Unicorns and Metal and Zoso, Oh My! – An Interview with MARKISAN NASO
Unicorns…yeesh. Am I the only one sick of these elusive magical ponies that only bring rainbows and smiles if you're lucky enough to catch one? I don’t think I am.
Markisan Naso, the man behind the story of Scout Comics' sci-fi/fantasy By The Horns, brings us a different perspective on these fancy horses. But don’t go hating him, there is a lot more to the comic and even more to the man. (By the way, he doesn’t really hate Unicorns.)
COMIC BOOK YETI: Before we talk about BY THE HORNS, I want to talk about you. You love cats (and I assume other animals); live in Honolulu, Hawaii; Own the independent music label Skull Fracture Records; and are a co-host on the We are Metalheads podcast on all things Heavy Metal. I’m only speaking for me, but can we talk about Hawaii? How is the comic (and metal music) scene there?
MARKISAN NASO: Thanks for inviting me to do this interview, David! I do adore metal and cats, especially my fantastic beast, Zoso, who is my constant companion and has probably listened to more metal than any other cat in history.
As far as Hawaii goes, the metal scene is almost non-existent. When my wife and I moved here about a year and a half ago, it was the thing I was most concerned about. I lived in Chicago for 20 years and saw a metal show nearly every week, so that was a big part of my life. When we were weighing the pros and cons of the move, I did some research and only found one venue here on Oahu that put on true metal shows. Unfortunately, that place closed its doors due to the pandemic, so now the prospects for live metal are pretty dire. However, my wife and I did make a deal that I could travel to the mainland for metal festivals. I actually just booked my flight to Philadelphia for the Decibel Metal and Beer Fest in September. All my brothers on the Metalheads Podcast will be there, so I'm really excited about it. Plus, I plan to eat all the Philly cheesesteaks in the city.
Hawaii does have a great, little comic book scene. There are a handful of comic book conventions here and on Maui, plus there are a variety of cons dedicated to manga, anime and other Japanese-influenced pop culture. Unfortunately, I've only been to one con so far, thanks to Covid-19. I tabled at Amazing Comic Con Aloha in February 2020 right before the pandemic exploded, so it was my first and only time doing a show in Hawaii. But it was a pretty incredible experience because Hawaiians are so passionate about all things local. That includes comic books and comic book creators. From both a social and financial standpoint, it was one of the best shows I've ever done. I've been very pleasantly surprised by how supportive comic book fans are out here.
CBY: I may be ignorant, but I can’t think of any creators from there or hear talk about conventions or comic stores from there. I guess if you’re on an island, you really are.
MN: You're right that there aren't many creators here who have books published by known comic book companies. I'm told Daniel Way lives here. Stan Sakai used to live here and comes back to do signings regularly. I think that might be it! But there are a number of very talented and well respected, local creators who have followings here on the islands, like Sam Campos who does Pineapple Man. The Hawaiian indie creators very much support one another and have built a nice, artistic community that's bolstered by some great comic shops like my favorite store, Other Realms. I've really enjoyed talking to Hawaiian creators and getting to know their books.
CBY: Creative is creative. One of your passions is Heavy Metal music. (I’ll add here I went and listened to a few podcasts and they are a friendly, funny and inviting group. If you liked By the Horns or like Heavy Metal you should check it out – and yes I went and visited my old collection and banged on). How do you feel about mixing metal and comics? I would guess most people think storytelling in Heavy Metal Music revolves around fantasy or future apocalyptic/dystopia. Is there more?
MN: Thank you for the kind words about the Metalheads Podcast. I first appeared on the cast in 2018 and became a host in 2019, but I was an avid listener before that for precisely the reason you mentioned – George, Jay, Will, John and Matt are just super friendly, inviting, smart dudes who love metal. The camaraderie on the cast drew me in right away. They felt like my friends before I actually became friends with them. Being a host with the boys for the last several years has been an immense joy for me. I am very grateful that they asked me to be a part of the Metalheads and I really cherish our friendship. I can't even imagine life without the Metalheads now.
I'll start with your last question first. Yes, most people likely associate heavy metal with fantasy and dystopian worlds, and you know, that's absolutely accurate. But there are also metal bands who write hard sci-fi songs, straight horror tracks or they use their music to comment on current social and political issues. There are bands who write songs based on video games. There's a band called Slugdge who has created an entire mythology based on a fictional cosmic slug deity called Mollusca. All their songs are about an alien worm god, man. So, just like comics, metal has something for everyone!
When it comes to mixing metal and comics, I'm all for it. One of the things I've been trying to do is get metal album cover artists to illustrate and paint comic book covers. Luke Oram, who has done covers for bands like the aforementioned Slugdge and other groups like Firelink and Wallowing, painted a stunning, wraparound variant cover for BY THE HORNS #1. Killer album cover art is such a vital component of metal, and many of the artists who draw and paint them are breathtakingly good, so I hope to see more of them try their hand at comics in the future.
As far as metal-themed comic book stories go, I'd love to see more of those too, but with a bit more reverence in the presentation and storytelling. Almost all the metal comics I've read play up the stereotypes of metal music for laughs, or they water down their content for a mainstream audience. For example, DC Comics did a Batman book called Death Metal and now they're releasing a soundtrack for it...with zero death metal bands. I love DC Comics and I get why they made a soundtrack that has more mass appeal, but as a heavy metal fan, it was incredibly disappointing to see a lineup of non-metal bands for an LP called Death Metal. Metal musicians are some of the best, most creative players in the world and metal is one of the most diverse genres of music out there, so I'd just like to see the music and culture I love taken more seriously in comics sometimes.
That said, I'm very excited to read some upcoming metal-themed projects like the Dio: Holy Diver graphic novel by Steve Niles and Scott Hampton.
"BY THE HORNS came to me when I was watching the 1985 movie, Legend, for the 666th time."
CBY: You also have some tracks that go along with your books. I think this is a great way to mix the mediums. Are you going to expand the playlist as the book progresses? Try something like a music table of contents? Something like, "Play this track before reading page 4"?
MN: I’d love to expand the playlist. What I’d really like to do is collaborate with Arctic Sleep on 2 tracks for each story arc of BY THE HORNS. We’d release those songs digitally and on 7-inch vinyl like we did with the 1st EP. Then after 3 or 4 arcs, we’d put out a full-length vinyl album that would include all the tracks on the EPs, plus a brand new one that fans could only get by buying the LP. But I haven’t actually mentioned this idea to Keith D yet, who writes all the music for Arctic Sleep (laughs). I guess I should probably have that conversation with him first.
CBY: You have a fresh perspective on creatures old and mythical. In your earlier comic VORACIOUS, you served us (literally) dinosaurs. And now with BY THE HORNS you give us unicorns as possible villains? How did these ideas come about? How did you pitch it to Scout?
MN: That's a really good question and I’m not sure I have a good answer for it. I just come up with offbeat story ideas all the time. In the case of VORACIOUS, I was at a party years ago and a friend asked me the age-old question, "If you could have any superpower, what would it be?" I told her I would want the power to manipulate all time and space. That way I could go back in time and win the lottery. Then I could go to the future, buy a lightsaber and a spaceship shaped like a cobra, and travel the cosmos as a death metal Jedi (with an appropriate soundtrack). But first, I told her I'd take my DM-1 Snakewing to the time of the dinosaurs and make myself a Pterodactyl sandwich. I ended up writing down "dino sandwich" in a notebook. Years later, when I decided I wanted to try and write comics, I found that drunken scribble and instantly decided I needed to get to work on VORACIOUS.
MN: BY THE HORNS came to me when I was watching the 1985 movie, Legend, for the 666th time. I absolutely love it, even though the story is atrociously bad. So one day, after watching this captivatingly vapid film, I thought to myself, "Tim Curry wants to take out unicorns because their existence prevents him from living in total darkness, even though he seems to enjoy a pretty posh life in his fortress of night where he offers goth makeovers to young ladies...But what if his hatred for unicorns actually made sense? What if the unicorns weren't the embodiment of goodness and light? What if they actually wronged him somehow? What if they were dicks!?"
Somehow that morphed into BY THE HORNS. The story has changed a lot since then, but it started there. So, I guess my weird comic book ideas always begin with a "what if" question.
For the pitch to Scout, I just followed the guidelines they have on their website and sent it in. I may have used the tagline, "Kill Bill meets the Last Unicorn," somewhere in there, which seems to elicit smiles from people whenever I mention it. The interesting thing is that we pitched BY THE HORNS right before the pandemic shut everything down, so we were a bit concerned that the book wouldn’t find a home. At that time, no one was sure what was going to happen with comics. Diamond stopped distribution, so shops weren't receiving books. We didn't know how long publishers would put their series on hold for, or if they would try to publish any new material. There was a lot of uncertainty. I think we only pitched three companies because of that.
MN: Fortunately, Scout was on board with BY THE HORNS pretty quickly. They were always my first choice because I loved the uniqueness of their books and I liked that they had started to do things outside the box in terms of distribution, marketing, promotion and printing. I could see that they had a real fire in them to create a great company with some of the best comics around.
CBY: In BY THE HORNS, you have created a unique sci-fi/fantasy world. Where did it come from? Because I have to say it is bright. By that, I mean the color. I love the art and coloring in this book. Jason Muhr and Andrei Tabacaru bring this world to life. You show us it's a world with problems, but you (they) don’t reflect it [those problems] the art and bury [them] under bland and dreary [layers]. Was that your vision or Jason/Andrei’s?
MN: Thank you! BY THE HORNS started as a story in my head with the title already chosen, and I had a lot of the character elements and building blocks of the world in place, but when Jason and I do a series we spend a lot of time shaping it together before I ever write a script. So, for this series, I sent my outline and character sheets to him, and then we met up for lunch so we could talk about the story, the characters and the world in general. Jason always has a lot of ideas, usually for fun situations that characters might get into, or crazy environments they might find themselves in. I always want him to let me know what he'd like to draw and to share his opinions on the concept I've come up with. We're equal partners on all our projects because that's what being co-creators means to us. We both want to be completely invested in our books and make comic book series we enjoy and can be proud of, so we check our egos at the door and chat openly about that.
Once we talked out BY THE HORNS and got on the same page, I worked on the scripts and he worked on the character designs based on our discussions. Initially, the BY THE HORNS continent of Solothus was a straight fantasy realm. That's how I thought of it when I first pitched the book to Jason, around the time we were doing the last volume of VORACIOUS. But when we came back to it, I had re-thought that idea and changed the world so it mixed a medieval setting with sci-fi. I wanted it to be a fantasy-forward series, but with useful, advanced tech here and there to give it a different weight and energy. That meant we had to redesign the characters and the environments we originally conceived. Jason really embraced that change. I had some ideas for how the characters should look, but he brought them to life with his stellar designs and made all the environments pop. A lot of that had to do with the color choices he had in mind.
"We actually just got the greenlight from Scout to make [BY THE HORNS] a continuing series AND we also added an extra issue to the first arc!"
Because I'm a metal guy I pretty much want everything to be black, desolate and doomed. Jason hates metal and really likes color. So one of the things that I think makes our working relationship interesting is this kind of opposite thinking when it comes to design and atmosphere. We usually have to meet somewhere in the middle. I think that has helped to make our books look different. Don't tell Jason, but since we started working on comics together I have come to appreciate brighter colors more and to value how they can be used effectively. So, when Jason told me he wanted to go more lush and bright with the color art on BY THE HORNS, I agreed without any hesitation.
MN: Of course, deciding to go with a more bold, saturated palette is completely dependent on whether or not your colorist can pull it off. Fortunately, we have Andrei and he's a special talent. We knew from our time on VORACIOUS together that he would love doing something completely new for BY THE HORNS. He always wants to challenge himself and deliver something that catches the reader's eye. Jason sent him some examples of the kind of colors he envisioned and they had some discussions on how they wanted the book to look, then Andrei went to work. When we saw the first few completed pages we were blown away.
I think Jason and Andrei are doing the best work they've ever done with this book. Sometimes I look at the early issues of VORACIOUS and compare them to the latest BY THE HORNS and it's stunning how much they've grown as individual artists and how they've morphed into a phenomenal art team. I don't think anyone colors Jason's pages like Andrei. His gorgeous, inviting colorwork brings out the best in J's clean, dynamic style. But I also think that Jason's art offers Andrei the best canvas for him to showcase his abilities because of his beautiful lines, and his attention to detail and space.
CBY: Where does BY THE HORNS go? Is this a limited series? Or is this one arc in a longer story?
MN: BY THE HORNS started as a self-contained 7-issue mini in my head, but as Jason and I worked on it, my ideas for the story grew. We actually just got the greenlight from Scout to make it a continuing series AND we also added an extra issue to the first arc! So, we're monthly through 8 issues then we'll take a break to work on more. The trade paperback will come out during that time, then we'll continue the series a couple months after that. I have story ideas for at least 4 or 5 arcs and Jason has a lot of ideas too. He keeps texting me about his need to draw hot tubs and pirates, and I always say, "Sure, buddy. I'll work that in." So, we're having a blast creating BY THE HORNS and we hope to do it for a while. There's a much bigger yarn that builds out of the first arc. It's something I've had in mind for a while and I think readers will be surprised when they see where the story goes.
CBY: What is it like working for Scout? What comes next for Markisan Naso?
MN: Jason and I love working for Scout. I feel like I had ESP or something when we pitched them BY THE HORNS, because since we signed with the company they’ve grown tremendously with new imprints, initiatives and just damn good series. They haven't slowed down in the pandemic at all, which is amazing. I also really like the people who work there – James, Richard, Charlie, David, Joel, Wayne – those guys love the hell out of comics, they believe in creators, they are great communicators and they take the time to ensure that every series gets a spotlight. I am very excited that BY THE HORNS is a part of the Scout family. I couldn't ask for a better home for our book and I hope we get to work with them on lots of projects in the future.
What comes next for me is more BY THE HORNS for Scout! I'm also working on another creator-owned series for a different publisher that hasn't been announced yet. It's a hard sci-fi book that I've mentioned on social media under the code name, PROJECT: MUSPELHEIM. I've written 3 issues of it so far and I have a story map for about 4 volumes. I'm very excited about that one because it was something I was asked to do. As a writer, there's nothing better than having a publisher approach you about creating a new book just because they like your work.
Once I get some more issues for the new series and BY THE HORNS in the bank, I plan to finish up an all-ages graphic novel that I've been working on for a while. I'm really proud of that one because it's the first time I've tried to write something that younger readers can enjoy. I'll be looking for an artist to help me bring that to life soon.
CBY: Will there be more marriages between Metal and comics?
MN: The vows of metal and comics will definitely be renewed in the future! I created Skull Fracture Records to be a label that's dedicated to releasing music inspired by stories and myth, so it's all about keeping that relationship strong. Along with the BY THE HORNS soundtrack by Arctic Sleep that I pressed on vinyl, I also put out a cassette with the progressive black metal band, Ashen Horde. Their track, "Black Curse," was inspired by my first prose story, "TO MEGA THERION", which was published in Outland Entertainment's APEX: World of Dinosaurs in March.
Setting up a record label was a lot of hard work, but it has been incredibly rewarding to release music into the world based on stuff I've written. I've had so much fun working with Keith D of Arctic Sleep and Trevor Portz of Ashen Horde on these special soundtracks that now it's spilled over into other projects. A few months back, Trevor asked me to write lyrics for his new thrash metal band, so I’m having a blast doing that. I've written lyrics for 3 songs so far.
MN: Being a host on the Metalheads Podcast really opened the door to the collaborations with these supremely talented musicians, but the best part has been forging new friendships. Making comics and making music are very similar processes in a lot of ways. From working with others to create something, to promoting the work, to traveling to places and showing off what you've made, to negotiating deals with companies to help distribute the work to a wider audience...the parallels are striking. I feel like I have a really good rapport with the metal musicians I've been lucky enough to hang out with because they can relate to my experiences and vice versa. It's also been fascinating to discover the unique and interesting challenges in music that I wasn't familiar with. Hopefully, my metal friends feel the same about my artistic discipline.
MN: Putting out music for my stories was always something I dreamed about doing, but making it happen and striking up these new relationships is honestly better than I imagined. So, I'd absolutely love to foster more music and comic book collabs; and not just for my stuff, but for other creators' work too.
For more on Markisan Naso and his projects visit:
Metalheads Podcast: https://www.metalheadspodcast.com
Skull Fracture Records: https://www.skullfracturerecords.com
To stay up-to-date on BY THE HORNS:
Scout Comics Page: https://www.scoutcomics.com/collections/by-the-horns