Archaia upholds its title as a purveyor of quality literary comics with its latest release, Adam Smith and Matt Fox’s Long Walk to Valhalla. The story’s protagonist, Rory, is on his way back home to Arkansas when his car breaks down and an unusual girl claiming to be a Valkyrie tells him he’s scheduled to die and go to Valhalla.
What follows is an emotional journey through Rory’s life, much of it closely shared with his near-mute brother Joe, who goes into trances and sees “Pretty Things” all around him. Smith and Fox craft a Southern story as only two natives can, mingling the dark parts of the region with compassionate rural memories and nuanced characterization.
Paste spoke with the longtime creative partners to discuss Long Walk’s long journey to publication, tackling Southern tropes and intimidating comparisons.
Paste: The two of you have been creating comics together for years. Can you talk about how you met, when Long Walk to Valhalla got started and its path to Archaia?
Matt Fox: In 2010, I randomly went to a comic book store that I hadn’t gone to before in Arkansas—we were both living in Arkansas then—and I was picking up a few books, and started talking to the owner of the store, which somehow got onto the conversation of me wanting to draw comics. Based on the books I was picking up, he said I should meet his Sunday guy, Adam, who writes comics. At that point, I had only made a one-page comic, so I brought that in to show Adam. I was like, “Hey dude, do you want to make some comics with me?” And we started.
We did an eight-page short story that I spent way too much time on because I decided to draw the pages too big. [Laughs] Right after that, we took it to Staple in Austin and went to our first con. Neither of us had actually ever been to a con, let alone exhibited, and we were both super excited. We decided right then we were going to kick it up a notch and do a 12-page comic, which was going to be Long Walk to Valhalla. We started working on that and it went from about 12 pages to 20 pages, then 30 or 40, and by the time we had a rough idea for it, it was going to be about 88 pages.
A couple years went by while I was very slowly drawing it and we came up with the story, and we decided to move to Kansas City because Arkansas didn’t really have any large comic scene at all and we were both starved for comic friendships. A buddy of ours said check out Kansas City and we visited and stayed with this dude we were referred to on Twitter, Kevin Mellon, who’s a comic book artist and storyboard artist on Archer. We were here for a weekend and decided we wanted to move. Adam went to work in Alaska for a couple of months, right around the time we finished the first 22 pages, and I went to the local con with the comics we had self-published. I’m pretty sure they thought I was someone else. They put me right next to [Marvel talent scout] C.B. Cebulski and the dudes who do Six-Gun Gorilla.
While I was there, I handed a copy of Long Walk to C.B. Cebulski. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but a couple weeks later, C.B. got on Twitter and said he really liked the story and art of our book. After the con, a buddy of ours told us we should try to submit. We did the open submissions at Archaia, and the same day C.B. tweeted about our book, three hours later I got an e-mail from Archaia saying “Hey, we would love to publish your book!” I would like to think it was purely on the merit of our book, but part of the conspiracy theorist in me think maybe his good word helped out a little bit.
Adam Smith: Yeah, that’s pretty much the gist of it. [Laughs] We really just kind of started. We did that eight-page thing just to test it out, and we felt like going from eight to 12 pages was the logical progression. And because we’re just overambitious, it just grew and grew and grew and before you know it, it was 130-some pages.
Fox: Which I don’t recommend to anyone who has never drawn more than eight pages. [Laughs]
Smith: Nine pages total! There was the jellyfish page. Yeah, that was also the longest thing I had written. I had done mini-comics and zines since I was in high school, but that was when I drew everything myself—really, really poorly.
Fox: It’s not the worst. I’ve seen much worse.
Smith: But as much as I love comic book art and as much as I enjoy doing it, I realized I was only doing it so I could write something. All of my favorite cartoonists were always guys who wrote and drew, so I felt like I had to draw, and somewhere along the lines, I was like, If I just focus more on writing, I think it’d be way better. And it is. That early stuff is terrible. And that’s when I started writing for other people. It never really worked out until I started doing it with Matt because it’s a really nice middle ground we have where we like the same things and we like telling stories the same way, but we’re also different enough to balance each other out. I think that’s when my writing definitely got much, much better, when I started working with him.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 9.
Paste: Matt, your work on UFOlogy is full-color. Was the limited blue palette of Long Walk to Valhalla an intentional design decision, a matter of economy, or a bit of both? It does a lot to set the tone.
Fox: It was a bit of both. Luckily, I don’t have to color on UFOlogy, so it’s not even an issue for me. I had intended to do full-color on Long Walk because when we started doing it, it was like, oh, we’ll put it online, and we’ll self-publish each issue, and we actually had about 12 pages online of full-color. There were some flashbacks I had decided to do in blue tones, and I had been showing some of my friends around Kansas City. Kyle Strahm, this buddy of ours who does Spread with Justin Jordan at Image, he didn’t say, “Oh, you should do the whole thing in blue,” but he was like, “Oh, I really like this blue,” and to me, that was, Oh shit, I should probably do this whole thing in blue. [Laughs] And it made it easier for me, as the book just kept getting bigger and bigger. I knew I was going to have to do everything because we couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it. So it was kind of a mix. I had intentionally put blue in the book, beforehand, but I hadn’t planned on doing it for the whole thing, but I’m really glad we did. It works a lot better than I think my full color would have.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 10.
Paste: What made you decide to do this all in one go instead of sticking with digital chapters or individual issues?
Fox: It was really Archaia saying, “We want to do a graphic novel with you,” and we were like, sure, we’ll do it all at once! [Laughs]
Smith: When we started, when we decided it was going to be more than 12 pages, we wanted to do an OGN. Just for the economy of it, we couldn’t afford to print off that many pages at a time. At that point it was 88 pages. So we decided to try to break it up and then collect it in one go at the end. It always felt like one cohesive story, but we didn’t want to wait five years to publish it since we were doing it ourselves and we could just do 22 pages at a go.
Fox: Part of it was just going to Staple, too, which was so much fun. We were surrounded by other self-publishers. I think the largest publisher there was Top Shelf. We just wanted to go back to Staple next year and keep doing cons, but we needed new material. It was always meant to be one single read-through kind of story, we were just really impatient.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 11.
Paste: Sylvia the Valkyrie plays a really unique role and is never fully explained. Can you talk a bit about your inspirations for the character, and the choice to have a guide like her for Rory?
Smith: I don’t like superhero stuff but I like 2000AD, how they always have this weird mishmash of characters doing something, so I had this whole group of odd characters and Sylvia was one of those. Working in the comic shop, the owner would make me read superhero comics sometimes, just so I could talk to customers about books that I had no fucking interest in. One of the comics he made me read was Ultimates when Mark Millar was doing it, and that whole thing with Thor and whether he was real was the same thing I was doing with this character, but I still liked her a lot. She was one of those many, many ideas you have that you never do anything with, but still sticks in your head.
So when we were talking about what to do next, I was like, “Well, I have this idea for this girl who says she’s a Valkyrie but no one knows if she really is or not.” And I always liked the Kurt Vonnegut short story “A Long Walk to Forever,” which is obviously where I ripped off the title for A Long Walk to Valhalla. In that story, a soldier goes AWOL to find his ex-girlfriend and stop her from getting married. I think it’s 12, 14 pages, and it’s just the two characters talking. I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a short story that was just two characters talking, and we could use this Valkyrie girl that I have and this guy who breaks down on the side of the road, and that was the genesis of this thing. The first 12-issue draft we had of the short story, the stuff that gets expanded on like his brother and stuff, was only briefly mentioned, but as we kept going and we put our first flashback in, it changed what the whole story was.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 12.
Paste: Norse myths have a long history of intermingling with comics, but not necessarily in a rural Southern setting. What made this mix right for Long Walk to Valhalla? Do you feel a particular responsibility to tell Southern stories, having grown up in the region?
Smith: I don’t know if it’s a responsibility so much as an interest. I like rural fiction, and I like really character-driven stuff, and that’s what’s really cool about those old Norse myths as well. They always have these grand, epic, grandiose things, but they’re also about some god talking to a farmer in the middle of nowhere, and you’re like, Why the fuck would that even come up? What gods are sitting around thinking, Let’s go fuck with this guy. A lot of Norse stories, they don’t really take place in cities other than Asgard, they just take place in the middle of nowhere, which is where we were both living at the time.
Fox: Another part of it too was that we wanted to put as much of ourselves and our experiences growing up into it as we could. Setting it in a city might have worked, but it wouldn’t have been as personal. Almost every scene was based off of something that had to do with things we did growing up. Adam and I both used to catch crawfish in creeks on the side of the road growing up. A lot of it came out of me going to Adam and saying, “I like this, write it in somewhere.” [Laughs] The scene in the barn—I grew up on 12 acres and I would go exploring and making maps of all of my forts, and there was this decrepit barn that was falling down in the woods. Inside, there was a bunch of wool everywhere, and my child brain thought, Oh, this is where they grow sheep, because there’s wool everywhere. So my whole life, I had this really visceral memory of this barn. There was a lot like that, where I almost gave Adam a problem to solve, and vice versa.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 13.
Paste: Something Jason Aaron and Jason Latour talk about a lot with their series Southern Bastards is both loving and hating the South for very different reasons. Long Walk to Valhalla features some pretty ugly characteristics of the region. Do you feel that same push-pull relationship with your home states?
Smith: I think most people growing up hate where they are, and then end up loving it in some ways. I definitely feel that way about the South, the food and my family who still lives there. There are some really disgusting, atrocious things, but I also think it’s that way all across the world. When I worked in Alaska a couple years ago, I had only heard of it, so it was just this beautiful place with the ocean, fish, wildlife. But you talk to someone who’s lived there their whole life and they’re like, “No, I fucking hate it.” [Laughs].
Fox: Most representations of the South are fat hicks who are really stupid, and they’re very flat characters, just tropes. Some of that is true, that’s how they become tropes, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot of culture that you don’t really see much of unless it comes from someone who’s actually from there. That’s one of the many reasons Southern Bastards is so good, because all of it is real. Some of it is heightened because it’s a pulp story, but it’s very much a true Southern story and we like that kind of stuff.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 14.
Paste: The designs for the “Pretty Things” that Rory’s older brother Joe sees are really unusual and, I would say, pretty disturbing. They’re not typical monsters. What were you tapping into with the visuals for these creatures?
Fox: For their benign versions, at first I was just going to rip off a bunch of Miyazaki stuff, because I love Miyazaki, and some of the earlier designs really look like Totoro and friends. There’s a lot of stuff in the book that has a back story that we just don’t mention because it’s not necessary for the reader. It’s fun for us, and we think that it’ll add another layer, so I’d try to come up with things that were based off of Joe’s life growing up, twisting his memories into fantastical creatures.
The segmented flying thing, I just imagined Joe going to the grocery store with his mom and that was the first time he had ever seen sushi. Grocery stores have those sushi packs that are 12 months old and look terrible. That was my idea for that, and there was no need to mention it, it was just fun for me. A couple of them do directly come from the story. The scene in the trailer when Joe is playing with Play-Doh and matches, I ended up creating one that was a marshmallow guy on stilts that were matches. Just whatever popped into my head, really. We didn’t have any deadlines or editors when we were doing this in the first place, so we did what we wanted.
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 15.
Paste: The solicitation materials have compared Long Walk to Valhalla to I Kill Giants and Blankets, and I think a big part of those books is the tightrope between intense melancholy and, ultimately, hope. How hard was that to juggle here? Was it important for you to take the story in a direction that left the reader—and Rory—in a somewhat optimistic place?
Smith: This is probably an example of how bad the stuff I was writing when I was younger was, but I used to joke to Matt that this is the happiest thing I’ve ever written. I’d show it to people and they’d be like, “Really, this is the happiest stuff you’ve written?” No, no, I assure you, it gets pretty hopeful! Terrible things happen, but I think terrible things happen in life, and how we deal with it is what makes us people. At its core, it’s still really an optimistic story, and it was important that it read like that too.
I expected comparisons to I Kill Giants and Essex County, but I never would have expected that anyone would compare it to Blankets. Thematically, it is close to I Kill Giants and Essex County, but when Blankets was name-dropped I was like, Oh shit! I was so concerned someone was going to read it and think, Well, they said it was going to be as good as Blankets…
Long Walk to Valhalla, page 16.
Paste: What’s next for the both of you?
Smith: We have one book that we know will be for sure after the next thing, because it’s a much bigger, epic kind of saga, and saga in the definition of “saga,” not the Brian K. Vaughan Saga. So we want to do another book or two before we do something that’s that big. We talked about self-publishing a short story, a 40-page exorcism book. We have another book we’re going to pitch that I’ve been working on since I got back from Alaska that’s kind of a heist book. We’ve got an idea in our head for a sort of Southern Trilogy. The first one is Long Walk, which is kind of a mishmash of mysticism and the fantastical with slice of life, and the second book would be the more slice of life, and the third would be more mysticism and fantastical. It’s just a matter of getting stuff approved and what we have time for.
Fox: We’ve got enough ideas for the next 15 years of our lives. [Laughs]