Genevieve Valentine is working away on the new Xena: Warrior Princess series for Dynamite. As she wraps up the script for issue #4, she talks with Byron Brewer about working on a comic based on a beloved TV series and the preconceptions involved. Cover is by Jenny Frison.
GENEVIEVE VALENTINE: I mean, you always enjoy the epic, legendary aspect of it all, but the thing I love most about her is her humanity. She was such a central presence in the show that it drew the entire world to her, which was a great way to tackle history and myth, but the show (and Lawless' performance!) did a great job keeping her human. I loved that she kept running into people from her past, and that her attempts to make a better future sometimes ran into unsolvable problems – that not everyone was going to warm to her. She got angry and frustrated and tired and sad, and so much of the arc of the show is about her coming to accept those parts of herself; that it wasn't weakness, it was being human. The plot of the comic is happening a mile a minute (just like the show!), but I try to make sure she still has some of those beats. It's what makes us love her.
BB: As opposed to TV, in a comic book writers must not only be the director but the actors as well. You seem to have a firm handle on Lawless as Xena. Has there ever been a character you had difficulty "grabbing" in your writing, in comic books or outside the industry?
GV: It's actually kind of surreal when you're working on something with such a direct line to the source material. With things in Gotham, there have been so many interpretations that you can draw from several without having to look too specifically at one. For Xena, Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor did such layered work over so many years that it's almost the same thing – you can draw from them for nearly any emotional beat. (Ariel and Julius have both done amazing work on this front – they have different styles, but each of them can convey so much emotion with a glance, and it also helps set a tenor for the other characters, even in terms of body language in the background of a panel.)
I was definitely concerned about Ares; I loved his quieter moments as he "grew up" over the course of the series, but of course, he wouldn't be Ares without eighteen layers of bluster wrapped around every small kindness, which is the kind of thing that can be hard to convey without the fluidity of an actor's performance. (On the other hand, you have the benefit of that same direct line to draw from; Kevin Smith's Ares was just delightful.)
BB: Tell us about your perceptions of Ares as a character.
GV: I think he's a really fascinating character who's been a formative presence in Xena's history. And at this point in the canon it's even more interesting to watch him with Xena and Gabrielle since his relationship with Gabrielle over the course of the show. He gave up his immortality in the Twilight of the Gods to save Gabrielle's life for Xena's sake. I love the sort of prickly familiarity Xena and Gabrielle have with him, and the fact that he desperately tries to seem cavalier when his fundamental personality trait is caring 800% too intensely about things all the time.
BB: As the book reaches issue #4 in July, are there any aspects of this tale that you would love to take in another direction – even in a spinoff series maybe, or a sequel – to explore in more detail? If so, what are they?
GV: There are so many places any Xena story can go (one of the things I love about her!). But I can't lie, my first thought about this – based on an offhand comment in issue #3 – was a flashback issue about Ares and that dramatic-ass cape constantly trying to smooth-talk his way into places where he expects Xena to be, absolutely failing at every turn, and sullenly collecting a bunch of Xena merchandise just to deflect everybody's suspicions about the guy who keeps "casually" pretending to look for a woman who's been dead for 25 years. Would it work? No. Did it stop me from imagining it? Nope.
BB: It actually endears the characters, even Ares, to the reader. How would you define the rapport between Ares and Xena … and Ares and Gabrielle?
GV: In the script, I described Ares as the ex that Gabrielle and Xena are still friendly with, which I feel gets to a lot of the core aspects of where they all are at this point. Xena has definitively moved on, but having let go of that tension, she's also let go of some of that anger, and things between them are as smooth as they ever could be. Gabrielle and Ares have what I actually think is one of the most fascinating dynamics on the show; he dismissed her offhand at first, and over the course of the show she kept impressing him – with her spirit and determination as much as her battle skill – and you could see that while she remained wary of him, there was a familiarity after a while. And during the Twilight of the Gods, Ares gave up his immortality to save Gabrielle – it's the kind of thing that makes begrudging allies.
BB: The Harpies are most intriguing characters. Why do you as a writer find them interesting?
GV: One of my favorite ongoing elements of the show were the fighters Xena kept running into – a constant reminder that she wasn't alone in this fight, and that sometimes people fought for very different reasons. (We saw this a lot with the Amazons, who accepted Xena or not depending on a lot of outside factors.) I also wanted to mark the fact that at this point in the show, Xena and Gabrielle had slept through 25 years of developments, and people have been carrying on the fight without them.
With the Harpies, I wanted to introduce a band of disparate women who had come together in the face of the Empire's power. And having a common cause doesn't mean they don't have different views, personalities, limits – it just means that they've fought together and respect each other. Choreographing twelve-person fight scenes is tricky business, but right up until it's time for a fight scene, I love writing them.
BB: Yes, often in literature a "society" (Amazons, Inhumans, etc.) seem almost hive-like in nature: they think, act and react the same. You have certainly made your characters individuals, for the most part. Is that difficult given limits of number of pages, number of issues, etc., and if so, how does a comics writer work around those limitations?
GV: I knew for sure that having the Harpies as individuals was going to be more interesting than just a lineup of supporting warriors, but the 20-page constraint of a comic script also means you run into story density issues on a regular basis. Luckily, Xena and Gabrielle are known quantities, and you can get a lot of character leverage by trading on that familiarity. (For instance, thanks to the show, we know exactly why Xena doesn't want to get within ten feet of Seyma.) But the Harpies trying to handle Xena and Gabrielle also give us insights into their characters they might not have with each other. They're a lot of fun; makes twenty-person fight scenes worth it.
BB: Can you give us any foresight as to what is coming up for Xena and crew?
GV: Well, nothing deters Gabrielle once she's made up her mind – we know that from the series' first moments. So let's just say that she has every intention of marching right into the heart of the Empire and calling Augustus Caesar to heel. What's still uncertain: whether she'll make it, what on earth Ares will try to pull to avoid it, and whether there's a god in this pantheon or the next that can stop Xena coming after her. (Spoilers: probably not.)
For more on Xena: Warrior Princess #4, click here.