Monday, May 10, 2010

FYC Replay: The Architect with Mike Baron & Andie Tong

Mike Baron is one of the creators with whom I was most excited to "talk" with. He's written some of my all-time favorite comics - Nexus, Badger, the launch of the Wally West Flash series - and is still creating thought-provoking adventures. In this FYC replay, learn about one of his lesser known books, The Architect, a graphic novella from Big Head Press that was a fun read.

For Your Consideration: The Architect by Mike Baron (writer) and Andie Tong (artist) By Chris Beckett FRONT PAGE:
Nexus. The Badger. Flash. The Punisher. Deadman. Mike Baron’s list of writing credits is impressive. A unique writer whose singular vision has afforded him not only critical success but also a faithful fan base, his latest book, The Architect, from Big Head Press is a welcome addition to the Baron library. Hitting shops August 15, this is a book people should be on the lookout for.

The 411:
The Architect
Written by Mike Baron
Art by Andie Tong
80 pp. Full Color
Big Head Press

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Roark Dexter Smith was the greatest architect of his generation. Espousing his philosophy of organic architecture, Smith felt it necessary to be involved with every aspect of a building “from sublime inspiration to the lowliest muck-raking chore.” A maverick who enjoyed the finer things in life – exotic foods, beautiful women, his Guarneri violin, and dabbling in the occult – Smith was, like many men of his stature, engorged with the power that came from the notoriety heaped upon him and his radical architectural advances. Although a celebrity, this did not stop the man from overreaching, and when he began work on Bluff House in 1969, he soon found himself in debt. Despite this setback he persevered, using the force of his personality to lure more investors into his dream. Work on the house continued until spring of the following year when Bluff House mysteriously burned with only Smith’s newborn surviving the blaze. Roark Dexter Smith’s body and those of his wife and assistant were never found.

Years later the Smith Preservation Society, which purchased the house after the disaster, approach Gil Topper who runs his own construction company. They want to give over Bluff House to Gil with the understanding he will renovate it to Smith’s original specifications. Not only is the society impressed with Topper’s architectural background, but he also happens to be the long-lost son of Roark Dexter Smith. Initially stunned, Gil quickly warms to the idea as the reality of his heritage sets in.

The prospect of finishing Roark Dexter Smith’s – his father’s – greatest architectural enterprise fills Topper with excitement. He enlists Mark, his best friend and business partner, and his girlfriend Thea in this venture, and the three of them, along with Mark’s girlfriend Selena Gillman and a fellow carpenter and Smith buff Norm Grundy, move into the house and begin to put things aright.

But all is not as it appears. Strange noises emanate from the basement at odd hours (the sounds of a violin being played) and petty jealousies are accentuated out in the wilds of Wisconsin. It could be the isolation from society, the nearest city is two and a half hours away, or the disparate personalities involved, Thea is a scientist who studies fungi while Selena is a self-proclaimed high priestess in the church of Wicca, but whatever it may be, there is a foul mood hanging over the house that threatens to crush them if they aren’t watchful.

There’s a lot going on in The Architect, which allows the story to breathe in a way most graphic novels are unable. Throw-away details, such as Gil’s girlfriend being a mycologist, that seem included only to flesh out the characters end up bearing fruit later in the story. No detail is insignificant, and the foundation upon which Baron constructs his tale is solid and entertaining, moving the story forward while dropping these incidental details along the way like bread crumbs in a forest. Readers may absorb the many pieces of the puzzle, but their importance will not be understood until the climax rushes upon them.

Baron moves the first half of the book along at a deliberate pace, easing readers into a reality that looks just like our own. It isn’t until the story moves into the present and things start to go badly that all thought of that shared reality is forgotten. Selena is in tune with the spiritual forces at work around Bluff House and becomes a catalyst for the horror that has been lying dormant all these years. And once things start to go bad, they go very bad, very quick.

With the final act of the story, Baron opens the pages up with larger and fewer panels, allowing the action rather than the dialogue to thrust the audience through the climax. This utilization of the comic page manages to instill a frantic tension into the reading experience that heightens the suspense and horror permeating this story. It is a masterful use of what makes comics unique, enhancing an already engaging tale.

Andie Tong is currently the regular artist for Marvel/Panini UK’s Spectacular Spiderman and is an artist American readers may be unfamiliar with. Tong’s storytelling is clear, and he handles the evolution of this story well. His style is a contemporary melding of manga and action comics, one that matches up well with Baron’s narrative. His clean art evokes a simple sensibility that acts as a tonal contrast to the horror story that Baron is setting up early in the tale. When one of the members of Gil’s group is eaten – in a bloody mass – by the toilet, it resonates with the reader. And despite the fact that this is an action/horror comic, Tong is still able to draw honest emotions on the characters’ faces, bringing a humanity to the story that is necessary to make it work.

The Architect is an exciting read that any fan of Mike Baron’s work should seek out. Originally serialized on the Big Head Press website, this print collection also contains a short prose story by Baron as an added bonus. Written as a faux article for Vanity Fair magazine, this short piece adds more depth to the graphic narrative and is a welcome addition to an already enjoyable book. Available August 15, I would recommend you pester your LCS for a copy if they have not already ordered one. It will be well worth it.

An Interview with Mike Baron and Andie Tong:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that initially attracted you to the medium, and to what do you attribute your longevity within comics?

Mike Baron: My interest in comics began when I was growing up in South Dakota and first read Uncle Scrooge. My interest expanded exponentially in college where some friends of mine began to point out some of the work being done, in particular stories drawn by Neal Adams. I've always been interested in writing fiction and comics is just another medium, one in which I have a peculiar facility. I say peculiar because nothing else ever came easy for me.

Andie Tong: I grew up with comics. I fell in love with the medium when I picked up my first comic book. I think I was like 5 years of old or something. Of course, I couldn't read that well at that stage so I was ultimately captivated by the pictures. Picking up a comic that young though, of course, I did not realize the pictures were telling a story. They were just pictures at that stage. Dynamic cartoons on paper. heh.

As soon as I could pick up a pencil, I tried to draw, to trace, and at a later age mimic other artist’s work. So in the end, I fell in love with drawing and art more than I did with comics. Personally, I never really thought about comics as a storytelling medium. I just really loved drawing. So to be able to make a living off it is more than I could ask for. I'm doing my hobby, essentially everyday, and getting paid for it

Beckett: The Architect was produced as a web comic first before going to this print edition. Did you approach the writing any differently for publication to the web?

Baron: No, but The Architect was originally a novel. Which I tried to write. And tried and tried. Novels are a tough nut to crack. So I took an alternative route. It was entirely Big Head's decision to present it first on the web. I don't pretend to understand how that works financially, but they now have a wealth of material up.

Beckett: You have done some notable work for both Marvel and DC, but the bulk of your comic writing – and the work for which you are best known – has been within the small press. Why might you recommend – or not recommend – the small press as an avenue for publication to aspiring creators?

Baron: We all want to get published and if small press comes forward with a viable offer, good for them. The benefits of small press might better be viewed as the benefits of creator control. You own it--every facet of it. So if you sell it to the movies you get all the money. I don't know the deal DC and Marvel have--DC certainly has been turning lots of Vertigo titles into film and some of those are creator owned. The disadvantages of course are that small press has to fight for any kind of publicity. Marvel and DC are going to completely dominate Diamond and Wizard so you have to get your message out some other way. The successes have been numerous: Cerebus, Elfquest, Nexus to cite three.

Beckett: What kind of instruction, if any, did you have in preparation for your work in comics?

Tong: I got a lot of help from professionals in the comic industry when I was starting out. Originally I didn't think I could work in the realm of comics logistically. Being born in Malaysia then later moving to Australia and with the industry mainly in America and Japan, I thought I had to move to those countries to work in comics. I chose to be a designer instead but drew for leisure in my own time.

When a design company I was working for back then sent me to my first ever comic convention over in the US, I found that with the world wide web and emails nowadays, you can work from anywhere around the globe. I was encouraged by numerous working professionals to apply and submit to comic companies as they thought my work was actually good enough. I also made several contacts which I still network with today. Those contacts have actually led me to several comic breaks like He-man and Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and also a recommendation to Mr. Baron himself which got me working on The Architect.

These guys have groomed me from the basic principals of creating comics: the kind of paper to use, dimensions to work on, how much to charge, to the finer points of style, techniques to consider, and everything in between. I've now been working seven years since breaking into comics, and I continue to bounce ideas and ask advice from these guys. So whenever I hit the conventions or if someone has a question via email, I try to return the favour that I've been given by these professionals. If it wasn't for them, their tutoring and their patience, I might still be struggling to hit my first published comic right now.

Beckett: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring artists looking to break into comics?

Tong: Get on the art forums and show your work off. It's the best self promotion an artist can do for himself. It's essentially how I got my first published gig. Someone liked my work enough to offer me a small story to work on and it started rolling from there. Work on anthologies when you're starting out and trying to establish yourself. Get yourself in print first and foremost. You might have to do a lot of freebies when you're first starting out but of course, assess each potential project as it comes. Obviously it's easier to work on a short 8-page anthology comic than if you were to take on, say, a self published 4-issue mini series title. A lot of the self published comic books tend to be back-end pay which may not suit a lot of people, especially if you've still got to eat and pay the bills.

Get to the conventions and start networking. As brilliant as your work may be on paper, I truly believe that networking with the publishers and editors gets you that extra advantage. I've heard so many stories from other professionals and experienced it on several occasions myself. Sometimes editors and publishers want to see what kind of person you are. That gives you a dynamic advantage if you can prove that you're a sincere, genuine, reliable guy that wants to work in the industry and can and will meet deadlines time after time.

Of course this advice is based on my own personal experience. I'm not saying everyone has to follow this tact. There are always the few lucky ones that get into the big leagues right off the bat. But a vast majority of creators have to usually work the hard slog at the start. And what I mentioned before was what I found to be the most helpful through my numerous trial and error experiences of the comic industry.

Beckett: You’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of great artists over the years. What was it that Andie Tong brought to this project that makes it work for you?

Baron: First he was available, second he was interested, and third he brings an exciting new style to story-telling. Andie and I have never met. He's never been to Wisconsin, but I sent him copious material. Love to work with him again.

Beckett: Were you aware of Mike Baron’s work before you collaborated with him on The Architect? And what was it like for you to work with Baron?

Tong: I was aware of Mike's work but shamefully I have to admit, I was not aware of the man himself. I knew of Nexus published by Dark Horse comics, but I did not know that Mike had created and wrote the book. When a project I had been working on fell through, I was fishing for a new project to work on. I got introduced to Mike via another fellow creator and when I did my research to look into who this Mike fellow was, I was astonished to find that he's practically an industry legend. I was completely honoured that Mike took me on as an artist for one of his projects.

Mike's very cruisy. He left me to my own devices and as a creator, he allowed me to mold his creation into a vision I was happy with and of course, one that he would be happy with too. All he gave me was a script and several pages of his thumbnails just so he could show me what he was imagining, and then he let me take the reins.

When working on The Architect, Mike was very supportive, communicative, and very, very patient. When I started the project, I was in Australia. I had a lot of doubts in my mind about what the background scenery from the story, which is based in Wisconsin, would look like. Next thing I knew, a hardback book of Wisconsin scenery appeared on my door step.

Collaborating with another creator from the other side of the world was a bit disconcerting at the start as well. But as I said before, thank goodness for the World Wide Web and email. If I had a question, I'd get an answer from Mike within a day. Being, I'm sure, a busy man, I thought at first, Mike would be incommunicado for a while as experiences with other creators and projects in the past led me to believe. In the end though, as I said before, Mike pretty much left me to my own devices. So I didn't have a lot of questions. I just let my imagination roam wild and Mike was happy with that.

It took me close to five years with several breaks in between to finally complete this book. I was working on The Architect pages outside of my full time design job. Starting out as a newbie, it was not yet viable for me to give up my full time job to concentrate on comics. So, I ended up working 18 hours a day, almost 7 days a week and it was taking its toll on me. I ended up with like 30 pages out of the original fleshed out 70 pages. Mike was very patient with the whole process. In the end, Mike scouted for publishers that could supplement paying us upfront for the rest of the pages and that's when we landed on the doorstep of Big Head Press. Frank and Scott Bieser, owners of Big Head Press, were very encouraging and supportive. By that time, I was on the verge of giving up design all together to just concentrate on comics. So Big Head Press could not have come at a better time. They ended up paying for all the pages finished previously and worked out a feasible deadline for me to finish the rest without interfering with other regular comic gigs I had going on at the same time. Within two or so months, I completed the rest of the pages.

But by taking such a long time to finish The Architect, my drawing style had evolved so dramatically since I first started the book way back when. So it was a very frustrating task to try and go back to my original style so that the end pages did not look like it was drawn by a different artist. It was especially frustrating when I could see all the imperfections of my old style, but couldn't really do anything about it due to set deadlines. So I hope I did an okay job in the end to blend the gapped drawing styles together.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Baron: Nexus will be out by the time this appears. Nexus is the most exciting, thought-provoking comic out there right now. New Badger begins in December from IDW. First they're reprinting all the old Badgers starting in November. I have a project called Black Ice at Comicmix that's going to blow everybody’s' minds. Nick Runge, the artist, is only 21 years old but already has a fully developed and whiplash exciting style, not dissimilar to a synthesis of Paul Gulacy and Tim Bradstreet.

Tong: I'm currently the regular artist for Spectacular Spiderman UK. So I'm basically concentrating on that at the moment. There's not a lot of room for me to play around on other projects currently as the deadline is fairly tight. As soon as I finish one issue, I'm pretty much on to the next. Thankfully, my editor is very lenient. A few months back, he allowed me a couple of issues break to finish up a project I committed to before I took on my role as regular artist for Spidey UK. It was a self-contained one-issue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project for Mirage Studios. It was pretty grand getting to draw a classic from the 80s. Tales of TMNT #39 will be out sometime around the end of this year. Unfortunately however, due to licensing restrictions, the Spiderman UK book I work regularly on is only sold within the UK.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

FYC replay: Kevin Colden

Here's another look back at a spotlight from my column, For Your Consideration, which ran on the Pulse for nearly a year and a half, though it was sporadic at best those final six months. This piece focuses on Kevin Colden who has been doing comics for over a decade now, and is finally getting some well-deserved recognition.
Chemset comics, where Todt Hill began (I hope to see it concluded someday) is no longer publishing webcomics, but Act-i-vate is a thriving webcomics community and that is where Colden's Fishtown graphic novel was first serialized. Nominated for an Eisner and collected by IDW, this story is a tour-de-force that is chilling and heart-wrenching at the same time. But that's too simple an introduction.
Read on and find out why you should seek out this book.

For Your Consideration: Todt Hill from Neil Kleid & Kevin Colden, and Fishtown by Kevin Colden
By Chris Beckett

Foregoing a prestigious Xeric award in order to serialize his graphic novel Fishtown online at the Act-i-Vate website, Kevin Colden is one of a growing number of artists that are exploring the new frontier of the internet for comics publication. Also the artist of the Chemistry Set’s Todt Hill, Colden is firmly planted within a movement that is expanding the boundaries of the comics medium right before fans’ eyes. Click on in and see what’s happening.

The 411:
Todt Hill
Serialized web comic
Written by Neil Kleid
Art by Kevin Colden

Serialized web comic
Written & Drawn by Kevin Colden

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

In the past year, online comic publishing has taken off with a number of new collectives offering free comics to fans on an almost daily basis. Eschewing the traditional superhero genre and clichéd storytelling, many of these comics are the ones pushing the boundaries of what is possible within the medium. Unhindered by editorial constraints or focus groups, these creators are stepping away from the mundane and stepping up to the plate in a big way. Two of the more noteworthy collectives that can be found online now are The Chemistry Set and Act-i-Vate, and Philadelphia-born and New York based artist Kevin Colden has his feet firmly planted within both camps.

Over at the Chem Set, Colden is doing the art for Todt Hill. Set in a parallel United States where Richmond Island, better known to its inhabitants as Todt Hill, is now quarantined from the rest of the United States, this is a light drama touched with very human moments. Three centuries ago William Teach – brother to Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard – and his crew plundered unsuspecting victims all across the Atlantic. When the ship’s hold was full, they would return to a secret cave beneath what is now Todt Hill in order to safeguard the booty. But like most pirates of note, Teach was captured and sentenced to hang. With his death, the secret of his horded gold went with him, followed by a legend that somewhere on the island a marker was left that could direct a lucky soul to Teach’s ill-gotten gains.

For years, opportunists and treasure hunters scoured the island, digging anywhere in a vain effort to find William Teach’s gold. It became an accepted part of life until a few years ago when those Teach had plundered – now reanimated zombies – finally made their way to Todt Hill. The fallout from this turn of events was swift and immutable.

The military was called in, but they were unable to move these creatures off the island. So instead, the government decided to quarantine the entire population. Blowing up the bridge that connected the Hill to the mainland, and procuring the ferry for military purposes, the comings and goings in Todt Hill became strictly regulated. Nothing would ever be the same again.

The Tompkins family has come to live on the island, a result of Jacob Tompkins reassignment to security detail on Todt Hill. Jacob tries to make the best of the situation, but his children, particularly the oldest one Michael, find it difficult to adjust. Not only do they need to deal with the typical burdens of being the new kids in town, but they also must deal with the fact that they are stuck on the island. And then there are the zombies, which Michael encounters one evening when he runs out of the house after dark – something highly advised against if one wishes to see the following morning.This web comic, from Colden and Xeric award winner Neil Kleid, is an exciting, original offering that utilizes pirates and zombies as a jumping off point for a tale dealing with many disparate themes. These two creators are able to weave a believable tapestry around a setting that is just slightly off-center, and in their hands it does not come off as silly but draws one into the story, allowing the audience to experience the more human moments in a very “real” manner.

Dealing with family relationships, Kleid threads in narratives to which many people will relate – whether it be the fight one had with their father as a teenager, or the time they were picked on at school, or even that time they came across a zombie strolling the alleys at night – and which keep readers returning with the finely paced development of this tale. Presenting his audience with a number of questions at the outset, Kleid smartly reveals the underpinnings of the story in a calculated, methodical manner, teasing out just enough of Todt Hill’s “history” to satisfy readers, while leaving them curious about other questions that are raised.

Colden’s artwork is well matched with Kleid’s narrative. His storytelling is clear, while his loose linework and coloring of the story convey the slightly whimsical nature of the overall tale, while also managing to ground it in the real world. This is a delicate balancing act, but Colden pulls it off well and adds a lot to the feel of Todt Hill. Kleid and Colden are currently updating chapter 2 of this ongoing epic and readers can catch up quickly with the sidebar links at the Chemistry Set.
Over at the Act-i-Vate site, Colden is writing and drawing his own creation, Fishtown. Based upon a brutal murder that occurred in the “Fishtown” section of Philadelphia, this is used only as a starting point by Colden. His real interest lies not in rehashing this particular case – it would be far too painful for the people involved – but in delving into the psychology of murder and what can drive people – in this case, teenagers – to commit such a violent act. Although many people may look at Fishtown as a re-enactment of sorts, Colden has fictionalized his story to the point where, although the settings he draws are very real, the incidents and actions, with a very few exceptions, are all invented.

Colden’s artwork for Fishtown is stark and chilling. Awash in a midnight blue and dull yellow haze, he does not shy away from exposing the reality of these teenage characters – drugs, disobedience, violence, and sex. Moving the story along at a measured pace, Colden allows the images to convey as much of the story as the dialogue. The teens in Fishtown act and sound like the kids down the block, confident in their wisdom and resentful of authority. They are living their lives in the manner they wish, and nobody can make them do it any differently. Of course, once one chooses to be an adult, then the consequences are no longer insignificant. If only understanding of that facet of life could come sooner to some, then maybe the ugliness that surrounds us all might be a bit more tempered.

The artwork by Colden on both of these comics is a lesson in contrast, despite the fact that the underlying work is obviously from the same pen. Both strips are colored with a blue/yellow palette, but whereas the hues brushed across Todt Hill are brighter, it is the subdued palette on Colden’s solo creation that helps to differentiate the two pieces, adding layers to the more sober narrative. It is an interesting yet subtle dichotomy that showcases Colden’s range as an artist and the thought he puts into the creative process. Many people look at comics and think it is only the text and the images that convey a story. But the coloring of a particular story, when done well, can help to convey just as much as the words and the pictures.

Comics is a medium that continues to evolve, and along with the other offerings from these two online collectives, Todt Hill and Fishtown are two works that are helping to expand the boundaries of the medium in this new century. For entertaining comics – that are free – head on over and check them both out. You will not be disappointed.

An Interview with Kevin Colden:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Kevin Colden: Comics have always been a part of my life since I can remember. Every single day of my life. Honestly, I didn’t choose the medium, it chose me. I’ve written prose, made music, done stage work and made movies, but comics are the only medium where I can fully articulate what I want to say.

Beckett: With Todt Hill you are drawing from Neil Kleid’s scripts while Fishtown is all you. What are the benefits and drawbacks to each creative process?

Colden: The benefit of working with any writer is that as an artist you have the opportunity to stretch in order to fulfill the writer’s vision as well as your own. You can feed off of their energy and use it to create something that wouldn’t come out of your own head. The only real drawback is that you have to work harder to compensate for whatever weaknesses the writer may have as well as your own weaknesses.

As for working alone – the benefit is that it’s all you. But that can be the drawback, as well. There’s no one to hide behind if you screw up.

Beckett: When I first read Fishtown, I did a “double take” when I realized you were the same artist doing Todt Hill at the Chemistry Set. I can’t pinpoint anything other than the coloring, but the mood of the two pieces is vastly different and that is expressed masterfully through the art. How are you achieving this tonal difference, or are you even conscious of it?

Colden: The mood in Todt Hill comes largely from Neil’s pacing and dialogue. I use that as a guide for what angles to use and actions to show. The cool (as opposed to “warm”, not “lame”) color scheme was intended to give it a dank, nautical feel and hopefully achieves something close to that.

With Fishtown, I’m not working from a full script and my shot choices are done in the layout stage, which I’m sure affects the tone of the story. I’ve paced the action very deliberately, especially in the earlier pages. There’s also a lot less dialogue, and I’m allowing the characters to tell the story through their movement and action.

Beckett: Fishtown is based loosely on an actual murder case. What prompted you to use that as a springboard for your story and – with the facts of the case available – how challenging, if at all, is it to stray from these facts and fictionalize it?

Colden: I’m fascinated by human psychology and man’s capacity for brutality. I’m also fascinated at how the mainstream news media has become over-sensationalized to the point of being offensive. Fishtown developed out of my anger at violent crime and at how even reputable news outlets tend to make those crimes sound like pulp novel fodder.

The only challenge in using a real incident as a springboard is that readers might misinterpret the book as being a factual account, which it isn’t.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Colden: I’ve got a few projects shaping up for 2008, but right now I’m working feverishly to finish Fishtown by the end of this year. I’m also in two House of Twelve anthologies this year – House of Twelve Presents “The Breakfast Club” and House of Twelve #4. The first one will be out at the TCAF show in August, the second at SPX.

Elephant Words week 5

Here's another entry from my time playing in the Elephant Words sandbox, a flash fiction site where 6 contributors have to create a new story each week based upon a new image. And each one has to have their story up on each of the other days of the week according to a rotating schedule. Nick Papaconstaninou created the place and it's going strong nearly three years later. You should check it out if you have the chance.
But for now, my entry for week 5 of Elephant Words, based upon the image above:

Fire and Ash

Gem’s parents died suddenly when he was only six. The tiny village organized quickly – the boy’s neighbors took him in – and sent off dispatches to any known relatives with regards to young Gem’s misfortune. Only one replied. His Uncle Valencium.

People in the village were wary of Gem’s uncle. He lived in a thatch hut atop the bald hill that overlooked the village and rarely made his way down from this perch. There were many believed him to be an alchemist of a kind, though they had no proof, and objected to Gem staying with some mystical hermit.

But, the young boy’s stay was determined overlong after two weeks. And so, Gem found himself being escorted by two elderly women in long, dark robes up the hill to his Uncle Valencium.

When Gem arrived, he found the whispers had been true. Gem’s uncle was indeed a wizard and a powerful one at that. Many years ago, he had been banished from the walled city that lay a day’s walk to the west for acts none would discuss. Those rare times that Gem broached the subject it always sent a chill through his uncle, and the boy quickly dropped the matter.

Thankfully, his uncle had a loose memory, and these dark thoughts would soon whisk away on the breeze, leaving a void to fill with knowledge and laughter. It had been too many years since Valencium had known an apprentice, and when his nephew reverted to his care, he was happy at the thought of imparting his wizardly knowledge to the malleable child. It was an amazing time for young Gem. He learned alchemical techniques for transforming the brittle vegetation surrounding their hut into lush plentiful foodstuffs – yet another myth proved true – as well as how to become invisible, how to snatch whispered secrets from a stolen breath, how to make a spinster fall in love with an ass, along with a multitude of other incantations, spells, and potions.

But the most intriguing aspect of this time with his uncle was the enclosure on the second floor – a second floor not evident from the hut’s exterior. Gem would often hear bumping noises coming from the secret room, a scratching of claws waking him many nights. Whenever he asked his uncle about this, he would only say, “Later. Save that for later,” but that later never arrived, not with his uncle.


Valencium had a renewed spirit in these years, finding purpose in his life where there had been none for so long. And Gem absorbed everything fully, his mind open wide to the possibilities that lay ahead of him.

A score of years passed, and with each passing season Valencium looked younger, more vigorous, while Gem grew to be a stout and handsome young man. A new generation in the hamlet below was now talking about the old hermit and his nephew, though sometimes he was named as a son, and the strange rituals performed atop their hill. Gem enjoyed going down at night and walking unseen among them, hearing the tall tales being spun. Gem would come back to his uncle with a multitude of stories for him, and the two men would laugh heartily until daybreak.

And then one day, his uncle passed away.

It happened without fanfare. Valencium did not awaken one morning, and when Gem walked over to check, he found his uncle was not breathing.

Gem searched his memories and pored over the parchments that were stashed all about the hut, but nothing could he find that would reincarnate his uncle. But what he did find in those stacks was almost as important. Valencium’s final wish had been left for his nephew to find, and at the bottom of the parchment, the young wizard also discovered the “later” he’d been awaiting all these years was now at hand.

So Gem took his uncle down to the base of their hill and dug five holes, burying different parts of his uncle in each, for it is never safe to bury a wizard complete. Chanting over the small mounds, Gem wept openly for the first time he could remember. Masking the area with a complex façade spell, he returned to the hut on the hill and slept for three days.

On the fourth day, Gem rose before the sun and performed a cleansing ritual prior to fulfilling his uncle’s last wish.


The gray haze of dusk seeped over the hard stone of the city walls as Gem approached. He had been all day rolling over the valleys that lay between, and the sack on his shoulder was heavy.

“chrp” The sound from the burlap was weak, almost a whisper.

Gem had not been ready for the sigh of the feeble bird when he opened the secret room that morning. But looking into its eyes, Gem had come to the realization that his uncle and this bird were connected in some way. During the trek, he had come to understand better that bond and knew bringing it to the city was as much a return for Valencium as it was for the ancient bird.

Gem toiled up the final few yards to the base of the eastern wall and dropped to one knee. Sliding the sack off his shoulder, Gem carefully untied it and let the burlap slide to the ground. The bird within was more frail than he remembered it being that morning. Its wings convulsed weakly, barely sighing on the night air as they moved. Trying to lift its head, the animal found the effort too much and let it fall back to the hard ground, its eyes twitching erratically as it did so.

Gem felt a tear roll down his cheek, the night air cooling its traces. Leaning over, he picked the bird up – which was all bones and skin now – and stood up. Looking up, Gem bent at his knees and drew the bird down before heaving it toward the upper reach of the wall where a lit torch flamed dully in the cool night. A soft flutter of wings accompanied the young wizard’s throw and he watched as the skeletal bird arced toward the torch and passed right over its flames.

In a sudden burst, the bird erupted into a monstrous ball of flames that lit the entire valley for miles around, sending guards rushing over the sides of the walls in an attempt to escape the fire. The tiny sun roiled vigorously, sending heat off in incredible waves. Sweat stood out on Gem’s brow as he shaded his eyes with a hand, working a spell to insulate him from most of the heat. This went on for many minutes; the screams from within the city brought a smile to Gem’s face.

But eventually, the flames started to subside, pulling back into themselves until all that was left was a ball of flame roughly the size of a small man.

From the midst of this fiery ball, a great bird of flames shot forth screeching through the night. It wheeled and came back over the city flying low over the parapets. Making one final turn, the regal bird sped off into the night. The residual fireball was now fading, leaving the dull flicker of the torches to light the night. Inside the screams continued to ring while outside, Gem sat down and watched the soaring flame roll off into the night. A smile came to the young wizard’s face and he thought of his uncle, laying beneath the mound back home, smiling just as broadly.