Reinventing Arthurian Myths in Sword of Ages: An Interview with Gabriel Rodriguez

Sword of Ages #2 cover 3 by Gabriel Rodriguez. Published by IDW Publishing. January 10, 2018

On a faraway world, Avalon, a young warrior, sets out to fulfil her destiny. Unbeknownst to her, there are dangers aplenty on her planet. Warring factions vie for power, ruthless in their efforts to gain control.

Avalon knows little about her parents or where she is from. She was raised by tigers and trained by warrior monks. Now, armed with a powerful weapon, she sets off with companions Trystan, Lancer Benveek and Gawyn to bring an end to the wars around her. But, her noblest intentions may not be enough to keep people safe. Before her lay trials and losses that she may not be equipped to deal with, no matter how powerful she becomes.Sword of Ages #2 cover 2 by Gabriel Rodriguez. Published by IDW Publishing. January 10, 2018

For anyone tired of reading the same stories about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, Sword of Ages is a welcome escape. In this series, Eisner Award-winning comic book artist Gabriel Rodriguez gives readers a new take on the old legend. Sword of Ages swaps Arthur for swordswoman Avalon and the knights for a cornucopia of alien creatures, alongside villains who wield a combination of mystical and technological weapons.

The series’ fresh perspective on a well-known tale, as well as its well-rounded female hero, has managed to win over critics, including us at WWAC. The world Rodriguez has created is vast; each panel so chockful of elements, one will find themselves dwelling on a page for a while. There is almost too much to fit into a 30-page comic book but Rodriguez manages with his sweeping panoramas and meticulous detail. That he is an artist first and foremost is obvious just by looking at the stunning art.

The story is dense but filled with action. So much happens in and amongst the world-building that one would be forgiven for going back to re-read each issue.

Three issues have been published by IDW Publishing, the most recent in April 2018. Thus far, readers have glimpsed Avalon’s humble beginnings, journeyed with her to find the titular sword of ages, and will now see her take on her numerous enemies and face her most difficult challenges. All amongst the colourful landscapes and palaces of this alien world that Rodriguez has created.

We spoke to Gabriel Rodriguez while he was attending the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. He told us how this labour of love came to be, the challenges he has faced with the series and when we can expect to see the next issue.

You’ve been developing the idea for Sword of Ages for almost 3-4 years now; how did the concept of this story first strike you?

I’m always eager to talk about Sword of Ages! I’m having so much fun doing this book; it’s been a great experience for me.

This is something that I think, in one way or another, I have been thinking of my entire life. When I was a very young reader, I was always curious about legends and mythology and early tales of adventure. I remember one of the first thick books that I read back to back was a book that my mum gave to me. It was a book about Greek mythology that her grandparents gave her. That book was the entire Greek mythology/ cosmology, about the origins of the gods, through the demi-gods’ adventures, the stories of Prometheus, Hercules, Perseus and Theseus.

I always had a fascination for that and then, learning about the other mythologies – you’ve got the Arthurian myth and the tale of Gilgamesh and all the legends from South American mythology – which is very rich and fascinating. Then you realise that there are certain topics that appear in each of these mythologies and that’s why they become universal and so appealing to everyone. When I had the chance to start crafting my own story, I wanted to do something that was big and entertaining but also that would contain topics that would be appealing to everyone.

If I had the chance to tell one of these major legends in my own terms, what would I pick? I’ve always thought it was fascinating, the idea of the Arthurian legends, of this kid who was selected to have this magic weapon to lead a new ideal for society — eventually achieving some of his goals but failing in some others.

I think that was what made it more fascinating to me because the Arthurian legend, at its very core, has this idea that you may fight your entire life for a worthy ideal and fail but the journey is worthy anyway. That’s a fascinating concept to explore, especially these days, when we are discussing how society has to be, what we should aspire to become as people, as countries. And, some people are saying, why would you hope to do that if it’s impossible? Maybe, sometimes, being impossible is what makes it charming and appealing and what forces you to improve.

So, I think that topics of leadership and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, failing and how you face failure, are things that you need to explore in a story, and this legend offers all those topics.

The protagonist of Sword of Ages is Avalon, a young woman, which is great! Could you tell us why you chose to have a female protagonist?

Sword of Ages #3 page 13 by Gabriel Rodriguez. Published by IDW Publishing. April 10, 2018One thing that I strongly wanted to do is to create a story with a strong female character. To switch King Arthur to Avalon was one of the first decisions that I made in my approach to this story. If you explore a legend but completely flip the concepts, that was something that engaged me.

For me at this moment, it was more important to be able to deal with a female character, which has become really interesting for me to explore. Even though, at the beginning, I was very afraid to approach a character like this, being a male creator, being my first writing gig, also, and in a language that’s not my own, which makes it an extra difficulty. [laughs]

One of the things that has surprised me is that working and creating Avalon has become so natural and engaging to me, that has been really fascinating. I’m having a great time sharing this adventure with her!

You were a co-creator of the Locke and Key series, with Joe Hill. How did that experience inform your working process for Sword of Ages?

Locke & Key - Crown of Shadows Pg 134. Written by Joe Hill, Drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez. Pub: IDW PublishingAbsolutely. I’ve been very lucky that, since the very beginning of my career, I’ve been working with really talented writers.

I remember when I did the CSI comics, which seems like a such a restrained field to try to create something of your own. But I was working with Max Allan Collins, who is a great comic book writer and also a great novelist, and from there on, I’ve been working with guys that are very experienced in comic books and incredibly talented. So, I’ve learned a lot from each of my writing collaborators.

And, that’s one of the things that really scared me about trying to write my own comic! If I’ve been working my entire career with these guys, who are so good and so talented and so experienced, how would I dare to try my own thing, having almost no experience writing of my own?

However, in recent projects, I’ve had more room to propose alternatives to storytelling and creative possibilities. Even on Locke & Key itself, Joe [Hill] gave me a lot of room to propose ideas for the characters and the plot. When we were doing the actual issues, every time Joe sent me a tricky sequence for the book, he always wrote me notes like, if you think that you need to switch a panel or a page in order to make the storytelling work in a different way, that you think is more proper for what we’re trying to say in the story, do the changes and I’ll adapt the text to that later.

I’ve also been very lucky that all the writers that I have worked with sort of gave me a lot of room to propose my own alternatives to the script.

A few months before doing my first attempt at Sword of Ages, I also did a short sci-fi adventure mini-series with Chris Ryall [former editor of IDW Publishing] called Onyx and, in that one, I co-plot the series with him. That was a nice warm-up before writing my own stuff for the first time.

You have said that writing this story in English has had its own challenges, as English is not your native language. What particular challenges have you faced and how do you overcome them?

You have to just do it. In a way it’s like swimming, you have to actually swim to learn it and, I think, even though it presents a lot of challenges, doing it in a different language also forces you to be very aware of what you say and how you say it. That has been very helpful to me in order to define more properly how the characters are, how they talk and how they behave. And also, I have a great coaching editorial team working with me on this book. Both Chris Ryall, the editor, and Peter Behravesh, who is the assistant editor, they have been very patient with me and have been great counterparts, in terms of constantly asking me what I want to do with a certain line, what I’m trying to say and suggesting ideas about how to say it, sometimes in a shorter form, or a more accurate use of words. So, this has been a tremendous learning experience for me. I used to say that this is like my Master’s degree in English, to have this chance to do this!

For me, it has been very rewarding to realise that, in the first few issues of Sword of Ages, I had lots of feedback and suggestions from the editors but, in the latest issues, it has become less, but more focused observations. We are all more finely in-tune with what I’m trying to do with this book.

That has been great also because my main goal is to do the best possible book. So, I’m very open to as many suggestions as possible because, for me, this is not an ego challenge. I don’t have any trouble reminding myself that I’m learning to write throughout the process. So, I’m not stubborn about trying to keep it the way that I first wrote it, nothing like that. Every time that I share with them the first draft of the script, I’m very aware that this is the first step in a creative process that keeps evolving. It has been very good for me to have this as such a collaborative effort. It has benefited the book in the best possible way so I’m very happy about it, every single issue of Sword of Ages has become the very best that it could be because of the feedback of the people I’m working with.

You recently appeared at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2018, with Joe Hill. Do you get to have much face-to-face interaction with the people you collaborate on the Sword of Ages series with?

I luckily have had the chance, in the past, to share a lot of time with Chris Ryall. Ryall and Ted Adams, who is the CEO of IDW Media Holdings, are very close friends [of mine], as I’ve been collaborating with IDW for 15 years.

For five or six years now, both of them have been pushing me to try to write my own stuff. They kept saying, “You should create your own series and write it. You have storytelling experience, you’re good at this, you should try it”. Back then, I wasn’t sure that I was ready enough to do that but, over time, I felt like I finally am at the point that I can manage to try it.

But, with [Sword of Ages colourist] Lovern Kindzierski, who I’m thrilled to be collaborating with – I think he’s one of the few genius artists in the colouring field in comics – I haven’t had the chance to meet him in person yet but, we’re writing each other a lot throughout the entire process.

He’s very committed to this book, I can see that the work that he’s doing with this book is really a work of love. He’s paying a level of attention to detail that is mesmerising and every time that I give him room to try his own approach to colour, he has taken the book to an entirely new level. So, I’m very happy to have him on board. We’re very happy with it and I can’t wait to have a meeting in person because I am very aware that I need to thank him for what he has brought to Sword of Ages to make it feel like magic for the reader.

Your art in Sword of Ages makes the story come alive. How much does it influence the text? And how does the work of Lovern Kindzierski (colours) and Robbie Robbins (lettering) impact the story and art?

I try to make it as balanced as possible because, for me, comics are a storytelling format in which the printed page is the finished piece of art, it is what the reader experiences. So, for me, what the colourist and letterer, in this case, brought to the comic is an integral part of the creative process.

At the very beginning, I was very aware, for example in the first issue, I was very demanding about what Robbie had to do for the book. It was a very wordy issue and, in some panels, I didn’t manage to give enough room for him to do his work. So, in that issue, throughout the pdf, I did a lot of editing of my own writing in order for the lettering to work better with the finished art.

From issue two on, especially in the panels that had lots of text, I write the text by hand, before drawing the art to make sure that I leave proper room for Robbie to do his part of the job. And, that has made it way easier for the lettering work in issue two and three.

I think, in comics, the best way to pull off the finished piece of art is to be aware that no one should take over from the other. If the art takes over from the written language, it’s not properly solved, and vice versa. You have to manage the way in which each part of the comic book language feels fluid and naturally interacts with the others.

When can we expect to see Sword of Ages #4?

These are printed in Korea, so shipping is what delays it. I’m very aware that probably the fourth and fifth issues of Sword of Ages are going to have a little delay from the original plan but, I’m trying my best for that delay to be as short as possible.

“I have to apologise to readers because I ended up writing all the stuff that I promised myself that I will not write in a comic book because it’s too difficult to draw, like massive action scenes! The last two issues ofSword of Ages are going to be this epic battle with lots of characters in it, with very complex action scenes, and I’m doing my very best to pull it off as soon as possible.

On the other hand, we want to make this book as good as possible for the reader as we can so, we’re taking our time with it. We are trying our best to do it on time but our final goal is to make the best possible book for the enjoyment of the readers. So, hopefully, as soon as the third issue is in your hands, you’re going to enjoy it and appreciate all that we’ve been putting into the first few issues of the book. There’s going to be a little bit of waiting for the last two but it will be worth the wait!

I am deeply humbled by the success that we’ve been enjoying with the first two issues. I think we had a way better reception from the readers than what we had hoped for. That is something that has committed me to try my very best to close the first mini-series properly. I hope you’ve been excited enough by the opening issues of the series so hopefully, we will be able to deliver a proper ending for this first adventure of Avalon and her friends in Sword of Ages.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir