Birthright is arriving this week from Skybound/Image Comics in an over-sized, 40 page debut issue, and you can seek out writer Joshua Williamson (Captain Midnight, Nailbiter, Ghosted) at New York Comic Con to get the scoop on this new series. What makes this comic remarkable is that it poses some very dramatic questions as it follows the life of a seemingly happy family as their son Mikey disappears on his 8th birthday while out in the woods with his father. With a child missing, and the media involved, all hell breaks loose for the Rhodes family. Investigations ensue, accusations are made, and the trauma of that situation is writ large in this comic. All before things get even stranger. Mikey returns from a fantasy adventure straight out of our favorite fictions, but changed, and time has passed differently for him. And the epic struggles of the world that chose and took him are set to break into our own world with cataclysmic possibilities.
Williamson and artist Andrei Bressan push the envelope in a number of ways with this storyline as they interrogate the fictional traditions that shaped our childhoods and also our relationships and modern life. It's a story that even after the first issue is set to jump feet-first into the unknown.
Joshua Williamson answers some "heavy questions" here for us at Bleeding Cool about Birthright.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I'm guessing that this comic has some deep roots for you, perhaps in the elements of children's literature that we don't often question, where kids go off on adventures. There are some disturbing aspects of kids' adventure stories, like they tend to isolate a child in a scary, overwhelming world and expect them to become heroes somehow. And yet we love those stories growing up. Do we need to question those stories and their impact on young people?
Joshua Williamson: That could be said of all media, really. For me, I loved those stories. I grew up on them. And I liked the bit of horror thrown in with the fantasy. Look at a lot of Roald Dahl's writings. Young kids in these worlds that have a twisted feeling of whimsy. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… could easily be seen as a horror story. Witches is terrifying to me.
In our day and age kids are expected to grow up and adapt much faster. And there is a certain attitude of "Don't mess this up!" Kids need to know that it's okay to make mistakes. To fail. To try again. That you can't always get it right on the first try.
They say that when a kid does something well you should never say, "You're amazing!", you should say, "You must have worked hard on that." So that they get that impression of hard work… not natural talent or… destiny? But so much of the stories we are presented as kids and the idea of the chosen one push these ideas that things are easy, and it causes kids to quit on things if they don't get it right immediately.
When I started to develop this idea many, many years ago, I looked at a LOT of children's fiction and the movies I watched then. And I found it very interesting that we were never shown… what happened next? Kids are so impressionable. How does an adventure like that effect them growing up? It could lead to it's own version of PTSD. I think I've seen people touch on that but always in a comedy way. In Nailbiter and now in Birthright, I like to show how the people around these tragic events respond. Sorry, I'm going off track.
Do we need to question the stories? I say… no. But it's like all media. We hope that we can teach them to process and understand the context.
HMS: This comic turns a lot of expectations on their head about how a story might be structured that deals with childhood. Why did you choose one year after Mikey's disappearance to be the "main" storyline and what part will flashbacks play in the narrative to tell Mikey's experiences in Terrenos?
JW: In the first few issues, we will go back and forth between the real world and Terrenos quite a bit. But that will eventually calm down since most of those are flashbacks and I think… because we know he comes home, there tension in the flashbacks are lessened.
We went with one year later because I wanted enough time to have passed in the real world for things to have settled down a bit. A kid goes missing there are a lot of eyes on the parents, the family, the FEDS, the situation in general. Sadly… in the real world we've often seen that the media and people have short attention spans when it comes to… tragedy. So I wanted to get us to a place where that has happened. Where the case had died down, but also… the relationship between the parents was broken. Also I felt there was something poetic about doing it on Mikey's birthday and coming back around the same season.
As you can see with the end of the first issue… things are not as they seem… and how we got there will affect the current storyline. There are two heroes journeys at play within Birthright. At different stages. I'm curious to see if people will pick up on that.
HMS: Though this comic deals in themes of childhood, it's definitely aimed at adults. I mean, we have real trauma here, a family being destroyed, accusations of child-murder, alcoholism, divorce, teen violence, the works. What were the challenges of portraying the descent of Mikey's family into trauma within the space of a single issue in a believable way?
JW: That… was easily one of the hardest things in a way to write, but I just looked at real life. I'm a child of divorce and I'm divorced. So I'm already familiar with the ideas of a broken family. Often times we build a narrative in our heads of what we expect of lives to be like… and sometimes it doesn't work out the way we want. So I made sure to keep that in mind. That first issue went through a lot of drafts specifically because of those aspects. At one point my editor said "emotional short hand" and a light bulb went off over my head. It cracked not just ideas for Birthright but everything I've worked on since. So keeping that in mind… I went with things we could relate to and tried to find a flow there.
We wanted to do an epic fantasy drama that was ground and about family. Hopefully we did that.
HMS: The darker elements of this story remind me a little bit of Peter Pan, a story that has some heavy undertones people rarely analyze, like the dangers of wish-fulfillment and children disappearing into a fantasy world, being changed by it, encountering violence and also, in a way, losing the chance to grow up. To what degree are you going to unpack Mikey's psychology in the comic and explain how he, in contrast to his family, experienced trauma?
JW: The first few issues are a bit action packed as we try to get a lot of information across and deal with what happens in the first issue… but after that… it's all about Mikey and what he saw. How messed up things got for him. He's suffering from PTSD, there is no question of that. But… and I know I've used the word tragedy a lot but it's really important to what we are doing going forward. How does someone overcome this level of tragedy? Can you return from a fantasy adventure and ever be normal again? Getting into Mikey's head was tough at first. Aaron, the Dad, was the easiest. Just because I could feel his feeling of loss the greatest. By the time I got to issue 4, the mom became the most relatable to me. And Brennan is our POV. Each of them have a different perspective on the story. But again with Mikey and his mental state… without spoiling issue one… there is a lot going on there. And yeah… I'm going to cover it. I hope I do it justice.
Really, I'm so glad you mentioned Peter Pan. That was a major factor in what we were trying to do here. That's why the mom is named Wendy. We are not doing an homage or a connection… only in themes. You hit it all right on the head.
HMS: This story is clearly about family and modernity but it's also about a lavish fantasy world. This first issue seems to suggest that Terrenos is a pretty dire threat to Earth. Is this a case of asking readers what life would really be like for us if we encountered the fantasy worlds that enthrall us so much breaking into "real life"? And that it would be a hell of a lot less amusing than we think, if it did?
JW: You bet. The idea that there could be a fantasy world out there is a dangerous one. If it happened it would more than likely be kept secret, which will eventually be part of our story.
I mean it came down to d simple concept… if the FEDS ever found out there was evidence of a fantasy world… what would they do? The answer is obvious, really. So let's show that. Run with it… and then find new ways to go beyond the expectations.
We see this world that has fire trolls and dragons… DRAGONS. Think about that. If Dragons were real… people would freak out.
HMS: Sorry for the heavy questions! But one more: why focus on the loss of a child for a story? What role might these family members play in ever really getting Mikey back as a person they recognize and love?
JW: These were some heavy questions! Haha!
At one point this story was very different. It was going to be about a guy in his 20's and his girlfriend… but that didn't feel true to the theme or to all the stories we've talked about. It had to be a kid. And I wanted to… I wanted a punch to the gut. And I wanted to deal with the idea of how these kids go on these adventures and the parents often are totally cool with it. That's not real, or true to the story.
Getting Mikey back is going to be extremely difficult and I think will come from a very unexpected place that won't come into play for a few issues. But… remember he came back to his family and found that they were just as broken as he is. Getting that family back together will be curial. At the end of the day that is what this story is really about… family.
Birthright #1 arrives October 8th from Skybound/ Image Comics