Interview: Writer Mike Jasper of IN MAPS & LEGENDS

Today we’re talking to accomplished novelist and short story writer Mike Jasper whose new comic series In Maps & Legends explores the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

What happens when the artist responsible for mapping imagined worlds is suddenly confronted with the disgruntled inhabitants of that very fantasy kingdom? No enchanted wardrobes involved in this journey, but expect plenty of culture shock.

Steampunk aficionados take note: airships abound.

Art by Niki Smith

We talked to Jasper about his lifelong love for fantasy, the process of charting his own territories of the imagination, and sharing that quest with an artist he’s never met in person.

Graphicly – What is In Maps & Legends?

Mike Jasper – In Maps & Legends is a nine-issue, 192-page, contemporary fantasy graphic novel. The sub-genre is what’s called a “portal fantasy,” in which the story starts in our world, but the protagonist finds some sort of doorway or gateway into another world. Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels are a great example of this, and they are part of my inspiration for this comic. In this case, our protagonist is a twenty-something artist name Kait who finds herself compelled to carve a map into the wall of her spare bedroom in her apartment. The map comes to her in a dream-like state, and by the end of issue 1, the map sucks her and three friends into another, dying world.

Graphicly – You’ve written prose, including a number of genre stories. Had you ever drawn or doodled maps as part of your creative process?

MJ – Oh, definitely. I love picking up a fat fantasy novel and scoping out the map on the inside cover. Something about maps immediately transport you to that world — it’s like evidence or proof that this other world really exists. I created a couple maps for In Maps & Legends, and for pretty much every other longer work I’ve created, I’ve scribbled a map, or used Google Maps extensively for stories or novels taking place in the real world.

Also, maps are a great way to come up with story and plot ideas, as you ask yourself questions about the terrain and the history of that world. How could people live in these harsh mountains? What kind of weather do they have in this southern forest? When did this volcano last erupt?

Graphicly – In Maps & Legends feels like a love letter to fantasy kingdoms of all sorts. Do you have a particular fondness for any of those imagined places? Middle-Earth, Narnia, Discworld, Barsoom? Did any of these inspire your own world-building?

MJ – Middle-Earth, all the way, baby. I remember tracing and making copies of the maps from The Hobbit back when I was in fifth and sixth grade. And in doing so, I feel a little bit of ownership for that world, somehow, having drawn them. Reading Tolkien’s work inspired me to want to write, so I could create worlds of my own. And that creative process usually began with a map…

Graphicly – What came first, the fantasy world Kaitlin enters or the notion that a woman of the real-word would be whisked away into an imaginary realm?

MJ – It started with Kait and that weird map. As I wrote the initial draft, I knew something bad was happening on the world where she was mapping onto the walls of her spare room, but I wasn’t sure what that was. That’s the fun of writing to me — having a rough idea of what’s going to happen, but not truly knowing the details until I write the actual scenes. I also really liked the idea of knowledge enabling Kait’s ability to travel elsewhere — she receives the details of the map from an unknown-at-the-time source, and only when the map is complete does it become a portal. No opening the wardrobe and climbing through. You gotta do the legwork first!

Graphicly – What is your process with artist Niki Smith? How did you find each other?

MJ – Niki and I first got in touch via Twitter — we have yet to actually meet in person, despite having worked on this project for two and a half years now. She wanted to illustrate a comic, so she sent out a tweet asking if anyone had a story she could draw. I tweeted her back, and In Maps & Legends was born (well, it started out as a novel I was working on, but it stalled out at about 90 pages).

We worked via email and Dropbox. I’d email her whenever the latest script was available in Dropbox, and she’d grab the script file, make comments on it, and there’d be some email back and forth as we finalized the script. This was usually a case of Niki correcting me when I wanted her to draw something physically impossible! (This was my first full-length comic script, so I learned a ton from her).

She’d then go off and do the pencils and inks and lettering, share with me what she had, and then after we agreed on the art, she’d add her amazing colors and special effects to it to finish the issue off.

Then I’d get to do the fun formatting to various platforms, and I’d make sure all our distributors got Niki’s art files, where appropriate. And then I’d do press releases, PR, and other fun stuff for each new issue.

Graphicly – Can you see the full territory of In Maps & Legends or are the kingdom and the story itself still revealing themselves to you? Are there more legends to be had in these two worlds?

MJ - The possibilities are pretty much endless for further stories in this series. Issues 1-9 are self-contained, but as you can see from the last page of issue 9, you can imagine Kait and company heading off… elsewhere. I’ve got ideas for two more story arcs, but right now — after a pretty intensive year and a half of creating, writing, drawing, promoting, formatting, and learning how best to do our digital comic — Niki and I both want to work on our own projects. She has some amazing graphic novels of her own she’s working on, including one called Some Did Rest, and I’m working on the second prose novel in my series of Contagious Magic novels, A Wild Epidemic of Magic, the sequel to A Sudden Outbreak of Magic.

Graphicly – In Maps & Legends is something of a rarity in that it seems designed especially as a digital comic (as opposed to a print comic later translated to digital). Can you speak to the experience of approaching a comic in that light?

MJ – Well, you can thank DC’s former imprint Zuda Comics for that. We created Maps for the Zuda competition, and we won it in November 2009. We had just started serializing it at the Zuda site in 2010 when DC pulled the plug on Zuda. So Niki and I decided to publish it on our own, via UnWrecked Press. Because Zuda required a landscape comic, designed for a webcomic-style experience, that’s why Maps is set up the way it is.

I think it worked perfectly for our comic (though we’ve had some issues with people who didn’t want to turn their nook or kindle sideways to read issues on them!). Other than keeping the size of the page in mind — I was always fighting to limit the number of panels on a page to six panels or less — I don’t think I approached scripting the comic any differently than I would have for a print comic.

If we had unlimited time and resources, it would’ve been awesome to make the comic more interactive with Easter eggs or other goodies, or to include maps into the digital version of each issue (I would’ve loved to have one of those red lines that tracked Kait’s progress through the other world in that issue, for example). The Graphicly version actually has some nifty features like this, including a copy of my script for each issue, plus the ability to temporarily “erase” Niki’s colored art to see the black and white inks underneath, and some interactivity with reader comments.

Ultimately, it was a fantastic experience for me as a writer to dive into the world of comics as a creator instead of just a reader, and it was made even more interesting (and challenging) to get into digital comics just as their popularity was starting to explode. I’m sure the stuff I’ve learned in the past 2 years about digital comics has already gone stale. It’s a never-ending learning process, and that’s what keeps this writing gig fun for me.

You can pick up all nine issues of In Maps & Legends first story arc individually, or together in one complete collection. How’s about a preview?