Fred Van Lente And Reilly Brown Talk ‘Saint George’ And The Fine Art of Dragon-Slaying [Interview]
Depending on your religious upbringing, geography and love of stories where dudes kill monsters and rescue princesses from certain death, you may already be passingly familiar with the story of Saint George, the holy soldier who put an end to dragons and was canonized for it. This November, though, Fred Van Lente and Reilly Brown are teaming up to pick up where the legend leaves off in the pages of Dark Horse Presents #30.
To find out more about their take on Saint George, I talked to the team about why they wanted to tell the story, how they approached different sides of research, and whether they’re planning to end the series with 114 separate tortures.
ComicsAlliance: I think a lot of people would’ve expected a story like this from Fred, with the historical comics you’ve done, but you told me before we started that this was all Reilly’s idea.
Reilly Brown: Yeah, that’s true. I’ve got all these little story ideas in the back of my head. I’m a big history fan also, and the St. George legend had always stuck in my head, ever since I was studying art history in art school. You see all these famous sculptures and paintings of this St. George guy, and you’re like “oh yeah, that guy’s cool! That’s a cool concept!” It was just something that always stuck in my head, and every time I’d see a reference to him, I’d make a note of it. Eventually, I just had this long list of basic research that I’d done, and when the time came, I took it to Fred and he thought it sounded cool.
CA: He is one of the few canonical saints who looks like he should be on the side of a van. You always see him stabbing a dragon.
Fred Van Lente: Just part of the fascinating thing about St. George is that he’s one of the few Catholic saints who’s a soldier, and he’s super-popular because of that. I think that’s why so many countries and so many rulers adopted him fairly early on, because you could be both pious and kickass at the same time.
CA: Is that the draw when you compare him to the others? “Oh, this saint made friends with the birds, and this one stabbed a dragon to death with a lance!”
FVL: “This one was stabbed 40 times with spears!” Although, the torture of St. George is a huge deal.
RB: Growing up, when you hear of St. George, I’d always heard that he was just like the Greek legend of Perseus, just Christianized. Before I did the research, I thought that was pretty cool. A medieval knight doing the Perseus stuff sounds really cool. But then when you do the research, it’s nothing like that at all. It’s pretty much half slaying a dragon, and then half torture porn.
FVL: It’s like Lord of the Rings meets Saw.
CA: Is that how you’re treating the comic, too? Is there a split between the really action-heavy first half and then the really horrifying second?
FVL: Reilly has done a ton of research on these St. George legends, and I sort of went out and did my own research as well. England claims that he slew a dragon there, Lebanon says he slew it there, Georgia — the country that is, not the state — says he slew it there. The best and most common version of the story is that he slew it in Libya, which is the version that we’re using, and that he was a centurion. He was a Roman soldier, so really, what this book is going to be is Gladiator with dragons. We’re combining all the great Imperial Rome stuff with dragons, and we’re going around the rule of the early Roman Empire.
RB: Part of the fun of the concept, I thought, was when I was trying to find out more about the historical character, and I use “historical” loosely because he’s definitely more legend than he is history —
CA: Are you saying there weren’t dragons?
RB: He comes out of a very interesting time when history and legend mix up in such interesting ways.
FVL: In all seriousness, just the way the legend is constructed where he’s this knight errant who stumbles across this maiden, there’s actually more historical evidence for dragons than there is for knights errant. Being knights errant were a total fiction of medieval times. It’d be like historians of the future talking about the historical period where people put on bat costumes and went out to beat up clowns.
CA: That’s real, though.
FVL: Well, you’re going to write that history, once you put yourself in cryogenic suspension.
RB: One of the interesting things of doing the research was trying to figure out where exactly it was that he killed the dragon. There are so many places that claim to be the spot, and then I was like “well what if he didn’t kill one dragon? What if he just went around the Roman Empire, slaying dragons wherever they were causing problems?” Once you get to that point, you have a whole adventure story.
CA: How much research did you do going into it? How long has it been percolating in your head?
RB: It’s been a character I was interested in at least since I did a study abroad thing in Florence, Italy when I was in college. There are just tons of St. George statues by all the great Renaissance artists, and that was when I first decided I need to find out more about this guy. He’s the most popular art subject, next to Jesus.
FVL: Well, maybe Mary.
RB: Okay, there’s Jesus on the Cross, then Mary holding Jesus in the pieta, and then St. George, so I had to find out more about this guy. Ever since then, if I would stumble across something about him, I’d make a note, but we’ve both done a decent amount of research.
FVL: You did the legendary stuff, and what I was interested in was the actual Roman Empire during the years when George was allegedly alive. There was a rebellion in Egypt, the Empire was split between four Caesars, which was something I didn’t know had happened. There was a lot of political intrigue involved, as well.
RB: It takes place right before some of the most politically juicy times in the Roman Empire, where Constantine takes over and all that happens.
FVL: The mass slaughter of Christians, which always sells tickets. It’s a combination of myth and history.
CA: Obviously, you guys have worked together in the past, and you work really well together, but why did you want to bring Fred in to work on it?
RB: A lot of alcohol was involved.
FVL: Yes. It was at a bar, at a birthday party.
RB: We were just shootin’ the s**t, I guess.
FVL: Are you saying I invited myself along?
RB: You did, actually!
FVL: And he’s regretted it ever since.
RB: I said “I’ve got a great idea for this story,” and gave him the elevator pitch, and he’s like “I want in.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want him there, but I was in the middle of so many other things that thinking about another story was just too much to handle. I think Fred just kept pushing at me, “We’ve gotta do St. George! We’ve gotta do St. George!”
FVL: I wouldn’t let it go. Like a dog with a bone.
CA: So how does the collaboration work? Who gets to outvote the other?
FVL: I think we both elbow each other, pretty much.
RB: I tell Fred what to write, Fred tells me what to draw, and then there’s a comic.
FVL: We started out Marvel style. The first couple of chapters are done like that, but it wasn’t quite working. My scripts are so loose that they’re barely scripts anyway. It’s not that different from doing any other comic, but Reilly, you kind of sketched out some of the plot points you wanted, and you wanted to adhere as closely to the mainline version of the legend as possible.
RB: We fought about that for like three months.
FVL: We fought about that a lot. But we eventually figured out a way to do it, because there are aspects of the legends that don’t make any sense, and work great in medieval times but wouldn’t be palpable today. Like the bit where St. George shows up at the town and forces everyone to convert to Christianity or he’ll kill them.
RB: Was he going to kill them?
FVL: He was going to let the dragon kill them! So I didn’t think the modern sensibility would be too into that, so we’ve revised it. We’ve added realism in terms of situating it more in the actual, historical milieu of the time, and we’ve also added emotional realism.
RB: That’s the main crux of it. Once you find the personality for the characters, it all comes together.
FVL: Exactly, and that was the hard part. The fun part of the comic for me is saying this is what actually happened, and the legend we have today is like a game of Telephone. It’s been handed down and aspects have been played up for propaganda reasons, but it’s not actually the legit thing. We’re giving you the fly on the wall, and you get to know what really happens.
CA: Do you ever feel like that loses something? The thrill of this weird story about a dude who rolls up into town and kills a dragon?
RB: Like I said, it’s about the personality. When you have the right personality, then you can sell any action.
FVL: And he does roll up into town, and he does slay the dragon. The bare bones synopsis of our story and the legend are the exact same, we just get there a different way.
CA: What kind of personality did you end up with, and how do you build a modern character that appeals to modern audiences out of a medieval legend?
FVL: We supposedly have a birthdate for St. George, and we supposedly know when he died, so the basic thing to remember is that he’s a teenager. He’s a really young guy, he’s barely cracked 20. He’s a person who hasn’t done a lot with his life, so he’s got that Luke Skywalker Hero’s Journey potential.
RB: The big part is trying to figure out who does he think he is and what is he trying to do? Our take on him is that he’s young, he’s a fresh-faced but still accomplished soldier, he’s good at what he does. On the first page, he’s schooling other people on what to do.
FVL: He’s very egomaniacal in a way that young people often are.
RB: He’s trying to make a name for himself, but he’s also very loyal to his unit and everything like that. It starts as a Roman military story.
FVL: And then the dragon shows up. Another important part of that is that also we have a princess, obviously. She’s a major character in the book, and that was a fun thing.
RB: I really like your take on her personality.
FVL: The analogy that we made in the pitch was that this is a Dark Ages X-Files, where the princess is Mulder and St. George is Scully. He’s the skeptic who doesn’t believe in dragons until he has to stab one.
RB: She’s still a teenager, just in this ancient Roman setting. She’s a wannabe oracle, and you can totally imagine a teenage girl with all her oracle books sitting around trying to figure out how they do it, trying to act like an oracle.
FVL: She’s a third-century goth girl. That’s the description in the script.
CA: I like the idea of “Oracle books.”
RB: This is the era where codexes took over from scrolls as the popular way of doing things.
FVL: And this is about the same time the Library of Alexandria burned down. Is there a connection… with dragons? Hmm!
CA: How long do you see it going? You have the dragon story, you have him being tortured to death. Is there room for more adventure between those if it does well?
FVL: He gets tortured to death at the end of every story arc.
RB: That’s kind of how it works, though, right? They kill him and he comes back.
FVL: Yeah, but they never let him out of prison. It makes for an uninteresting adventure story if he’s like “I’m alive again! Thanks, God!” Stab, stab, he’s dead again.
CA: You could fill in the missing years.
FVL: Exactly. I think the fun way to do this is to do it sort of like Hellboy, do a series of miniseries and don’t kill him off at the end of the first storyline. I’ve been doing this silly Dragon Facts thing on my Twitter feed, and there are so many crazy legends and interesting legends from almost every culture on Earth about dragons. So George and Cleo, who’s the princess, can go all across the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire killing dragons, and we’ve got six or seven stories.
RB: And half those places actually claim that George showed up there and killed a dragon anyway. I think it’d be fun of some kid was reading a comic in Lebanon at this church and they say “Oh, I have the issue where this happened!”
FVL: Rather than say whether England was right or Lebanon or Libya, you just say “you’re all right!”
CA: Let’s hear some dragon facts.
FVL: My favorite one involves sex and death. Up until the 16th century, everyone just assumed dragons were real. This was scientific fact then. Pliny the Elder wrote that dragons did not have genitals, so to procreate, the male dragon would shoot sperm out of his mouth into the female dragon’s mouth. The female dragon did not really care for this very much, so she then bit the male dragon’s head off, killing the male dragon. So then she was pregnant, good for her, except that she has no genitals, so the baby dragon has to eat her way out of her womb, killing her instantly. I would conclude this by saying if anyone ever asks if you want to do it Dragon Style, run away. Run as far away as you can get.
CA: That doesn’t seem like a viable reproductive strategy.
FVL: It’s probably why they went extinct.
CA: Now, I did some research of my own, by which I mean I asked Benito Cereno, who knows a lot about saints, and he mentioned a few things I wanted to ask you about. He covers the basic story and the lance, Ascalon, which I mostly know from CastleVania, and he mentions that St. George was tortured with a wheel of swords.
FVL: Yes. There were literally around 114 different ways in which he was tortured.
RB: When we talked about how the legend came out of a game of Telephone, we’re really following that tradition. St. George’s legend came around largely because he was a very popular saint, so someone would start a church and say “oh, get one of those St. George stained glass windows like the church across the river has!”
FVL: “The kids like ’em!”
RB: But nobody knew what St. George really did, so it was like “I’ve been to a few churches and I’ve seen a few different ways that he’s been killed, so I’ll put those in and throw my own in just for the hell of it.”
FVL: I guess to fill in the blanks of the story, we should add that the reason he was executed was that this was when the persecution of Christians really ramped up, and he was given an order to run Christians out of the local capital, and he refused.
RB: And he set all his slaves free and gave all his money to the poor, and then they really went to town on him. What is actually known about him is really little, and it’s largely assumed. Most saints have a thing that they’re known for, and when you look at all the stained glass windows, you’re always going to see it. You’re always going to see St. Sebastian shot up with arrows. Other than the dragon thing, which didn’t come into the story for hundreds of years after his death. He doesn’t have a single, solid death story, and for a while, he was actually one of the de-canonized Saints. There was a point where one of the Popes said that he wasn’t a person and it was all just a legend, but then a later pope said he probably did exist and we just don’t know what he did. The oldest evidence they have of him is a church supposedly built on the site where he died, just a few years after his death. There’s also a story of a saint who didn’t have a name, who did the stuff when the order came up to run the Christians out. People figured that was the kind of thing that someone would have a church named after them for, and since there was a church named after someone who they didn’t know what he did, they figured that was probably the guy. That’s as much historical St. George as you can get, everything after that is legends.
CA: I wanted specifically to get to this wheel of swords…
RB: Oh, he has plenty of awesome tortures.
FVL: If you’re into that sort of thing. He got chopped up into pieces.
RB: And then the emperor scattered them to the four corners of the Earth.
FVL: He insulted them on Twitter and then burned them.
RB: And then the ashes turn into a whirlwind of fire and reform into St. George, still not dead. And also not out of jail, and ready to be killed again.
FVL: This is some hardcore manga s**t we got right here.
CA: Benito also says that in some versions he’s a giant.
FVL: Interesting, that’s the first I’m hearing about that. What do you mean by “giant?”
CA: Probably that he was around 6’2″.
RB: There’s a really popular English fairytale story that I haven’t fully read yet, because I think it’s at a point where they just say “okay, there’s two St. Georges now,” because that guy rides off into the sunset with a princess. I want to read that just to get that take.
FVL: So is he a giant?
RB: I think there’s a giant involved.
CA: Is there anything else we need to know about Saint George, the book or the man?
FVL: It starts in Dark Horse Presents #30, which comes out in November, and runs for four issues.
RB: If you guys love it, there might be more.
CA: What if we hate it?
FVL: Then tough s**t, you’ve still got four issues. Deal with that.