by Arpad Okay. Behold Isola, the wild dreams of youth given shape by the experience and skill gained from years telling stories. Together, apart, Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl have been making comics. Fletcher has written independent women (frequently on motorbikes) from Batgirl to Gotham Academy to Motor Crush, and Kerschl brings the mythic to titles across the DC line as well as in his own absurd, inspired web comic, The Abominable Charles Christopher.
But Isola, mysterious Isola, has been the fairy tale Brenden and Karl have been telling each other since primary school.
Isola is a fantasy of animals, women, and transformations physical, magical, and spiritual. A slow burn story set to test the mettle and the bond of love between a soldier, Rook, and a tiger queen, Olwyn. The journey across verdant wilderness to the land of the dead is the culmination of Fletcher and Kerschl’s own evolution in sequential art. Working with the two is their colorist from time together on Gotham Academy, a dragon’s horde of jewel tones courtesy of Msassyk, and a spellbook wrote international by font wizard and Fletcher’s Motor Crush collaborator, Aditya Bidikar.
Arguably the most beautiful comic book on the stands, Isola tempers its arcane pace and lush looks by weighing anchor in the authentic. Fletcher says of the world he and Kerschl have built: “Our focus is always set rather firmly on the relationship between Rook and Olwyn and the development of scenes and situations that will further illuminate [them] as individuals and partners.”
My interest in speaking with the folks behind Isola was to see what inspired them, to hear about their creative process and collaboration as a team, and to mine their thoughts on using a fantastic framework to puzzle out what truly matters regarding the human condition.
1. ‘Isola’ is a compelling book about failures. Rook is a skilled killer, but at every turn it seems like her efforts fall short (Brenden, this is a Domino Swift issue, as well). What’s up with that? What do you think is so fascinating about heroes who can’t hack it? Do you ever worry about fate’s governance robbing your characters of their agency?
Brenden Fletcher: I think I prefer to look at these characters as people who are stumbling toward success. Both Rook in Isola and Domino in Motor Crush are totally amazing at what they do—one, a fighter, a skilled guardsman and peacemaker and the other an incredible athlete, a racer at the top of her field. But both characters get thrown curveballs that they deal with in awkward and dramatic ways. I find it compelling to watch a character struggle with obstacles far outside their relative comfort zones. I want to see them using the skills they’ve got to pull success out of the colossal challenges presented to them.
2. A theme I’ve noticed is, beyond animal reverence, ‘Isola’ is full of animal saviors. Wolves in the library, boar in the prologue, Olwyn — Rook is always in trouble and a beast has always got her back. Why? Is it just good comics craft to experiment with giving the silent a voice, or something more meaningful to you two?
Karl Kerschl: A lot of the solutions to the various challenges of coping with Isola‘s world lie in how compassionate the characters can be toward one another and, perhaps more significantly, toward nature. If Rook is being helped out by wolves, for example, it’s because she proved that she shares a worldview (at least in some small part) with them and that, at the very least, she’s not a threat. I guess ‘Don’t be a jerk to other creatures and they’ll at least tolerate you’ is the guiding ethos here. And also, I just like drawing animals.
3. Spinning off that, what’s the inspiration for the Moro? They seem to reflect many themes in the book: animal worship, transition and transformation, failure. We get to see more of their world and culture than either kingdom.
BF: The Moro represent those sides of ourselves that attempt to live better, more compassionate lives through science and religion. Neither path in any measure can offer their society that which they desperately seek but for a time they see a hope in Olwyn.
Let’s be real, though: Karl and I wanted to riff on The Island of Dr. Moreau. I’m a big Bela Lugosi fan and The Island of Lost Souls is on my short list of his very best work!
KK: The most interesting thing about the Moro, to me, is that they represent an equally flawed facet of humanity, on the opposite spectrum of the hunting clans. The humans in this story might have good intentions but their inclination toward some form of worship (whether it’s science or religion or commerce) always distracts them from what’s real.
4. I. Love. Rook’s. Armor. Please talk about your process designing the costumes in ‘Isola’.
KK: Thanks! I drew from a lot of sources when I was designing Rook, in particular. I tried various ages, hairstyles, features, etc. and eventually landed on kind of a Joan of Arc look for her. The armor is a mash-up of Dark Souls armor and the work of Akihiko Yoshida, the artist who did the designs for Final Fantasy Tactics. He drew such a wide variety of interesting clothing and armor, all of it very specific to the type of character who would be wearing it. The art book for that game is a wonderful resource and constantly inspiring.
5. Several times I’ve read Brandon refer to Hayao Miyazaki as an aesthetic muse, and Karl has mentioned Orpheus and “classic mythology.” Will you expand on your storyteller influences?
BF: It’s true that Miyazaki’s aesthetic is on every page, represented in Karl and Michele [Assarasakorn, Msassyk’s] art and that of our tale often borrows liberally from classic myth.
Beyond that, in broad terms, what I’d tell you is that we’re always leaning on a few storytellers we affectionately refer to as “the four M’s”—Miyazaki, Moebius, Mignola and Miller—to inspire us and to help us out of any story, design or compositional jam. There isn’t a problem we’ve encountered that looking to the work of those giants of comics can’t influence us to solve.
6. Hit me with your favorite manga and anime recommendations, please.
BF: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (manga and anime), My Neighbour Totoro (still the best film ever made—don’t @ me!), My Brother’s Husband (Honest, relevant modern manga—also, bonus points for Canadian content!), FLCL (bravest, boldest anime), Tekkonkinkreet (Black & White, both anime and manga).
KK: Macross (the original series) remains my favourite show ever. Anything by Naoki Urasawa (Monster, 20th Century Boys, etc.) for sheer storytelling and character work. Death Note and Bakuman by Takeshi Obata. And Voltron, because we loved it so much growing up.
7. Aditya Bidikar’s work on ‘Isola’ is some of my favorite lettering being done today. I particularly like the amount of empty space in the word balloons, which I’ve read y’all did to look like translated manga. I also read Aditya incorporated Indian script influences into the sound effects, making ‘Isola’ a real pan-Asian book. How do you think Bidikar’s contributions have impacted your crafting the story?
BF: Aditya’s contributions have been critical to the feel of the series. In particular, the language he created for the Moro. Few people know, but Karl and I actually write dialogue for the Moro in English and send it to Aditya, who then translates it into the language he created, lettering it on the page. I hope one day we can release the Moro alphabet so that readers might be able to go back to fully decode the dialogue and get a more complete look at what Aditya was able to bring to the project.
8. So if you’re drawing from mythology, folklore, cultures around the planet, but then removing their context to fit into your imagined world, what do you do to ensure ‘Isola’ is authentic rather than superficial?
BF: There’s a whole lot going into the creation of this world (every imagined world draws upon outside influences, of course) but our primary focus is always set rather firmly on the relationship of Rook and Olwyn and the development of scenes and situations that will further illuminate our lead characters as individuals and partners. More than anything, we strive to make those moments authentic. Everything else is in service to that aspect of our story. If we can elevate those scenes by injecting the trimmings of the fantasy adventure genre into the proceedings, or by using a moment from history or myth to draw a parallel, then all the better!
9. You’ve spoken about Msassyk’s colors being a palette guide that you collectively break down and she finishes/details. Can you tell me about how your collaboration’s changed the deeper you go together into the book?
KK: Well, the further we get into any project, the more trust develops between the creators and we’re able to do our jobs with an inherent understanding of what we’re all after. Michele always brought her own style to the project but now, working on chapter two, I think she’s able to approach each scene with an eye toward telling the story via colour, rather than worrying about how much rendering is appropriate or whatever. We’ve established a style—now we can play with it.
10. Imagine other books having ‘Isola’ tales and apocrypha in them (the way the prologue appeared in the back of ‘Motor Crush’). If you were to have other artists work on ‘Isola’ for these hypothetical one-offs, whom would you want to use? What about other writers?
BF: I would let Genevieve Valentine write the full and complete history of the Kingdom of Marr. That would be so glorious! (Now I want to see that happen. Can that be a real thing?) I’d love to see what Claire Wendling and Helen Chen would do with our characters and world, too!
‘Isola, Vol. 1’ TPB is in stores now.
Enjoy this four-page preview of ‘Isola, Vol. 1’ TPB, courtesy of Image Comics!
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