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Interview: Michael Alan Nelson

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Wednesday, January 04 2012 and posted in Features

Outcast_01_rev_Page_02OH: I've noticed that, in the first issue anyway, there's a lot in common with other works you've written. It focuses on a character who's in a way victimized by the world he lives in and is on his journey due to circumstances out of his control.

MAN: One of the things I'm proudest of is that I'm developing my voice as a writer, so when you read it, you can say "that sounds like Michael Alan Nelson." The tropes and characters that I'm writing do have similarities. I'm not going to say it's a conscious thing, but it's something that happens as I write. A friend of mine, who's an amazing writer, John Rogers, who is one of the best storytellers on the planet, he read Dingo and a lot of my other stuff, and he said "Mike, you always punish you protagonists for doing the right thing." I'd never noticed that before. John is the kind of guy who can look at that and he's smart enough to make that assessment. It's nothing that I had set out to do consciously, it just happened. I think when I'm writing my characters, there's a part of me that's coming forward. There's something that I'm always searching for, something I want to read. I don't know who said it, but somebody basically said "write what you want to read." That's what I try to do. I think that's why you find these common themes and common tropes among these characters. It's not really a conscious effort to make them sit within those specific dynamics, it's just something that just comes out as I write them. I try to make each character unique, either through dialogue or through personality, but again, there are those similarities among the main characters of my different series.' I don't know why, but that's the way it works.

OH: How did you approach what kind of character Valen would be?  He's undead, but not a zombie or anything like that.

MAN: When Ross told me the idea of the "Undead Conan," we liked the concept, and if you look at the solicitations, and it says "Undead Conan in the world of Game of Thrones," which is fine, because those are things that readers are familiar with, so what we're saying is hey, if you like these stories, this should interest you." That being said, we're trying to make him as original as possible. So when it came to Valen, we said "ok, he's a big guy with a big sword." But, and even though we mention Conan in the solicits, but he's not like Conan in that...Conan is a character of base needs. At the risk of sounding offensive, he likes to fight, fuck and feast. That's what he does. With Valen, he used to be a king, so he has that ability to fight well.  But as a king, he's good at diplomacy, he understands law, he understands literature. He's a well rounded character, but he's also wounded. His soul is gone, his country is destroyed. So how does a man of his mental and physical abilities deal with that? So that's the fun. We're approaching him as a big guy who's a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but he's also a thinker. The fun for me is seeing him think his way through a problem, and how to use things to his advantage. Of course, being a big guy with his physical skills really helps, but that's not all he's about. Approaching him as a character is fun because it's always about trying to find those clever ways that he can get through a situation that doesn't always mean hacking his way through it. In issue two, I don't want to give anything away, but there are only three ways to kill an "Abomination," which is what Valen is: beheading, piercing his heart, or setting him on fire. You may think "well, that's pretty easy to avoid." Well, in some situations yes, but in others, not so much, so he has a very fun and clever way of solving one of those problems. That's what it's about to me, finding those fun, clever ways of problem solving. I love that kind of stuff; I love being able to think "how does he think his way through problems?" The problem is, he's a smarter character than I am as a person, so I can't always think of the most clever way of getting out of a situation [laughs]. That's the fun of writing the character, though.

OH: Reading issue one, it didn't feel all that derivative.

MAN: Anytime you have a story like this, there are going to be certain things whereOutcast_01_rev_Page_03 people will be like "oh, I've seen this before." Ok, yeah, you have seen this before, but how can we take that idea and turn it on its head and make it interesting? We're trying not to be derivative. We understand that that's very difficult when it comes to a fantasy story. It's very easy to seem derivative, but we're trying to come up with our own unique spins on tropes that may seem familiar.

OH: How much of the world-building came along in the creative process, and how much did you already know would definitely be a part of it when you took on the gig?

MAN: We knew right off that bat that undead – obviously what comes to mind are zombies or vampires, but they're really neither. It's really difficult in our industry because zombies are so prolific that you're working against hundreds of other stories and ideas and concepts. You have to figure out the rules of your universe. We know what the rules we're using to define what can and can't happen with these characters, and we know what the world looks like. We're a fantasy world, so we're able to manipulate the natural world. Anytime you're world-building, you have to establish your rules, and you want to make sure that the rules you come up with work and are consistent. When we started, we know "he's dead, and he's soulless." Well, if he's dead, why do we care if he gets into a fight? Well, he still has to be destroyed. So that's where we came up with the idea that if he's beheaded, his heart is pierced, or he's burned, then he's truly destroyed. Without those rules, there are no stakes, so we have to make sure that there are consequences to what he does. We also have ideas for how the world works. I know how the series is going to end, so it's a matter of getting there, and in order to get there, I have to develop the world more and show the reader more. There are also certain things I don't know yet, but I have these vague ideas that hopefully I will fill in as I go along. There are also things that come up in the writing process that I don't know yet.

OH: Being that you have a specific end point in mind, do you have a number of issues you see the story running?

MAN: It would be great to have this run fifty or sixty issues, if not more. That's what I have in mind right now, but like I said, things happen in the writing process, so as I write the series, it could end up being something completely different. I love writing these characters, I love writing this world, so the longer I get to do it, the happier I would be.

OH: Last time we talked, you were nearing the end of your run on 28 Days Later, and we talked about what it would be like letting that series go.  How much do you reflect on the 28 Days Later experience?

MAN: Writing 28 Days Later was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was absolutely fantastic. It's one of those things where – I said that I know where Valen is going – I knew where 28 Days Later was going. I knew how I wanted to end that series. Having the chance to do that and work towards that moment is really rare. A lot of times in comics, you'll write a series, but sales won't be good enough to maintain it, so it has to end early and you don't get a chance to tell the story you want. I've made that mistake before, where I start to write a series and I started to lay this groundwork for this long, ongoing, expansive story, and all of a sudden you get the news: "Oh, sorry, you gotta close it." Then you have to figure out a way to end it all in a couple of issues. With 28 Days Later, it was nice to have the freedom to tell the story I set out to tell. It doesn't happen too often, so having an opportunity to do that with those characters in that universe was really a rare treat for me. That's why I'm hoping to get to do that again with Valen. It was such a positive experince with 28 Days Later that I would love to have the opportunity to do that again.

Outcast_01_rev_Page_04OH: Anything else you'd like to tell the world?

MAN: Valen is an ongoing story that we hope readers really stick to. Give it a chance. Even if you're not a fan of fantasy but you just like good stories, give it a shot. When people hear the word "fantasy," they think elves and dwarves and that kind of thing. That's not what this kind of fantasy is. That's why we liken it more to Game of Thrones, it's more – grounded is the wrong word, as there are necromancers and magic and that kind of thing – it's not like Lord of the Rings, it's more like Game of Thrones in that good and evil are not so clearly defined. It's a world of shades of grey. If you like that kind of storytelling, give it a shot. If you like good art, Matteo's art is just so beautiful! It looks so good, so give it a shot.

OH: I didn't even ask about your artist.  How did Matteo Scalera get involved with the book? What's it like working with him?

MAN: He's been fantastic. The editors are the ones who find the artists. Thankfully, they don't leave that task to me, because I wouldn't even know how to begin to do it, but they go out and find the best artist for each individual project. The greatest joy for me as a writer is when the art comes back and I get to see how they take my measly little script and make it into something awesome. In issue two, there are some scenes where you're agog at how fantastic it is. It's really something else. Even though I've never talked to him, I'm always hounding my editor, like "did you get any pages from Matteo? Let me see, let me see!" Also, the colors by Archie van Buren...when you have Matteo's art which is fantastic and then Archie comes in with these colors, everything is just coming together so perfectly. I couldn't be happier. I'm so ecstatic. As cheesy as this sounds, I literally do a little dance every time I get a chance to see this art for the first time because I'm really happy with what these guys are doing. They're really taking this story and making it better than I could on my own, so hats off to them.

Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch

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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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