Talking—and pronouncing—Isola with Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl
Here in Delaware, we like to call our home state "Small Wonder." How appropriate that is, when, on a Saturday evening, I can drive fifteen minutes from my home to a second-hand bookstore, where Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl are wrapping up their day at the third annual Fried Pie Con, signing copies of their astoundingly good Isola.
I had connected with Brenden ahead of the Con in the hope that I might interview them both, and he told me to come by and we'd see if we could work something out. So, I headed over to 2nd and Charles of Newark, Delaware on a pleasant Saturday evening, set up my phone and tiny mic, and had a great conversation with two of the nicest—and most talented—guys you could ever meet.
Brian Warshaw: Alright, guys, so I read online that Isola is—am I pronouncing Isola properly? Is it ee-SO-luh?
Karl Kerschl: Sure, it could be, yeah. We say EE-so-luh.
BW: So a difference of emphasis.
Brenden Fletcher: ee-SO-luh—the pronunciation is like Spanish-Argentian—or ee-ZO-luh, I think it is.
BF: EE-zo-luh is Italian, I think, so we're kind of in-between. There's no wrong way to say it.
KK: You know, we talked a lot about the title a bit—for months actually. We brainstormed different titles and then kind of came back to the idea that it was okay—because we thought, everyone who approaches us is going to ask us how to pronounce this. Then we thought, well, if you look at Nausicaa, Miyazaki's film, nobody knows how to pronounce that either, or Laputa.
BF: It's a Greek name—with the Japanese pronunciation, it changes. What's the right way?
KK: It doesn't really matter how you pronounce it—I don't think there's a wrong way.
BW: My wife's name is vuh-LOR-ee—it looks like Valerie with an "o", and everyone calls her Valerie, and she doesn't correct anybody, but I correct. So I think about names a little more, maybe because of that.
So I had read online that...EE-so-luh?...was a story that was many years in the making for you guys. I know you guys grew up in the same town, so how long ago did you guys start tossing around the ideas that eventually became this book?
BF: Well, it was like '97 or '96 or something that we started working on this project called Miki, about a couple young women, sort of a fantasy/adventure series, and we spent years doing the world building, years doing the writing—Karl was designing for ages. We actually had a deal with Image to publish, we had a deal with—well, we didn't have a deal with Dark Horse, but we had interest from Dark Horse. I mean, we had several opportunities to make this happen, it just became—we were novices. It got turned into something much larger for us. We kept expanding what we wanted to do with it.
KK: A lot of the ideas in that old story ended up getting reused or repurposed in several of the things we've worked on since then, including Gotham Academy, and now we've reused a lot of the names and designs and concepts and relationships from that old series in Isola.
I think we've made peace with it at this point. I don't know if we have to keep revisiting.
BF: I think Isola is the ultimate statement on what we were trying to do back then, so I think finally getting this project done will let us move on and let us create newer, more different, experimental things. I don't know what comes next.
KK: In some ways, I feel like Isola is finally the proof of concept for the thing we wanted to make for many years, which is something of this specific tone and pacing—just this kind of feel. And in all my years of professional work in comics, I've never really had the opportunity to really do the book that I wanted to do, the book that feels the way I want it to feel, and this is, after many years, finally that thing. So for me, it's not so much exercising demons as it is, I think, finally opening the door to...if the response to Isola is good, and it has been so far, it's sort of proof to us that we can just keep doing stuff that we like, and we'll meet some success, and we can hopefully make a living doing stuff we like, and not worry about it not appealing to enough people.
KK: That's how I feel about it.
BW: I think the world of the book very much reflects that you guys have been cooking this for a while.
BW: Well, it's very believable.
BF: Thank you.
BW: The quality of the illustration certainly helps with that a lot.
BW: They're mature images, with your [Karl's] lines, certainly, and Michele's [Michele Assarasakorn, credited in the book as MSassyK] colors, and—one of the things I noticed that I really liked in issue one was...I don't usually like things like simulated bokeh, but you guys do that a lot with the forest in the background, and it actually works.
BF: Yeah, that's Michele. Michele's killing it.
KK: That's all Michele. We didn't really even have a discussion about that. We had a talk about the style that I was hoping for, but Michele really just ran with that. I mean, she's still working within the limitations I requested—or designed—which is to keep it fairly simple, like...there's not a lot of rendering on characters. It's actually a lot of flat colors throughout the whole book; it just looks very lush because of the amount of detail she's putting into it. But it's not as painted as, say Gotham Academy.
KK: Yeah, but, I think she's doing whatever she can within those limitations to create a level of depth.
BW: I think the maturity is also reflected in that you guys—and I mean this in a good way—the story takes the world of the story for granted. And I say that's "in a good way" because you're not spending a lot of time explaining to us how thing are how they are. I know there's a prologue, which I actually haven't read yet, believe it or not...but, we're kind of left to figure some things out just based on the situation, and I actually really appreciate that, and it does make the book feel—and the world feel—more believable. Was that a conscious choice, to be very discerning about what information you're trickling out?
BF: Absolutely, yeah. The first draft of the script gave you a lot more information. And, it took a long time for us to carve it back to figure out, what was the bare minimum we could get away with telling you in words? We hope we got the balance right. Karl's wife read the first draft, and we got a lot of good notes there, and my wife read the second. We were just kind of giving it to people we trust to take a look at to see how much we can push the boundaries on peeling back the overly verbose dialogue that's only there for the sake of expository information.
KK: Those first drafts were much more explicit in terms of what we tell you, and those first couple of proofreads were really...they just really validated our instincts. It's like, yeah, we know this is too much—we just kind of needed to see someone else feel that way.
BF: That kind of style that we had used in those first drafts, that is a regular DC/Marvel style. It's the kind of style we're expected to use when putting together books.
BW: I know! <LAUGHS>
BF: Even a lot of the editors there don't necessarily want to have to name-check all the characters in the first page or two, or rehash information from previous issues just to make sure readers are caught up in case they missed any...it's an old way of thinking. People don't read comics like that anymore, casually.
BW: It's more charming in Fantastic Four #1 from '61...
BW: ...than it is in a modern book.
BF: So we wanted to do something that we were really proud of, that's the kind of book we want to read, and in a lot of ways, we are doing Isola for ourselves. This is the kind of book that we want to read. The first time we felt very justified in our choices was, our friend Matt Forsythe, who's also a comic book creator and a childrens' book author, read it, and he is a very harsh critic.
KK: In the best way.
BF: And what did he say? He sent you the email, right?
KK: Yeah, I don't remember exactly what he said, other than that he was very appreciative of the fact that we weren't holding anyone's hands through this process. There's a lot of stuff that's subjective, and it just sort of drops you in.
BF: It was a real risk, so we're glad it's working for some readers.
BW: Well, let's talk about profanity for a second.
BW: <LAUGHS> There's a few occasions...man I was hoping for a better reaction from that, it sounded better and more funny in my head.
BW: On a few occasions, Rook utters some profanity that, while not English, is very close to English—frek and stuff like that. Contrasting that with what Karl and Aditya do with the sound effects, which are not based on English onomotapeia, which look very foreign, very other—why did you decide to go with something that was closer to English for that particular type of dialogue?
BF: We want to be honest about who the people are. And especially with Rook, we want Rook to read as someone who is very easy to relate to. But we also have it firmly in mind that this is kind of a YA book, in a way.
BF: Less so as it's packaged for the direct market as a serial release, but certainly, when it gets collected and moved into the library book market, I think we'll be talking about it more in terms of like a YA book, edging towards older YA. It's still a book that can be given to younger readers, and there's no need—since it's a fantasy world—there's no need for the language to be exactly the same language that we have. But we also want it to be relatable. We want to be honest about what the characters are going through in that moment, we want you to feel that, but we don't necessarily need it to be, on its nose, the profanity that we use.
BW: You want the sentiment to be crystal-clear, even if the word itself is not present.
BF: Exactly, exactly. I'm sure some parents still won't want their children reading it, but we do our best.
BW: So, loyalty is central to this book, and it's the thing that really struck me reading it—Rook's loyalty toward Olwyn. And we're living in a time where loyalty and self-sacrifice are not exalted virtues.
KK: Well, but they are in story! Regardless of what's going on in the world, everyone still goes to watch superhero movies. So, there's clearly something that resonates.
BF: No more so than the relationship of Bucky and Cap!
BW: This sort of complex loyalty, though...I mean, with Bucky and Cap, there's certainly a lot of harmony. Their loyalty is tested somewhat by what Bucky did as the Winter Soldier, but there's a clear line there where it's Bucky, but it's not Bucky—and so this sort of loyalty that Rook has that bristles against Olwyn's sovereignty at times, where Rook wants to be the one calling the shots, but she still ultimately relents and submits to her queen...that, to me, seems a little less common that you would encoutner something like that. Were you guys responding to anything particular in real life, or were you just trying to create a very good story, and this is sort of a good dimension for that have?
KK: There's no real-life analogue...
BW: And I'm not trying to get you to talk about politics, just to be clear...couldn't be further from my mind.
KK: I think we just had in mind a couple of characters. And I think what we had that we wanted to deal with was this interesting dynamic between two people who are in two different stations and how they can communicate, which is a problem in communication. So, partly it's loyalty, partly it's duty, partly it's a lot of frustration. I think it's a complex relationship to begin with, and then when you combine that with the fact that only one of them can actually speak, it becomes a thing worth exploring.
BF: And you'll realize over the subsequent issues that there's a lot more to it than you've seen here, as well. The two women have history that goes beyond Rook being Captain of the Guard. You'll also come to learn that Rook—maybe it's clear already in this issue—Rook hasn't had the position of being Captain for very long, and it's somethign she's not entirely comfortable with. And you'll also realize that an action was taken in the recent past that one of the parties feels very guilty about, and that also is coloring the relationship. In the midst of that is this miscommunication—or that inability to communicate clearly—so there's a lot that we have to unpack over the next number of issues, and as much as these issues will be filled with wonder and fantasy that people will enjoy reading and exploring, at its core is the unpeeling of this complex, multilayered onion that is the relationship of Rook and Olwyn. And hopefully, we give you a certain sense of resolution at the end of the first arc. Obviously not all of it, but enough of it so that you'll have a greater understanding of who those people are, and what their goals are, outside of just getting to this mythical island called Isola.
BW: I know you've worked with Aditya on Motor Crush, and you guys have worked with Michele on Gotham Academy. What made them the right folks for you guys to recruit into this world?
KK: Because they're the best!
BF: No, I think it's relationships. I just feel like Michele was brought into Gotham Academy on the fly—we needed somebody and she immediately clicked—and these guys, in my perception—these guys being Michele and Karl—have worked together so, so, so well. And the same can be said for Aditya coming into Motor Crush. He was incredible, and continues to be on Isola. It was just a no-brainer for me that when we were looking at somebody else to do letters...I mean, Karl, of course, wants to do everything himself—it's just best to get some people to help out and work with us; and Aditya, for me, has always been one of the more collborative people that I've worked with, and he remains so on Isola—the back and forth is amazing.
BW: Yeah, I wanted your guys' perspective on that. I talked to Aditya a few weeks ago for an interview.
BF: Oh yeah, that was a great interview!
BW: It became very evident to me why you guys would pick someone like him, because...so much humility. I mean, he talked a lot, Karl, about how you had put in a lot of the sound effects yourself on the first pass and how he worked from that, and...that's great.
Do you guys have any other projects planned together on the horizon?
KK: We do...
BW: Anything you can talk about?
KK: Nothing we can talk about. There's stuff that's been in the works for a little while that we're sort of slowly putting together—hopefully that will get announced relatively soon. Right now it's just full-steam ahead trying to get Isola done on a regular basis.
BW: Right, right, which probably consumes a lot more of your time—just the nature of drawing pages.
KK: Yeah, it's like, more than a full time thing, like working two jobs.
BW: I've heard.
KK: Between creating it, and marketing it, getting it printed..it's like, creating it, the production, and then selling it, it's a lot of stuff to do.
BW: Sure, I can imagine.
Well guys, thank you for taking the time, especially at the end of a long day. No matter how good the day was, it was still a long day, and I'm sure your wrists are cramped.
BF: Thank you for doing this while we're signing stacks of books!
Special thanks to Brenden for helping clarify a few points in my transcription by email. If you haven't read Isola, try to find a copy—it's one of the best books I've read this year.