Comics and Role Playing Games have always been linked, especially for those that have frequented comic book shops since the 1980s when Dungeons and Dragon modules and Ral Partha miniatures were just a few shelves away from the latest issue of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men.
Writer Mark Sable and artist Chris Anderson are two creators who grew up on both habits, and now they are ready to bring both obsessions together in the form of their new over-sized Chaotic Neutral comic book (currently available to back on Kickstarter). Sable and Anderson took some time to speak to us about their love of comics and RPGs, as well as their new adventure in this exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for Chaotic Neutral originate?
Mark Sable: I’ve got a love of both comics and fantasy role-playing games. Although there have been some great Dungeons & Dragons-inspired comics and Marvel & DC RPGs, I’d never seen the two hobbies combined to my satisfaction. I thought it would be incredibly cool if you could read a fantasy comic and play in that world, with those characters without having to buy a separate adventure module. Beyond that, I have a tremendous amount of affection for the old-school D&D I grew up with in the 80s. The games were less polished, but darker, weirder and more imaginative. Then came the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, when concerned parents and religious groups forced the industry to self-censor, not unlike the Comics Code did for comic books in the 50s.
With Chaotic Neutral, Chris Anderson and I are trying to recapture that lost aesthetic, while still making it accessible to modern audiences by being more diverse and inclusive than those games were. We’re also having fun with the hysteria that surrounded RPGs in the 80s. God Hates Astronauts and Curse Words artist/creator Ryan Browne is contributing a satirical faux “Chick Tract”. For those who don’t know, Chick Tracts were religious propaganda comic pamphlets by Jack Chick meant to scare people away from unholy things like D&D. Together with the comic and adventure module, we want this to feel like it’s an artifact of the 80s.
How did you get together with Chris for the project?
Sable: I met Chris through Dan Panosian, Jeff Johnson and Dave Johnson’s Drink and Draw in Los Angeles, and then again at San Diego Comic-Con. As soon as I saw his art, I knew he was perfect for Chaotic Neutral. I drew him into the project by recruiting him for my weekly D&D campaign. I must have done something right because he’s stuck with both the campaign and this book.
What is your personal history with role playing games?
Sable: I grew up as a painfully shy only child, so while I obsessively collected RPGs like D&D, Marvel Superheroes, etc. I had a hard time finding people to play with. Still, I played the rare solo adventure when I could find one, and when I couldn’t, I still rolled up characters and created my own dungeons, world maps and even worlds. That was good practice for being a writer – in fact, I’m not sure I would’ve become one without all that time spent with my imagination.
Things changed almost a decade ago, right around when the latest edition (Fifth) of D&D came out. I started playing in and eventually running my own games. That was life changing. RPGs are inspiring, but there’s nothing like creating a shared story with people you like around a gaming table (even if it’s virtual during a pandemic). That’s why I’m excited that there’s an adventure module included with the comic for all backers. I want players to be able to immerse themselves in the world of Chaotic Neutral, and try their own luck against the dangers within. What’s great about RPGs is that every group running the adventure will have a different experience, and I’m eager to hear their stories. Speaking of which, one of the coolest rewards is that I’m offering to run the module as one of the rewards. I’d love the ability to get to interact with readers/players in such an intimate way.
Chris Anderson: I do. I, much like Mark, had the modules and books as a kid. Had the War Duke toy designed by Tim Truman and all that. Drew characters and built maps. But I didn’t play. Then in high school I made friends with some kids I worked with at a pet store from another school. That’s when I finally got to play and I LOVED it. Our DM (dungeon master) was the son of a minister. We used to play in the church basement when nobody was around. We would hear a noise and have to cover everything up. One day, a little old lady saw what we were doing and ratted us out to our friend’s dad. The parishioners were none too happy that the minister’s son was trying to summon the devil in the basement. I hadn’t played for years after that until Mark invited me into his campaign about six years ago and I’ve been a weekly warrior ever since.
Do you think that role playing game stories/modules translate well to other mediums such as comics?
Sable: I’m trying to think I’ve ever seen a module directly converted to a story in comics before. I don’t think I have but I can’t believe it hasn’t been done. There have been some good RPG inspired comics, for sure. I’ve enjoyed Jim Zub and Max Dunbar’s run on the official D&D book (and Jim’s RPG inspired work in general), as well as Aimee Garcia and AJ Mendez’s Icewind Dale work, and Jody Houser’s Critical Role inspired Vox Machina, to name just a few. Then there’s Kieron Gillen’s Hugo Award winning comic DIE, which is one of my favorite books right now. It’s more Meta, about real people sucked into a fantasy game world, but it’s genius. He’s just announced he’s creating an RPG based on it, which I’ve had the pleasure of playtesting. I even remember back in the late 80s/early 90s, when DC had the D&D license, enjoying their Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance comics. I loved that they had the stats of the characters in the back. With Chaotic Neutral including a full, playable adventure I’d like to think we are taking that up a notch.
Chris-You’ve worked in a variety of genres, but what is it like illustrating a fantasy comic? Is there a particular character that you enjoy drawing the most?
Anderson: Honestly? I didn’t know what was missing in my life till I drew this book. Like you said, I’ve drawn just about every genre and when I started working on Chaotic Neutral with Mark, it just felt right. He actually pitched me a futurist military book that has since come out and I was leaning that way. But Mark is smart. He has an eye for artists. He has worked with the best. He gently nudged me to do this book and boy am I glad he did. It’s the book I was meant to draw. Mark already knew that.
Wilgotha, the half-orc. I just love her. She just wants to be loved and blend in. She hid her face from the town with a mask. We were ahead of the times with a character sporting that. She’s a butcher so she carries around a big cleaver. She has a big heart but also a big size and big tusks. I gave her little pig tails, not only because she is pig-like, but because they give her an innocent, childlike quality to juxtapose the grotesque face. That being said, I love all of these characters. A few met an early end and I was sad. I wanted to see them more. But this is Chaotic Neutral. Anything can happen.
Mark-Your Dracula: Son of the Dragon is coming from Dark Horse Comics soon. How much research did you need to do for the story?
Sable: Oh man, tons of research over the course of years, not only by myself but by artist/co-creator Salgood Sam. That meant not only historical research on Vlad the Impaler and Europe at the time, but also on Bram Stoker’s novel, vampire folklore etc. Dracula: Son of the Dragon has extensive endnotes – inspired by those in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell – annotating just about every character and event.
How did you strike a balance between the real Vlad stories and the fictional horror elements?
Sable: Dracula: Son of the Dragon is the story about how the historical Vlad the Impaler became the fictional vampire in Stoker’s novel. I tried to treat events in both the known life of Vlad and the brief background Stoker sketched out for him as canon. Researching and writing the graphic novel was an exercise in trying to come up with an origin story for Dracula that matched both. What I finally hit about was a reference in the novel that has Dracula attending The Scholomance, a school of dark magic in Romania where Satan himself was the headmaster. Dracula literally means both “Son of the Dragon” and “Son of the Devil” in Romanian. His father, Dracul (again, meaning “Dragon or Devil”) gave him over to his arch nemesis, the Ottoman Sultan. He also belonged to a real-life secret society known as The Order of the Dragon. I felt that if Dracul was willing to risk his son’s life for power, he’d be willing to do the same for his son’s soul by sending him to the Scholomance and inducting him into the Order. My hope is that we stayed as faithful to history as a story involving vampires can be, while honoring the spirit of Bram Stoker’s novel. One thing is for sure–between Dracula and Chaotic Neutral–readers can expect devilish fun from my collaborators and me…literally.
Chaotic Neutral is currently available to back on Kickstarter until October 28 and Dracula: Son of the Dragon will be in stores on October 27.