In 2012, writer Steve Horton introduced readers to Amala, with a story in the anthology series "Dark Horse Presents." This week, the young bounty hunter haunted by the ghosts of the past returns in "Amala's Blade," written by Horton and featuring art by Michael Dialynas. In the four-issue Dark Horse Comics miniseries, Amala is caught in the middle of a war between the low-tech Purifiers and the high-tech, cyborg-ian Modifiers, putting her sword-skills to the test.
Leading up to the books release, fellow comic book writer Brian Wood engaged Horton in a back and forth interview, touching on each of their respective projects. Wood discussed balancing his multiple ongoing titles, including "Marvel's "Ultimate X-Men," and Dark Horse's "Conan," "Star Wars" and "The Massive," which also sees its latest issues hit stores this week.
Below, Horton and Wood divulge some of their thoughts on the writing process, managing different publishers' editorial styles, Wood's takeaway from his time at Vertigo, writing short stories versus full issues and hints of possible projects on the horizon. Even as Horton's "Amala" prepares to leap into war and Wood takes the crew of The Kapital into shark-infested waters with "The Massive" #11, there's still time for some casual conversation.
Brian Wood: Steve, I'm going to ask you a question that I always hate getting myself, since it feels like such a stock question: what is your book about? Actually, I'll ask a different version of that question, because one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Brian Azzarello, and he told me that if you yourself can't describe your book in a three-second, one sentence blurb, you have problems with your concept that need fixing. So let's hear it.
Steve Horton: Amala's Blade is about the world's greatest swordfighter -- just ask her! How's that for a blurb? That's what I lead with at conventions, and it very often leads to a "SOLD!" or a laugh. Then I know I got 'em.
To expand a bit, it's about an assassin for hire who's been running from her spiritual destiny for twenty years. She was once chosen to unite a country divided along ideological grounds, but fled and was kidnapped, setting off two decades of war. Now her past is catching up with her -- complicated by ghosts, who represent her past and follow her around everywhere.
Is this a Young Adult book in your eyes? It appears at a glance to be so, but I saw in an interview you called her a "stone killer." Is it just a matter of execution, no pun intended, that makes it YA or not?
I think it's a matter of there not being enough books like this on American stands. If this were a European book, it would fit right in with other "BD" graphic novels (think "Tintin" size) on the stands. If this were a Japanese manga, it would sit alongside "Naruto" or "One Piece." It's a teen-rated book that appears to be a little cartoony on the surface, but is actually pretty violent. There's a pretty shocking scene toward the beginning of issue #1 that my circle of writer friends wanted me to take out, but I didn't.
The Massive started off as a three-part miniseries in "Dark Horse Presents." It was the first time in 15 years I ever wrote an 8-page story, to my recollection, and being so conditioned to having 20 or 22 pages to work with at a time, I had some trouble with it. What was your experience building a story in three increments like that?
Fun! I love writing short stories. That's how I broke in to DC Comics originally, first with a one-pager, then an eight-pager in those giant-size anthologies they used to do. As for doing a 24-page story broken into three parts, it was challenging to make each part self-contained, but also aiming to bring the reader back for the next parts. I'm glad to say that the whole thing reads fine mashed together in the #0 issue.
You work on several books, more than many mainstream comics writers. You also work for three different publishers at the same time. How do you balance that constant, heavy workload with the rest of your life?
The short answer is: I don't know. It gets done, though, somehow, maybe a few days late at times. One saving grace is Dark Horse works so insanely far ahead of schedule that there is zero risk of anything shipping late, so that takes a little bit of the pressure off. But yeah, it's hard with a wife and kids, and the fact I work at home and have Mr. Mom duties to fulfill. The one thing I do try and do is to keep my work life absolutely separate from anything else. I have an office and when I'm done for the day I shut the door and that's that. No comics, nothing related to my job exists anywhere else in the house, and that divide keeps me sane. I need to be able to walk away from it from time to time.
You have an office job (I think?) and kids. Do you practice this same separation of church and state like I do?
I don't quite have the discipline you do! I'm always checking e-mail and stuff, even when I shouldn't, and e-mails related to my comic are the best of all. As for actual writing, lettering and other process stuff -- it varies. I have to leave the house completely to get solid writing done, so I tend to get a lot of work done at late night diners and coffeehouses after the kids are in bed. Revisions and lettering I can do on the PC upstairs, and again I usually wait until the kids are asleep -- otherwise, it's just too loud. And yep, I have a day job in an office -- and no time to work on comics during it!
You've been pretty vocal on how soured you've been with your Vertigo experience regarding your "creator-owned" or "creator-participation" books there, "DMZ" and "Northlanders." Do you have any advice about what new creators should do with their projects and what they should be aware of going in?
Have I been? I have no regrets about the publishing deal over there. Both those books pay out handsomely in royalties, and if I had it to do all over again I'd still sign them. I do have beefs with the fact that DC does everything it can to turn down perfectly valid -- at times very favorable -- media deals, and that's the downside to these contracts. I would sum up any advice like this: if you don't have to sign a deal like that, don't. At the time, I felt like I needed the stability, the exposure, and the marketing ooomph DC could give me, and I was able to build a career. So, totally worth it. But we'd all be watching "DMZ" and "Northlanders" and "New York Four" on TV right now if it weren't for DC's baffling decisions (or lack thereof).
I had an old editor who described media deals, or even the desire for one, as "a distraction." Suggesting, as I guess an editor might, that anything that gets in the way of producing the comics is a bad thing. But obviously comics is a freelance career with not a lot of stability, and most creators seem to eventually find an expiration date. I have my own feelings, obviously, on media deals. How are you thinking about them right now?
They're definitely not as prevalent as they used to be, it seems. Hollywood seems to have taken a huge step back from producing anything that came from an independent comic first, despite the massive success of the "Walking Dead" TV show. What has there been since? "Oblivion" is based on concepts for a nonexistent comic. Isn't there a "Sixth Gun" show in the works from Oni and a "2 Guns" movie about to come out from BOOM! Studios? Is that it? That being said, if you as a creator can grab one, hold on to it with both hands. Take the money and run. The more stuff gets made from our creations, the better -- because we'll always own the comics, no matter what happens.
Tell me about your newest book, "Mara," with Ming Doyle. My good friend and comics writer Russell Lissau and I were guests of A-Kon last year along with Ming, and we got to spend a lot of time with her and her boyfriend Neil Cicierega. Our impression was that Ming was one of the nicest people in comics and possessed with a really original art style.
Ming's great. I feel like I've been a bit quiet on "Mara" in terms of shouting about it from the rooftops, but as is often the case with my miniseries, the full picture doesn't emerge until the end, or at least almost the end. We're nearly there, and I can tell it's starting to click with readers, to make sense. Very satisfying. I consider "Mara" to be of the "Demo family" of stories. When I describe it as a "Demo" story, people get it. But, yeah -- Ming. I've already offered her another project for after "Mara," and I hope it works out.
Do you have a queue of future projects ready to go?
Yes! "Monstrous" is a serial running in "Dark Horse Presents" late this year or early next, about a man trapped in the mind of a monster during a monster invasion. The Earth has lost its humanity, and so has he. Who blinks first? The artist on that is Ryan Cody, and he does a minimalist Mignola-type style that is really neat. There's a good chance Michael Dialynas and I will reunite for another "Amala" miniseries later this year. We'd also like to team up and do something for a Dark Horse licensed property somewhere. And I have two other projects in the pitch stage. One might be bound for Kickstarter at this rate -- everyone says it looks amazing, but it just can't find a home. Why not self publish?
"Conan!" What's that like? Seriously, out of all the books you're doing, this is the one I'm most jealous about.
Writing "Conan" intimidates me in a way that "Star Wars" doesn't, and the "X-Men" does only a little. I've been writing "Conan" for over a year now, and it's hard for me to pin down why. I just can't get all the way into his head, at least not to my own satisfaction. I have a lot of pride for the work I've done and the book is well received and is a total success in all respects. Conan is very complex -- I'm not sure how many people know that. It's easy to write a 2D Conan that kicks the ass and gets the girls and always wins, but that only gets you so far. My deliberately taking a more complex, more nuanced route with the guy, I guess it's bound to be tricky at times.
How is it freelancing for Dark Horse compared to Image? Do you prefer a strong editorial hand on creator-owned books or do you prefer more freedom at this point in your career?
I try to avoid too much comparing, especially when the two are so different. I can appreciate the level of freedom a publisher like Image gives you (or an Image-style deal offered elsewhere, of which there are many), and the more traditional set-up at Dark Horse or Vertigo. The overworked part of me really appreciates having an editor and a team and an infrastructure, where I can deliver scripts and sort of let the team do its thing. With an Image style deal, I have to be so much more hands-on throughout, and usually paying a great deal of money out of my own pocket. So, I dunno, pick and choose, I guess? Figure out if there is a project that, more than another, you really want to have total hands-on with and go the Image route.
You took over "Ultimate Comics X-Men" after a year on the title had already passed. This isn't the first time you've jumped on a title mid-run. How challenging was it taking over from Nick Spencer? Did you coordinate with him a lot? How does the experience differ leaping on to a moving train on a title like this rather than getting in on the ground floor, to brutalize several metaphors?
I did talk to Nick Spencer on the phone, but I was also brought on to do my own thing, not just pick up his stories. The editors were looking for a change of focus, and my pitch reflected that. It's not always like that -- sometimes you get brought in to maintain current stories, but this wasn't really one of those cases, I guess. I think I am just the type of writer that gets hired to do new things, or to switch gears. Which is kind of nice, actually!
Amala's Blade" #1 and "The Massive" #11 are both available now