DEATH COMES FOR THE TOYMAKER – A Twitter Spaces Interview With Dakota Brown

Writer: Dakota Brown Artist: Ryan Cody Letterer: Micah Myers

Publisher: Scout Comics

Comic Book Yeti's Byron O'Neal interviews writer Dakota Brown about his forthcoming Scout Comics mini-series, Death Comes for the Toymaker. Transcribed from the ongoing Saturday Twitter Spaces creator chatform.

Death Comes for the Toymaker, Artist Ryan Cody

COMIC BOOK YETI: This is Byron O'Neal for Comic Book Yeti sitting down today with Dakota Brown, the creator of the soon-to-be-released Scout Comics mini-series, Death Comes for the Toymaker.

Let's jump right in here. Could you give people a perspective of what the new project is all about? Break it down for us.

DAKOTA BROWN: Here's the elevator pitch: It is a retelling of the "Epic of Gilgamesh" while also serving as a direct sequel to "The Epic of Gilgamesh." In between that, there's also a holiday vibe to it because it does focus on a Santa Claus analogue character known as Gil the Toymaker. It's not a spoiler to say because you discover from the first issue that Gil the Toymaker is the actual King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who has found immortality despite in the original epic not finding it.

CBY: I was really curious there, since you have a background as a voice actor, how that was going to go with your delivery. Sorry, that was a little devilish part of me coming out. I wanted to hear that delivery. It didn't disappoint in any way, I was just really curious given your background.

DB: Is that still on my Twitter profile?

CBY: No, I just do my homework.

DB: Oh, man. Nice. Wow.

CBY: I've got all kinds of things in here. I dig and try to make it interesting for people. Getting back on track, this is not your standard, holiday-full-of-cheer, Hallmark kind of story. Where did the idea come from to flip the Santa Claus character on its head completely, or maybe flip the Gilgamesh character on its head?

"He does, like I mentioned, steal souls. Well, not steals, he takes them when they're ready. That includes parents, children, and people in his mind who might deserve a future where he's guaranteed a future no matter what because he is now immortal. There's a dichotomy that he is immortal and will live forever, but he has to spend that immortality removing that gift from other people. I suppose as long as we're following that edict, it feels pretty honest."

DB: It was a different evolution than your standard narrative. I had been pitching a graphic novel to various publishers the year before this. I got some great feedback and a lot of attention for it, but it's hard to sell a graphic novel as a fully-fledged entity instead of issue by issue. I put that on hold and tried to consider all the feedback that I was given. One of the biggest pieces of feedback was addressing comics almost as the inverse of what you want to do with people, which is judging a book by its cover. That cover is going to be your elevator pitch. It's going to be what people see on a shelf and say, this looks interesting. It's not going to have Spider-Man or Superman or other established characters, it's just going to be "this looks interesting, let me pull it off there and give it a read" and hopefully they continue to read it.

So, I wanted a cover. I was thumbing through public domain characters to see if I could get that extra pull from a recognizable character and pretty soon, it was a Santa Claus versus Death situation. I wanted to tell a story about a character who has, despite immortality, wasted his time. While researching different ideas of immortality, I came across Gilgamesh and was reminded of what I read in high school about the epic. There seemed to be a lot of similarities between the story I wanted to tell and that, so it snowballed from there. The idea of this character being a St. Nicholas or a Santa Claus character was just abandoned, and it became Gil the Toymaker. We found elements that, throughout this epic, would be fun to turn into later instances of holiday lore. It really just started with that idea of wanting an elevator pitch, "here's an image of Santa Claus fighting Death," which soon became Gil the Toymaker fighting Death.

All that to say in hopes that the cover alone will sell it as that succinct pitch.

CBY: I was drawn in by the concept of the original pitch. I was like, "This sounds like so much fun." I have to admit though, going through and reading it hit me more emotionally than I expected. With Gil acting as both Santa Claus and Death, Santa is one of those safe spaces in mythological terms. It's all candy and presents. Was there ever that moment where anything felt off-limits?

DB: To an extent, yeah. Not to give too much away, but the entire crux of the story is this character Gilgamesh, who has now called Gil the Toymaker, is acting as Death once a year through a contract that has given him his immortality. Gilgamesh is a character full of hubris and full of pride. He never seems to find satisfaction. He doesn't have the ability to look at his current life and say this is perfect right now so this immortality that he gains is itself a curse because he has lost this past where he was completely satisfied. It was not only tweaking that Gilgamesh character, it was also tweaking this Santa Claus analog character. So, I feel as long as we stay true to that idea that he is realizing now, in his immortality, that things were pretty perfect in retrospect and his pride and hubris have really ripped away what could have been.

He does, like I mentioned, steal souls. Well, not steals, he takes them when they're ready. That includes parents, children, and people in his mind who might deserve a future where he's guaranteed a future no matter what because he is now immortal. There's a dichotomy that he is immortal and will live forever, but he has to spend that immortality removing that gift from other people. I suppose as long as we're following that edict, it feels pretty honest.

CBY: You've got so much material to work with there between these two really rich traditions, Christmas and Mesopotamian folklore. Lots of the world-building is essentially already done, but in essence, that could also become cumbersome. What was your process to condense this down to the story you wanted to tell?

DB: Luckily, I knew the beats of the story. I knew the issues four or five and six and where we wanted to go. So, it was a matter of finding moments in the existing myth. Luckily, my editor, Andrea Molinari, is a religious scholar. He has a PhD in Religious Studies. He works directly with Scout and does great work keeping me in line with that original myth, because I have taken quite a few liberties. When I say it's a retelling, there's a certain degree of accuracy with some of the cuneiform tablets. Unfortunately, there's dozens of them found constantly. Hobby Lobby just got in trouble for purchasing one illegally. That was the Dream Tablet. I believe that's Gilgamesh making his way to Humbaba to battle at the Cedar Forest. I'm not positive, but from the description, I think that's what it was. There are so many different versions, that there is some leeway. This isn't your Edith Hamilton Greek mythology. There are quite a bit of moments that are up for interpretation and just unknown. When you read through the "Epic of Gilgamesh," there's going to be excerpts that are missing, so there's a certain degree of leeway there.

We follow the Sumerian Pantheon, and that was very intentional because the Sumerian Pantheon was in Uruk, where Gilgamesh was king. It's different from city to city. There's no necessarily unified family lineage, but we're also going with the Akkadian name, so there is a bit of a disconnect there. There is purpose because one of the major characters in the "Epic of Gilgamesh" is Enkidu. In Sumerian folklore, the God of Craftiness, the Trickster God, and the God of Water is known as Enki. We didn't want to have an Enki and an Enkidu, that could very easily lose people. The Akkadian name for Inanna is Ishtar, that's where we get Easter, she's the Goddess of Fertility and War. The ideas of eggs and rabbits all come from Ishtar, and we wanted to set that up for a possible sequel if this works out.

"...the artist, who's Ryan Cody, he's creating these dynamic pages both through panel-to-panel and splash pages that are gorgeous. Each page, on its own, would sell the comic, and Micah Myers comes in with his lettering. He's bringing life to these characters and it's gorgeous, so I didn't want to encumber Ryan with eight to nine reindeer."

I wanted to make his bag something specifically. It's a magical bag, your classic D&D, Bag of Holding situation. I wanted to justify it through the "Epic of Gilgamesh," and we find out what that is in issue four. It's an actual magical item that we tweak from the original epic. It's one of Humbaba's terrors; these are seven fabrics that this beast wears. He's the guardian of the Cedar Forest, where seven fabrics are given to him by the gods to empower him, rewritten so that he's only wearing six of them because the seventh one terrified him so much. The seventh holds the idea of the infinite itself. It would hold that idea of immortality, the idea that the universe keeps going and going and makes most creatures and people who look into it fearful of their small nature. When Gilgamesh sees that, he sees his future and his immortality. He finds strength in it and that eventually becomes his bag for toys.

Things like that, finding moments in the modern day where we could easily play with ideas already set up in the past. It's almost a setup to a punch line, and it's amazing how we were able to make it fit within the confines of an existing Santa Claus idea. It's not quite Christmas, it's called Ea's Day that they're celebrating. That was another tweak. You'll notice reading through it, there's no angels or stars or Christ figures. It's all boats, celebrating the flood that the gods created and that Ea saved humanity from. I think we're also still very respectful of the idea of the holiday.

CBY: I absolutely enjoy the creative license. There's one element that I was really curious about, Huluppu. I don't know if I'm exactly pronouncing that correctly.

DB: I don't think any of us know, luckily.

CBY: Huluppu is a chimera, which was a stand-in for the reindeer. Where did that come from?

Gil rides Huluppu

DB: It's another one of those moments where I just wanted to make this Santa Claus analog different. I don't want the artist, who's Ryan Cody, he's creating these dynamic pages both through panel-to-panel and splash pages that are gorgeous. Each page, on its own, would sell the comic, and Micah Myers comes in with his lettering. He's bringing life to these characters and it's gorgeous, so I didn't want to encumber Ryan with eight to nine reindeer. It felt like it would be appropriate to make this creature that Gil the Toymaker rides from house to house on this one night a year something from Babylonian mythos. Huluppu himself has raven wings, a snake's tail, lion's paws, and a boar's head. It's a very unique chimera, and it doesn't appear in any of the cuneiform texts or anything like that. Examples of chimera go back to Babylonian creation myths, some of the Anunnaki were chimera. We see actually several chimera throughout the series. I believe in the third issue there's a pretty bloody battle with a separate one. It felt like an opportunity to embrace that mythos while also making something very modern and cool. It certainly makes for a great splash page.

CBY: You mentioned Ryan and Micah. I think Ryan is doing the coloring as well? How much control did you want to maintain over the visual aspects of the story, or did you just say "have at it"?

DB: Almost none. You've seen the script. Panel by panel, they're pretty specific. I also wanted to let Ryan know this is his creation too, and by all means, if you want to turn a seven-panel into a five-panel, as long as those moments are there, as long as that dialogue is there, I feel great.

Something I don't really consider in coloring (this is something I've learned working with Ryan) is the palette choices. It's something that, for some reason, I just didn't think about. Yes, his artwork is super dynamic. The linework is very definitive and each brushstroke feels like it means something, but the colors he uses are just appropriate to every scene. Again, it's not something I think about. There's a moment where Gil is walking through his workshop, which is a very OSHA-friendly place with overhead lights and walls lined with the OSHA rules, even though we don't call it that. Ryan creates this sterile, almost sickening color palette for these hallways, but in the next scene, Gil is in the pens where he keeps Huluppu, his chimera, and it's vibrant browns and reds that really make it feel like almost a barnyard. This is the very next page, so giving him complete control over that and just seeing it when it's done, I have been thrilled. It's been a complete gift.

With Micah as well, his choice to give Death a very distinct speech bubble. The sound effects are just so vibrant. You read them, and they shout out to you. I'm always reminded of the very final episode of Parks and Rec where Leslie Knope is mentioning to people in her final speech that if you want to do something, you find your team. Luckily, I found my team and they are doing incredible work here.

CBY: How did you find your team? How did you go about recruiting them?

DB: I found Ryan through Family Tree. He did the colors on Family Tree. And again, it's not something that typically stands out to me, the idea of a colorist. I feel horrible about that now, looking at this in retrospect, but his colors were so unique. There are moments in Family Tree, it's a dark night but you see pinks, and greens, and blues and, despite the fact that they're so vibrant, they work together to create this night scene where you clearly know it's night. I found them through there and was originally thinking, "I want this color." So, I found them and found out that he was also doing linework. The linework had this Mignola style that I was hoping for. I don't want to say what we were looking for was a Hellboy look. Each panel is this moment where the lines are so definitive and the colors so calculated, that I know it was the right choice. Micah was actually suggested to me by Ryan. I asked Ryan if there was a letterer he'd like to work with, and Micah was the first person Ryan mentioned. Micah signed on, we were all set to go.

CBY: The material culture is really interesting. By default in comics, if it looks a certain way, Hellboy has become a landmark reference point for so many fans. Looking through this, I really enjoyed some of that material culture. I have an anthropology background, so these little bitty pieces of things become captivating. Normally, Santa's bag is rendered dark. So, it really jumps out at you that it looks like a bag of stars or something similar.

DB: That's one of those moments. Luckily, we were looking ahead when we created the pitch package, which is pages two through seven. Since most of it was already written and we knew it was there, I asked Ryan if he thought he could do it. I'm looking at it now on my bulletin board. The bag looks like the cosmos itself. It's amazing.

CBY: Yeah, it's beautiful.

With your background, you're coming at the world of comics writing from a different perspective, having come from the theater world and vocal narration. I noticed that, in the past, you had a storytelling podcast as well. Was it easy to transition to something that doesn't have an auditory component?