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Indie Comics Spotlight: The very personal journey of Skybound's Excellence and its creators
We're about to hit you with some magic, so stay with us.
Excellence, a new comic making its debut at Skybound/Image this month, traces the origin story of Spencer, a modern-day mage who was born into one of the Original 10. The Original 10, in turn, is an order of high-level mages that make up the governing body of Aegus, a high-council of magic users tasked with keeping the fates aligned in the real world.
Got that so far? Good. One more thing to know: Spencer's nemesis is Aaron, a fellow mage-in-training. His powers kick in much later than the other students'.
The book is the product of an exceptional creative team, featuring the words of Brandon Thomas (Miranda Mercury, Horizon) and art by the long-time partners of Khary Randolph (BLACK, Spider-Gwen) and Emilio Lopez (Batman Beyond). As a bonus for fans, Excellence is the first comic for which Randolph has drawn interiors in years.
Despite its pedigree, Excellence is less of a magicians story (although Spencer is incredibly powerful) and more of a coming of age story about what happens when a son goes to extreme lengths to live up to a family name too heavy for him carry.
SYFY WIRE spoke with the creators about the series' stunning artwork, the emotional storyline, and why we all just need a grandma to tell us the truth.
Khary, you rarely draw interiors. You've been a cover artist quite some time. What made was it about this book that made you take on all of the artwork?
Randolph: Well, basically, If I'm going to commit a year or two of my life, I feel like it has to be on the right projects. I have limited output to create things, so I'm very careful about the jobs I take on. So if I'm going to be drawing something for 12-plus issues, then I really want to make sure I love it.
What do you love about this one?
Randolph: It all came down to one specific conversation with Brandon where he showed me [what the story was really about]. And I thought, "Oh, this is something I need to be a part of!" I can say, without question, there's more of me in this book than anything else I've ever drawn. To me this not just a job, this is a project that I believe in very strongly. And I can't even talk about art without Emilio because his contributions to this book are more than what you can see on the page.
You and Emilio have worked together as a team for a long time.
Randolph: Yes, we discuss everything. I mean, with every new project. we have a long sit down and say "What do we want to accomplish with this book?" We had very specific goals that we want to do with this book. We wanted to create something that would stand apart from everything else in the market.
Lopez: Oh yeah, we talked a lot! In fact, our talks about the style we are going for predates the existence of Excellence. It all started with one question "What if we could do a comic with just strong color choices and next to no additional rendering? What if we did work that truly took advantage of the natural strong graphic nature of Khary's work? The [larger publishers] would never go for this so we put it in our back pockets until now. In a lot of ways Excellence would not be possible at any other studio we have worked together at.
In Excellence, mages seem to exist on the other side of the veil. Most people can't see them, correct?
Brandon Thomas: Yes, It plays on this idea that if they don't physically touch us, or anything around us, then we won't even notice them. So this is a very intentional kind of by narrative choice that we're going to do some interesting things with. As I said, it's not super subtle, but it's an important detail.
Spencer butts heads with his father, who upholds the family legacy of training mages and he wants him to play by the Aegus code.
Thomas: Yes, they are one of the original 10 families.
But Aaron is not from a high ranking family?
Thomas: Aaron is definitely not.
So he's a muggle who works his way up?
Thomas: Yes, essentially. And that will definitely come into play, as the series evolves because that's one of the big [issues] between Spencer and Aaron. They should have been brothers, but because of how Spencer feels that his father essentially abandoned him and kind of adopted Aaron, this other boy who more closely reflected what his father wanted [in a son] and he just can't get over that. Spencer can't see that Aaron needed his father as well.
Let's talk about the "Four Walls" of Aegis. These are very explicit, albeit archaic rules about who can wield wands and how magic is to be used in this universe.
Randolph: To be clear, these are not our rules; these are the rules of the fictional world. I just want people to understand that.
Including the fact that it's against Aegis rules for women to wield wands?
Thomas: [My mom saw] the Skybound promo for the "Four Walls" and when we got to the Fourth Wall about women not being able to use magic she says, "Excuse me?!" They are not our rules. The rules are essentially spoilers, there are things there that shouldn't be there and there are characters in the book that agree with that sentiment.
Spencer has such a wonderful relationship with his grandmother GG. And she clearly doesn't care about the "rules."
Thomas: GG really is my grandmother. She used to cut my hair when I was growing up. We would go over to grandma's house and hear a lot of cussing that we weren't supposed to hear and we'd get so much love from her, too. I've put her in every single creator-owned book that I've done. There is always a badass older woman character in everything. Even in Miranda Mercury, I put her in the A.I. on Miranda's ship. But Excellence was kind of like the one time where I just kind of embraced it. This is clearly her.
Randolph: I don't know if I mentioned this to you, Brandon, but the reason why GG is so important to me is because I was close to my grandmother and some of those scenes that we put into the story are straight up out of my life.
Emilio Lopez: The scenes with GG are [some of my favorite]. Don't get me wrong, I love the bombastic spell casting and running up walls and stuff, but it is those quiet moments that I love most. Moments of visual quiet where you flow through a scene. It's hard to capture all the things you feel when you are with someone you care about.
Spencer's world is very warm, while "reality" is much cooler. Why did you choose to color it that way?
Lopez: Khary and I looked at a lot of different sources: Classic African clothing and textile often tend to tilt warm because of the dyes they had available. For our book now the question would be what would a modern African wizard culture look like? How would that evolve over the ages? I'll tell you one thing, they wouldn't put up a boring white or gray building. The building would be a statement. It would shimmer and shine for everyone in the Aegus to see in a city of brutalist gray.
Thomas: I get to write the scripts so far ahead of Khary that I kind of forget about them a little bit. I forget the little details because I've moved on to the later issues and other things I'm writing and when Khary gets a hold of it, I think, "I forgot about that! This is so much better than I was imagining!" Then Emilio puts on the colors and it's another level. I love seeing all of the layers develop, I just love the process.
This story sounds very personal for all of you.
Randolph: I just feel like a part of the reason it spoke to me was that I was like, I wholly relate to Spencer, to Aaron, [and] as I get older I relate to the father. So these are very fully fleshed out characters and you can have all the fun, magical stuff in the world. If the characters aren't relatable and believable, it falls flat. I feel like one of the strongest points of this book actually is the characters. I think they're all truly relatable.
Thomas: For me, It's not just the story. I wanted an all minority creative team. I wanted us to do a series of variant covers that spotlight dope Black and Brown artists. That's also why it's very important to me that emotionally it's complete. There's anger, sadness, joy and there's a triumph and I want it to be a full expression. You can enjoy it on the surface level and if that's all the Excellence is to you that's awesome. But if you want to dig a little deeper, I want there to be, you know, there's meat there. I want it to stay with people. I feel like everything that I've done in comics and everything that I've experienced outside of comics has led me to Excellence.
Lopez: I agree. This comic is the most personal work I have done for comics to date. Brenden has this way of writing these moments that make you say "oooh I felt that." And like great Jazz we all riff off of each other. This book feels like all of us from the words written to the artwork created. But that is what I believe good art is. You can do escapist fantasy about people that shoot lasers from their hands or go into outer space but it is when you come down to earth and relate to people on their level with your own experiences that is when it becomes truly magical. I hope folks come along with us for the ride.