Friday, December 19, 2008

Modern Influences

When I started brainstorming the characters for “Four Kingdoms”, I actually made a point to start in a place very different from where the ‘writer’ part of me wanted to start. When you write a story of any kind, your characters are usually created from archetypes that then become more complex and definitive. To use a cooking example, normally when one creates a character, they pick a main ingredient, and then add other ingredients to accent its flavor. This is usually done over the course of the storyline, and by the end, you’ve got a tasty cake. Or a well-developed character.

In “Four Kingdoms”, I approached things differently. While a lot of our inspiration comes from stories like “Redwall” and “Mouse Guard”, where characters are defined by personality archetypes (the quiet tactician, the brash warrior, the doting Abbeymum, etc), I started as I would start with a video game design: purpose archetypes, not personality. I got the idea from the Xbox 360 title “Lost Odyssey” – for those in the know, it’s very much designed like a classic Japanese role-playing game like Final Fantasy, with lots of story sequences and complex turn-based battles that involve a combination of magical and physical attacks. The characters and their respective roles, however, seemed to have been assembled from a design perspective.

For example, an early party makeup consists of two warriors and a mage. Gameplay dictates that you protect the mage in battle because his spells can turn the tides, and to reinforce this notion, you learn in the storyline cutscenes that the mage character is actually quite a coward – his purpose in the game and his purpose in the storyline are one.

So I approached the main characters of “Four Kingdoms” as if I were designing a game. What would a “balanced” party be? Quinlan is ideal for long-range and very close-range attacks with his bow and tesque skills, making him the ideal ‘scout’ class, while Dakkan’s wooden staff and his strong build make him a good ‘warrior monk’ class, or even a ‘brawler’. Kenosh, being the strong-willed warrior that he is, is an ideal ‘knight’ or ‘paladin’. Later characters will fall into the ‘assassin’, ‘mage’, and ‘barbarian’ classes, and some characters may even switch classes as their personalities evolve.

So what does all this geeky chicanery mean for “Four Kingdoms”? Well, in the end, all it really means for you, the readers, is that the characters will have their own unique and easily identifiable roles to play when they’re in danger. I’m hoping that this more modern interpretation of the character archetype perhaps helps readers identify with the characters quicker – it’s all very much an experiment in narrative design. But then again, I design video games for a living, so if I didn’t approach it from this kind of perspective, I’d feel like I was doing something wrong!

Stay tuned to this blog for more updates about the comic as it progresses – and maybe even another update from Rachel!

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Fated Players

During the initial brainstorming stage for Four Kingdoms, the first thing I wrote down was the following: “It’s a medieval-style world, it’s dirty and grimy. There was a war a long time ago that splintered the races around the landmass, which did not have a name at first, but is now known as the Four Kingdoms.” I spent the next many long days mapping out the world, the races, and the little quirks that would make them interesting to learn about.

Once the world and its races were established (a process that could and probably will take up an entire future blog post), the important thing was then to create a story that showed them all off!

In other stories where the world was created before the characters, the story is usually focused on shuttling the characters from place to place so as to fit in as many cool environs as possible. Lord of the Rings, for example, wasn’t a deep character study so much as it was a simple story taking place in a very complex world. Mouse Guard’s first collection feels a lot like this, though the “Winter” events seem to hint at a greater focus on the characters and less on the world at large. Four Kingdoms was written to skirt the line between introducing a new world and focusing on its characters and their plight, and to ensure that both received the appropriate amount of attention.

Quinlan is the protagonist of Four Kingdoms, and he is the reader’s vessel to the world of ‘good’ in the story. As evil creeps across the land, he is the one we follow. By the time the story begins, he has just been inducted as the Captain of the Tamian Royal Guard, has a war hero grandfather to live up to, has relationship problems with his girlfriend, Janik, and overall feels that the world’s coming down around his ears. If it weren’t for his best friend, Dakkan, he’d probably lose his mind.

Dakkan is a soldier in the Lutren Sea Guard – the carefree and rambunctious counterpart to Quinlan’s occasional over-dramatization. Despite being in the Sea Guard, Dakkan actually spends most of his time on land, ensuring that the catapults used to protect the Sunsgrovian coasts are in peak condition. He and Quinlan befriended one another at an early age, both of them understanding the difficulties of living under battle-hardened veterans. Dakkan’s father, Kenosh, is the Captain of the Lutren Sea Guard. It is Kenosh who learns of impending dangers to Sunsgrove, and it is Kenosh who suggests that Quinlan join him on a peacekeeping mission to Canid territory at the story’s onset.

Hardin is the reader’s vessel to the world of ‘evil’ in the story, though I use the term loosely, since ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are very much a matter of perspective in Four Kingdoms. Hardin leads a tribe of Ermehn barbarians called the Sratha-din across the frozen tundra of the Northlands in hopes of a better life, though many have long since given up hope. Driven by desperation, Hardin and his fellow warriors turn south to the Four Kingdoms, hoping that somehow they will be able to right the wrongs of the past and secure a future for their kind.

Hopefully in a week or few, I'll be able to talk a bit about the various inspirations for Four Kingdoms, from the aforementioned fantasy stories to the Xbox 360 title "Lost Odyssey"!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tesque (and a Status Update)!

The first issue of Four Kingdoms is getting closer to completion! Rachel’s finished up most of the page roughs, with inking and coloring marking the next steps in the process. One guaranteed rule of the universe is that when you’re in college, you will have at least ten years’-worth of assignments to do in the two months before winter break. I remember it like it was yesterday, and Rachel’s living through it right now, so between my nightmares about finals week before winter break and Rachel’s inability to find enough time to sleep in order to have nightmares about finals week before winter break, the next couple of weeks will probably be a bit slow on the production front. Because of this, I figured I would treat you to a new post that goes over a unique part of Tamian society – TESQUE!

One thing that I’ve learned from many years of history courses is that every group of humans, from every time period, has their own unique form of combat. It truly is an art form that transcends time and place – from kung fu to bare-knuckle boxing to fencing to pistol duels – combat may not define a group, but it does reveal a lot about them. When I was brainstorming the various races of the Four Kingdoms, I realized that a group of squirrels would not simply stand around and punch each other in the face, and a group of wolves would not be hopping around the floor like Bruce Lee; each race would need to have its own combat style that takes a bit from our reality, and mixes it with the unique advantages of their kind. Tesque was the first of these combat styles that I came up with – a kind of combination of Tony Jaa’s Muay Thai style and a squirrel’s natural acrobatic ability.

Tesque was created long before the Four Kingdoms War, long before the comic’s story begins – back when the Tamian was a group of scattered tribes living in the trees. Their entire lifestyle depended on their ability to maintain a height advantage over their foes, and so when two Tamian warriors battled one another, they did it high in the treetops, using their natural acrobatic skills and razor-sharp claws to flip and jump between tree limbs while delivering attacks to their opponent. The loser of the battle either lost their footing or was knocked off of their tree limb – but either way, it was always a long way down.

As time went on, the Tamian began to encounter the other races of the land, many of them land-bound, which required them to adapt their multi-leveled fighting style to the ground. Many rare and unique maneuvers were lost in this transition, but the basic three tenets of the fighting style remained: Always keep moving, Know the ground and feel the air, Everything is a weapon.

These three tenets form the core of basic Tesque, emphasizing speed over power, an understanding of your environment, and the ability to use every body part during battle to maintain the advantage. The oft-used Trainer mantra is, “From your teeth to your tail!” These three tenets are still taught in Sunsgrove to this day.

Every Tamian in Sunsgrove is trained in Tesque from a very young age, it being considered one of the most defining aspects of their racial heritage.

Quinlan, the protagonist of Four Kingdoms, is a Tesque Master – the highest level that can be bestowed upon a Tamian. There are four levels to the understanding of Tesque:
The Student is the lowest level, where they become familiar with the basic moves and the three tenets.
Acolytes form the second level, which involves learning some of the more complicated acrobatics and movements, and is usually where trainees experience their first major accidental injury.
Trainers make up the third level of Tesque, and these Tamian warriors are used to train the Students in the basics of Tesque.
Masters are the fourth and final level – these Tamian having perfected all of the most complex Tesque moves. Masters train Acolytes and Trainers alike, grooming them to become Masters themselves. The path from Student to Master typically takes around 10 harvests – or years, to us.

In the first issue of Four Kingdoms, you’ll be treated to a short spar between a Tesque Master and a Tesque Trainer. This, however, is only a first glimpse at the complex Tamian fighting style. As it is a deep-rooted tradition in Tamian culture, you can expect it to come up in many different ways over the course of Quinlan’s adventures!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Animal Characters: Striking a balance.

Hiya, Rachel here. I'm the artist for Four Kingdoms, doing my best to bring Alex's story and characters to life.

I've always adored animal characters in stories and film, ever since I was little. Even today, I still find animal characters to be (almost invariably) more interesting than human ones. But why should that be, if I'm human myself and respond to humans more than animals in real life? The thing is, these characters are essentially human, for the most part – they have human personalities and character traits, and some even walk on two feet, talk, and wear clothing. We can identify with them just fine, even though they're animals on the surface.

I also think that there's a certain freedom to working with animal characters – since they're not 100% realistic humans, you're already expecting the audience to suspend a little disbelief to accept and empathize with the characters as they are. Suddenly if your character needs to accomplish a deed outside the capabilities of a regular person, he can do it because he's not a regular person anyway – he's a cougar or wolf or mouse or whatever. This especially helps when the character's animal traits work with their accomplishment (such as, a squirrel character climbing all the way to the top of an monster oak in minutes – which no human could believably do).

These animal traits can also enhance the experience, especially when it comes to animal gestures that we as humans still understand. When Ren the Fox feels sad, his ears may droop. That would be a ridiculous thing to happen to a sad human, but it is a foxlike gesture we can take advantage of... especially in a comic like Four Kingdoms where we experience the story visually. Animal gestures (like all the hairs on a tail standing on end, or a whisker twitch) can add a new level of expression to the human body language the character is already exhibiting, and makes it even easier to avoid stupid, lazy “telling not showing” dialog such as “Sob! I'm so sad!”

So for me, it all boils down to the human/animal mix that's so intriguing about these creatures. Animal-humans act like us, but are not restricted to purely human mannerisms. This principle also drives the way I've handled the character designs for this story.

One of the things that drives me crazy about a lot of the “furry” characters I've seen around the internet is that there is often way too much “human” thrown in the mix. Say we're looking at a fella known as “Simon the Wolf” ...who is basically a wolf head on a fuzzy human body with a tail. Or even worse, maybe Simon's head is actually humanoid with a small black nose and wolf ears. It's only slightly nonhuman, so it looks really weird and creepy to me – like the “Uncanny Valley” concept that deals with only-slightly-off humanoid robots. If it's 99% human, that other 1% creeps us out because it looks wrong. The less human it looks, the less we expect it to look and act like a perfect human... making it easier for us to accept it for what it is. Making sure there's a healthy dose of “animal” in there also makes the use of animal-specific talents a lot more feasible. If a bird-man just has a beak and no real wings, can we really accept it if he suddenly flies off into the sunset?

So for the Four Kingdoms characters, it was very important to me that they still read as a definite animal, rather than as a weird human with fur. The otters have long bodies and shorter limbs, while the wolves have more shoulder and neck mass than the others. The tails are not just cute little animal “souvenirs” pasted on so much as a definite part of the characters and their overall gestures. All the races' legs are a pretty even blend of human and animal – they walk on their heels, but the leg bones and muscles have a more animal look than human. There's also the matter of female anatomy – due to the high percentage of "animal" I want to retain in the characters, this can make specifying gender a little tough. While the surface anatomy can be treated in a more human way and still not be creepy, I prefer to let the facial features and general body shape do the feminizing. Clothing can help too, of course.

The end result of all this is a cast of characters I can do a whole lot with when it comes to expression and acting. A wolf guard can do much more than curl his lip and lean forward to be intimidating – he can bare his razor-sharp fangs, hunch over his victim, neck-fur bristling, and speak in a literal growl. An annoyed feline scholar can let one of his ears tilt back, unaware that he has lost the illusion of calm stoicism. An ermine's already long and limber body can be forced into an even more exaggerated cringe under the angry Wolf's eye, or be exploited for more impressive-looking acrobatics than a human could manage.

I say, if you're going to make the leap and make the characters non-human: use it! Keep them identifiable with the audience, but take full advantage of their non-human qualities. And that's what we're striving for with our characters in this comic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Scholars

This shadowy group is the only reason you’re even reading this story! The page draft to the right is actually from an older introductory sequence that focused more heavily on this group of clandestine recorders. It was to be done entirely in the shadows, with no faces visible and only outlines to suggest characters. Rachel did a really neat wallpaper image of her initial style test, which I'll toss at the end of this post for anyone interested.

The idea for this kind of heavily stylized "in media res" intro came from the Thief series of PC games, which often featured cutscenes of shadowed characters identifiable only by their outline and voice. It was a style we wanted to emulate, and will hopefully get to indulge in during certain sections of the comic.

As for the Scholars themselves, their influence remains in the tale, as they will be the ones actually keeping track of the events from issue to issue. Who are they, you ask? To answer that, we'll have to travel back in time a bit.

Long ago, before the Four Kingdoms were created at the end of a great and terrible war, there was not any form of ‘history’ aside from the occasional oral folktale, and these were twisted and skewed over many generations. So twisted and skewed have these stories become that they now hide the original facts, blending them completely with fantastical elements inserted only to keep the audience’s attention on the storyteller.
Because of this, a battle of a hundred became a war of a hundred thousand. A party of fifty heroes became a single warrior, capable of striking down armies where they stood. A political matter between two tribes became a quest for a lost love, spanning across land and sea. While these embellishments made for great tales around the fire, they did nothing to teach future generations of their ancestors’ struggles. Because of this, ancient strife was never quelled, and war became inevitable.

After the massive Four Kingdoms War, the Felis – now settling into their new homeland of Gair – decided that they would dedicate themselves to the recording of true history. They would form an elite group of scribes and researchers who were impartial to an extreme, writing history as mere vessels of the truth, devoid of personal interpretation. They travel all over the land, never seen, never heard, but they watch, and they listen. When their work is done, they return to the spire of Gair and begin to write.

To avoid external pressure, the Scholars are known to isolate themselves for weeks at a time as they chronicle a major event. Nobody is ever allowed in or out of their massive spire academy at the heart of Gair during this period of time, but at the start of this tale, one lone figure approaches the spire academy...

For the first time since its inception, the Scholars are calling on an outsider to assist them. The story they aim to record is, as they say, a “great event” – a title given to world-changers and wars. The only other “great event” to be recorded by the Scholars was the Four Kingdoms War – the very first historical tome ever written.

This outsider tells the Scholars of a captain from the western kingdom of Sunsgrove – Quinlan – a member of the Tamian race. This young warrior will travel the known world in his quest, finding friends and enemies along the way, all in the name of preventing a second massive war from destroying the Four Kingdoms. It is his story that we follow, from simple beginnings… to the bitter end.

Keep your eye on this blog as we dive into the world and characters of The Four Kingdoms, as well as the many sources and motivations of the material.

For now, signing off!


Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Welcome to the Four Kingdoms Production Blog! Here we will be posting periodic updates about the creation and development of our comic, The Four Kingdoms. If you keep an eye on this blog, you’ll bear witness to page drafts, character bios, history lessons (the fun “300” kind, not the boring “beelyuns and beelyuns of stars…” kind), and a lot of personal musings from both Rachel and myself about the comic overall.

I say that last part as if I expect you all to know who we are. I suppose introductions are in order!

My name is Alex. By day, I’m a video game designer working on titles that you may or may not have heard of, depending on your tastes and platforms of choice. By night, I write! The Four Kingdoms actually began its life as a novel I started in response to my once-love for the venerable “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques. It was a series I adored as a kid, but sadly it did not grow up with me. Poking my nose into recent iterations of the series, I felt like former readers from the early years might be looking for something that delves a bit deeper, asks greater questions, and thrills on a more visceral level. I’ve written The Four Kingdoms so that it will hopefully fit the bill, but I’ll let you readers determine that.

Handling all art duties is Rachel Bennett, though some of you might know her from her online handle – “Kobb”. When I decided that Four Kingdoms absolutely had to be a comic, I absolutely had to ask Rachel first. Her work exudes a bit of that familiar “Redwall” feel, but the characters have more expression, their gestures hold more weight – they feel more real when Rachel handles them, so now, because of that, Four Kingdoms has an art style and character designs wholly unique to any other kind of fantasy comic tale. I’ll let Rachel talk a bit about how she draws inspiration for her artwork and why she ultimately decided to work on the comic – perhaps in a subsequent blog post!

So why is this a comic and not a novel, you ask? The answer is pretty simple: I looked at a recent Redwall tale – “High Rhulain” – then I looked at David Petersen’s “Mouse Guard: Fall 1152”. Clearly one of these things made a tremendous impression on me! The amazing artwork and immediately relatable characters of David’s world give me and Rachel a bar to aspire to as we create The Four Kingdoms. There was something tangible and immediate to the world of “Mouse Guard” that just wasn’t there anymore in “Redwall”. It was a world that not only was thought out and detailed, but looked exactly the way it did in the creator’s head. This kind of artistic honesty is a cornerstone of Four Kingdoms, and Rachel and I are working very hard to bring a new and exciting world for you all to visit, interesting and likable characters for you to befriend, and intriguing plotlines for you to experience.

Now that the introductions and backgrounds are out of the way, I’ll tantalize all you readers with a brief summary of what to expect from our fantastical tale of high adventure…

“Great events like these only occur once every so often. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that every detail be recorded, that every thought be rendered without expense, else the future generations may forget why the world has changed so.”

Many long harvests ago, the seven races of the land fought a terrible and bitter war that ultimately came to shape the Four Kingdoms, each set to a point on the compass.

To the North, the Canid maintain a border guard, keeping the barbaric Ermehn tribes weak and powerless.

To the East, the Felis study scrolls and record history as accurately as they can, while simultaneously striving to be the most ‘civilized’ of the kingdoms.

To the South, the Vulpin are at war with themselves – old customs and new ideas clashing in ways they could never have foreseen.

To the West, the Tamian and Lutren races rule as one to defend their home from Polcan invaders from the sea and terrifying ‘crawlers’ that inhabit the dark forests of the Western Deep.

As each kingdom struggles to keep order, a disillusioned warrior sets out from the lifeless lands to the North, ten of his greatest warriors in tow. Behind him, he leaves a trail of death, destruction, and terror.

Forever following in his wake is a group of warriors – a group of allies – called together by fate to hunt down and defeat these aggressors before the kingdoms fall back into war, a war that the fragile Four Kingdoms would not survive…

Stay tuned as we explore more of this new world – you might even catch a sneak peak of events and characters to come!

For now, signing off!