With graphically inventive, psychologically challenging and old-school romping fun comics like Nil: A Land Beyond Belief and Rex Libris under his belt, both roundly acclaimed by readers and critics, you’d think Canadian cartoonist James Turner would have no trouble getting a new series off the ground.
However, after poor initial sales greeted his initial one-shot Warlord of Io, Diamond, which is the primary distributor of comics to the direct market comic book specialty shops and raised its minimum required sales totals late last year, elected not to carry Turner’s planned Warlord of Io series.
We talked to Turner about his plans for Warlord of Io and what Diamond’s benchmark numbers mean for its continued publication.
“Warlord of Io is about a young, spoiled Crown Prince who's suddenly thrust into a position of responsibility when his dad retires to the pleasure asteroid of Zur,” Turner explained. “Instead of being able to play video games and play in a space rock band, he has to deal with matters of state. He's well intentioned, but things go wrong from the get-go, and he has to flee for his life as a coup is launched against him. His best friend, the foxy Moxy Comet, an asteroid archaeologist, and Urk, his bodyguard, accompany him as he struggles to regain his throne in a cruel and indifferent universe. Fun and hilarity ensue.”
With Emporer Zing’s primary ambition being to rock and roll, his aptitude for ruling seems highly dubious and Turner didn’t dispute the young king’s limited qualifications for the job at hand.
“Well, fortunately for him and everyone else, he's only the ruler of the moon of Io (plus some asteroids and a port that Io has annexed on Jupiter, which is in a state of political chaos and incapable of holding off Galilean incursions and demands). So his ability to screw things up is somewhat limited in scope,” Turner offered of the series’ initial set-up. “His first instinct is to avoid responsibility and pretend all the unpleasantness isn't happening, but this coping mechanism quickly proves inadequate.”
Turner’s past comics, Nil and Rex Libris, managed to consistently balance a sense of zany high adventure with more intellectual, philosophical themes, creating fun comics that still challenge readers’ minds. The mix of high action, high-brow entertainment is something Turner hopes to continue in Warlord of Io.
“I certainly hope so,” he admitted. “I've started out very light hearted with this one and tried to keep things simple, but down the line I'd like to introduce more complex, nuanced themes.
“I like creating a full playground for the characters to exist in,” he said. Creating the universe of Warlord of Io continues another theme from his previous works, namely Turner’s penchant for creating complex and fully realized fictional societies with their own social, religious and moral structures. “Fleshing things out, even a little bit, just helps spark all kinds of ideas for future stories, and it makes it seem more ‘real’ to me – if that makes any sense. It can help draw the audience in. Ultimately I suppose it goes back to my love of maps, and the great ones that, say, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis included at the beginning of their books. I would always wonder what this or that place was about, what the people there were like, that sort of thing. Did anyone ever go to Angmar? What kind of place was it? I have no idea. You don't have to go there in the book. Just by being there it helps ground the fiction for me. Perhaps it's a waste of effort, but I do get a kick out of it, and I hope there are some readers out there that feel the same. They can fill in the details if they like, that's what it's there for.”
Warlord of Io’s characters have distinct animated sensibilities, and his computer-driven artwork gives the series a unique look in modern comics. “I'm an illustrator by trade, with a background in multimedia. I work entirely digitally now,” Turner said when discussing his working methods. “I'm trying to get back into the swing of using real materials, but it's as tough a switch as it was going digital in the first place. I'm always reaching for the undo button,” he laughed.
“I sketch the characters and scenes, then scan everything and trace over it in Illustrator. Some stuff I just do up directly on the machine. Once the first go is done I go back in and add details and fiddle with it. It's very forgiving. I keep trying to push the style of my comic work forward. Right now I'm trying a more cartoon-like style,” he continued.
When the subject of Diamond’s new benchmarks was broached, Turner remained realistic. “Warlord of Io won't see any more published floppy issues, that's for sure. I understand a number of good books have not made the cut. So we have to go online and try and get it distributed digitally. That's really the only other option. I hope to finish the current storyline. I had hoped to do additional material after the end of the first arc, but that's really up in the air now.
“I'm not sure if I'll try any new projects after finishing Warlord. I had Rex Libris cancelled and now Warlord has been axed before it really even started. Maybe it's time to stop and reconsider things.”
Reconsider the time spent on comics as a creative outlet or the business methods used in the current industry?
“Reconsider comics as a viable creative outlet, never mind the financial side. That's never been there,” Turner offered. “I'm talking just about getting printed material out to the public. For me, I really like the work to be printed, something you can hold in your hands. I think there are good odds that we can get Warlord out as a printed trade, and I'm gung-ho to do so, but after that, I don't know. Maybe try updating my tech skills and get back into multimedia or advertising. Hedge my bets. I think the threshold for success with independent comics is just going to keep going up. This will be very good news for the consumer, as they will have lots of quality printed material to choose from pulled from a very large creative base on the net, but frustrating for a lot of aspiring artists who won't make the cut.”
Fortunately, despite the business-related hardships that he’s endured while getting Warlord of Io started, Turner does maintain a sense of humor. “That's the nature of the business. It's kind of like Highlander … only there can be more than one and you don't have to literally chop anyone's head off. And there's no Sean Connery. Or swordfights. Or lightning and castles. Okay it's nothing like Highlander. Nevermind.”
The recent decision by Diamond not to carry the series has disappointed Turner, obviously. Speaking of his frustration, Turner said, “Yes, probably more so because I was expecting it to be printed in August. I didn't think it'd be in danger of cancellation until issue 2, so it was a bit of a shock.
“Such is the price of hubris!”
Despite his own difficulties, Turner remains upbeat about the future of the comics market and the quality of work by cartoonists who are searching for alternative methods of distribution. “I'm good with it now. The market is full of fantastic work. It's very competitive, and people are cutting back their discretionary spending. Lots of other fine work has been axed by Diamond so I'm in good company,” he concluded.
Warlord of Io is currently available for order and download from SLG Publishing. More information about James Turner’s illustration and comics can be found at James Turner’s website jtillustration.com, including a preview and overview of Warlord of Io.