by Jarrod Jones. Vault Comics is powering through the cracked molds of high fantasy to bring readers something incredibly special.
It’s called Sera and the Royal Stars, a captivating heroes journey that zeroes in on Zoroastrian religion and ancient Persian myth, a story that finds things to say about the people who tend to be glossed over in typical European fantasy. Sera and the Royal Stars isn’t typical and neither is its lead character, Sera, the series’ eponymous warrior princess.
It is a time of famine and war. The lands of Persia are dying; the seasons refuse to turn. Caught in the middle of a pitched battle between her king father and her ambitious uncle, Sera is selected by Mitra, a gilded deity who sees this young archer as the one person who can bring desperately needed change to the lands she loves… provided she’s able to find the fabled Royal Stars in the distant lands beyond her home.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of “the Royal Stars”, let writer Jon Tsuei take you to school. “The Bundahishn describes the Royal Stars as great chieftains of the sky who will lead the stars in a great battle against Ahriman and his forces of chaos,” he tells me. “The more research I did, the more evident it became that mythology of the stars was universal. Every civilization and culture has stories about the stars and these stories can bear a lot of similarities to one another.
“So, you have the heralding of great warriors from the sky plus a universality to the myths themselves, how can you not want to tell a story around that?”
Bringing these ideas and culture to life for Vault’s ever-growing readership is a big responsibility, but artist Audrey Mok (who teams with colorist Raúl Angulo) has done her homework. “Since Sera takes place in a land hugely inspired by ancient Persia and its mythologies, I spent a lot of time looking up the history of the region, clothing and armors. It is important that we adapted them into the world of Sera.”
Adventure and magic, wartime battle and intrigue, a destiny charted by the stars and a hero to follow it. You can read Sera and the Royal Stars #1 to discover how this world unfolds on July 17. And just days before the issue’s final pre-order cut-off date (June 24), enjoy this interview with Jon Tsuei and Audrey Mok about the time, care, and energy that went into one of the more inventive and inspired concepts I’ve read in a while.
1. If you would, please set the stage for ‘Sera and the Royal Stars’. Tell us about the Kingdom of Parsa and its princess Sera, where the land is currently and how it directly affects Sera in the days leading up to the first panel we see in issue #1.
Jon Tsuei: Parsa was once a rich and prosperous land, but the slowing of the seasons has turned it into a dying one and a civil war is raging over control of the throne. On one side is Sera and her father, King Melchior, and on the other is Melchior’s brother, Shaheen. The war requires more resources than the land will produce, so on top of a drought there’s an impending famine as well. Things are not looking good for Sera and her family as Shaheen’s invading force continues to advance.
2. Sera doesn’t hesitate once she understands the nature of her own personal Heroes’ Call—she knows her people, her lands, her family are at risk if she does nothing and that’s enough. Beyond her own agency, Sera is blighted by fainting spells which appear to be the doing of the mystical Mitra—who is Mitra and why is Sera so important to this deity? Will the enigmatic Mitra continue to push Sera towards her goals?
JT: Mitra, or Mithra, is a deity that appears in many cultures and religions, most likely originating in Zoroastrianism. Within the context of our story, Mitra is a figure that wants to see the seasons turn again and uses visions to try and push Sera toward his goal. The gods and deities of mythology always seem to have their own agenda, so we follow in that same vein. Mitra is mainly the inciting incident in Sera’s life, but other beings like him will show up along the way. As far as why he’s interested in Sera specifically? We answer that question a little later down the line.
What work went into conceptualizing this character—visually, narratively—considering the various mythological iterations of Mitra that exist?
JT: His most well-known depiction comes from the relief carvings of Roman Mithraic cults, so that’s the reference I sent to Audrey.
Audrey Mok: I drew Mitra based on the reference Jon sent me. And Raúl [Angulo] helps bring Mitra to life with his beautiful colors.
3. Audrey, most of our readers will know you from your excellent work on ‘Archie’. Lately you’ve pivoted towards more superheroic offerings as ‘Marvel Rising’ and you’re about to launch a high adventure/fantasy book. What’s the one visual constant you try to keep at the forefront of your artistic approach regardless of the genre you’re working in?
AM: One of the most important parts for me when working on a comic book is the storytelling. It is the reading experience of the readers. How they feel, and immersed themselves in the world, is very crucial. Most of the time, to me, the emotion I get after watching a movie or reading a book is the most memorable part of the experience. It is what motivates me to do better every time.
4. A creator-owned project such as this provides quite a substantial platform—Audrey, as an artist, how are you pushing yourself with ‘Sera and the Royal Stars’?
AM: Anything could happen in a fantasy story: strange magic, crazy concepts… etc. There are always fun things to explore and play around with. The only limit is your own imagination. As much as I like the fantasy genre, I haven’t worked on any fantasy stories until now. The world building, character designs, the action scenes… they all seem very new to me. Working on Sera and the Royal Stars is very exciting. I want to see how far I can go with a genre I haven’t worked on before.
What has changed in your technique?
AM: I wouldn’t consider it a change in the technique. As I mentioned above, storytelling is one of the things I value most when working on a comic. Different stories needs different approach. If I feel like something needs to be included in order to help tell the story, I’ll add that into my process. And it varies depending on what I’m working on.
For Sera and the Royal Stars, there are often a large amount of details on the characters and backgrounds, so I use a lot of mapping/maru nibs for finer and delicate lines.
5. When we are first introduced to Sera and her royal family, we discover that they have been embroiled in a war against her uncle Shaheen for some time. For Shaheen’s part, he says he doesn’t want famine-stricken Parsa to suffer any longer—which sounds nice, but the visual shorthand of his onyx armor and hordes of vicious-looking soldiers tell us he has more nefarious plans in mind once the throne is his. Tell us about the conceptualization of Shaheen, how his ominous look came together from script to finished design, and what real-world inspirations may have played a part in his genesis.
JT: Audrey and I decided early on that we wanted to create a strong visual language. With this story being told from Sera’s point of view, the reader is essentially seeing the world through her eyes. Shaheen being one of the main antagonists in Sera’s story naturally makes him appear the villain. His words sound great, but his actions also bring suffering to the people of Parsa. You can look at any empire throughout history and see that shifts in power almost always happen through war, even if those changes that come are well-intentioned.
AM: I started working on Shaheen’s design based on the first issue of Sera and character descriptions Jon sent me. My first impression of Shaheen is, as you mentioned, ominous, and dangerous. That was when the color black instantly came to mind.
6. ‘Sera and the Royal Stars’ seems to be contributing to a tradition of sorts at Vault Comics; ‘These Savage Shores’ shook up standard vampire horror conventions by zeroing in on Indian culture, and ‘Sera’ is a Tolkien-esque “heroes’ quest” that breaks the genre’s well-worn European/English molds, which allows you to creatively explore the makeup of ancient Persian myth. How much of that responsibility—pushing cultural and literary boundaries—comes into your own unique creative processes?
JT: As much as I love fantasy, I have very little interest in telling yet another European-centered fantasy epic. This story revolves heavily around the Royal Stars and various star myths, and the concept of the Royal Stars was born in ancient Persia. So I thought it was important to maintain that cultural context in the story. It’s common in the fiction to see Eastern cultural or spiritual concepts inserted to make a story more interesting. I understand the appeal of that, but typically the people who came up with those concepts aren’t represented in the stories. The approach to writing any story is going to be different, but it was important to honor the root of the concepts that appear in this one.
AM: I agree with Jon. Since Sera takes place in a land hugely inspired by ancient Persia and its mythologies, before starting on the book I spent a lot of time looking up the history of the region, clothing and armors. It is important that we adapted them into the world of Sera.
7. Audrey, what were you looking at during your research for ‘Sera’? What kind of motifs needed to be integrated into the various forms of armor and costuming in order to properly differentiate between the warring armies?
AM: Other than the history of the region Sera is based from, I drew inspirations from a lot of different sources when designing the costumes. I adopted ideas from movies, game character designs, and even runway shows.
Fashion and armors speaks a lot about the type of character who would be wearing them. I focused a lot on shapes of the costume, and the overall silhouette of the character that I’m designing. Jon and I also agreed that setting up color palettes would be a great way to differentiate the warring armies.
8. Jon, without giving away the game, what can you tell us about these “Royal Stars”? What was it about this concept appealed to you as a storytelling device?
JT: From what I can tell, the concept of the Royal Stars began with a Zoroastrian text called the Bundahishn and was later picked up by western astrology. The Bundahishn describes the Royal Stars as great chieftains of the sky who will lead the stars in a great battle against Ahriman and his forces of chaos. The more research I did, the more evident it became that mythology of the stars was universal. Every civilization and culture has stories about the stars and these stories can bear a lot of similarities to one another. So, you have the heralding of great warriors from the sky plus a universality to the myths themselves, how can you not want to tell a story around that?
What makes these Royal Stars unique to each other and how will Sera interact with them individually?
JT: Each Royal Star’s appearance is informed by the constellation they’re a part of. We also bring in some concepts from astrology to flesh out their personalities. They’re Sera’s companions, but they each have very different roles and proficiencies. Some of my favorite interactions happen between the Royal Stars themselves since they’re eternal beings who have known each other since the creation of the universe.
9. The people of Parsa suffer due to a change in their environment while those in charge fight among themselves to remain in power—or usurp it. I can’t help but notice a narrative parallel to what’s happening in ‘Sera’ and what’s happening in our actual lives. On top of its fantasy adventure, will ‘Sera and the Royal Stars’ address concepts of power and the true responsibilities that come with it? If so, how?
JT: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t see the environmental parallels until you asked this question. Clearly, it wasn’t intentional on my part. We don’t dive too deeply into the responsibilities associated with ruling powers, but we do take a close look at personal responsibility in relation to familial obligation and destiny. That makes the story sound rather heavy, but I promise it’s a lot of fun too.
In the issues ahead, will we come to know any of Parsa’s people more intimately? Will there be a face to all the kingdom’s suffering, a reminder of what’s ultimately at stake for Sera and her journey?
JT: With our chosen medium being comic books, we have a limited space to tell this story. So, our focus is mainly on Sera, her family and the Royal Stars. I wish we could do more exploration around how the kingdom’s struggles are affecting everyday people, but we do get glimpses. Maybe if we end up doing more issues beyond this story arc we can dive deeper into that.
10. Who wants to take responsibility for the book’s tagline, “Rebuild the Night Sky”? Because it rules.
JT: I’m terrible with taglines, so it wasn’t me. I think the credit goes to our wonderful editor, Adrian Wassel.
‘Sera and the Royal Stars’ #1 hits stores July 17. You can pre-order it now! (Diamond Code: MAY192037, FOC June 24.)
Check out this 7-page preview of ‘Sera and the Royal Stars’ #1, featuring colors by Raúl Angulo and letters by Jim Campbell, courtesy of Vault Comics!
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