Interview: Alexander MacrisThe Dark Herald
Yes, I’m pretending to be a reporter today.
Not. A. Journalist. A reporter, there’s a difference in my mind.
My introduction to Alexander Macris was rather typical for me. I was complaining about something. In this particular case, it was the Twitteratti canceling Tracy Hickman for promoting an upcoming revival of the Dragon Lance series. The Stans had decided that they were enraged that week over a tweet that jokingly threw some shade at Critical Role. Apparently, this tweet was attacking non-existent races, and for reasons that I am simply not stupid enough to understand, this is racist. In truth, I think the reason was one of economics. The demand for racism vastly outstrips the available supply these days.
I wrote an article about how ridiculous this all was. And also that I had absolutely no use at all for 5th Edition D&D.
It was shortly after this, that the Darklings introduced me to a new gaming system called Adventurer Conqueror King. And I took note of the game designer’s name Alexander Macris. That was my introduction to him.
He has had a widespread career in the genre, having been a publisher, a tabletop game designer, and now a comic book creator. His latest project is the graphic novel Ascendant, currently available as a webtoon at Arkhaven.com. Mister Macris recently set aside some time for an interview with me.
Dark Herald: Why did you create the role-playing game; Adventurer Conqueror King?
Alexander Macris: I’ve been a lifelong tabletop gamer and a tabletop game designer since undergraduate when I wrote Modern Spearhead. In 2008 I began to run a campaign using Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons as part of the “Old School Renaissance.” Unlike most D&D campaigns, my campaign advanced into the rulership of huge empires with mass battles with thousands of troops. Over the two years of the campaign I adapted and wrote a lot of new material to handle gameplay at that scale. As the campaign was winding down, my wife Amy became chronically ill with what we now know to be mitochondrial disease. As she became bedridden I found myself with a lot of time where I needed to be at home nearby while she was sleeping, thus engaging in some quiet activity. Amy suggested I should publish my gaming material. I had the good fortune of partnering with some talented friends who were also very excited about the idea, and we took advantage of the opportunity from the then-new platform Kickstarter to launch a crowdfunding campaign. The name Adventurer Conqueror King System was inspired by the old Conan paperbacks, “Conan the Adventurer,” “Conan the Conqueror,” etc. Our first Kickstarter was successful enough to fund a second and the business grew from there. Today ACKS is well-regarded as the best version of D20 fantasy for players interested in a “domain play” with robust rules for everything from mass combat to magical experimentation.
Dark Herald: When did you first see the problems that were setting in with the Big Two of DC and Marvel?
Alexander Macris: I don’t see the situation at DC and Marvel as a problem so much as an opportunity. DC and Marvel seem to have decided to pursue new audiences by embracing viewpoints that appeal to that audience. If their choice succeeds, they’ll prosper. If it doesn’t, they’ll endure the failure. Either way, their choice creates an opportunity for independent comic creators who want to offer storytelling in more classic modes. I couldn’t make money offering Star-Spangled Squadron if every comic buyer was satisfied with the latest offering of Justice League.
Dark Herald: Is Ascendant the first comic book you’ve ever written?
Alexander Macris: Yes it is. I have previously written 15 role-playing game books, 2 miniature wargames, 1 published short story, and 1 unpublished screenplay. This is my first go at comic book storytelling.
Dark Herald: When I was reading Ascendant, I couldn’t help but note that most of your creations matched the classic heroic archetypes. American Eagle in particular is a perfect example of an aspirational hero. Where did you get the idea for him?
Alexander Macris: I have always been drawn to Aspirational Heroes. Admiration for heroes is admiration for human excellence. Ayn Rand, in the Romantic Manifesto, declared that writers should show men ‘as they could be and should be.’ The classical Greeks would have spoken of the Aspirational Hero as megalopsychos, great-souled. That’s what American Eagle is, in terms of his courage, heroism, and loyalty. The Aspirational Hero has become almost absent from fiction, especially fiction aimed at boys and men. (A form of Aspirational Hero remains alive and well in fiction aimed at women, in the form of the Alpha Male who romances the protagonist.) Worse, the Aspirational Hero is nowadays presented as a lie. Homelander in The Boys presents himself to the public as an Aspirational Hero, but it’s a lie. Superman has been twisted into very dark places by DC. It’s as if we’re being told: “Heroes aren’t real. There is nothing to aspire to.” Well, I disagree. That’s why American Eagle presents as a patriotic Christian married father of two who loves his family and country, but actually he’s a patriotic Christian married father of two who loves his family and country. The plot twist is there’s no plot twist.
Dark Herald: Stiletto on the other hand is closer to the villainous archetypes. Where did she come from?
Alexander Macris: Stiletto is a complex character with a lot of inspirations. Initially she grew out of the mythology of Ishtar, goddess of love and war. The ancients understood love and war to be two sides of the same force, the primal-chaotic-feminine passion that could be expressed as sex or violence. Stiletto is very much an avatar of sex and violence. Second, she was inspired by people I met in the goth scene, one of whom is my wife, Amy, who was a goth fashion model in LA in her 20s, and the attitudes they had towards life, suffering, beauty, pain, and so on. Third, there’s a Nietzschean component — she is driven by an implacable will and her powers came, in a literal sense, because that which did not kill her made her stronger. Finally, she was an homage to all of the great 1990s bad girls in comics, who are nowadays bowdlerized into shadows of their former glory. It’s worth noting that Stiletto is, by far, the most popular character in the book among female readers.
Dark Herald: Do you have a favorite character from Ascendant?
Alexander Macris: I am fond of American Eagle, Stiletto, and Maximum Leader. I’m also fond of Levitee, the flying wisecracking super-manatee, but he is not in the graphic novel, just the RPG. That all said, Aurora is the most fun character to write. She’s just a delight to put on the page.
Dark Herald: I was quite impressed with the high quality of the artwork. Can you tell me a little about your artist?
Alexander Macris: The interior pencils and inks were by Mel Joy San Juan. Mel Joy is a Fillipina artist who works as part of the Glass House Graphics portfolio of artists. She has an incredible style that feels like it blends the best of classic western comics with the best of manga, and her female characters are breathtakingly gorgeous. We enjoyed a very close collaboration. I would give her written descriptions and concepts and she would then iterate through a number of drafts. It was really important to me that the world of Ascendant felt real and she went all in to make sure it was authentic. In order to draw Stiletto accurately, for example, she custom-ordered a special set of stiletto boots with the right heel height in order to be able to see exactly what they’d look like from different angles, how her feet would be positioned in various positions standing, sitting, crouching, and so on. She was watching Instagram videos of long-nailed models to see how they held their hands, moved their fingers. For the Battle of Atlanta, she was studying maps on Google Earth to get the angles and screenshots of the different buildings.
Dark Herald: Where would you like to take the Star-Spangled Squadron?
Alexander Macris: The graphic novel is intended as the origin story of a superhero universe. If the story is well-received, I would like to build it out into a franchise. Unlike, apparently, billion-dollar franchises such as Star Wars, I’ve actually worked out the meta-plot, main villains, and story arcs in advance so I can tell a coherent story for years to come. People who have read my RPGs know that I am a stickler for detail. I may not necessarily answer every question in the graphic novel, but I know the answers, and I hope to tell the stories that reveal them in the future.
Dark Herald: “The Legend” Chuck Dixon is on the record as stating that he thinks the comic book in pamphlet form is dead. Do you agree? And if so, what do you think the future of comic books will be?
Alexander Macris: I do agree – so much so that I made my first entry into the medium by way of a graphic novel rather than a comic pamphlet. I suspect that what we’ll see in the future is that 22-issue comics will be replaced by online serial strips (such as Arktoons is doing), with collections of those being compiled into graphic novels. You’ll still have short-form serial content, but it’ll be online instead of in paper. That approach seems to have been hugely successful for manga and I think it will be here, too. That’s why I was so happy to have Ascendant: Star-Spangled Squadron have its sneak preview appear on Arktoons.
Dark Harald: Thank you for joining us today.
Alexander Macris currently has a campaign at Indigogo to bring his webcomic; Ascendant in a proper graphic novel format, to a grateful world. Please consider supporting his campaign.