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.
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?
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?
"Finishing up and summing up the story in issue six made me realize that what I've been writing about is essentially my biggest fear, a fear that has evolved since my childhood. I used to be afraid of the idea of the infinite, which is interesting that that's a part of this. Deeper than that, I think that fear is having wasted time. I've put a lot of work into creating pitches for comics and animation then sending them out. I feel like there's time well served there, but my greatest fear is a deathbed revelation that I just wasted time. I didn't use it properly."
DB: It was certainly a challenge. I wrote for theater for years, was published and produced, but it's not a very lucrative [medium]. I hate to say that I looked at it from a financial standpoint, but if you want to do this kind of work, you have to be able to support yourself through the work. Theater is a very dialogue-laden form of media, typically. There are some more experimental or alternative theater scenes that will do something that takes place though the spotlights and the scrim, which turns it into something more akin to a Cirque du Soleil, or what have you. A lot of my plays ended up being two acts, separated by an intermission. They were each an hour and a half, very dialogue-heavy, more like sitcoms. The driving action was just people talking. There was a forward narrative, there were revelations and such. It wasn't action-laden by any means, so coming to comics, I was very aware of that. I wanted to tell this story as succinctly and effectively as possible, and it felt like too much dialogue would have tied it down.
There's a 2017-18 miniseries I read recently from one of the big two. It's a six-issue series with probably two dozen characters that are all recognizable. In most of the series, you would turn the page and it would be the same characters in the same space having the same conversation. You'd turn the page and it would just kind of continue. It didn't have a forward momentum, so I was very cognizant of that. I tried to make it so that as you turn a page, either you're in a different scene or something in this scene happens to push that narrative to take enough time to respect the emotions of the characters. In those moments where Gil or Gilgamesh is reflecting on his situation or his past, and it's typically him because he is kind of the protagonist here, we'll take that time. It's going to be a 6- or 7-panel page with a monologue that, if read on stage, might take a minute and a half, then [when] you turn the page, somebody explodes and there's a giant push of action.
So, something I was very cognizant of, coming from a theater background, is I can't just write this Neil Simon-style dialogue and have it enjoyed on panel. You can, but I just can't imagine that the audience would enjoy it.
CBY: I come from a theatre background as well. I spent 15 years in the entertainment business. It's very interesting, that parallel between theater and comics. I come from the tech end of things. I was a technical director and on the road working Broadway stuff for a while. I'm always visualizing from the fly rail perspective, where you get these overhead moments almost like snapshots, which is very different than an audience perspective. It's very interesting to hear where you're coming from, writing from a theatrical perspective and how you made that transition.
What made you decide, okay, now I want to do comic books? Were they always part of your life?
DB: Yeah, I definitely grew up reading them. One issue, in particular, Marvel Team Up Annual #6. The original cover is ripped off. It's worn and wrinkled and has water stains. I bought a new copy recently. It's not a rare comic. It's not even necessarily a groundbreaking comic. It's just an annual that catches you up on some things. I don't know where I got it. It's from 1983. I was born in 87, so I imagine this was part of my father's collection. He was into Daredevil and Spider-Man when he first got married to my mother. Something about it just stuck with me. The panel work is very simple. I was looking through it recently. It feels flat in spaces, but it's got good pacing to it. It's got Spider-Man and the New Mutants in it, but also Cloak and Dagger. I think it was Cloak and Dagger that really sucked me in. In fact, most of my comic rack is just appearances of Cloak and Dagger. There's issues of Power Pack in there that I haven't read yet, but I know that Cloak and Dagger show up, so they're in there. I don't know if it was something about the characters or how they were presented in this comic, but that's how I got into comics.
I've enjoyed it for years, got back into it around the time of Avengers Disassembled and going on through Siege. My father was a Marvel fanboy. I became a Marvel zombie like him, not that I don't love DC as well, but it just feels like that's my home. It never really occurred to me that this is something that I could write, coming from writing plays or having worked in animation for a bit. It felt so distant, and I'm not sure why. It might just be because at that time, pre MCU, it wasn't really part of the zeitgeist. If you'd have said the words, "Iron Man," to somebody around that time, they probably wouldn't know what you meant. It was always something that I would have loved to do, but I thought it just wasn't accessible. You have to put a whole team together. I didn't know how to go about pitching. Then come to find out, you just put your own team together and then you pitch and that's basically it. It's far more open than pitching to theaters because a lot of times, theaters want to produce recognizable plays. They want to put butts in the seats. They want those Neil Simons. They want those musicals. They want those big-ticket numbers. They don't want this cute new play that has goofy characters and silly dialogue.
In pitching animation, it's kind of as an outsider pitching in. I work with a company called Glow In The Dark Concept Studio now; we have a better foot in the door with the studios and networks. Before that, it was just unsolicited cold calls which is very, very inappropriate. I didn't quite know it at the time. Unsolicited cold calls in comics are pretty welcome universally a lot of the time, so long as you've got your team in place and five to ten pages for their consideration. I wish I would have gotten into it sooner.
CBY: That's interesting. It's counterintuitive to what I would have thought. I would have thought there were more gatekeepers, honestly.
DB: I think in the audience, definitely. Maybe in the post-MCU world where people are looking to find the next thing that they can sell to Netflix or Amazon, looking for the next property that pops. I've never had an interaction with any publisher of comics that I would count as unfortunate on any level. They've all been kind. They've all been supportive. Obviously, some, you can't outright pitch to. I've not sent anything to your Marvels or your DCs, but the ones that do have open submission policies, and that's most of them, are very supportive and kind.
CBY: They say write what you know. I think that was Twain. Sometimes it ends up being who you know. Do you see yourself in any of the characters?
DB: I didn't realize it until I started the final issue. Issues one through five of this are written and are in Ryan's hands. He's gonna start this big push of getting the art done this month. Finishing up and summing up the story in issue six made me realize that what I've been writing about is essentially my biggest fear, a fear that has evolved since my childhood. I used to be afraid of the idea of the infinite, which is interesting that that's a part of this. Deeper than that, I think that fear is having wasted time. I've put a lot of work into creating pitches for comics and animation then sending them out. I feel like there's time well-served there, but my greatest fear is a deathbed revelation that I just wasted time. I didn't use it properly. Despite the fact that I'm very happily married to the love of my life in a wonderful home and living a wonderful city. Chattanooga is a haven in the southeast. Despite all that, I would fear that creatively, I wasted time. I think that is pretty evident in Gil's storyline, because it's not that he's doing a job that he finds horrific in his eternity. That's a scapegoat for his true fear that, despite the fact that he's immortal, [and] the story spans 4000 years, he's spent 4000 years realizing that he's wasted time not having lived his life to the fullest extent. That idea of living his life to the fullest does come into play more later in the story, but it's all relationship-based. It's wasting time in relationships. It's not even with characters who have died off because they're not immortal, it's because, even though some other people are in his life who are immortal, for 4000 years, he has wasted his time sustaining these relationships. So, as far as putting myself into the characters, that was a pretty late-in-the-game revelation. Hopefully, that builds more of the narrative and, in issue six, really brings it to a culmination.
CBY: That's something that's relatable to everybody especially when you hit middle age. You're married, you have kids, you look at your parents getting older or having passed on. I think this story is, especially when you weave in the holidays, such fertile ground to be able to expand upon.
Once Gil and Death get each other sorted out after six issues, is this project done or are there plans to work on another story arc for it?
DB: It's definitely the end of an arc for a certain amount of characters. I hope that people enjoy it enough to add in some side stories, one that's a quote-unquote Easter tale that instead is Ishtar. If this were to exist as a standalone, I think it comes to a very satisfying and a very hopeful end. That's not to say that there's not a bloody mess of action and drama in the final issue because there's going to be a lot of coloring red for Ryan, definitely, but I think it's left in a very optimistic and hopeful place for at least two or three of the characters. That's not to say that they can't continue a new story, but this kind of does finish that main narrative.
CBY: What is the release timeline for this?
DB: Is in a bit of a flux right now. This might be a little inside baseball so I apologize, Scout likes to have the full series mostly done, at least five issues done with lettering and art all completed before the initial issue one release to prevent any delays. One of the reason I got out of comics for a little bit is because it seemed that every comic I was reading at that time was on some kind of release schedule that was postponed again and again. I just got tired of waiting, but this should prevent that. So, we're looking at an early to mid-2022 release. It will be in 2022. I doubt it would be as late as June, but that's not completely for me to say.
The art is being done by Ryan now. It's looking great, the schedule's been great, it's just a matter of maybe wanting to lean into Christmas a bit more for the first issue or maybe even the trade once that comes out. So it's hard to tell at the moment, but it should be early to mid-2022 when issue one drops and before that for the ashcan.
CBY: Is there anything else you want to touch on or mention about the project?
DB: Yeah, I want to apologize to everyone. I'm not great at social media, I'm learning. I have a hard time separating the work from myself. Most of what I tweet about is either this comic or my expanding collection of Ninja Turtle figures and memorabilia. I don't put a lot of myself onto Twitter, and I need to extend that. Hopefully, that could drum up some interest in the work, more than just some action figures.
I'm trying to live by a new edict of being patient, thoughtful, and kind. It's a very cynical world we live in, and Twitter can become a very cynical space. Social media can be very cynical. So, I'm just afraid that that edict of being patient, thoughtful and kind might be threatened in certain circumstances but that in itself is a very cynical idea. I'm just living what I fear, I guess.
CBY: You have to put yourself out there, but there are certainly ways to do it to shield yourself. I remind people all the time that every platform has a mechanism for shutting people who are just not positive down and off. There's no reason to continue to let yourself be exposed to that toxicity. You're never gonna win them over. It's just a waste of time, and it will suck the soul out of you.
DB: Great job bringing it back to the idea of wasting time. I guess that's where my fear of Twitter comes from, wasting time with people who just want to be cynical specifically. Not that Twitter by any means is a waste of time, it's brought us together and created new ideas. That fear of wasting time that I have definitely includes trying to fight cynicism that dares not die.
CBY: I really appreciate you joining me today and everybody who listened in, thank you guys so much. The books coming out sometime next year. Thanks, everybody.
DB: Thanks so much.
CBY: Appreciate you, Dakota. Have a great day. Take care.
This is a transcript of the interview conducted on Twitter Spaces with Dakota Brown on Saturday, October 2, 2021. Minor content changes have been made to assist with readability.
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