Interview with Mark Oakley

INTRO: Mark Oakley is the writer behind the fantasy comic book seriescalled Thieves and Kings, and for the September issue of our FantasyeZine we had the pleasure of doing an interview with him.

Q: How did you originally come up with the idea for the Thieves& Kings series?

A: This is a very difficult question to answer, I find. Itwasn’t an over-night thing. It wasn’t a decision. It was aprocess.

Characters came into being in different ways. Quinton was theoldest character of them all, his first incarnation being in aD&D style game, where I wanted to play a mage character and bendthe rules while doing it. –I found the rules for D&D, even backthen, to be stilted and mechanical. Charts and graphs and pointsand such, while exciting and interesting on a component levelwhen rolling up characters and thinking “wow! What if-?”, neverseemed to be nearly as much fun when actually playing. I didn’tlike the restrictions they placed upon the game. I spent much ofmy time trying to come up with ways to do my own thing within thebounds of the established rules. I suppose I was one of thosenightmare players who is difficult to control and who got boredwhen the campaign stories didn’t revolve tightly around theactions of the character being played.

In one of the many D&D rule books, I ran across an obscure set oftables which would allow a character to trade in ‘Spell Points’for a bunch of what were called ‘Cantrips'; small, spells withlittle power which could be cast at will with no cost orpreparation. I liked that. Seemed like a loophole. Rather thanbeing able to cast the infamous ‘magic missile’, I instead optedthat Quinton should be able to cast a bunch of things like,’Spice’ where by rubbing the thumb and forefinger together,pepper or spice would appear and fall over whatever food or drinkhe was eating. (Or in my mind, into the nostril of a sleepingtroll.) Another was something called, ‘Chill’, which would coola cubic inch of water into an ice cube, again for drinks.(Though, I thought this would make a marvelous offensive spell.I don’t know what happens when you flash freeze a cubic inch ofan Orc’s heart or brain or eyeball, but I was willing to bet itwould give you a serious combat advantage!) Other cantrips werethings like ‘tangle’ or ‘sting’, which I gleefully came up withsimilar uses for. I liked trying to get away with stuff whilestaying within the so-called rules. Something for nothing isQuinton’s way, and it drove DM’s around the bend. Or rather,they would usually simply get fed up and kill my character. Ihated that. The result was that Quinton left D&D environmentsand became a stock character in short stories and the like.–Actually, being a stock character was another of his qualities.I thought it would be hilarious if I dropped him from universeand situation directly and without change into every other storyI came up with, regardless of how different a place or time eachmight be. –Always with his wizard’s hat on. He’d evensometimes make references to those other places, or sport itemshe’d picked up along the way. I loved that. –And he wouldalways be aware of this and believe that he was the true centerof attention while all the other characters were temporary. Evenin the T&K universe, while I rarely ever want to come to comeclose to the fourth wall for fear of disrupting the feel of thestory, I will sometimes sneak things in. In one shot, I hung oneof our twentieth century wall calendars in his workshop. I’dnever give him something like a flashlight or an automatic weaponor something tacky like that.

Anyway, this is where the wizard, Quinton came from.

Other bits of Thieves & Kings came from other sources. Shortstories I’d written, or pictures I’d drawn. Landscapes.Daydreams. Bit by bit all these separate peephole views grew innumber, like poking holes in a paper wall, until at last Irealized that they might ALL fit together. Thieves & Kings iswhat happened when I pulled back the curtains, so to speak.

Q: You have a very unique writing style, combining standard frameby frame comic book with prose text. How did you end up with thisstyle?

A: I’ve always loved to draw, but I was not very good at it. Ipracticed and practiced and broke my heart over and over againwith the frustration of not being able to realize on paper asother artists were, the beauty and majesty of the images I saw inmy head. –Through all those peepholes. The problem lay in notbeing able to get my hands to put graphite and ink where it wassupposed to go. Writing, however, is easy in this respect. Atypewriter or word processor takes care of the technical scienceof placing readable images on paper, (images being the lettersand words themselves). In short, the challenge with writing wasspiritual and intellectual rather than mechanical. It was, withmany exceptions, much like talking on paper. I was much moreconfident in my writing skills than in my illustrative ones, andso I wrote, and I wrote a lot.

I’m not claiming, of course, that I was a strong writer straightout of the box. As with most writers, I’m sure, I was absolutelyterrible. But I was also young, and the things I wrote at thetime seemed magical to me, and they probably were accurate to theimages inside my head at the time; I was able to read overfinished work and think, “Hey, this is pretty good!” With thatkind of reward, I found I could continue happily. Without rewardor respect from those around you for the things you have created,I don’t know how an artist or writer could carry on. Anyway,after enough of this, I began to learn the tools and the tricks,began to understand the differences between weak and strongwriting. You learn the mistakes by making them. But it wasnever as disheartening as learning to draw. If something I wasdrawing or painting didn’t look right, it didn’t look right andthere seemed to be nothing I could do about it except try againand again until I either fell into despair or as sometimeshappened, actually succeeded. Without those few successes Icould not have continued, I don’t think.

When it finally came time to start work on what was to become thefirst few issues of Thieves & Kings, I was terribly afraid Iwould not be able to cut it on the graphics front. Pacing andcomedic timing in frame by frame dialogue ware also terrificchallenges for me; I didn’t know how to make sure a story lastedexactly 20 pages and not come out at 15 or 30. It seemed amazingto me that so many comic creators were able to fit their scriptsso exactly. Of course, I learned the intuition behind that taskas will happen when you spend so many hours attempting to getstuff right thought trial and error. It really was sweat, bloodand tears I was drawing with. Not ink. Whereas my writingabilities at that point were far more advanced. I wanted to leanas heavily as I could on the thing I knew I could do well enoughto sell with confidence while fighting on in secret with thepencil and pen.

As well, it struck me that there were certain other advantages tousing both text and graphics. . . With prose, you can easilydescribe the thought going through a character’s mind. Withprose you can focus attention with little effort exactly whereyou want somebody’s attention to go. These sorts of things arevery difficult to achieve in other mediums. The graphic natureof comics, however, lends itself wonderfully, (once you havelearned how to draw), to showing emotion and kinetics and scenesin a way which is much more easily digested and processed byreaders.

To combine the strengths of Prose and Graphics seemed crazilyobvious and wonderful to me; I felt at times like the guy whoinvented the Rubic’s Cube or Hula Hoop. I was scared that it wassuch an obvious solution that surely the world would wake up andstart producing wonderful stories using the technique before myfirst issue would reach press.

Q: What have been your major inspiration sources?

A: I was in love with Manga and Anime before anybody in NorthAmerica used those words to describe comics and animation fromJapan. There was a time when searching for Japanese movies andcomics was like hunting for treasure or trying to find the cureto cancer. There were only a handful of fans in any given cityand I was one of them. –I was young, only around 14 or 15 orso, and I was startled by how different and exotic the Japanesecultural vision was from that in North America. And it was sodeveloped! Years of refinement had created certain graphictechniques for reaching the emotional core that by the time I wasexposed to the stuff, it was as strong as cocaine or something,and conversely, because I had no previous exposure to it, mybrain had built up no tolerance or jadedness. Manga and Animehit me like a nuclear missile.

–Of course, I learned later the rule, ‘95% of anything is crap’,and that it applied broadly to Anime and Manga as much as it doesto any other medium. (If not more.) In fact, I now find withthe many differences between North American and Japanese culture,much of the writing from Japan now rubs me the wrong way. Thereare expressions drawn in manga pages which ask the reader foremotional responses I am not culturally programed to have or evenunderstand, except on a the most intellectual level. –Irecently saw an excellent and direct example of this. It was ina ‘How to draw the Manga way’ (An eerily similar cousin to theMarvel way book which has been around forever here.) In theback, there was a picture of a girl being molested on a subway orsomething by an old man. The expression her face didn’t make anysense to me; a tear and a frown and both eyes shut. Acceptancebut fear and repulsion. Try and find that expression in NorthAmerica. I might be able to reproduce the drawing, but theemotions attached to the line work, or corresponding muscles,doesn’t translate into anything I instinctively understand. WhileI can piece together the logic behind a picture, often myemotional circuitry just blinks and says, “Whu?”.

–I have seen studies which strongly suggest that all humans havethe same basic reactions to similar stimuli regardless of race orgeologic location, but I think there ARE differences. The socialenvironment a person grows up in will require certain emotionalresponses much more often in one culture than in another. Andwhile any human may be capable of them on a basic level, Ibelieve that those who use those responses frequently enough, arelikely to burn them deeply into the brain and behavior forreasons of efficiency, thus creating a level of automaticresponse which can seem quite alien to somebody from a differentpart of the world.

These kinds of things I find stand between me and a fullconnection of a work of fiction. A few artists and writers fromJapan seem to be able to translate almost without a singlehang-up or flaw; Disney recently acquired the rights todistribute Hayo Miazaki’s films. He’s one of those whose workcan make the transition. Rumiko Takahashi, to a somewhat lesserdegree, is another.

But this is a long way from the question you asked.

I was deeply inspired by Japanese comics. I also liked Calvin &Hobbes and C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, T.H. White and a host of others.Essentially, what goes in will come out. I’ve been drawing oneverything I’ve absorbed since being born.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring comic book writers?

A: No. The path, while well populated, must in the end belonely. There is no other way.

Q: What lies ahead of the Thieves & Kings series, will we see youdoing something else in the future?

A: Thieves & Kings, if everything goes as I’d have it, will takeup another ten years of my life. At the moment it seemsinconceivable that I’d ever want to stop working on something, beit writing or painting or what have you, but I can’t guess wheremy head will be by the time I’ve finished Thieves & Kings.

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?

A: As an author? Very little. –I suppose I can use it for easyreference on certain subjects. As a person and a smallpublisher, however, the Internet is an invaluable tool andpromotional device. –I can send corrections to my Quebec basedprinting company in a couple of minutes when it used to take me acouple of days by FedEx. And I am able to maintain the dynamicand almost universally accessible and instant digital brochureand newsletter a company webpage can be. But everybody shouldrealize this stuff by now. We’re in a golden age.

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