There’s a lot of talk nowadays about having strong female characters leading comics and how there’s just not enough of them. Of course, many don’t bother to look at the comics that might not be well known, those that don’t get all the press — comics like Steve Bryant’s “Athena Voltaire” that has been slowly and steadily operating under many people’s radars for years.
“Athena Voltaire” follows the titular Athena Voltaire: aviatrix, adventurer, crackshot, asskicker, and a Nazi’s worst nightmare. She deals with ancient societies, werewolves, vampires, Nazis, monsters, and more in a whopping 240-page compendium that creator Steve Bryant is putting out with the help of Dark Horse and it’s Sequential Pulp imprint.
Read on as we chat with Steve about Athena, reading up on conspiracies, webcomics, unfortunate circumstances, and mixing old and new art into a completely new story. The “Athena Voltaire” compendium is currently available for advance pre-order and can be done so with this handy image. A 40-page preview is also available for those that might need a little extra convincing.
“Athena Voltaire” is like Indiana Jones, if Indy was a sassy, tough-as-nails woman. What made you decide to both tackle the pulp genre, which is often overlooked in modern comics, and tell the story with a female lead, which is just now really starting to be commonplace in modern comics?
Steve Bryant: I’ve always loved the pulp genre—from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Robert E. Howard to” Doc Savage”, and everything between. I’m a sucker for the comic strips and movies of that period, too, like “Terry and the Pirates”, “Flash Gordon”, Thin Man, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And I can’t resist a modern pastiche of that material, so Indiana Jones and the “Rocketeer” are squarely in my wheelhouse. A love of all that stuff probably influenced my decision in terms of crafting my dream comics gig.
I didn’t put that much thought into casting a woman in the lead. As an artist, I like to draw pretty women, so having a beautiful lead—and trying to imbue her with expressiveness in the midst of action and danger—is a fun challenge. I should clarify, though, I don’t want the book to be exploitative or sexist; I like drawing “Golden Age of Hollywood” idealized characters, which means beautiful women and handsome men.
“Athena Voltaire” delves into Nazi occultism, ancient societies, deadly monsters, and much more. How much research or reading did you actually do into it all?
SB: I’ll go through phases where I’ll read up on a ton of it. But it can be a scary rabbit hole to go down—too many secret societies and conspiracy theories and I’m afraid I’ll start wearing a tinfoil hat! So it’s fun to break it up and read up on some of the other elements of Athena’s backstory, like stage magicians, 1930s Hollywood, and traveling circus life of the early 20th century.
If I’m not mistaken, you originally ran “Athena Voltaire” as a webcomic. How did you make the jump to not only print, but also to having the book put out through Dark Horse?
SB: Yes, we started as a webcomic in late 2002 and ran for a couple of years. We were nominated for the Best Digital Comic Eisner Award in 2005—the first year for that category—just as we were prepping to move into print.
We launched in print at Speakeasy Entertainment, where the first issue sold out…and the company promptly folded. Ape Entertainment rescued us and we released a mini-series, “Flight of the Falcon”, and a collection of the webcomics before my collaborator, Paul Daly, left the book.
After a few years of trying to determine the legal future of Athena Voltaire, Paul and I divided up the content, with each of us taking what we brought in and going our separate ways. Paul took his stories and characters, and I retained Athena and the basic concept.
I planned on pitching a soft reboot of the book, a new adventure that explained the revised backstory, and just letting the existing material fade out of print. I hated to see that stuff disappear, but was at a loss for how to salvage it. I’d gotten about halfway through the reboot when a friend suggested that I re-cut and re-script the older material and collect it. I thought it was a simple solution and couldn’t imagine it taking more than a few months.Continued below
Around this time, a mutual friend introduced me to Michael Hudson, who produces the Sequential Pulp imprint at Dark Horse. Michael and I hit it off, I pitched him “Athena Voltaire”, and we were off and running. Even though Sequential Pulp’s previous offerings were shorter books, he didn’t flinch at the idea of the sprawling “Athena Voltaire Compendium”.
Of course, it ended up taking me a lot longer than I planned. Who knew that scripting and lettering 200 pages of comics, drawing and coloring 50 entirely new sequential pages, reformatting horizontal pages to vertical, and dropping in countless character patches would take so long?
Not me, apparently.
You say that you re-cut and re-scripted the older material before collecting it, after Daly left. What exactly did that process entail? Repurposing existing art with a new script or something a bit more?
SB: Good question! I took a couple of copies of my books, tore the pages out, and began scribbling notes on each page with a Sharpie, laying out basic plot points, rearranging the order of panels, and inserting sheets of paper in between sequences with notes on what a new page would need to do to bridge the existing pages. After my initial pass, the stories started to take shape.
Next up, I took those marked copies and starting working out a script, notating where I’d be picking up an existing panel, where I’d alter a panel, and where I needed a new panel. Sometimes there were sections that I desperately wanted to use, but made no story sense. It pained me to leave them on the cutting-room floor, so to speak.
Eventually, I ended up with a pretty solid script. Of course, as I went along, I found that each story needed more “connective tissue” than I originally anticipated, so there were a lot of pages with an added panel or added figures to smooth it out and make better story sense.
Before I shopped it around, I had my friend Chris Murrin edit the book. Chris is a terrific writer and having the safety net of him checking the plot points and clarity of action on the rearranged pages was a huge benefit!
You also say that you created 50 new pages of content. How did some of those pages fit into the existing stories?
SB: In some instances, the new pages were simply to take the characters from point A to point B. But I also used the new pages to change how Athena fits into the adventures. When I was rereading our previous material, I was struck by how often she would end up as a spectator during the climax of a story. I wanted to change the dynamic and make her actions “matter” more. Many of the new script/art pages work toward that end.
You started “Athena Voltaire” in 2002, so you’ve been making the comic off and on for over a decade. How does it feel to have worked with the character for so long and to now be able to have her adventures published under of such a respected publisher as Dark Horse?
It’s awesome. I’ve had some bad luck in terms of publishers closing up shop, collaborators leaving, and so on. To end up with the book coming out from Dark Horse—one of my all-time favorite publishers—is incredible. The Dark Horse editorial staff, particularly our editors Patrick Thorpe and Everett Patterson, have been amazingly patient and supportive, fine-tuning this book far beyond my expectations.
And the format of the Sequential Pulp line—beautiful hardcovers with terrific production values—is unbelievable. I’m trilled to be included in such a great imprint.
I couldn’t ask for a better situation.
With over a decade of Athena Voltaire collected in one volume, there’s probably a lot of old art sitting right next to newer images. As you went back through the pages, were there things that you, as an artist, would have wanted to do differently?
SB: There were a number of instances where the artwork bothered me! I tried to take out the most egregious shots—faces that made me cringe, etc. But it’s easy to go down the “George Lucas remastering rabbit hole.” It’s possible to tweak the art for another year or two—it’s the nature of an artist evaluating his work. At one point, I had to just let it go.Continued below
A big part of the plot of the “Athena Voltaire” adventures are the Brotherhood of Shambalha. While some of their story is told in Athena’s various adventures, they’re largely mysterious. Can readers every hope to find out the real truth behind them?
SB: That was one of my favorite parts of rescripting the book! I’m able to work out the bigger picture and plant seeds about what we’ll see in subsequent volumes. There are a lot of layers and machinations going on behind the scenes, and we’ll see more of them as we go forward.
With a decade behind her and a big, collected compendium, what’s in the future for Athena Voltaire?
SB: I’m currently working on the follow-up story, “Athena Voltaire and the Volcano Goddess”. Beyond that? I have a ton of ideas for further comic adventures and a collection of prose short stories by writer-friends in a volume called “Athena Voltaire Pulp Tales”. Hopefully sales will justify all of these and more for years to come. That’s my goal, anyway.