The hero at the center of Dark Horse Comics' "Akaneiro," written by Justin Aclin and featuring art by Vasilis Lolos, is a young woman named Kani. Kani is teenager, living a fairly simple life in relative isolation on Yomi Island -- at least until she volunteers to become a demon hunter and return her crumbling world to balance.
"Akaneiro" is a three-issue miniseries that doubles as a prequel to the fantasy action role-playing game, "Akaneiro: Demon Hunters," from game developer American McGee and Spicy Horse Games. Re-contextualizing the Red Riding Hood parable in a fantasy-fueled 19th century Japan, Aclin's book follows in the spirit and setting of the game, but looks to build back story and establish a relatable hero in a demon-sodden world.
Comic Book Resources recently spoke with Aclin about the upcoming "Akaneiro" miniseries and checked in on his upcoming all-ages "Star Wars" graphic novels, "Clone Wars: Defenders of the Lost Temple," and "The Smuggler's Code."
"In the game, the events of the [Red Riding Hood] legend happened long ago and the three main characters of the story -- the Red Girl, the Huntsman and the Forest Mother -- become legendary figureheads to the demon-hunting Order of Akane," Aclin told CBR News. "The legend doesn't have much to do with the actual game beyond that, other than that you're hunting wolf demons in the early levels -- I decided to face it head on and figure out what the actual Little Red Riding Hood story would look like in this world, which is where the plot line came from. That said, it's not Little Red Riding Hood like you've ever seen it before. There are no cross-dressing wolves in this comic -- although in retrospect that would have been a good inclusion."
Aclin's story focuses on the young woman, Kani. Her home on Yoni Island is also the stomping ground of Yokai -- Japanese demons -- and the yokai-hunting Order of Akane. In developing his story, Aclin found himself searching for an entry point into Japanese folklore and history, specifically looking at the history of Hokkaido, the real-world island on which Yomi is based.
"I started by reading 'The Lost Wolves of Japan,' which is the book that American credits with influencing the story of 'Akaneiro,'" said Aclin. [The book] is about how foreign influence during this period of Japan's history leads the Japanese from worshiping wolves to hunting the wolves to extinction in a fairly short period of time. One of the things I encountered in there and in the game materials was a description of the Ainu, who I'd never heard of before. The Ainu are very akin to Native Americans -- they had settled Japan before the Japanese people arrived there, and they were later discriminated against and forcefully assimilated to the point that it's basically impossible to find a full-blooded Ainu in Japan today."
This history fed directly into the development of the character of Kani. The young woman is half Ainu and half Japanese -- a person caught between two worlds and two eras.
"[Kani] lives with her Japanese father in the Ainu village, and they're basically outcasts," said Aclin. Early in the first issue, a Yokai attack brings tensions between the Order of Akane and the Ainu to a head, and to broker peace Kani volunteers to become an Akane Red Hunter and act as their liaison to the Ainu. So she has to undertake a journey to begin to train as a Red Hunter, and that's where things start to go wrong."
Kani's heritage serves as a metaphorical state that pairs well with some interpretations of the traditional Red Riding Hood story. As a figure straddling two worlds, Kani exists as something of a liminal figure -- a woman in transition.
"I had already decided to retell the Red Riding Hood tale," said Aclin. "I needed to figure out what the purpose of that was in our modern time, when 'stay out of the woods' isn't as pressing a lesson that needs to be taught. So I started reading different interpretations of Red Riding Hood, and one of them is that it basically represents a transitional state. Red is an innocent when she embarks, she's no longer innocent at the end, and the journey in between represents that weird neither/nor state that everyone encounters at some point in their lives.
"Because of her mixed Ainu and Japanese heritage and the death of her mother when she was a child, Kani starts the story unsure of who she is but needing to become someone new -- a Red Hunter," Aclin continued. "The bulk of the story is about her journey there, and what it means to be neither one thing nor another."
The Yokai, Aclin explained, appear throughout Japanese folklore, and the term can refer to demons, shape-shifting creatures or other supernatural beings. Within the world of "Akaneiro" exist two types of Yokai: creatures from a parallel world who have breached our world through Yomi Island, and native animals who have been corrupted and transformed. The range of these creatures, and the potential for them to take nearly any form allowed Aclin and artist Vasilis Lolos to let their imaginations run wild.
"In the game there are Yokai that are similar to traditional Japanese demons, or Oni, and there are many that are based on animals, or even plants," said Aclin. "Since I really wanted to see Vasilis go crazy on Yokai designs, I'd usually say something to him like, 'this one kind of looks like a warthog, but it doesn't really have to. Just give it four legs and some tusks and go nuts.' And I've never been let down by the results -- I made it a point to put several new varieties of Yokai in each issue for Vasilis to go crazy on. The art style for the Akaneiro game is really attractive to begin with, and we're very lucky to have the talented Spicy Horse concept artists doing the covers for each issue, as well. And Vasilis took that and ran it through his own filter, and the results are just beautiful."
As a writer, Aclin is himself adept at moving between worlds -- he's also writing several all-ages graphic novels for Dark Horse set in the "Star Wars" universe: "Star Wars: Clone Wars: Defenders of the Lost Temple," and "Star Wars: Clone Wars: Smuggler's Code." Just as Aclin's "Akaneiro" story arc is set parallel to the in-game story, allowing him freedom within the established world, his "Clone Wars" stories are set, as he describes it, parallel to the cartoon.
"'Defenders of the Lost Temple' is all-ages, but there's something in there for 'Star Wars' fans of any age, as cliché as that is to say," said Aclin. "It's about two Jedi and four Clone Troopers who mount an expedition to a lost Jedi Temple to try to find a powerful Sith relic that would be deadly if it fell into the wrong hands. As they make their way through the booby-trapped temple, we learn that one of the Clones is a little off and thinks that he can feel the Force -- 'Star Wars' was the first fictional universe I was ever a fan of. It's the thing that really set me on the path I'm on today, so getting to contribute to it in any way -- I still haven't quite wrapped my mind around it."
For Aclin, both "Akaneiro" and his forays into the "Star Wars" universe are stories of a journey: the hero's path to find her place in the world, or to finding herself able to step off of destiny's path and forge her own way. These are stories Aclin hopes are ageless.
"For both of them, I'm trying to tell a good story, first and foremost," Aclin remarked. "If you took out some of the blood, I think 'Akaneiro' would make a fine all-ages comic. And like I said, I think an adult will enjoy reading 'Defenders of the Lost Temple.'
"I think there's sometimes a tendency in comics to assume that anything that appeals to adults has to have incredible violence or unrelenting darkness, and that's just not something that appeals to me as a reader or a writer," he continued. "There are stakes in both of these books, and there's action and danger and excitement. But I'd feel comfortable putting either or them in the hands of a 12-year-old or a 40-year-old, male or female, and I don't think that's a bad thing."
"Akaneiro" #1 is on sale May 22, 2013.