THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ‘SONGS FOR THE DEAD’.
by Jarrod Jones. Sometimes creating worlds means you have to hurt those who dwell in them. When talking about The Necromancer’s Map, the sequel series to the Vault Comics smash Song for the Dead, writer Andrea Fort acknowledges this quandary without relishing it. “You want to protect the characters you love, but we [are] building a story that will cause a lot of suffering for them.” So there are consequences in your fantasy world. You’ve held to its strict rules. That means people die, and stay dead. But what happens when your main character is a necromancer, like Songs‘ Bethany? What changes when the very characters you’ve created are empowered to bend the rules made by… well, you?
Concerning the characters in Songs for the Dead, Fort tells me this: “Thinking about the ways they could evolve is a really fascinating consequence.” Then we’re on to the next question, but I’m still considering what that statement means, pondering things like creative hubris, stuff like that. The spark of imagination takes you places, but it takes your characters even further. You’re curious, of course, to see how things in your story will play out, with your world’s rules and sharp edges and… consequences. It’s a morbid curiosity, but that’s all right; no matter how much the agonies of your characters pain you, or even thrill you, just imagine what it’s doing to your readers.
Consequences in a world that demands them. That’s the world of Songs for the Dead and that’s The Necromancer’s Map, too. The sequel series, the first issue of which is aimed for an August 28 release, reunites Songs‘ creative team: Fort and co-writer Michael Christopher Heron, and artist Sam Beck. It continues where its eye-popping finale left us, gathering our senses and fitting together the pieces of our broken hearts. Bethany and her hard-drinking fellow traveler Elissar chose a path and thought they’d make it to the other side. Scathed, perhaps, but intact? That’s another story.
After such an ending, how could this friendship possibly survive? The answer, I presume, will come in August.
So where does that leave readers chomping at the bit to get at the next chapter in the Songs for the Dead saga? Heron sets the tone and the stakes: “You won’t see characters experience untold horrors and just bounce back—there are real consequences, both physical and emotional, that will linger and manifest.”
There are those consequences again. DoomRocket spoke with the creative team behind The Necromancer’s Map about the future that lies ahead for Bethany and Elissar, the world of Songs, and what happens when you lead your beloved characters into dangerous territory.
1. I’d like to set the stage for ‘The Necromancer’s Map’ for our readers. Where are Bethany and Elissar in their relationship at this point in the story, and how are you making this emotionally precarious moment accessible for new readers?
Andrea Fort: The Necromancer’s Map picks up where Bethany and Elissar have had a major shift in their dynamic. The honeymoon phase is over and both of them are trying to find a way to move forward after the drama at the end of Songs for the Dead. This shift gives new readers the perfect place to join in their adventure and sort things out alongside them.
Michael Christopher Heron: Our hero necromancer and her surly mercenary partner are still a bit of a mystery to us as readers, and to each other, and this arc promises to tell us quite a bit more about them as people. You start to see what really motivates them to go on this crazy adventure.
2. ‘Necromancer’s Map’, and ‘Songs for the Dead’ before it, is a dark fantasy tale that lets a little levity into its morbid affairs. Death, sure, war, of course—but there’s a crooked grin to it, a warmth that emanates from its leading hero, Bethany. I’m interested in finding out about how you managed to tackle the warped “Disney Princess” archetype, configuring it to offer the ultimate cracked-mirror version of ‘Game of Thrones’.
MCH: I think that really touches on the foundation on which the story was built—this necromancer with a heart of gold. The whole project started with Bethany, and we built the universe around her. Our big focus was creating a world that contrasted her outlook; the world wasn’t just going to roll over and let her be an optimist, she’d have to fight for it.
AF: As Mike said, Bethany was really our focal point when we started developing the story of Songs for the Dead, but we also really wanted to tell the type of story that we would read. Growing up in the 80’s, both of us were inspired by the fantasy movies of the time. I love Labyrinth and I grew up reading Lord of the Rings over and over again. Both stories feature determined protagonists that move through menacing worlds. It was also very important to me to create a world and characters with shades of grey that felt very real and believable and I think we did all right. I hope.
Sequels, by their very nature, are darker stories. What kind of tone have you set for ‘Necromancer’s Map’?
AF: At the end our last Songs for the Dead issue, we balanced the sense of triumph with tragedy and that’s where The Necromancer’s Map picks up. We wanted the tension in Bethany and Elissar’s relationship, and the imminent danger they face to be front and center in the story.
MCH: We really work to achieve a sense of permanence in our series, so you won’t see characters experience untold horrors and just bounce back—there are real consequences, both physical and emotional, that will linger and manifest.
3. Sam, Bethany’s wide, blue eyes and the dead squirrels she talks to feel like a positively hopecore take on Snow White, while Elissar feels like they’ve sauntered out of a pub straight from Middle-Earth. How did the design of Bethany and Elissar take shape?
Sam Beck: Mike, Andrea, and I all worked together to pull references from our favourite pieces of media to try and imagine what Bethany and Elissar looked like. I think you’re really on point describing both of them! I wanted their personalities to be readable from their character designs before you even get to know them. It makes moments where they surprise readers in their actions more effective!
How do your designs evolve in ‘Necromancer’s Map’? These emotional character changes seem like they demand a look that reflects them, right?
SB: Elissar has somewhat of a wardrobe change because of her circumstances in The Necromancer’s Map. But Bethany and other recurring characters remain relatively unchanged. I think a more significant thing is I know and understand these characters a lot better now. So changes are more apparent in how they hold themselves and emote. I think they’re drawn more confidently, and hopefully, this helps the emotional scenes have more impact in the story.
4. Sam, I want to talk about design. You’re tasked with providing a visual context to the world of ‘Songs for the Dead’, hardly a small feat. Tristan’s Will, the towns of Accrington and Boulder’s Envy, the assassin from the Blackwyld organization—just these few concepts take on a life of their own through your diligence and attention to detail. There’s so much to discover. What goes into taking on such a task? How does one successfully realize an ambitious new fantasy world?
SB: I have folders upon folders of visual references for towns and characters. There’s just no other way to make settings and people feel real. I treat environments with the same care as characters. I think it’s easy to lean on fantasy tropes when it comes to designing things. It is essential to look at historic pieces of clothing, emblems and towns. I want each place Bethany and Elissar visit to feel unique and lived in! It’s a lot of work, but I hope it pays off in making a convincing world.
5. It’s been said that Bethany’s story, or at least the story of ‘Songs for the Dead’, is designed to go on forever. But, as it typically is with a successful sprawling fantasy, it sometimes comes down to deciding which story threads to pull on. Michael, Andrea, how do the two of you decide which direction the story should take, as opposed to could?
MCH: You know, we spent so long with those first four issues after first self-publishing and then re-releasing, the idea of what we’d do next always felt a bit intangible. There were so many options, so many things we’d like to see, where do we land first? Fortunately it was Jonas and his introduction that sort of grounded us for Necromancer’s Map, as we knew what an important dynamic he would bring to the Bethany & Elissar tandem.
AF: At the end of the day, we had to think about what would make the strongest and most compelling story. We’ve spent a lot of time debating, but in the end I think both of us had a pretty clear idea of how we wanted the story to unfold and what path it had to take.
How does the collaborative effort between the two of you affect what goes into such a tremendous story? Is there a file on both your computers labelled ‘Abandoned SFTD Ideas’?
AF: There’s definitely some ideas that haven’t seen the light of day, yet. But there’s still time to use those ideas. For a while we had this massive whiteboard the size of a wall that became one giant plan. It started to get really intimidating to walk into our living room and see all of the disorganized notes, so we moved to digital instead. The whiteboard has been taken down, but those notes are still scribbled on there!
MCH: Ahh, yes, the whiteboard! We got a lot of good use out of that.
There’s at least one master document that has every idea we’ve ever had for the future of Songs, though how we’d prioritize them if we got the opportunity to tell them is anyone’s guess. I generally try not to think of any idea as completely abandoned, as I think you can always find value in old concepts and what appealed to you. That being said, one day I’d love to talk about some of the alternate directions we had for Songs that never quite panned out!
I’d love to have that conversation one day!
6. ‘The Necromancer’s Map’ introduces a new character to the ‘Songs’ series, a wizard named Jonas. What can you tell us about him? Considering Bethany & Elissar’s track record with backstabbings and other betrayals, should we be wary of Jonas?
MCH: I mean, let’s be honest, you should be wary of everyone in Alavesh! Jonas has a lot in common with Bethany in that he’s earnest and curious, and though he doesn’t have the “burden” of necromancy, he is plagued by a curious illness. He’s a dedicated scholar, and while he gets roped into the affairs of our heroes, he’s not necessarily built for the hero lifestyle.
AF: Jonas really is a sweetheart. He may not be the most heroic, or bravest. He might make some dumb decisions, but his heart is in the right place.
7. Sam, as the world expands in this series, how are you expanding the story’s scope in ‘Necromancer’s Map’? Are there visual influences that you’re bringing to this story?
SB: Without giving anything away, there are some very “alien” places the characters adventure in The Necromancer’s Map! That meant creating new visual languages for these cultures and groups of people, which is always a lot of fun for me.
8. I want to get into spoilers a bit concerning the end to ‘Songs for the Dead’. Here, we discover that there is far, far more to Bethany’s life than we were originally led to believe, and her violent reaction to her past arriving to meet her is incredibly shocking. Then there’s what happens to Elissar and what Bethany does to her as a result. You’re expanding the world while simultaneously torturing your characters. It’s not a matter of “will these events affect Bethany’s improbably optimistic worldview” but “how”. What creative consequences do you experience by ripping the rug out from under your characters this way?
AF: We really wanted to challenge these characters. Real people evolve and grow, and the events of the story are enough to alter anyone. Writing the ending of Book 4 was really rewarding for me—even though both Mike and Sam will remind me that I was initially completely against it. It really forced our hands; you want to protect the characters you love, but we are now building a story that will cause a lot of suffering for them. Thinking about the ways they could evolve is a really fascinating consequence.
MCH: It’s rather bittersweet to see those qualities that people fell in love with start to erode. By the time we see Bethany in Necromancer’s Map, she’s not quite the stalwart optimist she was, and Elissar’s brash fearlessness manifests in ways that are unsettling to her. On one hand, it’s scary to move your characters away from what initially defined them, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to see them grow.
Following up with Sam: This ending lands so incredibly well due to your efforts. What did you know you had to bring visually to the ending to ‘Songs for the Dead’? How did you prepare for it—emotionally, creatively?
SB: The final issue in Songs for the Dead is my favourite. I feel my understanding of who Bethany and Elissar were solidified in this issue, and it made drawing the final scene more impactful. We get to see another side of Bethany that’s been veiled up until that point. Getting to go all out in how her magic manifests visually was so much fun. I think it also set the standard for how I would draw her using magic in The Necromancer’s Map!
9. Michael, Andrea, it seems only inevitable that we’ll be hearing more from the Blackwyld before long. What can you tell us about their organization, and their vested interest in necromancers especially?
MCH: I have a special affection for the Blackwyld personally, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that’s not the last we see of them. I can’t say too much, but I will tell you that if we get our way, you’ll be seeing a lot more of their kind in the Songs universe.
AF: We originally introduced the Blackwyld just to serve the story, but as we were finishing up Book 4 of Songs for the Dead, Mike and I found ourselves speculating… who are the Blackwyld really? What does it mean to be a member? One question kept leading to another, and we really hope that we’ll get to share those answers with you.
10. If you could integrate yourselves into the world of ‘Songs for the Dead’ as bonafide characters, who would your character be, where would they operate, and what would their power set be—or not be?
SB: Honestly, I’d be that person drawing up all those silly notice board messages that Bethany and Jonas seem to enjoy so much.
MCH: I wanna say I’d be something awesome, like a Blackwyld or part of The Covenant, but I’d likely be the squishiest peasant, living somewhere beyond my means like Vallagard.
AF: That’s such a tough question to answer! I’ve never really thought about it before but I would almost certainly be a scribe or historian since, like Jonas, I belong in a library. But I’d also take being Elissar’s drinking buddy—if she’d have me, of course.
‘The Necromancer’s Map’ #1 hits stores August 28. You can pre-order it now. (Final Order Cut-off date is August 5. Diamond Code: JUN192040)
Check out this Vault Vintage edition of ‘The Necromancer’s Map’ #1 by Nathan Gooden and Tim Daniel, courtesy of Vault Comics!
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