Myth Makers: Conversations with the Creators of Ravenskull
by Shannon Fay
Phase I: Elmer Damaso
Through his work for Seven Seas, Elmer Damaso has taken readers to outer space, medieval England and to hell and back. With Ravenskull volume one coming out in June, the busy artist was kind enough to talk with Gomanga about his current series as well as an exciting upcoming project.
You're the artist for several Seven Seas titles: Unearthly, Ravenskull and a third I'll get too later. While your art is becoming well known to Gomanga readers, not much is known about the guy drawing it all. So, who is Elmer Damaso?
ED: I'm Elmer A. Damaso. I'm 30 years old. A graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, majoring in Visual Communications. I'm married and currently live with my wife and my one-year old son in Rizal, Philippines.
My hobbies are drawing, watching anime/cartoons and reading manga, building Gundam scale model kits (and not finishing it), fiddling around with my pc, self-studying martial arts, and daydreaming. I also cook and baby-sit. Ehehe!
After graduating from college, me and some of my friends got together and pioneered a local "manga-inspired" comic book company called Culture Crash. This is where I got most of my experience in anime and manga. My drawing style is mainly self-taught. Of course, I started out emulating the styles of different artists like, Haruhiko Mikimoto (Macross), Kosuke Fujishima (Ah! My Goddess), Masamune Shirow (Appleseed), Masami Obari (Fatal Fury), and many more. The style I use today is a mix of all these artists (I think).
The weird thing about me is that I rarely buy anything manga or anime anymore. I stopped collecting even before Culture Crash was established way back in 2000. Which is why sometimes I'm afraid that my art style and layouts might be a bit outdated already. So my solution is to browse the manga section of our local bookstore every now and then, borrow whatever materials I can get from friends, or take some time off to watch current, locally shown, translated anime (there's really a lot of titles to choose from since Philippine TV is full of anime in the mornings and afternoons.) I also try to get some pointers from my fellow artists, too! That helps a LOT!
I've been with Seven Seas for more than a year, and currently, I've worked on 2 titles since (Unearthly and Ravenskull). A third one is coming this May. Every title has been a different experience for me but I enjoy doing them all. I hope to get 2 clones in the future so I can work on these titles separately and at the same time. Hehe!
In your Unearthly bio, it says that Unearthly was your first time drawing a shoujo manga. Was it much of a challenge to adjust your style to be more shoujo? Did you read any shoujo manga for inspiration?
ED: Yes. It was a bit of a challenge for me drawing shoujo manga. I had to brush up on my shoujo manga style by flipping through some current shoujo titles (I haven't been buying manga for a long time, and all my references are... how shall I say it?... obsolete ), searching scanlated manga over the net, and digging out my old CLAMP manga. The hardest part is trying to "soften" my art style. Being a shounen manga artist, I am more comfortable drawing fast-paced action and angular faces and bodies, rather than drawing thick eyelashes, non-angular and softened features, and flowers in the background.
The whole time I was drawing, I kept thinking, "If I were a girl, would I appreciate this or that?", or, "Is this shoujo enough?". I have a nasty habit of switching styles midway without even noticing, so I had to be very careful not to revert back to shounen as I move along.
The layouting was also very difficult because shoujo manga had a different style of presenting a story as opposed to shounen. I think shoujo manga has a more subjective approach when it comes to presenting scenes. There are a lot of open panels emphasizing a romantic or key event, falling flowers to symbolize tears, and stuff like that. While shounen is more objective. Most of the time it's very direct. But that's just my opinion. I may be wrong. Hehe!
I'm not even sure if I effectively presented Unearthly as shoujo. I hope I did. ^_^'
I think you did a good job of making it shoujo while making it your own style too. With Ravenskull, do you think of it as shounen or shoujo as you draw it? Though there are lots of sword fights and action scenes, the romance angle is also played up a bit too.
ED: Ravenskull is a mix of shounen and shoujo for me. But I consider it more shounen. The designs have a rugged (almost western) look rather than having the softer curves typical of shoujo. But I did try to make Brian's designs a bit bishounen for obvious reasons.
When it comes to the romantic scenes, that's where the shoujo part comes in to make the emotions more obvious and to (hopefully) convince the reader to pause and understand what's going on. Ravenskull is, in my opinion, the love story between Brian and Rebecca, with lots of sword and sorcery thrown in to spice up the story, It would be a shame if the romantic angle goes unnoticed.
What kind of references do you use when creating the different settings in the manga you draw? Did you look at pictures of an American high school when drawing Unearthly, or of medieval castles for Ravenskull? Hopefully you don't have a real-life model for Ravenskull's underworld.
ED: Haha! No, I don't have a model of the underworld. But I bought a lot of magazines about American lifestyle, home and decor, automobiles, teens, etc. to give me a quick graphical reference for Unearthly. Also, I began watching shows like Gilmore Girls, Dawson's Creek, and other shows that my wife usually watches, and picked up more pointers there.
Regarding Ravenskull, I have been fascinated by medieval sword and sorcery ever since I read "The Hobbit" way back in high school. My interest grew after playing countless PC and console RPGs, and regular AD&D sessions with my college friends. So I already had a moderate collection of references way before I even started work for Seven Seas. In fact, the title I used to work on in Culture Crash (Cat's Trail) is set in a pseudo-medieval world. Movies like Lord of the Rings and Kingdom of Heaven also helped. I did buy two books early this year: one about castles and another about armor and weapons.
Lastly, I browsed through my old manga and some new titles from the local bookstore (having a similar theme) to further my studies.
With its splash pages, Ravenskull seems very cinematic. When laying out panels, how do you find the right-balance between moving the story along without sacrificing atmosphere? Is there a science to it or is it more gut instinct?
ED: I won't call it exactly as a science, but it can be systematic sometimes. I make them for two reasons: for emphasis and if I need to show a really panoramic scene. It's sometimes like photography, you have to catch that exciting moment, that split second, where your subject shines the most or when an important action happens (or is about to happen). It should really grab the reader's attention. If a picture paints a thousand words, then a splash page should do just that.
However, splash pages also tend to slow down the flow of a story because the tendency of the reader is to pause . So that's where I have to balance the content. I try to keep splash pages to a minimum. At least one or two every chapter (if possible) and never more than four or five, depending on the chapter's length. (Note: Never put splash pages too close to each other, too!)
Ravenskull is being updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on gomanga.com and the book is due out in July. How far ahead of the web updates are you? Can you give us any hints of what's in store for Brian and Rebecca?
ED: I'm glad to say that I just recently finished all 153 pages of Ravenskull this week. ^_^
What's in store for Brian and Rebecca? Let's just say that their trip to hell has severely changed both of them and this will be evident in the latter part of the volume. Also, they will be meeting a lot of interesting people... and the, uh... not so human type things... Hehe! Watch out everyone!
How's Unearthly going? Have you seen any of the script for book two? Any idea when the second volume will come out? As a huge Unearthly fan, the wait is painful.
ED: I'm sorry, but I'm still uncertain as to when Unearthly Vol. 2 is coming out, and Seven Seas is not sure either. In the meantime, I was given the task of working on the upcoming Speed Racer comics and the next volume of Ravenskull.
How did you come to work on Speed Racer? Are you a fan of the show?
ED: A few months back (can't remember when), Jason DeAngelis mentioned that he had a big project that he wanted me to work on. It was going to be different from the rest of the Seven Seas releases since it's going to be a western style comic book really targeted towards the US comic book market. It was going to be a five-issue miniseries of Speed Racer. At that time I never watched an episode of Speed Racer but I've seen images and heard some stuff about it on the internet. I only know that SR was very famous in the US.
I was really interested to draw for SR, but at that time I was very busy with Ravenskull, and Unearthly vol2 was next on my agenda. I was afraid that I really didn't have the time for a new title, so I declined. Jason understood and they looked for another artist. They found one, but sadly, he was committed to another project with another company. So Jason approached me again. This time, I jumped at the offer. I really felt bad not taking his offer before, so the second time around I didn't think twice. So here I am now, currently making character and mechanical designs for SR. I've also been watching some of the episodes recently for reference, and I find the series entertaining.
For those of us who have never seen the show (like, aheh, myself), could you give a quick rundown of the show's plot?
ED: I've only watched about 15 or so episodes so far, but here it goes:
Speed Racer (yes, that's the name of the protagonist) is the driver of the technologically advanced race car, the Mach 5. The series' theme always revolves around Speed's quest to be the best racer in the world. Along the way, he is challenged by numerous other drivers bent on defeating Speed and the Mach 5 (or with a more sinister plan). The races are always long and located in the most dangerous (sometimes almost unbelievable) places like high cliffs and off-road terrain. Think of it as Fast and the Furious or Initial D but with some tech stuff put in it.
Are you going to put your own spin on the Speed Racer look, or stick closely to the classic designs?
ED: The show's designs are somewhat outdated compared to today's standards. I was told that it's ok to update some stuff, so I'm trying to redesign it without really making the characters and the machines look too unfamiliar to the fans of SR. I want it to have the feel of the old show but with a more contemporary design. Hopefully, the loyal fans of the old show won't be too pissed off with my new designs, and new readers won't think it's too "retro". (crosses fingers..)
Seven Sea's Speed Racer comic is going to be in color, right? Will you be doing the coloring as well, or will you finally get a clone?
ED: Unfortunately the clone is not perfected yet. The eyes keep popping out, the arms go the opposite way, and they have a 24-hour time limit... Nah! Just kidding. Hehe!
Seriously, I think there will be a team of people who will work on the coloring. I'm not sure who. I will be concerned only with the line art. The cover's going to be done by another person, too.
How's the first issue of Speed Racer going? When will fans be able to race into stores to pick-up their copy?
ED: Right now I'm still in the designing stage for the characters and machines. I will be officially starting the art beginning this May, and my work schedule will run until around October for the whole series. I think Seven Seas is going to release issue one sometime in the fourth quarter this year, but I really can't say.
In the meantime, the fans might want to pick up Ravenskull when it's released on an earlier date.
So far for Seven Seas you've done a sci-fi shoujo series, a medieval sword and sorcery epic, and now you're working on Speed Racer as well. Is there anything you don't like to draw?
ED: Hentai, Yuri, and Yaoi. Hehe! I can't say I've never tried drawing any of those, but I'd rather not have a published work involving those themes with my name on it. Maybe a pen name?... on second thought... maybe not.
I have to admit that I can't draw animals pretty well. All the horses in Ravenskull kinda' looked weird to me. Even the camel. Haha! I always have to look for a picture reference when I'm drawing animals. I once drew a horse with a head that was as big as a croc's. Man, that was scary!
On the other side of the spectrum, I think that I've never done a mecha story yet. I hope I get to do one for Seven Seas someday. (But not now, since I'm handling 3 titles already) I made a Macross and Gundam doujinshi when I was in college, but never got to finish it. Too bad...
Phase II: Christopher Vogler
In Ravenskull, writer Christopher Vogler takes the classic story of Ivanhoe and mixes it with the supernatural to create an exciting sword and sorcery epic. With volume 1 coming out this June, Seven Seas talks to Chris about Ravenskull and what he's learned since entering the world of manga.
WARNING: Ravenskull spoilers ahead!
First off, please tell us about Ravenskull and how you came up with the story.
CV: The journey to Ravenskull starts with me seeing the MGM movie Ivanhoe in the 1950s and then reading the Classics Illustrated comic and the novel by Sir Walter Scott when I was in high school. Ivanhoe became an important book for me and my friends, providing us with a kind of secret code of phrases and terms. I finished the book with the feeling of wanting more, hoping the adventures of these wonderful characters should continue. I felt sympathy for the "villain" of the book (played by George Sanders in the movie) and always imagined a sequel in which he did not die, but was brought back to life by the magic arts of Rebecca, the woman he loved (played by Elizabeth Taylor in the movie.) I wanted to create a new story in which the Templar knight Brian and Rebecca teamed up on a secret mission that would take them to many of the sacred sites of Europe and the East. For many years I have thought about this story and finally Seven Seas has given me a chance to realize my dream!
What made you want to do Ravenskull as a manga, rather than a movie or traditional American comic book?
CV: Expressing a story as manga doesn't rule out eventually turning it into other forms like conventional comic book, novel, or movie. In fact, manga can be effective as an outline for a novel or comic and a detailed storyboard for a movie. We have always thought of Ravenskull as the center of something that would radiate out into other media. It's clear that all forms of expression are converging and that soon everything will be expressed simultaneously as books of various kinds, movies, TV shows, and Web content, toys and collectibles (oh joy!), theatre pieces, costumes, etc.
My pleasure in writing for both animation and manga is that they are usually collaborative, meaning that other artists enter into the process and have a hand in the final product. I don't feel threatened by this, in fact, I love it, because the story I have written then becomes something more, something different, as if I have had a child that has a life and will of its own. For some reason this pleases me and makes me feel I have launched something larger than myself.
Speaking of collaboration, how closely did you work with Elmer Damaso on the character designs for Ravenskull? To what degree do you describe the backgrounds and costumes when writing the scripts?
CV: We spent a lot of time working out the unique look of the characters, especially the "hero look" of Sir Brian. I started by creating a detailed memo, a research paper, on the period and the characters that included many visual references of armor and costumes. From the beginning it was obvious that Elmer, Jason, and I had an unusual degree of telepathy when it came to the look. I would write something, like a description of Brian galloping across a drawbridge with Rebecca in tow, and the drawings would bounce back EXACTLY as I had imagined, or even better. Like me, Elmer loves the Middle Ages, the novel Ivanhoe, and the MGM movie made from it, so we were on the same page from the start.
The process of refining the costume, hair, etc. for Sir Brian was elaborate, requiring Elmer to experiment with many different looks and possibilities. Jason and I would go over his sketches, pulling one or two visually exciting elements from each one. In the end, we simply asked him to do a new sketch that combined the best parts of all the others, and the result was almost perfect. I had one or two comments on that next-to-last sketch but Jason assured me that Elmer would probably come to the same conclusions on his own, and that's exactly what happened.
Elmer's sketches told me a lot about his personality, revealing a dry sense of humor along with a strong feeling for the romance and glory of those times. He would plant little jokes in the drawings or make funny comments on his own work that made the process very entertaining.
There was learning curve for me about manga and its peculiar conventions. For example, I had the idea that Sir Brian should be like an American high school football star, a little in love with his own legend, and that he should have a thick neck and a square jaw like the guys I went to school with in the rural outback of Missouri. But Jason explained to me about "bishounen" and that manga heroes usually have rather slender necks and pointed chins, and that a thick neck usually means a villain. I enjoyed learning about this and the other things that make manga absolutely unique, its own distinct form.
This all took me back to an early fascination with Japanese culture. My graduate thesis film at the University of Southern California film school was called "Mizu No Kokoro" or "Mind Like Water" and was a kind of dream sequence in which a samurai swordsman faced a phantom attacker (much like the "Shadow Warriors" in Ravenskull!) I was trying to create a mysterious ritual of battle, inspired by my amazement at discovering the world of Japanese sword-making. We used an "o yoroi" suit of real Japanese armor and a "wakizashi" sword borrowed from a collector. So the groundwork for Ravenskul" was laid many years ago!
Jason made a major contribution to the overall feeling of Ravenskull by encouraging me to be very grand and theatrical, to lean in the direction of majesty and splendour and romance, rather than making it cartoonish or flippant. I spent much of my career working in animation in the Disney style, and at first tried to make the dialogue "modern" with sarcastic comments and a contemporary style of speech, but I was greatly relieved when Jason suggested pushing for a more "classic" feeling.
On the question of how much I describe sets and costumes in the script, I have not found it necessary to do more than suggest a few key elements like lighting by torches or candles, the placement of a window or door, or a detail like a heavy beamed ceiling, an ancient tapestry, or a latticed window. Sometimes I will send Elmer a jpeg image of a weapon, helmet, or detail of architecture to show what I want. Sometimes these are pulled from the image bank of Google, but often they are digital photos I have made myself on my travels. For example, the interior of Rebecca's house, where she takes Sir Brian after he is "killed" in battle with Ivanhoe, is inspired by a shot I made at a castle-hotel I stayed at on a trip to Spain.
I want Ravenskull to reflect all that I have learned in my travels, and to be a guide to the powerful mysteries of ancient occult knowledge. For those who care to dig more deeply, I hope it will be a key to understanding some of the wisdom of our ancestors.
Your wrote a book, The Writer's Journey, about universal archetypes in Hollywood movies. Do you see Ravenskull using the same structure as Joseph Campbell's 'hero's journey'? Could you give some examples?
CV: Yes, it's sort of inevitable that Ravenskull would express elements of the Hero's Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in his book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces". I believe the hero's journey pattern is instinctive, part of our idea of story, and that it's very difficult to tell a story without repeating some of its elements. The idea is that all stories use about twelve different structural elements or stages, and Ravenskull follows those stages as well. They are:
1. Ordinary World.
2. Call to Adventure.
3. Refusal of the Call.
4. Meeting with the Mentor.
5. Crossing the Threshold.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies.
10. The Road Back.
12. Return with the Elixir.
We'd love to hear from you!