It's the end of the world as we know it, but at least our pets feel fine. They're virtually the only survivors in the new hit comic Legend, after a virus wipes out almost all human life and dogs, cats and the other animals of the world find themselves in charge of a world that has been turned into a very weird place. Co-created by Sam Sattin and artist Chris Koehler for Z2 Comics, the comic follows one dog in particular: the titular Legend, who steps in to take care of his canine comrades when the leader of their pack of formerly domesticated dogs is killed, and guides them in the strange world where animals literally talk to each other, the dog tribe follows the spiritual teachings of a divine canine being known as the Alldog, technologically-adept cats wear knife-covered armour and where all animals fear a mysterious creature known only as the Endark.
It is, as Sattin tells us, all a bit Watership Down meets The Walking Dead — except much weirder. So in the wake of the comic's recent, critically lauded launch, we sat down with Sattin to talk about writing for comics, writing for animals and why people just can't get enough of apocalyptic fiction. (We have some exclusive Legend artwork and concept work making its debut here, too.)
So the first issue is out. What did you feel like seeing the response to Legend?
Sam Sattin: To say I feel happy would be a gross understatement. Ecstatic is more apt. I love that people are excited by the same things Chris and I are excited about with this series — opening up this mysterious world for readers to explore, and unrolling this riveting story of survival through characters we care deeply about. And the signings we've had so far have been incredible, with the book selling out at every event. It's also been great to see that readers of all ages are identifying with the story. Seeing younger readers respond is especially neat. I wasn't expecting that to happen, and find it wonderful.
Can you tell us more about the story and its setting?
Sattin: I've described Legend as Watership Down meets The Walking Dead, with dogs (and cats) instead of rabbits, and monstrous, nocturnal entities instead of zombies. But here's something a little more thorough: What if a biological terror agent wiped out most of humanity, and our domesticated animals were left in charge? How would our dogs and cats set about ruling and rebuilding the world? Legend is the story of animals uniting to fight mutant creatures and attempting to restore the world their masters destroyed.
The Myth of Swyftyst the Alldog. Art by Sarah Hawkinson, script by Sam Sattin.
What do you think it is about telling stories through the eyes of an animal that makes it so compelling?
Sattin: I've been thinking about ways to answer this question since Legend came out. When plotting the story itself I almost avoided asking myself why, concentrating instead on what. When I started toying around with the notion of writing an animal story a few years back, I did so simply because I enjoy the genre so much. I'm drawn to it personally because it's deceptively complex. Many people might be willing to approach difficult themes in tales that feature animals as characters instead of humans. The world animals — particularly wild animals — inhabit is quite dangerous, and disproportionately affected by human activity. I think that's why Watership Down traumatized a generation of children. Although it's about cute cuddly rabbits, it's also about nature imperilled by post-war development. In Legend, many of the dogs and cats were domestic pets prior to the downfall of mankind, which complicates things in an interesting way — and they have differing feelings about the humans being gone. Some of them don't know exactly how to exist in the wild.
Another thing I like about animal stories is that they help children approach difficult subject matter, which I think is wonderful. They can explore profound and frightening themes without reaching a tipping point. It can be an easier experience to read Animal Farm than a bloody historical fiction about the Russian Revolution. Though to this day I am continually haunted by the Battle of Cowshed, the death and scapegoating of Snowball and the rise of Napoleon in Orwell's book, when I finally studied the era of history those events and characters were meant to satire, I felt far more prepared to comprehend it.
Are you a dog person yourself? Were any of the animals based on pets you've owned, or pets you know?
Sattin: I love dogs. And cats. And all animals, generally. Most all of the animals in Legend are based off of ones I know. The dog that Legend is based on belongs to a friend of mine. Elsa is based off my beagle, who we took in after my mother passed away, remixed with a friend's beagle. And without giving too much away, I can say that my cats play dashing roles as well. You only need to wait until June 8, when the second issue comes out, to guess how…
How did Chris Koehler come on board?
Sattin: I've been working on a memoir comic that I tend to keep mainly to myself, and I learned some tricks when I enrolled at California College of the Arts so that I could tell a certain kind of story. But I can't do what Chris can do — frankly, I don't think most people can — particularly on a monthly schedule. Chris is an Illustrator with a capital I, and has a master's arsenal of techniques that could fill a barn. As co-creator he makes Legend come to life.
Chris and I met at California College of the Arts, in the Comics MFA program, where he was an illustration techniques teacher and I was his student. I'd already written a novel and was in the middle of writing my second. Chris was an established illustrator and was interested in the same thing I'd been obsessing over for years: making comics. We met up about halfway through my time at CCA, and knocked some pitches back and forth. Though we had a lot of good ideas, the animal story idea I'd been kicking around ended up growing legs (and a tail?). Since then, it's been a collaborative process. I pay attention to the story, dialogue and characters, while Chris pays attention to representational colours and the details of the world. It's quite cool, really.
You're a novelist and essayist, and have written about comics before, but this is your first foray into writing an actual comic. What was it about Legend that made you want to try it in a different medium?
Sattin: When coming up with the premise for Legend, I was inspired by other animal stories I'd been reading in the graphic medium. Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad affected me on a fundamental level, as did We3; Beasts of Burden; Iron: Or, the War After and Blacksad. Some were geared to a more mature audience, but they all were incredibly heartfelt, and political in a quiet way. I think a lot of what I found I enjoy about them was the manner in which they depict animals visually. Since animal stories excel in lending themselves to allegory, adding a visual layer to that mechanic is compelling. It's also fascinating to see how emotions and world building are carried out in comics' format. Every detail matters.
What was the biggest challenge of writing comics for the first time?
Sattin: Though I've read and wanted to write comics for a long time, I wasn't exactly sure how to start doing so. A few years ago, I started coming up with pitches for series (including some nascent framework for what would become Legend), but nothing made its way past that stage. Mostly because I wasn't ready. I think writing novels can help you write comics — storytelling is storytelling, after all — but it's a very messy and difficult transition. You have to learn an entirely new set of rules, and develop a visual vocabulary. And if you're collaborating with an artist, you have to foster a rhythm, schedule, and manner of cooperation. It's very different from the solitary experience of writing a novel.
Chris has had a similar experience, being that he's an illustrator by trade. One thing he said recently is that "drawing comics is like running a marathon at a sprinter's pace". He's had to learn to trust his own instincts, and has begun talking about how although a single illustration might be more developed than a single comics page, the cumulative of an entire issue (or series) is greater than a single piece can allow for, and how he's had to stop worrying about everything being perfect in consideration of narrative flow and overall mood. It's been very interesting for me, witnessing these transitions in both of us.
A few years ago, you wrote an essay asking if the post-apocalyptic trend was doomed — and four years later, you're writing Legend. How do you think post-apocalyptic fiction keeps staying relevant?
Sattin: I want to laugh here, because it is a little ironic, isn't it? When I wrote that article, a lot of people, including me, were caught up in The Walking Dead. The Road had won the Pulitzer and recently been brought to film, and it seemed like we were developing this cultural obsession with the end of the world, or at least the end of society. Such tales were becoming fashionable, and with that, were becoming canned.
A few years later, however, I came to realise that a lot of science fiction is, by nature, dystopian, and dystopia has a tendency to embrace post-apocalyptic motifs. I think that certain facets of the setting have lost their lustre because of market saturation, and that it's important to remember that a scorched landscape does not a story make. But post-apocalyptic fiction can stay relevant as long as the story, characters and themes are put before convention. As Chris says, post-apocalyptic stories can answer "the big 'what if' in a way that is entertaining and digestible." I think that's a great way to look at it. As a vessel, rather than a destination.
Also, I think it's worth saying that although trends come and go quickly, some ideas are truly timeless. Our planet is imperilled, both in terms of the environment and socio-political strife, and I think that as long as things remain fractured and dissolute, a post-apocalyptic world is going to maintain a lot of real estate in our imagination.
Full Cover art for Legend #5, by Chris Koehler
Finally, what can you tease about the future of Legend?
Sattin: Let's just say that things are about to get a whole lot more dangerous, not just for the Dog Tribe, but for their former enemies, the Cat Tribe. As creatures thought only to come out at night emerge into the day, quick allegiances need to be formed. Thankfully though, the cats have more than claws and teeth to protect them...
Legend #1 is available now.