Comics Icon Matt Wagner Talks The Tower Chronicles

Matt Wagner, the visionary comics creator behind indie successes like Grendel and Mage and the [...]

Matt Wagner, the visionary comics creator behind indie successes like Grendel and Mage and the writer/artist behind a number of popular events for more mainstream publishers like his DC series Trinity, surprised everyone a little bit when he took a job with the upstart Legendary Comics. Not to create his own original property, like Frank Miller had just done in bringing them Holy Terror--but to work on a property he co-created and developed with Thomas Tull, the movie mogul owner of Legendary Entertainment, on a series of books that will take years to complete. The project--The Tower Chronicles, the first installment of which hits the stands today--marks the first serialized series from Legendary Comics and features nothing but A-list talent, from Wagner and artist Simon Bisley (Batman/Judge Dredd, Lobo) and inker Rod Ramos (Transmetropolitan) to cover artists who tend to draw the eye--like Jim Lee and Alex Ross. Wagner joined to talk about the project, how and why he joined and what fans can expect from John Tower.

For the uninitiated, what is the basic premise of The Tower Chronicles?

is ultimately going to be a trilogy of books--the collective title is The Tower Chronicles, the first book is called Geisthawk. It's based on the adventures of a supernatural bounty hunter names John Tower, and John Tower's backstory is much deeper and multifaceted and mysterious than it would appear from the very first adventures we see. Each book there's going to be serialized as four prestige-format volumes, each 68 pages, so you get a nice chunk with each issue. In the first issue, he's very aloof--very much in the Clint Eastwood sort of mold, a very taciturn sort of main character and in fact I'd say in the first book we're not even sure whether we like him very well. But when I first entered into this project with Thomas Tull, the owner of Legendary Entertainment, Thomas is the one who had the initial idea for the character and I'm the one who brought the human story to the table because I said, "Well, it's all well and good to have a great, cool hot shot tough-as-nails adventurer, but we have to give a damn about him." So as the story progresses, little by little the mysteries of his past get peeled away and we learn his backstory step by step by step.

So you're doing the whole thing? How far along are you at this point? It's me and Simon Bisley all the way--me writing, Simon Bisley drawing--and in fact I'm done with the first eight prestige-sized volumes. Wow, so this is quite a look back for you, then, doing these press appearances and talking about something that you've finished months and months ago. At the same time, I'm currently involved in the same narrative so it's not like I've gone onto three other story narratives since then; I'm still equally enmeshed in John Tower's world. It's still very fresh for me. I think it's safe to say that comics people are often somewhat skeptical about these companies that come up and they say, "We're going to make comics that make good movies." There's a lot of that going on right now. I understand that cynicism. My answer to that is that the way we defeat that cynicism is by delivering a great product right out of the gate. Their editor-in-chief is Bob Schreck, who I've worked with pretty much since the beginning of time, at Comico and at Oni Press and then for many, many projects at DC. Again, Thomas had an initial ideal for a character and he asked Bob to find him a writer who wouldn't be afraid to tell the boss when the ideas were no good--and Bob said, "I know just the guy."

And from the very beginning, they presented it to me as exactly the opposite of what you just said: "Yeah, we are a movie company. If this becomes a movie someday, yeah, all well and good--but that's not going to happen unless we have a great story and a great comic book to begin with so that has to be your sole aim creatively is to make this a good comic book. And I've been doing that for thirty years, so I think I know when it works and this one's really working. I'm having a blast with it, the narrative's really great, the story is very deep and richly textured. Simon is just knocking it out of the park, artwise. At this point I can't even imagine anybody else drawing the project because he's just so clicked into exactly what the vibe of the narrative is. This has been the case of a lot of my other projects: Unless I'm working on a big company character like Batman or something like that, I'm kind of a genre masher. If you look at Grendel, if you look at Mage, they have elements of a lot of different genres in them to make a kind of unified whole, and that's the case with The Tower Chronicles, too. We have elements of a costumed adventurer, some elements of horror, some elements of fantasy, some elements of contemporary intrigue and some elements of historical fiction.

So when I'm working on these things I never really stop and think, "Oh, maybe I shouldn't do that because it doesn't fit in this genre." If it works for me narratively, I just do it. It's funny when you say that because I feel like at the time when you really exploded, a lot of the cartoonists who were coming up around that time were expert genre mashers, as you say. It's hard to imagine a time when we didn't have Grendel and Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore and Madman from Mike Allred, but those were all in their heyday right around the same time. I would agree with that, yeah. And it's funny you should mention those becuase I would, yes, say both Terry and Mike do the same thing as me, where we have so many things that we like that we just distill them to our own, unique take on things and never really stop to consider, "This can't be in here because it's a Western story; this can't be in here becuase it's a horror story." My favorite creators in other media are like that, too. One of my favorite musicians is Elvis Costello, and look how all-over-the-board his musical influences are and how he takes all of those and kind of distills them into his own, unique take on popular music in general. If you ever do play Pandora radio online and you set up an Elvis Costello station, it's just amazing the wide range of genres that they consider match Elvis Costello, and the wide range of songs that pop up on that station as a result!

It strikes me that right now it seems there are a few upstart publishers are coming out of the woodwork with incredibly auspicious debuts that get them compared to Image. When you look at Legendary and you look at Monkeybrain and a couple of these things, suddenly you have publishers that are launching with a Frank Miller book, or launching with a dozen titles! I would have to give full credit there--A, to the fact that Thomas Tull is a big comic book fan and he had the smarts to hire Bob Schreck, who of course has a history of working with those types of creators, the upper echelon of the field, and whose taste in comics is really great and who has a history of developing really terrific material both with established creators and with up-and-coming creators. Bob was responsible for Frank's Dark Knight Returns follow-up and at the same time he was also the one that put together Daytripper by Moon and Ba which won the Eisner two years ago for Best Limited Series. Those were two radically different approaches to the comic book medium and yet Bob got them to that stage. Same thing with Jeff Lemire--Sweet Tooth came to Vertigo via Bob. These covers by big-name comic book people seems to be aimed very much at the direct market, every Wednesday type comic book creator...but the project itself seems very much more at home in the bookstore market. Do you think that Legendary is intentionally trying to broaden the base more than the average Marvel or DC book would? Hell yeah, it's intentional. I'd call it an ideal balance, wouldn't you? Appeal to the faithful and convert the unconverted. Certainly we always want to honor our long-term readers, but I'm always looking to expand my market and get new readers involved. If I'm working on one of the big characters, like Batman or the Trinity project I did four years ago, I don't write to the fans primarily; I write to the fans secondarily. I'm writing to the man on the street primarily. I'm writing to the people who just picked up this book because they know these characters but don't know every tiny, little minutia of their published history. I think the same is true here; they've gotten these real hot shot cover artists to grace the first four issues of the first book and yet at the same time, they're trying to reach out to the bookstore audience as well. I think that's smart as a whip. And it's interesting because it seems like such a common-sense approach to the project but...well...comics aren't necessarily an industry dominated by common sense. Do you think that people like Legendary are coming into the market with a more complete understanding of the comics market than their forebears--companies like CrossGen--really had? I would hope so! I can only speak to Legendary's case, I don't know about others, but Legendary has a lot of muscle to work with, both in terms of getting themselves into the bookstore market and also hopefully with addressing the comic book market in a different fashion. For you personally--you've been directly involved with things like production on your smaller books, I assume, so is it a little more comfortable to be able to be looking on this project and offering your insight to the bosses? I've never self-published because I don't have any interest in that--but I would say this is no different than anything else I've worked on. Because of the way I entered the field--via Mage, via Grendel and then I moved onto the more established characters as the bigger companies--I've always had a kind of unique working situation where people just leave me alone. They know I know what I'm doing and my fingers are in things from the very top to the very bottom. I approve everything at every single stage--I get to see the inks, I get to see the letters, I get to see the colors. I suggest changes for all of those things here and there, and I know no other way to do it. And again, working with Bob...even when I was working on Batman at DC, I might as well have been working on Grendel the way Bob leaves me alone. Because Bob likes to work with people that he can trust and our working relationship goes back so far that level of trust is very deep. My working situation is such that I have Mage and I have Grendel. I wouldn't go and work on these other characters if it wasn't as creatively fulfilling and as fun as Mage and Grendel are. The same is true of the established characters I've done for smaller characters. Like Dynamite for Zorro--the same is true; I see the inks, I see the colors, I see the letters at the final stages. There are always little tweaks and everything gets passed through me because I started on a very independent level and everyone knows that I know how to do every stage of this. I will say--when you're working with an artist, and this is definitely true with Simon here, it gets better as it goes. I learn more to write to that artist's strengths, that artist knows more of what I'm asking for as we go along. And that's definitely true of my working relationship with Simon. We're in a real groove right now and I get pencils in and I'm just like, "Oh, my God, that's even better than what I was picturing. We just had a sequence with these horrible, gnomish sort of creatures and oh my God, I described them but he just kicked it another ten yards down the road and it's so good, and creepy. That's always a big thrill, when the artist exceeds your expectations. Even just the layout and things of the early stages, you can see a lot of Simon in the art of the first issue. I'll be interested to see the relationship develop through multiple books. I mean, it would be virtually impossible for a person with a grounding in modern comics to read a book by either of you guys and not know right away who did the art. There again, I don't think that's a bad thing. Oh, not at all. I think it's like a Scorcese movie. You can watch for five minutes and nobody will ever say it's a bad thing that the viewer can go, "Oh, that's him." Even if it's just something like looking at Dan Jurgens or George Perez and you can just look and say, "Oh, look, I remember him. He used to do Superman." Anybody you really like, they've all got that identifiable thing, and I think whenever you've got an artist working with an artist it's interesting to me to see where the styles meet. I agree. And Simon has said to me, "I feel like you're writing this for me." And if you look at it, this is the longest sustained narrative he's done in maybe forever. He's just wrapping up volume three, pencils-wise, which puts him almost 200 pages in. That's a lot of work. And I totally agree with you that individual style and individual voice are pretty much the most important thing that you can bring to almost any art form, and certainly to comics. And even your inker--I mean, Rod Ramos is a master of what he does, too. At the risk of alienating anybody else, I think it's safe to say that the issues of Transmetropolitan that Rod inked are head and shoulders the best-looking ones in the series. And that's a beautiful series. And there again, as time goes on, I find Rod's inks really started to all of a sudden really match Simon. I think people are going to really dig this--it's a great adventure and as with everything I do in comics, you can't do it unless there's a core of humanity in there somewhere and the further the story goes the more our main character's humanity gets developed and you learn what he's all about.