Comics writer Iolanda Zanfardino is launching a new dystopian fantasy series for Image Comics, The Least We Can Do. Set in the UK and addressing themes of social control, Comic Book Yeti's Byron O'Neal sits down with her to discuss the project and some of the meaning behind it.
COMIC BOOK YETI: This is Byron O’Neal, Media Editor for Comic Book Yeti, and I am joined today by Iolanda Zanfardino, the writer for the new dystopian fantasy series, The Least We Can Do, from Image Comics. Thanks for joining me today.
IOLANDA ZANFARDINO: Hi, Byron. Thank you so much for this interview and for your interest in my and Elisa's new comic series. I'm very excited to talk with you today.
CBY: Tell me what The Least We Can Do is about.
IZ: In our story, the world as we know it was destroyed by a big war but has been blessed with new mysterious magical powers too, contained in stones called Medium. Uriel, the main character, is a young woman with a brilliant mind, subversive ideas and a kind heart. She will have to prove her worth to the rebels around her while keeping her principles clear as her faith in them will need to convince others to believe in them as well.
It is a story full of characters fighting desperately to change a reality that's tough for everyone and who are also trying to find a place in their lives for hope and love.
CBY: I’m trying to give people some sense of a metaphorical landing pad here. Fantasy is a big umbrella. What would you compare this to that readers might be familiar with?
IZ: Actually, I've always dreamed of writing something that takes place in a setting similar to Final Fantasy VII, which is one of the greatest loves of my life. Hope the inspiration I got from it is noticeable to everyone.
"It seems like everyone considers inserting queer characters, or a character that is different from the old standard way in media, a political choice. I think we should consider NOT inserting those characters a political choice. Queer people exist and them being a part of a story is normal and natural, not making them a part of it is instead an intended and forced exclusion."
When the proposal for The Least We Can Do had already been approved and I had almost all of the scripts done, Arcane came out. I thought the series was wonderful, and it reminded me of some things in my own story. I swear I had no knowledge of League of Legends lore previously, but anyways, if someone sees similarities between the two, I would feel honored.
CBY: Your main character, Uriel, is certainly portrayed as an innocent. Throughout the market scenes at the beginning of the first issue, she’s wearing a red cape and it’s hard for me to not make the comparison with a naïve Red Riding Hood. Who is she supposed to be?
IZ: It is an intented comparison! Elisa and I picked the red cape to show how Uriel is out of her comfort zone in that scene. She seems very naïve, that was intentional as well, but I hope the readers will appreciate her unwavering hope to do what is right and to see that people can work together to build a more peaceful world. She's born into a heartless aristocratic family, but she managed to run away and now she's trying to prove to the Eclipse Rebels, who illegally use Medium and fight to free the population from Military control, that she can be strong enough to join them.
CBY: She is in possession of a piece of Golden Medium. There’s a really nice interlude where we get a couple of pages of exposition in a completely different style to give us the historical layout of the story, including Medium and how it is now a controlled substance. What is the Medium? How is its power harnessed?
IZ: The big war in the story is called "the Creation" which wiped out all the technology worldwide. In its place, a small percentage of natural materials gained magical powers. Shaping them into gemstones that can be embedded into rudimentary weapons and armor allows you to use those powers and increase your personal affinity with them. The exploration of their potential is being developed in the story. Society quickly finds itself divided into the few who can experiment on rare and expensive materials, gold or even diamonds, and those who have to train hard to improve the performance of humble materials, like coal or quartz.
CBY: Was that interlude something you originally wrote in or something artist Elisa Romboli came up with?
IZ: I like to meticulously write everything that's on the pages, actually. I feel sorry for Elisa because I know I can be too much of a perfectionist sometimes. But, thankfully she manages to draw everything wonderfully that I come up with. She's an amazing artist, and I trust her to represent everything that I want to convey in the story.
CBY: This isn’t the first time you have worked together. Tell me about how you met and started collaborating.
IZ: Me and Elisa moved in together, as a couple, a little less than 3 years ago. We both were working as comics artists, and at that time, I had just finished my first graphic novel as both the writer and artist on Midnight Radio and had a dream of continuing to write stories, so we thought we could work together as a team. We created Alice in Leatherland because we loved the idea of working on a queer romantic comedy mini-series, then we published a new mini-series with Image Comics, A Thing Called Truth. We really hope our adventure together as creators will be long and productive.
"Actually, I've always dreamed of writing something that takes place in a setting similar to Final Fantasy VII, which is one of the greatest loves of my life. Hope the inspiration I got from it is noticeable to everyone."
CBY: There are several big points of social commentary in the book I’d like to ask you about. Let’s start with social oppression. There’s a flashback scene in the first issue where Uriel is younger, and her dad is shouting at her. It’s broadly about books but specifically feels like a statement about generations viewing the world through different lenses and what we are seeing globally against, well, knowledge and particularly against the idealism of younger people to shape their world into a better place. This could just be my own interpretation. Am I on the right track?
IZ: Yes, more or less. Idealism is a central topic. Books, like in this case banning scientific books, are linked to the intention to forbid or censor how reality is perceived and how the world functions. But, this story is also full of young people guided by twisted ideals, wrath or vengeance as well. More than a generational problem, it's a confrontation between those who trust in others and in the potential of human solidarity and those who have no faith anymore and react with brutality to others' idealism.
CBY: Why is a comic book your preferred medium to expand on that?
IZ: Comics gives me the ability to control every phase of the work, along with Elisa, from the initial concepts, to coloring and lettering. It gives us power and total freedom in a world we own.
CBY: Your world is under the iron-fisted control of the Eden army. We are approaching the half-year point of the war in the Ukraine. You’ve set this as a dystopian version of the United Kingdom, but this could easily be a mirror for modern Russia or South Korea. I believe you are Italian so there’s a historical reference point there too. Was this about repression? Control? Am I trying to read too many parallels into it, and it’s just the way you wanted to set the story?
IZ: It indeed refers to repression and control which are the other side of the coin of twisting the concepts of "safety" and "order", words widely used by the Eden Army for their propaganda. In this world, after the establishment in the UK of a violent military dictatorship that keeps the population in constant poverty, Medium's use was forbidden to the common people due to a fear of rioting. All the fanatical members of the military are equipped with a powerful piece of golden Medium and shiny angelic-looking armor. As I'm going to explain later in the story, there are other important concepts of having blind loyalty to the regime and the indoctrination of young minds.
CBY: Why set it in the UK specifically?
IZ: When it comes to dystopian stories I can't help but think of George Orwell, so setting this narrative in the UK felt very natural to me. The Eclipse rebels spend lots of their time and energy stealing from the Eden Army. All they confiscate is redistributed to the poor so there's also an association with Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
CBY: Your Twitter bio proclaims you are a proud queer comics creator. If I may, I wanted to ask about how you are injecting themes of diversity and identity into this project. It’s certainly a queer diverse story, it’s multicultural, and I loved the inclusion of Lucy as the spouse of the leader of the resistance who needs the assistance of a wheelchair. I cover a lot of all ages/YA books that introduce queerness in vastly different ways (not that this is billed necessarily as such as there are a few naughty words and more mature themes.) It could be as simple as a character with a "they" pronoun, to an entire queer cast and everything in between. It sounds weird to quantify it in these terms but what level of queer were you wanting to inject into this at the onset and has that changed at all as it developed?
IZ: It seems like everyone considers inserting queer characters, or a character that is different from the old standard way in media, a political choice. I think we should consider NOT inserting those characters a political choice. Queer people exist and them being a part of a story is normal and natural, not making them a part of it is instead an intended and forced exclusion. The real world doesn't have a standard set of the people in it. I live in the real world, and I decided to talk about what exists, because I think speaking of a small and non-representative percentage of humanity only, so far the version that has gotten the chance to be told, doesn't do anybody any good.
CBY: Let’s not forget being body positive, which has been a theme in some of your other work. Uriel’s team certainly exemplifies that all heroes need not look a certain way.
IZ: Creating Uriel's team the way it is felt very natural for me, it's the same speech I was giving above. It feels more true to describe realistic and "alive" bodies than presenting the same stereotyped model.
CBY: So, what is The Least We Can Do referring to?
IZ: The title refers to social commitment, the will to do your part. In the case of our characters, it means to fight [by] risking your life, which is all they have left, and ironically, that is the least they can do to make a difference and to create a better world.
CBY: Is this ultimately a story about hope then?
IZ: Yes, it is, but it's primarily a story about [having a] personal sense of justice, of seeking within yourself, to the core, for what is right and [following] it without any doubt or fear.
CBY: And this is designed as an ongoing series?
IZ: Sure is. Elisa and I are very excited because we've only had the opportunity to work on mini-series so far. Let's hope people will love The Least We Can Do as much as we do. This way we can continue to work on [it] until the story is completely finished.
CBY: I love looking for Easter eggs in comics. You threw in a telephone booth in the middle of a market scene. Are you a Dr. Who fan?
IZ: Absolutely! The red telephone box is a familiar sight on the streets of the UK, and I personally adore it. I'm a Dr. Who fan as well and had the opportunity to work as a cover artist for Titan Comics' Dr. Who series for years.
CBY: And there’s a pig with pearls, how’d that end up in there?
IZ: Pigs are adorable! The story swims in biblical quotes and the choice of making her wear a pearl necklace recalls the phrase, “Cast not pearls before swine.” It's one of the ways the Eclipse rebels have to oppose and mock the "angelic" Eden Army.
CBY: Thanks so much for hanging out with me today to chat about The Least We Can Do. This is one of the most diverse presentations I’ve seen in a fantasy comic. Being a disabled person myself, I especially appreciate the inclusion of a disabled character. So, thank you. I hope that everyone enjoys the book as much as I did.
This is Byron O’Neal and on behalf of all of us at Comic Book Yeti, thanks for tuning in and see you next time.
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All The Least We Can Do characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are trademarks of and copyright of Iolanda Zanfardino, Elisa Romboli, Image Comics or their respective owners. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.