Writer’s Commentary: George Mann Talks ‘Dark Souls’ #1
The hugely successful action role-playing game series Dark Souls allows players to immerse themselves in a primeval world of dragons, witches, and warriors as they try to piece together the parts of their characters' stories. Building on the world of Demon's Souls, and with three Dark Souls games to explore, the series has created a rich environment that Titan Comics hopes to develop further in its Dark Souls comic book series.
The first issue sold out on its day of release, but Titan has rushed out a second printing, so on the day that the new edition hits stores, we asked series writer George Mann to provide exclusive commentary on the book, introducing us to some of the themes and Easter eggs and his own favorite pages from artist Alan Quah.
I wanted to open with something horrifying. Something that really set the tone for what was to come. This is Dark Souls, after all! So we start with Fira's family, back in Harrowmark, decaying before our eyes as the undead curse take hold. Along with it, we have Fira's voice over, musing on the horrors of life after death. Of course, this isn't a literal memory, but a fragment, an impression — Fira's failing mind piecing things back together.
This opening page is also important because I was really keen not to present this story in too linear a fashion. That's part of remaining true to the source material — very little of the story in the Dark Souls games is presented in chronological order, and I wanted to preserve that sense of the reader having to uncover the true story as they read on. That should hopefully become more and more obvious throughout the arc — you're not being spoon fed all the information. There are stories within stories here, and dark ones at that.
And so we meet our protagonists, Fira and Aldrich. Here, Fira is waking by a campfire, startled by her horrific memories. She's disorientated, and immediately distrustful.
It was important to me from the outset that we led with a female lead protagonist, who operated with a male sidekick. We've not seen many female leads in the Dark Souls universe yet, and I was keen to explore this aspect of the universe. A female knight seemed like the perfect way to go — a knight, a warrior, a mother. In many ways she's an unreliable narrator — with her memory issues and the creeping threat of the undead curse, she can't even trust her own mind. As a writer that's a really interesting idea to explore. Our main PoV character for the whole arc has secrets, not just from the other characters, and not just from the readers, but from herself. How much of that is because of the curse, and how much is because she doesn't want to remember?
I love Alan's designs for the characters. Fira in her knightly armour, thematically hinting a connection to or homage to dragons. Aldrich was initially younger, and dressed in more traditional 'high fantasy' attire, but we wanted to make him more shamanistic, more pagan and occult, and so our editor Tom [Williams] threw in a few suggestions and Alan did a redesign. He really nailed it, too, I think — there's something sinister and strange about Aldrich that perfectly suits both his character, and the general tone of the Dark Souls universe.
It's telling here that, at first, Fira sees Aldrich as a threat. She's following her instincts, unable to trust her addled mind. That's one of the key elements of this story, and of Fira's character — the undead curse is leeching her memories. She's slowly losing her identity, and she's now forced to rely on Aldrich (who seemingly still has all of his faculties) to guide her. He's like her outsourced memories — he reminds her what has happened to them, where they're going, and why. It clearly doesn't sit well with Fira that she's forced to rely on someone else like this, but she has little choice.
The poppet here is a link to the memory we saw on the first page, and a visual cue that tells us Fira has known Aldrich — and trusted him — at some point before. This is her daughter's poppet, and now Aldrich has it. Maybe later we’ll see how that came about.
Here we're seeing a little more of the dynamic between the two leads, how there relationship woks, while also getting a sense of the immediate story. We've dropped in on Fira and Aldrich mid-journey. They're nearing their destination, and Aldrich is explaining that there's an object to be retrieved. Again, I was keen to give away just enough information to tantalise the reader here, rather than explain everything upfront. We now know what they're doing, but not why, or how it fits into the greater story.
This whole scene was also a chance for Alan to do something interesting with the setting, too. Aside from his wonderful character design, we really wanted to get a sense of the weirdly fantastical into the backgrounds, which is why you're seeing all these odd crystalline outcroppings, hinting at the cave system they're going to enter in a moment.
Alan's done a great job here, making the entrance to the labyrinth seem forbidding, like a set of jaws, waiting to entrap the unwary.
This page had two jobs to do, to my mind — to tell us a bit more about Aldrich's character, and to scale up the immediate threat and introduce some action, now that we've established our protagonists.
This is our first reminder that in the world of Dark Souls, things don't stay dead for very long. I wanted to get a battle scene in relatively early, and this was originally going to present more of a threat, but I liked the casual way Fira deals with the skeleton here, as if she's done it a hundred times before. It's a little like that scene in Indiana Jones, where he pulls the gun on the guy with the whip — it's just another battle that she can just deal with swiftly before tackling the real problem. A bump in the road. I think that tells us a great deal about Fira in a short space of time.
The real threat is now presenting itself, though, and it's more insidious than a skeleton, or even the Dragon Augurer himself — he's using the labyrinth against them, reflecting memories and thoughts from their own minds, and twisting them. I thought this would be another interesting thing to explore with Fira, given her particular problem — what if someone else could see inside her head, and maybe use those fragments of memory against her? It's the perfect weapon — twisting the few precious memories she has, but also dragging into the light the things she's trying to repress.
We're also seeing here that Aldrich clearly knows a lot more about what's going on, and he's keeping out the information to Fira as she needs it.
Pages Eight & Nine
This DPS is a true work of art from Alan. This is Fira under psychic assault. We're getting glimpses of what's going on in her head, and it's allowing us to piece together a few things about what's going on, and what her backstory is. There's a pyre of burning people, a reprise of her undead daughter, a more metaphorical glimpse of Fira herself, her image decaying in a mirror, an unknown knight fighting a dragon, Fira putting someone to the sword and yes, that's Solaire, addressing members of Fira's knightly order.
This is an important cameo in this issue, and we were keen to anchor our story in Dark Souls lore. From the very start we knew we were setting out to tell a brand new story in the Dark Souls universe, rather than retread the existing narratives from the games, but this appearance of Solaire (along with what happens on the following pages) helps to root out new tale in the existing mythos. It's also a fun Easter egg for Dark Souls fans, and for me to write, too!
Wracked with confusion, manipulated by the labyrinth, Fira sees her son, Pieter, running through the labyrinth, and goes after him, despite Aldrich's appeal. Of course she would — for Fira, this whole quest is driven by her desire to save her family, or at least to avenge them — at this point, we're not entirely sure what's become of them. We've seen hints on the opening page, but can we trust Fira's memories? Are they Hollows that could still be restored if the curse is broken?
Of course, we're not going to find any of that out just yet...
What a page! Alan outdid himself here. Fira's been led into a trap. But what's this? Solaire, here, in the labyrinth? We've just established she knows him...but look for the subtle clues. The colouring is just that little bit darker. The sun motif on Solaire's chest isn't quite right — this is all purposeful, a visual clue of the menace that Fira is facing. She's not really battling Solaire — she's battling her own guilt.
Pages Twelve & Thirteen
I love this spread. I wanted to give Alan space to go to town, and he really did, devising this dynamic layout for the battle. These aren't really Solaire's words, but Fira’s inner turmoil, projected outwards. The labyrinth is manifesting this twisted version of Solaire as a reflection of her guilt and doubt at abandoning her order. What she's really dealing with here is survivor's guilt. We don't really know what happened to her Order, yet, but whatever it was, we know that it's affected her deeply. Solaire is a physical manifestation of that, and this spread is her overcoming that torment. She knows she won't survive if she succumbs to it, and so she pushes through, and fights it, seeing it for what it really is. Of course, we're also hammering home just how finely honed Fira's fighting skills are, here. She's a force to be reckoned with.
Aldrich has sat out the battle, just as he told her he would. He's not a fighter. But he's made himself useful, establishing a route through the labyrinth in the meantime. Fira's rightfully wary here, again — and this was another opportunity for me to take a look at their relationship. How could she trust someone she hardly remembers? It's not necessarily Aldrich's fault — but Fira is in a difficult position. She doesn't have any other choice. She's still wary, though.
Of course, if you've already read the issue, you'll know that this isn't the real Aldrich. The Dragon Augurer, using his labyrinth, is manipulating Fira, and using Aldrich's previous show of cowardliness to his advantage. There's a reason he wants Fira to go first... so she's turned her back on him.
Man, I love this page. To me it's redolent of something from The Savage Sword of Conan, or an old Frazetta painting of a barbarian warlord from the time before history began. Just look at the Dragon Augurer, sitting on his throne made of a dragon's rib cage! He's covered in bone fetishes and charms, and holding the dagger made from one of Andolus's teeth. The floor around him is littered with the remains of the dead — those who have entered the labyrinth before Fira, have even made it to the foot of his throne, and have still failed to take the dagger from him. He's a wizard, yes, but he's a warrior too, and he's sitting there in his throne, boasting. Perfect villain material!
The most important line on this page, though, is the Dragon Augurer's claim that Fira is a creature of death. What's all that about? What does he know that we don't? That perhaps even Fira doesn't? It's another hint at the real story, which at the moment is hiding, just out of view.
Another page where Alan's art really brings things to life. The Dragon Augurer has no compunction — he's still using misdirection to attempt to stop Fira, but she's wise to it, and isn't about to fall for his trickery. They're both bristling for a fight.
Pages Eighteen & Nineteen
Another chance for Alan to go to town with the layouts. This mini boss battle is over fairly swiftly, and Fira doesn't come out of it well — despite us having seen how capable a warrior she is. That's the essence of Dark Souls, though — take on one of the bad guys and you're more likely to die than live. She puts up a brutal fight, but she's injured and down, and she's basically lost. He's about to finish her off.
Until the real Aldrich turns up and sticks a blade in his neck. This tells us everything we need to know about Aldrich — he's not about to put himself at risk until he really has no choice left, and even then, he's going to come at the bad guy from behind with a hidden blade. I love the look of shock on the Dragon Augurer's face, here.
The real key to this page, though, is the comment from Fira, when Aldrich asks her how she knew the Aldrich she killed was the fake, the manifestation, and she says that she didn't. They might have won the day — just — but we're ending on a downbeat. These two companions aren't friends, and despite the fact he interceded and saved her life, she isn't about to start trusting him. There's something tragic in that, but it's key to the tone we're trying to capture with this comic. The world has gone to hell, and these characters have live through it. The apocalypse has already happened, and they're clinging on by the tips of their fingers, trying to find a way to turn back the clock. Of course they're not going to trust one another. These tolerating each other in order to try to save the world, while everyone they meet is either trying to kill them, or telling them it's far too late.
Dark Souls #1 is in stores now. Dark Souls #2 is available May 25th.