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Busiek Discusses Arrowsmith, Part One

Posted: Wednesday, June 18
By: Tim O'Shea

There are very few companies that Kurt Busiek has not written for, but as a writer, he may be best known for Marvels (a 1994 miniseries that put he and Alex Ross on the comic book map); the creator-owned series, Astro City; or his run on Marvel Comics’ Avengers (with such artistic greats as George Perez and Alan Davis). Many regard Busiek’s writing to be at its strongest when he’s weaving his own universe. Such is the case with his new project, Arrowsmith, which was recently described by Wildstorm as follows:

“Welcome to the world of Fletcher Arrowsmith...a world very much like our own, but with one big difference. In his world, tales of folklore and legend - wizards, trolls, dragons, magic - are real! It's 1915, and the world is at war, and Fletcher aims to stay alive!

Arrowsmith is a 6-issue Cliffhanger! miniseries that reunites the acclaimed Avengers team of writer Kurt Busiek (Astro City: Local Heroes) and artists Carlos Pacheco & Jésus Meriño (JLA/JSA: Virtue & Vice) to create a coming-of-age story set in a magical new world filled with exciting new characters!”

The following exchange is the first part of SBC’s discussions with Busiek about Arrowsmith. Please return tomorrow for part two. And while you wait for part two, please make sure and read the preview for the series, the first issue of which goes on sale July 16.

Tim O’Shea: Part of the appeal for me years ago with Untold Tales of Spider-Man was the manner in which you wrote a teenage Peter Parker. Here you are again, mapping out the life of a teen in Arrowsmith. What is the challenge and the advantage of having your lead character be a teenager (Fletcher Arrowsmith)?

Kurt Busiek: In the case of Fletcher Arrowsmith, he's a teenager because that's the kind of story we're telling -- he's young, he's naive, he's lying about his age to get into the war. It just wouldn't work the same if he was, say, 35.

But in general, the strength and the weakness of teenagers is the same -- they're young. Writing a teenager is writing someone who's still learning big things, still making mistakes, still figuring out who to be, how to approach life. That can be nice, in that it's inherently dramatic and sympathetic to see someone taking on challenges and not knowing if they're ready for them yet. But at the same time, it means that if your hero needs to know stuff, you may be out of luck. Wolverine can fix an engine or fly a plane or turn out to speak Japanese, but if you start out with a young character, the either their backstory is such that they know a certain set of skills, or you have to show them learning. So it can take more space -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, just something you have to deal with.

TO: Fletcher is running away from home as this series opens. Will it be automatically clear what he's running away from, or is this something that is only alluded to, to be fleshed out over time?

KB: Fletcher's actually living at home and being a kid as the series opens. Why he runs away from home is part of the story.

TO: This is an alternate universe, yet at the same time, there must be some aspect of the actual period of WWI that interested you to have set it then. Otherwise, why choose this rather unique time in history (alternate or not)?

KB: World War One was a time of major change for the world -- a war nobody wanted to be as big as it was, but the old ways (the treaties and relationships between nations, and the often obsolete or counterproductive thinking at war colleges and defense ministries) combined with new ways (new weapons, new vehicles, new means of production) to create something that nobody could control -- the mechanisms of war and the ways of political power had changed. Nobody understood what was going on, and millions paid the price, as the world changed around them. It was very much a coming of age, a birth of a new era -- and a birth that wouldn't really be complete until we pulled out of the Great Depression and fought World War Two, decades later.

Telling a young character's coming of age against a background of an entire world coming of age is rich in dramatic possibilities. There's so much of World War One that's about innocence or a faith in the ways things used to be clashing with brutal reality, and so much of it is visual -- the daring young pilots, the "knights of the air," dealing with brutal, mechanized death -- there's just so much to work with there. That's what draws me to it.

TO: As a writer, what is the attraction of using magic in a story? It's clearly something that appeals to many writers (Alan Moore for one) and readers. What (if any) statement are you trying to make by having the dichotomy of magic vs. advanced weaponry (in essence having two different "world" collide)?

KB: As for statements I'm making (or trying to make), you'll need to read the stories. That's part of why we tell them.

As for magic -- I might as well ask, why not magic? Magic is fun. Magic is interesting, spooky, awe-inspiring ... whatever you want it to be, ultimately. I guess I could go into a whole spiel about how people are fascinated with the idea of forces beyond those we can see, and how to control our world in better ways than we generally have available to us ... but I don't really think about it in those terms. It's where the idea took me, more than anything else.

The roots of Arrowsmith go back to two ideas, both of which involved magic. One came out of the introduction I wrote to the first Astro City book collection, talking about how to my mind, superhero stories are less like science fiction (where the repercussions of the existence of these beings and their advanced technologies and powers should logically change the world) than like fairy tales (where the existence of witches and multiple intelligent races and so forth don't alter the world). I postulated the idea of fairy tales all happening in the same "continuity," and what it would do to society if witches and trolls and dwarves and such existed and there was commerce and trade and social issues and so on. And I kept coming back to that idea and thinking about it.

At another point, I was talking to a friend of mine, the fantasy author Lawrence Watt-Evans. He was casting about for an idea for a "big" fantasy novel, and I tossed out the idea of a war where wizards were treated like WWI aviators -- instead of spending a lifetime learning spells and wisdom and so on, they'd be taught a few useful spells, taught them fast and bluntly, and then sent off to fight because the war needed men and needed them now. Lawrence took that idea in a direction of his own, playing with new forms of magic, and it became Touched by the Gods, a novel so different from what had been in my head that I was able to reclaim the idea for future use.

It was when Carlos and I started talking about doing a project together after Avengers Forever that I was casting around for something interesting, something visual, something that Carlos could make into a lush and compelling world -- and I realized that if I mashed those two ideas together, and wound up with a World War One on a world where magic had been part of society and commerce and war for centuries, but now changing times had created a war where magic, too, was having repercussions nobody had foreseen, that'd make for a pretty cool setting. So there was never a choice to put magic in or not -- it was just where the ideas took us. Next project might not have magic in it at all.

Please click here for part two with Kurt Busiek.