From Comics to Novels: Matt Sturges on 'Midwinter'

Midwinter

Leave it to a comics writer to do something a little different.

Midwinter, a new novel by Matthew Sturges that hit bookstores this month, has all the makings of a best-selling fantasy book: A hero on a journey to regain his honor, a feisty female elf who fights without fear, and a magical land of battles past.

But readers of Sturges' comics have learned to expect the unexpected. And his work on Midwinter is no exception, as the author crashes through the boundaries of fantasy fiction in a way that the Library Journal said "breathes new life into a genre too often stunted by stereotypical portrayals of good and bad creatures of the faerie realms. Joining Neil Gaiman in making the crossover from comics to prose fiction, Sturges represents a strong, new voice in fantasy."

"On the surface, it may seem like other fantasy novels you may have read," said Sturges, known for comics like House of Mystery, Jack of Fables and the upcoming Run! mini-series. "But there's some other stuff going on underneath, and I've tried to sort of subvert the expectations of what this kind of book might be like."

Midwinter tells a story that Sturges calls, "The Dirty Dozen with elves." The main character, Mauritaine, is a war hero imprisoned for treason, and when the queen offers him a dangerous mission that will clear his name, he puts together a team of his fellow prisoners to attempt the impossible against the dark forces of the faerie world.

"On the surface, it's a fantasy quest about people who are released from prison in order to go on what may or may not be a suicide mission in order to save the kingdom, and along the way, they get caught up in a burgeoning war that's about the erupt into battle. That's the basic premise," Sturges said. "But what I've tried to do is round out some of the characters a little bit more, and I've tried to gently poke fun at the genre in some ways and explore the themes of loyalty and faith.

"But if it's starting to sound a little serious, I should point out that there are a lot of people hitting other people and monsters with swords," Sturges laughed.

The novel, coming out from the sci-fi/fantasy publisher PYR, was written before Sturges found success in comics -- back when he was part of Clockwork Storybook, the writing group started by Sturges, Bill Willingham (Fables), Chris Roberson (Fables: From Cinderella with Love) and Mark Finn. But after failing to get interest from a publisher for the book, Sturges tucked Midwinter away and pursued his comics career instead.

"Chris Roberson, and I owe him for life for this, found the manuscript and re-read it and enjoyed it. And so he, being a somewhat successful science fiction writer, sent the book to his editor," Sturges said. "He did it without telling me, and the editor called me up out of the blue and said, 'Hey, I've read your book, Midwinter, and I'd really like to publish it.' And I said, 'What? Who are you and how did you read my book?'"

Once he got it approved for publication, Sturges took another look at the novel and decided to do a massive rewrite. "After writing comics for a few years, I felt like I'd really honed my ability to write. So all the flaws that were in the original draft jumped out at me, and I was like, 'Oh my God! Can I even make this good?'" he said. "So I really put it on the chopping block and rewrote, revised and expanded it quite a bit. The book that you would read today is significantly different from that original draft."

In many of comics that Sturges writes -- particularly the ones that focus on the bizarre, like House of Mystery and Jack of Fables -- the writer plays with different perspectives and expectations. In Midwinter, one of the story's twists in perspective is that someone from "our" world, a character named Brian Satterly, travels through the world of faerie along with the band of heroes who accompany Mauritaine.

"There's a human from our world that happens to be tagging along, but he's not the nerdy kid who's going to come and save the kingdom. He's more of a passive bystander who comments on things. He's sort of the 'me' character walking through this world and wondering how a world like this comes to be and how it works the way that it does," Sturges explained. "He's a physicist and looks at life in those terms. So he often finds himself feeling completely out of place."

Another unique aspect of the story is that the "honor" of the story's main character, Mauritaine, is questionable. "I wanted Mauritaine to be someone that you weren't too sure about. I didn't want the reader to feel as though he was immediately heroic," the writer said. "He's not a feel-good hero in that respect, and he's very conflicted about what his duty is and who his loyalty is to."

Rounding out the faerie version of the "Dirty Dozen" is Raieve, a "kick-ass female" who doesn't need saving by anyone, and Lord Silverdun, a nobleman and political prisoner who "brings a touch of class" to the proceeding while serving as Mauritaine's confidante, Sturges said. A character who was raised to be religious, Silverdun also provides a platform for the novel's subtext of spirituality.

"The main theme of the book is loyalty, and the difference between trust and loyalty, and loyalty and faith. Mauritaine is a character so focused on loyalty, not just as a former soldier but to his wife, who may or may not be someone who deserves him," Sturges said. "But one of the things that is unusual about Midwinter is that, in a lot of sci-fi and fantasy books, religion is portrayed as a negative influence -- often as an antagonist. In Midwinter, the one religious group that you encounter is kind of an ally. That's something I always wanted to play with -- turning that expectation on its head."

And like any good comic book or fantasy story, there are a few dark villains among the adversarial forces the heroes face. "The villain who is my favorite is Purane-Es, who is Mauritaine's primary antagonist. He is based, to a large degree, on me. He doesn't want to be in the antagonist role. He'd much rather be a guy who's writing poetry and seducing women in the king's court," Sturges said. "But as much as he'd like that to be his part, because of his brother, he's forced into a role he doesn't want. And he blames Mauritaine for that."

Sturges has already sold his publisher a sequel to Midwinter titled Office of Shadow, which he describes as "a spy thriller in faerie.” Spinning out of the events that end the first novel, the sequel explores the creation of the kingdom's version of the CIA.

But the writer said he has no intentions to ever stop working in comics, so he'll be completing the novel at the same time he's writing comics.

"The great thing about writing comics, and probably the best thing about writing comics, is that you scribble a bunch of notes in your scripts, and you don't even have to write in complete sentences or spell things right. You hand it over to an artist, and they make it look wonderful," Sturges said. "Writing a novel, while the dialogue is really important, you actually have to write the panel descriptions yourself, and that's what people see. So it's a different pacing, and you have to have a voice for your prose that you don't really think about when you're writing comics.

"I'm writing the sequel now," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun going back and forth between comics and prose. It's really nice to use those slightly different parts of your brain."

Related:

Behind the Page: Matthew Sturges

Mathew Sturges Talks Final Crisis: Aftermath - Run! 

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