This week, Vertigo is releasing Free Country — A Tale of the Children's Crusade, collecting for the first time the acclaimed, two-chapter Children's Crusade by Neil Gaiman with a brand new story that connects the two.
The new hardcover collection features a new chapter by novelist Toby Litt with art by Peter Gross, uniting the two Children's Crusade chapters by Gaiman, co-writers Alisa Kwitney and Jamie Delano, and artists Chris Bachalo and Peter Snejbjerg.
When the story was originally released in 1993, the two Children's Crusade issues served as bookends to a Vertigo crossover event that spanned several different ongoing titles at the time. Because the other, middle chapters dealt with their own storylines, it was difficult to collect them next to the much-adored Gaiman issues, yet the story was incomplete without them.
Featuring the Dead Boy Detectives, the story begins in a small English town where children are missing. In the new hardcover collection, Gaiman's first issue, drawn by Chris Bachalo, flows into the new story by Litt and Gross, then finishes with the the second issue with art by Peter Snejbjerg.
The hardcover also features a new introduction by Gaiman, plus new cover art by fan-favorite Fables artist Mark Buckingham.
Newsarama talked to Litt and Gross about their new chapter for the book, the challenges that come with trying to unite two Gaiman stories and why they found the job so compelling.
Newsarama: Toby and Peter, how did you get involved in this project, and what did you think about the opportunity to sort of finish the Children's Crusade story?
Toby Litt: To be quite honest, this was — for me — the Big Break into comic books. Vertigo editor Shelly Bond had contacted me, asking if I was interested in giving writing scripts a go. She knew me through my novel Corpsing. Of course, I sent her an eight-page script within about 24 hours of talking to her. Yes, I was that keen.
Early on, she thought I might be a good person to take over Neil’s characters the Dead Boy Detectives. I’m English, had a rubbish time at public school, etcetera.
Shelly sent me everything Charles and Edwin had ever appeared in, including The Sandman's "Season of Mists: and Children’s Crusade. I came up with a short script idea for the boys, which Neil liked, and I wrote that as "Run Ragged."
Shelly then set me to thinking about how the Children’s Crusade could be reissued. It was the big enigma in Neil’s back catalogue — a real head-scratcher. How to separate the marvel from the mess? As it stood, there were Neil’s fine sections at beginning and end (with additional writing by Alisa Kwitney and Jamie Delano). These worked, but the middle bit of the story — covered by annuals for Black Orchid, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol and Arcana — didn’t flow, was a little repetitious, and you get the idea.
I came up with a couple of plans, one involving the Dead Boys watching their earlier adventures in quite a meta way, the other telling the story straight, with a writer (not pointing to myself and coughing) constructing a new bridging section. Shelly presented the ideas to Neil, we all spoke about it, and the second option was picked. I got the break.
Peter Gross: For me, it’s the opposite of Toby: I took on this project as a nice meta swan song for me at Vertigo (even if just a temporary one). I'd just finished a long run on The Unwritten with Mike Carey, and I was gearing up for a new series that Mike and I are doing with a French publisher. I thought after 23 years with Vertigo, it was good for me to do a project elsewhere.
When Children’s Crusade was offered to me, it seemed like a fitting finish to this cycle of my career. I basically started at Vertigo with the original Children’s Crusade, drawing the Tim Hunter Arcana Annual that John Rieber wrote as a precursor to the long running Books of Magic series.
I had always loved the original bookend issues by Neil, Chris and Peter, and in fact keep some old ragged copies in a box by my drawing table to inspire me. I'd often heard talk over the years of how it would be nice to reprint them, but the disjointed middle sections always made that more or less impossible.
When Shelly approached me with Toby's script, I was intrigued. And when I read it I was sold. I thought he did an amazing job of bringing it all together and making sense of it, and maybe more importantly, making it feel that Neil had written it. But the reason I said yes, was because I loved the original artwork by Chris and Peter, and I really felt my work would blend perfectly across the two, and be a lot of fun for me. And it was. I had a blast drawing and inking it, and even suggesting a bit of story here and there. And best of all, my pages were colored by my spouse, Jeanne McGee, who doesn’t do as much work in comic books as she could.
Nrama: OK, so it sounds like Neil was involved from the beginning -- but how much?
Litt: He was involved at every stage but in a deus ex machina way. Basically, once he trusts you, he trusts you. We talked early on about what Charles and Edwin were like. He told me about the idea to do a Vertigo crossover, involving a load of child characters, and how it came to grief.
The script went through different stages — pitch, treatment, story breakdown, and got the Neil nod or shake of the head each time.
Really, apart from Peter, my main collaborator was Neil circa 1993. He was the guy whose head I was trying to get into. I didn’t see a script or a plan from the original Children’s Crusade team. What I had, to start with, was what the readers had — I just had liberty to dream off from that.
Nrama: OK, let's back up and talk about the original Children's Crusade. How would you describe it, and how does your part of the story fit?
Litt: It’s a dark retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. All the children from a small English village suddenly disappear, charmed away, except one girl, who wasn’t home that day. She employs the Dead Boy Detectives, on their first case, to find out where her snotty little brother is.
The boys start out with this simple missing person case, and soon find that it’s something much more vast and evil. It involves children disappearing all over the world. And they are going to a place that seems much kinder to children than this world does — Free Country.
Pretty soon, Charles and Edwin are zooming all over the place, trying to intercept Tefe, Suzy, Maxine, Dorothy and Tim before they, too, are stolen away. It’s a huge, frantic chase, but with a very rich backstory.
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge of telling this story?
Litt: Trying to write comics on the same level as the author of Sandman.
Gross: For me, it was trying to blend it all together visually. Chris Bachalo and Peter Snejbjerg both have very strong visual styles that I love, and I wanted my pages to be a good fit and flow between them so this all became one big story, rather than a bunch of disjointed stories that didn’t fit together.
Nrama: So how did you guys do it — how did you fit your styles into their styles?
Gross: On some sections, I literally stole panels outright from both Chris and Peter! It was really fun to ink over what they had done and slightly alter it. But for the most part I just tried to feel similar to what they had done on the book.
Litt: For the writing, I tried to make a seamless transition between the original parts. I wanted to give Peter Gross something to run with — and, boy, has he run.
A few pages, from the Doom Patrol Annual, were reused and redrawn. I ended up doing more rewriting than anticipated. Toward the climax, it becomes more complicated. Intermixed with the old pages are new ones which, I hope, bring a bit more of a bang whilst also elaborating the argument and the mythology of the original.
Nrama: Was there anything you discovered while writing and drawing it that was a pleasant surprise… or maybe not so pleasant?
Gross: I think I finally remember which Dead Boy is Charles and which is Edwin. At least I did — now I’m not so sure again.
There were so many fun things in here for me. I got to draw a page with Swamp Thing! I drew some new Tim Hunter pages — I never thought that would happen again. I basically got to loop back to the beginning days of my career at Vertigo and reflect on all the time and comics under my belt since then.
Litt: I don’t know how many times I banged my head against the desk on this one. I think it now has a Children’s Crusade dent in it. What the hell is going on? There were so many characters to follow, and so many worlds to inhabit. It felt like joining not just a dysfunctional family but a dysfunctional universe, then getting that universe to have a happy holiday. Getting to write a single page involving Swamp Thing was a magnificent reward for the head-banging.
Nrama: Then as the collection is released this week, is there anything else you want to tell readers about the story and collection of Free Country — A Tale of the Children's Crusade?
Litt: If you love Neil Gaiman’s other books, I think you’ll love this one, and if you don’t, I didn’t headbutt my desk hard enough.
Gross: The original Children's Crusade #1 is a flat out masterpiece by Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo. I thought it was the two of them working together at the top of their abilities (or at least right as they both had reached full mastery of them). It’s brilliant, and if you haven’t read it, you should. The closing chapter, while not the literary equal to that Part One, was a visual masterpiece drawn by Peter Snejbjerg. It was my first exposure to him and he blew me away with his masterful use of blacks on the page and his characters full of delightful personality. Together with our new chapters, I hope this will become a rediscovered and new classic of Vertigo!