Award-winning writer and producer Marc Bernardin (Castle Rock, Carnival Row, SYFY WIRE's Battlestar Galacticast) has been a very busy man. Over the past year, Bernardin created the star-studded Plague Nerdalogues to raise money for the official Black Lives Matter organization and he helped write the just-announced Masters of the Universe: Revelation Netflix series with Fatman Beyond co-host and longtime friend Kevin Smith. This week the Kickstarter for his first short film Splinter, starring Yetide Badaki (American Gods) and Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica), was funded to the tune of well over $200,000.
But, his most recent accomplishment, the new comic Adora and the Distance (out now via ComiXology Originals) is closest to his heart. Some 15 years in the making, the project is dedicated to his daughter, Sophie, and her journey with autism. The magical story is a beautiful tribute to her, and anyone who has ever daydreamed of magical quests, heroes, pirates, slaying monsters, and flying carpets.
Adora is a beautiful young princess who lives in a palace with her Uncle, Lord Rafael. He raised the loving, thoughtful, insightful little girl as his own after finding her abandoned as a child. Every day she goes to school, the market, and the harbor, and even goes to the dungeon after dinner to visit with convicts.
And every night, she has the same nightmare.
Her dreams reveal a premonition of “The Distance,'' an unknown entity that is known to claim entire villages. With the help of her companions — a handmaiden, a mage, a knight, a bard, a dwarf, and a Moor — she goes in search of it, hoping to lead the danger away from her home.
Written by Bernardin, drawn by Ariela Kristantina (Insexts, The Logan Legacy), and colored by Bryan Valenza, Adora and the Distance is part Lord of the Rings, part Scheherazade, and one of the most powerful stories of love and resilience you will ever read. And it’s a must-read for anyone who knows and loves someone neurodivergent.
What goes on in the mind of a child with autism? What do they see? Back in 2005 when Bernardin and his family first started on their autism journey with his daughter, his friends thought writing a story would be good therapy for him. Instead, he decided to create a magical world that he imagined only she could see. As she grew, the story did too.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Bernardin about his personal journey with the book, why he didn’t picture Adora as a Black child at first, and why it’s never too late to try something new.
If you don't mind, can you please explain where on the autism spectrum your daughter is for laypeople?
Well, the spectrum is a vast and complicated place. If one end is full of mostly neurotypical people with some quirks and the other end has people who need help navigating every aspect of life, my kid is kind of in the middle. She’s verbal when she wants to be, to express needs or wants, but she doesn’t have the words to relate her emotional state. She can be self-sufficient with some things, but needs a lot of assistance with others. Every person on the spectrum is different in their own ways.
Adora will clearly resonate with families with autistic family members, but it feels universal.
Maybe it’s me, but I think that every story can be for everyone. Just as I can happily enjoy movies about samurais or robots or French naval officers or dinosaurs without actually being Henri Tyrannorobot Rex, loyal retainer of Shogun Napoleon Bonaparte, I feel like a person with no exposure to autism can enjoy Adora. It’s a quest story, first and foremost... it’s just that the terrain our characters are traversing has quite a bit going on under the surface.
What are some of your favorite fantasy stories that inspired some of the characters?
I’d be lying if I said that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t a huge influence on Adora, just as it’s a huge influence on anyone telling a story in which a motley band of adventurers set out into the great unknown. And there’s a definite Buffy the Vampire Slayer thread, not just in young women taking control of their narrative and believing in their own power, but there are moments of Adora and the Distance’s finale that were directly influenced by “Once More With Feeling” — and not the music.
Artist Ariela Kristantina's work is incredible. How did you connect?
I’d stumbled upon Ariela’s portfolio years ago, when I was looking for an artist to illustrate the second volume of Genius, a comic I’ve done through Top Cow/Image. The schedules didn’t align for that, but I kept her bookmarked. When the Adora opportunity with ComiXology presented itself, she was at the top of the list. And this time, it all worked out.
What was your reaction the first time you saw the world you created?
There’s always a moment in making comics when the story goes from theoretical to tangible. A script is a blueprint for something, not the thing itself. It only becomes real when an artist comes along and breathes life into it — life you couldn’t have foreseen. Choices when it comes to performance or locale, color or context, get made that you the writer couldn’t have made alone. That’s when it all starts to get real. And for a book like Adora and the Distance, there have been a few starts and stops in the 15-some-odd years it took from idea to release, but this is clearly the way it was meant to be. Because, now, it is.
When it came to the character, she was just a young girl [when I conceptualized her] but when Arielle started doing sketches she kicked back a little brown girl. And when I wrote the book, I was surprised. I hadn't specified race at all, this wasn't in my head initially.
You never directed Ariella to draw a child that looked like your daughter?
No. But you have to understand I wrote this book so long ago no one was having conversations about diversity and inclusion at the time.
This predates Genius, and when I wrote Genius, the conversation was, "We don't think anybody's going to buy this book. Because Black heroes don't sell and female heroes don't sell and you've got a Black female hero. So nobody's going to buy this."
Adora's [design] is all Ariella’s intuition and deduction. Ariella said, "Why wouldn't she be? You're brown, I'm brown, why wouldn't we do this?”
And she was 100 percent right. I hopefully would have come to that conclusion on my own, but she beat me there.
ComiXology Originals is a digital platform but will this comic go to print in the future?
Yes, Dark Horse Comics will be releasing a print edition of Adora and the Distance next spring.
You have had an incredible career and you are always doing something new. What advice do you have for people who are just starting their creative careers?
I tell people all the time, I was 43 years old before I made it into my first writer's room. I'm going to be 50 years old before I direct my first [film]. I spent 20 years in an entirely different career before I decided to shift mid-stream and become a TV writer. There is no such thing as too late, unless you want to be a child actor.