Aspen Comics is taking a little different approach to Free Comic Book Day this year, offering two Zero Issues of upcoming series — Damsels in Excess and The Zoohunters — in one free comic.
Vince Hernandez, Aspen's editor-in-chief, is writing the Damsels book, working with artist Mirka Andolfo. The story, which will begin with a new #1 in July, is what Hernandez calls a "contemporary fairy tale," portraying the war that erupts between five kingdoms through the eyes of their five princesses.
Zoohunters #0 is the long-awaited, visual-rich story by writer/artist Peter Steigerwald, Aspen's vice president and active colorist. The space-based story, which begins in the fall, centers on characters that capture creatures to collect and sell, and their adventures throughout the universe.
Newsarama talked to Hernandez to find out more about Damsels in Excess and Aspen's approach to this year's Free Comic Book Day.
Newsarama: Vince, I was reading through Damsels in Excess, and it's such an unusual approach to a fantasy story. How do you categorize this? It feels very modern, with characters talking directly to the reader.
Vince Hernandez: Yeah, I like to label it as a contemporary fairy tale, because it has a fairy tale feel. But the way it's written is very much like a reality TV show.
Nrama: Yeah, it's a little different for Aspen — you guys often have female leads, but how did you come up with the idea for this reality show fantasy comic?
Hernandez: I had the idea for awhile, and it was something I wanted to try. I knew, after Charismagic, that I wanted to do something that would not only be different for Aspen, but also something different for me. I hadn't really written a story in this style before, where the fourth wall is broken and the characters are talking directly to the reader. So it was a new approach on all fronts.
We had never done a classic fairy tale story. You mentioned we have all these female leads in most of our books, but for some reason we've never done a classic fairy tale with damsels.
So once I presented them with the idea I had for these bickering damsels, from there we just started developing it, and so far, people seem to be really attached to the designs of the characters that we've shown so far.
Nrama: Where does the title "Excess" come from?
Hernandez: There are two ideas behind the word "Excess." One is that I wanted to play on the "damsels in distress" phrase you hear all the time, and also, one of the overlying plot themes of the book is there are no men in the story. And that's actually part of what you come to find out in the first issue and into the second issue is how did all these men become extinct? And that's a big part of the story.
So it plays on both fronts. It's a pun, but it's also part of the story. They’re literally damsels in excess in this story.
Nrama: You introduce five realms and five princesses.
Hernandez: Yeah, it's my version of the classic storybook idea of different lands and different kingdoms, and different rulers to go with each one. I love reading fantasy novels, so I had this vision in my head of the universe we wanted to correct. I did a rough version of the map, and the series artist, Mirka Andolfo, she created the map.
I wanted everything to feel like, geographically, it made sense. Each one's a kingdom, and each has a princess. And each one came into power in a different way.
And the basic idea behind the story is that each princess is trying to overcome this challenge of how to take over all five realms.
The main character is Bethany, who's on most of the covers. She is our protagonist. She's not part of the inner circle of the women, and that brings peril to her life, and that's where the story takes off in issue #1.
Then there's Ilina, who is kind of the arrogant, kind of outlandish character. She's got a massive crown and is very garish in appearance. I didn't want to stereotype each character as, you know, the funny character and the mean character and the good character. Our characters in this book are more gray than just "hero" and "villain." But Ilina is a very arrogant and conceited character. But as the story progresses, you find out that her motives aren't necessarily bad. They're central to her kingdom.
Princess Barra is kind of a heavy — not literally, because she's kind of a heavy set woman, but also because she's the elder stateswoman of the group. And her kingdom is very rough and ragged. They're horse people, people of the land. The other women have grown up under the tutelage of men, but she's always been the ruler of her kingdom, so she's very hard edged. But her motives aren't necessarily as black and white as a villain's would be.
Princess Kaleena and Princess Kimberlein are the balance of the group. Kaleena is a swords woman — her kingdom is metallurgy and armor making, so she provides all five realms with armor. Her kingdom is very stalwart and stoic, and she's the grounded person who holds everyone together. But once the story kicks off in issue #1, there are allegiances drawn, and she's kind of caught in the middle.
That's also the case with Kimberlein. They're friends with everybody. This is a story of princesses who are close acquaintances, and from there, everything falls apart. And Kimberlein and Kaleena are both caught in the middle of that.
Nrama: There are also some animal friends.
Hernandez: Yeah! And kids seem to really respond to that. We have a ferret named Jacob, and a unicorn named Arnen. They talk, and that's a staple of the series I do. I just love animals, so there's often a talking animal here or there.
Arnen the unicorn is very much an arrogant unicorn. And Jacob the ferret started out as something else, and he was cursed into ferret form. There are a lot of fairy tale elements to the story. But it's grounded in a more contemporary feel.
Nrama: I assume you've got an ending in mind for the five issues that make up volume one, but you have stories beyond that?
Hernandez: Yeah, we're planning for at least two volumes. I'm hoping people support it enough that it can continue beyond that. At Aspen, we're a smaller company, so we like to gauge interest and see what the audience's reaction is.
Nrama: And what are people going to get in the Free Comic Book Day issue?
Hernandez: Yeah, we have back-to-back Zero Issues. Damsels is on one side, and The Zoohunters is on the other. It's starting in the fall. It's a passion project from Peter Steigerwald. Anyone who knows Peter's work knows that he's very detail-oriented in what he does. And this story is a big, galaxy epic, but it's also a character piece.
Zoohunters is about a father-and-son team that is traversing through the galaxy, collecting different intergalactic species, and the adventures that come out of that. But as it continues, you'll see there's a broader universe.
We're hoping people check it out, because it's a free debut of two new books. We've never done that before. We've never offered a Zero Issue for free, let alone two. So we're really hoping that a lot of fans that haven't given Aspen a try up to this point will check out these new properties!