Fantasy Looks Into The Face of Cancer In ISCARIOT

"Iscariot" preview
Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press
Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

If you had the magical power to save a person dying from cancer, would you? Of course you would. But what about the side effects?

That's the subject of the upcoming original graphic novel Iscariot from BOOM!/Archaia Press. Iron: Or, The War After cartoonist S.M. Vidaurri returns with a story set in a land where the Age of Magic is waning but one mage, Iscariot, breaks his vows and gives a young girl named Carson the power to survive cancer.

With Iscariot set for release October 14, Newsarama spoke with Vidaurri about his watercolor coming-of-age story set in magical fantasy, and balancing that fantasy with the depiction of the very real effects of cancer.

Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

Newsarama: Shane, what can you tell us about Iscariot?

S.M. Vidaurri: Iscariot, to me, is a story about how we can hurt each other even when our only intention is to help. Iron: Or, The War After was, in its core, about how we justify our choices, and how that looks devoid of context. With Iscariot I wanted to show characters who are trying to do their best to help, but how that may backfire or how their help may be harmful to someone else. We are at our most dangerous when we do what we think is right, and peoples definition of help isn’t always helpful.

Nrama: Drilling down deeper, who is the man called Iscariot?

Vidaurri: Iscariot is single-minded in his attempt to reform the magical order that raised him. He is second in line to lead below the elderly Zeosh, and is often at odds with Matthaus, a much younger, and more popular wizard.  He meets Carson during one of his many visits to the outside world and we find out that they have formed an odd friendship. He becomes one of Carson’s only visitors beside her mother. I’m not sure how much more I can say without giving away some important plot points, but basically I feel like Iscariot embodies that moment after you give a thoughtless compliment to someone and then you realize what you said actually hurt their feelings.

Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

Nrama: And Carson, who is she?

Vidaurri: Carson Reeves is a young girl who’s dealing with quite a lot. She’s recently had a major surgery and is recovering from cancer treatment. The book opens with her in the waning days of her hospital stay. The doctors are still not sure how successful the surgery and treatments have been, but she’s feeling better enough that she is quite restless being stuck in her room. She meets Iscariot and he brings a much needed distraction. She counts the days until he is supposed to return and chastises him when he fails to arrive. Later in the story, Carson joins Iscariot and becomes a wizard. She wants to use her powers to help people, or to fit in at school, but Iscariot has other, more lofty plans for her. 

Nrama: What's the world like in Iscariot?

Vidaurri: Iscariot takes place long after the era when those with magic ruled. The foundation that enabled those to channel magic has become more and more unstable, and Iscariot and his order are among the last who are able to tap into that ancient source of power. Most people, like Carson, have never seen magic, or even heard of it. And Iscariot is one of the few in his order who venture into the outside world.

Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

Nrama: And although this is a world full of magic, you have the very real disease of cancer. Not some mythical ailment that can be helped by a potion, but something real. Can you talk about contrasting fantasy with living with cancer?

Vidaurri: Well I think fantasy has always intersected with very real problems. For example, The Lord of the Rings is clearly affected by J.R.R. Tolkien’s experience in World War I. One has only to read the section about the Dead Marshes to get an idea of the horrors that he’d seen. Of course, my experience with young children with cancer is second-hand. I previously did a book, Jim Henson: Storyteller, and I had been trying to get into volunteering and I met up with a charity called a Free Bird, which does art mentoring for children with terminal diseases, so I did a number of events visiting kids, reading them my story and drawing with them. That experience definitely influenced how I approached Carson. I didn’t want to base her on any specific child, because I felt like that wouldn’t be right, but I just let how the kids felt about things and how they talked to me inform the choices Carson would make. For one, the children really really hated talking about being sick, or being treated differently, their number one goal was to just be a normal kid. Whenever I asked the young girls what they wanted me to draw, they always asked for the princess in my Jim Henson: Storyteller story wearing armor with a sword.

Nrama: This is your second OGN for BOOM! and Archaia; what do you like about the size and format versus a serialized approach -- especially given the nuance and time it takes to do watercolors?

Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

Vidaurri: I’d love to do a serial story at some point, but there's something so powerful about a stand-alone book. Being able to read it and know that it’s the entire story, and that the whole world that it created is contained within the two covers and nowhere else. It’s a lot like a classic album. Monthly comics are wonderful, and there’s totally that anticipation waiting each month to see what happens, but I’ll always love when someone makes a book and that’s it.

Nrama: Watercolors is a tricky medium, especially when you add in the part about scanning it and having it printed in the book. Is there any tricks or tips you learned from Iron: Or, The War After or your other comic book work that you've implemented here to get the most out of your watercolor work when it is reproduced like this?

Vidaurri: Well, Iscariot is a watercolor/digital hybrid. It’s kind of a weird process that I came up with in order to keep some of the aspects of watercolors that I love, but cut down on the actual time it would take to paint a comic in watercolors completely. So, without getting two technical, the painting is started traditionally then finished digitally. I’d love to return to doing full watercolor comic books someday.

Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

Nrama: 'Iscariot' is a name that comes with some weight to it for Christians, as the last name of the disciple, Judas. Can you tell us about using that in this book?

Vidaurri: Iscariot is the last name of Judas, who is often referred to having betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. One interpretation I find really interesting is that Judas thought Jesus was going to banish the Romans from Israel, and finding out he was not, he felt betrayed. I chose the name Iscariot because I wanted it to bring this betrayal to mind, and in the book, when you’re reading it, you’ll be looking for a betrayal. I think it’s really fun to play around with readers expectations. In Iron: Or, The War After I liked to use the specific animals to give the reader an idea of a character that then I might either expand on or subvert. I kind of used names in the place of animals in Iscariot.

Nrama: Iscariot comes out October 13. Will you be doing any appearances at cons or stores that people can find you at?

Vidaurri: Yes! I will be at Small Press Expo (SPX) this weekend with some preview copies of the book. Then it looks I’ll be at Forbidden Planet in New York City on October 7 signing for the full release!

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