How Big Can The World Of A Story Be? Scott Morse On The New Soulwind Compendium

by Hannah Means Shannon

Oni Press are releasing a new Soulwind Compendium in January 2018, gathering together a significant creator-owned series that originally appeared in single issues, then in trade volumes, and even in a collection, but now is being brought back to print in a new edition.

Created by Scott Morse as both writer and artist, at the start of a career that now spans work in comics, animation, and film, Soulwind is a constantly developing adventure story, playing with the elements of the comics medium, illustration, and the printed page itself, as it takes in and intertwines motifs from many mythologies into a single, sweeping, narrative.

It’s a story that’s difficult to sum up succinctly while doing it justice, but it follows the adventures of a young boy who is transported far away to find a famous sword called Soulwind, meanwhile addressing creation myths, crossing vast gulfs of space and time, and bringing in elements of sci-fi alongside fantasy.

This is a deeply emotive story in unique ways, and is one that could only have been told by Scott Morse. That’s something of a creative goal in comics–to tell the story that only you can tell. If that represents true achievement, Morse has explored that fabled land rather fully and with great determination, and planted a flag there for others to find.

Scott Morse joins us today on Comicon.com for a wide-ranging interview on the expansive Soulwind Compendium.

Hannah Means-Shannon: When you think about the format in which readers first encountered Soulwind, moving through single issues to several graphic novels, to a large edition, like this new hardback, do you see any ways in which they might experience the story differently depending on format?

Are there pros and cons to approaching such a long form story in these different modes?

Scott Morse: Well, there’s the audience experience of reading the story itself, and then there’s the pros and cons of creating the work using the different formats. Soulwind was envisioned from the very beginning as a vehicle for me to allow myself to grow and learn while creating. I started it when I was 19 and was just beginning my career in animation. The hope was to generate something of “my own” while working in animation for the bigger studios during the day. My mentor, Maurice Noble, encouraged everyone he worked with to  create and own something of their own on the side, to be able to call your own shots and fail or succeed on your own terms.

I knew from the start that each chapter of Soulwind (I consider the five graphic novels as five chapters) would be crafted with a different visual aesthetic intended to complement the content of the chapter in question. This was also, selfishly, a way for me to stretch and attempt to broaden my skillset as an artist.

As for the experience of reading the story, I’m most pleased with the complete package in one volume. I worked to make the story flow with a specific energy that I think is interrupted in shorter bursts. When Jim Valentino approached me at the start, it made sense to generate the story as single issues, but by the time I moved the story to Oni, larger graphic novel chunks made more sense.

HMS: It often feels like storytellers, whether in prose, art, music, or other means, tell their version of the older cultural stories they’ve inherited, but in personal ways.

But rarely do they make one big story that combines so many different elements the way that Soulwind does. Is it your way of telling a version all the stories that have been meaningful to you through myth, folktales, and legends?

SM: It is. I wanted to tear into a Hero’s Journey through a fractured lens of myth, legend, and popular culture. I grew up loving The Twilight Zone, one of the strongest examples, in my mind, of how familiar stories, themes, and ideas can be tweaked, twisted, and spun into the unexpected. I wanted to peel back layers of stories and tropes we think we know, like the Arthurian legends to Flash Gordon, and then find threads to tie them together. Playing with time and space allows for great opportunities to bring seemingly unrelated ideas together. Plus, I love working a puzzle. Crafting stories is the best kind of puzzle working.

HMS: Did creating such a comprehensive original comic story take a big chunk of your life to complete? Do you recall any particular strategies or philosophies that helped you commit to the work over time, and making sure you completed it in a way that you would be happy with?

SM: It took a few years, off and on. I think, all told, I worked on it for four or five years. I knew I’d have to start and stop, and designing it to play out in different styles helped me stay interested in it. I also love research, so digging into different areas of interest over time helped me stay energized, to find focus on each chunk. Knowing each chapter could play as a “4-issue length” graphic novel (24 to 32 pages per “issue” which makes for chapters that would land between 96 and 128 pages), also helped me stay focused on achievable goals.

HMS: While Soulwind combines many story and cultural elements, it also combines many approaches to comic art, particularly in page layout. Did you give yourself complete freedom with choosing more open page layouts vs. more traditional comic pages with grid-like structures? Do you know what might have influenced those choices?

SM: I’ve always approached the visual storytelling of my comics work based on the needs of the story itself. With each changing section of story, I constantly tried to shift the tone and visual aesthetic. The bookending sequences with the Chinese brush paintings felt like they needed no panels or borders, to allow for a more open perspective and flow of ideas, something almost lyrical. Books One and Two strove for a more classical comics page layout, with shifting panel sizes. Book Three has a drastic shift when we enter the ancient Arthurian era, with the brush style going more kinetic and the pages becoming a little more open again, searching for a more organic and less grounded sense.

At that point of the story, we’re seeing things we thought we understood through a new perspective, and I wanted to unsettle the visuals a bit to help underline the sense of uncertainty. Book Four is much more formal, leaning into a more Victorian sense of organization and order, and even a sort of storybook feel, as we regain a bit more composure and begin to make sense of where the story might be ultimately heading. As we enter into Book Five, I wanted to continue a sense of order with the panels and then once again abandon that completely and filter into the openness of the Chinese brush paintings as the world of the story opens on a grand scale.

HMS: As mentioned above, there are a lot of elements in combination in the story, and some of them are time period and location. Did moving around in space and time help change up the routine of creating the comic for you, introducing new challenges?

SM: Moving through space and time really allowed me to stay interested in the material and tackle things from varied perspectives. I get so bored working in stagnant set pieces, and I think audiences grow tired of seeing similar locations. Jumping through time and space allowed me to freedom to reinvent things and hopefully find new rules of engagement for the audience.

The real artistic challenges arose as I’d consider how to cement a new style, sometimes with some level of competency, and sometimes to a compromised level of success. Again, the ultimate conceit of the book was to selfishly give myself a vehicle to grow as a storyteller and artist, and the growth can be seen as the styles change, really. The flaws are apparent, at least to me, as I’d tiptoe into new visual language.

HMS: When it comes down to different visual media, like cartoon strips vs. comics vs. animation, where do you think the particular strengths of comics lie? How do you think the comics medium helped make the story of Soulwind what it is?

SM: For me, it’s all about timing and pacing a story towards a crafted, considered experience for the audience. Strips are fairly locked in their rules, with gags playing out over single images or simple setup/complication/punchline scenarios. Film language is a crazy cousin to comics as far as visual storytelling—the real kicker being the locked composition size of the screen and the rate of speed at which the information is delivered to the audience.

A comics reading experience is maybe the hardest to control. It’s all in the execution of the material, combining not only what’s in a panel or image, but in what else can be seen peripherally to that image. How much detail you include can compromise the rate of speed at which a story point can be understood. The danger (or opportunity) with comics is the audience participation factor: a reader can stop and linger on a specific drawing, and that means the storyteller can potentially lose control of the pace of the story. Film is a forced rate of speed. Strips are, by design, a quick moment, where pacing can slip time a bit more as a simpler idea is at play.

Comics, however, often attempt grander ideas and multiple storylines and characters with different sets of stakes and emotional needs. If you pace things wrong—over-detail a moment, or slip in a drawing that’s off-theme in the panel design, or reveal too much information at once on a two-page spread— you can lose your audience or at the very least lessen their experience.

With Soulwind, I tried to hone that power that is unique to comics. I really tried to concentrate on the magic trick of pacing. I’m sure it’s compromised here and there, but ultimately, I’m happy with how it plays and what I learned in the process.

HMS: We’ve seen quite an expansion in independent publishers and creator owned comics over time. Do you think there are more outlets for telling genre stories like fantasy and sci-fi than there have been in the past? Do you think this expansion has resulted in a more varied styles and content for comics?

SM: There are definitely more outlets for creators to consider. Every genre can be toyed with in comics, and every genre has an opportunity to find an audience at this point. Ultimately, it all still comes down to character, emotion, and how relatable a story might be. In addition, there’s the weight of how to get people to see your work: how to find the right relationship with a publisher or distributor, and how to ultimately find your widest audience. That’s marketing, and visibility, and being present with the potential fanbase, and being humble and professional. In my experience, style and content can only really connect with people if the work is approachable and relatable. It helps if the creator(s) are also approachable and relatable.

With Soulwind, I think I tested the audience base from chapter to chapter. I tested their tolerance for engagement in the story by jumping styles and space and time, and delivering a more decompressed storyline. That’s dangerous to attempt in a periodic format like single issues or even a graphic novel series. I think the collected story offers a stronger chance to keep a reader onboard, as they can gauge how much more story is ahead of them. Luckily, the friends I’ve made at Oni understand the overall conceit of the story and why I attempted it, and their support in keeping it in print and available is monumental.

HMS: What do you hope that new readers take away from picking up this substantial new tome of Soulwind?

SM: Honestly, I hope that new readers take away a sense of how big the world of “a story” can be, how small moments can complicate the machinations of the universe, and how, no matter the style or aesthetic, things can connect in magical ways to surprise and entertain. And really, I sincerely hope that they’re understanding and forgiving of the storyteller that bit off a lot to chew as he was beginning his career. It’s humbling looking back on Soulwind, and it’s even more humbling that people still seem to find it and enthusiastically enjoy it so many years later.

Thanks to Scott Morse for taking the time to do such an extensive interview on this longform and significant work in comics.

Soulwind will be available from Oni Press on January 28th, 2018 in a new hardback edition that collects it completely.