Exploring the “Dark Engine” with Ryan Burton and John Bivens [Interview]

By | June 23rd, 2014
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Debuting next month (July 16th, to be precise), Image Comics will be releasing “Dark Engine” by Ryan Burton and John Bivens. A dark and violent ode to the best barbarians in comics while infused with a rather grandiose sci-fi core, the book stars Sym, a weapon sent back in time to kill the enemies of her creator. Using a weapon wonderfully described as a “ribsword,” the book is a rather intense and wonderfully vibrant series that is seemingly perfect for fans of Nate Fox and Joe Casey’s “Haunt” run (in that sort of celebration of the wild, insane gratuitous flaunting that comics can house in a unique way).

In order to get in the mood for the book and to help spread the gospel of “Dark Engine,” we sat down with the series creators Ryan Burton and John Bivens to talk all about the series — its heroine, its violence, and everything in between.

Today is the final order cutoff date for the series, so if you like what you see here be sure to let your local retailer know.

Since we’ve never spoken before, I’d like to start off with my old favorite: guys, why comics?

Ryan Burton: Comics are like music and prose and movies rolled into one thing, right? They’re a visual medium, sure, but there’s a certain type of music that plays when you read a good comic. A tempo that’s irresistible, that’s sometimes so hard to resist, you gotta read that comic in your car or on the subway or right there in the store. I always crack the spines right there in the store, look around to see if anyone’s watching, and literally smell the ink on the pages. It’s magic. Your question is a good one, but it’s like asking “why breathing or why sex”?

John Bivens: Alright, after giving it a few seconds of thought, there is really no other medium where one or as small a handful of people can create something so large in scope. I’m essentially an introvert that can blend with extroverts for short periods of time (say the length of a con weekend), so the idea of being able to work on something like this with such a tight knit crew is about as appealing a situation as I can find.

Page 1 from Dark Engine #1

How did you two link up initially? And what’s the collaborative process like for you guys so far?

RB: Comics are like music and prose and movies rolled into one thing, right? They’re a visual medium, sure, but there’s a certain type of music that plays when you read a good comic. A tempo that’s irresistible, that’s sometimes so hard to resist, you gotta read that comic in your car or on the subway or right there in the store. I always crack the spines right there in the store, look around to see if anyone’s watching, and literally smell the ink on the pages. It’s magic. Your question is a good one, but it’s like asking “why breathing or why sex”?

JB: Ryan had been approaching me for a while, and I kept giving the “sure, as soon as I have time” answer. His persistence and a story that really seemed to fit what I liked to draw finally drew me in.

“Dark Engine” is a pretty intriguing concept, in which a woman, Sym, is sent back in time to murder her creator’s enemies. How did the idea and pitch for this book initially come about?

RB: I knew I wanted a female Conan, a female Beowulf lead. An unstoppable thing of fury and rage. From there, I thought it’d be wicked if she was powered by some sentient device. I tailored the story to include all manner of nightmare-monster because I really wanted an excuse to see Bivens draw these things I came up with because he’s…so in issue #2 he draws the Egyptian god, Ammut — you know, the half-lion/hippo/and gator? — and holy shit, it just blows me away.

JB: The initial idea is all Ryan. I simply added tentacles, gore, and teeth… lots of gore though…

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What can you tell me about Sym, the lead heroine? What is it that you think makes her an intriguing star for the series?

RB: She’s your ultimate savage, your ultimate killer and survivalist. She was made from obscene alchemy, powered by an engine that allows her to travel back in time to kill her master’s enemy. Being a survivalist, she’s constantly adapting. And through her travels, she will literally be grabbing things from different time periods. In the first issue she makes her first weapon — a ribsword — from something she unintentionally kills. But really, she’s intriguing not just in a visual-sense, but as her goal changes throughout the series, she in turn becomes more complex, more dynamic. That growth makes intriguing.

JB: Sym is interesting because she is a thinking weapon sent off; because, the people that created her needed to be able to attack enemies in places they couldn’t/didn’t want to go themselves. In a time where the worlds weapons are becoming smarter and have the ability to be used at a far greater distance for more precise killing, it gives me a little bit to consider.

Page 2 from Dark Engine #1

Looking at it, I’m actually not sure I can really tell what is influencing you guys here. Part of it seems like “Red Sonja,” maybe a little “Dark Tower” even. Can you guys talk about your influences on the series, and how that plays into the book?

RB: A lot of prose, a lot of music. Some video games. Other comics. Specifically, Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, terse prose. Kratos from the God of War series. As I mentioned earlier, Conan and Beowulf; perhaps even Gilgamesh. What the entire creative team did with Liefeld’s “Prophet” was remarkable, and that’s certainly something to emulate–just constantly pushing the rules, never staying safe. Oh, and definitely JH Williams III’s visuals and layouts. All that and a much more easily influences each and every page of “Dark Engine.”

JB: In the last couple of years I’ve been practicing blending my love of European comics with a little bit more of the energy the Japanese put into their manga. In the current generation of European and American creators I think you see a lot of artists trying to pull together influences like that.

The world of this book is pretty insane, in a good way; the first few pages are just the beasts battling it out. Given the intricate nature of this world, what can you tell me about how you guys have put together the universe of this series?

RB: Thanks, man. In the first arc, we’re really focusing on three narratives. Sym, of course, is one narrative — the main narrative. She travels through various time periods in the past, trying to chase down and murder this ominous enemy. Our second narrative is from the viewpoint of the Dragon that Waits. He’s used as a lens on the world as it is now; and through him, we discover the different flora, fauna, and bestiary that populate and infect the world. And finally, our third narrative focuses on Jin, a teacher housed up with the Alchemists who made Sym. Through him, we get the very human touches in an overall story that’s full of horror and despair. All those narratives interweave, giving a full picture of what’s happened, what’s happening, and what’s to come.

JB: The first few months of working on the comic for the proposal was a lot of talking about world building. Descriptions one way and quick sketches another. There was a bunch of talk about the scope of things. How large, small, or intricate some aspects would be.

So it sounds like you guys have really done a lot of work towards building a very story-centric mythology. How have you guys approached the different aspects of designing and putting these elements — the Dragon, the Alchemists, et al — together?

JB: Visuals is very stream of consciousness. I do a little prep work before hand, but I figure if I can keep myself entertained with the panels they will probably have a better chance of holding the readers attention.

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RB: For me, it’s lots of notes, lines of dialogue, character names and places. But all of it is jumbled up, right? Just idea-spores floating around in my head. When one germinates, and makes sense with the story, then I add it to the outline, and to the script. John gives it the meat, the final look. That incomparable atmosphere.

The way you guys talk about Sym, it sounds like she’s pretty emotionally-fueled. How do you approach bringing that quality into her portrayal in the book?

JB: Honestly, in the first issue, either her face is covered or she is caked in blood. That means the best way to show emotion with her was to make her actions really vicious.

RB: With each encounter through time, she’ll react differently. She’s very… raw in the first issue. As a matter of fact, there’s little to no dialogue in her scenes. This is of course intentional. She’s focused on killing everything–that’s what she was built for. No quarter given, just her and her ribsword. However, as the series progresses, and she experiences new settings, new atmospheres, she’ll show different emotions. She’ll grow, develop, and become something more.

Page 3 from Dark Engine #1

Obviously comics in 2014 are very conscious about the portrayal of female characters in media, comics especially so, so when working on Sym both in the writing and in the illustrating, how do you find the conversations about portrayal in comics bears on your work?

JB: It seems like a lot of the work I’m reading has really embraced a strong female lead in the story. That being the case, I tend to be scared shit-less that I may not pull this off. Ryan has a strong direction and when I translate that to visuals I just have to ask if what I put down makes sense and gives the character purpose.

RB: That’s a great question, Matt. And it’s something I think about constantly. Constantly. We’re very conscious that we’re two white, straight males telling a story with a female lead. I often think about other creators who are in the same boat–naturally, that stream of thought flows into meditating on who’s doing it right, and who’s approach is problematic. Both John and I speak about this very subject on our bi-weekly calls to one another; and it’s something that we take quite seriously. We intend to have more female characters pop up in our story, and we will approach them the best way we know how — with sincerity, with purpose, and, like all of our characters, with care.

Violence is a pretty big element to the book, and John, you touch on this with your gore answer. Given that this is an action-heavy, Conan-esque book, how are you guys approaching the violence without making it gratuitous? Or is it the opposite, and you want it to be gratuitous?

JB: I’m not shying away from the violence. This is a story about a living-breathing weapon that will create and destroy monstrosities. I think if I don’t go all out I’m doing a disservice.

RB: We see her unhinged in the first issue, and yes, it is violent. Rightfully so; it’s what she was created to do, and we want the reader to feel her fury. There’s also a fight scene in issue three with a small band of Danes that is not pretty because you’re dealing with this unstoppable force. That being said, there are quiet moments, and moments of reflection peppered throughout the first issue, and each subsequent one. Issue #2, as matter of fact, has very little violence, if any. It does have a monster autopsy though, which John excelled at. And of course, throughout the series, we’ll be introducing the world’s rich history, a bestiary, and a very colorful cast of supporting characters.

Since starting your work together on the book after the initial pitch, what have you guys found to be the most surprising aspect of the book? What’s changed, or what’s been the most exciting thing to get to do?

JB: The amount of interest that the comic community is showing to two relatively new creators. The support of Image, the retailers, and other creators has been great. The best thing is still finding those occasional “darling” panels and doing my best to rock them as hard as I can. Occasionally, I can look back at one and say “that ain’t completely horrible”.

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RB: God, really? Everything. It’s absolute magic, making comics.

Page 4 from Dark Engine #1

So with the release of the book coming up, what are you guys most excited for the readership to see?

JB: Dinosaurs being sliced to bits… and exploding stuff. People love exploding stuff.

RB: That’s a tough one, actually. All of it? John’s artwork–definitely John’s artwork. The world and the atmosphere that we’re building. The Image “i” on the book we’ve made.

What is the plan for the book? How far down the road are you guys hoping to go with it?

JB: There is a definite ending that we would like to get to, but that is multiple arcs away. If things go the way we would like, I hope the audience is willing to stick with us for about three years or so and really enjoy the world we plan to build.

RB: John’s spot on. We’re on this book for the foreseeable future, but there is an ending in sight. Not every character will make it to the end, some that I really care for, but it will be an unforgettable ride.

If you had to pick the one thing about this book that you think could sell it to anyone, just one aspect about it — a character, a place, a thing — what would that one thing be?


RB: It’s everything you ever wanted a dark fantasy to be, but never got. And our lead is a woman who carries around a sword made from a dinosaur’s broken rib.

Page 5 from Dark Engine #1
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Matthew Meylikhov

Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."