Ryan Burton, along with artist John Bivens and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick are the creative team behind Dark Engine, a new comic put out by Image Comics. It’s as heavy metal as they come, and follows the journeys of a woman named Sym. She was made by a group of alchemists to go back in time to right the world. Legions of demons await her as well, naming her mother, and she’s been called a goddess. You can read my review of issue #2 here, and issue #1 here, but let’s meet the team making this gorgeous, bloody comic, alongside some preview pages from issue #4!
Tell me a bit about your idea to make Sym a woman. I’m interested in this idea of violence perpetrated by a woman combined with her being a force of nature.
RB: It was simple, really — I wanted a female lead.
But on the topic of violence: how often — in any type of media — do we see a truly unstoppable force that isn’t a man? I can think of only a handful of female characters, whether in comics, video games, prose, etc., that fits that type of description. I wanted a female Beowulf…a Gilgamesh…a Kratos that didn’t shy away from her instincts, that was violent, that was fury born. That wasn’t afraid to get hurt or make a incredibly violent gambit in order to cut down her enemy.
I believe that all women are a force of nature — they are capable, they are adaptable, they are scary smart. So with all that, it felt natural to make Sym a woman.
Where did Sym’s costume and weapon design come from?
RB: I like the idea of helmets, and helms, and natural armor. I also like the idea of “leveling up,” kind of like what you do in Final Fantasy. With her travels through time, and with her being this ultimate survivalist, I just thought it’d be neat if she took something from each time period. In issue 1, why not make rudimentary armor and weaponry out of the first enemy she encounters? (Incidentally, I think that says so much about her — she takes only what she needs to defend herself with.) In issue 4, she’s in a colder climate, so she takes the cloak off a dead Viking chieftain. I think it’s exciting when a character constantly changes — whether physically or emotionally.
Does this story spring from a specific mythology? Your other work draws on specific cultural touchstones, from Ray Harryhausen to Othello.
RB: Mmm…not really. I just take everything I like and make it my own. I see something in a movie, I read something on WIRED, I pick up a rad comic one week…I think, “how can we use that?” I write it down, and John and Kelly do wonders with it.
What artists do you look at to get your creative machine going?
KF: Hard question. For coloring I look at Dave Stewart, Dave McCaig, Matt Wilson, Matt Hollingsworth, Jordie Bellaire and Bettie Breitweiser off the top of my head. I really like Sloane Leong’s colors too.
JB: I have a lot of influences that I’ve gathered over the years: Bill Watterson, Moebius, Duncan Fegredo, & James Harren barely touch the surface of the artists I love to look at. When I start working I try to avoid anyone other creative person’s work like the plague. I worry that there will be too much immediate influence instead of what I’m making being the sum of all my influences.
Tell me a bit about how you work. How much is collaborative? Do you all lock yourself away and communicate only through email?
KF: With Dark Engine, I work very differently. We communicate via email and then lock ourselves in our rooms and work (which is normal). The thing (which I like) is periodically we check in with each other on skype to figure out schedules and express things that we can’t communicate by email. It’s also refreshing to see someone’s face when you are talking.
JB: With Dark Engine I work 100% digital. My tools are an older model Cintiq, Manga Studio 5, and a wide variety of custom brushes.
What we are doing on Dark Engine is very collaborative. There are emails, skype meetings, and back-n-forth on every step of the process.
I will go through periods of spending too much time on the internet, realize that I’m getting absolutely nothing done at which point I “go dark” and stay away from social media and society in general in order to produce pages.
There’s a lot of bleed in the comic – a lack of firm boundaries as Sym slips from time to time and is, as of right now, positioned as the god Ammut. How far do you think you can take that?
RB: We’ll always be playing with time. Heck, issue 5 – 10 act as an origin story of the world — how the world began — which is, of course, before the Alchemists sent Sym back in time to prevent the world from becoming cracked and ruined. But as far as Sym’s time-travels go? She’s done for a while after issue 4. After issue 4, the narrative approach will change drastically. We’ll no longer be following three perspectives — the dragon, the Alchemists, and Sym — rather, we’ll be focusing on singular voices.
JB: The first arc, the jumping around in time and the following multiple stories was necessary to build the world the longer tale will be told in. Now that the ground is laid we can start focusing on individuals in future issues.
What are your feelings on Sym?
KF: She’s a brutal and a bad ass — don’t know what more I need to say.
JB: Pity. She’s a living/thinking tool that was immediately thrown into danger.
Are you a gamer? There’s a heavy metal, dark fantasy vibe to the comic that feels like it’s speaking that language.
RB: Funny you ask. I reference video games in my scripts, in my interview answers, but I haven’t played one in over a year. You see, my PS3 died on me while — and this might be the saddest thing you read all day — I was on the last level of the Last of Us. I’ve been too lazy to fix it, and too frugal get a PS4. But I enjoy the hell out of video games — my absolute favorite is Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus. As a matter of fact, issue 7 is a homage to that particular masterpiece, wherein we see some of our characters take down Dark Engine’s very own type of colossus, the Gigahul.
KF: I used to play video games a ton growing up. In college, I used to be the activities director for my gaming club. I don’t have much free time aside from working on comics, reading comics and going to comic book conventions. Ha. Comics have taken over.
JB: I read a lot of Heavy Metal magazine growing up, but as far as gaming I have no time for it. Strangely I can watch friends play and enjoy the story-lines if I’m around, but if people start talking games my eyes glaze over and odds are I’m breaking down comics and storytelling in my head.
Do you listen to music while you work?
RB: I’m listening to music now — just wrapped Vampire Weekend’s “Ya Hey”, and I’ll probably follow it up with either a Chvches track or Big Pink track. But there are times where I prefer complete silence, where I only want to hear the tapping of the keyboard.
KF: Music this past week I’ve been listening to: Gerard Way – Hesitant Alien, Anberlin – Lowborn, bunch of stuff by Jesus and Mary Chain, Bayside, Sue Denim, and The Verve
Podcasts this past week: Less than Live/Kate or Die, Pop Culture Hound, Life Leave Me Alone, The X-Files Files, The Nerdist.
I broke it down into what I’ve been listening to this past week because I listen to A LOT of stuff.
JB: Yes…many different genres. Also podcasts, audiobooks, and if it was a series I’ve seen before I might turn on some episodes of something on hulu/netflix/amazon I can listen to and not have to watch.
What are you reading right now?
RB: Right now I’m reading Twian’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I just wrapped Aaron and Latour’s Southern Bastards. I go to my comic book shop on the days Prophet, Sandman:Overture, and East of West are released. Soon, I’ll be picking up Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Otomo’s Domu. I try to read a bit of everything.
KF: Prose: I’m finishing up reading Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice. I started reading the vampire chronicles when I first started high school and never finished them. There is a new Lestat book coming out—so I want to catch up!
Comics: Batgirl, Sex Criminals, Wytches, Gotham Academy, Ms. Marvel, Elektra and I have a huge stack of trades I need to read through plus a ton of other books that I can’t think of. I read as much as I can.
JB: For comics I’ve been reading Spread, Table Titans, and Hark a Vagrant. As far as book reading (or listening as audio books are my main book source when not on vacation) I am now listening to The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku.
Do you have anything in the works besides Dark Engine? Do you plan to do more together?
RB: Nothing solid at the moment. There’s some backroom chatter here and there, but nothing worth mentioning. As far as working with John—the dude is a monster; I’m lucky to be working with him, Kelly, and Chris. I don’t know what the future holds for us, so I’m making the most of what we’ve got now.
KF: Aside from Dark Engine, I’m currently working on Peter Panzerfaust (Image); Veda, Neverboy (Dark Horse); Ash Gets Hitched, Terminal Hero (Dynamite). I have some work coming out in Dark Horse Presents, an issue of Batman 66 and I’m working on some of the Dark Circle Comics for Archie coming out next year, which I’m very excited about! 😀
JB: Many things, but I always feel that if I talk about stuff before it is concrete the work will be cursed and never happen.