Past the Last Mountain, published via Comics Experience, throws a dragon, a faun, and a young troll together into a desperate survival scenario. Writer and letterer Paul Allor (Tet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) – accompanied by artist and colorist Louie Joyce (The Corner Store, Little Red) and Gannon Beck on layouts – elegantly dissects themes of family, cultural diasporas, and moral relativism within a suspenseful adventure narrative. And all in only four issues!
Paul spoke with us about his new miniseries – which Matt O’Keefe at Comics Beat called “a very topical story” that left him feeling “blown away” – and gifted us with some insight into how he constructs complex settings without overburdening his readers.
Comics Experience: With so many mythical creatures you could’ve used to populate your story, why the decision to focus mostly on a troll, a faun, and a dragon?
Paul Allor: Hmmm. It came together pretty organically. I knew I wanted a dragon because, you know, of course you want to have a dragon. Dragons are amazing! And I’ve always really dug fauns. And trolls — they’re all really cool! That’s the answer. Ha.
But beyond that, I also went with creatures that would bounce off of their personalities in interesting ways — either playing into what you would expect, or bouncing off of that. So Willa, the dragon, is the big gun, the dangerous weapon of the group. But she’s also extremely maternal and caring. Kate (the faun) is a character who struggles with the warlike nature of her people, and since we usually think of fauns as being either spooky and mysterious, or a bunch of mythical hippies off playing music and getting high in the woods, that seemed like a f(a)un contrast. And Simon, our third character, is a child, and he’s sweet and innocent and uncorrupted. So yeah, troll. Obviously. For sure.
And oh, man, the character designs for all of these guys are just so perfect. Willa manages to switch from sweet and maternal to scary-fierce on a moment’s notice. Louie Joyce did this thing where we can see the flames through gills in her neck, and it’s amazing. Like she has a red-hot exhaust inside of her at all times. And Kate has a very stern, regimented look about her. And Simon is just adorable — with great eyebrows. Pay attention to Simon’s eyebrows in this book, because they are the tops.
CE: Oh yeah Simon is a little sweetheart, and his facial expressions are such a crucial component of his character! It’s interesting how you play so much with character building through contrasts and playing with species clichés, yet your depiction of goblins hews pretty close to their usual nasty dispositions. What do you have against goblins, Paul?!
PA: Haha. Yeah… poor goblins. They’re really the only characters in the entire book that could be viewed as villainous, when you stop and think about it. But I do that that even with the goblins, I played against the clichés! My goal with them was to depict them as straight-up evil as our book begin, and then deepen and broaden that portrayal as we went. I see them as trapped in a vicious cycle with humanity and the other creatures — the goblins act in villainous ways; humanity reacts; and humanity’s reaction pushes goblins further away, and shuts off any chance of creating a lasting peace. I mean, when you step back at the end of the story and consider how they’ve been treated, the giant, psychotic chip on their collective shoulders becomes a bit more understandable.
CE: One of the most striking aspects of Past the Last Mountain is how you manage to build an intriguing, lived-in world in only four issues – the American Secretary of Defense keeping a caged fairy on his desk is a pretty wrenching example. What is your creative process when figuring out how to balance story economy with rich storytelling?
PA: That’s interesting. I’ve never really thought of it in those terms. Because I don’t really see it as a trade-off? I don’t actually do much worldbuilding at all, in the sense of sitting down and thinking out all the various and complex details of my world ahead of time, like a lot of writers do. I pretty much just use what’s necessary for the story, and kind of make it up as I go along. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? But it seems to work for me.
At the same time, I do like filling my stories with rich, interesting details that aren’t necessarily required to understand the basic plot. I like worlds that feel lived in, where people make references to characters and events outside of the story. And I think the way to do that without damaging story economy is to do it in a way that either reveals something about the character or deepens your understanding of the story’s themes. Kate remarking that the Kell’Mesh tribe is a proud people, or the trolls not letting Trevor enter their cave (despite their friendship) or the Goblins being marked by numbers instead of names; you could take all of these things away, and the story would be the same. But all of them deepen your understanding of this world, and underscore how isolated all of these races are from each other, and how even when they live side by side, they’re still deeply separated. Which in turn shows how remarkable it is for a faun, dragon and troll to be working together. We never have to have a character say, “This level of cooperation sure is unusual!” because the hope is that you’ll pick up on that (even if only subconsciously) through the details of the world.
It also helps if you can do it without slowing the rest of the plot down. In the example you used, we needed Secretary Diaz to have that conversation with someone — having it be with a fairy-prisoner on his desk deepens the world, without adding any space to it. I do think it’s a good thing to pause for grace notes, to control the pacing of your story in such a way that you’re not always going full-throttle. But if you can get those details in without slowing things down, that’s pretty great, too.
Oh, and I should also note that both Diaz and Mara were designed by the amazing artist Chris Evenhuis, in a two-page Diaz origin story that we did.
Click to enlarge!
CE: Willa’s faith seems to be an integral element of her character, even if we only see it explicitly practiced once in the series. Can you tell us more about what all the dragon’s religion entails?
PA: Not really? Ha. Like I said above, I tend to just create aspects of the world as I need them, rather than doing more traditional worldbuilding. So I haven’t given any thought to Willa’s religion other than what’s on the page. But Willa strikes me as someone whose inner life would have a spiritual aspect to it. I also wanted to make it clear that she sees these deaths as the price paid for their freedom. And having her literally plead to her Goddess that it be worth the sacrifice brings that home a lot more strongly than just having her mention it would.
But to answer your question: I was probably imagining a fairly paganistic, fairly austere religion, based (obviously) around fire. I also can’t imagine that the Dragon Goddess is a very kind deity.
CE: See, that right there makes me want to learn more about the world you’re creating! You may not think of your approach as “traditional,” but you’re still slinging us headfirst into a well-established world where we’re treated as smart enough to fill in blanks without too much exposition to weigh things down. Is that the sort of approach you also appreciate as a reader?
PA: Absolutely. I think there’s a fine line being clarity of storytelling and hand-holding. And too many comics these days dance gleefully over that line. I want engaged readers, and one of the ways you engage them (certainly not the only way) is by respecting their intelligence and crafting a narrative that requires them to put some of the pieces together on their own. Otherwise your story just feels inorganic and pat.
CE: How did the Creators Workshop help you in the development of Past the Last Mountain? What was the best piece of advice you received? Give specifics!
PA:Oh, man. It has been so, so long since I wrote this. Issue two is one that I really, really struggled with. It doesn’t really do much to move the plot forward — it’s more like a character rumination, as our mythical creatures wonder if their escape was worth it, and our humans realize they’re in way over their heads. I fought against that instinct originally, and had an issue that was way too expository, that tried to ramp up plot drama in inorganic ways. And some workshop members encouraged me to try to trim that stuff back a lot, which made me realize that maybe a quieter issue would be okay — especially since the action explodes like crazy in issue 3.
Also, the human that Kate tracks down — originally I didn’t reveal right away whether Kate killed her or left her alive. Which — since she left her alive — turned out to be pretty anti-climactic. And some folks in the workshop rightfully dinged me about that. It got me to thinking about how the order of information has a huge impact on reader experience, which is something I still think about every time I sit down to write.
Past the Last Mountain is now available on comiXology.