It’s a good day when you get a new book with Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s names in your hands.
It’s been years since their collaboration on Queen and Country, but the creative duo has joined forces once again, this time to launch The Old Guard for Image Comics. Both writer and artist were on hand to walk Comicosity through the concept of the new title, talk a bit about what it’s like to be an immortal warrior, and who’s been lucky enough in the endeavor to fing profound, true love.
Matt Santori: Starting off with you, Leandro, how are you approaching The Old Guard differently than some of the other books you’ve worked on featuring warriors/soldiers, like Northlanders or Queen and Country with Greg?
Leandro Fernandez: In this case, it’s different because — as this is a story of immortal warriors — there are different periods of time, with different wars, scenarios, guns, soldiers’ uniforms. We see war scenes from the times of the ancient Greeks (as well as the actual world), passing through lots of other situations in history. And the main characters are that: warriors. Their lives were entwined in all of that for centuries.
So right now, the difference in approach is that I have to be searching for references all the time, instead of doing it only at the beginning of the story, like I’ve done on the books you mentioned. The regular work on this book is a constant search. It’s the everyday part of the process.
There will be a lot of visual information on this book. Each issue tells a different story. We witness events along a wide range on the human history. It’s so interesting for me as an artist! I hope readers can find it interesting on the pages, too.
Greg Rucka: I basically write a 20 or 22-page script and Leo takes it and expands it to 28 pages. It’s not in and of itself problematic, but it changes how we break down the lettering because I tend to script the lettering pretty tightly to my panel description. When he starts to expand into multiple panels, the lettering gets sort of wonky.
LF: I wanted some sequences to last a little longer, to leave space for details I wanted to show in the storytelling — and in the particular visuals, too. Above all, when we travel in time, I wanted to show the ancient world the best I could, and I wanted to take time and space for that.
As this is a mutual creation, I wanted to have a hand in the concept too.
I don’t like to draw splash pages, but I do like to use the space to show something right when it’s deserved.
I’ve worked on double spreads to use the horizontal view as well. It can give the reader a nice format for mostly action sequences.
GR: We’ve been working hard to make sure it clear. And I’m at a point where I’m pretty proud of it!
MS: How is it, by the way, coming back to working with Greg again?
LF: It’s always so good to work with him — from the professional point of view, because of all the obvious good things it means, and from the particular side with these kind of stories, because he’s so informed about these subjects. I always find out something new.
It is very exciting, too, because I’ve started with a vague idea of the story, but I don’t know it completely! So I learn about this as we’re working on it. And as I can make my own contributions to the storytelling, so it’s fun at the same time.
GR: I’ve loved working with Leo since the first day we worked on Queen and Country together. And he’s only gotten better as the years have gone on. I love that he seizes on the work. He’s patient, but when the moment comes, he goes to town in ways that I genuinely am in awe of.
95% of the readership doesn’t give a rat’s ass that the gear is accurate or that the tactical poses are actually correct. They don’t notice. I notice.
We get these beautiful human moments and these over-the-top action sequences from Leo, and they all work together. I think he’s remarkable.
MS: What are your thoughts on the core premise of immortality and what draws you to that idea of living on and on over time?
GR: Obviously, immortality is one of those things that the human condition loves to explore. I don’t think I’m breaking new ground here, and wouldn’t argue that I am.
I am intrigued by the concept. I think one of the things going on with me is that this is coming out of the passing of my Dad. And trying to make some sort of peace with that. And in so doing, trying to find some means of, if not accepting some of the necessity of death, at least acknowledging some of the downsides of what would happen if it didn’t.
The question makes me uncomfortable because it makes the story seem far more profound or somehow deeper than I had intended it to be. At its root, The Old Guard is meant to be a pulp, serial adventure. It’s meant to be very pulpy. It is supposed to be silly and over the top in places.
The nature of who I am is such is that I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m inclined to turn it more introspective than I meant at the start. But at the end of the day, it’s about these people who kick ass and take names. And do so rather gleefully. That was the root of it.
I wrote a retailer letter to accompany a PDF of the first issue, and I described it as John Wick meets Highlander, except with less swords and more bullets. I want it to be fun. But that doesn’t undermine playing with some of the deeper thematic things that come up when you’re dealing with a character who’s 6,000 years old and has watched everyone she’s loved die.
And yet she keeps going. And knows that it is so arbitrary.
Having said that, I think maybe that’s the root. Death is arbitrary. It’s just arbitrary. We want a reason and we want to know why this person gets this long and that person gets that long. But the truth is in that famous Neil Gaiman line: “You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime.”
I lost my dad to cancer. My dad took excellent care of himself. He was one of the best people I’ve ever known. The kind of man who moved through the world and lived every day making the world better for those around him, and not for himself. He was not a “I’ve got mine, fuck you.” type of guy. And he loathed that. But he wasn’t a crusader. He was one of the most happy go-lucky guys I’ve ever known.
There was no justice here. It made no sense. It made absolutely no sense. It’s entirely arbitrary. And I think part of what Andy is wrestling with in the book is that arbitrariness. Even the immortals she’s known one day up and died. But she keeps going. And it’s driving her crazy.
MS: This is a return to a style of writing you had with Queen and Country with soldiers or mercenaries…
GR: They are independent contractors that have a skill set they are selling, that they now just have to sell carefully.
MS: So, in tying this back again to immortality, a lot of the stories we read about this concept come back to the idea of the warrior. How does that particular skill give them an advantage in the world today?
GR: They’re the most dangerous people the world has ever created. If experience is the best teacher, and almost universally your mistakes will not be fatal… [laughs]
LF: The most experienced somebody is, the better skilled they get — in any field. What would happen then with soldiers that don’t get old? They live centuries in different battlefields, and at the same time, they don’t feel the decline of their bodies. They gain expertise in the strategy and tactics of the battle, as well in the physical face-to-face combat. They can’t die, and they know this (even if there must be some chance of that, sometime…). So the least we can say is that they are for sure, a very strong army by their own.
GR: I like to say about Andy that there’s not a language she doesn’t speak. She may not be able to read or write all of them, but in 6,000 years, she’s lived everywhere. You’re hard-pressed to find a means of verbal communication she’s not adept at. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a weapon, even in 2017, that she can’t use expertly.
The wealth of life experience — or lives experience — that she’s got is enormous. And that extends: you see it in Nicky. You see it in Joe. You see it in Booker.
LF: At the same time, I’m interested in showing some subtle aspects of the behavior of a group of immortals. They couldn’t have the same kind of relationship that regular people have, as they have been together for several human lifetimes. I try to show how I think it could be. Even how they look each other while they talk, for example, or how they don’t look, because they don’t need to, maybe. They know the other is there. They know what to expect from the other. They’ve been together in all kind of extreme situations. They have lived like that for ages. It’s their normal, never-ending, everyday routine.
Which, to be contradictory, never is routine.
Just the idea of that is intriguing. I find it fascinating.
MS: How much precision and research are you putting into the look of weaponry and environments for The Old Guard?
LF: As much as I can. Greg usually gives me specific instructions when we talk about weaponry. Then I search for my own on the internet or also in books. The whole team reviews this, and if something is wrong, I just change it. But I try to be precise. It’s easy to make mistakes, but I try hard not to.
GR: There’s a scene in issue #1 where they’re all getting kitted up, and the only one that isn’t actually also carrying an archaic weapon is Booker, because his back story is with Napoleon’s grand army. He was a firearms guy from the start. He can use a sword if he has to, but it’s not his preferred weapon.
Nicky and Joe and Andy all come out of bladed weapons and bows and arrows, plus several hundred years of learning how to use these firearms, so they’re good with what they’ve got. Again, if we argue that experience is our best teacher (and I think that’s hard to disagree with) and that we learn more from our failures than our successes, well then they can screw up with impunity and move forward.
MS: The book’s setting is all over the map so far, even with just one issue…
GR: There’s action in Afghanistan, where we introduce one of the characters, but we start in Barcelona. We go to Paris. We’re in Sudan. We end up in Dubai. So, we’re kind of a globe-trotting adventure.
MS: And the scenes are not all modern day, of course. How are you building that out visually over the course the first few issues?
LF: For the environments, I try to make rebuilding ancient places work, and above all make them believable — to figure out how things could look so long ago, even when the hygiene was different. I gather all the information I can find, but that’s not always possible, and most of the time it’s not enough.
Many times I try to recreate an ancient place from what we can find today, what’s been left since then, thinking how it could be so long ago. Even people looked different. I try to move away from the idealized images we can find in old paintings, and add some realistic details to that, even if that makes a disgusting view. I don’t want to show a plastic landscape. I prefer to focus on the real thing.
MS: Greg, it strikes me that having written this kind of international mercenary book for the better part of your career, and not just in comics, you must have a process for understanding how the world works, its militaries, etc. Has that process changed or gotten any easier as the years have gone on?
GR: Well, again, The Old Guard is fantasy. It needs to be realistic enough, but it doesn’t have to be real. The rule in fiction is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be plausible. That requires knowing enough of the truth to then pick and choose the details that will sell it.
But at the end of the day, the story has to come first.
Has my process changed? Sure! If you go back to 2000 or 2002, research was a much different beast. It is much, much easier to find what I’m looking for online. I have a much wider expanse of resources than I had twenty years ago, as well. All of those things help.
But it’s odd. I think there’s less research that went into The Old Guard than into the fourth arc of Lazarus, which I think is outside a need for research because it’s speculative future. But I did more research into the military and the Marines for the “Poison” arc of Lazarus than I did for this book.
For instance, the FET (female engagement team) in issue #1 that Nile is part of isn’t used anymore. I had encountered them in my research and I think that I’d seen they’d been discontinued. So, even the timing of The Old Guard #1, Nile is technically in a place doing something that no longer happens.
MS: That’s a nice segue to talking about the four main characters.
LF: When I designed Andy, I never thought of portraying her like a regular, nice woman. I imagined her, after what Greg told me, like a pure personality character, over being beautiful. So, I tried to give her a particular face, more than making her look like a hot girl. In fact, she has something boyish on her behavior, but at the same time she’s attractive in her own way. She has a particular and accentuated Greek profile, too. I’d say almost caricaturized…
MS: What about Nicky and Joe?
GR: Yeah. What about Nicky and Joe? [smiles]
MS: What’s been your approach to the two of them?
GR: Well, at the beginning of issue #2 you get the backstory for both Nicky and Joe, which is tied together. Issue #3, by the way is Booker’s backstory and #4 returns to focus on Andy.
One of the things I wanted to do in playing with immortality is to pick soldiers from whatever era I wanted. I really like the idea of taking a first Crusade Crusader and a defending Jerusalem Moor, and putting them opposite each other. These are guys who came from very divergent backgrounds, met on a battlefield, and discovered that they couldn’t keep each other dead. [laughs]
A thousand odd years later, they’ve been in love for centuries.
There’s a speech that Joe has in issue #3, talking about Nicky, that I’m really proud of. Some guy makes a comment and Joe professes his love for Nicky in a way that is just … I mean, I had my wife Jen come over to the screen and read it, and she was like, “Why don’t you say that kind of stuff about me?” [laughs]
But I am! That’s what that is!
Originally, Nicky was Nicolo and Joe was Yusef. Joe is pretty areligious at this point. Nicky is far more spiritual. Nicky believes there is a purpose to the lives they’ve been given. He doesn’t know what that purpose is, but he believes there is one. He still has his faith.
LF: For Nicky visually, who is an Italian crusader, I’ve started playing with the features of Gianluigi Buffon, an Italian goalkeeper. I took some of that, then I started to change some things.
I’ve paid special attention to Joe’s eyes: even if his face has average Middle Eastern characteristic, I wanted his look to be almost scary.
GR: I just really did like this idea of these two guys. I mean, imagine the fifth time you hit the guy in the head with a rock and spilled his brains — and he’s stuck you with a dagger in your carotid artery. And you both wake up and are still there. At a certain point, it’s just like, fuck it. This is clearly not working, so we’d better find another way to relate.
I was tickled by that. And obviously there’s a political analogue at work there. In an era like 2017 where we’re seeing a rampant prepping for a new crusade, these two guys found each other and saw the futility of it. And accepted each other.
Frankly, Andy has six millennia behind her, and she’s come unstuck. Very little matters to her. She’s going to drink. She’s going to smoke. She’s going to fuck. It’s just another day.
But Nicky and Joe have each other. And by having each other, they’ve remained very sane and very stable. Because everything else around them can change, but they look at each other as constants in their world. They can each evolve, but they know that the other one is there.
MS: And Booker?
GR: Now, Booker is the youngest of them. To all intents and purposes, his age hasn’t really hit him that hard.
LF: For Booker, I’ve designed his face based on the French actor Jean Paul Belmondo. I took some of his features from when he was young, and exaggerated them. It’s not him, but I wanted to keep something of such an interesting presence like his.
MS: These characters all do bring up a salient point, that with immortality, the weight of politics must seem to fade away.
GR: Oh yeah, very actively. If you see enough, if you live 1,000 years, nothing is new, except maybe the technology. OK, look, humanity discovered a new way to kill people, or yet another way to get your rocks off. But the hatreds are all the same. The arguments are the same old arguments.
At a certain point, everything becomes arbitrary. There’s a reason why Andy is sleeping with anyone that has a pulse. Gender doesn’t matter to her. At 6,000, you’re so past that. You’ve got to be. It doesn’t make sense.
I would argue, you look and see what is transitional — and what has value and what does not. The problem with Andy is that she doesn’t see value in much of anything. But she does see value in the people she needs to take care of.
Image Comics presents The Old Guard, a new ongoing series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, arriving in comic shops and online this Wednesday, February 22, 2017.