On Thursday July 15th, Ubisoft announced they'd be launching an Assassin's Creed comic. A press release and a teaser trailer revealed very little about the project, other than it taking place in Russia and being written and drawn by Karl Kerschl and Cameron Stewart. Over the weekend, fans across the 'net have been clamoring for more information, and were told they'd have to wait until Comic-Con International: San Diego for more to be revealed.Orelov, the New Russian Assassin Luckily, Newsarama was one of the few select outlets that got to see the starting points of the new Assassin's Creed comic in Montreal, Quebec, and spoke with the creators about the ambitious new project that hopes to buck the trends of video game comic books.
One thing was clear throughout the entire presentation and conversation with Kerschl, Stewart, and Ubisoft representatives: everyone involved in this project is all too aware of the stigma of sub-par storytelling that rides on most game comics. Julian Cuny, Transmedia Development Director of Ubisoft, repeatedly mentioned this awareness, and mentioned it as a reason for them going with an all-new character and all-new setting, instead of using Ezio or Altair from the existing games.
Getting further into the basics of the project, Cameron Stewart started by introducing the newest Assassin. Nikolai Orelov is a Russian Assassin who will be shown at three different stages of his life. Each issue of the 3-issue comic book series will focus on one of these eras, with Orelov as an apprentice assassin, at the height of his career, and finally as a "grizzled" seasoned veteran. He lives in a time of revolution and the falling of the Czars at the turn of the 20th Century, a drastic change for Russia that the Assassins may have had a larger hand in than previously known. The design of the character was meticulously researched by Stewart and Kerschl, taken from stacks of "books at the library" and museum trips, including some in St. Petersburg. Daniel Cross will be the comic's correlary to the games' Desmond Miles, the character in a closer-to-present day who enters the Animus, a machine that allows him to relive the memories of his ancestral assassins.
Authenticity in the basics and background information, according to Stewart, is what helps sell the fantastic things the assassins do in the games, and they wanted the same feel for the comics.Kerschl's sketch in St. Petersburg, Russia, alongside a photo of the real building. "The two games that exist were slavishly studied and researched and detailed, the least we can do is try to be as authentic as we can," said Kerschl.
They based the original hood off the classic Russian warrior helmets, and merged it with the classic hoods from the games. Uniformity was "very important to us," according to Kerschl. "You should be able to line [the assassins] up and have a homogenates look to them. It started to feel real at this point, when Nadine colored it and we put them beside Altair and Ezio."
The authenticity isn't just in Orelov's character design, but in the design of St. Petersburg, Russia, where most of the comic will take place. They "documented complete interiors" of buildings outside the city center that are less well known, said Kerschl.Details in Stewart's St. Petersburg Sketchbook "We took hundreds and hundreds of photographs during our short stay," explained Stewart. However, they did less sketching than they originally thought they would, instead hoping the original images taken would provide reference down the line. "What we'd like to have with this is for a Russian comic reader to read this and feel excited that their culture and their city has been accurately represented," said Stewart, with Kerschl adding, "and honored."
With this, don't expect Russia to be the "grim and grey and cold (emotionally) place" of movies, said Stewart. The city of St. Petersburg surprised them, feeling often like any other major metropolitan area from throughout Europe. Their trip also confirmed that they'd made the right choice out of seven or eight pitches on which character and setting to use, a decision made at their first meeting, and based largely off the red-star Assassin logo Stewart sketched while they talked about their ideas. Another of their initial pitches, set around an ancient Mayan Assassin, felt like too drastic of a departure for the first book, and they were glad to opt for the unique architecture and high rooftops found in St. Petersburg, mimicking the height and breadth of the games.
The project is ambitious for Stewart and Kerschl outside of the new city, era, and characters. The very way they're constructing the comic book is unique to anything they've worked on before. The two are not just co-writing, but also co-drawing. There is no distinction of "penciler" and "inker" here, with the pair instead opting for more of a jam-session style.Orelov on a horse, in the artist's new collaborative style "We'll literally pass a drawing back and forth" over their tables, which face each other in their Montreal Studio. Stewart also talked about his movement into nearly all-digital work, which they'll be using for this project, and how it makes things "even easier" for this kind of collaboration. With each of them adding depth and detail to images they work on together, the result is a true hybrid style to the lifework that neither would achieve on their own, and a style at once at-home with the rest of the Assassin's Creed franchise, and wholly unique. With the project colored by another studiomate and the Ubisoft Montreal building literally two streets over from their studio, close collaboration is easy for the creators. Julian Cuny assures, however that this doesn't mean Ubisoft is looking constantly over their shoulders.
"We want this to be their project, their book. These guys know the deal, they know how to make comics, we don't," said Cuny. The level of freedom granted the creators is one of the many reasons they went with a new, unknown character rather than using one from the games. Stewart did mention the impetus for this character and time period does come from the games, however, hinting that eagle-eyed readers/players should look back for hints. Cuny also mentioned that once made, this is a firm part of the overall Assassin's Creed universe.
"This will never be abandoned; this story is as much a part of Assassin's Creed as any of the games," explained Cuny. As further parts of the mythos are explored, the comic will "absolutely not be ignored," and acknowledged in future endeavors. Asked if this character could show up in a game of his own, or even as a downloadable character in multiplayer for their next game, Brotherhood, Cuny just smiled and said, "we're certainly thinking about and exploring everything."Stewart drawing in Russia Future comics could be on the way if this first 3-issue series, currently set to debut "late 2010" is the success they hope and cautiously expect it will be. UbiWorkshop is making a firm commitment to bringing their properties to other mediums and exploring how they can tell different stories in their existing worlds. Cuny said they're even open to creating new intellectual property in a comic and then converting that into a game in the future. Cuny would love to see more of Stewart and Kerschl's ideas come to the page, and the two were very enthusiastic about doing more beyond this first story as well. Describing this as "a dream project," they explained that it's like working on a creator-owned and existing property simultaneously.
From big-name creators, to a storyline torn out of history (research the Tunguska incident for more hints to the story), and a property that lends itself to tales from every era and location, Ubisoft is making it clear they don't want a "video game comic" with the negative connotation that usually carries. Instead, Cameron Stewart and Karl Kerschl are being allowed to make the best comic book they can, which happens to have ties to a video game. UbiWorkshop may even self-publish the book, though they're also exploring other publishing options. Distribution outside of comic books, and unique digital distribution are also on the table, as Cuny points out with that sly grin again, "[Ubisoft] have a bit of a history with digital media."
With a history of deep stories, a history of success for the creators, and history as background for the new tale, this team may just make history.Tune in to Newsarama on Thursday, July 22 for more on the new comic, including colored images of Orelov from San Diego Comic-Con What do you think of the Assassin's Creed comic so far?