It’s not every day that writer Bryan Hill gets to chime in on ROMULUS, and all things indie comics, so let’s do this, with relish.
Q: It’s been said that ROMULUS is a “violent philosophical story” involving “occult forces, secret societies, and assassins.” What more can you tell us about the tale, without giving too much away?
BH: ROMULUS is about a young woman named ASHLAR, who fights a one-woman-war against THE ORDER OF ROMULUS, the oldest secret society in the world, a group responsible for most of the things plaguing the world, a group that seeks to keep power in the hands of the elite, at the expense of all of us.
Nelson Blake II, the artist and I wanted to create a story about heroism against the worst odds imaginable. Ashlar is hunted by the whole world, and her enemy is everywhere, hiding the shadows of wealth, politics, government and entertainment. It’s really a love-letter to the kinds of stories that inspired me growing up, and a way to explore the power centers of the world in which we live.
THE ORDER OF ROMULUS is based on actual secret societies that have existed or still exist. I’m not an occultist, per se, but I am deeply interested in the occult and the esoteric and how a lot of occultism hides in plain sight all around us. One of the goals of ROMULUS is to tell a story about that instinct well all have that there’s a hidden power and strategy behind what we see. Ancient schools of thought rarely die. They just transform. Sometimes they hide and manifest themselves in different ways, but they still affect us to this day.
I’ve spoken to people concerned about these ideas and how they affect us. Not “conspiracy theorist” fringe figures, but mainstream figures in finance, entertainment, politics, law enforcement. It sounds nuts to say there might be a “dark hand” controlling the fate of the world…until people you respect and admire tell you they’re worried about the same thing.
That’s when you start losing sleep.
The comics that inspire me are the ones that are DANGEROUS. The intense stories where you can feel the passion of the creators in every panel. People like Marjorie Liu, works by Frank Miller, Gaiman etc. Nelson and I both have a collection of intense experiences and we wanted to tell a story that’s a vehicle for the things we’ve experienced first-hand.
Q: You mentioned that Ashlar is hunted by the whole world, and that her enemy is everywhere. That being said, what can you share with us about some of the tale’s more prominent antagonists?
BH: In the first issue, we introduce a character named Achilles. Of all the people hunting Ashlar, he’s the most dangerous. He’s been assigned the task by THE ORDER OF ROMULUS and he’s a zealot for their cause. Ashlar was trained in a spiritual way, through a martial-arts regiment that included many esoteric brands of athletic skill.
Achilles is nearly a product of THE ORDER OF ROMULUS. He uses performance enhancing drugs. Ballistic weapons. There’s not spiritual about him. He’s pure force, without conscience, without hesitation. THE ORDER OF ROMULUS charged him with destroying Ashlar and that’s his unrelenting focus.
As the story continues we’ll meet more members of THE ORDER OF ROMULUS, among them, their current leader…but I’ll let readers discover more about that on their own.
Expect other villains too. Nelson and I have created ROMULUS as a universe and Ashlar not only fights THE ORDER OF ROMULUS, she also dedicates herself to stopping anything threatening innocent lives that she comes across. Some of these villains are directly connected to her origins, many of them are not.
Those that do evil will come to know her well.
Q: The character of Ashlar is a rare breed of protagonist, in the sense that she happens to be an assassin. What were some of your biggest influences, from an Ashlar standpoint?
BH: Real world female martial-artists are a HUGE influence on us. There’s this myth that women aren’t intense. That they need protection from conflict and that’s complete bullshit (Can I say bullshit?). When Nelson and I wanted to create a female protagonist, the first place I went for inspiration were women who push themselves against their own limits. I talked with female athletes, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs — all of them warriors in their own way. I wanted to understand how they motivate themselves through adversity, how they find inspiration. Those conversations were a big help in creating Ashlar and making her authentic.
In fiction and in history, I’m always drawn to the revolutionaries. Characters and people that take a stand against the evil they see, often at great risks to themselves. Joan of Arc, Robert Kennedy, Cassandra Cain (from DC’s BATGIRL), it’s all a gumbo of influences that inspire me.
I will say that this started when I was taking photographs in Los Angeles and I saw a young woman skateboarding at a park. She was just so completely in the damn zone, pulling tricks, the grinding of her board against the concrete, the pure fury in her expression. I couldn’t even take a photograph of her because I was just rapt by her whole presence. She was doing really complicated stuff and NAILING it, repeating it over and over again, trying to get it perfect.
When she was done, I asked her “what motivates you?” and she told me “Fear. I was scared to do this. People kept telling me I couldn’t, but I didn’t want that to be true so I forced myself to get out here and learn it. Now I love it…but I’m still afraid I’ll fall. But if I fall, that’s okay, because I know I can get up and get it right.”
So that stuck into me. That passion. That perspective. That’s Ashlar. “I’ll try, and if I fall, I’ll get up and do it again until I get it right.”
Ashlar was raised by the wrong people, poisoned by the wrong philosophy, but her conscience woke her up and now she’s using everything she’s learned, everything she can do to destroy the forces that corrupted her and the world in which we live. That’s a story and a character I can bleed into every issue. That helps me fight the blank page and put the words down.
I’m really into her.
Q: Who would you cast in the role of Ashlar, when the ROMULUS comic inevitably becomes a blockbuster full-length live-action feature film?
BH: Hmmm. I never really thought about it. Although I’m a screenwriter as well, I don’t really think about Hollywood when I write comics. It keeps the restrictions of Hollywood from infecting the work. Hmmm.
Well, Ashlar is bi-racial (although we’re keeping her father’s identity a secret) so I’d like an actor that reflects that. I wanted her to represent the reality of the world, that we’re a blend of cultural influences, especially in America. I guess, if Hollywood were to try and make ROMULUS, they should probably make it a television show because the world is pretty large and there’s a lot of explore. For television you don’t need someone famous, you just need someone damn good. Look at Melanie Scorfano of WYNONNA EARP. She’s awesome and I’d never heard of her before.
So I guess, I’d use ROMULUS as an opportunity to break someone new. Someone fierce and funny and hard working. Someone who would love the training and also love to explore the humanity inside of a genre story. There are so many brilliant actors out there, looking for the right thing. I’m sure there’s an Ashlar walking the streets of Los Angeles while I type this.
She’s probably headed to the gym.
Q: Which indie comics have you been enjoying most these days?
BH: Man, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. This question always throws me because I know I’ll miss something, but I really dig MONSTRESS by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda. EAST OF WEST by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta. PRETTY DEADLY by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. RUN LOVE KILL by Jon Tseui and Eric Canete. I like the hard stuff. The unflinching stuff. Books that have the volume turned up high and set off little lightning bolts in your brain.
Q: We love that you mentioned MONSTRESS. That comic had a 66-page first issue, with no ads. That’s three times the size that we usually see in a first issue of any comic. That’s how to make a splash! What is it about that particular title that really gets your blood pumping?
BH: What really strikes me about Marjorie’s work, and I’ve told her this, is that she can combine deep emotional resonance with stark imagery that isn’t afraid to depict actual violence. I’m about to get pretentious (well, more pretentious) but MONSTRESS has a lot of themes of repression. Being frightened of a power that lives inside you and learning how to keep that power from taking charge, while simultaneously needing that power to defeat your adversaries.
I’m fascinated by how repression works in the human psyche. Currently, I’m studying Carl Jung and alchemical humanism, concepts about the transformation that takes place when you recognize and embrace your shadow self. There is a misunderstanding that alchemy was about turning coal into gold, sure that was part of it, but it was truly about transforming yourself, about sacrificing the inert, limiting parts of your nature and embracing your shadow self to synthesize into something greater.
We’re all half feminine and half masculine. Each has a different path to its perfection. We repress the parts of our nature that we think don’t match our outward selves. Women are often taught to deny their aggression, their anger and their true will to fit a societal standard, but that energy exists inside of them.
For me, MONSTRESS is about that concept of the expression of true will against the repression of societal expectation.
That will be an ongoing theme in ROMULUS for Ashlar. She also has forces within her, feelings and parts of her nature that she’s trying to manage, things she’s scared of accepting. Through extreme experience, she’ll have to face those things within herself.
Perhaps THE ORDER OF ROMULUS seeks to use those parts of herself against her. If you don’t embrace and understand your shadow self, then perhaps someone else will…and they can manipulate you with the forces within your nature that you don’t want to accept. Then they become your master.
ROMULUS is very much about that. Master yourself before darker forces begin to master you.
Q: What’s it like being an editor at Top Cow Comics?
BH: Honestly, I’m not really an editor. I just review the stories from a writer’s perspective and share thoughts. “Story Editor” was just the only name that Matt Hawkins could come up with for what I do so that’s the one I used. Real editors are 360 degree thinkers and I really just focus on story and character and I don’t enforce my will. I give ideas to everyone at Top Cow and if they’re useful, they get implemented and if they’re not I tell everyone to pay me no mind. I enjoy it. I love talking story and character and thematics. I love engaging the form of comics.
If anything, I continue to urge people to use the unique form of comics in their storytelling. Too many books are just storyboards with dialogue and that’s likely due to the influence (and ambitions) of Hollywood merging with the art of creating comic books. I try to use the form, and suggest using the form in innovative ways because that makes a better experience for readers.
Don’t ask readers to pay for your movie pitch. Respect them more than that. Give them the best damn book you can.
Q: Which indie comics would you recommend for children to read?
BH: Children. Hmm. LUMBERJANES is a phenomenon. I’d suggest that. It really depends on the kid. If you’re talking younger children then BOOM studios has a bunch of high quality, all ages books. If you’re talking pre-teen, teenagers then I think the sky’s the limit. Kids are smarter than people give them credit for being. Kids have ideas and a lot of the time they’re thinking more about the world than their parents are.
Q: What are your thoughts on the state of genre comics today?
BH: I think it’s okay, but a lot of the FURY is missing from comics. The RISK. Maybe it’s because things have gotten more corporate. Maybe it’s the pursuit of billion dollar box office, but I definitely feel like genre comics, especially “superhero comics” have gotten a little less confrontational. Frankly, I think the creators have grown up more comfortable than the creators that preceded them and that’s reflected in the work. In the 1980’s you had creators that came out of a more contentious time, informed by the world that challenged them. Now we have a lot of creators that come from pretty standard, upper middle class environments so the books reflect that worldview.
Now you have a lot of writers making books about action and violence and they’ve never actually experienced any of it. They’re writing about good and evil but they’ve never actually faced evil. It’s all intellectual but it’s not experiential and that shows in a lot of the stories. There are notable exceptions. Tom King, for instance, has a really informed perspective and it shows in his work. He’s brilliant. Marjorie Liu knows what the hell she’s talking about when she writes. You can feel in it in the choices she makes. There is work out there, but it’s rare that I read something that makes me wake up and pay attention.
If you’ve never sacrificed anything, how can you write a story about sacrifice? If you’ve never seen violence how can you write a story about violent conflict? Everything becomes a shadow of work that’s been done before. Instead of a reflection of personal experience with the world, things become a reflection of people’s experience with other people’s stories. It’s not invalid, but it’s diluted.
Everyone can get so obsessed with not offending anyone that no one makes choices anymore. The safe option is the default. That hurts storytelling and at worst, it’s dishonest.
Hopefully as technology makes it easier for people to make comics we’ll get more stories from more people with different experiential backgrounds and authenticity will show up in the work.
Q: What are some helpful tips for solid storytelling?
BH: The best thing I can share is something I learned from David Mamet, the playwright, author and filmmaker. When you’re forming your stories, consider these core questions:
Who is the story about?
What do they want?
What is standing in their way?
What happens if they don’t get it?
If you can answer those questions, then your story will have a strong foundation. From there it’s about structure, understanding it and embracing it, or understanding it and rejecting it. Either way, you have to understand structure. Don’t just read works on Joseph Campbell. Actually read THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES and THE MASKS OF GOD. Understand the power of storytelling from its role and journey through history, from oral traditions to the first books.
Storytelling is magick (as I’m using the Thelemic spelling to differentiate it from illusion). It’s a way you can create emotions inside of people, a way you can literally take ideas that live in your mind and transfer them to other people. A story can give people dreams, or nightmares. In many ways, a story makes you immortal. It will remain when you are gone, continuing to affect people beyond your actions. Storytellers are powerful, and storytelling isn’t different than studying magick itself. Don’t underestimate it as a discipline. Learn from the masters. Apply yourself to mastery. It will serve you well.
Q: We’ve seen plenty of gender-bending in the world of comics during these last few years. What are your thoughts about gender and protagonist?
BH: I think it’s great that we’re seeing gender explored in comics, and more protagonists than the “Standard Tough Guy,” but I’m a little worried that there’s a condescending quality in some of it. I’ll explain.
Ashlar doesn’t get special treatment because she’s a woman. We don’t protect her more because we BELIEVE in her. That’s important to me. We can’t teach people, women or men, that women can’t do what a male character can do, that women can’t endure what male characters endure. If we do that, we’re setting limits and we’re denying women their power.
Women have fought wars. They’ve suffered and died for principle. Women lead nations. Women have been heroes and villains and saints and martyrs. Women have proven again and again that they can face down adversity in its most raw form and survive, and defeat it.
Sometimes I’ll see a story that reduces the conflict, seemingly because the protagonist is female and that bothers me. It’s like we’re telling women “You can be a hero…as long as the villain isn’t too strong.” And that’s bullshit (there I go again). I never want to tell women that in my work, especially girls who aren’t getting a blitzkrieg of messages telling them they’re not good enough every day from the media.
So I think it’s great that we’re seeing more female characters, especially more female CREATORS, but hopefully we’re not telling them they have more limits on their stories. That’s not progress.
Q: Who are some of your favorite female creators of indie comics these days?
BH: Aaaah! You’re putting me on the spot and I’m gonna forget someone. There are legions of talented women in comics so it’s hard to narrow it down, but I can tell you what I’m reading now. I’ve already spoken about Marjorie M. Liu. Kelly Sue DeConnick. Tini Howard. There’s an AFTERSHOCK book, INSEXTS, that Marguerite Bennett is writing with Ariela Kristantina that’s got a great PENNY DREADFUL meets David Cronenberg vibe. I’m sort of obsessed with Bilquis Evley’s artwork. Afua Richardson is doing a BLADE project with MARVEL and I’m eagerly anticipating that one. BLACK MASK is doing a bunch of interesting things, and Magdalene Visaggio is doing a book called KIM & KIM there with Eva Cabrera that I’m looking forward too.
I have to say that I’d like to see more women of color in comics. Top Cow is working on that. We have a project called VINDICATION that’s being written by Michelle Davis that’s similar to THE WIRE and that’s a bold one.
The feminine energy is strong in comics these days and that’s a good thing.
Q: What do you think about the power of pop culture mythology?
BH: Storytelling is the last pillar of philosophy in the modern world. It’s the place where ideas are engaged. I still remember Yoda and Batman and all those moral lessons I learned from stories as a child, so I don’t think you can overestimate the power and outreach of stories to share ideas with readers. Mythology is important. It reflects our worldview, but it can also guide it.
ROMULUS is filled with ideas that Nelson and I believe in, as people. Ashlar is powered by those ideas. It’s entertaining, and we break a lot of things in glorious ways, but it’s a vehicle for the things that matter to us as people. That’s the power of mythology. It can unify us and challenge us and guide us. I always keep that in mind when I write.
Q: In terms of classic mythology, be it Greek, Roman, Norse, Japanese, or any of the so many others to choose from, which would you say had the biggest impact on you, as a writer?
BH: In mythological terms, I would say the Greeks. I grew up fascinated by the works of Homer and Aeschylus. I love Homer so much we’ve named one of our characters “Achilles.”
Q: Isn’t it interesting how classic Greek myths mirrored classic Roman myths in so many ways, and yet it is the Greek myths that went on to almost completely overshadow the Roman myths three thousand years later, at least in the eyes of the western world?
BH: That’s largely due to education. We’re taught the Greeks and so those stories take hold. I honestly don’t think we’re taught enough about Rome, especially considering it how much it affects our political systems and practices. That might be because Roman polytheism of the Ancient World conflicts with the Christian monotheism of Modern Rome…but that’s a whole different interview.
Q: What are you most excited to be reading this summer, indie comics or otherwise?
BH: There’s an Image book, HORIZON by Brandon Thomas and Juan Gedeon that I’m really looking forward to reading. I’m gonna be following Tom King’s BATMAN very closely because that dude is a force of nature. Tini Howard is a really talented writer so I’ll definitely read whatever she comes up with. I don’t really follow projects as much as I follow people. If I think someone has an interesting perspective, and really tells stories from the gut, even if I don’t agree with them, I’ll always engage their work.
Q: HORIZON drops in July, and we’re stoked for that title. It looks too good to pass up. That whole “alien visitors” trope sure still has legs, doesn’t it?
BH: Well, I think it’s more than a trope, honestly. It’s a human need to wonder what other civilizations exist, to not be alone in the universe. I also think it’s comforting to believe that alien civilizations would be better than us. We look at our own world and see so so much division and strife. If we’re the pinnacle of existence then that doesn’t say much for the nature of the universe.
Science-fiction often works best when it’s exploring an element of human nature, using the concept to remove it from common context. What Brandon and Juan are doing is reflecting on our society, our values and the purpose and problems of imperialism and that’s awesome. Brandon is a GREAT guy. I wish him all the good things in the world.
Q: We’re unaware if you have a history of enjoying tabletop rpgs or board games, but do you? And, if so, which ones?
BH: Here’s the funny thing. I’ve rarely actually PLAYED tabletop games, but I used to collect the sourcebooks for all of them and read them voraciously. I’ve always been fascinated by the creation of narrative worlds so reading DUNGEON & DRAGONS guide books, CYBERPUNK, KINDRED etc., those books helped teach me how to build whole worlds with rules and inner mythologies. That was my experience with the genre.
When I have played, I’ve been a dungeon master and I’ve been told I have a rather intense method [laughs]. I do enjoy them. Ryan Cady, another writer at Top Cow, a very gifted fella, he’s a player and he’s been planning on dragging me from my writing lab to a table soon. I’ll roll the dice again this year, I’m sure.