Exploring Adventure with "Athena Voltaire"

Thu, June 15th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
David Moran, Guest Contributor

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Craving a little something more from your comic book heroes (or heroines) of late?

Possibly what you'd like is to see them punching out a pack of Nazi's (or zombies) exactly like they used to back in the good ol' days; or perhaps you'd care to marvel as they deftly manage to maneuver a 1930s era fighter plane through the ruins of some long forgotten jungle civilization, twin machine guns blazing; or maybe, just maybe, what you'd really like is to brazenly ogle them in their skintight leather flight suit.

Well, if so, then Athena Voltaire may be just the comic book hero (well, heroine actually) for you.

Hey, Warren Ellis likes it.

In a quote on the creators' official website, Ellis said this about the series, "Classic adventure comics in the authentic pulp style. Imagine if the likes of 'The Mummy' and 'Van Helsing' were actually, you know, good."

Originally started as a webcomic (an Eisner nominated webcomic, at that), come August "Athena Voltaire" will finally be making the move to print with the five-issue "Flight of the Falcon" mini series coming from Ape Entertainment.

CBR News sat down with Athena's creators - writer Paul Daly, penciler Steve Bryant, and colorist Chad Fidler – to get the skinny on the scintillatingly hot aviatrix in preparation for her upcoming mini.

CBR News: First, for those not familiar with the character, who is Athena Voltaire? Her adventures might appeal to fans of...?

Steve Bryant: Athena Voltaire is a 1930s aviatrix/adventurer who faces off against the occult and crosses paths with Nazi bad guys.

I think anyone who likes pulp-style adventure, like "Indiana Jones" or "Doc Savage," would like it. People who enjoy historical fiction would probably get a kick out of it as well, since we play with some famous figures of the era. If you like a strong female lead, this book is a good choice, too.

Paul Daly: Athena is based on two things, the real life aviatrix adventuress Pancho Barnes. If you have seen the movie "The Right Stuff," she's the woman who runs the bar for the test pilots. That's where she ended up after being a pilot herself. The other is a character I created for an Indiana Jones screenplay I was writing.

That particular character (also an aviatrix) will be appearing in a 1930s sequence in the Terranauts story, The Lost Continent (on Terranauts.com, shameless plug!).

Currently there are no period high-adventure comics being published, so Athena has arrived to fill that void.

Chad Fidler: For me, Athena's everything a true adventurer should be. She's no nonsense, but she's got heart.

The obvious answer to who the story would most appeal to is fans of "Indiana Jones" and "Tomb Raider," but the book is so much more than that. With all of the Occult/Nazi references, I think "Hellboy" fans will love it too. But the characters and storylines are so developed that Joss Whedon fans will probably dig it as well.

And it's littered with historical and period pop culture references, so it's even a great read for the history buffs!

CBR: The upcoming mini is entitled "Flight of the Falcon." What is it about?

SB: Athena Voltaire is hired to transport an artifact from Hong Kong to the United States. Unfortunately, it's not the simple courier job that her Far East contact has made it out to be. The artifact, a golden falcon statue, is rumored to be the key to unlocking the doorway to the hollow earth. The key is also said to control the race of super-beings that live in the inner earth, and Hitler wants it.

The adventure follows Athena from South America and the United States to Asia and the Middle East as she takes on Nazis, Occultists and Japanese secret agents all of whom have their eyes on the artifact as well.

CBR: Okay, guys, why don't each of you briefly tell us a little bit about yourselves then, your backgrounds in the field, etc.?

SB: I've been reading comics pretty much my entire life. I started working in the RPG industry in 1989, but was hesitant to try and break into comics, until 1999. It was mostly a feeling that I wasn't good enough.

Of course, when I started trying to break in, it was an incredibly competitive time and I probably wasn't good enough. The speculator crash had put a lot of really talented people out of work and it was at that time that I decided to try and take the plunge.

Timing wasn't really my strong suit.

So, after a couple of years of responses like "If this were 10 years ago, I'd be able to give you work" and some near misses in terms of being able to get a gig, I just decided to draw what I really liked and stop working on samples. That was when I dusted off "Athena Voltaire," which I always had as my dream project - the project I thought I'd tackle when I was "good enough." I decided the only way I'd be good enough was just to dive in.

The next con season, instead of showing samples, I shopped the early "Athena Voltaire" pitch around. "Athena Voltaire" was actually the first project that was submitted to Crossgen's creator-owned line (at least the first project for their open call for submissions); Ian Feller of CrossGen told me so when I handed him the package.

I guess we dodged a bullet there.

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But, honestly and truly, "Athena" is my dream project, and I'm thrilled to have such talented co-creators indulging me on my dream. I pencil, ink and letter the book, as well as co-plotting and tweaking some dialogue as I go. It's my job to make sure that everything that needs to get done gets done.

PD: Background wise, let's see, I started drawing and writing for an audience in my college newspaper. I did 2 comic strips in a 5-year span: "The Raven" (spy) and "Christopher Kyle" (a pre-Star Wars space opera). Both went onto further adventures in various fanzines over the years, including four issues of "Swashbucklers," a self-published 'zine.

As for comics, I've only done a smattering of things. "Planet of the Apes" covers for Eternity-Malibu, a 3-issue Western, "Bounty," for Caliber and Deadwood. I wrote and drew "The Man Who Would Be King," 1993, from Calibers imprint, Tome Press, my proudest accomplishment! I drew one issue of a "Man From Uncle" revival series and co-wrote and drew our first incarnation of the "Terranauts" (which had pre-Jurassic Park velocirapters).

CF: I started coloring comics 8 years ago. Since then I've colored books for Top Cow, Marvel, Law Dog, and a lot of other odds and ends. I'm currently working on my own project, "Daddy's Little Ghoul," and a secret project with Simon Bisley that we should be announcing in the near future.

I hope that what I bring to "Athena" is in making the story even more real in the readers eyes. Helping to transport them completely into AV's world.

CBR: So then how'd you guys all hook up to work together on the series then, since you all seem to have pretty different, varied backgrounds?

SB: I've known Paul for over fifteen years now. Tim Bradstreet introduced us. Paul is convinced that we met at a convention in St Louis that I've never attended, but I just humor him because, after all, he's really old.

Paul's a top-notch illustrator and at the time we met, I was working as an art director for a game company, so I gave Paul a lot of work. Eventually, we found that we liked a number of the same movies, television and comics. When I thought about a collaborator for AV, Paul was the first guy I called.

"Athena Voltaire" kind of languished for a few years while I started working on samples. By the time I made up my mind to pitch it, I was out of the RPG industry and working at a company that produced clip art. That's where I met Chad Fidler. Chad had great computer chops and had colored a few advertising pieces I'd drawn, so I asked him to color some AV stuff.

At the time, I thought it would be a black and white book with color covers, but Chad changed my vision of the book with the first piece he colored. It just made everything seem so much more epic.

PD: Steve was my art director at two different companies and we vowed to get the heck out of gaming art and into comics, hence "Athena Voltaire." (It was Steve came up with the fantastic name, by the way.)

CF: I was trying to break into comics as a penciler (weren't we all) when I met Steve. At that time we were working for an ad agency and they were making amazing strides in computer coloring in the comics industry. So, with my art background and knowledge of Photoshop, Steve asked if I wanted to try coloring one of his drawings and I've been coloring his stuff ever since.

CBR: "Athena Voltaire" began life as a webcomic. How was it formatted? How many, I guess, "issues" appeared online? And why go the online route to begin with? And now why the shift to print for "Flight of the Falcon?"

SB: At the time that we started the online comic, there weren't many publishers interested in doing creator-owned material and self-publishing was cost-prohibitive. The web offered us a place to get the character out there and hone our skills without breaking the bank. Working in the horizontal format, as was originally dictated by the first site we were on (AdventureStrips.com), was an interesting challenge.

We did 80-some weekly installments. It was two storylines.

In the end, being on the web was very good for us. Not only did we improve our work and present our concept to a potential readership, we got some terrific reviews, an Eisner Award Nomination (in 2005 for "Best Digital Comic") and were featured in the 2005 edition of "The Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics and Manga."

We had always intended for AV to be a print comic, so it was just a matter of finding a publisher that wanted to publish this kind of material.

CF: I think that we chose to put it on the web initially for accessibility. We wanted to get our book out there and in front of people and what better way to do that than the Internet?

And our ultimate goal was always to produce a print comic and with over 50 pages of story and all of our fans behind us, what better time than now?

PD: The move to print comics was for more exposure. But, that said, I still love the online format and my other partner and myself, Don Secrease, are still at it on the web comic "Terranauts."

CBR: Now, originally, Athena was slated to be published through Speakeasy Entertainment, with the first issue of the new mini actually seeing release the same week that publisher Adam Fortier announced that his company would be ceasing publishing operations. Why go with Speakeasy to begin with? What was your reaction when they announced that they would be closing their doors?

SB: We went with Speakeasy because they seemed like the best opportunity at the time. When we signed on with them, it was before all of the negative press started swirling around them. The negative press kicked in, unfortunately, right around the time that our book was solicited.

The first issue did respectable numbers (especially for a book starring a new character from a publisher with a bad reputation by creators no one had heard of) and sold out within two weeks of its release. The first issue came out at the beginning of February and was completely sold out at Diamond by mid-month. When Speakeasy closed its

doors in late February/early March, we had a couple hundred issues back-ordered and were contemplating a second printing. As we were prepping issue #2, I'd emailed [Speakeasy publisher] Adam Fortier about doing a 2nd printing of the first issue.

The day I got a call about Speakeasy folding was interesting, to say the least. Paul Daly and I had done an interview for the Comic Geek Speak podcast and it went live on a Monday morning around 8:00 am. I got a number of emails throughout the day from readers and retailers who had heard about the book and wanted to get their hands on a copy.

When my phone rang at 2:00 pm and it was Adam Fortier, I thought we were going to discuss a second printing. Obviously, that was not the case.

At first, I was disappointed and frustrated and went through all the stages of grief in pretty rapid succession. The next day, though, I was responding to emails from a number of publishers that were interested in the book.

CF: I think the decision to go with Speakeasy came from creator ownership. We've worked so hard for the last four or five years on this that we aren't just going to hand the rights over. And Speakeasy operated on a 100% creator owned contract.

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I was pretty shocked to hear that they were shutting down myself. Especially since it happened on the Monday of the week "Flight of the Falcon" #1 was supposed to come out. But, truth be told, we've taken care of ourselves for so long, that I didn't worry too much that we wouldn't land on our feet.

CBR: And now "Athena's" found a new home at Ape Entertainment. So, how'd that come about? How's it been working with Brent Erwin, David Hedgecock and the Ape crew thus far?

SB: I've known Brent for a few years now, just from running into one another during various conventions. When the Speakeasy news broke, Brent sent me an email that mentioned that Ape would be interested in picking up the book, but also sent his well-wishes for us regardless of where we eventually took the book.

As Brent and I talked, it became increasingly apparent that Ape was an exciting place to be. Brent and David have a lot on the ball, both in terms of a brand identity and how to promote the books. And I'm thrilled to be part of such a diverse line of quality books.

Also, after promoting a webcomic and giving away promo materials for a few convention seasons, what I wanted more than anything was to have a damn book to sell at SDCC or Wizard Chicago. Ape said "we can do that."

Brent and David have been terrific to work with, as have our fellow Ape creators. There's a real sense of community between everyone.

CF: Ape has been great. Great supportive group of guys that are almost as excited to have us as we are to be working with them. I'm looking forward to a long relationship with them!

CBR: Are there plans to compile Athena's online adventures into a trade at some future point?

SB: If I have my way, our follow-up to this first miniseries will be a 96-page trade collection of the webcomics.

CBR: So how'd you guys get that cool quote from Warren Ellis on your website then?

CF: We sent him scotch.

Seriously though, we've been huge fans of his and he put the call out to send him new things. And who are we to disobey Internet Jesus?

SB: On his Bad Signal mailing list, Warren put out a call to creators of webcomics: if he liked your comic, he'd link to it from his "Die Puny Humans" site. He said some kind words and we took it and ran with it. I'm still afraid that he'll beat me with his cane if I ever meet him in person: "Stop using the damn quote, Bryant!"

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