Writer Joshua Williamson has made quite a name for himself these past few years, with books such as Captain Midnight, Ghosted and Nailbiter. His latest work comes through Image Comics, a contemporary fantasy story called Birthright, and hits this Wednesday at your local comic shop. The book tells the story of what happens when a game of catch between father and son goes awry: a family’s son disappears…only to return with some deeply unsettling information. Nerdist got the chance to chat with Williamson about his quirkiest and maybe most ambitious book yet.
Nerdist: So talk a little bit about your new book Birthright, and give us a a basic premise as to what it’s all about.
Joshua Williamson: Most of my comics lately have been about horror, but in Birthright we have one of the scariest things of all: A missing child. On his birthday, a young kid named Mikey goes missing. It destroys his family. People think the Dad killed him. It ruins the nice life they had… and then one year later Mikey returns. Where was he? He claims that he was taken by fantasy creatures from a fantasy land and was told it was his destiny to defeat an evil lord, rescue a princess and save a kingdom. Mikey did all of those things… and now he is back. Does the family believe him. What do the FEDS do? If he were telling the truth that would be proof of another reality… and that can be very dangerous. But how does Mikey do now? How does he return to normal life?
N: My first real question is this: there’s been a lot of “Chosen One” tropes in pop culture these last few years, between The Matrix and Buffy and Star Wars, etc, and you seem to be turning the idea of a prophesied savior on its head a bit with this series. Without giving too much away, what do you think our fascination is with the idea of being born into a greater destiny is?
JW: A lot of people want to believe things happen for a reason. They want to believe there is a guiding force that is making us do things. Since Birthright has been announced a lot of people have asked me if I believe in destiny. And it’s a hard question. I have too much faith in hard work and controlling your own future to ever dive into that kind of belief system. However, it’s always interesting how many odd coincidences seem to happen in life. Almost like ours lives are stories that have been planned. There is a poetry to the weird things that happen to us.
The chosen one idea is one of the oldest stories from a savior aspect where people want to put their faith in one person that will bring change and save us, and then the aspect that everyone wants to believe they are special. That has always fascinated me, and I felt that there is a lot of story there to play with.
If your entire life was about one moment, your destiny was decided that all you were ever going to do, all you were going to be about is this one thing, what do you do after? What do you do next? What do you do if you lose? What if your destiny was wrong? And then again, what happens next? Do you find a new destiny? Do you roll up into a ball and die? Do you find peace? That drove me nuts and lead to the creation of Birthright.
N:The art in this book is amazing; it’s hard to imagine someone else drawing it now that I’ve read it. Did you always have Andrei Bressan in my mind to do the art? And how much of an influence did he have on the story once they started to work on it? Was there anything he changed or added that you hadn’t considered in your initial ideas for the series?
JW: Yes. Lots Andrei brought so much to the table. One character in particular is Rook, who fills our fantasy mentor role. Rook was a character I always had trouble nailing down or figuring out, and then one day I saw this design Andrei did for an Orc and thought “that’s him.” And he finally started to take shape. The design of the world and the emotion of the character all came in from Andrei and so once we started getting the art in, the story start to rebuild in my head… a comic is nothing without the art. Duh, right? But it’s very true, and you can really see the influence once the art gets rolling. So much of the character’s personalities started to become clear for me once Andrei came on board.
We search for what feels like forever for the right artist and had a few close calls but it never worked out. Andrei came in and blew us away. I’m crazy thankful to be sharing this book with him. He’s been amazing to work with. His energy for Birthright is infectious. And how the two worlds have slight differences all came from Andrei and our awesome colorist Adriano Lucas take an idea I had and making it better.
N: The fairy world in this book seems influenced by the obvious stuff like Lord of the Rings and whatnot, but there seems to be a Jim Henson/Dark Crystal vibe going on too. Was that intentional?
JW: Yeah. All of those ’80s fantasy movies like Dark Crystal; Never Ending Story; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; Legend; Labyrinth; the list goes on and on. Those movies are where I draw a lot of my ideas on the fantasy world, and then the classics like Peter Pan, Lord of the Rings, etc. These giant worlds where kids went on magical adventures.
One thing I’ve learned a lot about tone in comics is finding ways to use emotional shorthand, the familiar to get a reader someplace fast so you can get to best parts of the story, play with their expectations and then pull the rug out from underneath them. Tropes and familiar environments can be a great tool for that.
N: I think it’s fair to say that Brennan, the older brother character, is as much the protagonist is Mikey is. And although he’s the older brother, he seems to have a case of Marcia Brady syndrome-he’s not the favorite in the family. Is it fair to assume he’s going to have a bigger role as things move forward? Right now he’s kind of my favorite. And was there a real life inspiration for Brennan?
JW: Brennan is an interesting character for me because he came into the story as I started to write issue one and plot the first arc. At first the Dad was going to be our main character but we felt we needed someone who could be a bit more relatable and less broken, so Brennan was added. He plays the part of the outside. The POV character for the family. And yeah, he plays a big part as the stories goes. You’ll see a lot of parallels with Brennan in the real world and Mikey in the fantasy world.
I’m an older brother who is much older than my siblings and we have odd relationships because of that, so a lot of my own feelings of being a brother went into Brennan. So much of this story is about the relationships between family members. It’s going to get pretty heavy.
N: Finally, how much true crime documentaries/shows did you watch when writing this? Because the family breaking apart, the accusations that the father killed Mikey, all of these things feel like stuff that really happens when a child is killed or disappears. So few marriages survive something like that. Where you aware of that when you started writing Birthright, or like I said, did you end up watching or reading a lot of True Crime stuff? Because it’s all very accurate to how that usually goes down.
JW: A lot! I was just watching one on Waco last night. In the last few years I’ve been focusing a lot on horror that sometimes involves me doing a lot of research into crime. Birthright was an idea I had back in 2007, but it never clicked. Was always missing something. In 2011 I was in a very dark place and going though a lot of personal issues and had a lot on my mind. Especially about loss. About losing loved ones and how what we hope is our story might not be the case. Our story changes and grows. So when I first put this book together it wasn’t as much about family and how we overcome tragedy, but as I found myself climbing out of own personal hell, my own private trap, this story became more clear. I found the heart of it. Then the best parts – the emotion of this story – finally started to come about and I was able to start pitching it to publishers. Thankfully Skybound saw the massive story that I saw and picked it up. And now we have a comic that I am super proud of.
Birthright #1 from Image Comics hits comic book shops this Wednesday, October 8th.