I didn't think that Matt Wagner played video games. The veteran creator best known for psychological power fantasy epic Grendel and the down-to-earth hero's-journey narrative of Mage never really mentioned games as a pastime in the interviews I read with him. But when I spoke to him last week, Wagner owned up to losing himself inside the worlds of Doom and Quake.
You can see a bit of the aggro machismo of those classic FPSes in his latest work, a series of graphic novels called The Tower Chronicles. Drawn by Simon Bisley and due out this month from Legendary Comics — the imprint from movie production firm Legendary Pictures — the stories focus on bounty hunter John Tower, who tracks down supernatural creatures. Bisley brings his usual jacked-up, shadow-laden hyperviolence to the proceedings and Wagner says he's having a great time crafting a story for an all-new character. I talked to Wagner about the beginnings of The Tower Chronicles, what's going on with volume III of Mage.
Kotaku: I read the preview of Tower Chronicles and it strikes me as very different from work you've done before. Maybe it's because Simon Bisley is doing the art , but it seems more violent, and a little bit more visceral.
Wagner: Well, I hate repeating myself. On one level, it certainly swims in the world that I like: fantasy mixed with horror. I always tell people I'm kind of a genre masher. This has got horror, fantasy and costumed adventuring, and I squish them those elements together into a cohesive whole. But yeah, it's very visceral. As we keep going, it gets more and more so, because I get better at writing for Simon and he gets better at translating my writing. This is, in the long run, a pretty epic story storyline. It will ultimately be three books, and each book is four 68-page editions.
Kotaku: So let's talk about the origins of the project. It's coming out from Legendary, who have been known mostly as financial backers of movies, right? They've helped produce the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movies. I think they had involvement with Brian Singer Superman movie. Very closely tied to Warner. I know Bob Shreck [who did long tenures at Dark Horse and DC Comics] is edting over there. Is he the reason you're doing this project?
Wagner: Yes, absolutely. The project originated via Thomas Tull, the owner of Legendary Entertainment. The comic book division is trying to do really great comics and develop new properties that obviously they can do something with eventually. They realised from the get-go that if you don't have a great story to begin with, you're not going to go anywhere with it. None of us are looking at this as a movie or video game pitch. We're looking at it as a comic book.
But at the same time, Thomas had an idea for a character, and he said to Bob, Find me a writer who can handle this. And he specifically said, I want somebody that's not going to be a ‘yes man.' I want somebody that's going to come in and tell me when my ideas suck.
He threw some ideas on the table. I threw some ideas on the table. And as the ideas began to pile up...he originally wanted to do this as an original graphic novel, what in the biz we call OGN. And I said, Thom, this is too big. The story we have going on here, we could tell it short, but it wouldn't have the cool resonance. And this character has the potential for so many adventures, that I want to see more of his adventures. He's a supernatural bounty hunter. So let's see him confront a whole lot of monsters, not just a couple.
So that's when we decided to do it as a trilogy. And I will say the best part about the story is the face that all is not as it appears. The main character, John Tower, is a very mysterious character. In the first volume, specifically he's really aloof. He's generally aloof overall, but he's very aloof in the first volume. I would say you're not really sure you even like him that well. But as we continue to read, and as the adventures are exposed to us, more and more of the layers of his mystery peel back, and we get to see his actual humanity and what spurred him on.
Kotaku: You said Bob brought you in on the basis that you were going to be somebody that wasn't going to be a yes man, someone who was going to say which part of this sucked. So which part sucked?
Wagner: There wasn't too much stuff that sucked, but I did say, "Narratively that's not going to work." And there was another part where I said, "OK, well that's too close to elements of things that were in Garth Ennis's Preacher." Really, my big contribution was, "Well he has to have a reason for why he does all this stuff." The more we dug into it, the more we were able to come up with a very, very driving motivation.
Kotaku: Do you have the urge to be drawing this yourself? It seems like your writing output has far outstripped your artistic output lately.
Wagner: I will get back to drawing. Most likely the next thing I'll draw will be the third volume of Mage. You know it's funny, the last several years I've mainly been writing. That was not by design. But I've still been doing a lot of cover work. I did all the covers for 30 some-odd issues of Zorro and Green Hornet: Year One. So I'm still drawing, I'm just not drawing sequentially.
For Tower Chronicles, I can't imagine anybody but Simon drawing it. This will be the longest sustained narrative he has done in years. Maybe ever.
Kotaku: I want to touch on the idea of Legendary Comics as an entity. It's easy to be cynical about a movie production company all of a sudden deciding to make their own comics, for the sake of growing their own intellectual property. How would you answer some of this cynicism that swirls around an outfit like that?
Wagner: The only way we can answer that cynicism is by delivering really hot shit product. And I think we're doing that. I can't determine what the Internet buzz is going to be. Personally, I don't give a shit. My job is to deliver the best story I can. I know I'm delivering a good story when I'm having a great time doing it. And I'm having a great time doing this.
Kotaku: You mentioned the idea isn't necessarily that this is ultimately going to become a game or a movie. But are you interfacing much with video games nowadays? I generally think I can tell which comics creators are gamers or not, and I feel like you're in the not category.
Wagner: Well, not anymore. [Laughs] I have been a video game player and I find them perfectly engaging when I'm in that sort of mood. Generally, I just find these days I'm so busy telling my own narratives that I don't have much time to get involved in the narrative of a video game. It's certainly not like a novel or a movie. You get into a video game, it can take you weeks to get through the damn thing.
Kotaku: When you were at your heaviest consumption, what were you digging especially?
Wagner: I typically like the first person shooters like Doom and Quake. Those kinds of games are informing to some degree what I'm doing in Tower. Because he's confronting monsters. Certainly it's not the same sort of experience because the delivery system is different. Going from page to page is nowhere near progressing from level to level. But, still, I tend to like the first person shooters that have a point and a narrative. I think the last one I really liked was Doom 3.
Kotaku: Any other games that you remember fondly?
Wagner: A couple of the Star Wars Jedi games were pretty good in the narrative department as well. Yeah, the Jedi Knight games and Jedi Academy I thought were pretty good. They're a big adventure that come to a big final moment.
Kotaku: Would you ever want to see Grendel or Mage turned into a video game?
Wagner: I think Grendel lends itself more to a video game than Mage does. But unlike some of my contemporaries, I'm not really a purist. If somebody wants to adapt my stuff, I'm perfectly happy to see the pitch. If it intrigues me enough, I'm good to go
Kotaku: What would you say about John Tower in terms of comparing him to the other characters you've worked on? Because one thing I think people respond to in your work is that you manage to tackle this intersection of the personal and the iconic really, really well. In Grendel, it's this kind of demonic, psychological obsession that takes hold of people and, with Mage and lead character Kevin Matchstick, it's the idea of the reluctant hero and destiny kind of destroying all of his personal life.
Wagner: I'd say the same is true here. If you have the strength of mind, well I'm doing it again. It's what I said to Thomas in our first meeting, "We can have all this great shit, and Tower can confront all these great monsters, but we have to give a damn."
In every one of Clint Eastwood's movies there's always an element of humanity that runs through his aloof, tough-as-nails characters. In Tower, that gets exposed little by little as the story goes along. I'm a big one for not spilling your guts right away and there it is. I want to be teased all the way through a narrative until a really good payoff.
Kotaku: You mentioned the third volume of Mage. Dare I ask what's going on with that?
Wagner: Honestly, John Tower knocked it off schedule. I thought I would have been working on Mage at this point, and then Tower came up. I'm always looking for a challenge. I have never worked with somebody like I'm working with Thomas on this. It just seemed a good creative opportunity, a good professional opportunity. And Mage is always there for me.
Unlike anything else I ever worked on, I try not to think of that too much. I don't write anything down. I don't do any thumbnails. I don't do any script. I sit down with blank pages and I let the story take me where it's going to go. And that's not to say that I don't have notes and ideas about what I'd like to do. But it's very much kind of a Zen journey for me, unlike everything else I do where it's more premeditated, it's more structured. Mage is very much an experience of discovery. So I know when I get there it's gonna be just as fresh it's always been for me.
Kotaku: Do you feel like you've said everything you've have to say with Grendel as well?
Wagner: We'll get back to Grendel. Right now, what's happening with Grendel is we're publishing collection at Dark Horse. They're big, fat omnibus editions. So, for the first time, the entire saga is collected in chronological order. Back in the ‘80s when I was first doing Grendel and recreating the character all the time, we were always changing the format a lot. That seemed like a strength at the time, but now that the market is so saturated, that's not a strength, it's a weakness.
People look at it and they figure, "Oh, this is too much shit scattered all over the place. I don't know where to start." So now we're offering it up in again, a chronological format that is very regularized. That's going to take two years of publication for all of that to come out.
Kotaku: In terms of digital stuff, are you going to be moving towards that format? What are your thoughts on digital comics and the way that's changed the landscape?
Wagner: It's just technology. It doesn't matter to me one way or the other. It's still just visual storytelling. I still draw in pens and inks. Whether it's published in an iPad or published in a book doesn't really matter to me at all.