Greg Rucka specializes in stories about outsiders and intrigue. Sometimes this narrative magic takes the form of prose, as in the author’s Atticus Kodiak and Jad Bell novels. For other stories, including the Portland noir Stumptown, comics is his preferred medium. Rucka’s also written mainstream marquee titles like The Punisher and the Star Wars: Shattered Empire miniseries for Marvel, along with a number of acclaimed creator-owned projects, such as Lazarus and Black Magick. His new miniseries with artist Carmen Carnero, Dragon Age: Magekiller, occupies the same fictional universe that’s birthed three videogames, along with several other comic books and novels. Published by Dark Horse, Magekiller follows Marius and Tessa, who—as the title suggests—hunt down errant magic wielders. The growing rapport between the pair makes for an entertaining read and features an interesting give and take in their dynamic.
Paste talked with Rucka about the process of creating this series, his experience with the larger Dragon Age universe, and how this new project relates to some of his other work in shared universes.
Paste: You’ve written superhero comics for Marvel and DC, as well as comics set in the Star Wars universe. Is doing a project like this significantly different than doing that sort of work?
Greg Rucka: On a baseline, there’s very little difference in how you approach work for hire. You’re always working with somebody else’s rules, and you want to work well with those. You go into it with your eyes wide open. The big difference comes down to who you’re dealing with in the apparatus and where you fit. A place like Marvel or DC, they’re putting out 70 or 80 books per month, and there are a lot of moving parts. Depending on where you are in the hierarchy of what they’re doing, your ability to work within that can be very difficult, or it can be quite easy.
When I was under contract with DC and had been there a long time, I was pretty high up in the pecking order. I wasn’t at the top, but I was pretty high, so that if I wanted to go in and do something, I was high enough up in the chain that that wasn’t terribly difficult. When you talk about doing something like Star Wars for Marvel, there are so many moving parts there. Not only do you have the whole Marvel apparatus, but you also have the LucasFilm/Disney apparatus at work. And you’re doing one comic, or you’re doing one middle-reader novel. You have to be able to adapt to all of the needs on every side.
One of the cool things about doing Dragon Age is that Electronic Arts is enormous, but BioWare, which is not a small company, still moves very nimbly, from where I’m sitting. Working on Magekiller was really effortless. I had a pre-existing relationship with Patrick Weekes, who’s taken over as head writer for Dragon Age after David Gaider. I had met Mike Laidlaw, and they knew my work. It’s really been, on that side of things-what can we do in this universe? Am I allowed to go here? Can I use this? Those kind of things. Really seamless, very smooth, and very open. The continuity for Thedas, and now we’ve got three major Dragon Age games, and I’m sure they’re doing pre on a fourth, and with all of the DLCs, that’s an enormous canon of material. The people who posses that information, they always know which direction they are rowing. So that makes it much, much easier to work on a story and integrate it.
Dragon Age: Magekiller #1 Interior Art by Carmen Carnero
Paste: Where did the germ of the idea for Magekiller come from?
Rucka: When I was first approached about the job, Mike Laidlaw mentioned the phrase, “the Tevinter Boba Fett.” That was the way he put it. And I said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “A guy who hunts mages but doesn’t use magic.” And I said, “That’s a good idea. Let me think on that.” Later on, I found out that apparently, it had been Mr. Gaider who had put that idea in front of Mike Laidlaw. We’re talking work for hire: my job is to come in and say, “What do you guys need me to do? It’s your sandbox. I can have my ideas, but if there’s something you need accomplished, tell me.” That was put in front of me, and from there you get Marius, and from there you get Tessa, and their relationship that grows out of it. But it really started with that phrase, and me going, “Okay.” And Mike and Patrick talking about things that they wanted to see in the comic that they had not been able to show as yet in the games. For instance, we have not really been to Tevinter in any of the Dragon Age games. That was a specific request: “We’d like to go to Tevinter for an issue.” Like I said, they make it effortless, they really do. They make my job very, very easy. My struggle is to make sure that I’m delivering what they want.
Paste: What was your first exposure to the Dragon Age universe? Did it start when you were approached about this comic, or did it date back to something earlier?
Rucka: I’m a longtime BioWare devotee. I played the original Baldur’s Gate in the Black Isle days, the Interplay days. I’ve followed the company through its many stages. I loved Mass Effect, so when Dragon Age came out, I was there. That was not a hard sell for me. (Laughs) I said, “Yes! I would like to try your new game, please.”
Ironically, the first game is the the only one that I had difficulty with. And I think it was because there was a cognitive dissonance moment where, on one hand, they had come out with Dragon Age: Origins, and on the other hand, there was the first Mass Effect. And you look at the storytelling techniques in each game, just the technology used, and they’re jarring when you put them next to each other. It still has BioWare’s trademark storytelling skill.
One of the things that I love about the way that they tell stories is that you’re playing interactive novels, and that’s a thrill. For that first Dragon Age game, I had a little harder of a time, because the mechanics of the game drove me crazy. I loved the story, but I had a miserable time with the mechanics. I’ve got a friend who said, “I set it on easy. I’m here for the story.” And I said, “No! I have to play it on hard, and I have to win!” That one got me. I had to go back and play it three or four times before I could get through it. But I was there at the start, as far as fan positioning. When the opportunity came, I said, “Hell yeah! Let’s go to Thedas.”
Paste: What are the aspects of that fictional world that attract you the most?
Rucka: As a writer, there’s so much. They gave me all the rope. You can hang yourself so easily with all the raw material that they give you. The ground is so fertile. I do a comic called Lazarus, which is a dystopian, near-future story, and there’s a lot of worldbuilding required in that: this is the way the world looks, this is the technology… I’m doing a book called Black Magick right now, and that’s got a lot of worldbuilding to it. I do a webcomic called Lady Sabre; that’s got a lot of worldbuilding to it. I’m a research junkie. In my work, in my novels, in my comics, that’s always been the gravity that pulls me.
So you look at Dragon Age, and the depth of the world is staggering. The consideration that has been given to everything to justify the decisions that they’ve made. The histories that we don’t know about as players that they have determined to drive things. And you get to go in there, and it’s a smorgasbord. There’s so much to choose from, and that’s thrilling and exciting. To be able to take characters and create lives in those settings where they’ve done all of the hard work of environment, of culture, of morals and morays, and where they have tuned directly into one of the biggest fantasy problems, which is religion and magic.
The first thing Dragon Age does is to say, “Magic’s a problem,” and the fundamental problem of this world. One can argue quite persuasively that the very first game is about that, because you do not get Darkspawn without the abuse of magic, and the arrogance of those members of the Tevinter Imperium who saw themselves as equal to God.
I think that that was a particularly cunning move. It’s not the first time that’s ever happened, obviously. There are other fantasy stories that have done it. But the way they turn into it and how aggressively they pursue it—they never let you forget that this is a core threat to this world. I think that was very inspired, and in many ways, very brave, because a lot of fantasy doesn’t do that. A lot of fantasy just wants to wave a hand and say, Here’s magic. We’re not going to bother with an explication of why or what or how. And there’s a place for that. But in turning into it, what BioWare did with Dragon Age was that they focused their whole universe. And in that, more than in a toggle option to have persistent gore on your armor… (laughs) They describe it as dark fantasy, and I think that’s where it pays off. Anybody can do splatter effects. Anybody can say, “You know what we want? We want more blood.” But they went to town on it; they didn’t run away, and that’s really inspiring to me.
Dragon Age: Magekiller #1 Interior Art by Carmen Carnero
Paste: Have you found the storytelling techniques that you’ll try out in a work for hire project will end up showing up in something creator-owned down the line?
Rucka: Absolutely. I suppose that, for some writers, there’s a toggle that goes, “It’s work for hire. I don’t have to take it as seriously, or I don’t have to work as hard.” But everything I write, I want it to be good. I’m not going to write crap. Thus, everything I write is an attempt to make the next thing better than the last thing. I’m not always going to succeed, and I’m sure there are people out there who will argue that I fail far more than I succeed. Every job is an opportunity to improve my craft. I haven’t written a lot of fantasy, so getting to come and play here in Thedas and in Dragon Age, that’s a big deal for me. That’s me getting to play with some of this stuff in different ways.
The series has changed since we first discussed it. Because of the nature of the way the schedule for release changed, at the start of the project, we were being fairly shy about Inquisition, and here we are, and the game’s been out a year. Being coy about the events of Inquisition is silly. It doesn’t make any sense. That sort of changed the nature of what this story is, and how these characters move through it. The series starts before Inquisition. It starts probably shortly after the end of Dragon Age 2. And by the end of issue five, you have reached the endgame of the core Dragon Age: Inquisition. You haven’t entered Trespasser, the DLC, because there’s a two-year gap. The last quest is called “Doom Upon All the World.” And the last issue takes you to that point.
We’re having to do some sleight of hand. If you don’t play the games, I want you to read it and enjoy it. If you do play the games, I want you to read it and enjoy it and see where it threads in, and allow it to thread in a manner that does not diminish your play-through. For instance, if you played it as a male Qunari Inquisitor, nowhere in the story should it be evident that when the Inquisitor is mentioned, it’s not you. You should never see an Inquisitor and go, “Well, I’m a great big male Qunari, and here’s this little dwarf.” There’s some sleight of hand there, trying to be cognizant of that. And that’s the other thing: we talk about writing for DC and Marvel and those sorts of shared universes, but that’s not an individual experience. It’s very much a shared experience. But your gameplay, in a computer role-playing game, is an individual experience. It’s what’s happening to you. It matters to me not to violate that. It matters to me that you be able to read this and go, “You know what? This works with how I played.”
Dragon Age: Magekiller #1 Interior Art by Carmen Carnero
Paste: How did you work out the dynamic between Marius and Tessa that runs throughout this series?
Rucka: I wanted a two-hander, which is a somewhat coy Hollywood phrase for a two-lead story. I had just finished working on The Punisher at Marvel when this came up, and there were immediate parallels between Frank Castle and Marius. If he was going to be able to do what he did without the use of magic, he had to be very disciplined and very smart about it and kind of boring. (Laughs) He’s not a guy who you go out and have drinks with. And as I filled in his backstory, it became really clear that he needed a foil. And in a way, he kind of needed a parent. Marius is, in many ways, non-functional. He’s an ex-slave who was trained to do one job. And unlike Fenris from Dragon Age 2—who suffers incredible torture to be remade into a weapon—Marius’ training is entirely physical and mental. That’s all he knows. He can’t read. He’s illiterate, because there was no point in teaching a slave how to read. That wasn’t his job.
I wanted Tessa as a counterpoint to Marius’ silence and dourness—“This is the job, this is how we’re going to do it”—and in that, you instantly get, if not comic relief, than at least a lighter voice. And their relationship fascinates me. Most of the time we see that and there’s a romantic tension. They’re not romantically involved. She adores him, and she certainly loves him, but she’s got no interest in sleeping with him. And as far as she’s concerned, Marius is asexual. It’s not until something that happens in issue two where she’s forced to go, “Oh, wait, he does kiss people. That’s interesting. I did not know that about him.” And if there’s a through line to their story, it’s her having to ask certain questions about their relationship, because there are questions that he won’t answer. And it’s not because he’s being a dick, it’s because he’s incapable of answering them. He doesn’t even know how. And he doesn’t even know that they’re questions.