COMIC BOOK YETI: Thank you for making time for this interview today, Jason. How are things back in New York?
JASON LANDSEL: Things are good, especially with the return of spring and the warmer weather. I try to spend as much time outdoors as possible so this is a good time of year.
CBY: So, Jason, you’ve embarked on a three-volume undertaking with By Water: The Felix Manz Story, with Vol. 1 being released in March, 2023. How long did your development process leading up to the release of this first volume take, and at what point did you determine the full scope of what you were going to commit to with these three volumes? How did you know precisely how much space you needed to tell this story?
JL: It has been a process that has spanned a number of years. I have had a longstanding interest in Medieval and Renaissance history, and the little known story of these Radical Reformers of the 16th century has been a particular interest of mine and one I had explored using other artistic formats over the years. When I had the idea of doing a graphic novel and began the research really in earnest it quickly became clear that a trilogy of stories would be the best approach rather than doing one longer volume. This allows us explore the stories we’ve selected more effectively.
CBY: What has the production timeline looked like for these volumes? Can you tell us a bit about how you assembled the creative team of Sankha Banerjee and Richard Mommsen? Can you explain the division of roles and coordination between the three of you, and will they be contributing in the same manner to the production of the remaining two volumes set for release?
JL: By Water has had its challenges due to the pandemic and other delays, so it took longer than we’d hoped. The other two volumes should come out in a timelier manner. We are creating By Fire now and things are going great, everyone is very inspired. I have preliminary concepts together for By Sword, the third book in our trilogy and will start finalizing that soon.
After I wrote By Water and had done a lot of the concept art for it, it made best sense to bring in Sankha Banerjee, who has created some terrific graphic novels, as the actual artist, and we have a wonderful working relationship of sharing ideas and materials back and forth and working together to create the artwork. Richard is a friend of mine, we had collaborated on some other projects in the past and he has a background in writing scripts for the stage and screen so he was brought in to help with the text. And I am the creative director - it is a great collaboration.
CBY: In terms of both narrative content and visual style, By Water: The Felix Manz Story is rife with references to primary source material. What did your research process look like, and given your interest in historical accuracy in the depiction of the life of Felix Manz and the other Anabaptist founders, were there any hard and fast requirements you set out for yourself and the team in making sure certain material was included and covered in specific ways?
JL: Very much so. Being as accurate as possible with the settings and cultural references of that time period was very important to us. We did take a bit of liberty with the clothing of the main characters as we did not want that to distract from the story too much and we wanted the characters to feel relatable to a modern audience.
I traveled to Europe and researched all the locations in our trilogy in depth; I have visited many museums in Europe and here in the US, and did a lot of research collecting visual references for the art. And I shared all this with Sankha for creating the artwork. Interestingly, the setting for a couple scenes in the book were specifically based on artwork from Dürer, Bruegel, and Bosch.
CBY: To this end, I was incredibly impressed by the extent to which you provide context in the appendices at the end of the title, showcasing a variety of primary source material from the period depicted in the graphic novel. With the economy of pages in consideration, how did you determine what made the cut for inclusion? It’s not every comic that comes with a bibliography, so what were you previously acquainted with from your involvement in the Anabaptist faith, and what did you dig into specifically for the purposes of completing this title?
JL: Most of what I list in the bibliography was material I had read and studied specifically for By Water, and there was a lot more we did not mention. Including all that back matter was very important given the fact that this is not a widely known part of history, to include further reading and give more details on important aspects of the story we could only touch on in the book. Deciding what to include and what to leave out is always very difficult. There were so many interesting little details we could have worked in - but you cannot include everything in a book this size.
CBY: As the narrative and visual style for By Water took shape, what external references did you lean into as points of commonality for the creative team? What other historically-rooted comics (or other media, beyond your bibliography) served as a foundation on which to build out this presentation of the story of Felix Manz?
JL: We drew inspiration from Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints for sure. However, there were many others - The March trilogy by John Lewis, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Berlin by Jason Lutes, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, Radioactive by Lauren Redniss, Palestine by Joe Sacco, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, and Belonging by Nora Krug. I was also inspired by classic films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Seventh Seal, and the work of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Eggers and many others.
CBY: Ah, yes - Dreyer's depiction of Joan of Arc definitely serves as a gripping reference point. Alongside my reading of By Water, I was also conducting reading for a gender research course discussing how to define “queerness,” and it struck me, given the origin of the word as a means of defining the strange/weird in the early 16th century, how queer (i.e. - non-normative) the Anabaptist philosophy would’ve struck others within the existing paradigm of the time. Given the requirements around cognizance prior to baptism and non-violence, how do you think Anabaptist beliefs have shifted over the last four centuries in relation to the Overton Window in terms of acceptability within broader social and religious discourse?
JL: As a member a church group that still draws inspiration from the early Anabaptist beliefs, I would say that the radicalness of their commitment remains if lived out with the same dedication as they did. The relinquishment of personal property through living in a communal lifestyle where everyone is cared for, the Baptism of discerning adults done out of free will; the rejection of violence and so on. Obviously, we enjoy greater religious liberty than back in the 16th century. So I would say that while their beliefs are more acceptable in a way today – they are still radical.
CBY: Geography and capturing the spatial realities of this story seemed as pertinent as the historical context. Can we expect to see other settings laid out in the coming volumes, or are they both centered around Zurich and the locales explored in By Water? What are you excited to see depicted on the page, if you’re able to share anything further without spoilers?
JL: Yes, we plan to do more of the same. Our next story takes place in the alpine region of the Tyrol and the geopolitics of the time is a big component to this next story, so there will be visuals describing that, an illustrative rendition of the escape they were forced to undertake to find a safe place to live in what is now Czechoslovakia. I also want to work in many details of the Tyrolean culture and display how this dramatic landscape shapes the story. We have many ideas; I think it is going to be great.
CBY: I know Plough Publishing House is affiliated with the Bruderhof, and the faith-based foundation of By Water clearly suits the subject matter Plough brings to market. I see they have other graphic novels in their catalog, so could you detail for our readers what the process of pitching this project and arriving at a publishing agreement looked like?
JL: As you mention, Plough Publishing is affiliated with the Bruderhof communities, of which I am a member. Plough had published a number of early Anabaptist writings already, as well as graphic novels on the German reformer Martin Luther, The White Rose resistance movement during WW2, Nelson Mandela and others. I had also been a regular contributor to Plough Quarterly, so this project was a good partnership.
CBY: Given the scope of this project - three graphic novel volumes - have you considered subsequent projects, or do you have other stories you’d like to tell that are rooted in your own experience or fully fictitious narrative worlds outside the scope of historical narratives? What creative (or other forms of) pursuits do you have in store for readers of your work?
JL: Well first we have complete the remaining two volumes in this trilogy – By Fire, and By Sword, so look for the first of those hopefully next year. After that, who knows? I like this form of storytelling and it would be terrific to continue to bring inspirational stories of the lives of other lesser-known radicals throughout history. I am also inspired by Mythology and Science Fiction, I have a few ideas; we will have to see!
CBY: Jason, it has been a pleasure to learn so much about your journey towards publishing By Water: The Felix Manz Story, and as a conclusion, what other media (comics, films, books, music, etc.) has recently caught your attention that you’d like our readers to check out when they have the opportunity?
JL: Thanks for taking the time and for your questions, it was a pleasure discussing this project with you! As far as new media recommendations, nothing specific - I always try to keep up with what is new and exciting in the graphic novel world, my son has been reading many of the Manga series lately, so we have enjoyed exploring that together. And my family likes to watch any new shows and movies from Marvel, DC, Star Wars and so on; so we are looking forward to what all is coming out this summer!
To purchase By Water: The Felix Manz Story, please visit Plough Publishing below, and check out Jason's author profile and updates from Plough's Twitter account: