Diving Into Your New Favorite World: Talking ‘Liberty’ With Creator Travis Vengroff

by Tony Thornley
Atrius at Dawn

If you had guessed a decade ago that audiodramas would make a comeback, a lot of people might have laughed in your face. However, not only have they made a comeback, but they’re a huge part of the podcasting world. One of the most unique of the bunch is Liberty, a show created by Travis Vengroff that’s exploded into a multimedia experience. Now a graphic novel set within this world, Liberty: Deception, has hit comiXology, and we got to sit down and talk to Travis in a multi-part interview about the graphic novel, its sequels, and in the second part what’s next for the podcast audience!

Tony Thornley: Hi Travis! Thanks for sitting down with us to chat about Liberty and everything else you’re working on! You’ve had quite a past couple of years! For anyone who hasn’t heard about Liberty what can you tell us about Atrius and its world?

Travis Vengroff: Happy talk with you! Liberty takes place on an isolated mining colony that more or less devolved into two groups after a few hundred years of isolation from the rest of humanity. One group is a military state led by the Archon called Atrius, where everyone works for the good of Atrius, the government is always right, and the Citizens think that is the way things should be.

Everyone else is doing what they can to survive with limited resources in what’s called the Fringe, which actually makes up 80% of the colony. The people there, called Fringers, have banded into gangs, cults, and tribes to find their next meal, running water, and some form of safety. Our stories typically focus on the interactions between these two groups, and examine a world where resource scarcity dictates every action.

Liberty A.F.T.E.R. Cover by Dave Dorman

TT: So this world you’ve created has already gone multimedia. You have the graphic novel, you have the podcast, you have a roleplaying source book! What led you to expanding the world in this way?

TV: The Liberty universe started off as a roleplaying setting/system I’d made after getting frustrated with D20 modern. It’s evolved a lot over the years, but in short, the more stories my friends and I created, the more I wanted to tell the bigger story that became the graphic novel. How did the world form? Who is the Archon? How has she maintained control over Atrius for centuries? These are the questions I wanted to answer. A number of my friends’ characters and our favorite NPC’s also make guest appearances, as well as those submitted by Liberty fans who have shared tales of their own RPG adventures with us.

Comics are a very slow-moving process though, even in the best of circumstances, and we started telling full-cast audio drama stories for free via podcast to kill the time between releases. Ironically the podcast took off with over 15,000 regular listeners, far exceeding any expectations I had, and became my full-time career. I also laugh because the majority of Liberty fans are podcast fans.

TT: The first volume of the graphic novel, Liberty: Deception, was just released on Comixology via Comixology Submit. Can you tell us a little about the plot of the story?

TV: Deception follows an actor named TJ (Tertulius Justus) as we wakes up in an execution chamber. TJ works for the propaganda divisions, and he’s supposed to be this super-soldier that everyone within Atrius looks up to for his legendary feats. However, TJ has never shot a gun, never seen combat, and his only real talent is that he’s a good liar (cough) I mean actor! So, after he’s been fired from the show (his fictional character fictionally dies), his executioners mistake him for his fictional persona, and he’s now working with them on a “top secret mission” to escape to the Fringe.

TT: Who are some of the characters we meet along the way?

TV: TJ is the handsome yet helpless damsel in distress in this story. His prison break is aided by two Citizens – a robotics scientist named Aemos, and a former-Atrian soldier named Cade. Additionally, he’s aided by Fringers who have heard tales of his fictional exploits. This would be the Conway Brothers, Will (the hacker) and Claw (the muscle), and Twitch, a tough-as-nails ganger. Twitch has a bit of a soft spot for TJ, because she can see through his BS, and the Conways are looking for the right time to betray, kill, and eat him (preferably in that order, assuming the propaganda can be trusted).

TT: Tertulius Justus is an interesting protagonist. Even though he’s the lead of the story, is TJ really a character we should be cheering for?

TV: TJ means well, he really does. He actually wants nothing more than to remain as a part of Atrius, to serve the Archon, and better his community, despite everything that happens to him. But the realization that this life is no longer possible keep forcing him to act accordingly, despite his very passive nature. If you’ve heard the podcast it also might be really easy to find his propaganda job upsetting, as his division aims to utterly dehumanize the Fringe’s occupants. However, his deception might not be the only one that unfolds on the pages as we get a better insight into the actual life of the Archon, who has been the rarely present heroine for six seasons of podcasts.

The left image was drawn in 2012, the right is from Volume 1

TT: This is actually a story that’s been around for a bit. Can you tell us a little about the journey to get Deception to this point?

TV: In my misguided youth, I originally wanted to make Liberty: Deception into a film before discovering my love of the comic medium. Because I had no idea what I was doing and despite living near an arts college, it took me a few years to find a sequential artist for the project. The first few that I tried to work with were, in a word, unprofessional. I released a preview issue, maybe 7 years ago, and sold 5,000 copies at various comic-cons before that artist vanished mid-way through issue 2. A few years and a few artists later, I found the right artists, and relaunched with the Zero Issue, which introduced the Conway Brothers. We’ve been drawing this 600-page series with the same team for over 5 years, and in that time Kaitlin and I developed so much of the world’s culture that we had to go back and tweak a few panels to fit the new lore. 

It was really magical for me. The minute that Liberty became a podcast it became a sort of living universe. Kaitlin and I have spent over five years producing six seasons that all lead up to the graphic novel, and it’s very fitting that Deception is finally coming out in full this year. We will release 600 pages and bring the story to its conclusion before 2021.

Concept art by Laurie Thomas

TT: You’ve got some great artistic collaborators on this story! How did you connect with Joana Lafuente, Deon De Lange, Casey Bailey, and Adam Cartwright?

TV: After the aforementioned artist vanished mid-issue, I knew I had to sit down and invest the proper time to find true-and-tried comic book artists. I literally spent 40 hours combing through every single page on major creative job sites, facebook groups, and various social media all-calls until I found my core team. The only exceptions are Adam, who was an old friend and drummer from my days in a rock band, and Joana, who I’d met at MC Comic Con (London). I had a really clear outline, Adam had already spent about two years drawing storyboards for 8 of the 12 issues by that point, and we had about 10 gigabytes of custom concept art for the world. It’s hard to say no to a project that had a NY fashion designer create the costumes, blueprints and books filled with functional future-tech firearms, and comic book legends like Jason Shawn Alexander and Dave Dorman illustrating guest pages and cover art. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with each and every artist on the project.

TT: That’s one heck of a team! What do each of them bring to the story?

TV: Adam’s storyboards really helped ground our series visually and also helped me learn how to properly write for comics before I made a fool of myself in front of experienced artists. Our interior artists really had the toughest job keeping everything straight because we simultaneously drew volumes 2, 3, and 4, and all elements of the world are so specific, from the architecture or the moons to the costumes and even the shapes of the doors. We even had a character costume/damage guide for each issue. Casey Bailey and I spend about a month on each book doing nothing but continuity for battle damage, costumes, scars, and tattoos. Tied with Casey, Joana is really the hero of our books. In addition to being my favorite colorist before she joined the project (GI Joe, Baulder’s Gate, X-Files, X-Men), her work really brought a cohesion to our pages that brings the inks to the next level.

TT: That’s really amazing. It sounds like a fantastic team, and a huge undertaking. Now, as we talked about earlier, you and your partner Kaitlin have written Liberty stories for audio drama and for comics. How do you approach the different mediums? Is there any difference in HOW you write outside of the obvious?

TV: Actually, the kinds of stories that suit each medium are fairly different because both mediums have inherent strengths. Action is almost utterly useless in audio drama as it’s largely confusing and thus uninteresting. We have multiple action sequences planned for Deception that are 30+ pages of action that just wouldn’t translate well to the audio medium. Comics also allow you to sneak so much more into the pages, through the use of symbols, body language, or even subtle details in a costume. There are many clues in Deception Volume 1 that, when noticed, are substantial plot points. These Easter-eggs are bit more difficult to pull off in audio.

However, in audio you can really get more intimate. Audio is a unique and very personal medium where its’ really easy to form parasocial bonds with the characters in a way that just doesn’t happen in television or comics. You feel like you are part of the story, and more than that, you are using your imagination to create your own ideas about what the world might look like. This works really well particularly in horror and sci-fi because the less we “show” in audio, the more your mind can fill in the blanks in the most fantastic way possible. Our horror series Tales from the Tower has become really popular, which I credit to this, and we’ve found that the less we narrate, the happier our listeners are. In the writing process, both mediums use a lot of name repetition, and rely on strong dialogue. Generally speaking, longer monologues are easier in podcasting, and comics have the distinct advantage of being able to rely on visual cues for humor and subtext, and to more easily showcase scenes that have a lack of dialogue. A single panel of a character enjoying a quiet sunset from home is an example of one of the hardest concepts to capture in audio.

Body Map for a future issue

TT: That totally makes sense. It’s really a unique way you have to look at your world. What’s a typical writing day like for you?

TV: Deception Volumes 1-4 are pretty much done, and in terms of new stories, I’m working more on adventures that focus on different characters. I’m also working with artists who have lived/worked in the world for half a decade, so I’ll sit down and flesh out details to an outline for the story. What graffiti should be on the wall? What broadcast should be playing in the background? Where did the bodies fall in the previous issue? Do we want to include a guest character from fan-submitted RPG stories?

It’s a lot more of my time focusing on the smaller details and what parts of the world we really want to showcase, than writing dialogue or plot. I can pretty much knock out dialogue and paneling for a 20-page script in an afternoon. It’s the little details that take me a few days to fill in.

Volume 2 – Get Armed – May 2020

TT: What’s next for Liberty in the graphic novel department?

TV: Liberty: Deception Volume 2 will be arriving on Comixolgy in just under 2 weeks… You read that right, we’re releasing 150 ADDITIONAL PAGES very soon. Volume 3 should be out by early summer. Volume 4 will be out before December. We’re in the process of coloring the final pages in May/June.

Volume 3 – Get Even – Summer 2020

We also have two additional comic book stories coming out this summer: Bridget Goes on a Date, which follows the story of a Fringer warlord on her night off, Bridget’s Big Night, where she goes on a misadventure of a different kind, and a huge update coming to our Liberty: AFTER core rulebook (which is freely upgraded if people purchased the original on DrivethruRPG or our website). This update will introduce over 30 new enemies, new factions, and new items.

TT: Fantastic stuff! We’re looking forward to it!

Volume 4 – The Deception Is Unveiled – Winter 2020
Stay tuned for Part 2 very soon, in which we discuss the upcoming season of Liberty: Tales from the Tower and the other audiodramas coming soon from the Liberty universe!

Meanwhile, pick up Liberty: Deception Volume 1 available on Comixology now, and check out everything Liberty on the website!

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