Bill Willingham is returning to his sword-and-sorcery roots. And this time, he’s got a snot-nosed little girl along on the ride.
Lark is the title character in Lark’s Killer, a new ongoing series from Devil's Due/1First Comics scheduled to launch in August. Lark is a street urchin, a grifter and minor thief who’s been living rough on the streets of Los Angeles. Her hard-knock life takes an even harder knock when she’s suddenly shifted into a totally new world where things are even more dangerous.
“It’s a very vicious medieval world,” Willingham says. “She has no idea how she got there, but as soon as she gets to this place, people are trying to kill her.”
But Lark thinks on her feet. She uses her last crumpled dollar she begged back in our world, and convinces a mercenary that the buck is of enormous value. She hires Brenar Frogbarding as her protector.
The setting is, at least partially, a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired world, and Willingham was one of RPG's main game artists back in the 1970s and 1980s. He’s bounced in and out of comics since the ’80s, notably writing a 150-issue run on DC/Vertigo’s Fables, which earned him multiple awards and solid sales. There’s a thread of that as well.
“This isn't Fables,” Willingham says. “But my bet is it's for the same people who like Fables.”
For Lark’s Killer, Willingham is joined by artist Mark Dos Santos, late of Image Comics's Imperial with Steven T. Seagle and Dynamite Entertainment's A Train Called Love with Garth Ennis. Dos Santos’ style from the book comes from an interesting place.
“Bill pitched me the idea, and I really liked it,” Dos Santos says. “I had just finished watching Zootopia and was in a very ‘I love Disney’ mood when Bill gave me some quick character descriptions. I designed Brenar and Lark, the two main characters, in a very Disney-esque style. I thought, ‘there’s no way he’s going to like this,’ but he fell in love with it. He said, ‘Run with it.’ So I spent the next month-and-a-half designing the world and we were off.”
Willingham plays the lightness of the art against the occasional darkness of the story.
“Mark’s work is very innocent-looking, but I warn you that real ‘grim and grittiness’ comes as a surprise,” he says. “You get that sense of comfort and then those ‘Oh, f***!’ moments when it turns dark again. I love working with Mark like this, and there’s some stuff coming down the pike that I hope readers will find surprisingly ugly.”
Some moments are ugly, but one of the thrulines is a sense of discovery.
“I’ve always loved portal fiction,” Willingham says. “When John Carter arrives on Mars, Dorothy arrives in Oz, or whatever, you, the reader, get to experience this strange new world at the same pace the point-of-view character does. The story of going somewhere just so, so amazing is a story of discovery. I love that setting.”
And Willingham promises a method to that madness.
“From the moment she arrives, people are trying to kill Lark. She has no idea why, but the story is about finding out why, finding out what happened. Along the way, of course, they have adventures and there’s the tough business of staying alive.”
Willingham also promises readers won’t have to wait very long for the “why?”
“I want to move it along fairly quickly,” he says. “I hate things that have a central mystery that just dawdles. Lark and Brenar Frogbarding will find out together the hopefully-very-interesting reason of why she’s in this world and why she has to be killed as soon as she arrives, fairly quickly.”
Another thruline is the relationship between Lark, who’s very street-smart and wily, and Brenar…who is a tank.
“I like the oft-repeated trope of the main character who has the really tough friend,” Willingham laughs. “I may have been first exposed to it in the ’60s with Marvel Comics’ Black Widow and her protector, Ivan. I like the concept of, ‘Oh, you think I’m trouble? Well, meet the person who’s looking after me.’ Now she can act even more like a little shit, which she does in the series. She’s kind of a crabby-ass little Dorothy. Her smart mouth will get her into a lot of trouble.”
Willingham and 1First are banking on deadlines not being trouble. Lark's Killer #1 isn't scheduled until August, but the book is done four months in advance. A fully colored-and-lettered version will be available at 1First Comics' C2E2 booth #813. Dos Santos is currently drawing #3, while Willingham is writing #4. And Willingham has plans for Lark’s Killer many issues down the line, and beyond that as well.
“I hope this doesn’t come across as cynical, but I think this ripe for possible movie or TV-type interpretations,” he says. “At DC, we had a 10-year head start on Fables over all the stuff that popped up where people said, ‘Oh, this reminds me of Fables, they should have just done Fables,’ and I agree with all those people. The people who were in charge of exploiting Fables in that regard just really, really dropped the ball. With First Comics, for toys, games, movies, TV, any of that, I have the absolute say on ‘Yes, we will do that/No, we wont.’ I’m tired of that decision being in other people’s hands. In a cocky, swagger-y sort of way, I’m interested to see if I can do a little better than the vast DC media machine in getting something like this underway.”
But Willingham knows it all starts with that early start.
“The plan here, all along, has been that by the time this is announced, we’ll make the very first issue available to put in the hands of retailers and press and so on,” he says. “In the comics world today, I think you need excitement, word-of-mouth. We’re hoping to gin some of that up. I hope retailers will be willing to go out on a limb and get some of these to put in the hands of Fables readers. I know I owe my career to retailers who were excited by Fables. I wouldn’t mind lightning striking twice here if people are so inclined to do it.”