A Personal Tale of Modern Wizards & Familial Bonds: Brandon Thomas & Khary Randolph Talk Excellence

by Gary Catig

Back in February, Image Comics and Skybound Entertainment announced a new series called Excellence. The title is a modern, urban, fantasy about a secret society of wizards and follows the main character, Spencer Dales, as he navigates his life following in the footsteps of his father, a powerful magician.

The creative team includes writer, Brandon Thomas, artist, Khary Randolph, colorist, Emilio Lopez, and letterer, Deron Bennet. Ahead of the comic’s May 8, 2019 release, Thomas and Randolph spoke with Comicon.com to discuss developing this mystic world influenced by hip hop, anime and video games and how this project came together.

Gary Catig: Hey Brandon and Khary. I’m happy you both could talk a bit about your upcoming series from Skybound, Excellence. For our readers unfamiliar with the title, could you describe what it’s about?

Brandon Thomas:Excellence at its core is a coming of age story, that deals with generational rifts, and the relationships (or lack thereof) that come to define us. The main character Spencer Dales has been born into this secret world of magic, and wants more than anything to be loved and respected by his legendary father, but a twist of fate makes that impossible. By the time he’s finally ready to ascend within this magical order called The Aegis, the relationship between father and son has been damaged, possibly irrevocably, by years of neglect and animosity. 

You add a strong dose of teenage rebellion into the mix, and you have a young man who feels like his father’s devotion to this arcane order and its so-called tenets cost him everything. He looks around, and his youth and inexperience tells him that everything is wrong, and deserves to be torn down to nothing. This push towards revolution does little to repair the bond that he needs fixed more than anything else, proving that a magic wand can’t solve everything. 

That’s the real tension powering the series, that for all of the amazing things these characters can do with magic, and you see that firsthand in the amazing sequences Khary and Emilio are creating in every issue, the things that are most difficult for the characters are having those hard conversations with each other. Forgiving each other seems more impossible than teleporting themselves halfway across the city, and I think that’s a feeling and an emotion that people can relate to.

Khary Randolph: It’s a book about layers. On the top surface is the magic, and wands and the action, all the fun stuff. But if you dig deeper it’s about relationships, it’s about race, it’s about toxic masculinity, it’s about decisions and consequences. We go a lot of places on this book.

GC: It’s a very interesting premise and one thing I noticed right off the bat, in the first issue, is it covers a lot of mythology to the story looking at rules, rankings, and even a unique written language. I was curious, Brandon, what is your process for world-building on your creator owned projects?

BT: I’ve always loved those little details, and it’s something that helps me feel like a comic is “finished,” if that makes any sense. We want Excellence working on multiple levels, and packing every inch of every page with something that deepens the connection between the reader and the world inside is what we’re after. Twenty pages an issue is not a lot of space, and so finding extra opportunities to quickly and visually give you some info that while not essential to the main narrative, solidifies it in real ways, is something you’ll see the results of throughout the series. Some of it will be presented as simple infographics, some will be emergency bulletins, some is blatant propaganda, etc., but all of it is there to make the issues feel more valuable and more than worth the cover price. 

It also gives us even more chances to fully incorporate designer Andres Juarez into what we’re doing, and I’ve been obsessed with his work since my previous Skybound book Horizon. Figuring out which ones are going in which issue, and seeing him knock them out the park on his first pass, has been another real highlight of doing Excellence.  

KR: The world-building is absolutely a team effort. One person builds off of the other, and the sum product is greater than the parts. If you look closely at the uniforms the different magicians wear in issue 1, they are all ranked by color. That was a choice completely made by our colorist Emilio Lopez. Color is a HUGE element in this book, and we spent months trying to get it right. And once we saw what Andres was doing with the runes that I had incorporated into the artwork, we knew instantly that we would have to create a codex for the fans to figure out. We are fans first and creators second, and we understand the things that make a comic less of a read and more of an experience.

GC: How did the two of you get together for Excellence? Were you guys paired up already during the pitch or was this creative team formed afterwards? Previously, you both worked on Noble. I don’t know how closely you collaborated since Khary was the cover artist, but did this play any role in you two getting together?

BT: I think we’ve been mutual fans of each other for a long time, and were already what I call “Skybound brothers,” since we’ve both done books there already. His name came up almost immediately when we were developing the series, then we spent a ton of time just hanging out at the annual dinner, then that was followed up by an epic phone call, and now here we are about to launch the book.

His Noble covers weaved through some of that, but this is an entirely different kind of thing. Excellence is us truly unleashed, and it’s the best work either of us have done in comics. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done in the past, and I’m sure he is too, but there’s something special happening with us working together, and we can’t wait to peel back that curtain.

KR: Yeah, as Brandon said, we’ve run in the same circles for quite a while now. We worked on Noble together for over a year and barely even communicated on Noble, which is the funny part. This is our true collaboration. Brandon and I connect in a lot of ways, seen and unseen, and I think we have a lot of the same interests. There is a lot of us both in this book. Excellence is by far some of my most personal work to date.

GC: Khary, I’ve enjoyed your Big Two work like We Are Robin and Mosaic. Even your independent stuff is superhero related with the aforementioned Noble and also Black. How is it for you to be illustrating in this modern day fantasy world? Is there anything in particular that interests you most about drawing in this genre?

KR: The things that feel different to me in this book are not the fantasy elements. Science fiction, superheroes, magic…it’s all fantasy to me. It’s all escapism in different forms. It’s the personal touches, the moments between characters, being able to capture real feelings that I didn’t even know were inside of me — that’s what makes this book different. There is a scene from a certain issue that we got back colored and lettered up, that actually made me cry. I’m not supposed to get emotional from my own work! That’s really what makes this book stand apart to me.

GC: One key theme you address is the father-son dynamic. This is a very personal story for you, Brandon, and you’ve said before that the protagonist’s relationship with his father mirrors your own. In another interview, you mentioned how you also became a father in the middle of you writing this series. How did that influence your approach with Spencer and his dad? Did you go back and change things or take the story into a different direction after your child’s birth and experiences?

BT: I wouldn’t say things already down changed too much, but there were some tonal shifts, and most importantly, my understanding and empathy for one of the main characters (Raymond) grew significantly. I’d say the book treats him and his perspective much less harshly and uncompromisingly than it did originally. I found myself forced to really confront the deep similarities between Spencer and his father, and how that has contributed greatly to their frayed relationship. It’s not entirely just one person’s fault, and their conflict is much more nuanced and realistic now, instead of the thesis about bad dads that it could’ve ended up being.

KR: This is one of those things that both Brandon and I have in common. I love my father dearly but I’d be lying if there haven’t been times in my life where our relationship was strained, and it’s taken years and a lot of maturity to reckon with it and move forward. Tapping into those feelings has been essential for capturing the dynamic between Spencer and his father. 

GC: Finally, Excellence is a book with the creative team composed of people of color. How important is it to you both to have this creative team and to be able to tell this story? Does it help that Skybound is behind the series? You guys have been talking to different outlets to get the word out and even made the cover of the most recent Previews magazine.

BT: Skybound’s reputation, and me and Khary’s previous history with them, tells you that it’s not a publicity stunt or a cheap gimmick. That idea came directly from me, and I felt it would help to tell this particular story in this particular way. You’ll see exactly why the further you dive into the book, but the cool thing is how easy it was to make that happen. There are a number of extremely talented folks of color doing amazing work in the business, and this felt like a vehicle to not only take advantage of that, but to celebrate it as well. Stay tuned for further announcements on how we’re going to do even more of that in the coming months. 

The Previews cover was a total surprise, but it speaks to how confidently Image Comics is feeling about the potential of the series. Very nice tip of the cap, and I’ll keep a copy of that Previews until the end of time. It means even more that we got the cover doing a book like Excellence, given its characters and its creators and its perspective. Definitely not an everyday thing, and we’ve been riding this incredible wave since we found out it was happening.   

KR: It’s been a whirlwind, working on this book. What people will be holding in their hands when this book comes out is years in the making. It’s important to give credit to the crew at Skybound because they’ve been patient and understanding enough to let us find our way and our voice through this book. I’m not even sure THEY completely understood what we were trying to do on this, so the fact that they gave us enough trust and space to figure things out has me eternally grateful. We couldn’t make this anywhere else.

We would like to thank Brandon and Khary for speaking with us and Skybound for coordinating the interview. The first issue of Excellence will be released May 8, 2019.

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