Lantern City is one of those unique sorts of comics that just pops from the comics page. A steampunk adventure in a bizarre and complex city, this new comic is also the subject of a novel, the core concept of a TV series, and much more. I sat down with series co-creators Bruce Boxleitner, Trevor Crafts and Mathew Daley at this year’s San Diego Comic-con for a journey into this very unique city.
Trevor Crafts: I came up with the idea in 2011 for this big world of Lantern City. I was on a plane from New York to L.A. and the question popped into my mind of, “How far would you be willing to go with the people you love the most?”
This is a universal idea. You have your family. You have you people that you are friends with. It’s more than just how far would you drive or cross-country flight, but how far can you push loving somebody or being with somebody? That was the core concept of the story.
Very shortly thereafter, I went to my first Comic-Con, where we are right now, and was amazed by the amount of steampunk cosplay that there was. I had always liked steampunk because of the visual style, and it’s a visual genre. And you know at Comic-Con you have these different media that’s all mushing together in a big blender.
I realized that there hasn’t been any true steampunk television series or film that really rung the bell for fans and there’s millions and millions of steampunk fans around the world. I think that one of the things that for us was really important was how do we take this core concept and build it into this bigger world and this bigger framework? Bruce and I were working on another project together. I was executive producing a comedy western called Smokewood. Bruce was one of the bad guys.
Bruce Boxleitner: A good bad guy.
Crafts: A good bad guy, but a bad guy all the same.
Crafts: We got to be friends. I was looking for a partner for this concept. I had come up with the characters and the larger world for the T.V. series. I talked to Bruce about it and we started developing a bit more of the characters and flushing out the city and the social structure. Then shortly after I brought Matt on. Matt and I have been working together for a number of years on different projects. Matt took our core idea and blew it out into this enormous, huge, populated by millions, gigantic city. That’s how we began. Then we launched at Comic-Con in 2012.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: That’s one of the things that struck me, which is what you mentioned- the massive city and the complex structure of the place that these people live in. Yet they still are fully fledged out characters. How did you approach not allowing these characters to be lost in their complicated world?
Boxleitner: I was going to say what I think Matt did wonderfully was that when we originally started, it was character-oriented first.
Boxleitner: We wanted the massiveness of this world, this walled city… If we don’t care about the characters, it just becomes about this concept. In television work, that’s what sells a television show- characters that people want to tune in every week to see and continue with. I think it went from there. We had the skeleton on them and then Matt put this wonderful flesh on it and plot and so forth.
Matthew Daley: I think it’s always important, no matter how large or small your world is, that you need to have your core characters that you really, really know. Think about any great property, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars; there’s clearly millions to billions of possibilities within each world. You find the characters that you need in order to explore your world. That’s where I started from. If not, you can have cardboard cutouts. You can get very caught up in how cool your world is that you create, and you’ve lost it initially with so many sad characters running through and it doesn’t matter.
CB: You said you find the characters that you need. I think the phrase “find the characters” is very interesting, as if they are there and you just need to extract them from their setting.
Crafts: You went to characters.com I think and typed it in and bought a couple I think. That was the beginning.
CB: Because our main character is very embedded in his world.
CB: And the politics of his world, too.
Daley: The approach for the comic book was that I needed to have a character who is able to naturally move throughout the different shroud of the society that we created. In a very divided world, that isn’t easy. He was created as a vessel for the readers or the audience to be able to move through. Because you could very, very easily stay in one section of the world and feel like you’ve got everything. It’s like, “Oh, this is what Lantern City is about.” But once you get to the underground or the ruling class area with the gray towers, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, this is a completely different world.” I needed someone to be able to move us through that.
Crafts: That’s the great part about Lantern City. We have created this structure where we have these three very distinct social class. We have the ruling class, the Grey Empire. It’s a fourth generation essentially dynasty. We’ve got the workers who essentially are the ones who keep the city going. They run the factories. They do all the agriculture. Then there’s this growing criminal underground, which is literally a city beneath the city that’s lawless; anything goes, but you don’t have to live under the thumb of the empire.
What we all put together is how do you get all these dynamics interacting with each other all the time. The comic book takes a little bit of a different tact than the television show, than our prequel illustrated novel, than the RPG games that we are developing. It all works in concert, but each one has its own specific focus.
CB: They all reinforce each other.
Crafts: Absolutely. There’s theory behind all of it. We aren’t branching out into one specific area where it isn’t reinforced by all of the other areas.
Boxleitner: The T.V. series, the books, the comics give you this huge picture of the world with all of these different people in it. When we originally started, it was just the show, the original pilot. But that’s what I love about this; he’s opened this up to so many different characters. We could have years’ worth, by the way.
CB: We hope so, right?
Boxleitner: But I think that’s what is cool about today is these type of things play into it. Then you’ve got a television version and you’ve got a novel version. It’s all of these different aspects of it that a person can go to and not feel like they are repeating themselves.
CB: Obviously talking to you after Babylon 5, and actually that’s a lot of what I wanted from Babylon 5 is this wonderful, novelistic, rich world that the characters lived in. I wished that there were side stories that we could follow to follow the tangents.
Boxleitner: Sure, we didn’t have that ability in the 1990’s. They would have been called spinoffs. But since JMS had more or less planned a five-year story, it could have gone on. We did have a couple of spinoffs. They weren’t quite as successful. And we had the movies. Remember, that’s why Lantern City, Game of Thrones and all of these shows that are on currently now are continuing stories. At the time Babylon 5 was on, they didn’t want that. That’s why it was hard to sell that thing into syndication because they wanted a beginning of an episode and it ends there. They didn’t want this same characters every week, but they didn’t want that. Now, I don’t think I can recall a T.V. series where it winds up every one of them.
Daley: Not a drama for the most part.
Boxleitner: For most dramas, they are continuing stories at least for a couple of episodes or more. But Game of Thrones I would say specifically is a saga.
Daley: We are in that same model to build that same concept.
Boxleitner: Yeah, and that’s what’s contemporary right now in television.
CB: Is that part of why you spent so much time thinking about the world these characters would live in, so you can have this richness and complexity to it and follow different tangents and different media?
Boxleitner: Yeah, I think.
Crafts: Yeah, absolutely. Matt, you did seventy some odd individuals with more to go.
Daley: Yeah, I mean the more that we develop, the more characters I do.
Boxleitner: Right, and that’s going to be much needed in a television series.
Daley: What is fun also about doing all of this concurrently I think- the television show and the novels and the RPG games and the series- is it’s a fun, creative space to play in. As we build out the comic book series, there are characters like Kendall Kornick that we pulled from the television series. But then Kendall’s daughter, Lisel, who had a very small role in the T.V. series, actually has a much bigger, on-going role in the comic.
It’s great because that can continue to feed back into the show. We have this wonderful, cyclical build. All of these little towers are rising at the same time, which is certainly something we aren’t the originators of that style. But I think in today’s media environment, I think fans are accepting of being able to go all around and ingest media in a lot of different ways.
CB: It’s interesting because you are very focused on this trans-media property, but it isn’t like a lot of people who are at Con who are like, “I want to sell my book and my movie because they are going to make me wealthy” or whatever. Obviously you want to do well with this. But it seems like you are taking the approach that’s gestalt in a way. Everything fits together.
Crafts: Yeah, Matt, Bruce, and I in 2012 on the floor, essentially we had cards that we were handing out. We had two steampunk models. We had them out on the street. And we had a website. By the end of the Con, we had 10,000 Facebook fans. Shortly after that we started getting contacted by a lot of the other comic conventions around the country saying, “Can you come and talk to us about your show?” I do remember saying a couple of times, “You guys know we aren’t on the air yet, right?” They said, “No, no, no. It’s such a great thing, we really want you guys to come.”
Boxleitner: I signed in Glasgow, Scotland, two years ago.
Daley: We’ve gone overseas.
Crafts: All over the world.
Boxleitner: Sold them to London. They loved it in London.
Crafts: That was also one of the core concepts for the show. I think getting on a network is critical. But since there are so many different pilots and so many different things that are going on in the landscape right now, you also need fans. You need people to watch. That’s what we did. We built from the fan up. We have about 200,000 social media followers now. We’ve been continuing to steadily grow. It’s nice because we have this very rapid deep fan base.
Boxleitner: Plus when you are pitching television, look at the visuals we have already. These people are visual oriented when you are dealing with studios and people like that and networks. I mean, they want to see it. We’ve got plans to even do something film-wise to give them a little shot of it. This is what you are going to put your money into. When you’ve got this, right away it sparks their interest.
Daley: There is a certain hurdle for a lot of industry professionals because they don’t know what steampunk is. There isn’t one clear definition. Like what is science fiction? Obviously you can go on and on and have so many different examples. But this helps a lot. This helps as we continue to build our audience and to create more dynamic characters and have all of these great storylines and stuff. But also, this is what it is to us.
Crafts: This is what it is. We have our own unique vision of steampunk, like all steampunk fans. We are also to show the entire audience of steampunk, if you like really beautiful, amazing stuff, that’s the Grey Empire. If you like industrial stuff, that’s the workers. If you like a visual style that’s crazy with robotic arms and legs and spider hands and whatever else, that’s the underground.
CB: I have to say honestly I’m not a big steampunk guy, but what I liked was the richness of the world and the politics.
CB: The politics of it, the high-
Boxleitner: It has a history. It feels like it’s lived-in history.
CB: Living history, but also contemporary, too.
Crafts: A hundred percent.
CB: It centers the whole bit.
Daley: That was integral from the beginning.
Crafts: As Matt has done with the characters, like we live with people, friends, people we don’t like every single day, no person-
Boxleitner: Like in this room.
Crafts: Oh, thank you! How many years together you and me, Bruce? How many years together?
Boxleitner: It’s like a jail sentence.
Crafts: Every character that Matt has put together is incredibly multi-faceted. Even the ruler, Killian Grey, who is this despotic tyrant, is also incredibly charming and incredibly intelligent. You like him at certain points in time. It has been great for us to be able to explore those characters and flesh them out in the comic. Last year at Comic-Con, I met with Stephen Christy, president of development at BOOM!. We chatted about Lantern City. For BOOM! and Archaia especially, there is such a rich history of unique storytelling. Matt and Bruce and I had many times in 2012 and 2013 walked by the Archaia booth and loved all the work that Archaia did. We’ve been fans for a long time.
It was great to be able to team up with a publisher that was so concerned with story and original voices. And that was one thing that was important to all of us. This was not just a comic book series of two or three issues so that we could say, “Hey, we did a comic and now there is a T.V. show.” There was a very specific story that we wanted to tell that Matt had come up with about trying to find this character that you really like, but he is also doing things that you don’t like. He is involved. How far would you be willing to go to be with these people, to be with the people that you love? He is going to protect his family by becoming the Lantern City guard, for him the most hated thing on the earth.
Boxleitner: But it stays true to that theme that we started with way back- how far would you go for the people you love? To what extent?
Crafts: Yeah, that’s always the core of any property that we work on within Lantern City.
Boxleitner: We also have a love story in the beginning in the pilot form.
Crafts: Oh, yeah, on the show.
Boxleitner: That’s always the core of all great drama.
CB: Yeah, what you’ll do for love.
Daley: I think even looking at the different shrouds of society, for growth of the characters, it’s important to me that there is no clear cut, mustache-twirling villain. Everyone is operating in a way that they need to, or feel that they need to. There is the underground criminal class, but for them they aren’t evil; they are just surviving without having to be under the rule of a tyrant. For people who are at the top, they are doing whatever they need to do to keep the city going.
Boxleitner: Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing.
Daley: Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. I like stories like that.
Boxleitner: Me, too. Nobody sets out to be that, “I am evil.” No, even Adolf Hitler thought he was doing the right thing, believe it or not, for himself and for what his vision of what Germany and the world was to be.
Daley: Not every young man in Germany wanted to become part of Hitler’s youth, but you got warm clothes, meat every week or whatever. There were perks. There were benefits to being part of this terrible thing. But sometimes you have to.
CB: Yeah, actually I have done a lot of reading about World War I and the era after World War I. You can see how that all grew out.
Boxleitner: You can see how World War II was coming.
CB: Just incredible deprivation can lead to basically this rise of the wrong. I’m sure that also built into the world that you made.
Boxleitner: I think we have a lot of historic references for things that are current. But you can look back and see. That’s what Matt has done.
Crafts: One of my favorite things about our main character, Sander, in the comic book series is that here is a guy who is doing things that he absolutely despises to protect family. But as he starts to rise up through these stratas, as Matt was talking about earlier, of society and then gets to the elite class, he essentially is-
Boxleitner: Suddenly it’s not so despotic. It’s not so terrible.
Crafts: It’s amazing.
Boxleitner: He’s succeeding at this.
Daley: Imagine if for your entire life, you are eating almost the same food that was a canned vegetable. If you had canned green beans for the first twenty-five years of your life, and then you get into a world where they have any kind of cuisine, it’s like, “Oh my god!” What if you never slept in a bed before and you have soft pillows and a mattress? What if you’ve worn the same clothes for weeks on end, and then all of the sudden you’ve got new clothes?
Daley: No one is immune to that.
Crafts: I love that turn for him and the turn back. It’s that constant human push and pull.
CB: How do you get up in whatever circle of power you are in? These things that you rebelled against earlier are things that you start to understand. You grow into a good perception of it. I certainly see that in my career and it has actually been astonishing.
Crafts: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of things that at the core of Lantern City, it’s about people interacting with each other in desperate situations. We always say on the T.V. side that fans of steampunk will get us on T.V., but fans of good television will keep us there. That’s true for the comic book as well. We love the world that Carlos Magno has illustrated for us. It’s absolutely incredible. We are so lucky to have him.
CB: How did he get connected to the project?
Daley: Good timing.
Crafts: Yeah, exactly. A lucky, lucky thing.
CB: Amazing how that works.
Crafts: I was in a meeting with Ross Richie. We were talking about the series. We had just put the deal together. Ross said, “You know, Carlos Magno is just finishing up Robocop for us. We’d love to keep him going on something. Do you think he would be right for Lantern City?” Sure, he is. We were joking with editors, Mary and Daphne. There was a page I think in issue two where there were so many lines on the page. It was an absolutely amazing page. We got the inks back. Yeah, that’s one of them.
Boxleitner: See, to me these are storyboards. We could be filming the book.
CB: It could also work as a comic as well.
Crafts: Exactly. I asked our editors, “Can he put anymore lines on that piece of paper?” Their response was, “No. If he did, we would be arrested. It’s illegal to put more ink on that page.” It’s gorgeous.
Boxleitner: I love this.
Crafts: We are incredibly lucky to have him. Chris Blythe is our colorist. We went through a lot of different colorist tests. Chris and Carlos I think are a deadly combination. Chris has been able to also work with Carlos’s inks, which are incredibly detailed. It’s a yeoman’s task. But at the same time, Chris has added a volumetric light effect into the pages so things really glow. You really feel the heat of fire and you feel the warmth of the city lights.
Boxleitner: You can almost smell it.
Crafts: The best combination. And Deron Bennett, who is our letterer, is phenomenal.
Daley: Carlos did a great run on Planet of the Apes. That’s what I knew of his work in my head. He had Robocop. I had Planet of the Apes. I’m biased, clearly, but I think Carlos has continued to grow and become even more incredible. I think this is his best work.
Crafts: Agreed. I’m biased.
Boxleitner: The emotion he gets out of this.
CB: Which is incredibly hard as an artist, right? You draw up this complicated world with this many lines. But the world living is so interesting. At the same time, he has the characters who come alive. You worked with Paul Jenkins on the first issue. A classic, veteran comic book writer. But he had to move away from what I understand. How was that transitioning a new writer into the world?
Daley: It was nice because Marighread had come in after I had done issue two and three. Then Marighread came up right when we about to start issue four. We were revisiting the arcs for five through eight. I had done essentially one page treatments of each issue before we even started. Then things changed, obviously, as we were scripting one through four. Right when we were about to revisit and get back to rework it, that’s when Marighread came in.
It was awesome. We sat at the table for a few hours, Marighread and our editors, and it was great. We just batted it out for a while. Then Marighread came in and did some wonderful work on issues three and four. She’s such an incredible writer to work with. She is so pro. She adds so much to it in script.
Crafts: You think you’ve got everything, and she’ll pick something and it’s like, “Oh, wait. We didn’t think of that. Thank you, Mari.” She is amazing. She does such great work. She’s done work for Marvel and IDW. She has her own series coming out soon that’s going to be awesome.
Daley: Third Witch, yeah.
Crafts: For my first comic book series, this is a great pleasure to be working on. I think one of the things that’s great about Marighread and is hard about Lantern City is that it’s a branded property. We have actors that are real life people, like Kendall Kornick is Raphael Sbarge, the actor. It’s tricky both from an illustrator’s perspective and from a writer’s perspective. But since Marighread has done so much work with Hasbro on the Transformers series, she gets that world and has been an absolute pleasure to work with. It has been a wonderful thing for us to have her on the team now. It’s also great because our process has become incredibly streamlined. It has been great. Matt and Marighread crank out an issue in about two weeks.
Boxleitner: Yeah, I was shocked about that. Suddenly the third issue is coming out. I just left you guys.
Crafts: Yeah, I’m organized.
Daley: Yeah, I do the first pass and then Marighread does a pass and I do another pass. We are usually pretty good after that.
CB: That’s efficient.
Boxleitner: When you said that was two months ago, I thought it was only about four weeks ago.
Daley: I have been so busy.
Crafts: We have been moving quickly.
CB: I love that picture of your character.
Boxleitner: I do, too!
Crafts: Isaac Foster Grey.
CB: You are no longer the captain, obviously. You’ve got the ranks.
Crafts: Yeah, founder of the entire city. That’s also fun, too.
Boxleitner: Looming over.
CB: Looming presence, yes.
Boxleitner: Yes, that looming presence.
Crafts: Because essentially that was what was a lot of fun. Television can be a long development track. We always hear about development hell and everything else. But it does take some time. One of the things that has been great is we launched in 2013, we published the illustrated novel, Rise, which takes place a hundred and fifty years before the comic book and the T.V. show. That chronicles Isaac Foster Grey and the first of the Grey emperors.
Boxleitner: There we are giving it a history.
Crafts: Yeah, there’s a lot of backstory. Again, you can pick up Lantern City and start reading issue one from the series.
Daley: You don’t need any of it.
Crafts: You don’t need any of it, but it’s also great to have all of this backstory.
Daley: We drop a little bit of Easter eggs here and there.
Crafts: Yeah, but it’s great to have.
Boxleitner: That’s what JMS did. He gave his galaxy there a history that went back thousands and thousands of years. We always referred to it and it seemed very alive. It seemed very real.
CB: That’s what is very tantalizing about it. That’s what made Babylon 5 different from the Star Trek universe, too. They would make reference in Star Trek, but wouldn’t necessarily have changed their lives in the way that it did in your universe.
CB: The same way that we were talking about Hitler and World War I and such.
Boxleitner: Very deliberately. He borrowed from his frame’s historical empires and worlds.
Crafts: I think the backstory is something that fans love. If you know about it, you are excited because you know a little bit more. Even for the comic book series, before we released issue one, for the four weeks preceding the launch of issue one, Matt had written a little prequel story called Devil’s Corner, which is all about Sander as a teenager. It’s his little origin. It’s not his birth to whatever; it’s just a moment in his history.
Daley: After two days in a life of this guy. There’s little hints about that throughout the series. In issue seven, there’s a joke. How many hundreds of thousands of people have read it? There’s a joke and you will probably appreciate it. If not, you are like, “Oh, okay.”
Boxleitner: There are fans who you know will.
Crafts: Oh, absolutely.
Boxleitner: They love to go back and pick it apart. “That’s why this. Oh, my god!”
Daley: We are all fans of different properties, with a classic angle. Those things mean a lot to us as fans, so as creators, we know what it’s like to have those little moments like “Ah! That’s cool. That connects to this.”
CB: You obviously have a deep passion for this world. All three of you do.
Daley: Yeah, yeah.
CB: For a long time, it’s been a part of your life.
Crafts: To create a unique fictional world, that’s a dream.
Boxleitner: Very difficult today, too, by the way, when it’s all reboots and this and that. Come up with an original idea and try to sell these people on it.
Crafts: Everybody wants original content.
Boxleitner: They want it, yes.
Daley: But they are afraid sometimes to take the risks on it. That’s what great about working with Archaia and BOOM!. They were not afraid at all to work with us.
Crafts: For us it’s also great because we get to explore a lot of different storytelling options as we bring this world together. I’m pulling in different things. We’ve got our website, LanternCityTV.com. It’s our core. You can find out about the show, the comic, and the book. We are working on this upcoming role-playing game as well to I expand out further with miniatures so you can actually touch and feel. You can have your own squads of Lantern City guards going through the city and things like that. It’s great because Lantern City isn’t just one person’s story. It’s a whole world that has three or four hundred years of history and beyond with thousands of characters in it. We have this incredibly rich canvas to play with. It’s a kickass ride.
Boxleitner: I want to think it’s a modern version of, there are million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
Crafts: I got very caught up yesterday or Thursday at the Star Wars booth. I stopped because they were showing the trailers for all of the movies. I stood there for about fifteen minutes watching them show the new teaser. I said it’s so interesting. We’ve had over thirty years and we still may not have the best stories. We have great stories; we still may not have the best Star Wars story. Someone is going to come along and tell the ultimate story. Now, for us who grew up with it, we are probably going to say A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back is the best, but you never know. I think of my son who is seven. He might go in December and see that and be like, “That’s it. That’s the best Star War.” Or he might like the Hans Solo story. You never know.
Boxleitner: The prequels, I can’t even tell you what the stories were. But I can tell you the stories of Empire Strikes Back.
CB: Almost recite every scene in the original.
Boxleitner: I tried out for the movie.
CB: Did you?
Boxleitner: I didn’t grow up with it. I was there when it started.
CB: What did you try out for?
Boxleitner: About 1976.
CB: No, which character?
Boxleitner: Luke Skywalker.
Boxleitner: I was one of the hundreds that they saw, the fresh faces in Hollywood.
Crafts: Very different Lantern City if…
Boxleitner: I was too old for it. I was also doing a western series at the time. But by the way, Mark Hamill was already signed to do a CBS pilot called Eight is Enough I think.
Boxleitner: They replaced him with another guy, Grant something or other, whatever it was. They got him out of that, but CBS didn’t want to let him out of it. Because nobody knew this George Lucas. What was it?
Daley: Well, he had American Graffiti and that was it. That was not a sci-fi.
Boxleitner: That still wasn’t enough to break a contract.
Daley: What I love with Lantern City is that we are creating a lot of great stories. I love doing the comic book. Developing the T.V. show is awesome. Now we are going to these different avenues- role-playing games, jewelry. Who knows? All of the things we can do- stories, novels.
Boxleitner: I think we are going to get to the point, Matt, when they see all this other stuff, they are going to go, “You know what? My god, did you ever think about doing a T.V. series?”
Crafts: Why, yes. Why yes we did.
Boxleitner: Funny you should ask!
CB: How interesting!
Daley: With zombies and vampires.
Boxleitner: No, we already had that one. That was the rage, you know.