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Archaia Smyling Brightly

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When Broken Frontier first covered Mark Smylie and his fledgling company Archaia Studios Press, all he had to discuss was his love for the fantasy genre and how that resulted in Smylie’s popular creation Artesia, a sturdy warrior princess. For a few years, ASP published nothing but Artesia mini series, namely Artesia, Artesia: Afield and Artesia: Afire. Today, however, the company is the home of three other properties that scored some major praise over the past few months—Robotika, The Lone And Level Sands and Mouse Guard.

All that, plus the June release of the fourth Artesia mini series, Artesia: Besieged , made us think that Smylie would have a much more diverse amount of topics to talk about this time around. And guess what? He did!

Click to enlargeBROKEN FRONTIER: Your company, Archaia Studios Press, is on a noticeable upswing since we last spoke. What factors made you decide to open the doors for other creators, such as A. David Lewis, Alex Sheikman and David Petersen?

MARK SMYLIE: Well, that was always part of the game plan, so to speak.  I think most self-publishers face a similar problem when faced with the competition of the comics market: there are just too many publishers trying to get the attention of retailers and readers.  A self-published book, particularly one like Artesia that can’t come out on a monthly basis, is easy to get lost in the middle of all the other books that are being published. 

So from the beginning, I had intended to try expanding and diversifying ASP’s line-up, to help maintain a consistent and regular company presence in retailer’s minds and to cross-promote and support other titles – kind of a ‘safety in numbers’ concept.  From several years on the convention circuit seeing other artist’s unpublished works, I knew there would be good books and ideas that hadn’t found publishers, were between publishers, or were being self-published like my own title, so at some point I knew I’d find books that I thought were the right ones to begin adding to the company’s line-up.

BF: Can you tell us a bit more about how each of the three aforementioned creators became involved with ASP?

MS: Alex was a cold submission, he sent in a copy of his Robotika book to us, initially proposing it as a single one-shot 48-page graphic novel.  My business partner, Aki Liao, and I asked if he had more material and storylines in mind and when it turned out he did, we convinced him that we thought a mini-series would be more appropriate than a short graphic novella. 

Dave Lewis and I had known each other for a while – oddly enough, thanks to Broken Frontier, because we were both selected for Paper Screen Gem Awards back when Mike Bullock was a columnist at the site (thanks Mike!) – and he showed me The Lone and Level Sands at a convention.  I thought it was a great read, but also thought Marv Mann’s art suffered a bit from the black and white presentation in the Caption Box edition.  Dave had already been talking to a colorist named Jennifer Rodgers about possibly doing a color edition, and I thought her style matched the book really well, so that’s when we came onboard. 

Click to enlargeAnd David Petersen was sort of in between a cold submission and a previous contact; I had given him a portfolio review a long time ago at Wizard Chicago, and David was at San Diego last year hoping to show his black and white Mouse Guard around when a mutual friend told him ASP was looking for new books.  I think I pretty much offered to publish it on the spot.  We also wanted to look at doing Mouse Guard in color, and David basically said “let me send you a few sample pages” and once we saw what David could do, there was no turning back.

BF: Does Archaia have a certain profile in mind when it comes to bringing in new creators? One could say that arguably all of ASP’s projects is aimed at a more mature, I dare say, intellectual, audience…

MS: Why thank you!  I think.  Mouse Guard is pretty much an all-ages book, but is equally suited for adult audiences who I think will appreciate David’s illustration style a great deal.  It is a bit odd to put Mouse Guard right next to Artesia (considering my own book’s fairly graphic sexual content) but I think they’re very similar books in that they’re both “labors of love.”  Most of our current and upcoming titles are in the fantasy and science fiction genres, but they’re also all idiosyncratic works, with very personal art and stories that are the product of very focused creators.  Books that seem too formulaic, or that have more commonplace looks and themes, will be less interesting to us than works that take risks and chances with storyline, art, even presentation (such as David Petersen’s square format for Mouse Guard).

BF: All in all, it must be a joy to see that each of these titles has garnered a lot of critical acclaim, and in relatively short time span to boot.

Click to enlargeMS: We’ve been pretty happy that so far the critical reaction to the books has been fairly good, though we got some complaints about the vertical font used in Alex’s Robotika.  But that’s the kind of design choice and risk taking that we’re looking for in our titles, even if it means that some people will grumble about it.  Alex was able to present an interesting argument about the reasons for using the vertical font, and I appreciated the thinking behind it, and I think most readers have been able to see past the font, as it were, to Alex’s extraordinary and dynamic art style. 

Mouse Guard looks like an unqualified success, with very strong responses from retailers and readers; we were actually getting calls from retailers a day after it hit stores who were making sure we were going to keep it in print.

BF: Lone & Level Sands has even been nominated for no less than three awards, and the nomination befalling the RPG book Artesia: Adventures in the Known World,  makes it three years in a row that an Artesia project is nominated for (or granted) an award. That must make what you’re doing all the more exciting, doesn’t it?

MS: Definitely, though I think someone once said “you can’t eat an award.” [Laughs] The nominations for The Lone and Level Sands have been highly appreciated, as I really think that Dave, Marv, and Jennifer put some fantastic work into the book and it’s nice to see that validated from some quarters.  It’s a fairly difficult, perhaps even audacious, project – retelling the Book of Exodus from the Pharaoh’s point of view – and I think they can be proud of the end result.  I’m crossing my fingers that at least one of the nominations translates into a win; that would be great news for a terrific creative team.

(Mark crossed his fingers all right, as it was announced that Lone & Level Sands has just won the Howard E. Day Memorial Prize for best small press and alternative comic.)

BF: To what do you attribute the success of Artesia? I mean, yes, fantasy has been a popular genre for some time now, but it’s not like the overarching story can truly be compared to Lord of the Rings or anything…

MS: Actually, I’m surprised at how often Artesia is compared to Lord of the Rings, either positively (which is always quite flattering whenever I’m lucky enough for that to happen) or negatively; while I’ll cite Tolkien’s work as an inspiration, I tend to think the world and narrative is far more like that of, say, Howard’s Conan, Robert Adam’s Horseclans novels, or the worlds of Mary Gentle or George R.R. Martin (or for gamers, Greg Stafford’s Glorantha). 

I’ll often get readers that pick up on those inspirations, but I also suspect that Tolkien is such an iconic figure for fantasy that almost by default his work is the first work any fantasy title is compared to.  When I started writing and drawing Artesia, there were only a handful of serious fantasy titles in the comics market, and somewhat surprisingly that’s still just as true today, I think, as it was back in the late 90s. [Laughing] So I suppose if Artesia has had success it’s because fantasy fans don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to comics…

BF: Over the past two years, you devoted a lot of time and energy to Adventures in the Known World, an RPG based on your fantasy heroine. How come you preferred tackling this project over a new mini series?

MS: A few roleplaying concepts and ideas had been percolating in my head while I worked on the first three Artesia series, and I think it was just a matter of having something in my system that I needed to get out before starting on the fourth series. 

For better or for worse, it wound up taking a lot longer than I thought it would; it was originally slated for December 2004, and didn’t actually come out until December 2005.  So a full extra year of work went into it that I hadn’t originally expected.  I kept asking myself, “Hey, who knew writing a roleplaying game would take so long?”  And that was even using a licensed system, the Fuzion™ system from R. Talsorian Games, as the basis for the rules; but adapting the rules for the world and adding all the bells and whistles I wanted it to have took a lot longer than I anticipated.  The Origins nomination has been a nice cap to the experience, though given the competition (the game is up against books like the World of Warcraft, Serenity, and Army of Darkness RPGs), I suspect that’s about all I can hope for (yeah, okay, cue violins…).

BF: Did working on the RPG book and chronicling every corner in the Known World spur some new ideas for upcoming Artesia stories?

MS: Yes and no.  The next series, Artesia Besieged (coming out beginning in June), was already planned out; indeed, I already know the shape and themes of most of the future Artesia series.  But as work on the RPG progressed I was able to add some details and background characters that I hadn’t planned on, and so yeah, some of the particulars of the series and the characters showing up in it are as a direct result of the work on the RPG.  As much detail as is already in the RPG rule book, most of the major detailed exploration of the Known World will actually be in a follow-up book, the Middle Kingdoms Sourcebook, which will have maps and descriptions of many locations in the central part of the world where the series takes place.  The Sourcebook probably won’t see print until next year; it’s the second follow-up book I’m working on, the first being a complete guide to the cults and religions of the world, expanding on the material in the rule book.

BF: How does Artesia: Besieged relate to the previous three mini series? Where will it pick up?

MS: Artesia Besieged picks up a few months after the events of Artesia Afire, the last series.  Artesia and her Highland army have been stuck in one place, at the city of Abenton, which the Sultan declared a free city at the end of Afire.  They’re raiding out of the safe zone, but the Empire controls most of the surrounding land is pressing on with its campaign against other Middle Kingdoms cities, including the capital.  Despite the Sultan’s promise that the city won’t be attacked, Artesia and her captains and the princes of the city are all expecting that something is going to happen, and sure enough at the end of the first issue an army arrives to besiege the city.  But it’s not who they’re expecting.

BF: You mentioned that you've got several upcoming Artesia chapters mapped out in your head. Do you have a clear end in mind for the saga, or will you keep telling stories as long as there's interest from readers?

MS: Well, I have a really long storyline mapped out that I’d like to finish, but at the same time realistically speaking getting to finish it is to a large extent dependent on whether readers continue to like the series.  If I can last long enough, the whole story should be 22 volumes long (22 mini-series, in effect).  Each series corresponds to one of the images of the Book of Dooms, which is the Known World’s version of the Tarot.  I want to get the first seven volumes done, at least.  It’s a pretty crazy idea, I’ll admit, trying to do that many volumes.

BF: The Artesia film rights were sold to Celophaine Inc. about a year ago. What is the status on the project?

MS: It’s still in development – and that’s a word to send a shiver down your spine, when it comes to Hollywood – but we have a completed script for an Artesia “Prequel” and some producers are on board with Hidetoshi Oneda, the director whose company optioned the rights, to try and find more financing for it.  The Prequel is written and designed for a much lower budget than an actual adaptation of the Artesia series itself, which is, after all, essentially epic military fantasy that will require either a lot of extras in costumes or a lot of CGI work.  So the Prequel is more of a tight fantasy-horror story centered on Artesia’s brother, Stjepan, and his search for the tomb of a Worm King, a kind of undead creature from the Known World’s legendary past.  I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that it makes it out of development sometime soon. Or ever…

BF: At the beginning of our conversation, you referred to upcoming ASP projects—which ones do you have in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

MS: One of the books we have in development is the return of Christopher Moeller’s Iron Empires series.  Chris did two series set in his science-fiction universe previously published by DC/Helix and Dark Horse, and he’s writing a new series for us that will be illustrated by Peter Bergting (a talented illustrator who is currently putting out The Portent through Image).  We’ve also got a couple more sf and fantasy books in the pipeline, and some translations of European titles that we’ll be announcing soon.

BF: With the 2006 convention season close to gearing up, where can people meet you and the rest of the ASP folk this summer?

MS: Our major comic conventions this summer will be Wizard Philadelphia, San Diego Comic-Con, and Wizard Chicago.  Dave Lewis, David Petersen, Jennifer Rodgers, and I will be at Wizard Philly, then Alex Sheikman, Dave Lewis, Marv Mann, David Petersen, and I will all be at San Diego Comic-Con.  Wizard Chicago should have David Petersen and myself, at a minimum.  We’ll also be setting up at Origins and GenCon Indy to promote the RPG, and possibly some smaller regional gaming shows, and then later in the year we’ll probably be back at Baltimore Comic-Con as well.  Then New York Comic-Con will kick off our 2007 convention schedule.  I hope people get a chance to stop by and check out our titles!

For more on Archaia Studios Press, visit the company website at www.aspcomics.com.

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