Ibrahim Moustafa was so inspired by his latest graphic novel COUNT that he wrote the entire script in just 10 days. Moustafa, well known for his Eisner-nominated artwork in Jaeger and High Crimes, as well as for his art on DC Comics' Mother Panic, took on both writing and drawing responsibilities for the project. COUNT is the first of a lucrative book deal with Humanoids, the first time Moustafa has worked with the company, and the first of a series of creative projects since Mark Waid was named publisher.
The three-book contract, announced in 2020, will cover three separate stories instead of an ongoing series, each its own original graphic novel. Completed at the start of 2020, COUNT features artwork and colors by Brad Simpson and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
Based on Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, COUNT is not a direct adaptation. Instead, the graphic novel uses one of the most famous revenge stories ever told as a base for a futuristic gumbo of murder, mechs, and mayhem with a surprise twist that will leave you stunned.
The Edmund Dantés of COUNT is Redxan Samud, a fearless crewmember serving on the Forreas, a Chariot airship in the Union fleet captained by a drunk and dour commander who doesn't get along with his crew. The love of Redxan's life is Meris Keld, but because of their difference in class (the Kelds are aristocracy), they have not wed. The day Redxan is suddenly promoted to captain by the ship's owner, they elope.
Before the ink is dry on their marriage license, Redxan finds himself arrested, tried for treason, and thrown into the floating island penitentiary called the D.I.F. (Disciplinary Internment Faction). Redxan's fate is sealed by Meri's cousin, Onaxis Keld, a classist member of the Protectorate who hates Redxan almost as much as he hates Union citizens.
Redxan's escape and subsequent quest for revenge include a pirate ship, a class war, and a sentient mech named A.R.U. (Automaton Retainer Unit) who becomes both his bodyguard and friend on his quest for vengeance. SYFY WIRE spoke with Moustafa about why he loves revenge stories, why The Count of Monte Cristo is still relevant, and how a mentor he met while breakdancing as a teen made it into the tale.
What drew you to adapt Dumas' work?
I think there's a general cultural awareness of the story. Most of us learn about Alexandre Dumas and his work in school. The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, etc. And, I had seen the 2002 film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce and I loved it. I love stories about revenge, justice, and comeuppance. There's such a lack of justice in the world. So I think I find a nice kind of vicarious taste of it through fiction.
I thought if I could place COUNT not necessarily in our world, but also not on an alien planet that felt like the futuristic past, and injected a lot of action into it, it would work. I remember I sent myself an email to remind myself of the concept that simply said "Count of Monte Cristo. But sci-fi."
Did you plan on writing the story from the beginning? Or did Humanoids convince you to do that?
That was my idea. I had set out to write and draw my stuff because the writer was king when I got into comics. And to a large extent, that still is the case. A lot of times, as an artist, you'll work on something, and then you'll read a review of it, and it's praising the writer for a bunch of stuff you did. So I decided to do more writing myself.
You came up with great names for your characters. Can you tell us about the inspiration for them?
With this book, I decided I would make up names and be a little ambiguous as to how you pronounce them. I wanted in my own way to open the door for people, to get comfortable with [non-traditional names]. Because when you get into something that is sci-fi/fantasy and have a [main character] named "Brian,” that just never worked for me.
The lead character, Redxan Samud, sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, but it's not. All I did was take Zander Dumas and flip it around a bit.
Even though the inspiration was Dumas' work, did you pattern any of the characters after anyone in your life?
Yes. Aseyr, the prisoner who teaches Redxan to survive, was in many ways inspired by my mentor. When I was a teenager, I started breakdancing, and I learned from a volunteer at my local Boys and Girls club named Willie. He was from Spanish Harlem and was a part of the original hip-hop movement back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He really took me under his wing, and because he was a surrogate father to me, he was like my real-life Mr. Miyagi.
In addition to dancing, Willie taught me a lot about personal responsibility, the importance of education, and to aspire to be a good and giving man. So, while the character of the older-prisoner-turned-mentor was a carryover from the Dumas source material, the personality and wisdom of Aseyr were heavily inspired by Willie.
You shared some of the art duties with your colorist Brad Simpson. How did that process work?
I would pencil and ink the pages, and then I do ink washes. I take watered-down ink and create gray tones to set the foregrounds and backgrounds. To separate some of the tonal digital elements, like on the robot, for example.
And then Brad goes in and just like absolutely livens everything up. But his work on this book was such a revelation to me. He's fantastic. He has a background as a landscape painter, so that really comes across. I drew many different settings in this book, and every one of them, he took to the next level.
I'm so happy and proud to have been able to work with both Brad and Hassan on this. Because they really are just top of their game.
Did you always intend for COUNT to be a graphic novel?
It was always meant to be a graphic novel. I love serialized monthly comics, but even before the pandemic, the way that we're consuming serialized stories changed. We binge stuff now. I love the experience of sitting down and watching a really good movie. I wanted this book to feel like that as much as possible. It's 120 pages, the equivalent of six issues of a comic. So I wanted to be able to tell the story in a congruous way.
There are so many cinematic moments. Are you planning on adapting this for the screen?
I just love action and trying to figure it out on a page in a way that feels kinetic and fluid. Because you are breaking it up in panels, that gutter space is a pause. So I try to find ways to work with that to either help the reader fill in those gaps mentally or by drawing things in a way that feels more fluid.
I hope it does get translated into a broader media form because I was very intentional with the characters in this book. It features a wide gamut of the social stratus, and I would love to see that [represented onscreen]. I'm Middle Eastern, and I have a lot of friends and family from all over. I think a lot of us are tired of not seeing ourselves in the things we love to watch.
Is COUNT still a revenge story?
It's really about Redxan trying to decide if his revenge is more important than the greater good because he finds himself at the center of this political uprising. Throughout the book, there's an underlying message thread that is quietly saying, "Make it count, everyone counts, make your chances count." In this way, the title is kind of a metaphor.
I hope these characters feel like they are stepping up to do the right thing. And they are trying to make their world a better place. I think we're all hoping for that right now, more than we have collectively in a long time, you know?