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Eternal Empire: Life & Love Under Tyranny [Interview]

feature by Brittany Matter

Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna of ALEX + ADA are back! This time, they bring us a fantasy tale of empires, tyrants, power, and a young woman who has the courage to follow her strange visions in ETERNAL EMPIRE.

We chat about what drives the characters, how long their story has been brewing, and what rituals they're forming as collaborators.

BRITTANY MATTER: ETERNAL EMPIRE is your second collaboration, not long after the positive reception of ALEX + ADA. What was it that brought you two together again?

JONATHAN LUNA: Since I was a teen, I've desperately wanted to create a fantasy book. The amount of world-building is daunting, and that may have held me back from doing it in the past. After ALEX + ADA concluded in June 2015, I took a six-month break and came to the conclusion that it was finally time to do a fantasy book. I asked Sarah if she was interested, and it turned out that we both had basic story ideas from adolescence that were similar. We started working on what would become ETERNAL EMPIRE.

SARAH VAUGHN: I'm really proud of ALEX + ADA. It was my first published comic, and on top of that, it was my first completed story ever. Our process is incredibly intensive, but I appreciate it and enjoy the work. I was always open to working with Jonathan again. It just depended on the project. And when he told me the basic plot he had in mind for ETERNAL EMPIRE, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

LUNA: Oh, yeah. There's a particular concept that I pitched to Sarah which drives the story and drove us to work on the series. But I can't share that now—it's a spoiler.

VAUGHN: It's kind of turning into a tradition to meet up for dinner and discuss the birth of a possible project. With ALEX + ADA, he said he wanted to make a comic, and all he knew was that he wanted it to be about a guy who falls in love with an android. When we sat down that night, ETERNAL EMPIRE was a bit more realized. There are scenes that I'm salivating to get to.

MATTER: Sarah, as one who fancies history and incorporating it into your work, what kind of historical research went into ETERNAL EMPIRE?

VAUGHN: So much and not nearly enough! We actually both did quite a lot of research and building of inspiration, much of which probably won't show up in the book. We researched tyrants and empires across time and cultures, looked at various groups of invaders across history. We looked for tons of answers to seemingly small questions like, "How did ancients drag stone across land?" We're still learning new things.

LUNA: Yeah, I wish I had time to learn the complete history of the world as reference, but nothing would ever get done.

MATTER: Jonathan, after taking a break from comics and coming back to it, how would you say your return and success with Sarah has influenced this book?

LUNA: I've taken two breaks in my career. After working on ULTRA, GIRLS, Spider-Woman, and THE SWORD back-to-back for six years, I took two years off, knowing I would eventually return to comics. I'll probably be making comics as long as I'm able to. The first year, I got back into photography, and the next, I learned how to oil paint and painted more in general. After ALEX + ADA, I had a six-month break, and started plotting the story and world-building for ETERNAL EMPIRE with Sarah. Considering everything I do on a series, I can become quite exhausted by the end. Taking a break can energize me and make me "hungry" to create again.

I guess there are two ways I can look at ALEX + ADA being a success: One, it sold well. Two, I was very happy with how the book turned out. The latter was probably a small part of why I continued to work with Sarah, outside of me thinking we work well together. The former just means that I'm able to make a living and dedicate more of my time to making comics.

MATTER: ALEX + ADA grappled with civil rights issues and love in the time of technology. Within the fantasy setting you both are creating in ETERNAL EMPIRE, can we expect similar thought-provoking, relatable, or maybe even romantic themes ahead?

VAUGHN: ETERNAL EMPIRE is filled with strife and struggle, and there are many reasons for that. It's a complex time, and the people in it are no different. We definitely want to show and explore how people on all sides are affected by the world. As far as other themes go, relationships are very important to the book, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.

MATTER: So far, we see the ETERNAL EMPIRE's world through the eyes of Tair, and her eyes speak volumes. What can you tell us about her and the visions she's receiving?

LUNA: Not much, ha! Only that they're a pain in the butt to illustrate.

VAUGHN: I always feel a little sadistic when we hit those kinds of panels, since all I had to do was write, "Vision!" But in regards to Tair herself, she is a worker within the Empire who recognizes that her life is pretty awful, and that The Empress is the source of everyone's suffering. For the longest time, she's felt resigned to her existence, without much hope of life changing.

MATTER: What can you share with us about the Eternal Empress? I get a Cleopatra vibe from her even though we haven't met her, officially. Am I reading too much into it?

VAUGHN: The Empress and Cleopatra are both female leaders in an ancient time, for sure. They're powerful and know their own minds. But we really created The Empress without any one specific person as a model. It was more along the lines of exploring the question, what kind of person could one become with an indefinite lifespan and absolute power?

LUNA: And being worshipped all their life.

MATTER: The division and distrust between the workers and the soldiers are palpable, even after 141 years of unity under the ETERNAL EMPIRE. What's at the root of their strained relationship? Will we see it evolve?

VAUGHN: The history of the soldiers is very important to the story and the perception of the group as a whole, but the root of the strained relationship between soldiers and workers is really the established hierarchical structure of the Empire in the present day. We'll be seeing quite a lot of interaction with soldiers throughout the story.

MATTER: Let's talk about the number three and how it's a recurring theme in the first issue. Does the number itself have particular importance to either of you?

LUNA: Yeah, that's intentional. Personally, it's not important. It just serves the story.

VAUGHN: This really doesn't have any bearing on the story itself, but I've definitely subscribed to the notion that many things come in threes. Good news, negative events. I'm often seeing patterns of three in my life. I think it's just a coincidence, though, that it's as present in the book as it is. When Jon and I work together, everything that you see on the page is deliberate and carefully discussed, but within context of the story.

MATTER: From the rule of three and the veiled priests to the spells and rituals performed by the characters, all together it seems to lay a foundation for magic. Would you call it magic? And if so, can we expect to learn what rules guide the principles of magic in this story?

LUNA: If you're referring to the chant in the beginning of issue #1, it's actually not a spell. It tells an ancient prophecy.

There is supernatural power in this story, and we're going to leave it up to the audience as to where it comes from.

VAUGHN: It's certainly a supernatural world, with traditions and beliefs that are rooted in what can feel like magic. As the story progresses, we'll be diving into a lot of those manifestations of power and fantasy. I agree with Jon, though, that we don't necessarily want to present those answers outright. So much of our own reality is clouded in mystery as well as science, and I personally enjoy that tone when I read stories.

ETERNAL EMPIRE #1 is available for preorder now, and debuts 5/3.

Brittany Matter is a firecracker empath with a deep love for storytelling, ramen, and pour-over coffee, ideally all at the same time. You are most likely to find her immersed in a graphic novel, writing over cocktails, or looking after the people she loves.