It's a long way from the Jovian moon of lo to Earth. Just ask cartoonist James Turner.
Io is one of the four major moons orbiting the planet Jupiter, and is also the dominion of the Warlord of Io in a comic series of the same name by Turner. Turner, who is best known in comics for his two previous series Rex Libris and Nil: A Land Beyond Belief, had plans to release the story as a miniseries beginning last year. But when the pre-orders came in for the debut issue, the primary distributor of comics, Diamond, deemed them below their threshold for distribution and balked at carrying the book. Faced with this, Turner and his publisher SLG put plans for the miniseries on hold… but lucky for them, you can't keep a good warlord down.
The Warlord of Io is now coming to comic shelves not as a miniseries but as a fully formed graphic novel containing the complete series. The Warlord of Io in this case is the young emperor Zing, who recently assumed the throne after the previous rule abdicated for a lush retirement full of alien women and relaxation. While Zing is coming to terms with the new power at his fingertips, he's blanketed on all sides by the rigueur and unintentional comedy of running an empire. Turner's history of blending smart and rye humor with intricate subject matter is on full display, blending the style of the Marx Brothers with that of sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.
Newsarama: It seems like you can’t keep a good warlord down. After the original miniseries debut of Warlord of Io was rejected by Diamond Distributors for orders below their minimum, you’re back – with a full graphic novel even. How’d it all happen, James?
James Turner: I'm very stubborn. I'd already invested a good deal of time in the project, and I don't like leaving projects unfinished. With the graphic novels higher price point, SLG stood a good chance of getting it by the new Diamond minimums. So I finished the book up. Seemed like a reasonable investment at the time.
It's quite a bit different from Nil: A Land Beyond Belief and Rex Libris, my two previous projects. Warlord of Io is very light hearted and, I think, a much breezier read. The look is softer as well, and the figures less angular. I used a lot of outlines in Nil and the early Rex issues, but in Warlord of Io there are very few. I wanted to define as much as possible just with tone, which is rather unusual for a comic. Almost everyone uses outlines and emphasizes line work. I took it in the opposite direction.
Nrama: The titular character in this, the Warlord of IO, is named Zing. What can you tell us about him?
Turner: Zing's a rather spoiled rich kid who's led a very sheltered life. He's studiously avoided responsibility and is interested in pursuing a career as a rock musician or professional video/virtual game player. Unfortunately, when his father retires, he finds himself suddenly responsible for an entire world and the lives of billions.
Nrama: After Zing’s father retires, Zing’s thrust into leadership. Global politics – ahh, not the first thing I’d think of for comics – what’s Zing up to?
Turner: Trying to solve things quickly so he can get back to his video game. Reality keeps knocking on his door and refuses to go away, or pay attention to his "Do Not Disturb" sign.
The politics of Io are very primitive. Perhaps coarse is a better term. Primal. Ancient Rome in the Imperial period comes to mind. There are also parallels to feudal systems. The Emperor of Io, for example, has to cajole and bully and bribe his generals (who rule the different peoples of Io directly, like feudal lords). This is how Julius Caesar got his troops to act. They didn't just follow him blindly: they wanted to know what was in it for them. He provided them with glory and, more importantly, loot. He appealed to their self-interest and was a very skilled orator. The legions didn't just blindly obey.
The later emperors, particularly the barracks emperors, had to bribe the Praetorian Guard or get their throats slit. When a state has no real infrastructure to handle the transfer of power, it usually winds up being done through violence. Most of the barracks emperors left the throne in a box.
So a leader of such a state is greatly restricted in what they can do. Isaac Asimov got this across very well with his book Second Foundation, which was very loosely based on the fall of the Roman Empire. Emperors do not have unlimited power. It just looks like they do. It's a mirage, albeit a convincing one until someone sticks a knife between the ruler's ribs. They are dependent on the support of powerful factions within the state. As Severus bluntly told his two sons, please the army and fuck the rest. A dictator has to constantly work to maintain his position, through bribery, fear, force, and flattery.
I try to illustrate this in Warlord of Io. Being an emperor is like riding a Tyrannosaurus Rex. You have a great view. People look up at you in awe. It's real nifty at first. You may guide the beast. You may harness the beast's power. But you're still sitting atop a wild beast that will eat you the minute you lose your grip on the reins.
Democratic institutions help domesticate leviathans. They help smooth the transfer of power.
There's none of that sort of sophistication on Io. The best it has is the transfer of power based on heredity.
An emperor in this situation who doesn't keep the army happy is likely to wind up with his head on the end of a pike.
Zing is initially cavalier about his position; he thinks he can just do whatever he wants, then go back to his video games. He finds out it doesn't work that way. Io isn't like a modern Western democracy. Not that our leaders bugger off to play video games. But it doesn't have institutions to keep the army in check or the state stable. Good intentions aren't enough.
The book then goes on to show the flip side: extreme violence, sadism, and mass murder will alienate supporters. The stick doesn't work unless there are carrots to be had. Some Roman emperors became so depraved that the Praetorian Guard could no longer overlook the excesses. So they dice the guy. This process takes longer if the troops are being well paid, but much, much faster if they feel neglected. Think Caligula and Commodus. Someone has to be enjoying the state of affairs, even if it's a small minority, or the state of affairs will soon not be.
You have to be careful, take the middle path, keep the beast happy, and not implement grandiose, unrealistic, utopian fantasies when you're dealing with primitive, primal political systems. Because they don't work. And people will notice. And then they'll take your stuff, nail you to a tree, and leave you for the vultures.
That's basically the thinking behind it.
Nrama: It seems Zing’s friend Moxy Comet has a way of prodding him into action. Can you tell us about her and that relationship?
Turner: They've known each other since they were toddlers. Moxy's parents are researchers who develop technology by reverse engineering artifacts from the First Biogenesis. Profits from their inventions made them part of the nouveau rich and brought them to the attention of Emperor Zoz, who hired them as science advisors.
At the time of the book they're on a ten yearlong research mission to the Kuiper belt. Moxy elected to stay behind on Io to pursue her studies in archeology. Zoz agreed to watch over her and let her stay in the palace, where she and Zing became even closer.
She's more worldly than Zing, and since recently graduating has been working with the Ion Astro-Archeology Ministry. Her thesis about the lost treasure tomb of the Tiki got her noticed and she was put in charge of a research mission.
Unfortunately most of this back-story doesn't actually make it into the final version of the book. I cut a lot of material out.
Nrama: That just means what you do have is chocked full.
One of the things I remembered from Warlord of Io when it was originally going to come out as a miniseries was a great pin-up of a Tiki Pirate… and even an off-handed mention of them in the first story. Will we get to see Tiki Space Warriors in all of their glory in this G.N.?
Turner: Yes. Well. Sort of. With a twist. I don't want to give anything away.
Nrama: Also in the original miniseries you had some side stories. With this series being rejigged to debut not as a mini but as a graphic novel, will any of those make the cut?
Turner: There aren't any. Nothing else from the one shot made it in. All 206 pages is pure Warlord of Io. It's a mixture of comedy and adventure. They say that Marx Brother movies are 10 per cent plot, and 90 per cent jokes. The plot is just there to hang the jokes on. With Warlord of Io, I'd say it's more like 60/40. At least that's my gut impression. Depends on what you find funny.