A comic book bromance

UK-based creative collaborators, writer Dan Watters and artist Caspar Wijngaard speak to Teodor Reljic about their genre-hopping and voodoo-tinged comic LIMBO as well as their forays into the worlds of Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed

Dan Watters (left) and a self-portrait of Caspar Wijngaard
Dan Watters (left) and a self-portrait of Caspar Wijngaard

Ahead of their participation in this year’s edition of the Malta Comic Con – taking place at MFCC, Ta’ Qali on December 3 and 4 – long-term UK-based creative collaborators Dan Watters (writer) and Caspar Wijngaard (artist) speak about their genre-hopping and voodoo-tinged creator-owned comic LIMBO (Image Comics) as well as their forays into the fan favourite worlds of Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed, whose comic book adaptations they’ve been spearheading in various titles from Titan Comics.

First things first: you guys seem to like working together, what with LIMBO being your creator-owned project, which was followed by your work on Dark Souls for Titan Comics. What’s the story behind your ongoing collaboration, and why do you think you click together as creators? 

Dan Watters: Caspar and I were friends before we ever worked together; we used to go to the pub after work and talk about dream projects and approaches for narratives. We were lucky enough that from this we ended up working on an indie book for a small publisher, and from there decided to pitch our own project that’d be a real celebration of all our influences, but would also strive to put them together in a new way – or at least in a way we weren’t seeing done much in comics at the time. I think that part of the reason we click well is because we both take similar influences and approach them from different directions, meaning that we hopefully end up with a multifaceted approach to things.

Caspar Wijngaard: Our friendship prior to LIMBO definitely worked in our favour, there was a transparency in the collaboration or approach. We had a strong understanding of each other’s influences and goals as creators and played to each other’s strengths. It never felt like work, it was always a fun creative process.

LIMBO is certainly an interesting blend of both pop culture genres and ‘real life’ cultural and religious touchstones. What led you to go for this particular mix of supernatural neo-noir and voodoo? 

Watters: It was an organic growth, really; elements that we had in place right from the get go would spiral off into unexpected places, and we let them take us there. The magical systems were always a part of the book I wanted to make; an earlier script about voodoo that I’d abandoned was part of the nucleus of LIMBO. We used the traditional noir story as a kind of base that allowed us to explore the weirder elements- the detective trope felt like a familiar enough narrative for the reader to latch onto, so there was a foundation for us to launch off from, and was also something that I think played into what we wanted to explore philosophically.

Wijngaard: From an artist’s point of view, I really wanted to tap into my visual influences. As creators of the world, I had the unlimited recourses at our disposal, pouring everything I loved into the aesthetic into the book. If I ever felt a page or panel was dry visually I would find a way to pump life into. It was extremely important that LIMBO was vibrant book visually and never tiring for the reader. 

Detail from Caspar Wijngaard’s work on the Dark Souls series from Titan Comics
Detail from Caspar Wijngaard’s work on the Dark Souls series from Titan Comics

What was your working process like when it came to putting LIMBO together? And given the ambitious blend of styles, genres and (sometimes metaphysical) thematic concerns, was it a challenge to keep to the six-issue limit? 

Watters: We wanted to keep LIMBO to six issues, but we had as many pages as we needed to tell the story; I think issue 6 was 28 pages in the end. Without wanting to give away too much, if you’ve read the book I think the themes make it pretty apparent that it had to kind of end where it did in order to move forward. We’ve always planned to do more LIMBO down the line, but think of it like a series of detective novels; each book will be its own contained case exploring something different, with the overarching plot kinda secondary to that. I’d say our working process was pretty eclectic (since that’s a nicer way of saying ‘all over the place’) and varied from issue to issue. We did everything from Marvel method to me drawing out roughs from Caspar, and honestly neither of us can really remember who did what where some of the time – which I quite like, as it makes the book all the more collaborative. 

Wijngaard: If we were to boil it down to the bare bones, it was definitely a labour of love. We had a chance to create or vey own book for a large publisher, we felt the best approach as unknown creators was to create something that stood out narratively and visually. There was no playing it safe. We built the comic the best way we knew how, speaking almost every day on the phone trading scripts, plots ideas and sketches. I can only imagine if we built it on strict guidelines it would have become a chore to create and lost a large amount of its charm.  

Between life and death: Voodoo trappings and Mexican folklore are just some of the influences thrown into the mix of Watters and Wijngaard’s Limbo – published by Image Comics
Between life and death: Voodoo trappings and Mexican folklore are just some of the influences thrown into the mix of Watters and Wijngaard’s Limbo – published by Image Comics

Let’s move on to Dark Souls. What attracted you to this project, and how did your collaborative approach adapt to a genre and format that’s markedly different to Limbo?

Watters: I think there actually is perhaps a slightly tangential similarity between Dark Souls and LIMBO from a writing standpoint, in that each involves striving to tell stories in a world of signifiers where the signified remains eternally murky. Obviously, there’s a big difference in doing this in a world you’re building yourself, and working on someone else’s franchise... though it probably helps that we’re both massive fans of FromSoftware’s games. There is an enduring uncanniness to the worlds of both Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and that’s what we really seek to tap into. It would be really easy to take the basic trappings of Dark Souls and just create a dark sword and sorcery comic that might be a lot of fun, but wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the tone of the games. Instead I look to writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Robert W. Chambers and Thomas Ligotti; writers who take this sort of oblique approach to mythologies that take well known elements and make them deeply unsettling.

Wijngaard: Firstly, I’m a HUGE ‘Souls’ fan. So, when we had the opportunity to work on a story together it was fantastic. I was actually sat with Dan in a café when he was writing the script, months before I was attached as the artist. So I jumped at the chance when it arose. I understood Dan’s direction of the script like second nature. It never felt like work and was probably the most fun I have had on a comic outside of LIMBO. It’s a far stretch visually from LIMBO but I always like to push myself visually, fantasy is actually something I’m more comfortable with as an artist. 

Both Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed are spun off from video games. How does this affect your respective takes on them in comic book form? Are there any key challenges you have to contend with when helping shift one property from video game to comic book? 

Watters: Assassin’s Creed is a really interesting franchise in that everything, be it game, comic or novel, is part of one grand continuity that Ubisoft take great care over crafting. The series I’m currently writing with Alex Paknadel, (writer of Boom! Studios’ Turncoat and Arcadia) is wrapping up the Phoenix Project arc, which has been building through the last few years of the games. So, we’re dealing with characters like Otso Berg, Galina Voronina and Violet da Costa who are well known to the Assassin’s Creed faithful, and bringing conflicts to a head which have been gestating for years. Which yeah, brings with it a certain pressure to do right by the characters and the franchise, but also opens us up to throw different questions at them, and really challenge their established realities, their views of the world, something that I think we have a little more scope to do in a comic than in a video game.

Wijngaard: As an artist, it was a great learning process. Assassin’s Creed was my first foray into licenced work, I was working closely with Ubisoft and Titan making sure everything looked and felt like part of the Assassin’s Creed universe. I always appreciated the art direction of the video game series and took for granted the amount of research and attention to detail go into each respective chapter of the universe. My book was based in the ‘Syndicate’ London era, I was already a fan of that particular game but I now feel connected to that universe and its characters on a personal level. 

Caspar Wijngaard has also illustrated several comic book adaptations of the Assassin’s Creed game franchise
Caspar Wijngaard has also illustrated several comic book adaptations of the Assassin’s Creed game franchise

As you may know, Malta played host to the Assassin’s Creed film production – lending it some crucial locales. Having dipped your own creative oars into that world, are you excited to check out some of the locations used in the film adaptation? 

Watters: Definitely. The island has such a wonderfully rich and eclectic history, which I’ve been reading up on as much as I’ve had time to, so I’m really excited to explore Malta as a whole. I think the film comes out a week or a two after the Malta Comic Con, so hoping to recognise some of the sites in celluloid form.

Wijngaard: I didn’t actually. But I will definitely be keeping an eye out now, I’m very excited about visiting Malta. Like Dan, I’ll be keeping a keen eye out when I see it on the big screen.

On that note, are you excited about forming part of the Malta Comic Con? What kind of vibe are you expecting from the event? 

Watters: Good friends who fly over regularly for the con have been badgering us to attend for a few years now, telling us that it’s one of their favourites, so really looking forward to getting over and seeing it for myself. We’re just coming off the back of Thought Bubble in Leeds, so the Malta Comic Con seems like it’ll be a great way to ring out the year.

Wijngaard: Absolutely, I have been meaning to attend for a few years. Unfortunately, my work schedule always interfered. I’ve heard so many great things about the Con from friends and creators that have attended and can’t wait to jump on that flight!

The eighth edition of the Malta Comic Con will be taking place at MFCC, Ta’ Qali on December 3 (10:00 to 18:00) and December 4 (11:00 to 19:00). For general information, tickets and a full line-up of local and international guests and participants, log on to http://www.maltacomic-con.com/ or search for ‘Malta Comic Con 2016’ on Facebook