Mark Waid is experiencing some big milestones in his career lately — three 2012 Eisner Awards and the launch of his Thrillbent digital comics site, to name a couple — but in November, he'll cross another milestone as he releases the original graphic novel Shadow Walk with Legendary Comics.
The big idea comes from a passage in 23rd Psalm from the Hebrew Bible: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me."
The core concept: What if the "valley of the shadow of death" was real?
"It has the trappings of a science fiction horror story, but at the heart of it — and the thing that makes it appealing to me — is that it's still not a cynical story. It's still a story of faith and redemption," Waid said.
While it represents the first 100-plus-page OGN from Waid, the project does have some familiar elements for both Waid and his fans — after all, it's a big, epic story with links to the Bible, something Waid explored before with great critical success in the now classic comic series Kingdom Come.
Waid is working on the project with artist Shane Davis (Superman: Earth One). When Legendary first announced Shadow Walk a year ago, Waid told Newsarama the basics of the story:
- The Valley has been found by human beings in three separate (and disastrous) incidents in 1914, 1948 and 1968, in a valley near modern day Iraq.
- During the incidents, which all occurred during war, the soldiers who happened upon the place didn't survive. Until...
- A special forces officer names John Raines and his platoon stumbled into the Valley during the Iraq War. He's the only one who made it out alive.
- The Valley is a realm of monsters, beasts and perils that don't make any sense in our laws of physics and reality.
- The soldier now must return to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, leading a group of "experts" (including a physicist and a priest) to figure out what it is and why it's there. The group is taking along artifacts they hope will help them in their quest, like the skull of John the Baptist and a shard from the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified.
The original story idea came from Legendary founder Thomas Tull, and from there, World War Z author Max Brooks developed a "bible" of sorts that built the world of the valley. Then Waid and Davis were recruited by editor Bob Schreck to develop the characters and the story.
"I did a brainstorm session of concepts and ideas, like really off-the-wall stuff, especially things I haven't seen before," Davis said. "And when I say concepts, I mean environments, reactions, structure and everything. I would actually draw up environments and characters and monsters and pitch them to everybody, and then we would pick and choose what we liked."
For Waid, Shadow Walk gives him the chance to revisit some of the themes he touched upon in Kingdom Come, while also giving him the room to explore the bigger idea of faith's power.
"It really [speaks] to issues of science versus religion, and the power of faith, and also how certain things in biblical literature are perhaps interpreted a little less literally or more literally than we would think," Waid told Newsarama.
As Legendary releases some new art today (with Comic Con International kicking off in San Diego), Newsarama talked to Waid again, this time going a little more in-depth about the themes he's exploring in Shadow Walk and the challenges he faced writing his first graphic novel.
Newsarama: Mark, we've talked to both you and with Shane about the story and how it came together. But I don't think we've really delved into what the theme is of the story, and why that theme interests you as a writer. Can you describe what big, overarching themes you're hoping to explore in this story?
Mark Waid: The big overarching theme I'm hoping to explore is the notion of... well, a few years ago, I read a book that I found utterly fascinating. It was called The Survivor's Club. It was a non-fiction best-seller. And the author's premise was finding and talking to survivors of natural disasters, or plane crashes, or you know, cancer survivors — a broad swath of people who have survived against impossible odds over the years, and trying to find a common thread, some sort of commonality between them.
And ultimately, the conclusion that he drew was that the common theme was faith. I mean, many of them were religious, but not all of them. But there was still the sense that, on a broader definition of faith, there was a sense that they all had some belief in something beyond themselves. They all managed to survive because they felt as if they were a part of something bigger than just themselves.
That became the main theme of what we're exploring here. If you're in an environment where every footstep and every new thing that's thrown at you is challenging your concept of faith, and challenging your concept of self-identity and challenging the worst parts of you — if you're walking near the gates of Hell — what binds you to your faith?
When your sense of faith is tested, how strong is your sense of faith? Will that be enough to save you?
And the answer is that it will not always be strong enough to save you, but it depends on your level of faith.
Nrama: But this story is based on the reality of the "valley of the shadow of death," straight out of old religious text. And they're carrying religious artifacts with supernatural power. Wouldn't that boost your faith in a higher power? They have proof, don't they?
Waid: Yeah, but think about it from the exact opposite point of view, which is that if you're a priest — and that's our point-of-view character (he's not our "main" character, if you will, but he's our point-of-view character, and he's just one of the ensemble of people) — but if you're brought in here, if you're a priest, this both affirms everything that you've ever believed, and it also puts into question every thing you believe.
Think about it in the sense of, what sort of God would do this? What sort of God would visit this upon the Earth? That would stretch my sense of belief.
The quantum physicist is looking at it from a place where the laws of physics, the further you get into it, just don't apply. And again, it's shaking his sense of belief. It's shaking everything he's ever know. And he's having to process this in a way that makes sense to him.
The only person who manages to keep a cool head about him at all times is the main character, the solider [John] Raines, who seems to have no faith at all — who seems to have no faith in anything whatsoever — and that apparently is what allows him to proceed with a sort of manic, tunnel-vision view of the surroundings.
But at the end of the day, he may need to have his own faith tested as well.
Nrama: It's interesting to hear you talk about the quantum physicist's faith in science, because people do have "faith" in other things in the world.
Waid: Right. Exactly. I think it's a very, very fundamental human need, to be able to process the world around you in a way that makes sense to you. It doesn't mean you're right. It doesn't mean your perspective is correct. But it's not as important that it's right, as it is that it makes some kind of sense to you so that you don't feel utterly unempowered, so you don't feel like you're some leaf in the wind of fate.
And I think that's a very human reaction to being put into strange situations that don't make any sense. You've got to find some type of rational explanation for this. And when all rationality goes out the window, where are you?
Nrama: Normally, you're a month comics, cliffhanger-at-the-end-of-the-issue type of guy. How challenging was it for you to go for the long story without those little chapter breaks?
Waid: Oh, yeah, it was a whole new process for me. It was not easy to learn. I have never written the words pages 12 through 114 before. And I've literally never written the word, "Page 125," ever.
And so doing long form like this was exhilarating, because it gives you plenty of elbowroom. And it means you don't have to structure scenes based on artificial page breaks.
But at the same time, it was incredibly challenging, because you've got to keep everything in front of you at all times. You've got to keep your eye on the long game constantly. You don't have the luxury of getting to page 20 and saying, "OK, I'll just put a cliffhanger here and we'll figure out the rest next month."
Nrama: Talk to me about the process of being given the concept up front, and then working with Shane to put together the characters and visualization of the story.
Waid: Yeah, Thomas Tull had a basic concept, and a couple ideas for scenes, sat down with me and sold me on the notion, which as I interpreted it was Indiana Jones meets Aliens, which I loved.
Then he brought Max Brooks in to talk about the story and also do a lot of world-building, in terms of what the science of this place might be like, what the history of this place might be like, and how this might have manifested in previous incarnations of history, drawing from real historical reference and real historical people.
So that's all data, and it's amazing and incredibly helpful.
But then it was up to Shane and I to take this and shape a story out of it. And it was a really good, collaborative process, because Shane, I think, is tired of being — I don't want to put words in his mouth — but I think he's sort of tired of being an art robot, and very much enjoys the notion of being able to contribute ideas, and throw ideas back and forth.
Nrama: I want to go back to what you said about Indiana Jones meets Aliens. When I think Indiana Jones, I think fun, serial adventure, but Aliens is much darker and more horror based. How would you describe Shadow Walk? Is it more "fun" or more "horror" or maybe a mix of the two?
Waid: I can't imagine the word "fun" applying in this graphic novel. It's very dark. It is not a pleasant place to be, this valley. And certainly, not everybody makes it out alive.
It has the trappings of a science fiction horror story, but at the heart of it — and the thing that makes it appealing to me — is that it's still not a cynical story. It's still a story of faith and redemption. That, I thought I could tell well, as opposed to just a cynical, dark story where everybody gets hits with a bus and the world dies in the end. The End.
Nrama: We touched upon your collaboration with Shane, but since we're showing off one of his covers and we've seen a little of his art, can you just finish up by telling us what we're going to see visually in Shadow Walk?
Waid: He's an incredibly talented man who is much darker on the inside than you would think. His nightmare visions of this world — and a lot of times, the way he would suggest physical manifestations of some of the things we were talking about — helped inspire parts of the story.
A lot of times, he would follow my lead and create a monster based on this scenario or this scene, or what we needed him to do for this part of a story. But other times, he would just send me a drawing, and I would open it up on my computer, and then I would break down, weeping tears of angst and horror because no human being should be looking at this. And then I would say, OK, but we have to put that in the story. And then I would build a scene around it. And the result is something that I think really showcases his talent and makes the story all that much more impactful.