From Under Mountains: Marian Churchland, Claire Gibson and Sloan Leong Subvert Clichés With A New Fantasy Adventure
There will be magic in From Under Mountains, an ongoing fantasy series coming from Image in 2015 and announced at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Set in the world of Akhara, the story introduces us to a lord's daughter, a disgraced knight, and a runaway thief whose unlikely partnership will change the course of a world locked in a bitter conflict between rival clans. There will be goblins and witches and knights as well, lost in the churning of a world in turmoil. Great houses will square off for power. Thieves will dash into the shadows. Naïve youths will learn that the world is vaster and more terrible than they ever imagined. In these warm, well-worn ways, it will embrace the best that fantasy, as a genre has to offer: sweeping scope grounded in the lives of heroes, villains, and everything in between.
Creators Marian Churchland, Claire Gibson, and Sloane Leong have worked on everything from Elephantmen to magical girl comics about anthropomorphic wolves, and they are bringing their varied experience to bear upon From Under Mountains and the fantasy genre in ways both familiar and innovative. ComicsAlliance talked with them to discuss breaking new ground with thoughtfulness, experience, and memories of Ursula Le Guin.
ComicsAlliance: World-building is one of the most complex, crucial parts of a solid fantasy tale. Tell us about Akhara, the world these characters will inhabit.
Marian Churchland: Akhara is very geographically isolated. Its nearest neighbor is a warring country with which it has no frequent or amicable contact, and only very occasionally does it interact with other countries via ocean trade routes. So that effects the politics and the culture. It's very insular. As far as the lore and the magic go, we're looking for a loose connection to the 8-house line that Brandon Graham is heading, so we've been trying to imagine the ancient origins of some of what appears in his far future versions of the universe, and it's been fun to try to evolve that stuff backwards.
Claire Gibson: I’ve always been fascinated by the way wars -- particularly wars that span a number of years -- can affect a nation's identity and culture. Ahkara is very much a country shaped by war. All our main characters, but especially the ex-knight, Fisher, have been affected by war in different ways.
CA: Tell us about your characters, particularly the main three—the lord’s daughter, the disgraced knight and the runaway thief. What’s their deal, and what do you hope readers will hook onto with their stories?
MC: The lord's daughter and the disgraced knight are written by Claire, so I'll let her expand on them. The thief's name is Tova, and she starts the story in pretty desperate circumstances. She owes people money, she hasn't delivered on promises, and she's forced to take drastic measures to get out of her deepening mess -- and you'll see where that lands her, by the end of the first issue.
CG: Elena is the daughter of a lord, with all the privilege and restrictions that such a position implies. Elena is profoundly aware of her own lack of freedom, and amidst a personal tragedy she sees an opportunity to change her life, but she has a lot to learn. In some ways our disgraced knight, Fisher, represents the perils of everything that Elena longs for. He's seen much more than her. War played him a devastating hand and he's been running from what happened to him ever since, but -- as they say -- you can't run forever.
CA: It looks like From Under Mountains will draw on non-Western cultures and feature a cast comprised mainly (perhaps entirely?) of people of color. In doing so, you’re breaking serious ground in American comics, and the fantasy genre in general. What went into this decision?
MC: As much as I love (and grew up on) classic Western fantasy, I really don't want to keep adding to its status quo. One of my favourite fantasy series is Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea. It also has a mainly-POC cast, but the world is consistently whitewashed on book covers, or whenever it's adapted into other media, because that's the expectation in fantasy worlds: that they are all (or mostly) white, sometimes even against their design or intent. So it's not just good to subvert that expectation, it's actually crucial to the worth and legitimacy of the genre. It's not just a matter of paying some token inclusivity, it's a matter of who's identity is acknowledged and honoured as a hero/lord/queen/wizard/elf/etc. and who's either barred from existence altogether or relegated to the role of vague pillaging villain with a curvy sword.
CG: When I came onto the project, Marian had already drawn some early character concept art, so this was part of the plan very early on - before there was much of a story, in fact. It just made sense, and we've never questioned it since.
Sloane Leong: For me, its an important and personal choice in my work to use characters of color for a numerous amount of reasons. For one it feels like a strange betrayal not to include people like myself in the stories I'm telling and it also feels irresponsible not to challenge our culture's status quo of all white everything. A lot of artists I feel don't want to broach this issue in their work because they feel their work will be "othered" and ignored and I feel like that too, but at the same time I feel encouraged by that. Someone could make amazing work and still not say anything of any consequence about the world they live and thats fine but for me thats not really an option. Just by making work that is inspired by my identity or my cultural heritage, I've already interrupted the flow of homogeneity and maybe made a wave that someone like me could see themselves in.
CA: Are there any tropes, clichés or stereotypes particular to fantasy or comics that you hope firmly to avoid in From Under Mountains?
MC: Claire and I sometimes ask each other if we think we've stumbled into easy stereotypes, as we mull over the scripts. But otherwise, I don't worry too much about this either -- I even think that taking a well worn convention and finding a way to make it your own can be a good starting point.
CG: I agree. Part of working on a fantasy series is working with and around a lot of well-worn stereotypes. If we put all our effort into avoiding them we get too far away from telling the story. That said, the typical golden hero isn't a big part of From Under Mountains.
CA: Marian and Claire, you created fantasy comics together in high school. What kind of media were you two into back then? Is there any continuity of theme or aesthetics from then to now?
MC: I’m not sure -- maybe it's best not to remember what we were into at 16! I read all the usual series-spanning fantasy books, and played a lot of videogames. Pretty much everything I drew at that age was influenced heavily by Capcom artists -- so we had a lot of elves who looked suspiciously similar to the werewolf guy in Darkstalkers.
CG: Marian and I had a lot in common back then. Both of us were big readers, for example. Comics-wise, I'd grown up reading my parents' copies of Life is Hell and anything by Lynda Barry. Marian was really into Bengus and Final Fantasy. She'd seen more anime than I had, and she made me read and buy a lot more comics. Marian was (and is, for that matter) a freakishly talented artist, which meant she could draw whatever I told her to. We ended up with a lot of terrible/amazing comics about me and my fantasy boyfriends. There's no real continuity of theme from then to now, I'm happy to say.
CA: As adults, were there any particular influences you’ve brought to bear upon From Under Mountains? Favorite books, beloved movies, anything like that?
MC: I mentioned Ursula Le Guin already, and she always has a heavy influence on my fantasy stuff. Other than that, I can't think of anything specific for myself. As with all projects, nearly everything that you spend significant time with makes its way in there somehow.
CG: I’m not sure this counts as an influence, but I tend to obsess over any form of serialized fiction I'm exposed to for over 15 seconds, and there's nothing more inspiring then seeing other writers do terrible things to characters you love because there's nothing you can do about it. Only by inhabiting a world with characters of my own can I protect and/or torture them as I see fit.
SL: I don't usually feel a deep connection to sword and sandal high fantasy epics outside of video games, mostly because I feel like the stories end up being really played out machismo hero narratives which of course has its place and can entertaining. I think end up embracing more historical stories like Kaoru Mori's charming yet grounded Otoyomegatari or lo-fantasy tales like Daisuke Igarashi's Hanashippanashi or Majo where subtle magical elements work as surreal extended metaphors for the character's emotions or narrative events. Another strong influence is Sergei Parajanov's films which somehow contain this heavy melancholic whimsy that I find appealing and I particularly love his strong composition and staging, his use of poetic symbolism and how grounded yet loudly theatrical his characters can be.
CA: Sloane, just from these preview pages, the world you’ve established for From Under Mountains has such a strong visual identity. Did you create a kind of artistic mission statement for this book, and if so, what was it? What’s your creative driver for this, visually? Likewise Marian, as an artist yourself, did you have a “look” in mind while developing the series?
SL: The art style and the coloring is just me, trying to whittle myself down to the best of my visual vocabulary. Marian and Claire and our editor Brandon were really helpful in encouraging me to just be myself instead of trying to conform my style to what I thought a fantasy comic should look like. As for the in story look and feel, Marian and I talked a lot about how we wanted this not to be another eastern European influenced fantasy comic so we both did a lot of research into different cultures and their histories. There's a lot of desert in the comic so I was inspired by a lot of ancient North African (Berber, Moors) and Indian rock-cut architecture and design as well as pulling interesting clothing styles and patterns from Choctaw, Zapotec and Hawaiian fashion as well.
MC: One of the first things I did, the night I was coming up with this story, was sketch out costumes and designs and characters. It's a big part of figuring out the world, for me. Sloane has really evolved the look far past those early ideas, though, and improved them and made them her own - it's so awesome to see.
CA: Sloane, your other work—Prism Stalker, Clutch, Garou Shoujo Alpha Princess—runs the gamut in terms of subject and genre. What draws you to the work you do?
SL: I like moving into genres and picking up drawing styles that I haven't been able to explore yet. Its all exciting new territory and I get to be completely consumed as I learn it. And even if I jump back into a genre I'm familiar with and have worked in before, all this experimentation helps me come back to it with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
CA: As an all-women creative team, you are a rarity in the comics world and at the center of an ongoing, community-wide conversation about representation in our industry. Does this enter your thinking—or the comic—at all?
MC: It doesn't necessarily enter my thinking directly. But being a woman in comics is like being a woman in the day to day world, in that if you're doing anything remotely unconventional then it's brought to your attention all the time one way or another. But I think some of this does enter the comic. All of our characters are restrained by the limitations of their environment in some way, and that's particularly true for our protagonist Elena, who is constantly reminded that she doesn't enjoy equal freedom while most of the men around her remain oblivious to the contrast.
SL: I'm not sure how fully it will enter the comic but I definitely think about it, given that I'm someone who is affected by and desires representation. There's a lot of levels to this issue I feel like a lot of folks don't think about, and during this dialogue the word "representation" has reached a saturation point where it's become almost meaningless to many. The core of the problem is that there's so many destructive sub-narratives in our culture that contribute to how we view marginalized artists and writers. For example, the idea that if our work has been accepted at all its only because we were given the courtesy of being accepted simply as social function. That because art history teaches that men, usually white, are the creators of art, women and non-white people are 'late' to the inception of it and therefore their poor representation is somehow deserved.
Representation isn't as simple as "I want to see a brown character in this story", it's "let us be deserving of baseline humanity too" and "don't forget we exist" and "show me a story where I'm not a criminal/a caricature/something to be discarded". Allowing marginalized people to go unrepresented isn't just disappointing to us, it's harmful to our sense of self. All mediums are mirrors reflecting back at us our current state of mind as culture and if a story is told repeatedly for long periods of time, that becomes the only story we hear and the only reflection we see. I'm excited we will get to crack the current cultural mirror a little with our story.
From Under Mountains debuts in 2015 from Image Comics.