by Jarrod Jones. Reading AHOY Comics’ Ash & Thorn might make you think twice about your kindly grandparents and the lives they lead when you’re off living your own. Those indulgent teatimes and delicious pies and well-stocked larders just might belie an adventurous spirit—heck, for all we know, our grandparents have hard-won nemeses and can still totally kick the living crap out of them.
Ash & Thorn, from Mariah McCourt, Soo Lee, Pippa Bowland and Rob Steen, is adventure during teatime. Lottie Thorn may be in her seventies, finessing pie recipes and skritching her cat as her oven warms, but Lottie has it in her to pound any multi-eyed demons straight back to the unspeakable hells from whence they came. That’s the hook of Ash & Thorn: supernatural septuagenarian power struggles, set between the dings of an oven timer.
“I think older women are underestimated and ignored and they have a lifetime of experience to bring to every day life and struggles,” McCourt tells me. “So I wanted to explore what one would bring to more cosmic struggles that also have roots in things we face every day.
“Lottie is a hero because she faces things are awful, scary, difficult, and doesn’t back down.”
With Ash & Thorn Volume 1: Recipe for Disaster available now DoomRocket spoke with Mariah McCourt about her first AHOY title, working with Soo Lee and Pippa Bowland, and how she’d fare in a bout of fey chess.
THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
1. ‘Ash & Thorn’ has ended—for now at least. How does the story of Lottie, Sarah, Pickle and Peruvia look like to you now that it’s in the rearview?
Mariah McCourt: Far more timely than I had intended, but also more comforting and hopeful for readers than I had expected. I wanted it to be that, of course, but given the times we’re in I think it may have hit harder in some respects than it might have otherwise. “The good fight never ends” is pretty apparent right now.
2. Soo Lee & Pippa Bowland were a fine fit for a teatime horror tale as ‘Ash & Thorn’. As the comic’s production progressed and you grew more accustomed to their strengths, how did you amend your own writing style for Soo and Pippa?
I think I had mostly written the scripts by the time Pippa came on board but with Soo I made sure to give her room to interpret a scene, to bring out the emotion and action, and keep the dialog complimentary but not overwhelming the art. I do tend to write in some color notes for scenes as I write and Pippa has such wonderful instincts, so all of it just kind of worked out perfectly.
3. I’m curious about the kind of horrors you had in mind for Lottie to face in the initial planning stages of ‘Ash & Thorn’. Were they the same as what we got in the final story? Lottie’s not a physical paragon, so did the nature of her adversary dictate that it be abstract, Lovecraftian, something improbable and difficult to grasp?
The horrors Lottie faces were always this combination of Lovecraftian/cosmic, gross and monstery, and then some psychological “horrors”. It wasn’t her age that defined the adversary, rather what I personally find to be “evil” and terrifying. Which is really unfettered greed, corruption, and power-mongering that manifests as literally trying to devour the world.
How did you come up with how this character, and eldery woman, would throw herself at such monsters and dangers?
Lottie is one of the easiest characters I’ve ever come up with because I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of elderly women in my life who were complicated, creative, interesting, layered people. And they were all “heroic” in their own ways, whether by teaching or creating or being advocates for others. I think older women are underestimated and ignored and they have a lifetime of experience to bring to every day life and struggles. So I wanted to explore what one would bring to more cosmic struggles that also have roots in things we face every day. Lottie is a hero because she faces things are awful, scary, difficult, and doesn’t back down. Heroism isn’t the ability to be violent but the strength of character to stand up even when it’s terrifying to do so.
4. There was a moment in issue #2 of ‘Ash & Thorn’ that stood out to me, where Lottie feels that there’s something up with her neighborhood’s new “community development” and decides to go to a town hall and investigate. She addresses all her concerns publicly and is condescended to and dismissed. That casual dismissal is the experience of many senior citizens, and it occurred to me this was one of the only times I’d ever seen this depicted in a comic book. We know that Lottie has the power to do something beyond taking the proper bureaucratic channels but older folks in life, for the most part, do not. Was this another way to underscore the agency that’s so often denied a senior like Lottie?
Very much so. I think older folks, especially older women—and younger women in similar and different ways—know this feeling very well. And with Lottie, this is something she expects/is used to and has no patience with. I wanted to show some mundane, everyday struggles along with all the cosmic monsters. There are a lot of people doing work in their communities, every day, that get overlooked. We don’t often value these people because we’re obsessed as a culture with notions of “success” and heroism that are big gestures or just having a lot of money and things. But that’s not the life most people lead and those aren’t the things that really make a difference day to day.
5. Would you describe ‘Ash & Thorn’ as a power fantasy for senior citizens? If not, why?
Well, I think older people do have power it’s just the rest of us that ignore it. But I hope the story is something you could give an older reader and they can see themselves in the characters in a more direct way. It is a love letter to older women, that’s for sure.
6. One of the goals of ‘Ash & Thorn’ is to expand the concepts of what a hero-figure can be in a horror/fantasy comic book series, or any fantasy for that matter. With similar character types popping up in comics like ‘Once & Future’ and ‘Crone’, do you think that readers are more open to elderly characters kicking a bit of tush than they might have been 10 or even 20 years ago?
Why do you think that might be?
Well, I think you’ll find a lot of creators are getting older and want to see themselves and their experiences in the medium and stories they love. I also think many of us from the 80s/90s have been influenced by a lot of older characters. I grew up watching The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote, Miss Marple etc. And a lot of us are also influenced by anime and manga which features older characters a lot more than western comics. In general audiences are looking for more types of characters these days, more perspectives, more active inclusion and diversity in the stories they connect with. That’s a big part of why we’re seeing stories that reflect that.
7. There is a strong ‘Buffy’ vibe in ‘Ash & Thorn’, but you’ve inverted the tropes. For example, Sarah, Lottie’s student, would be the “chosen one” character and Lottie would be making her tea and cakes between demon dust-ups in any other story. What do you make of the Sarah character and her function in ‘Ash & Thorn’ now that the story has ended? There are moments where Lottie needed assistance from Sarah, considering her age—did you worry that Lottie needing to lean on Sarah might make the point of the story less effective? If so, how did you mitigate those worries?
Sarah’s inexperience but willingness to learn is, I think, an important dynamic. The fact that Lottie trusts her and listens to her is not a detriment to or criticism of her own abilities, it’s simply trusting another human being who has shown she can and should be trusted. The point of Ash & Thorn isn’t age vs. youth and I think that’s pretty clear in the story. Sarah doesn’t try to take over or assume she would be better at what Lottie does. There’s a genuine respect between the two and I think that makes the difference.
8. I’d like to get into spoilers a bit here, if I may. There’s that moment where Peruvia is given god-tier power from the dark forces that have been threatening our world all this time. She’s been harboring resentment against all the “chosen ones” she’s encountered over the ages, and now has the opportunity to flex some agency of her own. Her philosophy, that a “withered old woman” like Lottie could never save the world, is about as nihilistic and adversarial as I’d expect Lottie’s polar opposite to be. Was Peruvia always meant to turn heel, to become Lottie’s emotional heavy?
The Peruvia turn was planned from the beginning but it even surprised our editor Sarah Litt so I must have crafted it pretty well! It seems to have shocked just about everyone who read it and although I don’t normally love that kind of storytelling, it was important here. Up until issue #3 we haven’t delved that much into the psychology or history of the characters and Peruvia’s been putting on a good show. But underneath the unassuming exterior is some serious ugliness and I wanted it to be something readers wouldn’t necessarily expect. It was really important to me that the turn be about power, choices, and consequences.
How did you feel as Peruvia & Lottie’s steward when this moment took hold?
It did feel a bit weird and mostly I was worried that readers would think it was a shock without substance. Thankfully that doesn’t seem to be the case.
9. ‘Ash & Thorn: Volume 1’ features recipes in its back matter, in a wonderful feature titled “Pickles’ Pantry”! Here we find out how to make such sumptuous delights as ”Mini Pumpkin Crumble Pies for the End of the World”, “Battle Cookies”, “Fickle Fey Lemon Cardamom Cookies”, and so much more. Where did these recipes come from, have you tried them before, and which one would you suggest I try first?
Oh, yes, they’re all my recipes. I make them all regularly; my kiddo and I are big GBBO fans. These are all things I made through trial and error and I think they’re all pretty lovely. My favorite is probably the little pumpkin pies.
10. If you had to kill time with a fey, how would you navigate a boisterous round of Fey Chess? Would you cheat the fey (because they would most certainly be cheating you)?
I’m annoyingly honest and really bad at cheating so I think I’d be awful at fey chess. I think I’d just have to play it randomly and hope for the best!
‘Ash & Thorn Volume 1: Recipe for Disaster’ is available now. Contact your LCS to score a copy of your own.
Check out this terrific ‘Ash & Thorn’ cover gallery, featuring the work of Jill Thompson, courtesy of AHOY Comics!
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