Before nuclear weapons, biological warfare and even bombs, one of the original weapons of mass destruction was the fabled Ark of the Covenant from the Bible. And now Rob Liefeld is revisiting it in a new "sword and sorcery" take on a biblical legend.
Set to launch in June from Image Comics, The Covenant is a new series by Rob Liefeld and artist Matt Horak which takes a brief story from the Bible about the stealing of the Ark of the Covenant and transforms it into a action-heavy adventure story. Liefeld, a self-professed Baptist, tells Newsarama that he had reservations at first about adapting and elaborating on this story central to his religion, but found a path to give his own take on a Bible story that could be read as a "violent" action thriller.
Newsarama: Rob, what can you tell us about The Covenant?
Rob Liefeld: Long before the Ark was raided and lost in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was originally stolen and recovered in the Old Testament. Trade Nazis for Philistines and Indiana Jones for Samuel, the last Judge of Israel, and you have stories with great parallels, except this one is much more primitive and as a result much more violent. The Covenant is a story I've been crafting for a several years, I wrote the script for The Covenant in 2012 and gave refined it ever since. Thanks to films like Raiders of The Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is known to a great many people but there is a particular tale in the Old Testament that inspired me. I refer to it as an untold tale of the Old Testament because, as with many bible stories, there is plenty of stuff that is left "untold" or as I call it plenty of "fill-in-the-blank" moments. So I used that as inspiration for an epic showdown between warring cultures and rival gods.
Nrama: The basis for this story has been told numerous times, but your approach on it looks to key in on the dramatic tension and the whole “sword & sorcery,” war-aspect that for some reading Biblical stories might overlook. Out of all the stories in the Bible, how’d you land on this one to adapt as a comic?
Liefeld: It's all about looking at something familiar with a fresh pair of eyes. When I read this passage in Samuel again, the themes really clicked with me. There is so much going on with this story and it is rife with conflicts, and the very best stories are about the struggle to overcome impossible, incredible odds and with Samuel and his plight, I can't think of a better "I'm-in-way-over-my-head" situation than having your first moments as leader of Israel involve the theft of the Ark of The Covenant. The Ark was the thermo-nuclear weapon of the Bible. It laid waste to rival empires, it leveled Jericho. I go into the minds of the Philistines, their military and especially their High Priest, and get inside the fear and the frustration over these foreign invaders to their lands and this supernatural weapon they utilize to neutralize the Philistines who were superior in every cultural way. History tells us that the Philistines held a military as well as a technological advantage over the Hebrews in that they were master blacksmiths who forged steel. The Israelites would pay Philistine blacksmiths to sharpen their farming tools. it paints a very primitive picture of the Hebrew culture as opposed to the more refined Philistine society. Also, The Philistines were very, very superstitious, they worshipped multiple gods but Dagon was their big bad and the Ark really spooked them. They believed that they could acquire the Ark and use its power to their advantage. So you throw the rise of a young hero and an impossible mission against a powerful empire with a backdrop of these two warring cultures and you get a combustible and potent mix of action, adventure, sorcery, giants, mercenaries and assassins.
Nrama: As a professed Christian yourself, did you have any hesitation at taking the text story from the Bible and elaborating on it for The Covenant?
Liefeld: Oh yeah, there were a several instances of "baptist guilt" as I call it. Having multiple pastors/ministers in my family, of course I was like, "You aren't supposed to change a word of scripture" pangs in my head, so I decided to just throw it all to the wind and tag this as "inspired by events in The Bible" and it freed me up to do the story I wanted to tell. I really love the world of the Old Testament as a backdrop and I use the bold move of the Philistines to seize the Ark and created a story that I believe is likely to have occurred given the motives and characterization of the players involved. I make no bones that this is my personal take on these events, otherwise you'd just read the scriptures take of this tale and be done with it. I surmise that there was much more to this story than we have been told. The idea that Samuel, who is depicted later in his life as a bold, daring figure capable of extreme violence, just sat around twiddling his thumbs while the Ark was stolen is a hard pill to swallow. I just don't buy it and that provided great motivation for my story.
Nrama: For many people, the Ark of the Covenant was defined visually by the first Indiana Jones movie as you mentioned. Does that have any bearing at all in what you and Matt Horak are doing here?
Liefeld: Other than the fact that I now believe that Raiders was based on this story, no. Unlike Indy, who is quite savvy, my script has a young hero who is acting on sheer bravery and faith, he finds his voice as the story progresses, and he arms himself with characters that were first discovered in the story of King David, 3 warriors that I'm featuring in their young incarnations. This is my "League of Extraordinary Bible Heroes." King David's father, Jesse, much younger here, finances Samuel's mission into the Philistine capitol, I really ran with my imagination once I let the sanctity of the scriptures go. That's not to say this is blasphemous, any more than the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston which made up all sorts of fictional connections and characters in its re-telling of the Exodus tale. The way the Ark looks is described in great detail in scriptures so we follow that for the visual cues.
Nrama: The way you frame the Ark of the Covenant is interesting – giving it a modern-day terminology as the original “weapon of mass destruction.” According to the Bible it was more than just a weapon, but what have your thoughts been about the Ark and depicting it in this way for The Covenant?
Liefeld: As I mentioned earlier, the Ark leveled cities, in the eyes of the other cultures, they saw the Ark as a terrible weapon of tremendous destructive power. The Hebrews regarded it as an item of faith, but ask the people of Jericho or the Amorites, Amalekites, Hittites and the Philistines what they thought of the Ark and scriptures say that they absolutely feared its power. This story puts a people who have taken their faith for granted, the Israelites, and a people empowered by their faith in their pagan gods, the Philistines, and it contrasts them. Samuel absolutely regards his mission as a test of faith. In the first issue of The Covenant, Samuel issues a stinging rebuke of his people and is told by his mentor that he is much too harsh to them. Eli, Samuel's mentor, wants to tickle ears, Samuel wants to get their attention. Samuel "gets" that that the Israelites have grown complacent in their faith, relying on the fear that the Ark has instilled in others in order to carry them. The Philistines look at the Israelites as a bunch of unrefined farmers, former slaves of Egypt, who carry a supernatural shield of protection. I dint think that the Philistines accidentally took the Ark by luck, I lay out that it was all part of a carefully orchestrated manipulation. Samuel is definitely up against it in this story, there are times I was actually rooting for the Philistines because they are so wily and creepy.
Nrama: Nail it down for us, who are the main characters?
Liefeld: Young Samuel is the antagonist, a child raised in the temple by a twisted priest and his evil sons. His struggle to embrace his destiny is the journey of the story. How did this young priest become the Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Gandalf of the Old Testament? At the end of King Saul's reign, he failed to kill a rival king as he was commanded by God. Samuel, enraged by Saul's failure to comply, entered the tent that the captive, enemy king was being held and it states that he cut him up into pieces and showed it to Saul telling him that's how it's supposed to be done. How do you go from temple servant to that level of boldness and savagery? This paves the way.
Kano, is the high priest of Dagon and he seeks to harness the power of the Ark in the name of Dagon in order to wipe out the Hebrews. He is a violent, superstitious, passionate figure. His charisma has set his agenda above that of the Philistine General, Dekani, who is wary of Kano and has his own interest in the siege of the Ark.
Sheva is Kano's personal bodyguard and assassin. She is a lethal warrior with severe loyalties to the Temple of Dagon and she poses a great physical threat to Samuel and his mission.
Shammah is a sell sword, a mercenary that is hired by Samuel to aid him in his mission to steal the Ark back. He is not religious but is looking for a fight with Dekani and the Philistines.
Nrama: For this one you’re working with a new artist to comics, Matt Horak. How’d you discover him?
Liefeld: I met Matt Horak at New York Comic Con in 2013, he submitted a mini-comic he illustrated featuring Thundarr the Barbarian and I was floored by it. At the time I didn't have anything for him and later he followed up showing me some of his depictions of my Extreme Characters and I was determined to work with him. I submitted my script for The Covenant and he accepted and the work that he has produced is fantastic. His strength is his amazing storytelling, he is one of the best I've seen. I'm certain that his storytelling will impress anyone who checks this book out. His illustrations are great, his gestures and scale are quite impressive.
I sent the first issue out last week and Image co-publisher Eric Stephenson sent me back a note telling me how impressed he was with the first issue. Image Comics took a great leap of faith in accepting this proposal, I don't think people are aware that Image declines a great many projects from accomplished creators. I know many creators, some with existing books that don't get an automatic green light in their next project, the book has to have a quality that intrigues the publisher.
The Covenant is an underdog, unless there is a popular biblical fiction category that has escaped me, we are one of a kind, so the fact that the publisher gave us special consideration is the kind of juice that can kick you in the pants when the hours that you are pouring into the work is piling up.
Nrama: People know you as much, if not more, for your art style as your writing. On the art side, are you helping out any?
Liefeld: Other than the look and designs of the characters, Matt is carrying the art. There was one page that I felt was not being presented properly and I whipped out a layout and Matt followed it to a tee. For a guy just starting out, he really is giving me everything I ask. The end product is terrific I'm so excited to get this out there.