Archaia has published some undeniably gorgeous work with its Jim Henson licenses over the past few years, adapting lost scripts including Tale of Sand and The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow with talent and passion. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches takes that partnership to a new high. The original Storyteller show, which began in 1988 and wrapped in 1991 with a Greek Myth-inspired spinoff, recast little-known fairy tales into pure, magical escapism enhanced by sharp writing and exemplary production. Framed by the titular storyteller (a barely-recognizable John Hurt, accompanied by his muppet dog voiced by Brian Henson), the series survived as a cult sensation even if it never reached the ubiquity of The Muppets or Fraggle Rock.
Halfway into its 4-issue run, the comic series Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches has captured the innovation, escapism and allure of its TV inspiration, driven by a host of creators hellbent on suspending reality for 22 pages. Four individual cartoonists contribute to each of the four issues, save the finale, which uses an unaired teleplay about the child-eating witch Baba Yaga. Taking an international approach, the first issue by S.M. Vidaurri presented a charming European fable of princesses and vengeful forest lords, while Kyla Vanderklugt’s follow up immersed readers in a bittersweet love story set in historical Japan. With issue three, “The Phantom Isle,” set for release Wednesday, Paste chatted with series editor Rebecca Taylor on how the project began, the role of sympathetic witches in fiction, and female agency in the comic industry.
Paste: After reading quite a few fairy tales and some classic mythology literature, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re female and overly thirty, there’s a decent chance you’re inherently evil. Have you noticed this?
Rebecca Taylor: [laughs] I think that does tend to happen.
Paste: The one factor that I’ve found really interesting about the first two issues of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches is that the witches are incredibly sympathetic and understandable. Was that a coincidence among the creators, or was there an editorial direction to express that sentiment?
Taylor: It came from the creators, ultimately. For Shane-Michael Vidaurri, who did the first issue, I know something that was really important to him was to not have the typical evil witch in his story, and to throw a curveball at the end. For the other creators, I think it follows the same rules. They not only wanted to break out of the mold of witches, but also tell their own spin on a fairy tale. Evil witches have been done before, but complex, sympathetic witches…that’s a little bit new. So I think they all wanted to put their flair on it, and add a new take on their idea of a witch, which I think they all did very successfully.
Paste: So was there any thematic coordination between the four stories and the four creators at all?
Taylor: When they all started pitching stories, each of them came to us with a couple of different ideas. We worked with The Henson Company to curate the best ideas out of all of them. The only thing we did to make sure that the stories were comparable was to make sure we had a lot of different cultures represented. Oftentimes with fairy tales, especially coming from Western artists, they tend to be set in England. So we wanted to make sure that we had witch stories from all over the globe. That was an important element of the show and of Jim Henson’s work, so we wanted to make sure that was represented. We brought in Kyla Vanderklugt’s story, which is a Japanese tale, and the Baba Yaga story is obviously from Eastern Europe. So we had a bunch of different cultures represented, which was fun.
Paste: So the Baba Yaga issue is going to be issue #4. Who’s the creator behind that entry?
Taylor: That one’s a little bit different from the other issues, in that it was originally an unproduced teleplay from the actual show, The Storyteller. It was a script that was never made into an episode and it was in the Henson Archives. We work with The Henson Company, and when they find things like that they’re wonderful enough to share it with us. So we gave the screenplay to Jeff Stokely, who is an incredible artist. He did Six-Gun Gorilla for BOOM! and The Reason for Dragons for Archaia. He’s wonderful, and adapted the screenplay into a comic book.
Paste: What were some of your favorite entries from the original show? Did you watch The Storyteller as a child?
Taylor: I actually missed it when I was a child. It wasn’t one of the Henson properties I was familiar with when I was growing up. I watched some episodes since as an adult, just working on the project. My favorite one is “Hans My Hedgehog.” It’s amazing; the makeup and costume design they do for the actor who plays the hedgehog is incredible. Very Jim Henson.
Paste: When I first saw the comic, I figured it would go on infinitely, but it’s only four issues. What was the thought process behind making this a miniseries?
Taylor: Well, we had done a trade anthology in 2011 back at Archaia, and we loved the anthology feel of that because you get to have a lot of different creators interpreting stories in their own way. And the whole idea of the show is storytellers — we want to have a whole lot of storytellers who have different takes. So we liked that angle. But what was great about bringing it to single-issue form was that we get to do slightly longer stories than shorts, that really feel like episodes of the show. And we wanted to have it be a miniseries so that we could have a finite way to tie them all together.
But we brought in the Baba Yaga, and since that one was focused on a witch, we decided to make witches the theme of this particular miniseries. And hopefully if we get the opportunity to do more miniseries with Storyteller in the future, we can do a new theme and have the new tales be centralized around that.
Paste: From an aesthetic perspective, Kyle and S.M.’s issues complement each other very, very well. You can definitely see their work harmonizing together in a trade paperback. Did you initially seek creators who’s approaches would flow together when seen in a larger context?
Taylor: For Jeff, we wanted him to adapt the teleplay, and he’s an incredible artist who we’ve worked with a lot. For the other three, we wanted to go after writer/artists mostly, because we wanted to have styles and voices that were really, really strong, coming from one person — really focus on that theme of storytellers. And we wanted to have different creators who had different styles, not only from what you would typically see in a single-issue comic series, but from each other. So, they’re similar in the way we wanted to make sure we had stories that were all very different from each other and from all around the globe, but we also wanted to make sure we had styles that were unique and different from each other, so you got four realized, different interpretations of the witch mythos.
Paste: Witches in general seem to seeing a bit of a resurgence in popular culture and the media. In tandem, we’re also seeing large social movements to empower females in the media, whether its through Gamegate or other comics under the Archaia/BOOM! umbrella like Lumberjanes. Do you think it’s a coincidence?
Taylor: It’s interesting. There has been a whole bunch of witch stuff in pop culture, not only just in comics, but in TV and all over the place. I think for us, it did happen to be a happy coincidence. The reason why we did witches was the (Baba Yaga) teleplay, but it was a happy coincidence because we were there with all of these other series that focus on witches, so we got right in the middle of the zeitgeist.
I think for us here at BOOM!, diversity and diversity in comics is something we really value. I think it’s represented in the titles we do, the kind of creators we work with, our staff…everyone. So getting behind female empowerment, whether it’s from staff members or creators or characters or readers, I think that’s something we just value overall as a company. I think it’s great that that’s a thing that’s happening in comics overall and in pop culture. But I know here at BOOM!, it’s something that we’ve always cared about, and will continue to care about. That’s why. We love witches. [Laughs]
Paste: It was definitely cool to see the “Snow Witch” chapter presented in landscape format. Did you initiate that, or was it something Kyla came up with?
Taylor: It was a little bit of both. Coming out of the Archaia imprint, one thing we really like to do is to try to experiment with production. We’ve always had a big focus on that, whether it’s covers or single issues. We always try to innovate. For these stories, since each one is so self-contained, we wanted to see what we could do to make each one interesting and unique. So we posed it to Kyla: we said if you could do something weird with the production of your single issue, what would you do? Since hers was a Japanese story, she wanted to do it in landscape form to mimic the old Japanese style of actual landscape art. So that’s why she went for that feel, and I think it worked really, really well for her story.
Paste: What can you tell us about the third issue, “The Phantom Isle,” which comes out Wednesday.
Taylor: “The Phantom Isle” is from creator Matthew Dow Smith. He’s actually been in comics for quite a while; he’s done a bunch of Doctor Who and X-Files comics. He has a creator-owned comic called October Girl that’s absolutely beautiful and beautifully written, and that was what grabbed us. The story focuses on an Irish sailor who gets ship-wrecked at sea, and finds himself on an island reminiscent of Avalon, where there’s a council of witches who live there. They offer him immortality in exchange for telling stories, because their island is built off of imagination. He’s tempted by the immortality, and we find out how much he has to sacrifice for it. So it’s a story about storytellers from a storyteller series, which is a little bit meta.