Old habits die hard, but the old soldiers of Greg Rucka and Leando Fernandez' The Old Guard never do. A group of immortals who earn a living as mercanaries think they have seen and done it all, but when a new immortal steps onto the playing field it sends them for a loop.
Rucka and Fernandez, who first worked together on the seminal Queen & Country fifteen years ago, reunite for this new five-issue series that debuted this week from Image Comics. Although not the first Rucka series with immortals, the novelist-turned-comic book writer frames it in a new way with war-weary men and women who search for new meaning in their supernatural predicament.
Newsarama spoke with Rucka and Fernandez about their reunion, this take on immortality, and the dark humor they found in the concept.
Newsarama: Greg, I want to open things up with you first. If my math is correct, you have ongoing involvements in Wonder Woman, Lazarus, and Black Magick. Now, we’re adding The Old Guard to the mix. You seem to have a strong predilection towards writing bad-ass warriors (even Rowan serves on the frontlines as a police officer) and warrior culture in general.
What is it about warrior culture that captures your interest?
Greg Rucka: Wow. Hm… I think I’m fascinated by the discipline. I think this subject matter provides a sort of entrée into the kinds of stories that I write. And action stories require stories to become competent in action or more than competent. It’s interesting because in each one of those titles you listed, there’s a different kind of character with a different sort of ethic and manner where you wouldn’t confuse any of them. Some of reluctant, some are abandoned, some are content with their role... I think there is something to be said in examining that subculture. It’s similar to how the espionage subculture fascinates me. I’m drawn to these subcultures and want to examine them and pick up the gemstone, turn it in the light, and see all of the facets. But yeah, I keep coming back to it. It’s where I cut my teeth in the very beginning even with my first novels. I like bad asses who are being bad ass.
Now why they’re being bad ass is the subject of the story. But that’s a place I like to start.
Nrama: Leandro, you’re moving across warrior cultures in time based on what we’re seeing in the previews. What was your research like as you’ve been working on this series?
Leandro Fernandez: Honestly, my research usually comes after talking with Greg. For example, he used to be very precise with the guns each character is using, or the gear they would wear. This made it easy for me to search on the internet or look through some books that I have. I always was interested in doing it right, so I try to be precise when I have to work on that. And when I search on the web (or in reference books), I have to be careful to look for the right sources.
When I don’t have specific instructions about something, however, I search from my own. When I draw it, I try to use the “filter of the ages” where everything was a bit different long time ago before the industrial revolution. Everything had a feeling of craftsmanship before being done on assembly lines. Objects used to last longer, so they used to be affected by the passing of times - everything used to have more scars. Sure, the objects used to be fixed in some way, to join the characters along their lives, but the scars and wear remained.
I try to study not only the guns themselves or the uniforms, but the details, too. These things make the visuals more credible and give readers true life information. From belts to boots, and buckles to buttons... I like to pay attention to those details.
Nrama: For you both, is there a particular time period you enjoy the most? What is it about that particular culture’s warrior caste that resonates with you?
Rucka: Oh no, it’s less about the era as it is about the people. I don’t look at the Third Shogun of feudal Japan and say “Oh, that’s the one! That’s the one that appeals to me.” The professional soldier it is, I think, a relatively new thing in the way we view it today - the professional soldier. But the professionalism is an ancient concept. We live in an era where the majority of people do not know how to fight on some level. The likelihood of you walking down the street and encountering someone who has no professional training in combat - martial arts or having served in the military - is very high. And that says something about our evolution and growth as a civilization that a need for a violent, martial resolution – despite all appearances to the contrary in current media with all that’s going on – this is the most peaceful era in human history.
It’s hard to believe with 24-hour news screaming at you about people being shot left and right. But it’s still far more peaceful than it was centuries ago. It doesn’t mean there isn’t violence - there’s plenty. But it’s not the same as what it used to be.
Fernandez: I mostly enjoy drawing ancient times battles and trying to put a realistic look to the characters and the actions. It’s nice to see old-times uniforms, like with toy soldiers, but I try to get close up and show how it was in real life - the human side of things. The suffering and stressed out faces, the hurt hands, the scruffy beards grown along the trail, the difference of the dress on each character … these are the things I enjoy most.
Nrama: Carl von Clausewitz famously stated tha t“War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will…” So, again, we find ourselves facing another key arena in which The Old Guard appears to reside: Politics.
As someone who does not shy away from embracing political discourse in his work, in what ways are you looking to challenge readers’ notions about war, those involved, and the costs of such political violence?
Rucka: Hmm … It’s interesting because The Old Guard isn’t political. Or if it is, it’s personally so. Look, the series is about these people. It’s not about the political ends. It’s not about war. It’s like anything I write - it’s about the characters. The heart of the conflict for the lead is that she’s very, very old and doesn’t know why she’s still living. She says this at the start and seen so many of the people that she knows and loves all die. Even those like her.
That’s the sick joke of it, really: They’re immortal up until the moment they’re not. And they never know when that moment is going to be. For Andy, she’s seen a lot of people come and a lot of people go. The question, then, is “Why not me?”
It’s less of a meditation on war and politics; really, if we want to unpack the deep stuff going on here, it’s about mortality. But I say that with the proviso that it’s John Wick meets Highlander. It has bullets and swords, but it’s meant to be a fun, pulpy adventure. It’s not meant to be a deeply profound tome focusing on the ethereal and ephemeral nature of being, you know?
As for politics, whether you want to be or not; whether you embrace it or not, comics are art and art is political. Look, it’s a form of entertainment, but even then, it needs to have some sort of redeeming social merit. It’s got to be saying something about something. I make no apologies for my politics, and I certainly don’t hide from them. But at the same time, I’m smart enough to know that no one wants to be lectured to. No one wants to read a polemic – just tell the story well. If in that entertainment, and the audience can find things to think about, great. But we want people to put the issue down and say “Great! What’s going to happen in Issue #2?”
Nrama: New soldiers look for battle, veterans seek to avoid it.
Rucka: I think there’s a better question: Why fight at all? If you can do this and you’ve been around, why keep doing this? And the answer is that this is what Andy and the rest of them know. The other members of the team have anchors that Andy does not. It’s very clear from the start that she doesn’t care anymore. Getting her to care takes some effort.
I have a friend who argues passionately that immortality would be the greatest thing in the world. And maybe because of my age here, but I think it’d suck. I keep coming back to talk about something Douglas Adams wrote - arguably, my favorite author ever - camouflages some profound ideas in his absurdities. There’s this character, Wowbagger, who is one of the universes truly immortal beings. Unlike the other beings, who know how to deal with their immortality, Wowbagger was not like that and couldn’t deal with these serene bastards. There’s something to that!
After a while, things change so much. One of those things I was looking at is that if you’ve been alive for the past thousand years or more, the most recent 100 years must have felt like a whirlwind! You and me and our society is reeling from future shock! We always think about it in terms of technology, but it’s really all across the board. Things have changed so quickly, we can hardly keep up. Imagine if you’ve been through that for six thousand years. There are going to be patterns and cycles you’ll grow to recognize. But the sheer speed of the world over the past century has increased exponentially.
Nrama: It seems like this experience would impart a sort of numbness after a while – a disconnectedness from the world and its collective morals when you can’t really tell why one generation is any different or special from the many that preceded it.
Rucka: Yeah. One of the things you get in a very material sense - for the purpose of this story - is that, for Andy, finding one of her fellow immortals is a long and tedious process. The world is huge and it takes forever to get from Point A to Point B, especially when you don’t know where Point B even is to begin with and the other person keeps moving. It’s very difficult.
Then in 2017, you can do it in 24 hours.
Nrama: In the solicits, it mentions that our band of deathless warriors lives as a group of mercenaries. Does that problematize them for you? Do you think this undercuts the reader’s sympathies for the main characters when they’re motivated - at face value - by the bottom line?
Rucka: Like I said - it goes back to the question of “What are you fighting for?” The motivating incident is one that Andy accepts, but it’s also one that leaves the rest of the team saying “Come on! We have to take this one.” Nobody says it, but everyone knows that there is a moral imperative for them to deal with this problem. And she begrudgingly accepts it, but once she’s in, she’s in. Getting her to that point? It takes a little muscle from the members of her team.
Nrama: Of course, this series is more than just a “hack ‘n slash” adventure throughout history. The Old Guard is a group of immortals led by Andronika (Andy) the Scythian alongside two opposing warriors from the Crusades, a French Renaissance thief, and a more recent U.S. Marine.
Let’s talk about the immortality piece. While you write a lot of bad-ass warriors, immortality is another theme in your work that seems to be floating to the surface. After all, the witches in Black Magick are passing down a time-honored tradition. Lazarus … well, the name says it all, no? And Wonder Woman is far older than most (if not all?) of her counterparts on the Justice League. What is it about this concept that seems to captivate you?
Rucka: Again, it’s like so many other themes that come up where I didn’t realize I was doing it until after I had done it. Normally when I am asked about something along these lines, I’d have to say the passing of my father. But the fact of the matter is that Lazarus predates that. I think with Lazarus, it started off with something where I said to myself “This would be really cool!” [Laughs]
As I dug into it, well, let me say there’s an issue I haven’t written yet that I’d love to. There’s a character who’s a nun - Sister Bernard - and I’d love for her and Forever to end up in the same and have Sister Bernard ask Forever “When you die, what happens?” I don’t know what Forever’s answer to that is going to be. I think Forever’s going to respond with a question along the lines of “Tell me about God.” I don’t think either has an answer that will be satisfying to either one of them. With Black Magic, it’s less of an issue of immortality as it is legacy: We are the products of so many things that we have all those who came before us behind us. It’s traditional - versus modern - understandings of witchcraft. There are things that are ancient that we don’t recognize.
But with The Old Guard, there is me trying to unpack losing my dad. The loss of a parent is an almost universal experience. And it’s something we’re going to have to deal with, to figure out to navigate. We all have different relationships with our parents – mine with my father was a very good one, and I feel his loss profoundly every day. It feels unjust. It feels too early. But then I remember the Neil Gaiman line: “He had a lifetime.” He gets what everybody gets.
Insomuch as trying to find out what it means to me, this gets us back to the point if people didn’t have to die, and I suppose it would, but it would suck if you didn’t die and everyone else did. If we’re going to have immortality, then it has to be shared.
Nrama: Leandro, clearly, we’re dealing with a book that will be tackling some heavy subject matter. How do you as the artist keep the story from feeling to heavy when the narrative might go in that direction? Was that something you faced in The Old Guard?
Fernandez: Working on the narrative is something that I try to pay special attention to in my work as it is essential to whatever I’m doing in comics.
But I try to follow the intent of the story. I try to follow each story’s drama, and to tell it the best way I consider in each case. I like to play with emotions of the readers. Sometimes I put an accent on something, other times I go for the subtle side of the action. But I won’t lower my standard and make it easy reading when there’s more I could do.
I change things, yes, but I try to keep the core of the story. If it happens, by any chance, and I go too far, well, we are a team - Greg and our editor - and they’ll tell me what needs to be corrected.
Newsarama: It seems your work with Brian Wood on Northlanders along with the Punisher: MAX alongside Garth Ennis would have prepared you in some regard for the work you’ll be doing with Greg on this series. What else helped you in adapting Greg’s scripts so that you could tell the story to the readers?
Fernandez: This is a kind of book I’ve been wanting to do since before the beginning of my career, you know? When I was a kid in Argentina, we used to read a lot of comics from several collections where you could find original, new stories, with different characters each time. It wasn’t like a well-known, popular character book, where you could expect what you’d read from it. You didn’t know which kind of story you were going to find! It was a new surprise every time. New characters, new situations.
And there were all kind of stories, from westerns to adventure, or different war stories like in the case of The Old Guard. So, I always felt the urge to work on a new story like this, with the flavor of the new and the unknown, where there’s a full concept to be established. New characters to create, new personalities to develop. New scenarios (I love that!), new situations. I always felt this was my natural media of work. I am so thrilled to be drawing it now!
I wouldn’t say I have to adapt anything. I receive what Greg writes and the rest just flows naturally. Of course, the career I’ve been doing drove me this way and it gave me practice for The Old Guard, but I feel it’s something that, at this point, comes from my hands to the drawing board without any need of adaptation of anything. It’s not easy. It demands a lot of work. At the same time, however, it feels natural.
Nrama: How do you find The Old Guard represents your best work along with something different from what you’ve already done in the past?How is this series the next stage for you?
Fernandez: Artistically speaking, this series arrived at a point in my career where I feel I reached a certain point of maturity. At least, I know in which fields I can get the best out of myself, and at the same time, it’s what I like to do the most.
I know the kind of drawing I can do. The way I want to tell a story. What to show. What to hide.
I’ve been through a lot of different projects before, I tried a lot of things, I’ve made my mistakes, and now I could say I know what I want to do. This seems something easy to say, but after different moments of my life and career that I’ve been through, I honestly wouldn’t say I knew what I wanted to do when I was younger in many cases. Now I know. And I want to do this. So, let’s do it!
Rucka: I think it’s certainly a helluva lot lighter than most of what I write! [Laughs]
I tend to write pretty deep. Lazarus, Black Magicl, and even Stumptown, you can’t look at those books and go “They’re predominantly joyful romps!” Stumptown, of the three of them, is arguably the lightest, but even then, it deals with the some pretty heavy stuff. At the end of the day, The Old Guard is fun. For me, that’s a huge step! [Laughs]
That’s a big thing for me because I think you can say fairly convincingly, I don’t write fun. [Laughs]
But there’s some dark humor in here. There’s room for that when you simply cannot kill your protagonists. You can go so far over the top that it needs to be gleeful. Otherwise, it becomes torture porn, and I have no interest in that. So, there is something absurd that we draw out of this, and I tried to lean into it and have fun.
One of the joys of working with Leo is that he is so talented as a storyteller. Stylistically, there is this almost cartoonish art style in some place, and the funny stuff can be really funny. He sort of awakens that level of the absurd without undermining the seriousness of what we’re trying to do.
Nrama: Ultimately, you find that having the visual humor helps “cut the tension” of the heavier thematic elements then.
Rucka: There’s a sequence in the first issue where about thirty guys with submachine guns open up on our four heroes. There’s this hail of gunfire and a moment of silence. There’s this panel with them shot all to hell and one of them with his eyeball hanging out. The next panel, they’re looking fine and Andy says “Alright. Now it’s our turn.” [Laughs]
That’s absurd and it’s funny! To me, at least! [Laughs]
There are a million ways to draw a guy who’s been shot - and many are gross and grotesque - but it’s not portrayed in a way to make you throw up. It needs to be fun. That’s my biggest hope – that the audience has fun with it.
Nrama: That’s the argument that we can have our cake and eat it too, so to speak, no?
Rucka: Look, art has to matter, but we’re also not out to change hearts and minds.
Newsarama: Final question - I know this first arc will be a five-issue mini-series but do you foresee it moving past that point?
Rucka: Leo and I have talked about trying to do a new The Old Guard story every year to year and a half. We’re just having fun with it! The goal is to do it for as long we can.
Fernandez: I look forward to it! Like Greg said, this is planned to be just the first volume… we’ll see what comes after this!