Making It 'Werk: Introducing The First Actionopolis Graphic Novels

Thu, May 11th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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The following art is from "Forest King"

Scan some comic book message boards. Do it. Check out the CBR Forums. What's the common denominator? Everyone wants something new. Something fresh. Something different. Well, for those fans looking for the mold to be broken in both content and format, look no further than Actionopolis, the new line of graphic novels from fledgling publisher Komikwerks.

Actually, "graphic novel" might be a misnomer, as these books will be "illustrated novels," aimed at all ages, and with the support of a diverse array of recognized comic book talent. The company's first wave includes two titles already garnering buzz from industry legends such as Mark Waid, who have heaped praise upon the products being produced by Actionopolis. But what's got fans so excited? CBR News spoke to the principle creators, to find out more about Actionopolis' two premiere novels: "Forest King" and "What I Did On My Hypergalactic Interstellar Summer Vacation."

Forest King

The king ain't dead, but long live the king, especially if you're writer Dan Mishkin. A veteran writer for DC Comics, who you might remember from "Blue Devil," is reuniting with his "Creeps" partner, artist Tom Mandrake, for one of the first offerings from Actionopolis. Mishkin has taken great care to make the book suitable for readers of all ages, embracing the company's mandate to grow comic book readership, and saying, "In many ways, what the company is doing is putting out the kind of classic adventure story for kids that used to be the bread and butter of comics." But what is "Forest King" all about?

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"'The Forest King' tells the story of Justin Woodlark, a kid who's been uprooted from his home in New York City to move to the little New England town his father grew up in," explained the scribe. "This all takes place after a terrible incident of urban violence that's left its scars, so the family has been unsettled in more ways than one. And rather than finding an easy peace and calm in his new home, Justin discovers just how scary the forest can be -- even scarier when he begins to suspect that something big and threatening is lurking in the woods.

"Justin is someone who's trying to figure out where he fits in. He struggles with how to present himself to others and be accepted; in fact, he sometimes gets so focused on how others see him that he fails to take note of his own inner strengths until those strengths are tested by the dangers growing around him. Since moving to town, Justin has also made two very good friends, Rob and Alice. Rob is very much a go-with-the-flow kind of guy while Alice is someone who likes to decide what's going to happen, so they've complemented each other very nicely as good friends since kindergarten. These three can probably be described as fitting into some three-part psychological model, but I'll be damned if I know what it is; I suspect, though, that they each come from different parts of my own personality."

Though the book will be all ages, early comparisons to "Harry Potter" may just be apt, as Justin will deal with very real, palpable fears and very serious life crisis, while still finding time for intense adventure. But the comparisons to "Hardy Boys," because of the mystery nature of "King," aren't quite so on the nose. "I think the Hardy Boys books contain a greater sense that Joe and Frank maintain some control of the situation even when they're in danger, and that's not the case here. For much of our story, Justin can't even come up with a clear overview of the danger he's in, and his lack of knowledge is itself one of the things that scares him. I think I found inspiration more in books that are not so much about action and plot but about how individual characters are affected by the situations they face and how they respond out of their true selves. One of the things I've said to people about comic books and fantasy writing is that nothing has to be true except the reactions of the characters. But it's incredibly important that those reactions feel like the actual responses of a live human being. I'm attracted to books about characters who are fully dimensional and whose lives are not seen through rose-colored glasses -- to children's writers like Louis Sachar and Jerry Spinelli, both of whom write books full of plot but where the people matter most."

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Readers also need not worry that "Forest King" will end with very special life lessons more appropriate for "Barney & Friends" than a real action adventure. For Mishkin, writing for all ages is about writing smarter, not dumbing it down. "I heard a children's book editor say recently that if you start with a story you'll end up with a message, but if you start with a message you'll end up with nothing," says Mishkin with a smile on his face. "That felt very true and right to me. I would simply never start with a message I want to teach because it would totally get in the way of discovering the characters through their lived experience. On the other hand, while I might not be setting out to teach anything, I'm a person with particular moral outlook on life and that's going to come out in what I write. So it's certainly the case that young readers might learn something of value by living with the characters even though I'm not being didactic."

Working with artist, and comrade, Tom Mandrake has been a lot of fun for Mishkin, who finds himself inspired by Mandrake's "wonderful illustrations." The reunited duo are trying to engage readers with some of the best work of their careers, and find they're inspired by the opportunity to do something really different in the comic book world. "I think comic book companies are in a real bind. Not long ago I spoke to someone who's intimately involved in one of the big two superhero universes and asked what he guessed was the low end of the age range of their readers, and his reply was 'Sixteen, maybe fifteen.' Now that's just a shame, given the ages of the kids who originally read superhero comics. But I can't really blame Marvel and DC. The way the marketplace has developed since the death of the newsstand market has made it very difficult to sell their comics to kids. It needs a different business model, one that's not totally dependent on comic shops, to find those kids again. In the meantime, though, I hope that having "The Forest King" and the other Actionopolis books in comic shops will give kid-friendly store owners another means of drawing in that audience."

You can already pre-order "Forest King: Woodlark's Shadow" at your local comic book store, as the first volume is expected to ship in July, at the price of $12.95. If you've ever enjoyed Mandrake or Mishkin's work, the scribe says this is the book for you. "People who have followed Tom's and my work in the past, whether separately or together, will definitely want to check out "The Forest King." We grow and change with everything we do and we pride ourselves on letting each new project speak in its own voice and take on its own look. But the main reason to check out the book is that it's a terrific story that will appeal to fans of fantasy, horror and adventure, especially younger readers."

That's not all you can expect from Actionopolis, as the focus isn't just on Earth…it's also on the rest of the universe.

What I Did On My Hypergalactic Interstellar Summer Vacation

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The following art is from "Hypergalactic"

The name sort of says it all, doesn't it? No need to inspect this graphic novel for grim n gritty superheroes or continuity altering crises. Though writer Adam Beechen is no stranger to intergalactic tales, having written "Justice League Unlimited," and Dan Hipp has illustrated insanity in "Amazing Joy Buzzards," "Hypergalactic" is unlike anything before from either creator.

"It's the story of a restless middle-schooler facing a boring summer vacation who gets the opportunity to switch places with a prince from another planet," explained Beechen. "He leaps at the opportunity, and winds up getting sucked into an attempted coup on that planet. It's up to him to save the royal family, and the planet.

"I met Shannon Denton at a release party for a friend's graphic novel, and we'd stayed in touch over the months that followed, working together on an animated series I was story editing. When Actionopolis started up their book line, Shannon approached me with the basic storyline and asked if I'd be interested in writing it up as a novel. I jumped at the opportunity. I look at it as a chance to work in a medium in which I might not get many other opportunities to work. It's great exposure, and allows me to show that, as much as I love writing for television and comics, I can write in other mediums as well.

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"Our hero is Teddy Harper, pretty much an everykid who wishes he had a lot more adventure in his life, particularly at the moment we meet him, when a long, boring summer vacation is stretching out before him. Prince Al'ak is his counterpart a galaxy away on a planet called Septobal. Like the rest of his Royal Family, he's essentially imprisoned in his home, and wants desperately to see what life is like outside those walls. Ker'plok is Al'ak's only friend, a spunky young female Septobalian who's a lot more capable than anyone gives her credit."

Sure, Beechen may be the man behind the keyboard, but don't count out the enthusiasm of penciller Hipp, who exclaims, " Aww, come on, everyone loves a good sci-fi adventure. Oh yes they do!"

As Beechen explores the word of "Hypergalactic" through the eyes of young Teddy, don't be surprised if the scribe's love of science fiction shines through. "I remember the incredible feeling of wonder I had when watching 'Star Wars' for the first time, that feeling of wanting to see everything that was a part of the world of this film. I think that's a pretty primal feeling for all kids, that desire to see, to explore, to soak up exciting new experience, and I wanted to try and transmit that sensation through Teddy's adventure.

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As much as many admire the efforts of Hipp and Beechen, there's some serious concern about how far comics can really connect with new readers and why no one seems to be targeting that untapped audience. "That's a good question," says Beechen. "The comics market has certainly aged a lot in recent years, particularly as kids are provided with more and more outlets for their entertainment, and I think companies are trying hard to maintain that older audience and get those readers to bring more readers their own age into the fold. But I also think, in doing so, companies neglect younger readers, so kids the age I was when I started reading comics aren't going anywhere near comic shops, for the most part -- They're not being encouraged to."

Enough with the serious stuff. Want to have some fun? Check out "Hypergalatic," says Hipp. "I think it's really that simple. There aren't that many fun comics or books out there today, and everybody deserves to smile. Aww, come on, sure you do! Come on, gimme a smile, just an itty-bitty little...there it is!!!

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