If science fiction comic book anthologies are your speed, Dark Horse’s Once Upon a Time Machine is your ride. It's a collection of sci-fi twists on classic stories, and back in 2013 the first volume put the genre twist on fairy tales and featured works by Khoi Pham, Ryan Ottley, and Farel Dalrymple, to name a few. This Wednesday, the second volume, Once Upon a Time Machine: Greek Gods & Legends, with a host of new creators, including Andrew Carl, Chris Stevens, Paul Pope, Mike Baron, Charles Fetherolf, and Ron Wimberly, and unique spins, re-imagining Greek mythology.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Andrew Carl, the primary editor on Once Upon a Time Machine (as well as one of the contributors to the project) to talk about the anthology. He touches on the new volume's theme, and how they cross with everything from science fiction to Greek mythology.
Andrew, the concept of Once Upon a Time Machine is a fun one. Was this an editorial brainchild, or did it come out of a few initial concepts with creators and realizing an anthology was the way to go?
The first volume began as a platform to showcase a lot of new talent, myself included. Chris Stevens, my editorial partner, came up with the future fairy tale concept as a common thread. It was perfect as a way to hook readers and inspire creators with a combination of old and new. Each creator or team would start with a foundation that anyone could be familiar with, and then create a whole new world and set of visuals that could only have come from their imagination.
The second volume includes more creators who’ve already made names for themselves – Paul Pope, Conor McCreery, Ronald Wimberly, Aaron Conley, and so on – but we knew that the Time Machine concept was too fun to leave at just one book.
The dressing of science fiction allowed you to break away and add to the classic skeleton of the original stories. Did you find that freeing or daunting in tackling these timeless classics?
For me, both as an editorial shepherd and as a writer, this was the most fun part. I loved the process of stripping down old stories to their most essential plot beats and meanings, and then building them up again in a new context. Every writer approached the process differently, some taking only the barest bones of an original story while others created, effectively, sequels to the original tales. Some stories proved harder to nail down than others. There was always a sweet spot between the extremes of rote recreation and unrecognizable adaptation, but it changed with each story and creator.
I would always warn very strongly against the find-and-replace approach to adaptation… as in replacing every instance of “Red Riding Hood” with “Red Riding Jetpack” and calling it a day. Of course, there’s even an exception to that rule in our first book, but it worked because it was short, funny, and a visual blast (“The Venusian Shepherd Boy Who Cried Space Wolf”).
After having seen what worked best in the first book, it became a lot easier to steer creators in the right direction (if and when steering was necessary) in Volume 2. Good sci-fi, in my mind, uses the world of tomorrow to make us think about the world of today. These books add in a third layer of intellectual time travel, by building on the stories of yesteryear.
It’s funny, some of those myths seem to have provided pretty intrinsic plots to much of today’s science fiction and science fantasy: the Minotaur’s maze, the might of Hercules, and most of all, the parables of Icarus and Pandora. You could probably tie every mad or misguided scientist story back to those last two, in one way or another.
We knew we wanted to focus the sequel on a single source of folklore, and the Greek gods were just too hard to ignore. Among the globe-spanning tales featured in the first book, they’d gotten almost no recognition. The trick was to only adapt things in ways we had never quite seen before. We wanted to make a true effort to highlight and honor those original myths, rather than just use them as tools, or shortcuts, to write whatever we wanted.
Given the limitless boundaries of science fiction, is it tricky to restrain these stories because they are still short stories?
Totally! Well, kind of. Some of us could have, and maybe would have, written whole novels’ worth of material based on the concepts we landed on and the worlds they led us to create. It could be tough sometimes to rein things into digestible, single-shot experiences.
Anthology stories are often 1-4 pages per story. Instead we got several pages, and that allowed the story to go beyond the basic construct of what these original fables were and allowing the sci-fi twist to organically emerge. Could you talk about how that specific length allowed these new takes be something truly unique?
In both of these books, we generally aimed for a range of 8-12 pages for each story. I think that’s a great starting point for developing characters and conflict, with room to breathe and enjoy the sights along the way. A bunch of stories grew longer than that in their telling – some much longer. In the first book, in fact, some stories wound up 10 pages longer than your average monthly comic. The extra runway was worth it when it allowed for things like the epic giant robot fight in the middle of the Tortoise and Hare story. We wanted to keep the second book a little shorter and tighter without majorly decreasing the story count, so we tried to keep a tighter leash on things. But we still kept the needs of a story above any artificial restrictions on page count.
An example of this is the second half of your Icarus story (the first half is embedded and in the gallery below), this beautiful discovery that is told without dialogue but really gives the story the space and take form to become its own thing. It's really a wonderful take.
Thank, Gideon Kendall! That sequence was the strongest thing in my mind as I began to write “Icarus” – it became the basis for everything else in the story. I knew I had to find an amazing artist who could take that particular mental picture and make it a reality. Gideon totally didn’t do that – he took it and made it much, much better. If I had originally written any text in the “return” sequence, I would have just taken it out after seeing his pages. In fact, I actually added a little more dialogue earlier on so that Gideon’s work on those pages would stand out even more strongly.
I am convinced that each story had it’s own unique challenges. What was the trickiest thing about doing science fiction takes on Heracles?
Heracles (stuck with Greek names for this book), was a very different story. Chris Stevens and I had floated countless ideas for how to include him in the book. We knew we couldn’t publish it without him. But his most well-known story, the twelve labors, doesn’t really have the most inspiring “story” to work from – it’s more like a highlight reel of awesome stuff he did. And we had enough emotional, character-driven stories in the book already. So we decided to find a simple hook to bookend his story, and fill the middle with fun, splashy action that any take on Heracles should excel at. We also had to come up with sci-fi concepts for twelve different labors, and try to make each visually interesting, too (“cleaning the stables” was a fun one to adapt). So this ancient Greek hero wound up starring in a silly, 1980’s cop movie pastiche (with a gender-bent protagonist) about downtrodden robots in the future. Sebastian Perez (art) and Paul Little (colors) were the stars of “The 12 Labors of Mech-Detective Heracles”, my job was just to give them an excuse to have fun.
And Daphne and Apollo?
The story of Daphne and Apollo was one of the few myths in the book that I hadn’t remembered reading as a kid. But when I came across it a few years ago, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s fatalistic and sad, like these myths tend to be, but the tragedy hinges on this really admirable brand of independence in Daphne. She refuses to be saddled to a man, and her father respects her wishes so much that he goes and turns her into a tree. Even then, her relentless suitor Apollo still spends the rest of his life picking away at her. It felt relevant to today, on some level. Even before I figured out how exactly, I knew I would adapt the story in the realm of social media. I think we’ve all seen (if not been a party to) the sort of toxic hounding and abuse that certain men use against women online. We’ve also seen how people can become world-famous objects of adoration and/or scorn in seconds, whether they want to or not. My very-near-future Daphne thinks she can stay above the noise and nonsense of internet mobs, but in her world (like ours), social media is no longer confined to the internet. It’s real life now, and many of us end up suffering or succeeding, or both, because of it. With her art on the story, the amazing Pam Lopez brought a much-needed touch of whimsy to Daphne’s struggle against Apollo and his fans.
Ronald Wimberly's Theseus and Metrotaurus (pictured above) is visual insanity. Which of the other tales are going to knock the socks off of readers?
Wimberly’s story is incredible, right?! I mean, wow.
Toby Cypress is another guy who takes you on a crazy trip that could only have come from his hand, in “Eurydice” (with Josh O’Neill). He’s a fantastic storyteller, and I feel like this story was among the most perfect outlets for him to let his imagination loose on the page.
One of the calmest stories from a visual standpoint – it mostly takes place from a single perspective at a bar – is one of my favorites. Andrea Tsurumi wrote and drew “Away Mission” (based on the transformation of Actaeon), and the visual jokes she tells every few panels make me laugh each time I read it.
Joe DellaGatta drew a beautifully moody, but charming story for Telemachus (“The Long Bow”). That one was a joy to look at in every stage of production – even his hand-written letters are beautiful. This one was actually written by Michael Swanwick, as his first-ever comic script. Science fiction readers may know him from all his award-winning books and short stories in the genre. Well, guess what? He’s an awesome comics writer, too. Often the leap from one medium to another can be awkward, but Swanwick nailed it right out of the gate.
Once Upon a Time Machine: Volume 2 - Greek Gods & Legends is out in comic shops and digital format April 11 for $17.99.