Perhaps best known for his work on Gloomcookie or the Eisner Award-nominated series Courtney Crumrin, Ted Naifeh is making his return to Oni Press this September with Night’s Dominion, a brand new creator-owned fantasy tale.
Oni Press have been cranking out the hits so far in 2016, with books like Another Castle, The Mighty Zodiac and Jeff Steinberg: Champion of Earth delighting fans and critics alike, so naturally we found ourselves wanting to know more about this fascinating sounding series.
Thankfully, Ted was able to take some time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with us about what we should expect from Night’s Dominion.
BIG COMIC PAGE: For our readers who might not be aware, could you give us a quick breakdown of the story behind Night’s Dominion?
TED NAIFEH: Basically, Night’s Dominion is a dark fantasy series in an urban setting, somewhere between Thieves’ World and Discworld. A bunch of desperate characters are lured into a crime caper by a mysterious mastermind, only find themselves the city’s first line of defense against an unspeakable enemy. But the book’s open secret is that it’s actually a superhero story in a fantasy setting. Oni has a policy never to publish superhero comics, but I snuck one in, by gum! If only they knew, they’d be so mad!
BCP: The first issue features the recruitment of a fairly motley crew of diverse characters. Who can readers expect to see on the team “roster”, and do you have a personal favourite?
TN: I have an interesting collection. There’s a professional assassin known as the Asp, a Magus, who’s basically a con man with alchemy skills, a young acolyte of a dying faith who owes money to a crime family, but who may have the favor of the gods, and a master thief, who’s a barmaid by day. And of course the mysterious bard who organizes the caper, and may have an ulterior motive.
My favourite character is without a doubt the book’s protagonist, Emerane the barmaid, who’s secretly the city’s most notorious thief, known as the Night. She’s a pretty compelling character, a thoroughly modern anti-heroine in a fantasy setting. I’m quite pleased with her.
BCP: Tonally, Night’s Dominion is a lot more ‘grown up’ than the majority of your previous work. What prompted the change of style for this project?
TN: I wanted to shift gears and tell a story that wasn’t about growing up. I love coming of age stories, and have an infinite supply of in my head, but that’s not the only subject worth exploring. I also love superheroes, and I’ve lately been considering what kinds of superhero stories I wanted to tell. When the idea of setting one in a dark fantasy world came up, it immediately cracked open all kinds of themes about civilization, what it’s for, and how we as individuals create and maintain it, or break it down. All superheroes explore that to a greater or lesser extent. But with NIGHT’S DOMINION, I put them in a setting that’s more precarious than our modern world. We never really believe that modern civilization could be destroyed, no matter how many monsters and maniacs threaten it. But a world struggling to escape feudalism could easily collapse into barbarism like Rome or Alexandria, or fascism like Sparta. Once, what we deem apocalypse doesn’t seem all that far fetched. And that’s a world that needs champions. So who better than ordinary people, standing at the edge of chaos and realizing that, no matter how bad or corrupt civilization may be, it’s better than the alternative.
BCP: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were putting this series together?
TN: I don’t tend to worry about that. I always write for myself anyway. But I try to be inclusive, not to stray too far into ugly or inappropriate territory just for the sake of being transgressive or controversial. Yet It’s also important to me not to underestimate younger readers. It’s all too easy to assume kids want to read about kids, teenagers about teenagers, which may be true. But it doesn’t explain the wide-ranging popularity of Batman and other adult superheroes. We underestimate teenage readers to our own detriment. When we think we’re following some formula to increase a demographic, nine times out of ten we’re actually just limiting our audience. So I’d just assume not concern myself too much, and trust the readers to self-select. When I was 13, my favorite books were Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Mage, Swamp Thing, Camelot 3000, books that were a bit sophisticated for teenagers. That’s my intent with NIGHT’S DOMINION. For a swords, sorcery and superheroes book, it’s quite mature and sophisticated. But it’s not pornographically violent or inappropriately ugly, nor is it overly subtle. It’s just the kind of book I loved as a teen reader, and still love, a mature take on fun genre stuff.
BCP: It might just be me, but I’m getting a distinctive “Dungeons and Dragons” vibe from the way the team is constructed with their different roles, etc. Are you a player yourself, and if not, have you ever been tempted?
TN: A thief, an assassin, a mage and a cleric walk into a tavern to meet a mysterious bard who has a plan to break into a dungeon and steal a treasure. That sounds to me like the beginning of what could be the greatest story ever told. Most D&D campaigns begin roughly like that, and players never get tired of it. I feel like it’s an iconic opening scene, because anything could happen next. Yet, I rarely see it in stories.
Truth to tell, I don’t play a lot of RPGs because I’m much more of a story guy than a dice-throwing guy. I like the drama of narrative, the emotional truth that great stories can uncover. Amassing treasure and experience points is fun, but I never got what I wanted out of D&D. I wanted to walk in the heart of a character, feel their emotions, transform with them, as one does in stories. Perhaps I never had a truly great dungeon master as a kid. Eventually, me and my best friends gave up the dice, the modules, the character sheets, and just created interactive stories together, inhabited characters who were more than just fighters or magic users. They could be anything we dreamed up, and could change on a whim. That’s really how I started becoming a story-teller. I’ll never forget the romance of that first moment when you think up your characters, and they come alive, meeting one another in some imaginary tavern in an imaginary world.
BCP: D&D aside, were there any other influences you were aware of drawing on when you were creating the story and characters for this one?
TN: Well, obviously, there are overtones of some very recognizable superheroes in this. Some commenters have said you can almost see the serial numbers I’ve filed off. I’m not ashamed to say that my most beloved heroes have provided a firm jumping-off point for the characters of NIGHT’S DOMINION.
Yet I’m not the least bit interested in telling stories others have already told better. In all my work, my goal has always been to explore new points of view, to tread new ground. With superheroes, that’s all too easy, because the best known heroes belong to major corporations, and anything new runs the risk of alienating readers, and affecting the bottom line. There’s a subtle, possibly unconscious but nonetheless omnipresent atmosphere of safety in most superhero fair, which I find a tad stifling. So when they take even small risks, it feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s a shame, because it’s the stories that boldly strike out into uncharted territory that become classics. Everyone remembers Watchmen. But its imitators quickly fade.
I find there is plenty of territory left unexplored. I want to take the superhero concept places it’s never been before. Delving into ancient faux-history feels like a good start. Perhaps I can find some new things to say with it there. That’s the great thing about independent comics. I don’t have to talk unimaginative dullards into seeing my idea will make a profit, nor do I have to compromise my creativity to accommodate the half-baked ideas and opinions of a coked-up movie exec. I can just think up an idea and do it. If it sucks, it sucks honestly, not because it’s been watered down. But I like to believe my books don’t suck.
[Promo Artwork for some of the characters – CLICK TO ENLARGE]
BCP: You’re adopting the full ‘one man band’ approach with Night’s Dominion, handling the writing, artwork and colouring. Was it important for you to have that complete level of control for this project?
TN: I wanted to be the sole voice, like I was for the early Courtney Crumrin and Polly and the Pirates books. Working with the fantastic colorist Warren Wucinich on later issues of Courtney and then Princess Ugg, I realized just how much color actually tells story. And I wanted to harness it to further express my little vision. I’ve been asked what I like to do better, writing or drawing. But I don’t really see them as separate functions. If I preferred the writing, I’d become a novelist. In comics, story happens through the unified interplay of word and images. They both serve the same purpose. So with NIGHT’S DOMINION, which has grabbed hold of my soul, I wanted to be the lone creative voice, so every aspect comes from the same intention. Just to see what happens.
But I eventually yielded the lettering chores to professional letterer Aditya Bidikar, mostly because I’m just not up on Adobe Illustrator anymore, and I didn’t want to spend the time relearning it. Of course, once I saw my own lettering next to that of a seasoned pro, I realized how important good lettering is, and how far from it my own work was. The thing about lettering is that, like all design, it’s meant to be invisible, seen but not noticed. Art I can do, but design is a different beast entirely. I’ll leave that to experts.
BCP: There’s a really unique aesthetic to the first issue that I can’t quite put my finger on. From a visual point of view, how did you go about creating a world that stands out from the other fantasy titles on the shelves today?
TN: First of all, I didn’t want it to feel like Middle-Earth. Not offense meant to Tolkien or the brilliant folks at Weta, but I think we’ve had enough waistcoats and bodices in our fantasy for a while. I wanted a world that feels truly ancient. Not medieval, but more like ancient Greece or Sumeria. Yet I wanted my setting, the city of Umber, to feel like a bustling metropolis with a long history, a promiscuous mixture of races and cultures. I’m piecing together different eras and regions to suggest a place that’s as much mythical as geographical. I want Umber to feel like a place where myths are born. But I don’t want to lose the sense that this is a place full of ordinary people. My heroes aren’t gods and kings. There are no elves, no magic swords, no lizard men. The fantasy genre is one of my favorite flavors, but if you smother your story with it, it all tastes the same. I like a light sprinkling of magic, monsters, swords and sorcery. The meat of the story is just regular folk who find themselves in the midst of an adventure that decides the fate of the city, and perhaps the world. The sauce is delicious, but if your meal is all sauce, you feel cheated.
[Promo Artwork for some of the characters – CLICK TO ENLARGE]
BCP: What can readers expect to see from the series as it progresses? Is there going to be a slow-build to the quest itself, or are we going to be dealing primarily with the fallout of whatever happens?
TN: Issue one gathers the players, and issue two tells the tale of their caper. But it doesn’t end how they expect, and the story widens following the consequences of the heist. It’s really about how the heroes confront the black, broken heart of this city to which they belong, and how it changes them. All superhero stories, even the most banal, put their hero face to face not simply with a villain, but with dark side of civilization itself. I’m going for a deeply archetypal version of that confrontation. The enemy here is despair itself, manifested as a cult that worships the god of the afterworld, and sees life and all its joy and sorrow as burdensome illusions, to be shrugged off in death. To them, indulging in that illusion is the ultimate folly, the worst sin. Death is life’s only redemption. Their rule would be the ultimate enforced austerity. And they intend to rule.
I want my heroes, who are really a bunch of criminals that feel betrayed and let down by the city, to really ask themselves if there’s any value in civilization, any point to their suffering, any meaning in their hopes, their choices, their sorrows. In the end, isn’t that what all superheroes ask? Who can beat whom is a question for children and professional wrestlers. Heroes ask, “What do I fight for?”
BCP: And finally, if you could say one thing to someone who was on the fence about picking this one up to help convince them, what would it be?
TN: For anyone who likes to think of superheroes as modern myths, this book really digs into that. I want to take the modern out and present superheroes as ordinary people who become mythic heroes, destined to live forever in story and song. I like to think my own favorite superheroes, though less than a century old, will live on, changing with the times, but maintaining their meaning and relevance for centuries to come. NIGHT’S DOMINION celebrates that idea.
BCP: Thanks again for your time, Ted.
The Retail FOC for Night’s Dominion #1 is Monday the 15th of August, and you can order the first issue from your local comic shop using Diamond Code JUL161777 for Cover A or Diamond Code JUL161778 for Cover B.
The first issue will go on sale in comic shops on the 7th of September.