You’re approached by a ghost, a dead girl, who needs your help to accomplish a task in order to move on to the next phase of the afterlife. What do you do?
In his new series Brody’s Ghost, from Dark Horse Comics, creator Mark Crilley shows one young man’s answer. The first book in the six-book fantasy series shipped to stores this past July, and Book Two followed in February 2011.
Crilley, who merges manga-influenced artwork and fantasy with Western pacing and dynamics, took time to answer some questions about his latest series.
Newsarama: Mark, for readers who might’ve missed Brody’s Ghost Book One, what’s the premise of the series?
Mark Crilley: The story begins with our protagonist, Brody. He’s a young man whose life is truly a mess. His apartment looks like a landfill, and he’s pretty much flushing his life down the toilet following a break up. Into this comes Talia, the ghost of a teenaged girl who died years earlier. She tells Brody he has untapped psychic powers—the fact that he can see her is proof of this—and that she needs his help in tracking down a serial killer. They eventually find that he needs to undergo intensive training to make use of his powers. This leads to the introduction of an ancient samurai ghost character, Kagemura, who agrees to teach Brody how to unlock his supernatural powers.
Nrama: You make it all sound so straightforward; getting Kagemura to agree wasn’t quite that easy! You’ve been developing this series for a number of years. How did it evolve during this genesis process?
Crilley: There have been a couple of big changes. Early on the main character was going to be a girl. But having just completed Miki Falls, my second big series with a female protagonist (the first being Akiko), I felt I needed to change things up in this regard. The other thing that switched was the location. Early on it was going to be Japan—the protagonist was to have been named Toshi—but since Miki Falls took place in Japan I again opted to avoid repeating myself and moved the whole story to a different place: a kind of culturally mixed city in a country that is never named.
Nrama: When your lead character is wallowing his own ennui as Brody is during the first book, how do you keep readers interested in his story?
Crilley: I think the key is to not let him wallow for very long: the supernatural stuff kicks in pretty early and by midway through the first book he’s too busy dealing with all the craziness erupting in his life to spend any more time sitting around feeling sorry for himself. I very deliberately put him down into a hole at the beginning of the story so that he would have something to climb out of. My other stories have been about fairly well adjusted characters becoming even stronger. With this one I wanted to see more of a journey from great weakness to great strength.
Nrama: The first book focuses on Brody and the problems he’s facing at the series’ onset. But it also looks like you’re laying groundwork for the mystery of Talia’s death and the unusual place she finds herself in the afterlife, correct?
Crilley: My main interest with Talia is to show what ghosts really are: why it is that some people become ghosts while the vast majority of people don’t. I’ve deliberately kept my explanation for this very much under wraps in terms of what’s in the story so far, but in time all will be revealed.
Nrama: You have five books to go in the series. How tightly do you plot future books?
Crilley: This is the most tightly plotted story I’ve ever written. I know the ending and every major step along the way leading toward it. It may sound funny, but even with five books and the hundreds of pages that entails, I find that there is absolutely no room for meandering. Everything that’s in this story is there for a specific reason, and readers can rest assured I won’t be wasting any of their time on filler.
Nrama: Brody’s clearly going to see some character growth during the series, as he’s emotionally as low as he can go when things start. But what about Talia? Do ghosts grow and change as well?
Crilley: Talia definitely changes as a character as the story progresses. In a way I’ve deliberately tried to lure readers into assuming they know her “type.” Later on, if I’ve done my job right, they’ll be surprised to see that she has a very different side to her personality.
Nrama: Your artwork has continued to evolve, still in the manga style you developed during Miki Falls, but this series has a more metropolitan feel, very cluttered, nearly dystopic, in comparison to the pastoral setting of Miki. Is that a conscious choice, to vary the worlds you create and expand your artistic repertoire?
Crilley: Absolutely. I’m very proud of the work I did on Miki Falls. It was a quite personal story that allowed me to celebrate everything that I love about Japan: The peacefulness of the countryside, the beautiful little shrines tucked around every corner. So there was a soft, rose-tinted aspect to all the artwork in that series. With Brody’s Ghost I’ve deliberately turned in the completely opposite direction: the messy, decaying chaos of a futuristic urban environment. I enjoy challenging myself as an artist, and as a result I attempt drastically different things with each new book I do.
Nrama: Your first series, Akiko, was very innocent and aimed at a young audience. Then Miki Falls featured a teen heroine, and now Brody’s Ghost has a confused young adult as its protagonist. Do you find your creative work changing as your children age (not that they’re quite Brody’s age!) and you revisit youthful experiences through them?
Crilley: There has been a bit of an aging process going on with my main characters. I originally conceived Brody’s Ghost as something my son Matthew, who’s now eleven, would really get into. His tastes run toward older, darker fare like Death Note, so that’s in some ways the direction I’ve taken the whole story. Still, I’m avoiding swearing and over-the-top violence, so it’s hopefully a series that can still meet the needs of parents who are looking for good all-ages titles for their kids.
People who loved Akiko can rest assured I’m not done with stories for that age group. I’m definitely going to do another younger reader series, hopefully within the next year or two.
Nrama: Your last series, Miki Falls, was published by HarperCollins. You’re back in the “industry” now with Dark Horse Comics – do you find any differences between the two publishers in terms of their familiarity with comic book storytelling methods or the marketing of a book like this?
Crilley: That’s an interesting question. Being published by HarperCollins definitely meant Miki Falls was reviewed by periodicals like the School Library Journal but not noticed so much by folks in the comics world. With Brody’s Ghost I’m kind of getting the opposite effect. It’s a shame that there’s a sort of wall between the comics industry and the mainstream publishing world. But with titles like Bone and Mouse Guard I think that’s gradually starting to change.
As far as the differences in the production end, a publisher like HarperCollins is going to edit a graphic novel much as they would any other book: You will be asked to make a good number of changes to the story, some of them fairly significant. In comics I find that publishers like Dark Horse and much more hands off: It’s your series and the requested changes are all very minor. I enjoy both methods actually, though of course the former approach can be difficult if you and your editor are not on the same page storywise.
Nrama: Give us a tease about the next volume.
Crilley: Brody’s Ghost Book Two is where Brody’s training goes into full swing. We get to see some of the strange methods he must endure, and the huge sacrifices he must make to start unlocking his powers. There’s a lot more supernatural stuff as well. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that one of the threads set up in the first book is given its big pay off in the second, in a way that hopefully shows just how far our “slacker protagonist” has come.
Brody’s Ghost Book One and Brody’s Ghost Book Two are currently available from Dark Horse.