Shelf Life: Welcome to My Fantasy

Thu, December 13th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST | Updated: December 13th, 2012 at 3:10pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Welcome to My Fantasy

Ron stood on the same Hobbiton cart path that brought him to tears watching "The Fellowship of the Ring"

On the day that "The Fellowship of the Ring" opened back in 2001, I was supposed to be working at the CrossGen studio. But I wasn't.

Artist Andrea Di Vito and I went AWOL that morning, heading to the AMC theater that was right down the road from the studio. Some of the other artists were supposed to accompany us, but all of them bowed out for one reason or another. So it was just me (born and raised in upstate New York, discovered Tolkien as a teen) and Andrea (born and raised in Italy, discovered Tolkien as a teen). We both sat in the theater, enraptured to finally see Middle Earth brought to full and glorious life. I know I actually had a few tears roll down my cheeks as Gandalf's wagon clattered down the cart path and into Hobbiton.

I thought about that moment earlier this year, when I visited New Zealand thanks to a convention invitation. I actually had the chance to visit the set of Hobbiton, which has been preserved on its original site, a sheep farm in rural Matamata. I got to stand on that same cart path. I got to peek in Frodo's front door. The experience was... well, no other word except "magical" is quite right, despite it being a terrible cliche.

I'm thinking about that moment again this week, as "The Hobbit" opens in theaters. I won't be seeing it tomorrow, or probably for a couple of weeks after that. I'm a huge James Bond fan, and I'm ashamed to admit I haven't been able to get out and see "Skyfall" yet. That's often the freelance life: you don't have to show up at a 9-to-5 job, the schedule you keep is your own... so your schedule never seems to have much free time. The work is always there. I know, I know, I write comics, pity party for me, right?

The open door of Frodo's hobbit hole beckons during Ron's visit to New Zealand earlier this year

I'll see "The Hobbit" as soon as my schedule allows, and my anticipation for it is almost as keen as it was for "Fellowship." I grew up reading fantasy prose, sparked initially by the Rankin-Bass adaptation of "The Hobbit" that first aired in 1977. It hit me at just the right age. My mother bought me the illustrated edition, an oversize paperback that contained art from the animated movie. I treasured that book, reading it carefully, making sure I didn't crack the spine. I still have that copy. Years later, I found out Walter Simonson contributed some additional illustrations to the book. Someday, I have to get Walter to sign my copy.

I went from reading "The Hobbit" to "The Lord of the Rings," then whatever else I could get my hands on: "The Sword of Shannara" and its sequels, "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant," Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion saga. I read way more fantasy and heroic fiction than I did comics in junior high and high school.

Eventually, the comics evolution of the mid-'80s -- especially the watershed year of 1986, with "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" -- brought me back to the fold. Five years later, I was writing comics, almost exclusively superheroes. But I never lost my love of fantasy, of being immersed in new and fabulous worlds.

When I went to work for CrossGen, the series I really wanted to write was "Scion" (though the concept didn't have a title at that point). The best description of "Scion" was in a Publisher's Weekly starred review, something like "Prince Valiant meets Star Wars." There was a veneer of fantasy over the advanced technology of the world. As much as I loved working on "Scion," it wasn't the straight-up fantasy I'd wanted to write since discovering "The Hobbit." So with the cinematic "Rings" trilogy looming, I talked my way into making a more traditional fantasy series, which became "Sojourn."

Ron strikes a pose across the pond from the Green Dragon Inn on the Hobbiton set in Matamata, NZ

I'd be the first one to admit that "Sojourn" hewed pretty closely to many of the expected fantasy tropes. I'd also be the first one to admit that I learned a hell of a lot about writing fantasy in general, and about creating a believable world in particular, during my time writing "Sojourn." Despite it being CrossGen's best-selling title, I left "Sojourn" after two years, for reasons having a lot more to do with messy company politics than any creative reasons.

Ever since then, I've wanted to get back to writing a fantasy comic. Earlier this year, I dipped my toe back in that pool with a short story called "Pair of Rogues" by me and Tom Raney (with colors by Tom's wife, Gina Going). The 12-page story, printed in "Heavy Metal" #259, introduced a fantasy setting and two characters that Tom and I hope to return to numerous times. We want to build the world through a series of short stories, until the larger plot becomes apparent, and then expand to a more traditional series.

If "Pair of Rogues" and its short-story format is on one end of the spectrum, then the other end is "Ravine," a fantasy project I'm embarking upon with Stjepan Sejic, the artist with whom I've collaborated on "Witchblade" and then "Artifacts" over the last half decade. "Ravine" will be released as a series of original graphic novels, with the first one due out in February from Image/Top Cow.

Ron teams with "Artifacts" artist Stjepan Sejic for "Ravine," a creator-owned fantasy project being released as a series of graphic novels

This is a story that Stjepan has been working on for more than a decade, building a large cast and fully-realized world, complete with culture and history that probably won't ever make it onto the page. And now Stjepan has lured me into his world, to craft the dialogue and work on the story with him. I couldn't be happier.

I can say without hesitation that the art for "Ravine" is the best of Stjepan's career. And it's not even close. As enthused as I've been with his work on "Artifacts" and "Witchblade," this work blows it away. It's a passion project.

"Ravine" is the kind of fantasy that appeals to me as both a reader and a writer. It embraces the familiar -- magic, dragons, warriors, armored armies, inhuman races -- while also dealing with complex characters who are far more three-dimensional than what you might expect in a typical fantasy saga. It's also created from whole cloth, rather than mining a shared, corporate-owned universe established decades. It's our playground, our rules.

The first "Ravine" OGN is being solicited right now, though the original solicit contained errors (my name was left off, and the price and page count were wrong). The correct information: I'm co-writing with Stjepan, the book will be a fat 160 pages, and the correct price is $14.99. The book is scheduled to be stores on Feb. 13. If all goes as planned, once complete, "Ravine" will be a series of a dozen OGNs, a few volumes released every year. No one ever said Stjepan lacks for ambition.

Ron hopes will "Ravine" will illustrate that fantasy has a place in modern comics

Of course, "the plan" and stark reality can be two different things. "Ravine" is a creator-owned project, meaning neither Stjepan nor I are getting paid to do it, so it's a leap of faith for both of us. If we sell enough copies, we can continue to do what we do (Stjepan is already about 70 pages into the art for the second OGN, and he expects to completely finished with it by February release of volume 1). If we don't sell enough copies, eventually we won't be able to continue.

If "Ravine" seems like something you'd like to read, please pre-order it with your local comic shop. Pre-ordering is everybody's best friend. It allows customers to know they'll get the books they want; retailers to know they'll sell what they order; and publishers to know their print runs are right. I realize it's asking a lot to pre-order a $15 book relatively blindly, so we'll be releasing a lot of "Ravine" visuals (like you can see below). There's already a fan site with a wealth of art (and first draft dialogue that will be replaced).

I think fantasy has a viable place in mainstream comics, just as it obviously does in prose, films and television. Help me and Stjepan prove it.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" for Top Cow, "Prophecy" for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, the fellowship of the ring, lord of the rings, the hobbit, ravine, stjepan sejic

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