bar, I thought how can I make it more interesting or special from any other bar you come across," Bastian added of his work. "That's pretty much the approach I'd take to every scene and backdrop." To prove Bastian's point, Caylo then clicked to a slide of an amazingly detailed bar scene from "Pirate Girl" which had more than the eye could see for the 8 minutes it was displayed.
"Rust" vol. 2 is now available digitally through comiXology with a print edition coming in Fall 2012. "Cursed Pirate Girl" and the latest issue of "Mouse Guard: The Black Axe" are both slated for a Summer 2012 release.