Sam Sarkar: Upgrading Excalibur

A comics interview article by: Alex Rodrik
Excalibur, the sword of legends, has finally found a worthy reinvention and it wasn’t Merlin who crafted this story but a writer. Recently, I got the opportunity to sit down with Sam Sarkar -- the writer/creator of Caliber -- to discuss the future of the series and its movement into a live-action movie format, directed by legendary action director John Woo.

The first 5 issues of Caliber have been released in a hardcover format by Radical Publishing and a full review can be found here.

Alex Rodrik: What was the inspiration behind Caliber?

Sam Sarkar: There was certainly a great deal that went into the idea for Caliber. I honestly wasn’t a big fan of westerns when I was a kid but as I got older, there were some westerns that stuck out in my mind. And when I was at University I wrote a paper on Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. That was the side of the western.

But the side of the story I’d have to say that the ultimate influence of this story is Star Wars because Star Wars is basically an adaptation of an older hero myth and I really love how they were able to translate something that was really a very old, old myth of knights, because basically the Jedi are a form of the Knights Templar, and translate it to a galaxy far, far away while still telling a story that has some relevance to us about virtue.

Going back to 2000, I’d had the notion to do a western. So I wanted to tell the story of Caliber because I thought the system of American-justice and American-character coming out of Post Civil War was really shaped out in the west, and there’s a lot of cross over between what happened at the very end of that century in the west and what came later in the national character of the U.S. leading into the next century. And one of those guys who really crossed over from there was Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt knew the Sheriff of Deadwood, he himself used to chase down outlaws; so one could argue that it’s Roosevelt’s experiences of law and justice and order in the west that he brings into the presidency. And certainly as a rough rider, and his sense that things just have to be right, there’s a moral reason that you enter into conflict. That’s a very Post Civil War notion. That’s also a very Post American West system of Justice.

So I felt it was a good time period in which to tell the Arthurian myth; which in its day was also relevant to the notion of law and order because that was the time period in European history when they were bringing forth the Magna Carta and notions like it of limiting the power of kings which up until that point ruled by Divine Right. And obviously that didn’t work out so well for some ordinary folks and some not so ordinary folks. I’m sure if you were a Duke and the King came by and said “You know what? I get to sleep with your wife and I’m going to take half your best land” that didn’t suit them so they came up with this idea that, “Well, no. You rule by Divine Right but you also rule by certain moral authority and if you violate that moral authority you lose your right to rule.”

And so that was really part of what the Arthurian myth was about and I think it’s a really appropriate idea for this western that, essentially the hero of this story is a guy who doesn’t really have a super power other than the fact that he’s an upstanding guy who believes in fairness and that’s what allows him to be the one who’s chosen to use the gun. And that’s sort of the underlying picture of why I wanted to write about Caliber.

AR: They say that an author always chooses a character in their works that is a representation of themselves. So, which character in Caliber would you most closely identify with?

SS: I think if you took a photograph of me on any given day you’d probably be able to pick him out in the comic book but since this interview is on tape, it would probably be Jean Michel Whitefeather - the Merlin character. He’s a character that I relate to because I’m of mixed ancestry. My mother was Filipino, my father is Indian - from India - and so I have a really mixed heritage. My wife is French, so our kids are a mixture of French, Filipino, Spanish, English, Irish, the whole nine yards – the whole kit and kaboodle. So I like the notion that there was a character in the story that represents sort of all history, all philosophy. And so Whitefeather doesn’t just represent Americans, he represents Native Americans, and he represents Old Europe as well. You know…the best of all worlds, and the best hope of all worlds. So I guess that would be the guy that I identify with the most.

AR: [Possible Spoiler] In the first issue the gun backfires on Arthur’s father. Why did you have the gun backfire and kill the father, but only “click” on all the others who tried to wield it?

SS: It’s not exactly that it backfires, and I would rather that the readers choose their own interpretation of that moment. But the way I see it, because I think it’s entirely valid when you read something, or you read a book, or you read a comic and you see something, if you see it differently than the way the author intended, that’s fair. You, the reader, have your own interpretation of how that goes and you could argue with the creator and you could have a valid point and again, that’s fair.

But I would say that that moment is certainly ambiguous. In a way it’s partly based on the fact that Whitefeather has summoned a storm and that the storm just happens to be drawn at that moment to the most powerful object that’s there, and it happens to be Caliber. And because Arthur’s father is not the right person and you never know, maybe he would have been but at that moment he was not. And so whatever that is, kills him. Whatever forces are at work, kill him.

But yeah, it may seem like “oh, that’s not really fair, the other guys just got to pull the trigger and nothing happened. The good guy pulls it and he gets blasted out of his saddle -- that's not nice.” I have to say that, as an author there’s a lot of things that you end up doing to characters that you wish didn’t have to happen. It’s very tragic but that’s the way I saw that moment. It’s not necessarily coming from the gun backfiring, more like at that moment it’s like a lightning rod in a way.

AR: So is the energy from the gun ultimately from the world around it?

SS: Here’s another one where people can interpret. The energy from the gun is essentially the energy of justice. So it’s either emanating from justice as it exists as a force in the universe or in Arthur’s case you could say its Arthur’s own energy of justice that is propelled from the gun.

Later on in the story [Spoiler] when Arthur wields it you see it’s more so justice being channeled through him or his energy of justice. And that’s why, what’s cool about it, is that it doesn’t have to be reloaded in the normal sense -- although if you run out of faith in it, maybe something bad will happen again. Maybe it won’t go off when you need it to go off.

AR: Considering your ties to the film industry, what made you choose to present Caliber as a graphic novel and not go straight to screenplay?

SS: A couple of things, one is that the graphic novel allows you an opportunity to express your story in a way where you’re not bound by the constraints of movies. On the other hand, I did suddenly come to realize that you are bound by other constraints -- time, money, page count...artwork. But still there is a nice freedom in being able to express yourself this way and when you have a screenplay, its black and white. It’s print. And when people sort of see that in their head, they may or may not be seeing exactly what you’re seeing.

Having the graphic novel really gave me an opportunity to really describe the look of this to other people -- first to the artist and now to people who read it. And to those who I share it with, I can say: well yeah, this doesn’t look like your old style westerns or toon stuff. It has a look that is unique to this region of the U.S. -- the Pacific North West. And the way that people dress isn’t what you remember of The Magnificent 7. There’s a certain Victorian feel to the way people look in this. Each of those visual elements you really couldn’t do in a screenplay. I mean you could do it if you’re a production designer, you’re a director, and everybody agrees with you but doing a graphic novel, no one had to agree with me, I’d just sort of say “well this is the way it is” and that was nice. It’s really freeing.

The second part of that is that it allows you to work the story out in a way that you can see “is this going to work if somebody spends millions of dollars?” You can really see it on the page and see it come alive and that gives you a good indication that “okay, we have a good template for something.” I mean that’s why a lot of times you see these days there’s a lot of interest from companies, like ours, in graphic novels and comic books because if stories work really well in graphic novels and comic books it sometimes makes the adaptation that much easier.

AR: With regards to the characters, were the visuals influenced by the script or was the script more influenced by the visuals?

SS: Actually, the first version of this story that I was going to tell was Arthur when he was a little bit older than this. And we decided to actually go back and start here. I was going to tell a story where Arthur already has Caliber and its sort of a later period. And then we said, “Well, no, it should start from the origin.” So when we decided that, it started to make me think about what this guy would look like and then that brought to mind Legends of the Fall and I liked the way that movie looked, so I kind of had an idea of what I wanted the characters to look like.

AR: I can only assume that before you were writing comics you were a fan. What were your favorite comic books?

SS: The very first comic that I got when I was a kid was Magnus the Robot Fighter, and I love that comic, I still remember it. And Barry Levine, the Publisher and Head of Radical, he also loved that comic -- strange that we had that in common. But then later on of course, I was a huge X-Men fan, a huge Spider-man fan, big Frank Miller fan, you know, Dark Knight. But then I was also into Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, of course Watchmen -- some of those seminal comics.

But really even from sort of the smaller series, one of my first favorites was the limited runs of Wolverine when Marvel cut him a separate run during the early days of X-Men. Those were a great series. They really explored a character that you sort of already knew, but then it took you into a different chapter of his life that was very personal. I liked the idea of seeing heroes that you knew and you were used to seeing in big conflicts fighting in more personal circumstances, dealing with things. I mean, I was always a proponent of Spider-man -- the main event in most superhero stories is them verses the bad guy and you have secondary stories of their relationships but Spider-man always had them intertwined. Another one that I found very interesting was Astro City by Kurt Busiek and also Grant Morrison’s The Mystery Play. Both of those guys are great, I’m glad to say that I had the opportunity to meet both of them.

AR: Was there any writer that influenced you more than any other?

SS: No, not really because my background is pretty wide in reading, whether it’s books, plays, comic books. My favorite books are probably more so philosophical fantasy. I love Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, Siddhartha and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, also T.H. White’s series on Arthur.

AR: You’re into Arthurian mythology? I would have never guessed…

SS: [Laughs] Yeah, you know, it’s a shocker to most people cause it just seems like I made it up out of the blue. But, no, I read a bunch of Arthur stuff.

And then, on the other hand, I love off beat writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins. So there’s no particular voice that I would seek to emulate -- maybe Woody Allen. I don’t know if you can see the Woody Allen in Caliber. That one is probably the most veiled reference. There’s a teeny bit of Woody Allen side-effects in Caliber, but you really have to dig deep to get that out of there.

AR: Rumor on the street is that a Caliber movie adaptation is in the works. Are you currently in the process of writing that script?

SS: Yes, and you can tell all the Producers and the Director, that I am working on the script and it will be done shortly. [Laughs]

AR: Very shortly? Or just shortly?

SS: Very, very shortly.

AR: I understand that John Woo is directing the film, what can you say to that?

SS: Yes, the Director is John Woo. And we’re very excited. John Woo’s wanted to do a western, I think, as he told me last year, for the last 15 years and he’s been really looking for the right project. And I’m very flattered that he likes this one. So, I hope the script is up to his measure and we’ll take it from there.

AR: And the film will be live action right?

SS: Yeah, it’ll be live action.

AR: I know John Woo was Executive Producer on Appleseed: Ex Machina. And after reading the first volume of Caliber, I thought that a CGI format would also work really well toward this type of story. Have you considered taking any part of Caliber into an animated or anime world?

SS: We’d love to do some anime off-shoots of Caliber. The great thing about something like Caliber, and Arthurian Myth, which a lot of people don’t realize is how wide the mythology really is -- it goes far beyond Arthur, Gwenevere, Lancelot, and Merlin. The other knight’s also have adventures -- there’s the story of Percival, there’s the story of Tristan and Isolde. There’s a whole bunch of stories that are tied together under that umbrella and I always thought that it’d be great to retell those stories.

In fact, Legends of the Fall, strangely enough as a reference [Sam was in the film], Legends of the Fall was the story of Tristan and Isolde. I mean the main character’s name is even Tristan and if you look at the bones of Jim Harrison’s novella it’s very closely modeled after the myth of Tristan and Isolde from the Arthurian legend. So I would love to do the same thing in Caliber, which would be to be able to tell some of the off-shoot stories in that universe, and some of them would really be appropriate to do as anime titles. You know, aside from the main storyline which we would tell in live action.

AR: So Arthur’s story is clearly not over.

SS: Oh, no this is just the beginning.

AR: So where is Caliber headed?

SS: It’s going in several directions. The beginning of this is basically an origin story and the next layer of this is going to be exploring the exploits of Arthur and the new, essentially what are his “Knights of the Round Table” -- they’re not called his “Knights of the Round Table,” but it’s the circle of people he surrounds himself with that, basically represent justice. What’s cool about this being an out of the box western is…they’re not going to stay in the West. They’re going to move around. So, although they start in the Pacific North West, in Oregon, like anybody else at that period of time, there are boats, trains, no planes yet, but there’s certainly ways to get around and we’ll see what stories we can come up with that will take them to any place where there’s injustice.

AR: Is the story completed in your mind? Do you know where it’s going to go and how it’s going to end? Or are you still in the process of putting all that together as the comics are released?

SS: I haven’t finished it and I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go, but I have mapped out a good chunk of the next section. I have storylines for major arcs of the major characters -- Lance, Gwen, Arthur, Whitefeather, the bad guy Talbot Leary, Morgan. But as I said before, some of the off-shoots of what each of them does, and some of the other knights -- well I call them knights -- but, some of the other characters in the story -- Sheng Yi, Red Hawk -- will start to have their own storylines. And those I haven’t mapped out.

AR: Is the plan for these storylines to run under the Caliber title or would there be off-shoot titles?

SS: Yeah, they’ll be included in Caliber. What I’d like to do after I finish the next series is start to bring in other writers and expand the universe out and let other people take a crack at them. The great thing too about this is that essentially the idea behind the conceit of Caliber is that it’s a sacred object that is passed throughout human history, which keeps getting picked up. That’s the root of Excalibur the sword, even back than in the days when they first came up with it. It has its roots in earlier Celtic stories and a sacred sword that had a totally different name but that became Excalibur. It’s also related in some ways to the Spear of Destiny, which has other roots in myth.

So the idea is that there are these special objects that pass through history, that fall into certain people’s hands and they come during times of great upheaval. So eventually we may do some off-shoots of Caliber that go into completely different areas of time -- that aren’t going to be set in this era. But for right now I’m going to focus on this, it’s a lot of work.

AR: Has it been more work than you expected it was going to be? Did you think it’d be this hard? Did you think it’d be easier? When you started did you know the process would be this complicated?

SS: I was positive that it would be easier. I was dead sure it would be easier than this. You know, as things start moving you start getting the details of things -- even down to the Caliber logo. That took us like a month of solid work going back and forth, choosing different designs. I wanted it to have a feel that really represented the 1800s. So the font is very similar to railway fonts from around that period of time. But I also wanted to have that storybook/myth feel so that’s why you see the flourishes on either side.

The guys at Imaginary did an amazing job, Edmund and the team that worked on it -- we went through a lot and that was just for the logo. So, yeah it’s been a lot of work, it’s been a long, long haul. But it’s probably the most rewarding thing I think I’ve ever done and it’s been very collaborative. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great help on it.

But, if there’s one person that I’d have to single out, who believed in it the most, it would be Barry [Levine]. Barry never once waivered in his belief in what Caliber could be. He always knew it was a great story. When I first pitched it to him as an idea for a comic book a long time ago he said, “That’d be a great comic man, you should do it.” And you know, he stuck with me and I stuck with him on it. After Barry it would definitely be the most long-suffering, hardest working man in comic books, Dave Elliott. He put up with so much crap from me having to work my day job and never hitting the deadlines that I needed to hit -- Dave was an amazing source of help in molding it all together.

AR: Well Sam, it’s been a pleasure, thanks for your time and all the best with Caliber. I know the movie and the rest of the series is going to be great.

SS: Thanks Alex, any time.

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