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Ron Marz: The Eastern Trilogy - Part I

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Ron Marz sure is a busy writer these days, penning Witchblade at Top Cow, Blade of Kumori for Devil's Due and two mini-series at Dark Horse with Samurai: Heaven & Earth and The Dragon Prince.
In "Ron Marz: The Eastern Trilogy", Broken Frontier takes a better look at three of Marz' projects that have one thing in common: they're all dealing with orient-inspired material. First up is Blade of Kumori, part of Devil's Due's new Aftermath line. To spice things up a bit, we've included some sneak preview art to issue #2, out this month.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Can you quickly sketch the basic concept of Blade of Kumori for people who are not yet familiar with the book?

RON MARZ: The high-concept line we've been using is a modern-day samurai story, which I guess is kind of an oxymoron. It's something like the TV show "Alias," in that our protagonist is a young woman who is involved in various espionage missions or adventures. The difference is our "star," the titular Kumori herself, is part of a samurai clan that has survived in secret since the samurai were purged in the 19th century. So Kumori might be involved in, say, industrial espionage or even assassination, but she's carrying a samurai sword as part of her gear. We're also hinting that Kumori might well be something special, something more than human.

BF: Since you’ve also written The Path for CrossGen, it is clear that you love the samurai concept. What is it that fascinates you about this Japanese tradition?

RM: I don’t know that it's any one thing. I'm very much enamored of what, to Western sensibilities, is a very exotic culture. It is foreign in every sense of the word. Visually, it's beautifully different. The concepts of honor and duty are attractive to me. The culture really lends itself as a background for telling great stories of all kinds - mysteries, romances, thrillers or even just flat-out adventure. The comparison of samurai stories to American Westerns has been made before, and I think it holds up.

BF: Is the love for everything samurai something that has developed over the past couple of years or were you already immersed in it as a kid?

RM: I was always intrigued by this stuff - what boy doesn't like stories of sword-wielding warriors? But the real interest started in college, when I took some Asian history classes and was exposed to Kurosawa films in a serious way for the first time.

BF: Blade of Kumori launched recently, on November 10 to be exact. Are you pleased with the way the book has been received by fans?

RM: It's always hard to gauge fan reaction. You really end up getting one person's opinion at a time, whether it's at message boards or in person at a convention or a signing. You know what the sales figures are, but even that's initially misleading because those are the numbers the retailers ordered. You have no way of knowing how many copies are actually walking out the door, at least until later when the sales start to find their proper level. I was in a store the other day, and saw a fair number of DC and Marvel mini-series - I'm talking about books that are just a month or two old - in the 50-cent bins already. They just weren't selling at all.

So far, Blade of Kumori seems to be getting a pretty good reaction, but it's always an uphill struggle when you're doing something that's not a mainline Marvel or DC superhero. It's not impossible, but I think retailers and readers are more likely to buy a lousy Spider-Man or Batman book than try something new or different. Hopefully, we can build a little bit each month. Word of mouth, in stores and on the internet, is a big factor in building a book. 

BF: When I glanced at the cover of the first issue, it kind of reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Are you a fan of that kind of his movies?

RM: I actually thought Kill Bill was a pretty self-indulgent sprawl. Tarantino can make terrific moves, but Kill Bill was farcical enough that I didn't care about any of the characters. It's funny you mention Tarantino, because I think a fair portion of what's happening in comics right now can be traced to movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, with a great deal of hip, self-reflexive dialogue rife with pop culture. More talking than doing, which is what you see in too many comics these days. Comics are such a visual medium, it seems like a waste to have page after page of talking heads.

BF: Will we see any over-the-top action like Uma Thurman chopping everybody’s head off with a samurai sword in Kumori?

RM: Over-the-top action, yes. Uma-style beheadings ... wait until issue #3.

BF: Do you think it’s a plus that the book is part of Devil’s Due’s new Aftermath line? The line has been dubbed as a new superhero universe, yet, none of the four books that comprise Aftermath can be called traditional superhero stories.

RM: They're not traditional superhero stories if you look at DC and Marvel as the model. Those universes and many of those characters were created 40 to 60 years ago. A lot of the concepts are evergreen and can always be updated, but I think they will always reflect, to a certain extent, the period of their conception. The Aftermath line reflects the here and now, a little more familiar or realistic take on the world. We're just building up from the foundation now, constructing the first floor. The possibilities are limitless, because everything's in front of us. We don't have decades of continuity to deal with. It's very freeing to be part of something new. Creatively, your hands aren't tied.

BF: You’ve been at the birth of two universes now, CrossGen’s and now Aftermath. What do you think will prevent the latter from going down the drain like CG did?

RM: At the risk of sounding catty, I think Josh Blaylock, the head honcho of Devil's Due, has a far better understanding of the business than did the people running CrossGen. Josh isn't going to spend the company into oblivion because he's desperate to compete with Marvel and DC. He has a workable business model. That doesn't guarantee success, but at least it's a plan. I wouldn't have signed on to Kumori if I didn't think there was a chance of the line succeeding. I told Josh if there was one thing I could pass along from my CrossGen experience, it would be to avoid the pitfall of "too big, too fast." I think we did some pretty good books at CrossGen, but the output far exceeded the market's ability to buy it. We cannibalized our own audience, and in the end, everybody wound up with nothing.

BF: Does writing Blade of Kumori feel like you’re making up for the gap in your creative repertoire left by The Path’s premature cancellation?

RM: Good question, but the answer is really no. The concept of a secret clan of martial artists was in place when I took on Kumori, it was part of the initial concept Josh came up with. I pushed the concept more toward samurai than ninja, because that felt more natural to me. The book I'm doing for Dark Horse, Samurai: Heaven and Earth, is really more like The Path in that it's a traditional, historical samurai drama. Samurai actually grew out my desire to do a straight samurai story, rather than the more fantasy-oriented take of The Path.

BF: Mark Powers, former X-editor over at Marvel, is serving as the line’s editor. Given his experience in the field of comics, has working with him helped you in any way to flesh out the series?

RM: The hiring of Mark definitely was a factor in me agreeing to take on the job. It doesn't matter what the book is or what company you're working for, if you don't have a good working relationship with the editor, things can get frustrating pretty quickly. So having an experienced hand in that chair was absolutely a plus. I knew Mark from his Marvel days, but we'd never actually worked together. He's been great to work with on Kumori. He's been at this long enough that he knows when to be involved and when to just leave the creative team alone and let them do their jobs. That's not as common a skill as you'd think in this business, but it's definitely appreciated. Mark really acts as the watchdog, to make sure we're not going to far afield, because after all, this thing belongs to Devil's Due. But the amount of freedom and trust that's been given to me and the art team is pretty unprecedented.

BF: Being from across the pond myself, I’ve clearly noticed the European art-style Dub brings to the book. There’s nothing cartoony in his pencils and they’re very clean and refined, which sets the book apart from anything the Big Two put on the stands these days.

RM: The book certainly has a European feel to it. Dub and our colorist, Pierre-Andre Dery, are just doing amazing work on the book. Seeing samples of previous projects they'd done was the final factor in me taking on the book. To me, it doesn’t matter what book or character you're working on - if you don't feel like the art is an attraction, it's not worth writing the thing. I absolutely love what they're doing here. There's a richness you hardly ever see in monthly comics, and I think a good deal of that comes from Dub and Pierre-Andre being at Grafiksismik studio, which is based in Quebec. It’s a much more European-style city than most places in North America, so the European flavor in the work comes very naturally. Kumori doesn't look like any other book out there, which as far as I'm concerned is a huge plus.

BF: Since you are known to be someone who does not like to “write for the trades”, I assume Kumori is not mapped out as long story-arcs endlessly following one another that we so often find today?

RM: I'm approaching it, as much as possible, so that each issue tells its own story, with ongoing plot threads that tie the issues together. I want each issue to be satisfying by itself, so that the readers feel like they got their money's worth. Comics are too expensive to not have some sort of climax or resolution in each issue. The irony is that when comics were cheaper, it felt like you got more story in each one. Now, when the vast majority of books are at least $3, it feels like there's less story than ever in each issue.

BF: Rounding out the first part of our Ron Marz: The Eastern Trilogy series of interviews, what can readers expect in upcoming issues of Blade of Kumori?

RM: Issue #2, which is out in December, is something entirely different than issue #1. The second issue introduces Cameron White, who is kind of a self-styled hero, trying to fight the good fight in New York City. He's not a super-hero, per se, because he has no powers. He's modeled more on a pulp-type hero like Doc Savage. Kumori's mission is to assassinate White. The issue is more told from White's point of view, with Kumori coming in as an outside force. It's a bit of a left turn from the first issue, but in the end, the issue is really about Kumori.

Issue #3 takes place in Istanbul, with Kumori on another mission, this time accompanied by her brother, Shigeru, and her boyfriend within the clan, Hiro. And again, the issue is about Kumori, establishing more of who she is. Issue #4 is fairly character-driven, rather than action-driven. Then issues #5 and #6 bring together some of the threads from previous issues, including White and the mysterious woman Kumori battled in issue #1. The status quo in the book is going to be malleable. Characters will die, things will change. That's the beauty of working on something brand new. You can still surprise the reader.

- Frederik Hautain

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