12:23pm PT by Graeme McMillan
How 'The Stone King' Team Is Embracing "Characters That Are Messy"
Digital comics platform ComiXology is dealing with an assault by The Stone King in its latest original property, debuting Wednesday on the service.
The new four-part comic book series, part of the Amazon platform’s ComiXology Originals line, is the work of Sorcery 101 and Buffy: The High School Years’ Kel McDonald and Tyler Crook, of Harrow County and Witchfinder fame. It tells the story of Ave, a young thief who steals from the mythical Stone King, which leads to a rampage that threatens her hometown. The only way to stop the destruction is for Ave to make good on her past acts… if that’s even possible.
The Hollywood Reporter talked to McDonald and Crook about the new series.
What are the origins of The Stone King? Kel, you’ve talked about your love of adventure stories featuring girls in the lead role, and also the need to have girls who aren’t idealized or hypercompetent as central characters — is The Stone King an outgrowth of both of those long-held feelings or do the origins lie elsewhere?
McDonald: I asked Tyler what he wanted to draw and he described a stone giant that someone has to climb. I then merged that with my desire for more adventure stories about flawed teenage girls. It's a story that wouldn’t exist if Tyler and I weren’t working together. But Ave would definitely fit in with some of my past protagonists. I like characters that are messy.
Crook: We started talking about this project so long ago that it’s hard to remember exactly what the inspiration was. I have a vague recollection of having a dream about stone giants and then telling Kel about how I wanted to draw them.
Kel, can you expand on why you like messy characters? What makes it important to have fallible girl heroes? What’s so wrong with strong female characters?
McDonald: A lot of folks get tripped up on the word "strong." They don't want women to be damseled or fridged. While that's progress, that is just the first step. So here's a girl who can save herself. The story gets so focused on showing how she can take care of herself that there is no conflict. There are so many female characters I've seen lately who are the smartest, strongest, most competent and perfect in every way. When that's the only female lead we see as the star, the unintentional message we send is "Hey, girls you can be the star but only if you are flawless." Also, those characters are very boring.
I always like male characters who are broken people and have some serious problems to overcome. The female characters who come close to that are few and far between. They are almost never the main character. It's kinda just Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jessica Jones. I always loved the show Buffy, but what I really want is a show about Faith. I think part of the genius of Sailor Moon is not just the female friendships and the wide variety of girls, but that Usagi loves "eat, sleeping, and taking the easy way out." It tells you that it's OK if you aren't smart, strong, pretty or cool. You can still save the world.
"Strong,” I could take or leave. What I want is complicated.
There’s something wonderfully timeless about The Stone King; it feels like a story that’s been around for a long time, in the best way. Were you consciously trying for something with that mythic feel?
McDonald: I wanted to channel fantasy adventure stories, but make one with a teen girl lead. I thought about classics like Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. And both Tyler and I like Avatar the Last Airbender. I wanted something [that draws upon all of those].
Crook: That’s one of the main reasons why I like to work with watercolor. I feel like it sets the work apart from all the other contemporary books that are colored in Photoshop. To me it makes the work feel more like a fairy tale or fable.
The Stone King is the latest in a long line of fantasy-based projects for you, from Sorcery 101 to Cautionary Fables and Fairytales and beyond — what is it that brings you back to the genre? In a culture — either comic or wider pop culture, take your pick — dominated by superheroes, why do you think fantasy hasn’t really broken through to the mainstream with the exception of a few particular projects?
McDonald: Fantasy, like all genres, comes and goes. Like there was a sword and sorcery fantasy wave in the '80s and in the early '00s after the Lord of the Rings movies and I think we are starting another fantasy wave. Game of Thrones is a big hit and D&D 5E is making a big push. Then, when it comes to urban fantasy, it has its own waves that are definitely strong. You just might not realize it because you are only looking at vampires or zombies rather than urban fantasy as a whole. So for media as a whole, there has always been at least some favor of fantasy doing well.
What’s the collaborative process like? It feels like you both bring a lot of yourselves to the book, and build off each other's strengths really well. Is there a lot of back and forth between the two of you?
McDonald: Tyler explained an image similar to the splash page that first shows off The Stone King. I outlined the whole story based off that, and he gave feedback. We had a lot of conversations about what the city nearby looks like. And then, while writing the script, I occasionally texted Tyler to ask him his thoughts on an idea I came up with.
Crook: The story and characters all come straight from Kel. I guess I come up with how those characters look with occasional guidance from Kel. One of the things I like about working with Kel is that her scripts are vague enough that I still get to bring a lot to the page as far as storytelling goes.
McDonald: I did ask for Phul to have a broken nose! That’s about it.
Crook: I was just worrying that I didn’t make his nose broken enough.
You’ve both created comics in all kinds of media and forms; you’ve done webcomics, written for established publishers, self-published and everything in between. What’s the ComiXology experience been like?
McDonald: ComiXology was mostly hands off. They had some formatting requirements to make it work better in Guided View. But overall, it hasn't been that different from writing. I ended up talking to ComiXology because of how successful ComiXology Submit is. I’ve put all my self-published stuff on there and at least a few were best-sellers for Submit the first month or so they were up.
How conscious are you of both target audience and distribution method when you’re creating your work? Is there a feeling of, “No, I shouldn’t do this particular trick, because this is going to be seen digitally,” or is the work the work, no matter where it’s seen and whom it’s aimed at? Does form dictate content?
McDonald: Well, I went into this with 13- to 15-year-olds in mind. Usually books aimed at teens or younger are about characters that are just slightly older than them. I usually try to keep a movie rating in mind while writing. Tyler and I had talked about how much blood to show and the swearing is all made-up curses. Those made-up curses help also add to the world-building. I’ve also never been super into paneling tricks/gimmicks. So it was easy to follow ComiXology’s what works best in Guided View instructions.
I do let stories that need to have a more adult rating/theme push boundaries more. But I usually decide that in the outlining stage rather than during the writing.
How would you sell The Stone King to those who might not be regular comic readers? What’s the three-sentence pitch for the book?
McDonald: If you liked Avatar the Last Airbender and Shadow of the Colossus, this is a great book for you: A young thief releases the giant Stone King’s wrath when she steals a priceless gem. Now, she and a city guard must find a way to stop it from destroying the city they both call home.
The Stone King No. 1 is available now to purchase from ComiXology and Kindle, as well as available to read as part of ComiXology Unlimited, Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading. The second issue will be released Dec. 19.