I recently had the honor, and pleasure, of writing the introduction to the newest Mice Templar hardcover collection—the Harvey Award winning epic fantasy from the talented team of Bryan J.L. Glass, Michael Avon Oeming and Victor Santos—and I'd like to share it with you. If, after reading my essay, you feel an irresistible urge to order the book, just click here: I don't think you'll regret it. Onward!
Worlds Within Worlds
I was a teenager when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’d been a fan of fantasy and science-fiction, and a comic book obsessive, as far back as I could remember (blame Dr. Seuss, Rod Serling and Superman)—but I’d never encountered anything quite like The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King. Working my way—slowly, deliciously—through those three massive volumes, I encountered a fictional world that was not only utterly different than the world around me, but, in so many ways, more real. More true. All fiction is make-believe, of course—J.D. Salinger is as much a fantasist as Ray Bradbury, they just come at the work from different angles—but Tolkien’s achievement was, to my young eyes, unparalleled: He created an entire world—a rich, fertile universe filled with multiple races and cultures, a detailed history, unforgettable characters—from the ground up. I remember being stretched out on the living room couch, stunned and heartbroken as I turned the final page. The experience was such a unique and memorable one that I haven’t returned to the trilogy since: I don’t think any rereading could possibly match the magic of that first journey.
I had a similar experience, years later, reading the Narnia series—written by Tolkien’s friend and fellow Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis—aloud to my son. When we reached the end—after a memorable voyage through seven books—there was absolute silence in the room. After a few moments I asked Cody, “Are you sad that it’s over?” He could hardly answer, just nodded his head. “I am, too,” I replied. And I was.
That’s the power of great fantasy (whether it’s Baum’s Oz or Zelazny’s Amber, Bradbury’s Mars or Serling’s Twilight Zone): it transports you, alters your consciousness, peels apart the (so-called) reality we know and—most important—reassembles it in a form that serves not just as an escape, but as a way to see our own world with new, and more wonder-filled, eyes. I’ve long maintained that writing fantasy (and, yes, that’s a broad term, covering a wide range of stories) is, perhaps, the best way to capture the truth about the universe around us. In my experience, once you peel back the Skin of the World and look, really look, you’ll see that we’re all living in a universe as filled with magic and miracles as any found within the pages of a book. Our lives are fantasy—of the highest order.
Of course creating the world-building kind of fantasy that Tolkien specialized in isn’t easy. The bookstore shelves are filled with attempts that, however enthusiastic their creators may have been, just don’t convince. We may be initially intrigued, but we’re not transported; the alternate reality just doesn’t stick, doesn’t take root in the heart. I’ve tried my hand at it on several occasions and I’ll leave it up to my readers whether I’ve succeeded or not. What I do know is that there are few pleasures in the writing life more exhilarating, more intoxicating, than unlocking that door in the unconscious that connects to worlds undreamed of, voices unheard, stories untold. When I was writing the children’s fantasy Abadazad, it felt to me (no, it didn’t just feel that way, I absolutely believed it) that ‘Zad was a very real place, located on the far side of Forever, and that its inhabitants had somehow chosen me to tell their tale. I imagined someone hunched over a kind of magical teletype machine, click-clacking away, transmitting the details of the story across time and space into my head.
I imagine that Bryan J.L. Glass feels that way when he’s working on Mice Templar, because the tales he’s woven over the past ten years—abetted by fellow dreamers Michael Avon Oeming (who received the first transmissions from Karic’s world and set this spectacular story in motion) and Victor Santos—don’t feel “created.” You don’t get the sense of a writer sitting at his computer trying to fit together pieces of a puzzle, figuring out clever bits for this character or that, wracking his brain for a twist in the plot or a surprise ending. When you read Bryan’s stories it feels as if you’ve had a veil between dimensions pulled back, as if you’ve been yanked, body and soul, into a world that—like Tolkien’s—becomes somehow more real than the one around us. Bryan’s not a writer: he’s a channeler.
When I first encountered Mice Templar, several years ago, I had my reservations. Talking mice? Hey, I love Mickey Mouse as much as the next person—maybe more—but a fantasy story about heroic, sword-wielding rodents wasn’t a concept that got my heart beating or excited my imagination. Which just goes to prove the fruitlessness of approaching art, and life, with preconceived notions. To my surprise, Mice Templar wasn’t some fairy tale romp through magical forests—although you will find your share of magical forests in these pages—it’s a complex and fascinating epic about complex and fascinating characters, battling their way through a richly-imagined, and utterly convincing, universe. Strangely, the fact that we’re immersing ourselves in the adventures of talking animals doesn’t pull us out of the story, it somehow pulls us in deeper, makes it all-the-more believable. (I can’t explain that, but it’s true.) Of course, channeling a story is one thing—but taking the raw material teletyped across Creation and crafting it into a coherent and engaging tale is quite another. To successfully mold a fantasy world as powerful and persuasive as the one in Mice Templar, you need to be both a dreamer and a craftsman. Page after page, Bryan proves himself an expert at both.
But this is comics, after all, and words can only take us so far. Someone has to sit down and translate visions into images. Someone has to take a world that exists in the ethers and give it life on the printed page. Michael Oeming was the first to do that—and he did it brilliantly. The volume you hold in your hands was brought into being by the astonishingly-gifted Victor Santos (aided and abetted by the vibrant color work of the equally gifted Serena Guerra). Drawing comic books is fun, no doubt, but it’s also a difficult and challenging profession. Just being able to draw isn’t enough. (I’m sure we’ve all read comics that were beautiful to look at but utterly confusing. Worse: they were lifeless. Pretty pictures, I’m sorry to say, just aren’t enough.) An artist needs, first and foremost, to tell a visual story, to move the eye (and heart!) fluidly, effortlessly, from panel to panel, creating the perfect gesture, the ideal expression—eliciting awe and wonder in the big moments and a range of complex emotions in the quieter ones. Victor does all that and so much more. In the end, prose and pictures, Glass and Santos, fuse into one, creating something unique that neither could have achieved alone. And that is the magic of the best comic books.