Header photo credit: Amanda Palmer

by Jarrod Jones. Tartarus #1 is a thresher for your senses. From the jump, this 44-page debut, out February 12 from Image Comics, tosses you headlong into a fracas you’re simply not going to be prepared for. There’s energy, intrigue, catharsis—then Tartarus taps the brakes, lets you catch your breath. And then it steals it all over again.

“We wanted [this debut] to be BIG,” writer and Tartarus co-creator Johnnie Christmas says. “Not to feel like we’re playing it safe or saving stuff for some massive payoff way off far away. Don’t get me wrong, we are saving stuff for massive payoffs along the way, but it should never feel like that. It should feel like the story we’re telling in any issue is of utmost importance.”

Tartarus is an anime-infused wonder of mayhem and destiny. And what’s so striking about this new series, beyond Jack T. Cole’s staggering artwork or Jim Campbell’s 2000 AD-inspired letters (Tom Frame is cited as an influence), is how that mayhem is used to alter the course of destiny. Rapid-fire synopsis: Young Tilde enjoys a quiet life working onboard Olympus Station above the planet Styxx until she discovers her long, lost mother is the monster that the Powers That Be have been frightening their subordinates with for almost a generation. Down below, on the mining colony Tartarus, lies hard truths about Tilde’s mother—and the daunting path that leads her to them will cost her… well, everything.

Tartarus isn’t subtle with its symbolism, and it doesn’t have to be. One small scrape at its themes and metaphors and underneath you’ll find a story that is very much relevant to today, angry and alive. Says Christmas: “Even with the layers of meaning and symbolism, [Tartarus] should feel like how being a teenager feels: Limitless potential, bold, sometimes reckless, always restless.”

Ahead of the much-anticipated release of Tartarus, I spoke to Johnnie Christmas about this strange, thrilling new world, the themes that give it power, and the bug-out riot that is Jack T. Cole’s artwork.

Cover to ‘Tartarus’ #1. Art: Jack T. Cole/Image Comics

1. The first twenty or so pages of ‘Tartarus’ are a gauntlet, not just for us, but for a major character in the story, Surka, who leads a revolution inside a prison monolith called The Pit. We’re immediately thrown into the thresher, a striking first impression. As ‘Tartarus’ is a major step for you as a writer, was the frenetic energy of this prologue sequence intentional, a declaration of intent?

Johnnie Christmas: You could say so! Kicking things off like this is kind of like a “pace car” for the series, if you will. We want to have all the cool stuff that gets us excited as comic readers upfront and center from the start: Action, stakes, awesome characters and sci-fi. Then we use the second half to build on who our characters are and establish a bit more of our universe. This first issue is a mission statement of the complex and beautiful world we’re building.

2. One could really cut loose with a creator-owned series. When you were in the beginning stages of building ‘Tartarus’, what did you know you wanted to have in your story? What elements were in this book from the very beginning? 

The kid of a dreaded warlord who has to deal with that legacy” was probably the earliest element in place. From that central conceit we can spool out all kinds of ideas. Explore the theme of expectations and fears of other people, based on a reputation that’s not your own. How do you react? It certainly changes you. The question here is does it change you for better or worse.

3. The look of ‘Tartarus’ is astounding. There’s a splash page early on that showcases a city square which allows us a glimpse of the varied architectureancient Greek statues, Kubrickian monoliths. I have to ask: How did you hook up with the artist, Jack T. Cole? Could you tell us how the two of you constructed this book? 

I met Jack at VanCAF 2015. I saw his work and thought his lyrical, yet hyper-detailed, sensibility would be perfect for the project that was forming in my mind. So we had long convos. I told him what I had in mind in terms of tone, cues on historical figures, sci-fi and fashion designers which might be helpful. He then did some character design which really helped. Once I saw the characters it made them real in a different way. I tell him what I’ve got in mind for story and he comes back with questions and suggestions which adds an additional point of view, which enhances the book in a new way. 

4. The mythological allusions, the cosmic scope, the rebellious energywhere did all this come from, and how did the two of you put it together? 

We wanted it to be BIG. Not to feel like we’re playing it safe or saving stuff for some massive payoff way off far away. Don’t get me wrong, we are saving stuff for massive payoffs along the way, but it should never feel like that. It should feel like the story we’re telling in any issue is of utmost importance. Even with the layers of meaning and symbolism, it should feel like how being a teenager feels: Limitless potential, bold, sometimes reckless, always restless.

5. Cole’s artwork is… it’s beautiful, Johnnie. It reminds me of Moebius, most obviously, and Philippe Cazaumayou and Frank Quitely, tooit’s a tricky thing with such terrific art when it comes time for the lettering pass. When that time arrives, what kind of notes are you leaving for the letterer, Jim Campell? Do you find yourself pulling dialogue from the script so that the panels have more space to, well… live?

[Laughs] That’s the constant battle! That’s the main note to Jack: Pull back in areas where lettering will land. But the man won’t be contained! It’s that same energy I was talking about earlier. Fortunately,  I do like to keep the dialogue lean in Tartarus. I think a lot about what James Baldwin said about keeping things tight: “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” So somewhere between Baldwin’s concise wisdom and Jack’s overflowing exuberance, I’m making a home for myself.

6. Speaking of Campbell’s work, how did you all land on the style and format of his lettering? It fits so snugly with Cole’s art, which goes so far to make ‘Tartarus’ an immersive reading experience. 

That’s all Jim. He and Jack worked together on The Unsound and they obviously match well on the page. Jim wanted to work in a style that referenced classic 2000 AD letterer Tom Frame. Perfect vision on his part. Fit like a hand in glove.

7. How much world-building should come from dialogue, and how much should be represented by the art? What’s the optimum balance, do you think?   

Well it all depends on the storytellers, but in our case when I’m scripting I’ll add info on how things should feel, describe how things work and how that fits into things. Usually he’ll translate things to fit his visual language. If it doesn’t throw off any big story point or tone I have in mind, I’ll go back in and adjust to fit what’s now on the page. I like the back and forth, a dialogue between two creatives. It’s quite fun.

8. The story later follows Tilde, years after her mother Surka’s legendary escape from The Pit. Surka’s legend looms large, but her nefarious past isn’t as cut-and-dry as some people in power are making it out to be. Without asking you to give away answers that are surely coming in future installments, may I ask: Was Surka’s violent introduction intended to blur her motivations so later in the story we simply had to question the nature of what ultimately holds up the structures of its society? If so, where does the mysterious Djinn crew factor into it? 

Surka was the leader of the Djinn. Then when she goes to prison, there are factions within the Djinn that struggle for ascendency to fill the void. But let’s not get too far ahead of the story… The one thing I wanted to present clearly is that there are two sides to the story of Surka. The violent, merciless “Dark Moon, The Tamer of Tartarus”, but she’s also a mother who loves her child. There’s a whole other dimension to her, to Tilde and that’s symbolic of Tartarus as a whole.

9. There’s a moment during the prison break where a follower of Surka expresses their doubt as to whether they’ll actually make it out alive. Surka throws this person over the rails and into the abyss. Pair that with some of her handles (“the Tamer of Tartarus”, “smasher of bone”, “the Unconquerable”, etc.), and an idea of Surka’s philosophy begins to take shape. From this introduction, what do we know about Surka that can be applied to the fate of Tilde, considering the direction her life has taken years after her mother’s death?

Tilde faces some pretty extreme consequences when it’s discovered that her mother was Surka. We wanted to make it clear to the reader why this is by showing Surka. Sure, we could have done it in a few lines of dialogue or a couple of panels of flashback, but that wouldn’t have been adequate. Everything that begins Tilde’s journey begins with Surka. That required room to stretch out, for our reader to ride shotgun with a warlord during a jailbreak. So that every time Surka’s mentioned, we all know who they’re talking about and what she represents. Chaos. A total collapse of order, social, judicial, civil… everything, perhaps, short of moral order. But even that depends on who you ask. Her one saving grace is that she loved her kid, that’s not in dispute.

10. You begin the series with the phrase “as above, so below,” with a close-up on a pack of cigarettes with tarot imagery printed on its packaging. That phrase is loaded with meaning and it carries different interpretations from astrological and theological viewpoints. What does it mean for ‘Tartarus’, specifically for the character Tilde and her infamous mother?

I’ve always loved the phrase. It comes from the Emerald Tablet, a foundational text of alchemy. A translation by Isaac Newton reads in part:

That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that which is below
to do the miracles of one only thing

So what does that mean? Well, in the case of Tartarus we’ll find out. Even the structure of the first issue reflects that symmetry. The first half starts with Surka in the bottom of the Pit, a hellish prison, climbing towards freedom. The second half, Tilde is in the heavens, on a space station. Her path takes her downwards. A descent into Tartarus, into her past and an uncertain future filled with danger, adventure and perhaps, miracles.

‘Tartarus’ #1 hits stores on February 12.

Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Tartarus’ #1, including a variant cover by Johnnie Christmas, courtesy of Image Comics!

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