After the Adventure Ends: Joshua Williamson Subverts Classic Fantasy Tropes in BirthrightComics Features Joshua Williamson
To borrow a line from Run DMC, you all know how the story go. A kid is whisked off to a magical land full of odd creatures and mystical adventures; it’s dangerous but the kid is plucky enough to triumph over his myriad obstacles. When the adventure is over and the child saves the realm from evil, he returns right back home to normal life. The kid’s knowing smile at something the oblivious parents say will be the only real acknowledgement of the wonders the child now knows exist beyond the boundaries of our mundane world.
Whether it’s Peter Pan taking Wendy to Neverland, Alice tumbling through the rabbit hole or Labyrinth’s Goblin King kidnapping babies, it’s a familiar setup. With Birthright, however, writer Joshua Williamson and artist Andrei Bressan break dramatically from that template. We may take the trope for granted, but Birthright acknowledges the inherent weirdness of the concept, stating “nope, that’s not actually normal.” How does the real world respond when a young child vanishes into the ether? While the kid is running around with orcs, surely the parents and police have launched a missing persons investigation. The opening scene in the first collected volume out tomorrow, “Homecoming,” is a far cry from a happy thought-fueled flight to Neverland — it’s brutally raw, punctuated by the plaintive scream of a father who just lost his son.
Birthright revolves around on the adolescent Mikey Rhodes who, while playing catch with his father in the park, disappears into the woods. Fast-forward a year: Mikey’s family has shattered. Aaron, the father, emerges as a suspect in the disappearance, his wife has left him and he’s beating back his despair with a bottle. Then Mikey comes back; he’s fully grown, looking like Kull the Conqueror and rattling off unbelievable tales of fire trolls and dragons. In the fantastic land of Terrenos, he’s discovered his destiny to defeat the vile God King Lore, and that he can’t go home until he does. But what Birthright primarily studies is what happens after the credits roll. How do you cobble back together the broken family? What do you do next? And what if the adventure wasn’t all it was cracked up to be?
Paste chatted with Williamson about this clever perspective on an ancient trope and what we can expect from the next story arc.
Paste: How do you feel that the characters have changed over the course of this first arc?
Joshua Williamson: I think Brennan and Aaron go through the biggest changes. With Wendy we haven’t seen any big changes. I’ve talked to people who hate Wendy, but I think of her like Skyler from Breaking Bad. She’s having the most real reaction. In Breaking Bad people were angry at Skyler because she wouldn’t let Walt be a drug dealer — that’s a natural reaction. Same thing for Wendy. In the next story there’s a lot more of Wendy dealing with it. Aaron went in completely full of faith, tunnel vision. He will always feel responsible for what happened to Mikey. He buys it so much that he stops seeing signs that there might be a problem. His arc is going to start coming around to admitting the possibility that maybe he made a mistake.
Paste: With Mikey, we’ve only seen his beginning and end result, but there are flashes of his forthcoming evolution — transforming from a scared boy wanting to go home to a warrior facing down a monster with his dagger in just a few issues, for example.
Williamson: Mikey has that Conan/He-Man voice. In the real world he has a voice that stands out because he has that warrior tone, in the fantasy world he talks like a little kid and everyone else has a fantasy tone. So I’m able to center everything around him. We are kind of pushing him through the hero’s journey, and his biggest transformation is something we won’t see for a long time, going from being the good guy to being the bad guy. In the first five issues we’re mostly seeing him take responsibility. He wants to go home, that’s the end game for him, and when he’s told he can’t go home until he does this, he says, “okay, I’ll do that.”
Paste: A lot of classic fantasy stories have a darkness to them – like Peter Pan’s pedophiliac undertones or the drug allusions in Alice in Wonderland. Was that inherent darkness on your mind when you were coming up with Birthright?
Williamson: Yes, it was sort of a comment on that and how dark families can get in a moment of tragedy. (Mikey’s) in for a big adventure and a lot of stuff happens to him. He eventually has to become the bad guy, but we’re slowly getting into that. In that trade, in a flashback, he met a woman named Kallista — she’s a witch with pink hair — she has a Nevermind infection just like Mikey does. There’s a clue in there where someone says she chose to have that. She chose to join Lore. You cannot be forced, she has to make a decision to be let it in. Mikey also made that decision.
Paste: Fantasy seems to get a bum rap because once you mention trolls a lot of people just tune out. How does having that ground-level story side by side with the sweeping fantasy help bridge it?
Williamson: With this, because I opened it up with something relatable — a father and son playing catch, there is an easier entry point into that world. There’s a familiarity with it.
Paste: There’s a dream logic at play where a kid goes into the woods and ends up in a fantasy world, and we’re like “that’s perfectly normal.” Why draw attention to that?
Williamson: I like doing stories like that, where it’s sort of a different perspective. You can do a lot with that. Look at The Walking Dead — it’s the story after the zombie movie. This is like Labyrinth after Labyrinth. With this, I wanted to show it from a different perspective. A kid goes missing and time doesn’t stop, people notice when a kid is missing.
Paste: Destiny is a pretty major trope here too, as is denying it. Whats your take on the philosophy?
Williamson: I have a very conflicted view on that. I am too much a believer in hard work to truly buy into the idea that things are planned, and you don’t completely have control over it. However I do believe in a sort of destiny coincidence. When a bunch of stuff happens in a row and it’ll feel like it was part of a story. It’s just interesting when someone tells you your entire life is about one thing. With Mikey, I know other people have done these stories before, but someone tells you you’re the chosen one and you just deny it. If it’s your destiny, denying it is part of that story. Destiny is crazy. That you have no free will is insane to me.
Paste: Can you tell us about balancing the epic-scale fantasy stuff with the minutiae of normal life?
Williamson: Comics are like a math problem. You have to actually sit down and think about what you want to do in the story, then start thinking about it in the medium of comics. I kind of look at them both separately, so I work out the fantasy stuff, then the family stuff and look at ways to integrate them. At the end of the day, what I really do to make sure it clicks is think about those emotional peaks. There’s a scene in the past where it’s Mikey’s birthday, he’s been in (Terrenos) a year, and no one in that world knows how to sing “Happy Birthday.” He’s trying to teach Rook and Rya. It’s an emotional scene.
Paste: What else are we in store for in the next arc?
Williamson: The next arc is going to be a lot about Mikey and Brennen as brothers, and how that dynamic has changed between them. We’re going to see some stuff with Rya from the end of the first arc. It’s all a gradual build with her. The dad and Rook kind of take a step back for this arc as we get into Wendy’s character. We’re going to get more into her figuring it out on her own terms.
Paste: You had this story brewing in your head for about 10 years. Can you talk about some of the early formulations that didn’t pan out?
Williamson: Originally, it was not going to be a kid. It was going to be a teenager or a guy in his 20s, and he was going to be gone for 10 years. It was originally going to be a miniseries, and it wasn’t going to be so much about parents, but he was going to have a girlfriend. He was not a sleeper agent, just a kid who went over there and came back. It was going to be more about his girlfriend and how she was trying to find him, and when she found him he was going to be in a mental institution. There was going to be a monster following him. That’s a long time ago, like 2006. It was just never clicking, and it felt small. It felt like a SyFy original picture.
Paste: What was the epiphany?
Williamson: I was on a panel talking about horror comics, and I made a comment about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and it all clicked into place. Then within a couple of days I thought, “I’ll make him a bad guy. He lost! That’s way better!” We were talking about what you’re not seeing and the elements of the unseen. I thought about Hitchcock and how he has that thing, I’ll paraphrase: when you show the audience a bomb under the table but the character doesn’t know about it. It creates tension. At that moment I realized Mikey is the ticking time-bomb.
Paste: Speaking of the unseen, we haven’t seen any of King Lore yet. Do you feel any pressure for the big reveal?
Williamson: When we get to the next arc you’ll see bits of him. We never really want to show him in his full form. We will eventually, obviously, but we want to make it so that when Mikey sees his full form for the first time is when the reader does. People know what he looks like, if you look at some of the promotional material. We make sure that when we do show him that it does have meaning. It will never be willy nilly. It’ll be a page-turn.
Paste: A lot has been said about what happens after the adventure, but isn’t another big “what if” here about failure?
Williamson: It’s a bigger story but it is two-fold. There is that idea of what happens when you don’t accomplish the thing, what do you do next? When you make your entire life about one thing what do you do next? Say you’re a baseball player and you’re in the World Series and you hit that final home run and win, your life is completely different the next day. Say you mess up and strike out, the next day your life is still completely different.
Paste: You mentioned PTSD. There was a really subtle moment that drives the aftermath theme home, when the gas station attendant thinks Mikey is a veteran with PTSD.
Williamson: Yeah, we talk a lot about PTSD when we work on this book. It’s this big fantasy epic thing, but it’s about people and this family and what they’re going through. When you talk to people who have PTSD, and they’re talking about some of the stuff they went through, they might as well be talking about fighting dragons. Because you don’t really know; you can try to understand and talk to them about what they went through, but at the end of the day you really can’t.
Paste: The post-adventure aspect reminds me a little of Doctor Who as well, how his companions can’t go back to normal lives after adventuring with him.
Williamson: With Doctor Who, they sort of build up this idea of him and they love him, so when he’s gone they’re constantly thinking of what could have been more than the bad things that happened. I have this theory how in life when you have a personal loss — lost child, lost lover, parent, whatever — letting go of the past is really difficult. Dealing with the present is also really difficult. But I think the hardest thing to get rid of is memories of the future. Especially with children, you visualize that child’s future. You visualize their first day of school, their first date, graduating high school, going to college. Having that taken away from you is heart-breaking. With Birthright, in a lot of ways, the book is about the loss of a child.
Paste: That’s a pretty tough thing to tackle.
Williamson: Yeah, it ruined their family. There was a line in issue five – and it was an on the nose line but I felt it needed to be said – which was the moment Wendy thought Aaron killed their son, their marriage was over. The idea that you can believe that that person can be that horrible, to even consider it, that relationship is changed forever.