THE REALM: Swords, Sorcery, and Sniper Rifles [Feature]

VERNON MILES: How did the concept of THE REALM evolve from its initial conception to the book we see now?

SETH M. PECK: I think the initial concept of bringing high-fantasy elements to life in modern-day America was something Jeremy came up with. From there, we just started throwing in all the stuff we liked from the genre and tried to figure out how humanity would react to it. How would we fare against orcs and dragons, and would we be able to maintain any semblance of society, of order?

JEREMY HAUN: This is a story that I’ve wanted to tell for years. I messed with it here and there, but other work always got in the way. It’s a big story—probably the biggest thing I’ve ever created. I knew the only way I was going to be able to ever get to it was with a co-creator that could see the scope of the story, and work with me to make it into something special. I pitched the concept to Seth, and he got it. We immediately started banging out the story, and it grew from my little core idea into something epic.

MILES: In a lot of ways, this book feels like a love letter to both fantasy stories and post-apocalyptic ones. Are you particularly fond of these genres? What makes them so interesting for you?

HAUN: Who doesn’t like the idea of a badass barbarian lugging around a shotgun and a huge battle axe? Or a dragon with miniguns strapped to its back? It’s pretty much the best mash-up of everything I loved as a thirteen-year-old. I spent a lot of hours combing over Dungeons & Dragons manuals and watching The Road Warrior on a beat-up VHS tape. I knew Seth was into the exact same stuff. The second we sat down and started to build this world we were home.

PECK: I think that one of the more intriguing aspects of post-apocalyptic stories is that they strip away all the conventions and mores that we are constrained by in daily life and let us look at what people will do in truly desperate situations. When everything has broken down and things are trying to eat you, what are you willing to do to survive or to protect your loved ones? Adding fantasy elements makes the world that much more unpredictable and dangerous. There are plenty of familiar touchstones—dragons, swords, magic, etc.—but they won’t always be used in the ways we’ve come to expect from the genre, and that will hopefully provide some interesting surprises for the reader.

MILES: How did the fusion of the two affect things like how you approached the costuming and combat in the story?

HAUN: We had two rules when creating the costuming and weaponry for this story—“have it make as much sense as possible” and then “make them look cool.” Seth is a big one-sixth-scale action figure fan. We kept saying, “Would this make a cool action figure?” It took a lot of messing with the looks to get them to feel right. A dash of fantasy here, some tactical stuff there. I must’ve done 50 different designs for Rook’s helmet. In the end we got it right, though.

PECK: In many ways the world has been reset, with no electricity, no method of mass communication, no real infrastructure. Guns still work though, so humans have a tactical advantage in terms of firepower (well, until they run out of bullets anyhow). Our story opens about a decade after the first monsters appeared, so society has learned to adapt somewhat, and people are learning how to survive and fight back.

MILES: There are a lot of fun fantasy tropes here: an evil wizard, a barbarian, a charming rogue, and more. How did you approach translating these kinds of characters to a post-apocalyptic setting?

PECK: I think the familiar aspects of those archetypes are important for setting the tone and giving readers a foothold in the universe. The challenge then for us is to make them interesting enough, or to subvert those tropes in ways that make people want to keep reading. The cast of characters developed over a long period of time, and we really tried to make them as multidimensional and interesting as possible, so hopefully that becomes apparent.

HAUN: Yeah—like Seth said, while we definitely designed these archetypal characters, it was important for us to make them feel real. I think that’s part of the strength of this kind of genre mash-up. You can have a character that is, for all intents and purposes, a sorcerer, and then make them relatable.
Just for fun, we took all of the characters and made D20 compatible character sheets for them. It was a pretty fun exercise.

MILES: THE REALM starts with the audience being given very little information, and you trust them to piece it together as the story progresses. Were you worried about the audience getting lost?

PECK: Not really. I think we intended for the story to hit the ground running, and for filling in the details and learning more about the world to be part of the fun.

HAUN: Setting this in a post-apocalyptic version of our world really kind of helped us there. We could throw you into the middle of a story, and you can still have some understanding of the world. There’s crazy stuff in this world, but it’s still fundamentally our world.

MILES: Is this a world where magic and fantasy creatures existed alongside society before it collapsed, or is the apocalypse related to the appearance of these creatures?

PECK: The appearance of the creatures, and the subsequent fallout from that, is what caused the collapse.

HAUN: Yeah. And that’s something we’re definitely going to be explaining along the way.

MILES: We’re introduced to several interesting characters and locations in the first issue. How did you approach forming the cast? As one character implies, scientists aren't necessarily the heroic type.

HAUN: We knew that we wanted to play with the traditional “party on a quest” trope. From there, the cast was formed pretty organically. We had a lot of conversations about what each member would add to the group both physically and personality-wise.

We each have our favorite characters, but I think there isn’t a character in the party that we don’t love. I almost feel bad that we’re going to kill so many of them...

PECK: I think that everyone in the cast will have the opportunity to be heroic. That moment will look different for each of them. It’s nice to be handy with a sword or a gun, but we will definitely see some situations that require a different approach.

MILES: What kind of person is Will Nolan? What role does he play in this story?

PECK: Will is exactly the kind of guy that would survive the end of the world. He’s capable without being flashy, he’s smart without being arrogant, and he plans for everything. He’s comfortable flying under the radar, and he’s always calculating the odds and angles. He’s not without compassion, but he’s definitely mercenary. He’s also not without a sense of humor. Surviving the apocalypse probably requires the ability to see the funny side of things.

HAUN: And yet there’s something really wrong with Will.

PECK: Yes, very, very wrong.

MILES: Traditional fantasy stories have often relegated women to background characters or love interests. What makes Molly and Rook from THE REALM different from the way women are often treated in typical fantasy stories?

HAUN: We wanted this to be a true ensemble book—a team. Even though we're playing with archetypes to a degree, a team really only works if the characters are fully realized. Molly and Rook are probably two of the most capable characters in our happy little band of travelers. They’re vital to the survival of the team and I have a lot of love for both characters. They were easily some of my favorites to design and draw.

Molly is just badass. I absolutely love drawing her hair and hooded capelet. The second I added her face paint I knew she was just perfect. I knew that I wanted a character with a badass helmet. Our Boba Fett, or Snake Eyes. Someone who is a real mystery. Rook is like a cat. Always perched up on something—all cool and aloof. Until she strikes, of course.

PECK: They're definitely not "damsels in distress," or the type to sit in a lonely tower waiting for rescue. I don't think the book has a true lead in that it's much more of an ensemble cast, and Molly and Rook are as vital to the story and as likely to take part in the action as anyone else.

MILES: What can you tell us about the direction THE REALM takes from here?

PECK: We start the book with a very specific quest and a very specific cast, but as the story moves along, that quest will evolve, and the cast will too. We are building the story and the world of THE REALM very deliberately, and there is room to have smaller, character-driven pieces amongst the big, epic scenes of battle and mayhem. We set out to make the sort of comic book that would let us cut loose creatively, really go all-out in terms of visuals and storytelling. I think we’ve done that, and I’m looking forward to getting this story out there and into people’s hands.

HAUN: I wanted to push myself with this project. I’ve drawn a lot of very real-world books with people in suits shooting at one another. That’s great. I definitely love it. I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone on THE REALM. I wanted to tell stories that didn’t really have constraints. I wanted to draw things that creatively scare me.

Every single phone call with Seth excites the hell out of me and terrifies me at the same time. I’m absolutely fine with that.

The world of THE REALM allows for pretty much any kind of story along the way. This journey is going to be a long one. It’s going to be filled with orcs, kings of department stores, trolls, sorcerer rock stars, lost cities, unspeakable horrors, and dragons—lots and lots of dragons.

MILES: What can you tell us about the whistling orc-hunter?

PECK: His name is Ben and he is awesome.

HAUN: Seth pitched Ben’s character the second day we were talking about THE REALM. He was fully formed in minutes—the first character that I drew for the book. He’s absolutely brutal. I think people are going to love him.

THE REALM #1 debuts 9/13 and is available for preorder now.

Vernon Miles is a reporter with the Alexandria Gazette and freelance writer for Image+. He lives in a crowded apartment in Washington, DC with two roommates and a lop-eared rabbit named George. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.