An interview with Emma Vieceli

This week Fantasy Book Review moves into the realm of comics to talk to one of the UK's leading lights, Emma Vieceli, about her love of all things fantasy and what inspired her to work in the industry. Emma is a full time illustrator, comic artist and writer, living near Cambridge in the UK. Having been asked to describe herself and what she does, she has coined the phrase 'Comicer'. Some of her published works to date include the incredibly popular Manga Shakespeare novels: Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, the Vampire Academy series and her self-penned and drawn Dragon Heir books.

What is it about the fantasy genre that attracts you?

Whatever story I'm working on, it's the characters that everything hinges on and part of what interests me in storytelling is taking an incredible environment and something unknown and something crazy. But the people in it are very believable and you can empathise with them, and they deal with these situations using the same rules as we would, but they aren't dealing with 'should I have that last bit of cake?' they are thinking 'do I run a way from that dragon or not?'. The very first story I came up with years ago was something called Dragon Heir which has followed me through my entire career and it is the project I always come back to when I get a chance. It's been in my head since I was about 14, when the first character appeared and I started creating this fantasy world, like we all do, with a different societal structure and religion. I purposely avoided using elves and dwarves, it is another world, at 5 years old they are branded by a spirit sign who defines how they should live and it explores how society interprets and controls these signs. I became so obsessed about how their world worked, every detail about how their machinery worked, how their vehicles worked, because it was so much fun. And within all that I took a core set of characters who had very normal, very real life values and see how these people would react with this fantastical environment I had put them in.

When did you first encounter fantasy, what was that first moment when you thought 'yeah, this is where it's at!'?

Wow, that's a really good question. Um, that's tough. I know that early on, and I know its a clique, but I'd say Dungeons and Dragons the cartoon series, Cities of Gold, Ulysses. All those early evening, after school, cartoon shows. And I was always reading comics, X-men and the like, and I know it may not be considered strictly fantasy but it was still fantastical. I can remember being about 11 or 12 and we had to do a book project at school and I ended up doing a discussion about why Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are so often compared, because to me they were so completely different. And I remember back then it was always a case of 'which do you prefer?'. Which I always felt was a weird thing because they were doing completely different things but Douglas Adams was still counted at fantasy because back then the term was considered so broad that Sci-Fi and Fantasy were lumped together.

So at what point did you decide you wanted to make comics a career?

Blimey, well I decided that when it had already become a career! I had always loved comics and I'd liked writing stories, and a lot of  them were fantasy.  I used to read comics, draw pictures for fun and write stories for fun, but I had never thought of putting them together. I met a comics group called Sweatdrop 11 or 12 years ago and they asked 'have you thought about making a comic?'. So I started doing it for myself and did some appalling folded paper comics, and that is how the first version of Dragon Heir came into being and I just did that for a few years. I was doing all sorts of other stuff and random jobs, and then there was this point about 6 or 7 years ago when I heard about a Manga Shakespeare series being made, and there was an opportunity to pitch for it, so I thought I'd give it a go. Around the same time I got quite ill and this combination of where I physically couldn't do my day job and I had this contract, and then I won the Tokyopop 'Rising Stars of Manga' competition, and it was this mix of things that came together that told me I should probably try going freelance. It was taking a risk and a jump and it was really scary driving away from my paid job. I wasn't going into it completely cold, I had been working at the MCM EXPO for years, organising Comic Village and just meeting people and making contacts. I was socialising with creators but at the time I had no agenda or sense that I wanted to take this further. The biggest push came from Warren Ellis, and I didn't realise at the time who he was, and he invited me onto this forum for creatives and then I realised he was a big deal! But he was so supportive and amazing. He has always been just so inspiring and takes people under his wing and promotes them whenever he can. Without that I don't think I could have just dived in and expected it to be my job.

Who are your inspirations from a fantasy perspective?

There are sooo many people, you know how evil these questions are? It is easy to throw out comicers who inspired me but as a writer, it was Pratchett and Adams and Tolkien, it was the big three! Hitchhikers I have read so many times it is ridiculous. Another one I will throw in is The Winter King series by Bernard Cornwell, if anyone ever asks me what my one Arthurian myth story is, then it's Winter King. I fixate on books, I find one that I like and I end up reading it over and over again.

Who do you admire who is out there currently?

I admire Tim Minchin, who speaks his mind and made his career the way he wanted to make it. He turned being a red headed  geek into something supercool.

Favourite Fantasy/SF TV SHOW?

There is an animated show, Seirei no Moribito, translated as Guardian of the Spirit, which was out a few years ago, and it is such well told fantasy. I'm not a big fan of high shiny fantasy, I like low and dirty fantasy, that feels real and is gritty. And Moribito was based on a set of books written by an anthropologist and the series is so real it feels like you are watching a historical piece. She creates this entire society that is so believable and throws in such fantastic stories and legends. It is quite slow paced but you get time to know everyone and when small things happen they seem really dramatic. I was also quite obsessed with DS, which is weird for me because I didn't often go for SF over pure fantasy except for Adams but that was because he made it so real and every day. Oh and Game of Thrones!

What do you think of the state of the fantasy genre within comics? It must be pretty strong?

Well even today in comics and even in publishing there is still that 'oh we don't do fantasy' attitude. Which is weird considering the biggest franchises in the world are fantasy. It depends how you categorise it, take superheroes, maybe not everyone classifies them that way, but if you are talking elves and dwarves or about fantasy being something that is out of this world, then it is not so readily accepted. It's also getting harder to define fantasy. I was at Alt Fiction last year and it was all genre fiction and there was a lot of people talking about how hard it is to be in genre fiction and how hard it is to get published. Comics is perhaps a more fantastical medium and by the very fact that people are picking up a comic they are probably more open minded about it. Gaming has made fantasy more mainstream, Dragon Age and Warcraft  for example, and yet there are still people who will go and watch Lord of the Rings but say they aren't fantasy fans, because it's a film and films are mainstream. But with video games, they aren't as safe as film, it is hard to convince yourself you aren't doing something geeky or nerdy. I went to see The Hobbit and I saw a Warcraft and then a Runescape trailer! I can remember when Final Fantasy 7 came out, when I was 17 or 18, and remember seeing a TV advert for it and it was a shock because it was my world, my thing, crossing over into my parents world. I think comics have been doing well because more people are discovering this world through their contact with other mediums.

I was talking at Thought Bubble comic festival in Leeds and we were discussing niche, the panel was called Fifty Shades of Niche, and if you call something niche the it would be thought of as such if you called something mainstream, such as Game of Thrones or The Avengers, then they are thought of that way. But if you think about it, GOT had been there  for years sitting in the fantasy section in your bookshop but you had to go looking for it in that strange section that strange people went to, but then the series happened and the world said this is not niche anymore and you can go into bookshops and it was sat right in front of you at the entrance. People who would never go into the fantasy section were now talking about it and it's okay to go looking for it, and of course there are any number of fantasy books that could be the next GOT.

You used the word Geek and how it is now cool to be geek.

I am so proud to be geek, I wear that title with pride!

You mentioned how Dragon Heir is your pet project, so where are you with it?

There is only more book to go, there was only planned to be two and I want time to finish it. And it means so much to me when I go to conventions and I have other projects out but people still ask when book 2 will be out. It is my thing, I have complete control over it and published it through Sweatdrop and it is now published in France and my publisher there is saying  'when is it out?'. As soon as I can I will finish it. But it is a sad truth that when you work in comics you have less time to take off to work on your own projects. It is very hard to stop work, but it will get done, it has to. The story is completed and has been refined over the years and I want to tell it so bad! But George RR Martin left it six years for latest so I guess I'm okay!

And other projects?

Well there is Vampire Academy, book three is out this year, I'm doing the inks for that right now, it has amazing fans and a good following and they are currently casting for the movie version. I am soon going to start work on the Alex Ryder comics. Then there is the Avalon Chronicles, back to fantasy again, as well as drawing, I am cooperating on the story with the writers and book two of that is out this year. Avalon Chronicles is classic fantasy, with elves and dwarves but we have played with the concept, and the elves and dwarves are actually the same race that suffered a massive rift when humans arrived. And we play with the misconceptions about these two groups with the characters in the book which is good fun. Last year I did some work for some TV companies but I can't talk about that right now! I took some time to think about my work recently and in the last 6 years I worked out that I have been drawing 400 pages a year which is crazy and it's no wonder I am burned out most of the time and have no social life!

Thoughts on Manga?

(Groans) What I will say is that there are a lot of arguments about the word Manga but to me it just means 'comics'. But there was a time when you could only get comics-based good fantasy in the manga industry, specifically the character based stuff. These days there is no point in differentiating that. But back then, Shojo, the stuff for girls which was very character focused, was about girls going into fantasy worlds. So fantasy pulled me into reading manga. Back then that word was important but now it has been so long and it is weird that we see it as a separate industry, it's all comics! And back in the day, manga was about everything. But what is really tragic is that word has been refined and refined and now means 'Big Eyes', which is crap. You can get everything in manga, I like Japanese comics but I don't like the term manga anymore because it has such a preconceived notion of what that means. In the same way that fantasy was treated a few years ago, where folks would ask you what you read and when you told them they'd go 'oh fantasy' whereas now they will ask 'what kind?'.

What question would you have liked to have been asked?

Oh, nice. Umm... Who are my favourite characters? Rather than what is your favourite title or series. For me it is all about the characters but that question very rarely comes up. Everyone talks about series, programmes or creators, but characters are what people hang on to and what they get excited about. If the writer has done their job, then the discussion is always about the characters.

So, supplementary question...

Ha! I should have known that was coming. That's a long conversation with a lot of beer. So, so hard. Someone like Arthur Dent or Ford Prefect, absolute iconic characters, brilliantly made. Then there are characters that make your blood boil, a good bad guy, like Joffrey from Game Of Thrones, or the teacher Dolores Umbridge, from Harry Potter, she was appalling and you hated her, and that to me is a the mark of a well written character. There are characters I would love to see do more in their stories, like Gambit, but because of western comics formats, we just don't get the time. That is why I am envious of Star Wars fans because they can go out and read the expanded universe stuff. I also love the Bioware writers and the characters they create for their games, like Alistair in Dragon Age, he is such a well written character, you really know him. Video games allow you to spend a long time running around with characters and you get to know everything about them. I hold Dragon Age up as an absolute pillar of fantasy - it does everything we have talked about, it sets up a world that is real and gritty yet has all the fantastical elements and amazing moments of emotion and pathos.

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If you'd like to know more about Emma and her work, check out her website: http://www.emmavieceli.com

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