It’s been almost a year to the day since I reviewed the first volume of Daniel Freedman and CROM’s epic fantasy story Birdking, published by Dark Horse Comics. If you are a seriously long-term Broken Frontier reader then you may also remember I reviewed CROM’s first forays into self-publishing around a decade ago, beginning on the old BF site. With a second stunningly illustrated volume of Birdking out this month I grabbed the opportunity to chat with writer Daniel Freedman and artist CROM about what’s next for Bianca and her strange travelling companion, as their quest resumes…
ANDY OLIVER: Birdking debuted to great critical acclaim last year but for potential new readers discovering it through this interview how would you describe its premise and characters?
DANIEL FREEDMAN: Birdking is an epic fantasy tale about a teenaged arcane blacksmith named Bianca, who, after tragedy strikes, must flee her sheltered life and escape into a wider world of war, betrayal and dark magic. Along the way she accidentally resurrects the Birdking, the former lord of the land who has been trapped inside a hulking suit of armor. Together they set out to reach a fabled land of light known as Atlas and along the way, unravel their ancestral connection.
AO: In Volume 2 the world-building aspects expand notably as we learn more about the politics, landscape and lore of the realm. How extensively have you developed this fictional environment behind the scenes? Do you see Birdking as a finite project or is this a storytelling realm you could perceivably dip back into in perpetuity?
FREEDMAN: Birdking is designed as a single long-form graphic novel that we are releasing in 4 volumes as we complete them. It is a finite story and will have a definitive ending. While there are certainly some dark corners we have yet to venture into, we have largely uncovered most of the map you could say. I wouldn’t close the door on more stories from this world. It is quite massive, with a multi-generational backstory and many factions and there are many places we could go after we wrap this tale.
CROM: While Birdking as a main story is a definite 4 volumes set, Daniel and I love to drop hints of the extended world around the main characters to show the possibilities of what’s out there. For each volume we discuss so many ideas, characters and designs but only a small fraction of those make it into the book.
AO: Bianca continues to be put through more ordeals in Volume 2 as she continues her quest away from her village. Was your intention to use the character’s own unfamiliarity with the world of Birdking as an audience point of contact, allowing us to discover its wonders through her eyes?
FREEDMAN: Exactly right. Bianca has been sheltered and knows very little of the larger world when the story starts, but as she is thrust out and begins to quest through it, the reader gets to explore it with her and make discoveries and revelations at the same time she does.
AO: Birdking deftly balances character interaction/exposition with sequences of kinetic action. How does the collaboration process between you work in terms of storytelling, pacing and design?
FREEDMAN: Crom came to me with Birdking and the central cast already designed after we finished our first graphic novel Raiders. From there we worked out the world and developed the magic and political systems that rule the lands. Once we had a rough outline of where we were headed, I sat down and got to writing. The pacing and action are heavily inspired by my fifteen years of experience as a film editor. I see the story in a sequence of interconnected shots and try to relay those clearly to Crom in the script. From there, he designs the world and illustrates the panels, adding flare and emotionality to every image. Its a perfect collaboration of our two skill sets.
AO: CROM, can you tell us a little about your artistic process and the mediums you work in?
CROM: I always start with small pencil thumbnails of my pages in loose A4 paper which after some revisions and discussions with Daniel, I scan and use to draw digital roughs on my iPad using Procreate. Once I have a good rough for the page I clean it up, go over it with one of my custom brushes and then finish it all up in clip studio for colours and frames. I also keep a Birdking-only sketchbook where I explore all the characters and weapons that may or may not make it to the the final book.
AO: Something that’s very distinctive about Birdking is that it adopts a kind of European album format in delivery. Rather than being published in single, shorter issues you’ve opted to release the book in longer-form volumes. What were the creative decisions behind that approach?
FREEDMAN: Both Crom and I have an affinity for manga and European comics. Those are the books we read and the formats we prefer. Single issues would have forced Birdking into a rhythm we weren’t interested in. Birdking is modelled more after a great fantasy novel than an ongoing monthly comic, both in format and storytelling approach. For me, the true release will be full collection of all 4 volumes as they seamlessly connect into a single long form graphic novel.
AO: Michael David Thomas’s lettering on Volume 2 is so sympathetic to the flow of each scene and intuitively guides the reader’s eye around both character interplay and action so I wanted to ask you what you feel Michael’s lettering choices bring to the storytelling?
FREEDMAN: Michael’s lettering is the glue that binds the script and art. Makes it all congeal into the comic that it is. Lettering is a subtle art and Michael is a master at finding solutions to densely worded panels as well as knowing when to let negative space do the talking.
AO: It’s not often that an indie series ends up with its own spin-off merchandise so how does it feel to have a Birdking figure out there?
CROM: How does it feel? AMAZING!! It was one of my dreams as a student! To have your own original character as vinyl toy was the epitome of making it as an illustrator for me back in the day. Not only is it out there but people love it so much that it sold out instantly, so I feel pretty smug about that. I am a toy collector myself so adding Birdking to my shelf full of Gunplas, Evas and Ashley wood figures is just wonderful.
AO: As carefully as you can without spoilers what teases can you give us for the next instalment?
FREEDMAN: Volume 3 will see Bianca finally reach the golden city of Atlas. But what she finds there is not what’s expected. And to make matters worse, there may be a whole dark army knocking on the door that she’s now standing on the wrong side of.
AO: And, finally, what next for you both creatively, either writing comics or outside?
FREEDMAN: I have a few new books in the pipeline including Robert Sammelin and I’s follow up to our graphic novel Kali as well as finally finishing Undying Love with Tomm Coker after a ten year break.
CROM: I have a feeling Birdking will occupy me for a good while as its being published in other countries and it gains popularity with a new audience. I’d love to see Birdking animated one day so if the right offer comes along Daniel and I will be ready.
Interview by Andy Oliver