As Vertigo launches a dozen new series, one of them is being compared by the publisher to some of its classics like The Sandman and Fables: Red Thorn, by writer David Baillie and artist Meghan Hetrick.
Launching November 18, Red Thorn exists in the world of myth and gods, touching on the legends of Scotland — Baillie's birthplace — but combining them with the modern world of busy Glasgow.
Newsarama talked to Baillie and Hetrick to find out more about Red Thorn, the role Scottish mythology plays, and what readers can expect from the new Vertigo title.
Newsarama: David, I think most people who know your work -- particularly on 2000AD -- assume you're a British writer. But we should probably establish right up front that you're Scottish, right?
David Baillie: I am indeed! I even own two kilts.
I was born just outside Glasgow and lived there until moving to London a few years ago. My mother's family were from the Gorbals, on the south bank of the River Clyde, and if you go back a couple of generations you start hitting plucky Irish immigrants. My father's family are Scottish all the way back to the Picts.
London hasn't dulled my accent any though — as I discovered when doing press interviews at New York Comic Con last week.
Nrama: Well, I ask because Scotland plays greatly into the story you're writing, doesn't it? I mean, besides being knowledgeable about the setting, I assume the culture and history of Scotland is pretty important to this book. Are you pouring a lot of yourself into it?
Baillie: Yeah this is a really personal story for me. It takes place in the part of the world I grew up in, and it's populated by the kind of people I know best. I'm touching on all sorts of myths and legends that I read about as a kid in dusty school libraries, half-remembered stuff that I really had to dig around to rediscover.
I spent a lot of time in Glasgow last year, walking the streets and figuring out actual journeys that happen in the first few issues. What the characters could see, what conversation that might inspire, how long the journeys would take — both sober and drunk. I also spent a lot of time in various museums, as well as up the Necropolis and in the Gorbals library.
The cast of Red Thorn is very Glaswegian too, even those that aren't actually natives of the city. Actually sometimes especially them. There's something unique about the people of Glasgow - a cunning glee that can sometimes seem threatening to anyone unfamiliar with it. I wanted to capture that.
Also the way the rain batters off the streets. For me that's the most Glasgow thing about Glasgow.
Nrama: OK, we should probably back up and talk about the story itself. What's your brief description of the story in Red Thorn?
Baillie: OK, so 1600 years ago the pagan gods of old Scotland were slaughtered. All except one who, for reasons we'll discover, was instead imprisoned miles beneath the cobbles of Glasgow. Cut to 2015 and someone's idle daydream doodles provides him with him the power he's been waiting for to release himself.
From that point we have a ringside seat for the re-ignition of a divine battle that will rattle every level of human society — in this world and any other.
Nrama: Would you call this a modern-day fantasy?
Baillie: Very much. In my original pitch I made sure that Vertigo knew this story had to be happening today. I mean we have flashbacks - we look at Roman times, and the early nineties in the first year of Red Thorn — but the guts of the story are being spilled at the tail end of 2015.
I've also been careful to make the subject matter feel modern. I want to give the reader something new. I've deliberately avoided stuff that we've seen a lot of before - in particular faeries and Irish mythology — in favor of the more unfamiliar. I think what the folks at DC/Vertigo first got excited about.
Nrama: How would you describe Red Thorn's protagonist, Isla? And what event starts her down the path of adventure in Red Thorn?
Baillie: Isla is a young American woman who takes absolutely no shit. That's actually her primary defining characteristic. She also has the most amazing red hair you will ever see depicted in comics, thanks to Meghan and coloring legend, Steve Oliff.
She's known from a very young age that she was, in her words, "a replacement kid." Her sister, Lauren, went missing before she was born, somewhere in Scotland, and then to fill the terrible hole of that loss, her parents had her. She's grown up in the shadow of her sister and then, when she starts to display weird magical abilities in her teens, she puts two and two together and figures out that these things must be somehow related.
She travels to Glasgow to trace Lauren's footsteps, and that begins our journey with her.
Nrama: I assume the guy on the first cover is Thorn, character at the center of this whole thing? How would you describe him?
Baillie: He's sexy, angry, swaggering, powerful, inscrutable, funny and he never, ever wears a shirt. He's everything I want to be.
Thorn is an ancient pagan demigod, who's been imprisoned for more than a thousand years. When he's released, he's like a human-shaped container of explosives, trying his best to contain his energies until he can figure out a plan.
When putting him together as a character, there was a lot of old-school Vertigo stuff that I wanted to call back to, because as much as this is a new creator-owned series that Meghan and I are weaving, we know it doesn't exist in a vacuum. We're both Vertigo fans, we know that die-hard Vertigo fans will be picking this up and hoping for a hit of something familiar and so there are traces of things that you'll definitely recognize, but then hopefully we'll tear you off in an unexpected direction as soon as we've got you hooked.
Apart from his conniving, and his barely contained fury, I think his objectives are probably what define him. He thinks everyone should be free, god and human alike, a dangerous belief that led to his original downfall. When he emerges into the world of 2015, he hates what he finds, and immediately sets out to correct it. Which might make him sound like some sort of hero, but if you read the first arc you'll see that description isn't very apt at all.
Nrama: What other characters play a role in the series?
Baillie: We have a large cast, which we'll meet across the first year. There's a teenaged boy from Morocco called Tarek, who's been drawing maps his whole life, but maps of places that don't seem to exist. There's a Glasgow boy called Alec who falls in love with Isla an hour after meeting her. We'll also introduce you to Franint, your new favorite Red Cap, the Stepping Orc who can open doors to many places, and one of Thorn's exes who is a bit of a celebrity.
Nrama: You mentioned spending times in museums and libraries. How much research did you do on Scottish mythology for this book?
Baillie: I'd grown up with a lot of these stories so they were already there, mixed in with other mythologies: Greek, Roman, DC, Marvel — all part of my storytelling DNA. When pitching the first couple of arcs, I spent a month researching lesser-spotted folk tales, and weird legends, trying to find connections that I could explore and use to enrich the world of Red Thorn. I've also dipped into a lot of modern mythology — tales that have been told particularly in the last few decades.
Nrama: How does Meghan's artwork add to the story? Readers might know her from her work on comics like Fairest or even her sketch card work. But what would you say her style contributes to the style of Red Thorn?
Baillie: I've said this before and I honestly don't think it's hyperbole — Meghan Hetrick is the best new comic artist in the Western world.
She's added a lot that I hadn't expected, and couldn't have predicted, which is brilliant. I love collaboration and that's absolutely what this is. From the very first sketches she drew, Meghan has brought these characters to life. Isla originally played a smaller part in the story but as soon as Rowena, our editor, and I saw how Meghan was going to depict her we knew she had to stand closer to centre stage. Similarly as soon as the pencils came in for the first issue I realized that Thorn would be more playful and flirty than I had initially envisioned. He's still just as angry, but he hides it better now. For now.
Meghan has also really captured modern day Glasgow, while adding something of her own design sense to the streets, buildings and people. Kind of like when a new artist takes on Gotham or Judge Dredd's Mega City One — it's a version of something that we already know, an interpretation that allows the artist to express herself. And I love that Meghan just dived right in there. It's a challenge that I imagine would have spooked a lot of American artists.
Nrama: Meghan, how would you describe her your approach to her visually?
Meghan Hetrick: It sounds cliché, but I wanted to try and make Isla different from your typical female heroine that you see in most mainstream comics. I tried to embody the idea of her age, which is mid-20's, so there’s a bit of the cockiness of youth in there, but also the beginnings of the temperance that comes with adulthood.
Visually, Isla is unique. Her style is feminine, but with an edge and not overly sexual. She’s not incredibly tall, or thin, and her hair is almost it’s own character, at times seems to be this living, breathing thing with a mind of it’s own. Really though, i think the more important part is that her attitude is established, rather than her clothing.
Oh, and she also has freckles. This is important for me to note, because reasons.
Nrama: Let's talk about the way you draw Thorn. What's he like, and what have you been keeping in mind about the character as you both designed him and now draw him?
Hetrick: Everything about Thorn was designed to exude confidence, power and sexuality, which results in him being almost predatory in nature. There is a sinister edge and a keen intelligence to him that is an absolute blast to draw. There is a recurring motif of sharp pointy things on him as well, whether it be his hair, his daggers, the boots… Thorn lives up to his name. He’s definitely the bad boy archetype in appearance, but sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs.
Plus, he gives me the chance to turn the tables and have an overtly sexual male character, with fantastic … assets. For once, the main female character isn’t providing all the visual titillation.
Nrama: What other characters play a role in the book, and are there any you want to point out the visual approach of?
Hetrick: Hmm… there are a number, because i approached each with a very specific mindset, but I don’t want to give anything away. Dave mentioned Tarek and one of Thorn’s exes, so i’ll use them as examples.
Tarek is a young teen from Morocco, and I used him to balance the looks of Isla and Thorn. Where as Isla is clothed in rich jewel tones, and Thorn is barely clothed at all, for Tarek I used lots of earthy colors and natural materials, with a bright bold Berber scarf as a nod to his heritage. He’s also a character that’s seen some rougher moments, and so he shies away from most physical contact (except Isla, because really, what 14-year-old boy would shy away from her?). Without giving too much away, I can also say pay very close attention to his body language, as it’s extremely important with him.
Thorn’s ex was designed to be an absolute foil to Isla. She is incredibly beautiful, but breaks the typical comic book archetypes of what that’s supposed to entail. She’s quite short, at about five feet tall, with not much to speak of in terms of boobs, butt, or hips, but that doesn’t stop her from absolutely owning almost any room she walks into.
Nrama: How have you been approaching drawing Glasgow? Are you familiar with the city? How much of a role does the setting play visually?
Hetrick: Google street maps and image search have saved me with this book, as i am in no way familiar with Glasgow (or the U.K. in general)…. yet. Being that I don’t know the culture or city at all, I can only really go by how important it to Dave for me to get the look of the city right. Hopefully i’m doing okay, coz the setting itself is pretty much another character.
Nrama: How's it been working with David?
Hetrick: Dave is an incredibly talented writer, and I really love the fact that he knows how to balance the stories with action, drama, and humor. The banter and small scenes between characters are probably my absolute fave things to draw, because they do so, so much to establish everyone’s personalities, and Dave is a master at writing those.
I also love how he gives room to play, in regards to expressions, angles, etcetera. He rarely explicitly directs you, unless it makes absolute sense… and to an artist like me who’s a constant fiddler with things, that’s incredibly important.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell potential readers about Red Thorn?
Hetrick: The book really does harken back to the Vertigo titles of old, with the dark, sexy, mythological and larger than life characters, which is something that I really do feel is missing from comics in general today. If you were and/or are a fan of those books, definitely check this one out.
Be ready for a roller coaster of a ride… with the occasional gratuitous ass shot.
Nrama: I assume you've got this story planned out for a while. How would you describe what's coming up in Red Thorn over the next few months?
Baillie: The first arc, "Glasgow Kiss," sets up the next couple of years' worth of story. By its end we'll know what each principal player wants, and how they intend to achieve it. Without giving too much away, the wounds inflicted in the first six issues will be the fuel that gives the next part of the story direction. Red Thorn #7 will be an intermission chapter with a kick-ass guest artist (who I can't name yet — but he's both amazing and a legend!) and then the second arc will pick up all the shattered pieces left in the wake of "Glasgow Kiss" and quickly ramp up to our explosive first year finale. There will be nudity, swearing, tartan, blood, monsters, girls, guys, perfect abs and lots of heartbreak.
In fact that's what I should write in the solicits every month.