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Diagraming the world of Raven’s children creator Layla Lawlor

I’ve got too many interviews waiting to be run, so rather than make creators and audience wait any longer, I’m doubling up this week and next. You’ll get interviews in this column and also in the normal interview slot. Next week in Babbling-ville, we’ll run an e-interview Paul Sizer, creator of Little White Mouse.

But this week, I get to catch up with Layla Lawlor, the creative talent behind Raven’s Children. What is Raven’s Children, well from Layla’s website, here’s a short, but definitely not simple, summary:

“The people that history forgot…

The Dog People are no more than a footnote in the history of their small, five-mooned world. They live on the fringes of the expanding Tolshay Kahn empire, in a windswept wilderness of mountains and ice, where they make war on each other and periodically raid their neighbors, the Wagaibe.

The Wagaibe possess a land rich in mineral resources (especially iron, which is rare on their world). They were recently annexed by the Tolshay Kahn without bloodshed. But the Wagaibe, who have never had a central government, are not too keen on the idea of paying taxes or bowing before an emperor of a foreign land. (Go here to read more about the societies and history of the Raven’s Children world.)

The solution…

The local governor of the Tolshay Kahn, Gundasan Droghohari, makes a trade agreement with the charismatic and cruel leader of the Dog People, a man called Deneko the Snow Fox. Gundasan pays them to raid the cities and bring back slaves. In return, he gives them cheap iron weapons, blankets and other things. Gundasan is hoping that the Wagaibe will cry out for law and order, so the Tolshay Kahn can move in and save them. Hallelujah! the people will cry, and pay their taxes (he hopes…). In the meantime, the Dog People are paying a very reasonable tax in slaves — the currency of the empire.

And just as Gundasan had hoped, the Wagaibe eventually realize that if they’re citizens of the empire, they’re entitled to the Emperor’s justice just like everybody else…

The problem…

Suddenly the Dog People have to be told to stop raiding, since the Wagaibe have capitulated. Gundasan Droghohari has fallen out of favor in the courts back home and the whole mess falls into the lap of Ronin Kheheli, an idealistic young nobleman who knows nothing about war, bloodshed, or the command of other men.

Welcome to the Land of Ice & Fire

Ronin hires a translator named Jained, a Wagaibe man who was captured and enslaved by the Dog People as a child. But Jained is a man on the run from his past, whose dark history may ensnare Ronin in a web of trust, betrayal and deceit.”

You can read the first issue for free to get a feel for the series. More importantly, Lawlor has collected the first five issues into a trade paperback (currently on sale), which with 144 pages, it also includes “16 pages of background information on the world, history, geography and characters”.

Thanks to Layla for her time and thoughts. Enjoy. And be sure to check out Raven’s Children, as I will detail in an upcoming review, her efforts are well worth your time.

O’Shea: I was struck by the quote FDR at the beginning of the book (“More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginning of all wars”) How exactly did you decide upon using quotes as a pseudo-intro that seemingly represent aspects of the story?

Lawlor: Having a blank page and a desperate need to fill it. Due to scheduling problems (my fault mainly), I ended up being unable to get an introduction from the person who was going to write me one, and I found myself two days before I was planning to send the book to the printer with a blank page before the first page of the story. Personally, I’ve always liked the use of quotes at the beginnings of books. They can fill many needs — fake quotes, by characters in the story or “books” within the real book, help draw you into the characters’ world, while real quotes establish a mood or bring out a theme that the book will develop. In a way, it lets the reader know what to expect from the book.

Using quotes to introduce this book was also appropriate, I felt, because the scope of the book is so broad — “Raven’s Children” is an epic story with far-reaching themes of love and honor, war and peace. I wanted to introduce that epic scope from the beginning. Opening with a few quotes sets the correct tone for the book.

O’Shea: This complex story has been in development in some way shape or form since 1991. How satisfying has it been to finally start publishing it and sharing it with the public?

Lawlor: Oh, it’s incredibly exciting. Sometimes I have to stop and shake off the feeling of unreality that I’m actually doing it. Hearing from people who’ve read my work — regardless of whether they liked it or not — is just the headiest feeling in the world.

At the same time, I’m a shy person and opening my work up to the general public has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I feel that once I release it to the readers, a part of it belongs to them. And that’s not a bad thing — it’s actually a very exciting, very wonderful thing; it’s how I became a writer in the first place, through sharing other people’s work in that way. But sometimes it’s hard to be able to let it go and know that it exists in the wide wide world, not just in my head. And sometimes it’s very hard for me to talk to people about my work; I don’t know how to express in words what makes so much sense in my head.

O’Shea: How did you decide to come up with a dialogue that mixes older and contemporary dialects?

Lawlor: I’ve always loved fantasy but loathed the pretentious-sounding “Ye Olde Englishe” dialogue that is so prevalent in that genre. I want to write dialogue that sounds natural to the reader’s ear, not stilted. I also want to draw the reader into the characters’ world and give them the same effect that they would get if they were actually there, understanding that language and hearing the characters speak. A farmer is going to talk differently from a nobleman.

One big influence on me in creating the “sound” of the series is Hiroaki Samura’s manga “Blade of the Immortal” (Dark Horse). That series is set in medieval Japan, but uses a mix of dialects, from an old-fashioned style of speech such as the upper class might use, to contemporary street-punk slang for the lower-class and rogue characters. I thought it was marvelous and knew immediately that this was the style I wanted to use for my own series. To my reader’s ear, the unique language style in “Blade of the Immortal” doesn’t sound jarring or anachronistic at all. It’s kind of iconoclastic; it sets that series apart from the majority of similar stories.

The only thing I had a bit of trouble with, early on, was giving my different characters different speech patterns. Some of my characters, such as the former slave Jained, use a rough, vulgar, low-class way of talking, while others such as the foreign nobility are more refined and tend to talk their way around a topic rather than coming out and saying what they mean. As a novice writer, I’ve had to learn how to reveal the characters’ personalities through their speech patterns, rather than having them sound too similar when they speak. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it now.

O’Shea: How hard was it to make a story so complex, and yet accessible at the same time? How much revision occurs along the way?

Lawlor: Writing “Raven’s Children” is a constant process of revision. I’ve got the whole story blocked out in general terms all the way to the final scene (which has already been written), but as I go along, I’m amazed at the amount of change that actually happens. My storytelling ability is constantly growing and developing, while my feel for the characters — who they are, how they think and act and behave — is continually refined as well. Also, since comics are such a visual medium, some scenes look better in the script than they do on the page. I feel like I write each issue three times — first, when I write the script; second, when I block it out in thumbnail form; and third, when I actually pencil and ink the pages!

I think I could have done better at making the first few issues accessible to new readers. The first issue just kind of plunges you into this massively complex world. That was basically what I *wanted* to do, but now I wish that I’d taken a somewhat different approach, and built the world up gradually rather than throwing it out all at once. Again, I think I’m getting more deft at not inundating readers with a bunch of details at once. Each issue builds on a small part of their world, and put all together, they create a tapestry of different individuals and cultures.

O’Shea: In terms of layout as well, you attempt some rather challenging scenes. So far, what has been both the hardest and yet most satisfying scene to render?

Lawlor: that fell into place from the beginning, whereas the scenes that were a labor to create are ultimately less visually pleasing to my eye. Also, different scenes succeed on different levels. There were a few pages in the early parts of the TPB that I was very happy with from a cinematic perspective — like the sequence at the top of page 37 where Raven lands and transforms, or the two-page fight sequence on pages 64-65. However, the line quality in those early parts of the book is still very rough. Towards the end of the book, I started developing a visual style that I find pleasing to the eye — the last few pages of the book are my favorite artistically, but aren’t that creative in a cinematic kind of way. So it depends.

O’Shea: Would it be correct to say one of your influences is Colleen Doran? Who are some of your other influences?

Lawlor: I think I’ve been influenced by different artists in different areas. For example, I look to artists like Bernie Wrightson and Will Eisner for creative use of shadows, implied line, and other tricks of the black-and-white media. I admire the technical skill of Colleen Doran’s linework or Gerhard’s “Cerebus” backgrounds, but I also admire the sketchy, fluid movement of manga artist Hiroaki Samura’s fight scenes. Teri Sue Wood does gorgeous stippling in “Wandering Star”, which I’ve found I like to use for rendering soft shadows in pen and ink.

My art teacher in college, Larry Vienneau, used to refer to all artistic expression as “problem solving”. He used to say, and I’ve since discovered that he’s right, that the secret to drawing is learning how to break each drawing down into a series of thought problems. How should the action in this panel flow? How do I capture this facial expression? How do I represent a wood texture in pen and ink? So I borrow freely from other artists’ solutions to different parts of the problem. The ultimate synthesis is my own.

O’Shea: A visit to your website reveals that your husband, Orion Lawlor, in addition to being a PhD student in Computer Science, is an avid photographer. Have you two ever considered trying to work on any creative/mixed medium projects together?

Lawlor: Not really outright. He is an excellent sounding board for my ideas, because he’s very honest, which is something that a creative person needs badly. It’s said that a writer’s worst critics are their family and friends, because they tend to be very supportive and gloss over flaws in the work. A writer or an artist needs somebody who will tell them if an idea is worth pursuing and if the execution of it is flawed. Orion has been that for me. I love bouncing ideas off of him, and sometimes he comes up with great ideas of his own. The Raven’s Children logo, with the raven’s head, was originally his idea. He is a creative person, but generally in a different way than I am. His primary area of creativity is in software development and mathematics, and isn’t very compatible with mine, which leans more towards creating characters, story plots and worlds. When we first met, I had to “sell” him on the idea of fiction as a worthwhile pursuit; it was something that he hadn’t had much interest in before.

O’Shea: Speaking of family, your sister, Harmony Borchardt-Wier, has her own project, which left me to wonder, how often have you two combined on projects and will you potentially collaborate in the future?

Lawlor: We’ve actually tried it several times in the past, never with good results, but I think that was mainly because of youth and inexperience, which often includes an inability to compromise and bend a little in the other person’s direction. When we were younger, we had very different creative styles and our creative worlds tended to clash more than mesh. As we’ve gotten older and more mature, I think we’ve grown more similar.

We’re both too busy with our own projects (and in her case, with finishing up her undergraduate science degree and preparing for graduate school) to start anything new right now, but I think there’s a definite possibility of future collaborations.

O’Shea: Over the course of the series how do you feel you’ve improved the most, as a writer or an artist (or as a storyteller, can you truly distinguish the two aspects of your creative process)?

Lawlor: Oh, my. I’ve improved so much in so many ways that I don’t even know where to begin. And, addressing the last part first, I think “storyteller”, the synthesis of all the storytelling processes, is an entirely separate skill from being able to draw or being able to write. A journalist may be a marvelous writer but might not be able to tell a fictional story. I started the first issue with a pretty decent knowledge of some areas — I could write decent dialogue, I was familiar with human anatomy. But I had trouble putting it together into a successful comics panel.

It’s interesting how my perspective on it changes with each new thing I learn. When I was working on the first issue, I thought I was doing a good job. It wasn’t until I got done with the second issue that I looked back on the first issue and winced — had that actually been my best effort? By now I’m getting used to that feeling. It happens as I finish every issue, look back through the previous ones and see all the flaws that I never knew I had until I started to learn how to overcome them.

O’Shea: In researching this TPB (and the site), I ran across the term “world building” a few times and I wondered

A) What is world building?

B) Is it an appropriate term to use on Raven’s Children (RC)?

Lawlor: World-building is a term I first heard from a guy named Chad Ryan Thomas in 1995. Chad is an anthropology student who was sending out feelers to various writing-themed Usenet newsgroups to see if anyone was interested in starting a mailing list that focused on the creation of fictional worlds for fantasy or science fiction. The group is still active today and has about 150 subscribers. Since then, I’ve run across the term in various places on the Internet, and I’ve sometimes wondered if Chad actually coined it and its usage has since spread, but I’ve never asked him.

World-building can really be expanded to include any sort of fictional world creation, if you like. The world in J.D. Salinger’s books is very different from Hemingway’s, even though it is the same Earth in both cases.

So any fiction is world-building, and in the case of RC, it’s even more literally true since I have created my own world from the ground up.

O’Shea: Do you always want to write your own characters, or are there any mainstream or independent series that you would try, if given a chance?

Lawlor: I am not wholly wedded to the idea of always writing my own characters, but I have so many ideas for them that I have trouble shifting mental gears and using my creativity on somebody else’s characters. I think if someone approached me about working on another series I’d be open to the idea, but it’s probably not something I’ll be seeking out. I only have so much creative energy to go around, and I’d rather spend it on my own projects than let it be siphoned off on someone else’s. I don’t have any moral problem with writing another series, but right now I’m most happy spending my creative energy on my own.

O’Shea: On a related note, at one point in the geographical and cultural overview (page 140), you mention the RC world has “other intelligent species, but none of them figure in this story.” Is there any chance down the road, you’d want to tell a story about the other species?

Lawlor: Oh, yes, yes indeed. This one story, Raven’s Children, as epic as it has become, still only covers one small area of their world, and one small period in their history. I have two other novels partway written that cover other regions and other conflicts. For some reason, I always seem to focus on wars or other times of upheaval. Maybe it’s because of my interest in political change, in the redrawing of maps and rearranging of social and cultural boundaries; or maybe it’s because in times of stress, people’s most basic nature tends to come out, and you will find the whole gamut of human reactions, from extreme heroism to extreme cowardice, compressed into a small space of time.

At the time I started seriously working on Raven’s Children, I had to decide between several projects I’d begun, some of which took place on the same world and some on other worlds. I decided to focus on this one for the time being, but the others are merely shelved, not dead. Raven’s Children has a beginning, a middle, and a definite end; we won’t reach it for several years of real time, but at some point I’ll get there, and when I do, I already have several other ideas lined up to start working on — if I’m not too burned out by then! Maybe a break would be nice first.

Again, my thanks to Layla for her time and keep an eye out for my review in an upcoming Stream of Babbling.

Man, What If You Moved and Forgot All Your Rob Liefeld?

This week, a story in the October 10, 2002 edition of The (Fort Smith, Arkansas) Times Record caught my attention. With a headline of “State Auditor Goes On Hunt For Owners Of Lost Property,” writer Rob Moritz explained in :

“State Auditor Gus Wingfield is looking for the owners of about $11.5 million in cash and property, including silverware, coins, comic books and medals.

Wingfield kicked off the Great Arkansas Treasure Hunt 2002 with a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol.

The items were collected under the state’s unclaimed property law, he said.

The treasure hunt is held annually and allows Wingfield to show off, and possibly return, unclaimed items that were either abandoned or forgotten during a move.”

OK, be honest, how many of you stopped reading after you saw the words “comic books”? I know I did. How could someone forget their comic books? Of course, I’m instantly thinking Fantastic Four 1, or some other Silver or Golden Age comic treasure trove. But more likely, here’s what happen: “Hey Bob, your forgot to take your entire HEROES REBORN run! It’s still sitting in your emptied apartment.” Bob: “Yes, that’s a painful lesson that is best left behind, along with my Beanie Baby collection and my Ricky Martin CDs and action figures…Don’t look back, you can never look back.”

But hey, if you happen to live in Arkansas, be sure to check and make sure your name is not on the list.