The world of fairy tales has been mined extensively for comic books, films, TV, and more. Classic tales of good versus evil, morality plays, and high fantasy, it turns out, leave room for a lot of interpretation.Zenescope Entertainment's Grimm Fairy Tales line takes that concept and skews it to the horror side, which was arguably the intention of the original Brothers Grimm's stories. Since launching in 2005, other dark versions of the Grimm tales have hit various media, but no one has used it to build an entire universe of characters and titles the same way. After a brief stint in Wonderland, writer Troy Brownfield (full disclosure: Brownfield used to be a regular freelance contributor to Newsarama) moved over to Grimm Fairy Tales: Myths and Legends to write the final two arcs on the spin-off series. Now with that series reaching its close, Brownfield talks about fairy tales, T&A, and announces his next Zenescope project right here. Newsarama: So, Troy, you come onto Myths and Legends and wind up carrying it through the end of this series. When you know you're finishing a series' run, what unique challenges and pressures does that present to you?
Troy Brownfield: I approach every project with the same thought. And that is: Don’t f**k this up. (laughs)
Actually, the way that I got on Myths & Legends in the first place is pretty funny, and leads to the answer of your question. I met [Zenescope Executive Editor] Raven Gregory years ago, and we’ve become friends, stayed in touch, etc. In 2010, I was asked to pitch an idea that became the “White Knight” issue of Tales from Wonderland. From that time, Raven and I kept looking for something for me to work on.
Earlier this year, Raven messages me with “Call me”. So I call and he says, “Hey, you wanna do some Myths & Legends?” And I say, “Uh, yeah.” Conversation goes on, and he says, “In this issue, and in this issue”, and I say, “Wait, how many am I doing?” And Raven says, “Four. Maybe eight.” Raven Gregory, Master of Understatement. That was in April; in June Raven tweeted that I was the new writer on Myths & Legends, and it struck me that, “Oh yeah, I guess that’s true.”
So, initially, I didn’t know that the plan was to end the book there. We talked about the first arc, which was 18-21, the re-visiting of the Hansel & Gretal characters, Hank and Gina. And then Raven set me up for the 22-25 arc that is the culmination of the last two years of the title, plus elements carried over from Bad Girls and Grimm Fairy Tales that play key parts in 22-25. The book ends at 25, but sets up a lot of new things. It is, as they say, all part of the evolution of the Grimm Universe.
All of that is fairly intimidating when you think about it. Raven and I are on the phone running through the detailed plot for 22-25, and I remember hanging up and thinking, regarding 25, “That’s like 19 speaking parts in multiple countries and x number of deaths and it’s 40 pages and how the hell am I going to do this?” So I felt the weight of it, but my confidence was really boosted by the fact that Raven and the other guys had the belief that I could do it. It is a Big Action Story, and damn it, I know that I can write Big Action Stories.
From a technical standpoint, the biggest challenge is getting each character voice correct, and giving everyone something to do. Sela in particular has been around since Zenescope Day One. You have to do right by her. So there was a lot of coordination and juggling on my own part to make sure those elements were there. I did lose track of how many wolves Britney/Red Riding Hood has once, but I caught it. (laughs)Um, why is there a
MAN on the cover
of my Zenescope
book?!Nrama: Tell us about your story in Grimm Fairy Tales: Myths and Legends #24 and #25. How much do you have to focus on wrap-up of everything that came before versus telling a story with the characters you chose?
Brownfield: This story is the natural conclusion to the preceding arcs. We’ve seen several of the Big Bads (Venus, the Sea Witch, Baba Yaga) looking for the pieces of the Sunstone in order to summon the highborn Helios from his prison in the sun. Samantha, the Guardian of the Nexus and protégé of Sela, has opposed them., and eventually figures out that the three women are working together. Baba Yaga intends to use Helios as a weapon against Malec, the Dark One, one of the big BIG Bads of the Grimm Universe. The Dark One killed her mother, and Baba wants blood.
So, we have a group of villains on one side, and a group of villains on the other. However, Baba Yaga is so focused on revenge that she doesn’t realize how big of a danger Helios is to the planet. That’s where Samantha, Sela and their allies come in. Raven and I have joked about the G.I. Joe mini-series analogy, but it fits: you’ve got groups of villains trying to put together a super-weapon, and the good guys are out to stop them.
The arc is appropriate to close out the book because it uses everyone that was featured in the run of the title. Britney/Red Riding Hood? Yep. The Beast? Yep. Erica/The Little Mermaid? Yep. Hank and Gina? Indeed. And so on. I also got to bring back some more obscure characters, like Marcus Jenkins and Patricia (from GFT 17 and 18, respectively). We put a big bow on that, and lay down some pavement for some new stories to branch out of it.
Nrama: What is appealing about working in the Zenescope Grimm universe in general? Just how many takes on old fairy tale characters can there really be?
Brownfield: Second part first? A surprising number, actually. Consider first that Zenescope’s Grimm Universe has been around since 2005. That precedes both NBC’s Grimm TV series and ABC’s Once Upon a Time by about six years, with Zenescope’s revisionist take on Wonderland coming out about three years before the recent Tim Burton film. So, in terms of the recent boom in those kinds of things, the Grimm Universe was preceded by Fables in comics and not a lot else. I’m well aware of literary antecedents, like Angela Carter, or the film adaptation of Carter’s “A Company of Wolves” by Neil Jordan, as well as a couple of things here and there, but I mean in an ongoing comics world sense. So, in essence, the proliferation of those kinds of stories shows how flexible these old tales and characters can be. For Zenescope, Joe Brusha, Ralph Tedesco, and Raven have taken very specific approaches with the characters, beginning with the more morality-play style storytelling that began the home GFT title, then rolling it out slowly into other worlds and broader concepts.
And that, to take it back to the first part, is part of what I find appealing. They’ve rigorously built their own mythology and their own takes on the characters, blending the feel of the old stories with a modern setting and sensibility. I like the use of Earth as a nexus that connects Wonderland, Oz, Myst and Neverland. And I love that they’re not precious about it. They’re not afraid to shake up their own status quo if it makes long-term sense.
Plus, and you can bold this: Raven is a great editor. He needs to get more appreciation on that scale. The guy flat-out cares about the story being told and works hard to find ways to make a story better. Frankly, Joe, Ralph and Raven are amazingly hands-off. They may craft an idea, but then they’ll hand it over and let you run with it. We went through a couple of versions of this Summoning arc before we settled on the final approach because everyone wanted the best take that positioned the characters to move forward.Nrama: Of course, you like the Grimm universe so much, you're sticking around beyond Myths and Legends, right? What can you tell us about your plans when you move over to the standard Grimm Fairy Tales title?
Brownfield: I am sticking around, and here’s where we can announce that I’ll be writing Grimm Fairy Tales #83 and #84, for sure. I likened this to Dad letting me take out the Harley (GFTM&L), which is awesome, but since I didn’t wreck the Harley, I get to drive the Big Car for a couple of months. (laughs) I’m not sure what the long term plan is for the whole line, but I know that I’ll probably be doing something else in the earlier part of 2013, but no one is ready to discuss that.
For 83 and 84, I’m dealing with Sela trying to get back to a regular life after the events of GFTML 22-25 and her incarceration post issue 75 of GFT. My two issues reintroduce a familiar face, give Sela some new things to do, and introduces a couple of new characters, including the Zenescope take on a guy that I’m frankly surprised we haven’t used much yet.
Nrama: There is of course an ongoing conversation about women in comics, from those writing, creating, and editing them, to how the characters themselves are portrayed. Zenescope has a bit of a reputation as a "T&A" company. What do you say to those who hold off on reading because of that? What are you trying to do to change that reputation?
Brownfield: Well, here’s the thing. Let me first be clear that I don’t speak for the company entire, just myself. And I acknowledge that Zenescope has a reputation for having what you could call cheesecake covers or pin-up covers, what have you. My first challenge to those that might dismiss Zenescope would be to, of course, read the books. My first arc on GFTML, for example, features a heroine that spends most of four issues in a T-shirt and jeans (she’s in a business suit for a couple of pages, too). When I’m writing, I follow the example set early on by Joe, Ralph and Raven, which shows that Zenescope’s heroines are smart, tough, and resourceful while typically also being beautiful and/or sexy.
I think that Zenescope tends to take more heat because we have more books with female leads and female villains, and those women in turn are on the cover of nearly every book, and they invariably are drawn by skilled artists that emphasize the beauty or shape or eroticism of the character or situation. Some of the covers are playful, like the Holiday or Halloween special covers. Of course those are toying with the idea of what a “Zenescope cover” is “supposed” to look like. It’s done with a wink. If you look at the covers for GFTML 25, though, with Sela and Samantha by Alfredo Reyes III or the shot of Helios leaving defeated characters by Mike Lilly . . . man, those covers could have come from any heroic publisher in any era. I’ve seen covers from other companies this year, some much bigger, that I would consider way “worse” than 85% of anything Zenescope has done.
But that’s neither here or there. I would hope that a potential reader would embrace the cliché of not judging a book by its cover, and take a look inside.
However, I do feel like I need to point out that Zenescope’s readers, which include a very healthy number of women, actually really like the covers. And we have a BIG and vocal cosplay segment of fans, which the company paid tribute to earlier this year with a Cosplay Special. Those ladies put a ton of work into their costumes, and they deserve our respect as fans and craftspersons. There are also Zenescope readers that get every single cover and strive to get the convention special covers (which are definitely more of the pin-up variety) because they really enjoy the art. So, inasmuch as there are some that may take issue with the covers or art, and that is their right, I also believe that there is a core readership of both genders and other potential readers that do not find this a barrier to entry.Nrama: You've worked with several artists at Zenescope already. Jumping from artist to artist, does it make it hard to establish a rapport? How much are you able to play to an artist's strengths with limited work time together?
Brownfield: Sometimes, that can be tricky, but Zenescope has some really talented artists that dive right in. Thus far, I’ve worked the most with Josh Hood; he’s done four issues with me. That guy is a total pro; he drew JLA: Scary Monsters among other things, so he of course knows what he’s doing. Hood gets what I intended so easily that it’s almost scary. Tony Donley has been great, too; he did 23-24, so there’s good continuity there. With Tony, I figured out pretty quickly that he’s a good movement and action guy, which fits those issues well. Hood, I noticed, has a good feel for epic scope, so I actually went bigger with some things in #25. His presence encouraged me to do some crazier things, which you’ll see.
I should also give a special mention to letterer Jim Campbell. Jim’s lettered all of my issues of Myths & Legends, and he’s done it with good humor and only occasional threats to my person. I had the idea to do some character call-outs in white on certain pages, rolling with the idea that each issue could be someone’s first. I wanted it to be reader friendly, and thus give the new person the chance to immediately know the names of each character, even if they didn’t know what they did, etc. And Jim realized that perfectly on the page. Our colorists also deserve special mention; those men and women do a fine job, as do the regular editors, like Hannah Gorfinkel and Matt Rogers.
Nrama: You also frequently work with co-writers, whether it's Matt Brady at Dynamite or Raven Gregory at Zenescope. What's the process like with a co-writer and what are the advantages of doing things that way rather than just writing alone?
Brownfield: The obvious advantage isn’t that you have less work, because you really don’t. The advantage is that you have a built-in sounding board, a pre-editor of sorts, and the fun of putting a story together with a friend. Matt and I have worked together for years, beginning in 2004 with Newsarama pieces and moving up through things like our Batman 80-Page Giant last year. He and I have an incredible short-hand for explaining ideas, but can also reign in each other’s frequent craziness. It makes for tight plotting, that’s certain. Matt and I are working on more stuff both in and out of comics, but that’ll have to wait.
With Raven, it’s a different dynamic because Raven is The Boss, in a sense, but he doesn’t flail you with that. He brought me the initial big idea of 22-25 from him, Joe and Ralph, but then I got to take that and shape it, bring in the full cast, etc. I got to add an amazing amount of specificity to that story, honestly. But it was fun to go over it all and talk it through on the phone. When you see 25, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I cracked him up with my “Great Wall of China” monologue. It was me rolling on a certain thing and how and why it should be included. He supported my general lunacy, and I thank him for that.
Brian Andersen, creator of “So Super Duper”, and I have also been talking about a collaboration. Brian’s a great guy and has a trade collection of “SSD” coming out; I hope people look for that.Nrama: Outside of the Zenescope line, you're into chapter 2 of your webcomic, Sparkshooter. How has that process been going, and what has surprised you about actually sitting down and making a webcomic?
Brownfield: I love doing Sparkshooter (which, if you don’t know, is about a young band in the Indianapolis music scene circa 2003; www.sparkshooter.com for more). Artist Sarah Vaughn just keeps getting better, in my opinion. We’ve had a great time. The only downside was that Sarah had a wrist-injury that sidetracked us for a few weeks, but we’ve been back up and running for a bit, and it’s all great. After Page 38 on 12-12-12, we’re taking a break from original STORY pages for the holidays, but will be running new pin-ups from Sarah on those interim Wednesdays. We’ll return on January 9th with new story pages; that’ll be page 39, and we’ll roll straight through Page 52, which is the end of Chapter 2.
As far as what’s surprising, I have to say that I’m honestly surprised that we got some of the coverage we did, and the very positive words of encouragement I’ve received from what I would consider high-ranking or legendary industry folks. When Kurt Busiek comments that he has a Blondie song stuck in his head because of something that Sarah and I made, then I consider that to be an enormous compliment.
Nrama: Of course the big catch phrase in the industry right now is "creator owned." Do you have anything else, perhaps of your own, coming down the pipeline, or at least any designs on that sort of book?
Brownfield: Obviously, Sparkshooter is creator-owned, but Matt and I indeed have designs on some things, comic and non, of that variety. In some ways, it’s more of a case of what gets ready first. I will say that I ultimately plan to make Sparkshooter available in another format. For other things, we’ll see.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to tell our readers who might not normally check out the Grimm books?
Brownfield: The Grimm Universe boasts a variety of characters and concepts, and it includes fantasy, horror, action and adventure. I believe that there is a wide amount of story material in there for a wide audience. The ladies are smart and strong, and the threats are frequently terrifying. We have “Previously In” pages that make it easy for new readers to get into the flow of the story, and the books are readily available at Comixology. You can follow the Z on Twitter and Facebook, and I hear that there’s a fan-maintained wiki out there that keeps track of the characters, in addition to a fairly robust and fan-maintained ComicVine presence. The Summoning (Grimm Fairy Tales Myths & Legends 22-25, with 24 out now and 25 out in January) is pretty easy to get into, and other great Zenescope titles like the newer Robyn Hood and the regular Wonderland and GFT ongoings are easy to step into as well. If you’re interested in going back to the beginning, the company recently began issuing new editions of the Grimm Fairy Tales trades with a uniform trade dress and spectacular covers by art director Anthony Spay. His designs set the tone for the evolution of the Grimm Universe going forward. Really, just check it out and have a good time.