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‘Mara’: A Volleyball Superhero in the Sports-Obsessed Dystopia of Brian Wood & Ming Doyle

One of the most exciting books to be announced at this year’s Image Expo was Mara, an upcoming six-issue mini-series from writer Brian Wood (Northlanders, Conan the Barbarian), artist Ming Doyle (The Loneliest Astronauts, Fantastic Four) and colorist Jordie Bellaire (Hulk: Season One, Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes) about a star volleyball athlete named Mara who develops super-powers in a war-obsessed dystopian future. The book itself is still a while off, but we spoke to Wood and Doyle to find out just what we can expect and get a look at some concept art!

ComicsAlliance: According to the announcement, Mara is a book about fame and super-powers in a “war and fitness-obsessed future.” What was it that drew you to that idea?

Brian Wood: Mara is a sort of future dystopia, and I’ve written a lot of those, and one of the most interesting aspects of that sort of world-building is to run scenarios on the social issues, to figure how different ways things could play out.In Mara, the citizenry compensate for the angst and ills of society with a hyper-obsession on sports, on physical achievement, and celebrity related to that. The people can live vicariously through the story of a single athlete beating the odds and mastering the world around them. To a bitter and disenfranchised society, that’s a balm. That’s a cool drink of water to a person dying of thirst. War is part and parcel of that. In our culture, war is like a video game too much of the time. In Mara‘s world, its just another team sport. The news commentators don’t talk to battles or victors, but match-ups and winners.

And honestly, the socio-political stuff aside, it’s also a lot of fun. Look at something like Starship Troopers, which, while a lot more tongue-in-cheek than Mara, visits some of the same themes. This a dystopia you don’t really ever see, where the shining beacon of hope is a teenage girl killing it in indoor arena volleyball.

CA: There’s a real historical precedent to that, too, in that Germany adopted a strong interest in gymnastics around the turn of the 20th century as a way to build national pride, which ended up getting a little out of hand.

BW: That’s not a comparison I had in mind, but I see what you mean. Building pride is not what’s happening in Mara… its more of an overcompensation and a comfort in conformity. Ultimately, deep down, its a negative thing, and we see that as Mara, our main character, manifests with powers, shattering that illusion.

CA: Was it fully developed when you brought it to Ming, or was there a collaboration on developing the idea?

BW: A bit of both. I did have a complete pitch when I first contacted Ming, but as these types of things tend to go, just talking to Ming and seeing sketches and character designs changes the story. And I, like most writers, like to write for a specific artist, according to their strengths and weaknesses, so when I went to outline the series, a lot had changed due to Ming’s collaboration. And that will only continue as we go.

Ming Doyle: Brian did warn me that he was envisioning a very sleek, expansive, technologically-based version of the future, probably requiring a lot of panoramic city views and tricked out military vehicles. There are a lot of keywords in there that would strike fear into the heart of many a penciller, but since Brian’s an artist himself he has a great understanding of how to write to different creators’ aesthetic strengths. Everything I’ve read so far has only made me more excited to try my hand at portraying these characters and this world.

CA: Ming, I know you’re a big sci-fi fan, or at least a fan of one sci-fi franchise in particular. Did you like the idea of tackling a dystopia?

MD: I did, right off the bat. Despite my love of Star Trek and the progressive, inclusive future it portrays, I’ve always been drawn to “darker” sci-fi as well. Worlds where the system is broken, where bureaucracy or society seem to have gone off the rails and careened into the scenarios explored in Alien and Blade Runner. In fact, Brian got me right away by throwing Starship Troopers at me, which is of course one of the goofier dystopias out there, but to me it has quite a lot of relatable insights regarding conformity, separation of social strata, and glorification of the status quo. The kind of mindless idolatry of physical culture in that movie is also a bit of an inroad into some of the more dystopian aspects of our own world, such as the obsession with disposable culture and celebrity. Mara, who is herself a huge celebrity with a short public shelf life dictated by both her profession and gender, automatically called out to me.

CA: How do you go about conveying all that information visually? The cover gives her a very uniform-style outfit and you’ve definitely got those stark colors.

BW: On the writing side, its a lot of basic world-building, and I use a lot of the same tricks I always do: news snippets, voiceover narration on top of that, shots of the city, and so on. Her outfit is her sports uniform, and we didn’t do this on the cover to avoid competing with the logo, but she’s covered with sponsor patches and logos. You’ll see in the first issue how the sports event is portrayed, very expensive and flashy and tech-heavy. I think I wrote in one of my pitches or outlines to imagine that the budget for these events equals the Pentagon’s war budget, and what would that look like?

So its a lot of little things put together that build out this world. And all of this, which supports Mara and is what she feeds off of, the money and the power and the exposure, all that flips around on her once she’s seen to have “broken the rules.”

MD: Brian’s also done some interesting things with integrating advertising and publicity into the framework of the storytelling itself, which I’m quite eager to get my hands on. The news segments, the sportscasters, the ad placements, all of that will do a lot for the background. And we haven’t gotten into in-depth talks about our approach yet with Jordie Bellaire, our talented colorist, but she’s a whiz at setting up palettes and mood. I’m sure she’ll bring a lot of striking emotional cues to the story as well.

CA: So it’s the idea that she has an unfair advantage that starts causing problems?

MD: I think it’s a definite case of “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” and Mara makes quite the conspicuous spectacle. She’s an ultra-celebrity, as we discussed, and there’s a definite societal tendency to take delight in tearing down our most accomplished idols.

BW: There is a rigidity to this society, a demand for conformity and an almost religious respect for the game, whatever the game may be. She essentially shows the world that she’s been working with an unfair advantage all this time. Doesn’t matter if she did or not, or meant to. And that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. She has SUPERPOWERS. Losing her sponsors and her team is really just the start of it.

CA: It’s interesting that you went with a female lead in a sci-fi story about a sports hero. Was there a particular reason behind that choice?

MD: There’s a notable lack of female representation in comics when it comes to main characters (several very awesome exceptions aside), especially in the more “mainstream,” superheroic segments of the genre. As an artist, one of the main selling points of this story for me was not only the chance to explore a complicated, multifaceted universe, but to explore it through the eyes of a female protagonist.

I’m constantly looking for opportunities to portray women as well as ethnic and social minorities in comics, and I’ve always admired Brian’s no-fuss approach to including a healthy diversity of characters in his work. And since women are underrepresented in sci-fi/sports stories, we’ll be able to access Mara’s world through a fresh viewpoint.

BW: I would probably say that the majority of my characters, overall, are women. And if they aren’t the official leads, they are generally supporting-cast types that command the attention. Way back at the start of my career it was easy to recognize a real dearth of interesting, multi-faceted female characters and it seemed like a good way to stand out. My reasons have evolved a bit since then and are pretty much in line with what Ming just said. I don’t make a public fuss about it if I can help it, but I believe I have a solid track record as far as this goes.

Specifically related to this book, I had this material kicking around my “ideas folder” for awhile and it was really in the wake of the new DC relaunch that I felt compelled to dig it up and turn it into a book. And I don’t mean the DC books specifically (at least not entirely) but the discussion that happened around them. All I kept seeing was talk of a lack of women in superhero books, or superhero books that appealed to women. I was a little slow to react, but the creation of Mara was to prove that yes, it can be done and its rather easy to be a creator who produces material like this, and yes, people will respond positively to it.

As far as the sci-fi and the sports thing, why not? Neither of those feel gender-skewed one way or the other to me unless you’re only talking about media coverage. I am not a big mainstream sports guy but I follow a few things, most notably Olympic sports and snowboarding. It’s very easy to see women represented well there.

CA: Were there any particular challenges as far as design goes? You’ve got a particular love for designing clothing in your work, Ming.

BW: I’ll defer to Ming on this. I had a couple minor suggestions but I left it up to her.

MD: Brian included some very helpful visual references when he pitched Mara to me, just in terms of how he was thinking the story might read tonally and how the uniforms could look. The transitions in Mara’s wardrobe will definitely be fun to tackle as she goes from an ad-plastered athlete to an off duty celebrity to a renegade superbeing! I feel like I get to be her stylist, in a way. And more generally, the whole world-building aspect will be a welcome challenge, since that’s not something I’ve been able to really sink into yet, but I’m looking forward to playing with some futuristic technology and fashion.

CA: Are there any specifics you’re drawing inspiration from for the setting?

MD: Well, I’ll certainly be watching more ESPN and pro volleyball clips! But yeah, TV aside, I’ll be looking at retro-futuristic Olympic uniforms, slick, minimal high fashion designs in the vein of Prada and Comme des Garçons, Vogue editorials, car commercials. None of that’s terribly specific, I know, but I’m feeling my way around multiple inspirations with the aim of synthesizing something elegant, brutal, and clean that will still retain my own style. It’s a process! It’ll be a lot of almost overwhelming architecture, so I’m thinking mega stadiums and super cities like Tokyo and Dubai viewed through crazy, augmented binoculars.

BW: The environment’s a very specific element to the story, to the overall world building. Mara’s city is something of a mega-city, one we never name, and we’re keeping it intentionally vague for reasons of mass appeal. To put it another way, its a composite from all cities. The wealth of Dubai with the media of NYC or LA, the newness of Shanghai and the lights and commercialism of Toyko. It is American, but not one we necessarily would recognize by sight alone. In a way, it’s actually a little cyberpunk, in the ’80s and ’90s sense, something I have a lot of affection for.

CA: We’ve talked a lot about the social and political aspects of the story, but what about the super-hero aspect? If you can tell me without spoiling it, I’d be interested in finding out more about what drives the action, and what we’ll be seeing on that front.

MD: Before being a superhero, Mara is primarily an athlete, so her highly honed physical ability is a centerpiece of her personality from page one and a fair amount of action takes place right on the court. I haven’t drawn much in the way of fast-paced sports sequences, so I’m quite looking forward to dealing with such a kinetic character. It’ll be a challenge to capture someone in motion at the top of their game, but a welcome one. It’s going to take a lot of careful thumbnailing, for sure.

BW: This far out, I don’t want to get into too much detail. But I’m trying to be as realistic as possible, to really run the scenario — that of a single superhero introduced to a turbulent world — out logically. There’s no supervillains or secret identities or other trappings of the genre. And while I know this sort of thing is not breaking new ground, I think my approach will feel new and unusual. There’s themes of alienation and youth and war and ethics involved. Mara, as a superpowered person, is not welcome in this world. And, you know, maybe she gets to a point where she doesn’t think this crappy, dysfunctional world is particularly worthy of having a “superhero” on its side. Especially after they treat her so poorly.

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