When history teachers talk about the founding fathers, the politicians and thinkers that gave birth to America are presented as clinically sanitized pariahs who could do no wrong. Donn Berdahl and Victor Gischler think differently. In their new Dark Horse Comics miniseries, Order of the Forge, they, along with artist Tazio Bettin, follow a young George Washington on his journey towards becoming a hero. However, the ride isn’t going to be easy. In this story, which Donn affectionately calls “fictional history,” George is a rebel who wields a magical axe that gives him great strength, but also forces him to always tell the truth. On top of that, colonial governor Lord Hammond has just acquired a mystical weapon, which he hopes to use to wrest control of the colonies from the British crown.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Donn and Victor and discuss this irreverent take on the American origin story.
Alex Lu: First of all congratulations. I read the first issue and it is fantastic.
Donn Berdahl: Thank you very much. That is Victor’s doing for sure.
Victor Gischler: [Donn] gave me the stuff to work with and I just took off. It is a team effort.
Lu: It’s a beautiful book and it’s hilarious to boot.
Berdahl: Yeah. Again, that was definitely Victor’s doing. He’s taken my idea and this broad canvas that I handed to him, and then within that canvas, he has painted some amazing ideas and beautiful pictures. I had a master’s degree in theatre arts, and then I became a wine maker and moved away from the entertainment industry. Then I had two boys. They’re thirteen and sixteen now, and they got involved in Manga when they were young. We’d be in the car and I’d have to tell them who my five favorite villains are. Eventually, this whole thing came about.
When I came up with the original idea six or seven years ago, I just did it to stroke my own creative need. However, Victor turned them into living, breathing things. There’s lots of examples in here where he has just run with the ball. It has been such a fantastic thing to see Order of the Forge come to life and to collaborate with Victor. I feel really fortunate.
Gischler: I appreciate that. That’s cool for you to say that, man. I appreciate it.
Berdahl: Well, it’s true. I am novice in this comic world. I’m new to it and I probably have just really lucked out in working with Victor, Tazio, Juan, and Dark Horse. It’s freaking awesome. I don’t know how else to say it.
Lu: That’s really cool. This doesn’t feel like a novice’s work, and it’s really quite inspiring to see something so fully formed come out of your first experience in comics production. I was wondering if you could speak a little more to how the book got made.
Berdahl: So, I write something to my boys every two years. I just sit down at my computer when I can’t sleep and I kind of do the fatherly thing, like, “Hey, this is what’s happening in my life and your life.” It’s pretty personal stuff that some day I hope to give them so they can see an insight into the trials and tribulations of being human. As an actor and someone who is creative, that creative part of my brain is fascinated by the human condition: all of our fallacies, our greatness, our terribleness, all those types of things.
At the time, my kids were homeschooled. My wife did most of it, but my boys and I were talking about George Washington. All I knew about George Washington was this stuff that had been regurgitated to me twenty-five years ago when I was a kid, so I started researching. Recently, I read a book called The Blood of Tyrants, which is all about George Washington and how he hung people and tarred and feathered them. Simultaneously, he protected the rights of American citizens and British Loyalists. He is a real fascinating character. That’s how this whole thing got started.
I wanted to look at a young George Washington and see his flaws. We all think of George Washington as a fifty-year-old guy with a white wig who looks like he has a thumb up his ass. I thought it would be really interesting to look at him from more of a flawed, humanistic perspective, which is how I got into doing a comic.
Lu: Well, Victor, you are an industry veteran, right? You worked on Deadpool and X-Men. You are all over the place. How did you get involved with the project?
Gischler: Well, Donn wanted to approach a writer and he had read some of my stuff. They showed me the treatment and the characters. Originally, the tone was a bit different, but they said, “You know, we’d like to take this and make it a little more gritty, a little more pulpy, and a little more irreverent.” It was the perfect situation for me because they gave me a lot of material to work with, but at the same time, gave me a little bit of elbow room to approach it in a way that played to my strengths. We’re taking on these historical figures, but it’s not some kind of stuffy history lesson. It’s something a little different. It’s bigger. It’s pulpier. It’s a little garish and a lot of fun.
Lu: It’s definitely irreverent, and it sounds like Donn gave you a lot of room to play with these historical figures. At the same time, Victor, did you feel like you had to stay true to the broad strokes of history?
Gischler: You know, I didn’t feel like suddenly Jim Morrison from the Doors could show up and say, “Hey, George Washington!” You had to keep within certain parameters in that way. But really it was just a big, kind of fun, pulpy ride. I’d turn in the scripts and I’d get some notes and some tweaks, but there was never a time where the environment felt oppressive. I always felt like I had a lot of freedom, and it was fun!
Berdahl: I’d like to weigh in too, Alex, because you’re asking a very pertinent question. As an actor, you have different types of directors. You have directors that will say, “Listen, say the line this way. Do this. Stand here. Don’t deviate.” I didn’t want to do that. What I was hoping to do with Victor was be a director and say, “Okay, here’s the camera angle. Here’s the shot. Now within that camera shot, just go to town and be creative.” When you shackle creative people too strongly, you dampen their spirit. Really, this has turned into a collaborative process with Victor, and frankly, he has done eighty percent of the heavy lifting inside of the shots. That’s how you get great things from really fantastic people.
Listen, I am not going to blow smoke all day. If Victor said, “Well, it would be more fun if Ben had both of his legs chopped off and he was sitting in a wheelchair even though he is a whore monger,” then I might have said, “Hey, you know…” I think there were a couple of times where I said, “Hey, Victor, I’d like a character to be a little bit more gritty or a little bit more conflicted in this area,” but it was just a general note. Then because he’s brilliant, he was able to say, “Oh, I see where Donn wants to go with this.” Then he’d put his own twist on it, and then there you go.
Gischler: Yeah, and I also think something that was very helpful to me was just to have, before I even started writing, a clear vision of what everybody wanted and how they wanted the tone and everything. I felt like I was going into it having been given good information and having been coached, like, “Okay, we are putting you in, Champ, and here is what we want.” I felt like I had a clear idea of what was needed of me. And that helped a lot.
Lu: Well, while we are on the topic of vision, I’d like to know a little bit more about the story. I’ve read the first issue. But all of the taglines mention something about zombies. This doesn’t come up in the first bit and I am assuming it is going to come up later on. What’s the central through line for this mini-series?
Gischler: Well, that is something I’ve seen in some of the copy that has gone out. It’s actually not a big deal. Zombies are just one of the obstacles that George and his gang face. Really, what we have is a power-hungry governor, Lord Hammond, who acts as the central villain character. He wants to be in charge of the colonies. This is back when George is loyal to the crown, so what we have here is a guy fighting to maintain monarchal control and stop the governor. He’s a stand-up guy. He’s a loyal guy. He’s not a United States guy yet.
Berdahl: I wanted to turn people’s perception of George Washington. All we ever think of is George Washington as fighting the British and being the father of our country. But like every human being, he was also twenty-one at one point. In the comic, he hates authority and he chops down his father’s cherry tree in anger. His anti-authoritarianism makes him conflicted throughout the comics, and he has to ask himself whether he’s fighting the evil Lord Hammond because he’s fiercely loyal to Britain or because he just doesn’t like authority.
Giving him those flawed things are more interesting to me. I love Superman, but he was more a product of the fifties and this idealized view of the world. Then, you got into people like Batman and Spider-Man, who are not perfect but also have superheroic powers. I find that dynamic to be fascinating and interesting. We have our own superhero element because, in addition to George, we also have Paul Revere and Ben Franklin. Then, we added a non-historical figure in Kate Hammond to form a team of four superheroes.
Gischler: Obviously there is not necessarily a strict adherence to history in this approach. However, if you read anything about the American Revolution, it’s not like every man, woman, and child wanted to revolt against England.. You can easily imagine an alternate history where our founding fathers said, “Well, let’s just work this out with King George. Let’s not have a revolution.” Thus, it’s not hard to imagine George being loyal to the crown.
Lu: In primary school, when these stories first told to students, teachers make the build-up to the American Revolution seem very one-sided, even though that isn’t necessarily the case. Do you think your story seeks to undermine this notion and demonstrate that there are multiple sides to a single historical event?
Gischler: I am not trying to dissuade anybody from patriotism, that’s for sure. I’ll tell you what, it’s not so much that I am trying to convince anybody of anything. Instead, I see an opportunity for a story to say, “You know what? We can see that in history it was kind of a close thing and maybe that is something that we can make use of.” It’s more like Donn and I recognized a tool that let us examine George a little more closely.
Lu: How long is the plan for this series right now?
Berdahl: Well, right now, we’re doing three issues and then a collected edition, but I’ve already come up with some ideas for further books. The first story is set in 1753, and George is twenty-one years old. We’ve established some villains that could be used in future stories. For example, our good old Benedict Arnold is twelve or thirteen years old at this time, and our Governor Hammond hires Benedict Arnold as a stable boy. As you may or may not remember, he is obviously the most famous traitor in American history for trying to sell out what is now West Point. He almost succeeded in crushing the American Revolution by giving up that fort. He could grow into that man in our story.
In addition, I’ve also got ideas for portals to Valhalla and some other, more outlandish things. It is a huge canvas. Bluntly, things that are viable commercially on some level are things that get pushed forward. If we strike on something that’s interesting to an audience, then we will press forward with more.
Lu: Alright, fantastic. So you have this big, long, spanning plan for Washington, Franklin, Revere, Arnold. I don’t know if we have already covered this at all, but I was just wondering what the plot line would be for this specific miniseries?
Berdahl: When we go through this first three book series, there’s Viking zombies, there’s a super weapon, and some other things too. My main idea is to introduce a portal to Valhalla and maybe pull some villainy from that time frame. I want to start to explore why the Vikings came to the American coast in the 1100s. If we keep going, it could go in a completely different direction. I thought about bringing in the French through Lafayette Louisiana, who was a real guy. I considered giving him superpowers and making George choose between fighting for or against the French. There’s just so much history.
We’ve introduced some villains and one of the things that I asked Victor to do, was not to kill anyone off at the end of the first arc. If you were just to kill off the Joker in the first episode of TV show or comic book, then you wouldn’t really have anything later down the road. You build equity in these villains and superheroes. Given that this is a new concept, and I’m not just introducing a new villain, but a whole new world, I wanted to hang on to Hammond. He will, in the near future, still be a part of the villainy and a part of the storyline as he continues to seek power.
Lu: Many comics creators say their favorite thing about the medium is the power it gives them to weave an endless tapestry that allows them to create a limitless variety of stories with a constant set of characters. I think that’s really beautiful.
Berdahl: When I try to make a movie, I meet a studio executive. They look at me and ask, “Who the hell are you and who gives a crap?” It is a treatment on a piece of white paper. Comics are different. The industry just allows all kinds of wonderful things to happen. It was such a revelation. As Victor mentioned, so much stuff gets written and people call it historical fiction. I love to call what Victor and I are doing fictional history. It is very loosely based on history. We made no bones about that. However, there’s a lot of true facts buried in there. Ben Franklin was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He didn’t go to France to negotiate deals all the time; he beat it around the Moulin Rouge incessantly. However, he also has the most patents of any American in history. Thus, making him a Leonardo da Vinci or Tony Stark type character with a superpowered brain is a natural sort of fun play on who he really was. Similarly, Paul Revere has a Ghost Rider theme with his ridiculously fast horse.
Lu: On that note, let’s talk about the mysticism in the story. We see that George is imbued with some sort of magic power when his axe strikes a totem pole.
Gischler: The totem is struck out of anger and that rage sparks that magic. It’s enigmatic and it’s mysterious. We’re not told exactly what it is, but it looks to be of Native American origin and has placed a curse on George: he has to be honest. He once said “I cannot tell a lie” [ed. according to the Parson Weems folk tale]. His honesty is supposed to be a good thing, but we twisted the virtue into a curse because he has to be honest all the time, even when it’s bad for him. It matters that he hit the pole out of anger, because that triggers the magic in a way that might not have been triggered in any other way.
Lu: That’s interesting, because it plays against the trope that a hero’s power is a blessing.
Gischler: It is really inconvenient. It would be really convenient for George to tell a lie once in a while to get out of a situation, but he can’t. I thought that was really cool. It’s one of the things I took out of the treatment and wanted to make sure was in there. Sometimes we get a good laugh out of that. I think about going through your whole daily life and not being able to tell even a little white lie to somebody would be terrible.
Lu: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Berdahl: I think the tone that Victor struck is brilliant. We don’t discover the origin of George’s powers in the first arc, and I never intended to answer those questions right away. I want the reader to have free reign to imagine. In addition, I wanted to get a little bit gritty with the human condition. Yeah, the governor George is fighting is evil, but George has anger issues himself. I mean, the guy is lopping people’s heads off indiscriminately. He’s got this anti-authority streak. I wanted to walk this rope, especially with George. Much like Batman, sometimes you root for them and sometimes you are like, “Oof, this is…” It’s like Breaking Bad. One second, you’re rooting for [Walter White] and then the next you just want somebody to shoot him right in the freaking head. I like to say that our George is fifty-one percent for good and forty-nine percent evil. As long as we end up on the good side, we’re okay, but George is definitely not Superman.
Gischler: The mystical powers at play in the story are basically telling this flawed George, “We are going to do something to you, George, and it is for your own good. You are going to go through hell and you are going to be pissed about it, but it is for your own good. It is something that, in the long run, is going to help your soul a little bit because your soul needs some work.”
Lu: Moving to another character. I had a lot of thoughts about Lady Kate. I think it is a very inspired choice for a story set in colonial America where people who aren’t Caucasian are very rarely portrayed. How did you both come up with storyline and how will race play into the story?
Gischler: Donn and his team said to do that. And I thought it was immediately a great idea because when you think of Great Britain at a certain time in history, you think of imperialism. It seemed like a good, smart, and interesting thing to do. Where it could go from here, Donn’s going to have to tell you about that.
Berdahl: My mom is English, and I grew up in the eighties with some of the Iron Curtain, surrounded by a little bit more of a fervent patriotic pitch. I wanted to have the reader think about how people looked at the world in those days. I never told Victor to do this, but he put in Hammond calling her a half-breed, which is obviously totally politically incorrect and totally offensive in so many ways. But it needs to be said so that you can see that Hammond is the kind of person that makes value judgments on somebody based on her half-Indian heritage. British imperialism is incredibly debatable, but that’s what’s great for stories. I want people to see her and say, “Wow, here’s this person that is half-Indian, that’s of darker skin, of not just English stock. How do we feel about her?”
By the same token, I thought it was really cool to make her of mixed race because empowering her and turning her into a superhero also is a cool thing. It is a positive role model. It is positive to have. Look it, there’s wonderful black people. There’s wonderful Asian people. There’s wonderful Mexican people. And there’s shitty Mexican people, shitty white people, shitty black people. I like forcing the reader to ask him or herself tough questions. You have this person of mixed race in this time setting, now how do you feel about that?
Plus, slavery was huge. George Washington had eighteen slaves. A lot of Americans know that. Some probably don’t. So again, it is fun to talk about. It may be uncomfortable, but it is what happened. I am a big believer in communication as a way to heal versus just pretending that things didn’t happen or that slavery didn’t occur. It occurred and we need to figure out a way to move past it.
Lu: I think it is especially unique to have someone of Asian origin in story about colonial America. When I think of media representation of that era, I only think of white and black people. However, you are right; there is this very long historical streak of British colonialism around that time period as well. I think it is great to see that portrayed. What I am wondering is whether or not her race might be a matter of contention among the people who we perceive as protagonists right now, people like Ben or Washington. We normally see our founders as these very progressive individuals, but do you think this might be a way to create conflict among our protagonists?
Berdahl: Yes, very much so. Someone asked me a somewhat similar question about slavery, but it wasn’t as targeted as your question. Obviously in these initial foray, we didn’t dive into that, and I feel like it’s okay that we didn’t. If I could defend that position…not that you’re being accusatory. Victor did a good job. This is such a very quick three comic dive into a superhero story, and [racial representation] is a big question. Could it occur? Have I written my own general ideas about that? Absolutely. Those really revolved around Paul Revere being of French origin and him holding an antagonistic view of the English. If I can be blunt, just as transparent as can be, I haven’t gone as far as to say that yes, it will be addressed. So, the honest answer is: I don’t know if it will be addressed and at what level. I really the response to the comic first.
Later on in one of the comics, [Kate’s] eyes light up and I had this question. I wanted to set her apart and celebrate her Indian heritage, so I had the dot for Vishnu, the Indian god, that is worn traditionally by Indian women, light up. I called a buddy of mine, a young guy who was Mr. India and this super photogenic guy. Very proud of his Indian heritage. I asked him whether or not it was offensive to Indians to have this dot on her forehead come to life as she’s fighting and as she’s imbued with her powers just like George’s ax lights up and Paul’s horse, Guillotine, has his hooves light up and his mane catch fire. He said, “No, as long as you aren’t denigrating the god, then I don’t believe that Indians would find it offensive.” Then, he went out and asked some more of his friends and got back to me. I decided to make the creative choice to go ahead and go that route because it is more of an honor in my mind to embrace her Indian heritage and I hope it is perceived that way. I suppose that we are going to find whether it is no big deal at all or if people find it offensive.
Gischler: From a practical storytelling point of view, Order of the Forge is three issues and we crank it up next issue. It just goes boom, boom, boom. These guys going from frying pan to fire, frying pan to fire. So, there are these touches, like Donn was just explaining with the dot on her forehead. There are so many little touches that are like tips of icebergs, and if we’re allowed to expand later, you can see where we can jump in a lot deeper in a lot of different ways. I hope we have a chance to come back later and look deeper into those things, because they’re pretty cool.
Berdahl: Yeah, three issues is not a lot. You think it is, but Victor had to very much streamline things. After all, a good portion of the fun of reading this is it is a comic book. It is about superheroes and we didn’t want to lose sight of that. I’m sure you can appreciate that. What’s compelling is the action. You have all the backstories and underlying stories, but again, you don’t get to necessarily explore those in three episodes.
Lu: I do hope you get to explore this more because I think there’s a lot here to cover.
Berdahl: You and me both!
Gischler: This might be a good shout out time to Tazio Bettin, the interior artist. I remember specifically trading a couple of emails with him about Hammond’s office and about filling it up with stuff. When Kate walks into his office, she sees all this stuff freaks out because of how weird it is. “Who is this guy and what is he into?” I know Tazio spent a good amount of time making that office look really cool and full of that archaic stuff.
Lu: I’m sorry he couldn’t be here today. He’s done some great work, especially with that first reveal of the governor’s private office and that last panel where Washington is channeling He-Man while raising his axe. It’s beautiful stuff.
Berdahl: Yeah, so good.
Lu: Ultimately, what are you hoping that people get out of this miniseries?
Gischler: Just bringing it down to a level of these three books and twenty-two pages, the idea that they come away with just a vivid, clear picture of this world, which technically it is our world. It is our history. However, it’s also a parallel world half an inch over from our world, where history has gone a little differently. If people come away scratching their head like, “What was that all about?” I’ll feel like I didn’t do my job. However, if they come away thinking, “That’s the revolutionary world that I want to go back to! I can totally see how things work there!” then I’ll feel like I accomplished something.
Berdahl: I so much wanted to create a world that people would question. That people would take long held ideas and very deeply held beliefs and this notion and give them what Victor is talking about, an alternate viewpoint so that they could have fun exploring in their mind. What Victor has done is he has basically created superheroes, thrown in Viking zombies, a super passionate love story, and an earthy defying super weapon sent to us from somewhere. You have this epic story that also provides a clear and concise way to look at George Washington and many other founding fathers in a different way. George has long, flowing hair. He’s slashing and slaying and falling in love and doing things that we just wouldn’t think George would do.
Lu: He’s letting his hair down. He is letting that powder wig down. He’s going to have some fun with it.
Berdahl: Yup. There you go. And he is shedding thirty years. That helps. Thirty years ago I might have had that hair.
Lu: What, you never had that hair?
Berdahl: Well, I did, I did when I drove my motorcycle around and about killed myself. You know, all of us youngsters go through some phase of phase.
Lu: See, you had a wild streak in you. You had a little bit of George in you.
Berdahl: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been accused of having an anti-authority streak for about my whole life. But anti-authority is only good if it pushes the envelope in a positive direction. When it is destructive, I’m not a fan of that. So again, that’s where my story falls. George falls on the side of good eventually.
Berdahl: I find that to be compelling. Ultimately, I want my readers to feel like this guy isn’t fighting for a billion English pounds and twenty-five women. I am unabashedly altruistic in the end, and I want George to be that way too. Of course, along the way there’s a lot of self-doubt and battles that. I believe that is the human nature and human condition.
Lu: Instead of starting with George as the perfect hero, Order of the Forge is about his journey towards becoming a hero.
Berdahl: Correct. That is very well put. His journey, as is the case with all human beings literally, is not a linear from point A to point Z straight line up top. It is a five steps forward, twelve steps back. Unless you are some alien, as a human being you are flawed somehow, and so am I. George Washington was flawed as a human being.
Lu: I’m glad I had a chance to talk to you both about this. My final question is a silly one. Are we going to see Washington fly?
Berdahl: Not if I have anything to do with it. But if Victor convinces me that he should, then…
Gischler: There’s a lot of ways we could do it. He could be thrown off of something for one thing.
Berdahl: That’s true.
Gischler: Ben is always inventing something or other. I’m sure he could invent something that flies and stick George on it and off they go. These comics, you can do anything, baby. You can do anything you want in comics.
Lu: That’s true.
Berdahl: To answer that question, Alex, obviously my inspiration for the axe was Thor’s hammer. Thor can fly with his hammer in his hand…again, we haven’t answered every question. We don’t want to answer every question. We want you to think about it and to come back to read more. Maybe he hasn’t discovered all of the powers of the axe yet. So…yeah, the answer is he might fly. Who knows? We’ll see.
Lu: Alright, well I am excited to see what happens!
Order of the Forge #1 comes out tomorrow, April 29th, 2015! Check it out.