Trevor Hogg chats with J.C. De La Torre about combining fantasy and science fiction to conjure some comic book magic…
“I come from a hard working Hispanic family that has expanded into multiple industries,” remarks J.C. De La Torre. “As for art, I’d say no. While my wife is a cosplayer and works on her own costumes and I have a few cousins who have dabbled in singing, I’m really the only one to venture into art and entertainment industry.” A childhood passion has carried on to adulthood. “I’m a geek of the first degree. I’ve read comic books all my life and continue to today. I started out like every kid, with Super Hero comics. Spider-Man was my favourite growing up and I read a lot of Ghost Rider too, lots of Marvel stuff. As I grew older my tastes changed to darker comics like 30 Days of Night, The Crow and Spawn. I also got into graphic novel adaptations like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and franchise stuff like Doctor Who, Star Trek, Firefly and Buffy.” Comic books have become part of a multi-media platform universe. “Ultimately, comic book companies are interested in how they can squeeze the most out of a title. Print and Digital sales aren’t all there is. You have licensing for toys, merchandise, video games, movies, and television shows. There’s so many ways a publisher can cash in on the title if they can secure those rights.”
“Hollywood is out of original ideas for the most part so you’re going to see them adapt comic books and novels,” observes J.C. De La Torre. “I will say that Marvel does it right. The Avengers  movie was fabulous and RDJ is terrific as Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the new take on Spider-Man but it’s surprised me [although I thought the lizard looked terrible]. DC I’m afraid hasn’t been quite as impressive in my humble opinion. The last Dark Knight movie wasn’t very good and I’m afraid I didn’t care for Man of Steel  much either. Some of the recent casting choices for Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman have left me scratching my head. I will say Arrow [CW, 2012 to present] is brilliant television, though.” A British time travelling icon and zombies are all part of reading list for the novelist. “I’m currently reading Doctor Who, Artemis Fowl graphic novels and of course the one everyone’s reading, The Walking Dead. Kirkman is a genius. I’m eagerly awaiting Steve Niles new Jack the Ripper project. I’m fascinated by the story of Jack the Ripper, in fact I’m working on my own horror comic with co-writer Martin Dunn called White Chapel that’s based on a vampire series of novellas I wrote a couple years ago. Then there’s Doctor Who. I am a Whovian through and through. We have a TARDIS in our home. If I have one dream it’s to write comics for Doctor Who [come on Titan, I’m ready]. I was so disappointed that IDW wasn’t able to continue with Doctor Who, I think their work has been fantastic. For movies, it’s been mostly the Marvel stuff. Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, and X-Men; I’ve loved most of them. I wish we could expand a little bit, though to some other characters. I had high hopes with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [ABC, 2014] that have yet to come to fruition.”
Known for authoring Ancient Rising and Rise of the Ancients Annuna, J.C. De La Torre is delving into the world of comic books. “I think my writing style translates well to comics. I try to be very visual and descriptive. I’ve always tried to think from a reader’s point of view. If I start exposition on character’s inner thoughts and desires I ask myself, ‘If I am reading this, would I give a crap?’ If yes, then continue on. No, chuck it. Ancient Rising and to a lesser extent Annuna have the pacing of a movie or a comic book. I think that pacing is something I’ve taken to Star Mage and it keeps the story moving without losing key information or elements.” There are creative differences between the two writing mediums. “With a novel, you have hundreds [if not thousands] of pages to get your point across. In comics, you have finite amount of pages and panels to work with and you have to keep the reader turning that page to find out what happens next.” Preparation is essential. I’ve always outlined my stories; it’s a tool I use to keep myself on track to the end goal. Certainly inspiration comes to you and you’ll deviate a little here and there but for the most part it’s a journey from point A to point B. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you ever get there? With comics it’s a lot more difficult because not only are you plotting for 22-24 pages, but you have multiple issues. You have to architect your story to make sense and have natural stopping points that will entice your reader to pick up Issue #2 and find out what happens. Each comic is its own little adventure adding to the greater whole of the series plotline.”
Star Mage revolves around teenager Darien Connors who discovers he has magical powers and a pivotal role to play in an ancient war being waged between two alien races of necromancers. “The landscape of young adult fantasy is littered with carcasses of wannabes and neverwere’s,” notes J. C. De La Torre. “Darien’s story came to me in a dream, shortly after the last Harry Potter film. I’m a great admirer of Rowling and the world she’s built but the dream I had was vastly different. Darien isn’t a Harry clone; his story is probably more Last Starfighter  than the wizarding world. But I also wanted to try to do something you don’t see very often, except maybe in Star Wars, and that’s to merge the mystical with the science fiction. I wanted wizard duels with a slice of spaceship warfare. I wanted deep magical mythos combined with alien worlds and strange creatures and to put Darien in a situation where he’s going against his own family and defending an Empire he knows nothing about. I hope it’s unique and different than anything anyone’s read. I’m sure there will be plenty of ‘Well, that’s just like this story,’ or ‘Hey, he’s lifting that from here…’ because in a genre this cluttered there bound to be things that seem a lot like something else. I didn’t read a lot of young adult fiction so I’m not familiar with a lot of the standard tropes that are out there; that may be a help or a hindrance. I guess we’ll find out.”
Darien Connors embarks upon a classic odyssey of discovery which is described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “You know, I’ve never really thought of it in that way but you’re absolutely right,” reflects J.C. De La Torre. “It is similar to Campbell’s hero’s journey in many ways. I don’t know if I check off all the stages but there’s definitely a few I partake in. I’m geek for history and myth. I wanted to give Darien his own backstory and a deep mythos surrounding the Sarru Kishpu.” Star Mage #1 features the artwork of Ray Dillon and the guidance of IDW Publishing Editor Tom Waltz (Teenage Mutant NinjaTurtles). “It’s definitely been a learning process making a transition to comics. Ray Dillon helped me understand what he needs as an artist and I was able to adapt that well. Ray and I went our separate ways after issue one; it was nothing nefarious just a lack of cohesion in our schedules. If it weren’t for Ray we wouldn’t be with IDW. I continued working with our new artist Franco Cespedes in a similar fashion. The key is to really be visual in your description. Get how you see that particular panel in your head, then pull back and see how the panel looks in relation to the entire page. Some have to draw it out but for me I can pretty much do it in my head. Then I have to transfer that vision in words to the artist. It’s not as easy as one would think, but thankfully I’ve had a synergy with Ray and Franco that has allowed for us to put together a beautifully flowing work. As for Tom, he keeps me from going off the rails, man! Tom’s been an awesome editor to work with. I’ve read those pages a hundred times and he still finds mistakes I missed.”
“The narration and the dialogue have to continue to move the story,” believes J.C. De La Torre. “It must provide information to the reader and also elicit emotional responses. You want the reader to care about what is being said.” Exposition has to be incorporated without bringing the action to a halt. “There’s information you have to get to your reader for them to understand what’s happening but you can’t do it without continuing on the story; the way I approached it in issue one was in flashback while Darien is being bullied by some kids at school. While he’s strung up on that flagpole, Darien is flashing back to how he got to this point. In the ensuing issues, I used more dream states and a spell that melded the memories of Arylos and Darien to pass this information to the user.” The opening flagpole scene also served another purpose. “I felt that at least in the comic realm, you really needed something to get the reader’s attention. I don’t know if everyone does this but I know when I’m at the local shop considering a comic or graphic novel and I’m not familiar with the writer, I’ll check out the cover, then look at the first few pages. Those pages need to have something interesting going on or I’m moving on to something else. I felt the first five pages couldn’t start linear with Darien going to school, chatting up Gemma and then getting bullied by Tristan. It wouldn’t pop enough. But put the kid tied up on the flagpole with weird magical powers and it makes a covenant with the reader that says, “Yes, we’re starting out at the school but buddy [or lady], you’re in for a wild and crazy ride.”
“I allowed Ray to design the first cover,” reveals J.C. De La Torre. “Being a newbie in comics, I relied on his expertise in bringing something amazing to the table and if I may be so bold – mission accomplished. Since then, I’ve worked in tandem with Franco to come up with the covers for the rest of the series. I’ve been very pleased with each one. As for what makes an effective one? To me the cover is another covenant with your reader. ‘Amazing things are in here” it has to scream. You need to have one that stands out with a logo that’s instantly recognizable and gives you a slight spoiler on the front. It needs to be something that shops want to put on their displays and stands out in comparison to the rest of the comics on the rack. After all, if you have a bad cover, no one’s going to bother picking it up.” The original vision is not far off from the final version. “I always saw Darien as the key to everything; he’s just a nerdy kid who is put in a situation he doesn’t understand. His parents are gone, Darien has these weird powers and he’s been [in a sense] kidnapped. The story has pretty much tracked along as I expected it to. There were a few things I changed up here or there but for the most part it is what I envisioned.” De La Torre adds, “When you’re writing for comics, the wow moment is when you get a page and it looks exactly how you saw it in your mind’s eye; that’s happened about 95% of the time working with Ray and Franco.”
|J.C. De La Torre|
“The first issue was a bear to get done,” admits J.C. De La Torre. “Many don’t know this but a lot of time it’s the writer/creator that has to foot the bill. To get the project started, I dipped into my own pocket and even that wasn’t enough; we had to complete a Kickstarter to finish the first issue and get us a head start on the rest of the series. To get a beautiful looking book that can achieve your vision, you need to hire talented artists and those aren’t cheap. Ray also had to struggle through some family emergencies and dealing with bigger projects that kept delaying issue one over and over. It wasn’t anyone’s fault as we were just victims of lady luck. Like I said before, without his involvement, IDW doesn’t look twice at us. I’d like to thank Chris Ryall and IDW for being so patient with us. Once issue one was finally done and Franco came aboard it’s been peddle to the metal and a beautiful thing.”
The mystery of disappearing astronaut who happens to be the father of the protagonist will be explored in future issues. “This first series is one of discovery. Darien discovers his true lineage and destiny; that he has it in him to be strong, and can be a valued leader,” states J.C. De La Torre. “We also discover the Sarru Kishpu – the Kings of Sorcery and their world. Are they benevolent magical policemen of the universe or are they the evil empire? If comic gods willing, we do well and IDW wants to continue – Series Two will introduce some new enemies for Darien and his friends, have some time travel elements and take the story to a different track. I’m really excited about series two. I really hope we get a chance to make it.” De La Torre notes, “I have a feeling Star Mage will surprise a lot of people as the series progresses. You learn more about Darien, his magic powers, his alien friends, the civil war within his own family. I hope it will capture the imagination of the comics community and they will want to play in this universe some more.”
Images courtesy of IDW Publishing and J.C. De La Torre.
Many thanks to J.C. De La Torre for taking the time for this interview.
Star Mage #1 arrives in mid-April 2014.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.