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DF Interview: Superheroes go all medieval in Ted Naifeh’s Night’s Dominion
By Byron Brewer
Umber: an ancient, sprawling city where the rich live like kings and the poor are lucky to get their scraps. At its center, the tower of Uhlume rises, guarding untold riches. Though heavily guarded, with the right plan ... the right people... the treasure is free for the taking. Enter our five players: the Bard, the Acolyte, the Asp, the Magus, and ... a barmaid?
From the fertile mind of Ted Naifeh (Courtney Crumrin, Batman 66) comes a new dark fantasy epic, Night’s Dominion.
To get the rest of the 411, DF sat down with the entire creative crew of the new series: Ted Naifeh!
Dynamic Forces: Ted, this new series from Oni Press, from its solicit, reminds me a lot of my buddy Jim Zub’s Skullkickers. Tell us a little about Night’s Dominion.
Ted Naifeh: Night’s Dominion is kind of a genre mash-up. On the surface, it's a fantasy adventure, but with a dark, urban flavor. I wanted it to feel almost like a fantasy noir, its heroes mostly criminals and ne'er-do-wells. I got to thinking about Dungeons & Dragons, where the adventure typically begins with a group of adventurers meeting in a tavern, and go on a campaign to steal treasure. It occurred to me that technically, in a modern world with proper law and order, these adventures would be criminal enterprises.
Then I got to thinking what extraordinary people these D&D adventurers must be. To a typical peasant, these paladins and arch-mages and master thieves must be like superheroes with extraordinary powers. So I realized that a D&D campaign is a superhero adventure in a fantasy universe. Once I got there, I was off and running.
So Night’s Dominion is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that becomes a superhero adventure, in which Ocean's Eleven become The Avengers in a Game of Thrones-style dark fantasy world. It's part crime caper, part superhero origin story, and part epic fantasy battle. That's all in the first six issues, mind you.
DF: You’ve worked as a writer and illustrator, but you’re towing both lines on this book. Is that your favorite way of working, being a one-man band, in control?
Ted Naifeh: There's a lot to be said for collaboration, and I expect to collaborate again in the future. But for now, I'm really delighted to just pour my unfiltered personal vision straight out of my brain and onto the page. I may not be the best at every part, but when it all comes together, the unity of intent has, I think, a distinctive result. Sometimes, collaboration, and even conflict within collaboration, can have an unintended grace. The Beatles were less a band than an argument. Yet the results spoke for themselves. But I also think a unified voice has a unique tenor. The writing, the drawing, even the color, are all on the same page, as it were. I started as an artist, but I think every comic artist is a storyteller first. That's what attracts us to the medium. Otherwise, we'd just go into much more lucrative careers doing illustration, book covers, concept design for movies and videogames. I don't identify as an artist who writes stories I want to draw, or a writer who likes to illustrate my own stories. I'm a storyteller that uses both words and pictures. When I write a script, the panel description is essentially the first draft of the panel. Typing "Close-up on Courtney" is just the preliminary sketch of the preliminary sketch. And it's easier to erase and rewrite words than sketches. But it's all just different means to the same end, which is to use both words and images to tell a story.
DF: For me as a writer, atmosphere is always important to dark fantasy epics like this. It almost becomes its own character. Tell us about the atmosphere of Night’s Dominion, tell us about the city of Umber.
Ted Naifeh: I think we all fall in love with fictional places just as deeply as fictional characters. Who doesn't wish they could take a tour of Hogwarts? Or ride a motorcycle through Neo-Tokyo? Do a lap inside the Discovery One? Stand at the tip of the Minas Tirith's castle grounds and look down across the plains toward Mordor? Some settings can be as rich and nuanced as any character.
To me, there's just something about a fictional city. I consider Gotham one of the greatest fictional cities ever imagined, distilled over decades by hundreds of stories into an embodiment of American civilization's shadow. The same can be said of Terry Pratchett's Anhk-Morpork. Strangely named but beautifully realized over many books, it took on a life of its own, filled with nuanced history, pregnant with all manner of potential. It's as interesting a character as any Pratchett has ever created, and he's created many.
With Umber, I wanted Gotham in an ancient setting, Ankh-Morpork with superheroes. Umber is a jumble of time periods, cultures, and political environments. It could be historical or mythical. But it has a distinctive flavor. I dispensed with much of the typical medieval architecture and dug up images of middle-eastern and African cities, places that built skyscrapers a thousand years ago. And I draped it in shadows.
Mostly though, I wanted to depict a place that doesn't think of itself as "long ago." It's not set in a romantic past when people believed in gods and heroes, when civilization was fresh and growing rather than decaying from the inside. That's how all cities see their past, whatever their era. Umber is just as jaded and pragmatic as any modern city. It's all petty cruelty and heartless rule by day, lurking shadows and sudden danger by night. But somewhere beneath it all, hope and humanity still bloom like little flowers between the cobblestones. Kinda like the real world.
DF: Can you introduce your chief protagonists to us?
Ted Naifeh: As I mentioned, the story opens like a D&D campaign crossed with a crime caper. I started with five basic character classes: a thief, an assassin, a mage, a cleric, and a bard, and slotted them into the typical roles in a heist story. There's the jaded master, the arrogant faker, the kid in over his head, the slumming pro, and of course, the mastermind. I also established a crime-fighter to dog their heels every step of the way. And as usually happens with the right mixture of characters, they came alive and started bantering almost by themselves. That's always a delight, when your characters start cracking you up.
But combining the ancient fantasy setting with crime and superhero tropes really gave the tropes an almost archetypal feel. The thief isn't merely a thief, but a fundamental anti-hero, whose very existence is a rebellion against an unjust society. The bard is a textbook trickster figure, almost supernatural in his masterful machinations and his amorality. Searching for analogs between modern and ancient characters led me to find the universal in both. That, I did not expect.
DF: Then there is a barmaid. She really intrigues me. What can you tell us about her, or her need for a lot of fast money? (Non-spoilery, of course.)
Ted Naifeh: Emerane, my protagonist, yes. Basically, the whole story pivots on her, the master thief known as "the Night." Truth to tell, before I came up with the D&D heist idea, before I even thought of setting a superhero story in a fantasy world, I started with the idea of a superhero team with one woman, but from that one woman's point of view. We see the imbalanced line-up often, in Justice League, The Avengers, Suicide Squad, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Mystery Men. There's one woman in all these teams of men, the odd woman out as it were. She's usually the most intriguing and enigmatic character, often very ambivalent about society as it is, and justice as society sees it. But rarely is she explored deeply. I was always stuck by the idea that this woman must have a very different view of events than the men. So I wanted to really dig into that kind of character, and explore what a "save the world" scenario looks like through her eyes. What does she care for the world as it is? And what kind of victory does she enjoy if she succeeds?
Besides being a poor peasant girl, Emerane bears a huge burden, heaped on her by the city she lives in. I don't want to spoil the details, suffice it to say it's an unjust burden she was essentially born into. The rest of the characters want merely to save the city, and get back to their status quo. But Emerane might be just as happy watching the city burn to the ground. She's not selfish or heartless, quite the opposite. She's just wondering what the city ever did for her, that she should risk her life to save it. And she may not be wrong.
DF: Are there any other ancillary characters we should be on the lookout for in #1?
Ted Naifeh: Of course there's the Furie, my crime-fighter who dogs the heels of the protagonists. Before superheroes, there were detectives, restoring law and order to the savage chaos of the universe, one mystery at a time. Before them, knights in shining armor traveled the countryside defending the innocent, flying in the face of nature's cruel indifference. And on into the past, heroes tried to forge a nobler world than the one ruled by the savage principle of "might makes right." With the Furie, I'm drawing the circle back around, linking the most modern with the most old-fashioned of these types of characters. That's more or less what the book is about in a nutshell.
The Furie is easily the most recognizable analog of existing superheroes. I had to have at least one character who winks at the audience, letting them know that I know what I'm up to. The idea is fantasy superheroes. Without one character who's clearly a modern superhero in an ancient setting, the idea would be too vague. But if they were all like that, it'd be too derivative. That's also why he doesn't get center stage. He's a supporting character, neither a protagonist nor the main antagonist. And that also gives me a chance to examine a character trope we think of as typically heroic in a much more ambivalent light. If the crime-fighter gets his way, the master thief must do peasant work, and probably starve. So how heroic is he really?
DF: Ted, why should readers pick up Night’s Dominion when it hits stores this fall?
Ted Naifeh: Well, I think that although Night’s Dominion is everything readers love about comics, it's also unlike anything else happening right now. It's a mash-up of the most popular flavors, but it comes together to create something unexpected. No one else is doing a book like this, and certainly not in the way I'm doing it. I think it's safe to say that this book is quite unique.
DF: What other projects, current or near-future, might you want to mention?
Ted Naifeh: I'm pretty dedicated to Night’s Dominion at the moment. I'm almost done drawing the first story-arc, but I have plenty more stories lined up afterward, sequels and prequels. That's the nature of superhero stories, as well as fantasy worlds. They want to expand.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Ted Naifeh for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Night’s Dominion #1 from Oni Press hits stores Sept. 7th!
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