David Petersen: Mark, I think Legends of the Guard is the first non-Artesia sequential storytelling you have ever done. How was working on another property different from your work in your own book
Mark Smylie: Process-wise it wasn’t that different, but I have to admit that I had a lot of trepidations about doing a Mouse Guard story in particular, given the dedication of MG fans and the unusual page aspect ratio. The square format was fun to work with, however, and the universe is a pretty deep one to find storytelling ideas in...
David: This project started as a comment I made to you an Jeremy after you turned in your awesome pinups for Fall 1152 (because of that, I bookended the series with your two stories). As both a creator on the series and a decision maker at Archaia, did you have any idea when I mentioned that you and Jeremy could "play in the world of Mouse Guard whenever you wanted" we would be 4 issues in to an anthology series?
Mark: No, it’s been very nice to watch this project grow from that random conversation into an amazing anthology. Conversations and ideas like that all too often fall into the “that’s nice, but it’ll never happen” category, so both as a publisher and as an artist it’s fantastic when a great idea that’s kind of casually batted around then grows into an actual published work.
David: When you submitted story ideas, there were three to choose from. I picked one because I thought it felt the most ‘like you’ and because you would be drawing mice in armor. Tell folks about your story and talk about how you developed it.
Mark: Oddly enough there’s not necessarily a lot of mouse armor in it, at least not in comparison to Jeremy’s take on mouse armor. For this particular story I had been inspired by the cover of LEGENDS #1, with the two mouse kings fighting each other on the bridge. I thought a bit about what the history of mouse war would have been like; given how many predators and natural dangers there are for them, inter-mouse war would seem pretty rare, but clearly (as we saw in FALL 1152) the Mouse Territories have reached a point of safety and security that, oddly enough, opens up the option of mice fighting mice. So I thought about the idea of these two lineages squabbling with each other, generation after generation, and about some of the things that would motivate them to fight and do un-mouse-like things, and how that kind of vendetta war could come to an end. I wound up drawing from the story of David and Bathsheeba from the Bible, in which David sends his general Uriah the Hittite out on a suicide mission so he can marry Bathsheeba, and tried to put a Guard spin on it.
David: With Artesia you are doing something I’m a real fan of: World Building. It’s a very complete place with culture(s), maps, & history. And you seem to be bringing that commitment to your Legends story as well. What went into making the cities and armor in your story and who are some of your favorite world builders in art and storytelling?
Mark: Well, there’s a lot to work with already in the MG world. I took the name “Rosestone” to be kind of literal, and wanted to have a mouse town that combined both an earthy, underground atmosphere with these flowering roses everywhere. And since the events of the story are supposed to be happening at some point in the past, I tried to take the medieval flavorings of the current MG series and work backwards a bit, so hopefully there’s an early medieval, Romanesque feel to the armor and “costumes” (for example, Moira’s bonnet, the legionnaire shields that the mouse soldiers use, etc.). I think there are a lot of great world-builders out there to be inspired by; beginning with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, of course, but Robert Howard’s Hyboria, Lloyd Alexander’s Welsh Prydain, Roger Zelazny’s Amber, Robert Adams’ post-apocalyptic Horseclans novels, Glen Cook’s Black Company books, George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, all of them have awesome fantasy settings. Same with fantasy RPG settings like Greg Stafford’s Glorantha and Bob Bledsaw’s Wilderlands. For visual worldbuilding you can’t get much better than James Gurney’s Dinotopia and Rien Poortvliet’s Gnomes.
David: You and I are both fans of paper modeling, but what other real world techniques do you use to try and build a world as real as you can make on paper?
Mark: I use some plastic models of men in armor (there are some Japanese companies that do historical plastic model kits, for example), and have a few reproduction weapons and helmets, but a lot of it is book research: just trying to read as much as possible about the history of culture and technology, look at lots of pictures of real places and objects and costumes.
David: With your process, how do you take an outline or story description and break it into pages and panels?
Mark: The words are first, at least most of the time, and tend to dictate for me which panel is coming next, where the characters are positioned, etc. I break down the script of the dialogue and story actions, grouping them into beats, then thumbnail the pages and panels to see how it’s all going to flow, how much can fit into each page, whether material has to be cut or stretched out to make a particular page or transition work.
David: You did a pinup for me on the square format, but this is your first time doing panel by panel storytelling in it. Did you find it very different from how you lay out a traditional page?
Mark: The basics are still the same. The square format definitely changes things subtly; like when you do wide panels, they’re very wide, almost cinematic. I tried to give this particular story a little bit of a fairy tale quality, so the panel selection was fairly simple, nothing too complicated (which always feels more modern to me).
David: Your final artwork and thumbnails match fairly closely, do you redraw the thumbnails on your final surface? or do you transfer them somehow using a lightbox or blueline printing?
Mark: No, I do the thumbnails on spare typewriter paper. I’ll have them nearby as reference when I’m doing the actual penciling, but I generally don’t use a lightbox even though I have them available.
David: Your work is all hand painted using watercolors and gouache. What brands and materials do you use (paints, paper, brushes)?
Mark: I pencil and paint onto Strathmore 500 2-ply Bristol plate, sometimes 3-ply; I usually buy it by the sheet and then cut to the size I need. Though for the LEGENDS pages I think I used a pad of 14x18 2-ply Bristol plate. It’s not really suitable for watercolor painting, but I like to ink on the plate surface. I use a variety of watercolor and gouache brands; Windsor & Newton, Sennelier, and Old Holland, mostly, with an occasional Grumbacher Academy. I often use Wilcox’s Guide to Watercolor Paints to pick a brand for lightfastness and pigmentation. I use a bunch of different brushes, mostly sable, from industry standard Windsor & Newton Series 7 No 2s and Rekabs to brushes of uncertain origin that I just happen to like. There’s a lot of detail work so I don’t tend to use brushes with big heads, they’re usually size 2-8.
David: What is the process for painting a page? Do you ink first and paint second? How long do you spend painting vs waiting for paint to dry?
Mark: I paint directly onto the pencils, then ink afterwards; then usually do a second pass with paints, and then finish with another round of inks and colored pencils. Watercolor dries pretty fast, which is both good and bad, in that it doesn’t give you much time to correct mistakes. Other watercolorists work differently; Mike Kaluta, for example, inks first and then sprays a workable fixative to fix the inks, and then paints on his inks.
David: Where can people find out more about Mark Smylie and Artesia?
Mark: Well, I used to have a big fancy website at www.artesiaonline.com, but we lost the files on the server a little while back and I haven’t had a chance to reconstitute it (such is the life of an artist turned publisher, unfortunately). Hopefully it’ll be back up and running soon...
Mark's Story "Crown of Silver Crown of Gold"
appears in Issue 4 of Legends of the Guard available 11-10-10
appears in Issue 4 of Legends of the Guard available 11-10-10