Last year Valiant Comics published a new series for their robot ronin Rai which we called "a dark horse for best new series of 2019" in our review of the second issue. Sci-fi storyteller Dan Abnett reinvented the character with a slate-cleaning revival that mixed equal parts Terminator, Lone Wolf and Cub, Astro-Boy, and Mad Max. In addition to a carefully planned serialized story, the series made major impressions on critics and fans with its singular standalone issues that featured Road Warrior clans, dinosaurs, mechs, and even bartenders in the wasteland....and it all works.
Sadly, like so many other comics, the future of Rai on shelves and in the hands of readers fell victim to the spread of the coronavirus. Issue #5 from Abnett and series artist Juan Jose Ryp was released on Wednesday, March 11, the same week when the seriousness of COVID-19 became a very real thing for many Americans and resulted in the suspension of new comic book issues in stores for weeks.
We had the opportunity to speak with Abnett about his work on the series and his plans for the future of the title. Read our full chat below and check out a preview of the next issue of the series!
Rai meets Smash Up
ComicBook.com: Each issue of Rai feels like you’ve taken a couple things you just want to see in a story and thrown them together to see what happens. What’s your process for starting each issue by figuring out the individual narratives of the stand alone stories?
Dan Abnett: “Thrown them together..?” Rude! ;) No, I know what you mean, and the strange ‘hybrid’ nature of the future Earth is something we wanted to establish as quickly as possible: this is a place where almost anything can happen, and very strange elements can co-exist in unexpected ways. Lysa (our fabulous editor) requested that the first few issues be ‘stand alone’ incidents: self-contained encounters. We also knew in advance some of the key things we might find on future Earth (artificial dinosaurs, ultra high tech, long dormant or abandoned systems, survivor communities etc) so we wanted to showcase a cross-section of those. I picked the things that really appealed to me, and then tried to devise ways of presenting them in slightly lateral, unexpected forms.
Singles vs Overarching stories
What’s the secret for you in finding the balance between exploring those singular stories and tying it into the larger narrative of the overarching plot?
As I said, Lysa wanted some self-contained encounters to get us rolling, but right from the start (indeed from the end of “Fallen World,” the event series that provided the foundation for this series) we’ve had the meta threads: Rai’s hunt for the Offspring, his partnership with Raijin, the increasing threat of Bloodfather, and the new era of survival for the New Japan population. So they are already running, invisibly, in the background. The series is essentially - and very simply - about two characters on a quest, exploring a strange new world. That’s our format, and we demonstrate that over the first issues. But we’re also establishing the ground roles of why this is happening. By issue two, we have handled an element of the quest (and thus visually presented what they’re up to, even though it’s a self-contained encounter). By issue three, the meta-threat is intruding, and by issue four (the first time a story extends beyond one issue), we’ve reached a place where the meta-threat takes priority. I suppose it’s a matter of striking a balance and setting out our stall: This is the strory we’re telling, and this is the world we’re telling it in. Each ‘small story’ tells us more about the world, but also adds to the over all story arc.
Science and humor
It seems like you’ve got a lot of freedom to kind of, do whatever you want? Was that the driving force behind taking on the series?
To an extent. The imaginative freedom was part of the appeal for me. I love SF-grounded stories, as any one who has read my novels or my work for the UK’s 2000AD can tell you. But under the hood of the story, it’s actually very tight. There’s a very strong and simple through-line, the quest itself, and the psychology of the characters. It’s my job to decorate and elaborate that with intriguing encounters and odd ideas. If it all seems free and fantastical, then great. I’m doing my job right.
The humor seems incredibly natural, how do you know when to really go for the joke and when to pull back on the humor?
Thank you. There’s certainly not a conscious ‘formula’ for that. It’s just what feels right, in character. I always try to think in character to get voices and reactions - I’m sure all writers do. So if it feels like, say, Raijin is going to say something, and it’s funny, and it’s not out of character, then in it goes. I have cut some lines - really funny ones - simply because they were clearly ‘gag-lines’ that none of them would have actually said at the time.
Juan Jose Ryp
Juan Jose Ryp’s art is breathtaking in the series, did any of your plans change or cause you to rethink settings just to see what he’ll do with it?
Juanjo’s work is amazing.I can’t stress that highly enough. I wrote the first issue ‘blind’ - I knew Juanjo was on board, and I knew he was great, but I didn’t know what he’d do with it. I was two, maybe three scripts in front of him by the time his first page started coming in. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so blown away by arriving pages before. I was stunned by what he was doing. I could immediately see he was ‘getting it’ - he was as invested in the storytelling and the world building as I was. It wasn’t ‘just’ good art, it was good art being produced by someone who was really understanding what was being aimed at. Did it make me rethink? No, not like that. I didn’t go back to the drawing board, or rewrite. What it gave me was confidence. I knew I could push towards things - visuals, ideas, storytelling, even just mood - and I’d get them. In spades. I felt I could just go for it, because Juanjo would deliver.
Often a writer hesitates from doing something, just in case it doesn’t work in the art. Juanjo’s work meant I didn’t have to hesitate or second guess. Take the start of issue five: some Roman legion in woodlands during a storm. It’s probably my favorite sequence so far. It was only going to work if there was cinematic realism, intense mood, and authenticity (in terms of the soldiers). It had to feel ‘real.’ If it didn’t, the scene would be flat and ordinary, just a waste of pages: some guys in Roman kit and some trees and some rain. But by then, I knew Juanjo would make it feel entirely real, so I put it in. Professional comic art is essentially always good: artists get the job because of their talents. But there is a subtle difference between ‘great art’ and ‘appropriate art’. Great art looks great, of itself. Appropriate art perfectly fits the story. Juanjo is a great artist, but it’s the supreme appropriateness of what he does that makes this series look so good.
What's coming next
I can’t tell you how bummed I am that we haven’t gotten any new Rai since the last issue, what’s the future look like for it right now? How are you guys prepping the series to its eventual return?
Me too. These are odd times. We were running quite away ahead, so there are several issues in the drawer ready to go. I can wait for us to be able to get them out again.
In the same way you’ve tapped into smart houses, dinosaurs, and wastelanders, what sort of random genre elements can we expect to find in the book in the future? (Please say Robot-bears).
Well, bears certainly. We’ve got a strong arc opening up now, with some major new characters and ‘factions’ and a few big surprises in store. We’ve got “Roman Britain,” a sort of ‘Otherworld” or “spooky faerie land,” barbarian savagery, and eerie cyberspace craziness. Just for starters.
More Valiant heroes
Obviously you have a bit of connective tissue to the other Valiant characters as some have made appearances, are you making plans for far-future versions of other heroes to appear?
Oh yes. Just wait.
In your wildest dreams, is this a long journey that you’re on with Rai or something that wraps up after a year or so? I’m rooting for an extensive run because I love every issue of the series.
I’d love to keep doing this for as long as possible. The response from readers and reviewers alike has been amazing. I guess it depends on sales… and that will be at the mercy of the current situation. I hope, if we do have to ‘close early’ because of the current market, we can find a way of renewing and re-engaging, maybe in the form of a ‘season two’ where we can bring more readers in.
Check out an exclusive preview of Rai #6, available later this summer, below!
Disclosure: ComicBook is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.