Comic Book Yeti contributor Lauren Smith chats with Chris Mancini about Long Ago and Far Away, the fun of world-building, and the importance of having an unlikable protagonist.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Chris! Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions about my questions!
CHRIS MANCINI: Thanks Lauren! And thanks again for all the support from you, Matt and crew over there. It’s been much appreciated.
CBY: For those that don’t know: Long Ago And Far Away tells the story of Jason, a man who, as a young boy, visited the fantasy world Elvenwood and saved the day, but as he grew older, he became like many of us- an adult. An adult who runs a comic shop. Did you intend for this to be a self-insert story for all of us nerds? Why did you place Jason as a manager in a comic shop?
CM: Ha! At first, yes. It’s the place I always wanted to work as a kid, as I spent so much time in them, but then as an adult you realize working in a comic book store may not be quite as glamorous as you thought. But it also means insulation, where you’re in your own bubble of your own world where everything makes sense.
CBY: Upon first viewing, one might say the main plot of this story is to save Elvenwood, but reading it more closely, there seems to be a larger underlying plot hidden between the lines. In the March 8th press release, you called this a redemption story. What does it mean to you to write a fantasy story that can feel so real at times as well?
CM: It was an interesting evolution, and not one that I was expecting! I first started out making a comedy/fantasy story and wanted to make it as funny as possible. But then as I was writing and then rewriting, the story became more personal about how someone can be lost and stricken with fear and hopelessness, which makes them lose their focus and enthusiasm for life as an adult. To get it back, we have to revisit that childhood wonder we all experienced many years ago, when our hearts and minds were more open, and when the world had just a little bit more magic in it. Suddenly, THAT became the story, and it just happened to also be populated with nerds, sexy witches, polite black knights and naked wise men.
CBY: What were your favorite parts of Elvenwood to create? What were the hardest parts to create?
CM: My favorite part is always the world-building. What would the world look like, how would it work, and who lives there? The hardest parts were figuring out the details of the interconnectivity of the world, and how the nature of good and evil and life and death all needed to be in balance for the world to survive. And then adding on top of that the mythology and impact of storytelling itself, which influences everything.
CBY: How did you design where chapters end and a new one starts in this graphic novel? There are a few specific chapters that come to mind where I was shocked by the cliffhangers!
CM: I wanted it to feel like a classic fantasy story that you couldn’t put down at the end of certain chapters, like when (Spoiler LOL) Aslan is sacrificed in the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Also, originally it was broken up into 8 issues when it was with Starburns Press, so there was a definite rhythm to the chapters. But now I’m happy to have it released as a deluxe graphic novel available with all the cool extras and the foreword by Mark Waid (end name drop).
CBY: Additionally, how did you design Jason, the main protagonist? I was shocked by how unlikeable he was at times. It’s like, he’s as fallible as the rest of us humans or something (crazy, right?) Was this done on purpose?
CM: Absolutely, and this was a definite point of contention with some readers who found he was too “unlikable”. But honestly, that’s kind of the point. He’s not only flawed, at some point you just want to grab him and yell “what’s wrong with you!?” Because sometimes that’s a conversation we have with ourselves. And in his fallibility, and his poor judgment, is where we can see ourselves, and our own journeys towards growth. Honestly, I also just like flawed protagonists, because there is always a lot of room to grow. And then when they finally do make that journey, I feel like it’s even more poignant, since they started from so far away.
CBY: To me, characters like Marla and Phil, Jason’s friends, represent other sides of the comic nerd fandom that many forget about: the woman who just wants the same opportunities and respect “average” men get, and the man who is too kind-hearted to be real but gets stepped on a bit by others. Where did these characters come from and what was your intention in their design and personalities?
CM: I always envisioned the supporting characters to be more than just sidekicks, with their own wants, needs, and journeys. But they also serve a role as Jason’s conscience. Something he has ignored for a while, and when he treats them poorly, it’s because he’s really being angry with himself and what kind of person he’s become. Marla is the “love interest” but she also has her own interests, and Phil is the best friend, who is definitely taken for granted. But like all true friends, they are there when you need them, even when you don’t deserve them.
CBY: There are certain tropes you use throughout this book, such as women sleeping with men to get what they want, and even the old, wise, and majestic wizard that knows all. However, as the story progresses, you flip these tropes on their heads. What was your process in using these tropes throughout the story and deciding to flip them in certain ways?
CM: Basically I would look at a classic trope, like sexy evil witches from Narnia to The Never Ending Story, Hollywood’s treatment of them, (evil is seductive) mixed in some 1940s Femme Fatale vibes and turned everything on its head with the tropes of power, seduction, and male fantasy. But what I also really wanted to show was the cost of these highly questionable id-driven actions in a comedic way as well. And that cost may continue in Vol 2…
And I always thought that the old wise man and wizard living on top of a mountain in isolation would in reality, be quite… eccentric, even if he was brilliant. I mean, if you’re in isolation long enough, you are going to start talking to that soccer ball, right?
CBY: This story has a great amount of humor woven into it! There are some comedic beats that remind me of the Three Stooges, or anything with Slapstick humor, and I can’t help but laugh out loud every time I read them! I especially love the humor you use to juxtapose characters from Elvenwood versus “our” world. How did you approach the comedy in this story?
CM: I approached it as a mix of nerd culture and actually coming face to face with these things for real. And a lot of credit goes to Fernando Pinto, the artist, for the visual humor. He’s an amazing artist with a great sense of humor and it comes through on every page. While I have a comedy background, this was my first comic so there was a learning curve on how to get the humor across in the most effective way. There were some beats where I wasn’t sure if the humor was coming through, so we would add /subtract panels, change expressions, etc. A lot of work went into the jokes and humor pacing, for sure. I did a lot of “pregnant pause” panels where there’s just a beat before the punchline since a lot of humor can actually happen between lines.
CBY: How hard was it to combine the genres of Fantasy and comedy together?
CM: Well, from being a comedian since my late teens, I’ve always looked at pretty much EVERYTHING and seen the humor. So combining something I have loved since I was a kid, which is fantasy, just seemed like a good fit and it flowed pretty well.
CBY: There’s a moment in the story where you pay tribute to great Fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis, the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, and J.R.R. Tolkien. How did you decide how to pay tribute to all of these amazing creators?
CM: It stemmed from what Elvenwood really was, and where inspiration from stories comes from. What if all the great creators were inspired by the same thing, and how would it inspire them differently? And it was also a fun way to pay tribute to all the amazing fantasy writers I have read and enjoyed over the years, and who have inspired me.
CBY: If readers take away one thing from Long Ago and Far Away, what do you hope that will be?
CM: I hope readers get a laugh and a smile as they rediscover their inner child, and see that the world still has some magic in it. OK, that may be multiple things.