Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a group of travelers, each bearing a unique talent, run across one another and decide to band together for glory and gold.
It may sound like the start of a typical fantasy tale, but Ted Naifeh's latest offering, Night's Dominion, is anything but. Night's Dominion takes the typical fantasy archetypes, but adds a superhero twist, belnding aesthetics that he says feels “more like Conan, and less like Middle-Earth”.
Naifeh has established himself with a young adult audience with the likes of Courtney Crumrin, Polly and the Pirates, and most recently Princess Ugg, but with Night’s Dominion, he’s aiming for much more mature readers.
Newsarama caught up with Naifeh about the project which was announced early this week, learning about his motivations for crossing the streams with superheroes and fantasy, and why Night's Dominion is the perfect story to examine - and shake up - the tropes of both genres.
Additionally, Naifeh and Oni supplied Newsarama with a first look at exclusive interiors, as well as a look inside Naifeh’s own sketchbook with some of the character designs and their evolution.
Newsarama: Okay Ted, how would you describe the elevator pitch for Night's Dominion?
Ted Naifeh: Night's Dominion looks like a classic fantasy book, with a bunch roguish adventurers going on a quest for treasure. But it's secretly a superhero adventure. They say that superheroes are our modern myths. I wanted to take the modern out and see what I got, to tell a superhero story that grapples with the themes and issues superhero stories explore, but in a more overtly mythic setting. It's Game of Thrones meets the Avengers, with hopefully a little Homer in there for extra depth.
Nrama: This feels like something out of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. You have the rogue, the mage, the bard... It seems pretty balanced, but whose eyes are we seeing this book through? Is there a "main character"?
Naifeh: That's very deliberate. there's something undeniably romantic about the classic D&D campaign premise. A mixed collection of bad-asses meet in a tavern, and formulate a scheme to break into a dangerous dungeon to steal a treasure. Of course, beyond that, no one wants to read someone else's D&D campaign. "And the moral is, they all got rich and leveled up. The end."
In Night's Dominion the whole caper takes place in issue 2, and by the end, the plot has thickened considerably.
And, yes, there is a main character. I wanted write a superhero ensemble story, with one token female character, but from her perspective. I wanted to explore how different her experience would be, to highlight the difference in her relationship with the world she's trying to save.
Nrama: This art in here is all you. Pencils, inks, colors, the whole shebang. What made you want to go this route?
Naifeh: At the end of the day, when you have a colorist, they are a co-artist. The impact and importance of color cannot be underestimated. This is why on Princess Ugg, Warren Wucinich and I share ownership. He added an inestimable contribution in the feel of the book. In some ways, he made that book what it is.
But I wanted to really sink my teeth into the whole experience. I wanted Night's Dominion to reflect my vision as completely as possible, including the texture and flavor of the colors. The colors turn the image ideas into a fully realized world, a world you can touch and taste. And the lettering imbues the text with its own accent, whether you do colored balloons or hand-made sound effects. Now, that I’m still working on, though.
Nrama: You've been doing young adult books for most of your career, aside from the likes of How Loathsome, what made you want to do something more adult oriented? Or at the very least more PG-13ish?
Naifeh: It was a natural progression, really. Courtney Crumrin was an exploration of the anger that comes with being young and helpless. Princess Ugg explored teen angst and the sense of helplessness when you discover you can't just kick and punch and power your way through life. Night's Dominion is really about grown-up anger, the horror at realizing that civilization isn't all that civilized, and doesn't particularly care if you live or die. I feel that these three breeds of anger are phases in life's journey. Night's Dominion is just the next phase.
Nrama: Let's talk about the designs here. Everybody has such a distinctive look - you know their role as soon as you see them, without even them doing really anything. Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the designs here?
Naifeh: The main character, the Night, took the longest. I started off wanting her to look like an art nouveau dancer statue, all sleek and skin-tight decorative textures. But of course, one has to be able to draw the character over and over. At some point, I came up with her mantle, a hooded scarf with tails that go flying everywhere. It's a superhero cape, but not. I don't think I've seen that in any other character design. At first I rejected it, because I thought it would hide the character's form and make her less sexy. Then I thought, "Screw that, that's not what the Night is about." And it gives her an iconic look and feel, a unique silhouette that no one can mistake.
All the rest of the characters just fell into place after that. The Furie in particular was absurdly simple, once I designed his helmet. What does a fantasy Batman look like? A dragon, or a monstrous bird of prey, of course. The assassin comes from a guild called the House of Asps, so sleek and snake-like seemed the obvious choice. I also wanted a black character that wasn't the big tough guy, or the funny guy. He's the elegant, romantic guy.
Nrama: Expanding on your sense of design, not just in the characters, but the world itself, this seems like a finished and well-thought out world. You have a penchant for going all out with detail-oriented architecture. Why is that important to you as a storyteller to go into so much detail?
Naifeh: When you travel, what's the first indication that you're somewhere new? The buildings, the landscape. That's half the reason to travel. I love "imaginative fiction" partly for the experience of being in a new world. If that world is dull, or you never even see it because the artist thinks "backgrounds" are too hard, it's not much of an experience.
In the case of Night's Dominion, I knew I didn't want to create another western-European medieval city. I wanted something more ancient, a place where myths could have taken place. Gotham City a thousand years before Jesus. So I took for inspiration all kinds of ancient places, Indian temples, Byzantine-influenced Spain, the skyline of Yemen. The tavern is based on a soup kitchen uncovered in Pompeii. The clothing is roman crossed with modern Japanese fashion deconstruction trends. No bodices or waistcoats.
On the other hand, I want to create a sense that the folk living there consider it perfectly modern. They don't know that they're living in the past. They think of their world as the end-product or social evolution and urban decay. Gods and heroes come from ancient times, when folk were primitive and naive. No one has time for either anymore. So even in the story, the idea of modern people becoming mythic figures is as extraordinary for them as it is for us.
Nrama: Going back about the D&D quest trope about them assembling, what is this brave party fighting for?
Naifeh: The noblest cause in the world. They're all broke and desperate, and have debts owed. My Acolyte borrowed money from a crime family to keep the roof of his temple from falling in. The Magus, who's basically a con man, conned the same crime family's boss. The Assassin lost his nerve and failed an assignment. As for the Night....you can read about her motives in the second issue..
Nrama: What did you want to show off in Night's Dominion that you haven't been able to in your previous works?
Naifeh: Well, I've been fascinated of late with the rise of superheroes and the subject matter they explore. I wanted to be a part of that cultural conversation. But because superheroes are all so mired in history and the expectations of fans, I sometimes feel they aren't allowed to go far enough in exploring those ideas. They get caught up in the pageantry of costumes and spectacle of battle. Those things are essential, but they're not as important as the reasons why. I'm sick of watching heroes fight, only to realize I've forgotten or never learned what they're fighting about. And what they fight for is far more important than who can beat whom. Superheroes fight for the very soul of civilization. They always have. That's why they're compelling, now more than ever.
Nrama: What do you think makes this team compelling?
Naifeh: They're all people who feel as though they got the short end of the stick. The city has set them up and let them down. So when the city faces annihilation, they all have reason to just let it burn, and they have to decide whether civilization is worth saving.
Nrama: Isn't that slightly pessimistic? What would their alternative be?
Naifeh: People make that choice every day, in tiny increments. Every time someone says "Screw everyone, I'm out for myself alone." Every time self-interest takes precedence over the common good. When political backroom deals leave children poisoned by tap water, when wars are seen as business opportunities, when teenagers are sold to private prisons for profit, and when we say “oh well, that's just how it is," civilization gets dismantled bit by bit.
Nrama: So how would you really define these characters: Heroes, anti-heroes, some ambiguous amalgam of the two?
Naifeh: Well, in the original sense of the word, there's no difference between a hero, an anti-hero, and a villain like, say, Lex Luthor or Magneto. In ancient times, Paris was a hero even though he was clearly a bad guy. Everyone in the Iliad was a hero, even on opposite sides. And none of them were flawless characters. One of the things I like about superheroes fighting one another is that it reveals the flaws in all heroes, even Superman and Captain Marvel. Or Superman and Batman, for that matter. So to answer your question, whether these are heroes or anti-heroes will be up to the readers to decide.
Nrama: You weren't joking about those Homer elements in the story, huh?
Naifeh: Yeah, though I'm not exactly a scholar. My dad is. Partly, I wanted to write something my dad would read.
Nrama: Is this something Ted Naifeh would read?
Naifeh: I'm a fan of all my work. Maybe I see stuff in there that's not of much interest to most readers, but my small fan-base gets it. My rule is, if it makes you cry, how bad could it be? It works for Pixar.
But this one, I'm slightly obsessed. Maybe it's because, after years of superhero comics consumption, I found a unique platform to contribute to the conversation.
Nrama: Fair enough! Lastly, fantasy books have been making a comeback in recent years, but why should people be checking out Night's Dominion? What sets it apart?
Naifeh: Because it's everything we love with superheroes and fantasy, in new and interesting ways!