“You’ve stepped into a world of problems. Welcome to the world of Pacifica, where being its Queen is not easy…” Rise #1 is a powerful story that is intricately beautiful, and Comic Watch had a chance to sit down and talk with its creator, Don Ellis Aguillo!
Writer/Artist/Colors: Don Ellis Aguillo
Publisher: In Hiatus Studios
What You Need To Know:
In the wake of her parents’ sudden disappearance, 9-year-old orphan Zakaiah Marangal is no stranger to the fact that being heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Pacifica is no easy feat. Now on the road with virtual strangers who answer to her, she must commence her crash-course in what is already a daunting reign; she is now the charge of the seer Lucas Balthazar, an elder sorcerer appointed by the royal court, under the guard of Senka Priahm, a mysterious warrior with a colorful past, and accompanied by Frix Attilio, a troubled inventor in search of his own destiny. This is what’s left of her entourage, assembled to embark on the Trials of the House of Jasser, a series of tests intended to prepare and examine each occupant of the throne to the Kingdom of Pacifica.
She’s left the only home she’s ever known, to explore the world she now has the responsibility to rule. There are no walls to protect her out here. No rules here to enforce. Behind them, the empty throne is at the mercy of a ruling class that threatens to usurp it for their own dark agendas, and just beyond the shadows ahead, an ancient evil threatens to halt their journey dead in its tracks.
Comic Watch recently had a chance to talk with the writer and artist of Rise, Don Ellis Aguillo, who gave some unique insight into the inspirations behind the series as well as the process of creating it!
CW: Ok, let’s get right to it, this series is both epic and incredibly beautiful. So how was Rise born?
Don Ellis Aguillo: I teach kids. I’ve taught for a while now, about 16 years, in both martial arts and drawing. I’ve had a long time to observe just how inundated with responsibility kids can be, and coming-of-age stories about individuals reluctant to take on the weight of the world but stepping into that space have always intrigued me; they’re so compelling and relatable. Also, the story sews together all the aspects of my experience from coming out, to learning about different kinds of families, understanding one’s place in the bigger picture, and facing fear. I’m a firm believer that all creative work is inherently autobiographical, and so it was born out of my response to many of the events in my life that have caused great change in me. I guess we write what we know? But in this case, it almost feels like writing what I don’t know, like a cathartic practice in making sense of senselessness (almost a line taken out of the first issue haha.)
CW: For newer readers, can you give some insight into the story so far?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Rise #1 is an extension of an existing narrative from our first anthology under In Hiatus Studios, Shards: Volume One. It was a story that started their journey, saw their first attack, but also woke up the back stories about each of the characters that gave a taste of their pasts, secrets, and agendas. Ultimately, this little girl is supposed to rule a kingdom she hasn’t really been trained to or gotten to know yet. Her parents have disappeared, and in her grieving, she has to be prepped to take their place. She embarks on the Trials of the House of Jasser, of which she is descendant, guided by a crew of individuals tormented by their own personal demons, of course. Along the road, there’s a ton of dangers, all working against them in efforts to usurp or destroy the throne. This world is in the distant future of what is faintly and familiarly the American Northwest, thrown into an age where magic and science are one in the same again.
CW: You are credited for the writing, artwork, and colors (among others!) for Rise, which is undoubtedly a heavy workload for a creator. How do you juggle all of it?
Don Ellis Aguillo: With humility and a sense of humor. On top of the workload of building this world and making sure the creativity and production are flowing, In Hiatus Studios is also my baby, along with my partners, and I’ve worn the hats of production manager, pr, CFO, marketing, art director, editor, media production, web developer, graphic designer and a host of other roles within conducting business, learning it from the inside out. Though it’s all really exhausting and thankless, sometimes emotionally, it also fuels me to know the working cogs in the giant machine that comprises this industry and to know what drives it. This book is also pouring out of me, and allowing me to explore a new phase of my artwork I’ve never experience and never felt free with. The artwork is the therapy to balance the business aspects, where I have to be a student and full-time worker again, on top of freelance work that currently pays the bills. I didn’t answer your question though; the way I juggle it all is that I’m unmarried with no kids and that I can eat meals at my desk where I usually work until 4am haha.
CW: What inspired the story behind the first issue of “Rise”?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Each of the issues have been assigned a theme that I’ve given myself to explore through the characters. This one is loosely about faith: losing it, trusting it, the different kinds that exist. Blind faith. I’m Roman Catholic by baptism, and though always fascinated by the idea of something more and beyond us, I’m more intrigued by what it’s created in us: killing machines, warmongers, slavers and enslaved, played games with our morality. Aesthetically, I was inspired by watercolor as well as my fear of working with freedom and expression. This issue was frustrating in such a beautiful way in exploring the actual creation of these panels and seeing my skill evolve. I’m always a student.
CW: The artistic vision in Rise is simply exceptional. Can you give some insight into the world-building process that led to Pacifica?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Thank you so much! That means a lot. The world of Pacifica (named after the town in which I really discovered yoga, a practice that’s saved me and allowed me the space to conceptualize much of what you see in the world of RISE) is kind of a broken Utopia. It’s seen a golden age. It remembers the future we only dream about now. But it’s seen a darkness we can’t even imagine. There is a race of creatures (that have always been here) called Soul Thieves, an embodiment of an ancient evil, a moral void, comprised of armies in different races that exist for mysterious reasons, which we’ll explore. The post-apocalypse I imagine Pacifica and the surrounding world to be will flesh itself out as we move forward with the series, but many times, I find myself studying where organic meets industrial and investigating that juxtaposition in the real world. I’m currently rooting a lot of the anthropological elements of this world too to what I know: Filipino culture. I’ve learned a lot about my own people in the past couple of years, and I mine that cultural revelation to inform some of the aesthetic elements as well as some of the philosophical elements in the story.
CW: This series is expansive, do you ever find the story to be influenced by the artistic possibilities of exploring such vivid locations?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Always. I’ve also recently kicked up my travel game, and so my photography abroad is rich with reference material for the aesthetic construct of RISE. I also try to communicate my sensibilities of understanding other cultures and their responses to their geographic context when I write, and so you’ll see that the book will touch on the expansive world and the very different people who live in it as well as their individual challenges to that world.
CW: Are there any outside sources of inspiration for Rise? Such as other comics, television, films, etc…
Don Ellis Aguillo: Buffy the Vampire Slayer for ensemble writing and general storytelling sensibilities. Bram Stoker’s Dracula for horror and aesthetic touch. Uncanny X-Men for understanding how broken families and drama can effectively and maturely play into a graphic novel dealing with gifted individuals who are fighting for more than themselves. Avatar the Last Airbender is another big one for taking up a mantle of responsibility. Image’s Low for artistic inspiration (allowing visual suggestion and color to breathe rather than painstakingly paint by pixel) Image’s Saga for the breadth of storytelling and limitless world-building, Joe Madureira, Oliver Coipel, Mike Del Mundo and Simone Bianchi for my pantheon of art heroes currently inspiring and teaching me through example.
CW: Did you have a target audience in mind when creating Rise?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Mature audiences. Gore, mild nudity, language amuck. And this will be confusing to some, especially since “comic book” has such an understated stigma to unfamiliar audiences and since the main character is a child. Let’s just say, the script-to-screen dream-treatment is for a network like HBO.
CW: Let’s talk more about the young monarch, Zakaiah Marangal. How did you conceive this unique main character?
Don Ellis Aguillo: My friend’s daughter was born a couple years ago and I just remember her quiet innocence; it was really moving, as it was the first of our batch to have had kids. I just thought to myself, what if I wrote about growing up, since I’m in the constant state of doing so, and as this kid started growing up, I kept going back to that memory and decided to use her as an anchor for my story. Marangal is Tagalog (Filipino) for honorable and noble, Zakaiah is from zakiah, which is Hebrew for pure. I decided in naming elements for the world of RISE to use cultural indicators and influences, especially words drawn from the characteristics of the individuals I’m trying to write. It’s a little on-the-nose, but it’s my party haha.
CW: Her entourage has embarked on the Trials of the House of Jasser. Can you tell us more about this journey?
Don Ellis Aguillo: The Trials of the House of Jasser is a series of tests and lessons every monarch in that line of rulers must undergo to prepare for the throne, regardless what age. The successors of the seat of power are actually traced through maternal lineage unlike most standard legacies we understand in our reality, so the bloodline through mothers and the need for a daughter to succeed becomes this kingdom’s necessity. Zakaiah is different because unlike most that run through that line and succeed the throne, she’s only nine, and her parents, Queen Ember and King Voltaire, have disappeared suddenly and under mysterious circumstances. The trials themselves vary in degree of difficulty and character and they pockmark points on a designated trail that takes the candidate across the vast landscape within Pacifica’s borders: some of them test her skill, her cunning, and some are merely opportunities to learn about the kingdom and the responsibility before her. A huge part of this monarchy is the passing on of the markings, a series of tattoos that cover the body of the monarch, written in an ancient script, laid onto skin at birth, and decrypted by way of rituals along the trials at suitable time in their life to summon revelations to the coming queen about her reign. It’s all really complicated, and there’s a lot to develop within that lore, but I’m going to let it evolve as we go; that’s the general construct though, and for now, it’s enough to run with, as I anticipate things will influence it as I continue to write and create this world and its rules.
CW: Zakaiah Marangal’s entourage is an interesting group to say the least, what brings these characters together?
Don Ellis Aguillo: What’s revealed in Shards Volume One (and expanded through the series coming up) is the assembly of this entourage; Lucas Balthazar is a Seer, an elder mystic with somewhat limited powers but also obvious field experience in combat but is also an appointed officer of the royal court who is assigned specifically to Zakaiah to guide her through the trial. Senka Priahm is a mercenary appointed by the Royal Court’s Ternion to also provide her combat experience as part of the royal guard (or is all that’s left of it), and Frix Attilio, also appointed by the Court, is an inventor, but also somewhat of a foil with his own past and flaws. Someone they lost in the first installment was general Adofo Junayd (referenced in issue one), at the hands of a soul-thief attack on the dark road, but more on that later. So basically, Balthazar’s presence is balanced out by individuals appointed by the Ternion of the Royal court, which is good, as we now understand that the Ternion seem to have some sinister intentions on their end as well.
CW: In the first issue, you describe Rise as “a response to the call of insurmountable responsibility”. This point is quickly made clear as we find out more about just how dangerous the world of Pacifica can be. How does this responsibility factor into the characters surrounding Zakaiah Marangal?
Don Ellis Aguillo: They have each all fallen profoundly in one way or another at different times in their lives, all due to their inability to face or fulfill responsibility. Responsibility to family, to themselves, to the throne or to a god, they all probably see this endeavor as a road to some kind of redemption, whether they want to or not, whether they see it or not. This aspect of the story is my own sort of therapy. I’ve gotten a lot of crap through the years about my responsibility to society having chosen to be an artist (as opposed to something like a doctor) or as a freelancer or even as a non-parent. People have asked why I couldn’t have taken up a more important or noble discipline for my career, or why I haven’t had kids (because apparently to some that’s the ‘real’ end game). I’ve also been called selfish and irresponsible before in these kinds of unorthodox choices I’ve made as an adult, and this book is a way to sort of help me understand and hopefully break that narrow perspective.
CW: What is your “dream come true” goal for Rise?
Don Ellis Aguillo: To finish it. It’s what our company, In Hiatus Studios, is built off of: this humorous conundrum of life getting in the way of shelved endeavors that collectively serve our dream-goals. I just want the story to be told, and I want to be able to walk away from this project and have this really important thing exist beyond me. That sounds mildly existential haha.
CW: What has been your favorite moment in your creative career so far?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Finishing this premiere issue of Rise. And I’m not just saying that for the sake of this interview. It marked the first real cover to cover story of my own work that felt solid, consistent, important and promising that I developed all by myself. It also has fueled me to keep going, and is providing the steam to keep production moving along; it’s a huge milestone that I know not everyone in my shoes gets to reach due to various reasons that pull them away from their own work finishing.
CW: What are some of your own personal favorite comic book stories?
Don Ellis Aguillo: X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga, X-Men: Onslaught, X-Men: Operation Zero Tolerance, Scott Lobdell’s work on the X-Books, Arkham Asylum, the short story anthologies of Sandman by Neil Gaiman, the story of hope as it is told in Low.
CW: Is there a particular character in Rise that you personally relate to?
Don Ellis Aguillo: Every character in Rise is an aspect of me. I designed it that way as a part of my therapeutic process. If there was a part of me, in particular, I was working on, wanted to celebrate, wanted to punish, wanted to reinvent or truly embody, I will choose the character to be a vessel for that and write them that way, as it serves the story and its theme. Overall though, I will pour my heart into writing Zakaiah, but it’s unrealistic to say she’ll be my favorite, as these characters will undoubtedly evolve the entire way through, way beyond any intentions I choose to attribute to it. My hope is that everyone who picks it up can channel themselves into any of the given characters. I think that’ll be the true test of my storytelling.
CW: How important is the idea of hope to the story in Rise?
Don Ellis Aguillo: I think for all creative works (even a lot of the darker comic pieces today) hope is a major, if not the primary, component to the narrative drive. I think we all seek it in ways, and for those of us who create, we do so to offer an alternative reality or a solution where things can resolve in ways that serve our needs. However, most truly compelling works don’t resolve so neatly, and I’m not interested in doing so either. Hope comes at a price, and that’d be true in all realities, I would posit.
CW: Without spoiling too much, is there anything you can tell us about what to expect in future issues?
Don Ellis Aguillo: The world of Rise is full of broken people who all are in some way invested in what this little girl is going through. Expect an expansion of this world and a close camera on the young queen. Expect that not everyone will make it through. Expect a world without rules, and my feverish anticipation to explore all of it. I’m going to be tapping into a lot of horror, as it was the first genre I really fell in love with, but there will be nods to major influences in terms of comic, film and television, that really influence my work. Currently, there are 24 issues slated for the entire run. That probably won’t be quite enough to tell the whole story, and might need expansion. But I know the end. I know the very end. And I know the reasons why this story might be important, even if for just one person out there, hopefully. It would be hubris to say this story can go on and on and to plan a limitless series, as I know it has an expiration. The exclamation point at the end will hopefully be my permission to work on something different, something new, after this story finally lives outside of my head, outside of my dreams and onto pages where I can share it.
Catch up on how Rise got started with Rise #0: Among Monsters & Strangers, then grab your copy of Rise #1 which is available both digitally and through In Hiatus Studios now! Issue #2 is set to release April, 2018 so be sure not to miss out on this beautifully crafted epic!
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