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Indie Comics Spotlight: Why the insanity of Ludocrats is exactly what we need right now
It was a decade ago when award-winning writer Kieron Gillen (Wicked+Divine, Die) and gaming journalist Jim Rossignol first dreamed up a world of "Pseudo-Dukes," "Eldritch Hyper-Popes," and "Captains of Hyperbole." Having collaborated creatively on so many projects in the gaming world, Ludocrats was a concept they’d toyed with for a while. Several years, two artists, and one pandemic later, and Image Comics is publishing Ludocrats, a 5-issue mini-series that Gillen has amusingly referred to as “the greatest comic of all time.”
The book was initially developed with artist David Lafuente, but the team struggled to make the schedules work. Then artist Jeff Stokely (The Spire) came on board, and the writers were so impressed with his work that they decided to completely rebuild the book instead of asking Stokely to mimic Lafuente's style.
Ludocrats’ main characters are Baron Otto Von Subertan and Professor Hades Zero-K. Together they are out to rid the kingdom of the vapid and banal ... one nuptial at a time. You see, the Baron only performs adjudications at weddings. Where the Otto is a raucous exhibitionist, Hades is more level-headed and calculated. That’s relative in a world where the punishment for being boring is an arranged marriage that culminates in the beheading of the groom. The comic is Asterix and Obelisk meets I Hate Fairyland, with a bit of Monty Python to offset the gory bits.
Where most comics feature stories that are metaphors for broader themes, Ludocrats’ characters are personifications of the metaphors themselves. The aristocracy worships the absurd, and the populace must conform to some form of literal ridiculousness or meet a bloody end. SYFY WIRE talked with the hilarious writing team about why drinking, Dune, and double entendres are essential to the writing process — and a welcome diversion right now.
What’s it like releasing a comic like this in the middle of a pandemic?
Kieron Gillen: It’s certainly weird putting out a book like Ludocrats now, and sitting and working out the firework display of dumbness when you see the world around you. I’m also reminded of part of the inspiration for the book — back in a particularly bleak 2006, I found monthly solace in the joy that was NextWave. With everything around it so dark, it was just this candy floss joy, and I’m grateful for it. Dropping a distraction like this seems the right time for it.
That helps me keep on writing, anyway.
Jim Rossignol: Much as with Kieron, it’s about friends and family support networks. Thank goodness for the internet, on this one occasion … But I also have kids who need schooling, which is providing me with some much-needed focus, and uh ... math problems.
Jeff Stokely is such a versatile artist. Did you give him much direction?
KG: With a comic which leans berserk, Jeff just responded to what’s in the scripts, which we, in turn, integrated back into the scripts (both in lettering and in later issues). It’s not a book you’d do in the style of The Spire — that it's the comedy that needs more of that. It’s a book which is designed to push expression as much as we can, across the whole team.
JR: Artists in any medium work best when the material they are producing has a sort of momentum to it. You can definitely see that with Jeff doing Ludocrats. He built up a style, created the characters, drew the initial takes on the world, and by that point he had a head of steam which meant the comic could go crashing on into extreme visual creativity. It’s been a thrill to see that unfold in real time.
Kieron, your recent work is steeped in both history and philosophy; where did this wacky gory story come from?
KG: I’d immediately raise an eyebrow at the false dichotomy in that question. Ludocrats is enormously silly but absolutely grounded in thought. Oh Jim, paint me with your words as if I were one of the "Philosophy of Boredom" girls.
JR: Well, the extent to which goofing off with pals should be sacred. I think if you read something like, say, a biography of Peter the Great, who once had a beheading competition with his drinking buddies, then you can see where our attempts to create caricatured lunacy are really just clutching at the straws of possibility.
What is the philosophy behind this story, then?
JR: The philosophy in Ludocrats that might not be immediately obvious beyond the gore and wildness, but it is this: Why should the extremes of sensual existence not be democratized? Why shouldn’t those with unlimited wealth and power be obliged to share some of the qualitative ludicrousness of their existence with everyone? Make the world a better place, sure, but don’t forget to make it weirder as you do so.
Are the characters in the story archetypes?
KG: They certainly have a degree of that kind of primal energy to them, right? I suspect, to jump on the philosophy mentioned, Otto and Hades are the Dionysian and Apollonian side, respectively. One is chaos embodied. The other is a creature of graphs. Which, to turn away from philosophy, this is pure straight man/funny man dichotomy out of double acts from the beginning of the performance. “Straight man,” in the Ludocratic world, is a relative term, of course.
What’s the craziest line you’ve written in the story so far?
KG: Picking one is tricky, as there’s basically one on every page. “With nothing worse than a light coating of semen from a death-dealing caterpillar, we’ll make our escape!” — from the second issue captures a little of the horror of writing Ludocrats.
JR: There’s a line in the backmatter line which reads, “Quake in abject indignation as the tale of these complicated quiddities of the Ludocracy carve a euphemistic glyph into the heaving flank of anticipated narrative.” I quite like that.
Jim, what has been the biggest challenge being on the creator end of the spectrum?
JR: Getting to grips with how a comic is made. I’ve worked on magazines and published books, and the team required here is almost more complicated. The artist, flatter, letterer, colorist, all requiring collaboration with the writer and editor. It’s far closer to the technical production feat of making video games (which I have spent the past decade doing) than I might otherwise have realized.
What was the collaboration process like?
JR: Initially boozy, later more focused, and always determinedly creative. We both love images and ideas and stretch them and pull them apart between us. We have slightly different senses of how things should be approached, or what is funny, but appreciate how the other does things. Bringing different tastes and abilities to a collaboration is always essential, and I think we do that with the practice you get from decades-long knowledge of the other person.
KG: About 95 percent of writing Ludocrats is leaning back, blinking, wondering what on earth is on the comic. The main advantage of co-writing it is that Jim and I can point at each other and blame the other one for it. The main advantage of the extended development time is that we can no longer be sure who’s to blame.
(If you’re interested, the other 5 percent of Ludocrats is correcting typos.)
How do you worldbuild a universe that literally makes no sense?
JR: A mix of knowing what works in terms of absurd jokes, and free association. Letting ideas connect from one to the next in ways that are unexpected is the key to making this sort of world creation work. Doubling back, subverting expectations, and being extremely stupid in an artful way. Kieron likes to point to how Monty Python was educated people figuring out how stupid they can be. I agree with that, although Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer were more of a direct influence on my own absurdism!
Image Comics mentioned that this is an adult mashup of Asterix and Obelix meets Dune. What made you chose those stories as your inspiration?
JR: It was less an inspiration than a sort of reference for explaining what the hell we were up to. That said, Asterix and Obelix and Dune are both landmark influences on me, although probably not by choice. They were just the atmosphere I grew up in and the books I had when I was a child. I feel like Ludocrats compared favorably, but perhaps I am obligated to say that!
KG: We can say whatever we want. No one tells us what to do.