Longtime friends and collaborators Nick Tapalanksy and Alex Eckman-Lawn had already dabbled some in the fantasy genre with a story provided in Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Volume 2. This November, they take the plunge again with Th3rd World Studios’ Thanatos Diver.
Young salvage diver Samantha is bored out of her mind living on a remote island. She has a small business with her father, as well as a rival, but something is missing from her life and when she finds herself on the other side of a different world, she might have found some of that adventure she was longing for, but she also might be in over her head.
Newsarama spoke to both Tapalansky and Eckman-Lawn about Thanatos Diver as well as their all-ages approach using video games from their youth as inspiration for this world and the characters that inhabit it.
Newsarama: So, Nick, the story starts out with a flashback and then we dive into (sorry, pun intended) the main plot. Give us a bit of backstory here on who these characters are, especially Samantha.
Nick Tapalansky: You know, I don’t think I realized how often I used the phrase “dive into” until I found myself unintentionally making that joke in, like, every email I sent to Alex (and anyone) after we started working on the book!
But yeah, we do kick things off with a flashback here. When we meet Sam she’s a plucky little kid with big dreams and a thirst for adventure. It’s all she thinks about really (not that that changes much when she’s older), and the discovery she makes on the beaches of Cervaile Island with her mom and older sister definitely puts her over the top. As we pick up the main story ten years later though, she’s bored out of her skull and dying for something exciting to happen. Life isn’t quite as adventurous as she’d hoped for, it turns out.
When Jade, a rival salvage diver and total pain in Sam’s butt, shows up, Sam gets a taste of what she’s looking for by way of a dive challenge. But Jade’s willing to do anything to win, and she’s definitely got a trick or two up her sleeve that Sam might not be expecting.
Alex Eckman-Lawn: Yeah, Jade is Sam's arch nemesis both in terms of her salvage business and on a more personal level as well, so Sam is just as excited about trying to make Jade look stupid as she is about finding treasure.
Tapalansky: Even if she risks eating crow in the process. On the other hand, it does open up some… Interesting possibilities for Sam, even if she doesn’t realize it right away. That adventure she was looking for might not be far off thanks to Jade!
Nrama: Alex, tell us what inspirations went into designing this world. It almost feels like something out of a Legend of Zelda game, or at least some sort of old school SNES RPG.
Eckman-Lawn: Yup! you're exactly right! We grew up in the golden age of JRPGs; the wild west of the SNES when tons of awesome games were coming out with really amazing and fully realized worlds. Zelda definitely was a big influence, but if you look closely you'll spot tons of references to games from that era, and more modern classics. Nick and I (and everyone else in the world I suppose) share a love of the Studio Ghibli films, and we set out to try and capture some of that feel as well.
Tapalansky: Alex and I have been buds for almost ten years now, and even when we were working on Awakening over at Archaia (or BOOM! now, I suppose), we would geek out about old games, anime, and manga that we grew up with. After we finished a short comic for David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Vol. 2, which was both all-ages and much more fantastic than either of us had really dabbled in before, we realized we’d had too much fun tapping into those old favorites for inspiration to not do it again, just in a bigger way.
Alex is right, though. While a lot of our inspiration is definitely applied stylistically and tonally, there are a couple of easter eggs hidden in Sam’s dad’s salvage shop and the underwater city that hardcore nerds can geek out over with us. And there’s plenty more where those came from!
Eckman-Lawn: Yeah, I'm having a blast hiding little nods to our nerdy past all over this book! And most of all, I’m hoping to create something that people can get as psyched about as I was when I first played Zelda or Panzer Dragoon or Final Fantasy.
Tapalansky: Or Lunar, or Shining Force, or Chrono Trigger (or Chrono Cross, a personal fave), or the first time they saw Nausicaa or Spirited Away, or or or…
Nrama: Tell us about the world at large. It's part fantasy, with slight adventure, but nothing overbearing from either genres.
Eckman-Lawn: We definitely tried to strike a balance between genres so we could cram in all the things we love! There is a kind of otherworld fantasy angle, but the story has more in common with “Secret of Mana” than “Lord of the Rings”. We wanted to make sure there were all kinds of awesome places to explore and, for me at least, that means going somewhere a little distant and fantastic.
Tapalansky: Right, I think we both came into this book knowing we wanted to eliminate as many boundaries as we could, which meant trying to blend things together without cutting out possibilities. The world Sam lives in is full of exciting elements to explore, like the long sunken city beneath her island (which salvage divers plunder regularly for supplies), but to Sam it feels claustrophobic. All she’s ever known is her island and a whole lot of water; as far as she knows, that’s all there is out there. Opening the world up for her to see is a big part of the fun for us too, since there are very few limits on what Sam can find, or the adventures she can have. We have a handful of rules, but the world the story inhabits is pretty flexible.
Every issue I tell Alex he’s going to have to draw a crazy dinosaur just to see if he’ll do it.
Eckman-Lawn: He's totally not joking. I get scared every time that he’s serious. I had to get really somber about it.
“Nick... I just don't know about these dinosaurs.”
Tapalansky: Ah, whatever you big baby. It could totally work. Mark my words. By the end of Series 3 there will be something dinosaur-LIKE, at least. And it will be awesome.
Nrama: So I guess the mystery of the book is Thanatos Diver itself. From the first issue we are given an idea that Thanatos, whatever it was, wasn't exactly a good thing. Can you talk more about that without giving too much away?
Tapalansky: That’s definitely one of the bigger mysteries! The nice thing about a world like this is having a really rich history and mythology to unearth as Sam dives deeper (see! you can’t avoid it!) into her adventure.
Both the Thanatos Group and the Thanatos Diver have roots in the world as it was before the city beneath Cervaile Island was flooded. How they’re both tied to the fate of that city, and Sam’s world, isn’t something we can really get into now too much, but we do start exploring it in a big way in issue two, so readers won’t have to wait too long to start kicking theories around. Suffice it to say that seeing the Thanatos Diver can be good news, or very, very bad news, depending on who’s telling the story.
Eckman-Lawn: Yeah! I'm also really drawn to the sort of mythical aspect of the Diver himself. But yeah, like Nick said, we can’t give away too much yet!
Nrama: When designing characters, Nick did you have specific looks or did you let Alex do your thing? If that was the case, Alex, walk us through that process of these characters.
Eckman-Lawn: We actually worked on this together!
Tapalansky: Yeah! I had some loose ideas, but like everything else in the book, Alex and I definitely came at this whole thing like the tag team champs we are.
Eckman-Lawn: Gimme the belt! I want the belt!
Tapalansky: I tossed Alex some kernels and he ran with them, threw some sketches at my face, and we just went back and forth like that for a little bit. It was awesome how organic the process was.
Eckman-Lawn: Nick gave me detailed personality descriptions but fairly vague visual descriptions, so I had a lot of room to design but also got a good sense of who these characters are. I always like designs that are strong, iconic, and a bit simpler so I tried to keep that in mind when designing everyone. Everyone is a lot of fun to draw and I'm really starting to fall in love with them. Bill in particular. I can't get enough of his big doofy face.
Tapalansky: And Alex’s designs have definitely given life to characters in a way I never anticipated. He’s always surprising me, and sometimes just some random concept art will inspire whole jags of story for future volumes. It’s the best way to make comics. When we first started working together, we came at books with a pretty clear division of responsibility: writer and artist. Over the years that’s totally fallen away and now we just jump in together in everything. At the end of the day, yeah, he’s illustrating and I’m writing, but it can be really hard to see where that line is now, which is just the way it should be, if you ask me!
Nrama: How would you compare Thanatos Diver to your previous collaboration? Not just story-wise, but your creative process altogether.
Eckman-Lawn: The process is most similar to what we did in our Legends of the Guard short, but as Nick said, we're really collaborating a lot on the story, general concepts, and even the look of the characters. without a doubt, Thanatos Diver feels more like honest to god teamwork than any book I've ever worked on before.
Tapalansky:: Yeah, absolutely. When we came at the book started by thinking about the things we loved and what we both would have fun with. We come at everything here as a team and, like I was saying, that division of writer/artist blurs an awful lot, even if one of us works mostly with words and the other with illustration when it comes to the final product. It is, hands down, the best way to make comics. Unlike so many other mediums, making comics doesn’t have to be an isolating experience, and it’s way more fun when you can do it with friends.
Eckman-Lawn: I'm also drawing more than ever! A lot of my other work uses collaged photos, scanned paint textures, etc to build images. This time around it's pretty much just pencil, paper, and photoshop for the colors. it's been challenging and really fun for me to approach this comic in such a different way from my other illustration work.
Tapalansky: It’s been absolutely amazing to see Alex swing around and embrace this style, too. He’s right - it’s totally different from his other work. But while I’ll always love our old stuff, I can’t stress enough that these are some of the best comics he’s ever drawn. Every time my email pings with a new page it’s another cut above the last, which should be impossible. The man defies logic.
Looking back at our old comics, there’s a definite progression toward this sort of collaboration, and even toward this kind of “all-ages” story, which is way different than our last lengthy team-up. While we kicked off with Awakening, a zombie-noir that Archaia referred to as “existential horror,” we really started experimenting with short comics afterward, and our focus moved away from horror. We did a sci-fi/post-apocalyptic jam in Popgun Vol. 4, and even had a chance to play in The Perhapanauts sandbox thanks to Todd Dezago and Craig Rousseau. Even though we were finishing Awakening up during that time, the shorts started inspiring us to try out some new stuff and really embrace the kinds of stories that we had fun telling. The one we wound up doing for Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Vol. 2 really solidified the direction of Thanatos Diver, I think, because it really was too fun to not do again, just with our own world and with way more than six pages!
Nrama: Now you're breaking up the story into two volumes, correct?
Eckman-Lawn: Actually, the first volume of Thanatos Diver will be a complete story! We've just got so much more in store.
Tapalansky: Exactly! We’re hoping to keep telling these stories for as long as we can! We have a roadmap, and a general destination that we expect to hit at a certain point, but the fun thing about this series, and this world, is that there’s fairly unlimited potential for detours.
We’re going to be releasing the book on something like a Saga schedule, with five issues coming out monthly before we take a break to get ahead and put a collection together. The first series is debuting in November and should be collected early next summer right when we kick off volume 2.
Eckman-Lawn: Yeah, I don't want to give too much away, but we have some big surprises planned. And I'm really excited about what starts to happen in volume 2!
Nrama: What is it about Thanatos Diver to you that will speak to both young and adult audiences?
Eckman-Lawn: I think the fact that we didn’t make it exclusively for kids is a big part of it. Honestly, we made it for us and we’re adults! But it’s also for the 12 year-old versions of us that still basically call the shots.
Tapalansky: Yeah, I mean, we’re mostly just trying to have a good time here. I think there’s a lot of other adults out there who love the same nerdy things we do, and hopefully they’ll dig the book because it’ll be a bit like coming back to all that stuff. Plus, we’re hitting the age when kids are coming into the picture (if they aren’t already). My wife and I are expecting our daughter in about two weeks, actually! So hopefully this is something that other “grown ups” will want to share with their kids, too.
Eckman-Lawn: Plus you're never too old for adventure and exploration! That's why kids and adults both love Star Wars, Spirited Away, Indiana Jones, and Dragon Ball.
Tapalansky: The fact that this is the sort of thing we would’ve loved when we were younger is a huge bonus, and hopefully it’ll help impart our particular brand of geeking out on a new generation!
Check out the official Thanatos Diver page for more, including pre-order information, or click on the last image above to print out the pre-order form for yourself!