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Q&A: Excellence’s Brandon Thomas and Khary Randolph Conjure a Magical Tale of Generational Strife

Excellence, the new Skybound series from writer Brandon Thomas and artist Khary Randolph, reveals a world of clandestine magicians committed to protecting humanity. But recent pupil Spencer is set to disrupt the sorcery status quo.

This May, Brandon Thomas (Horizon, The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury, Noble) and Khary Randolph (We Are Robin, Black, Tech Jacket) weave a startling tale about a line of modern magicians. But as the new ongoing series states in its opening pages, “The story was really all about fathers and their sons.” The son in question is Spencer Raymond Dales, an aspiring spellslinger who labors under the weight of his father, a leader of the Aegis, an occult organization tasked with protecting others.

Spencer labors to live up to his family legacy, but a far more crushing realization soon sets in: the Aegis may fall under the systematic control of powers who care little for the men and women who wield the wands. Excellence balances those timely questions with gravity-defying action, rendered with kinetic finesse by Randolph.

Thomas and Randolph discuss the magical realism and family drama at the heart of their thought-provoking project.

Published by Skybound Entertainment, Excellence #1 debuts in comic book stores on May 8th, 2019. An edited version of the following Q&A can be found in the May 2019 edition of Previews.

How did you both come together to collaborate on this project?

Brandon Thomas: I’ve been a Khary Randolph "stan" ever since the Sleepwalker book he did with [Robert] Kirkman way back in the day. I’ve bought every comic he's ever drawn, so us finally working together feels like it was always destined to happen. We’ve both done books with Skybound, are about the same age, and share an obsession with The Transformers: The Movie, so it was a natural fit.

Getting to work with him, and our brilliant colorist Emilio Lopez, on this particular book though, has inspired an escalation from all of us—these are the best scripts I've ever written, and these are the best pages they've ever done. We’re trying to live up to the book's name, and we're very excited to put this out into the world. Everything feels right on time.

Khary Randolph: Brandon and I have run in the same circles for years and have had mutual admiration, but we officially met at a Skybound party a few years ago at SDCC. We instantly hit it off, and maybe a year or so later, our editor, Sean Mackiewicz, approached me with the idea. Once Brandon and I got on the phone and started tossing ideas around, I knew this could be an opportunity to do something unique. His passion sold me, and I was down for the ride.

Spencer is incredibly relatable—he strives for his father’s affection and struggles to live up to his legacy as a magician. What drew you to an underdog protagonist?

Thomas: This is the most personal story I’ve ever told, and in many respects, Spencer’s relationship with his father mirrors my own. Having to combat and harness those feelings of being denied something you feel you more than deserved, is probably the main emotional theme of Excellence and is something that I think a lot of people have felt throughout their own lives. I definitely have, and I’m pouring as much of that pain and confusion and frustration into every relationship in this book, and I hope it continues to come through.

Randolph: I think there is a little bit of Spencer in both myself and Brandon. We all want our fathers to love us and be proud of us, and we've all got daddy issues. And I'm sure many people can relate to being the underdog. It's very easy for a young man to be angry at the world, and that anger can consume you if you were to let everything get to you. The great part of illustrating Spencer (and comics in general) is the ability to get all of the frustrations out and "explode" on the paper. It’s liberating.

Excellence #1 Cover by Khary Randolph

Both of you have histories in science fiction between Horizon and Tech Jacket. What motivated your shift to fantasy?

Thomas: I’ve done a ton of sci-fi comics, and will do more, but this was an opportunity to stretch slightly different storytelling muscles. Even though the mechanics aren’t the same, we’re still dealing with worlds where impossible things happen, and whether that’s due to tech or magic, it’s always exciting to me. Hell, it’s the reason I love comics in the first place—there are never any limits, no matter the genre.

Randolph: It's all comics, man. It's all fantasy and escapism. We're in this industry because we love telling stories that can't be told in real life.

Similarly, what inspired using magic as a way to address generational friction and social discord?

Thomas: We wanted to really reflect how difficult it is to tear down the world and then rebuild it, even when you’re carrying a magic wand. No spell can instantly upend the systems keeping the world the way it is, but when you're young, that's almost exactly what you think. Spencer is convinced that he's really special, but The Aegis wouldn't be what it was if it didn't know how to deal with rebellion from what it terms “agitators." This book is about not getting what you want and learning the hard way that you don't know everything you think you know.

Randolph: The stories that have always resonated with me the most were the ones that touched upon my reality in a personal way. You can draw guys punching each other in the face all day, but if there isn’t real humanity behind it, it loses its gravity. We just use the outlandish narratives to talk about the human condition. At the end of the day, the primary goal is to entertain but also hopefully make people think. This is soul food.

Excellence Preview by Khary Randolph

Excellence is a great example of magic realism, contrasting the comfort of a barbershop visit with spell casting. How did you both balance, and merge, those worlds?

Thomas: One definitely informs the other. Since the core father-son relationship is somewhat dysfunctional, it was important for Spencer to have a family connection that provided him some refuge. His grandmother, who he calls GG, is a major force that influences every action he takes. It also continues a trend of having some badass old lady in all my books, based on my own late grandmother.

Another larger idea is throwing back the curtain on this secret, unseen existence that many of the people of color have in this book. You'll notice that black and brown folks are either completely ignored in the book, or are seen as end-of-the-world threats, which is a not-so-subtle criticism of our world right now.

How did you design your magic system and its families? What rules does it operate by?

Thomas: Rules are a huge element of this book, as most of our characters have either become corrupted by them or are actively rebelling against them. Every aspect of The Aegis is about control, and there's obviously the rules written down, but even far more dangerous and effective are the ones that aren't. These are things that get passed down to our children with words like heritage, legacy, and tradition, even though we know they could be damaging.

It encourages our characters never to make waves, or to wait their turn, etc., but the world has never gotten better on its own, and Spencer’s disconnection from his father gets him to that realization sooner than most. The big question is: who else is fed up with the way things are?

The 10 family lines bit is a reference to the idea of the “Talented Tenth,” but it doesn't mean what it thinks it does in our book. Control takes several forms, and the concept of respectability is a big, big one.

Excellence Preview by Khary Randolph

Khary, many of the action sequences play with gravity and vertical surfaces. How did you approach those perspectives and that storytelling?

Randolph: That scene was heavily inspired by movies like The Matrix, Inception, and Doctor Strange, and the art of Jim Steranko. Everything we're doing in this book visually is going for a mixture of grounded reality and surrealism, with a dash of hip-hop.

What can readers expect from Excellence #1 and beyond?

Thomas: One of the best-looking, most exciting comics on the shelves. Some of us have known all about Khary since 2004, and he’s produced some amazing artwork over the years, but if there’s anyone left that doesn’t already know he’s one of the best doing it, they will real soon. What he and Emilio are doing is going to blow people away, and we’re all trying to internalize the name of this book.

It’s already been the most fun and the hardest thing I’ve done in comics, and I’m pushing to give them material that matches their efforts every month. Digging deep on this one and hope it shows on every page.

Randolph: It’s just a different kind of book. In a very crowded market, we’ve tried our best to create something that will stand on its own and provide a very unique take on classic tropes. As Brandon said, we are digging deep. We gotta live up to the name of the book, after all.

This is the most personal story I’ve ever told, and in many respects Spencer’s relationship with his father mirrors my own.