Q&A With Blizzard's Manga Team

By Will Brinkman

 

Editor's Note: With the Blizzard manga available in the digital format for the first time through the Cryptozoic Comic App (titles releasing each month through the end of the year), we've interviewed two members of the Blizzard team that made it all possible. Thank you to Micky, James, and the rest of the team for giving us so much great Warcraft and StarCraft content! And thank you to Anne from WoW Insider for helping with the questions for the Q&A.

Q: What are your names and roles at Blizzard Entertainment?

Micky: Micky Neilson, publishing team lead.

James: James Waugh. I'm a senior story developer at Blizzard.

Q: What is your role in the development of Blizzard manga or the content within the manga?

Micky: It was the responsibility of the publishing team to develop the stories that were featured in the manga. In the very beginning, with The Sunwell Trilogy, it was actually Chris Metzen working directly with TokyoPop and Richard Knaak. For the first few Warcraft: Legends and StarCraft: Frontline volumes, I collaborated with TOKYOPOP and the various authors to develop the stories. By the time Legends 2 and Frontline 2 came around, Rob Tokar had taken on a prominent role (he was the creative development team lead for a time), and later James Waugh came on board. Rob and James's help in outlining and developing was incredibly valuable. Our publishing team grew over the course of the various volumes, and eventually, for purposes of story development, I approached the process the way a showrunner might for a TV program: we basically had a writers' room. Three or four of us would read a pitch or a script, and we'd get together and talk it out, always striving to make each and every story the best it could possibly be.

James: We were immensely hands on with the development of the manga. Each story, no matter how small, became an essential component to the overall franchise narratives. We wanted to make sure that they were relevant tales, expanded the IP, and told an entertaining story. For many of them, either Micky or I outlined the stories and distributed the outlines to writers to script. The "Fear the Reaper" story in Frontline 4 is a good example. Micky thought that the readers would like to see a reaper vs. a dark templar. Reapers are tough bastards, but Mick had an idea that one of them had a daughter who would factor in. To me this sounded like a Western about trying to escape your past, and so we jammed on a concept that essentially became a redemption story about a former reaper who is trying to start a new life, but that past comes back to haunt him. Very much like Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks in spirit. I wrote one of my better outlines, got feedback from Micky, and then shipped it off to all-star writer David Gerrold of Star Trek fame. David loved it. The beauty about this sort of collaboration is that the writers know that we're gonna get a story that is relevant to our franchise, and they know exactly the boundaries they can create within. They're not swimming around in the dark. David, being the talent he is, added his own flavor to the characters, his own nuance. These outlines work much like rules in poetry do -- their restrictions force the writers to be even more inventive with their scripts because they have to create within the confines of what matters to our IPs.

We also took several pitches where we didn't do the outlines, and we nurtured the ideas to make sure they would be quality stories and relevant. Our franchises are rich with lore, theme, and tone, and we want to have as consistent a voice as possible.

Q: Is manga content considered official canon for StarCraft and Warcraft?

Micky: Yes! We made that decision early on, that it was important for readers to feel like they were experiencing stories that were relevant, that could actually have an impact on the franchise. It was also a great opportunity for us to tell stories that expanded the lore in ways we might not be able to otherwise.

James: Most definitely! These stories are essential canon. One of the terrific things about this content was that it allowed us to nail down and codify elements of the IPs in ways we hadn't before. Linear narratives focus on characters and demand different stories than game narratives, and this process ultimately forced the developers to ask new questions and figure out portions of the IP that they never had before. The Shaman manga is a prime example of that. It really helped Blizzard figure out exactly how shaman fit into the world outside of the context of game mechanics.

Q: Where did the idea for the manga come from?

Micky: I mentioned before that Chris Metzen worked with Richard Knaak on the original Sunwell Trilogy. I don't know offhand if that was Chris's idea, or the idea of the director of licensing at the time, Cory Jones (I was still on Team 1 in those days). I do know that the Sunwell Trilogy was successful enough that Tokyopop wanted to do more, and at that time I had moved over to the fledgling creative dev department and was in a position to dedicate time to the idea. We (folks from Tokyopop, Chris Metzen, and I, and later Rob Tokar and James Waugh) jammed on all kinds of concepts, but eventually settled on a series of short stories for Warcraft (Legends) and StarCraft (Frontline), a follow-up to the Sunwell Trilogy (Shadow Wing was originally conceived as another trilogy, but when we got under the hood, we felt it was better in two volumes), and a StarCraft series called Ghost Academy.

It was later on in the partnership that we decided to do a "class series" for Warcraft, which started with Death Knight. (Still one of my faves, by the way!)

Q: In your opinion, what are the strengths of the manga as a medium for storytelling as compared to the games, novels, and comic books?

Micky: The real strength of the manga, for us, was the sheer volume that we could cover for the Warcraft and StarCraft franchises. When you weigh the volume of content vs. the production time, we were simply able to generate more content. We're immensely proud of the manga and the overall quality that we (Blizzard and Tokyopop -- whenever I use "we" here, I want to make it clear that I'm talking about TP as well) were able to achieve. One other thing worth calling out specifically is the art: the manga allowed us to work with some of the most amazing artists in the industry. And quite often we were able to pair an artist and a particular story for an absolutely perfect fit.

The editors at TP did a fantastic job of finding some amazing authors as well. Many of them we continue to maintain contact with, and may continue working with in the future.

James: Like I mentioned before, the manga allowed us to explore aspects of our franchises that hadn't been dug out yet. One of the great things about the Frontline and Legends series was that we could tell smaller stories and explore Azeroth and the Koprulu sector in their minutiae. When we're developing a novel or miniseries, the stories have to be pretty epic in scope. They require a lot of development time and impact the franchise in a major way. So they usually focus on the superstars of our IPs. These manga allowed us to tell the other stories and see what life's like inside these worlds when you're not Thrall or Jim Raynor. We could tell good stories that didn't shake up the events in-game. It also allowed us to create characters and political intrigue that build up and expand the universes. A great example is Colin Phash from the Frontline and Ghost Academy series. There is a contiguous narrative being told between those products about the young psionic, and it really sheds light on the Dominion's political dynamic.

Q: Is there a specific story that stands out in your mind that could only have been done properly in the manga?

Micky: For me it would be"Weapon of War" by Paul Benjamin and Dave Shramek, with art by Hector Sevilla. It was a tale that just shouted "manga" to me. It spawned a character (Colin Phash) whom we would follow throughout Frontline and other volumes, and who will continue to endure, I'm sure. "Weapon of War" represented a perfect storm for the manga series: a haunting short story that investigated a tiny corner of the StarCraft universe, putting the life of this seemingly insignificant kid in the spotlight, and art that was an amazing and beautiful complement to both the story and the medium. I honestly don't believe that the story and art would have translated as well in any other format.

Funny sidebar: When Paul and Dave wrote their first draft of the script, we toned Colin's psionic abilities way down, mainly because we felt that the story was a one-off and that Colin's character was one we wouldn't revisit. Boy, were we wrong!

James: Frontline, volume 4's "Voice in the Darkness." This is an out-there tale. A Cthulhu-meets-StarCraft story that initially made us all think, when Josh Elder pitched it to us, "Nah... this isn't right." But when we left the office that night, it lingered with all of us, and the more we sat on it and found ourselves talking about it, the more we realized, with the manga we can tell this story and add a really cool layer to the franchise.

Q: How do the varied teams in Blizzard determine which stories to develop and which media they will be published through?

Micky: James explains it very well below. There's really no limit to the number of stories that can be told in these franchises. What we're really trying to focus on now (and we're getting better at it) is relevance: how do these stories inform what's currently happening in the franchise? And we pick a story based on that.

Then the question becomes: what's the best method of conveyance to the community? Or, to put it differently: what do we feel is absolutely the best way to tell this story?

James: Mr. Chris Metzen is the big dog when it comes to our published goods. He's our franchise executive officer. Often we pitch ideas to him, and he nurtures and develops them with us. For the manga, we had a lot of freedom for the Publishing team alone to handle it, Micky leading, and before him the uber-awesome Rob Tokar ("uber-awesome" is trademarked by me; don't try to use it), checking in with Chris to make sure he dug what we were doing or when an issue of tonal uncertainty or lore came up that only he could answer. We also work very closely with the game teams here. They're trailblazing and pushing the narrative forward daily, and we want to make sure everything we're doing is in sync with them. They're privy to everything we do, and vice versa. We want our readers and players to see each IP as one tangible universe that they can access from many points, the manga being one of them.

Q: How do you feel the manga have been able to add to the canon of Warcraft and StarCraft in unique ways?

Micky: Two words: Headless Horseman! I'm a big Headless Horseman fan in general. What an amazing character… and a perfect example of an NPC who's not necessarily a "major player" in the IP to the extent that we would dedicate a ton of time relaying his backstory through a comic or novel—because there are usually bigger fish to fry-- so someone like Thomas Thomson would probably take a back seat. With the manga, we had a perfect opportunity to tell that story, and our very own senior historian, Evelyn Fredericksen, did an incredible job of writing it. And, I would argue, the Warcraft IP is all the richer as a result!

James: As I said earlier, the benefit of doing this sort of ancillary narrative product is that it really helps us flesh out the IPs and create new characters and a richer setting. Inevitably this all gives the game designers a much more realistic and evolved landscape to develop content from, if they choose to. The manga helped us codify the IPs, add dimensions and layers to them, and really build out these great universes for the player base in new ways. For those who are interested in reading this content, it gives them a deeper experience. Even for those who don't read it, their gameplay is informed by these storylines. It's the "iceberg effect": players may only be interested in the top, but they know that there's so much more below the surface. This all lends to the overall efficacy of the Warcraft and StarCraft experience. There's more there than the game: there's an entire franchise with tons of media to entertain them.

Q: Was there a particular goal in mind for the Warcraft class series? What do you feel people take away from it when they log in and play that particular class after reading its story?

Micky: The goal right from the beginning was to answer the question, "What does it mean to be a [blank]?" with "blank" being the various classes. Is there a theme associated with each class? Yes. Our job was to convey that theme in the framework of a compelling story. Death Knight was a fantastic example of accomplishing that goal.

James: I love the class series. I would have loved to do one for every class. We got so much out of these. I already mentioned the value of the Shaman book to figuring that class out. It really gives players a chance to see a definitive book on their class.

Q: Figures like Thassarian have been greatly expanded upon via the manga. Has any character leapt from the pages of the manga to have his or her story told in the game or a comic book?

Micky: Gabriel Tosh, the former ghost and spectre in the SC game, was a character we explored early on through the manga. He's a fascinating character who plays a role in StarCraft II and who will be featured heavily in the upcoming novel Spectres. Nova's character was also explored in depth via the manga, but she began in the novel StarCraft: Ghost: Nova.

Other characters from Ghost Academy may make their way into the game as well. And I still want to see the continuing saga of Colin Phash!

James: Trag is in-game. Hamuul Runetotem has been traversing all of our media-- game, comics, books.

Q: Warcraft: Legends is fantastic because it has little vignettes for characters like the Headless Horseman. Are there any characters you feel are perfect candidates for this treatment in the future?

Micky: I really wanted to tell the story of King Ymiron -- do a Conan-style adventure that delved into his history. I don't feel like the vrykul have gotten enough love yet in the fiction.

James: I think we should do an entire manga on Micky Neilson.

Q: A question I got while surveying people for the interview was about Trag Highmountain. He was first featured in The Sunwell Trilogy, and then in Legends. How did he make it to the Argent Tournament?

Micky: Interesting story. Sometimes there are characters that just pop right off the page. As noted, Richard Knaak created the Trag character for The Sunwell Trilogy. When the opportunity came up to do Legends, Richard really wanted to continue the tale of Trag, and we felt it was an exciting concept, so we started working with Richard to develop "Fallen" and the subsequent Legends stories. Through the course of the story, Trag became a character of greater importance, actually challenging the Lich King himself at one point (of course, he got spanked, but hey, he tried), and we felt that his character would make a worthy addition to the game. (After all, what's cooler than a tauren death knight?) We discussed this with Alex Afrasiabi, lead designer at the time, and he agreed. Not long after that, Trag was in the game!

Q: Moving on to StarCraft, for Ghost Academy, you had the opportunity to set the stage, so to speak, for Tosh and Nova in StarCraft II. How did you work with the various teams involved to ensure there was consistency with those characters?

Micky: I spoke a little about these two earlier, as an example of characters that are important to both the published fiction and the games. It's always a tricky juggling act, but when it works, it's a beautiful thing. We worked closely with Chris Metzen and Team 1 to keep everyone on the same page. Kerrigan rules, but Nova is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the StarCraft universe!

James: Ghost Academy is one of my favorite series I've worked on in my career, mostly because of the way it impacts so many other narrative products and our StarCraft IP as a whole. Ghost Academy allowed us to really make the Nova/Tosh game relationship that much more heart wrenching. We were in direct, daily correspondence with the StarCraft team about our choices. The beauty here is the meta-story. If you read all three Ghost Academy volumes, then the upcoming Spectres novel by Nate Kenyon, and play the game, and read an upcoming graphic novel via DC, you're getting a pretty amazing product-spanning tale that took a lot of coordination, but the result is worth it!

Q: How does the tie-in with the upcoming novel Spectres work among the Ghost Academy manga and StarCraft II? Were there any unique challenges that your team experienced?

Micky: The biggest challenge was that we had intended to continue the Ghost Academy story, and the Spectres novel deals with characters from Ghost Academy. We had an idea of where the next three volumes would have gone, and that was knowledge that affected the novel. So we actually sat down and plotted out what would have been Ghost Academy 4, 5, and 6, and got that outline to the author, Nate Kenyon, to inform his work.

At some point in the future, I think it would be cool as hell to revisit Ghost Academy and those "missing chapters."

James: The novel sets the stage for Tosh's past, Nova's history with him, what turns Tosh from an idealistic Mengsk supporter to the terrazine-addled rebel we meet in SC II.

Q: If a StarCraft or Warcraft player is interested in jumping into the manga, which two do you recommend from the CZE Comics app?

James: My personal favorite is Frontline, volume 4. I think we achieved our best work and were hitting on all cylinders by that point, and I think any reader will get a broad spectrum of the SC universe and the types of stories you can tell within it. "Homecoming," by Metzen, is a Jim Raynor story, a sort of prequel to the events of StarCraft II. I discussed "Fear the Reaper" earlier: in that you get to see the Western-in-space vibe of the IP while we showcased our mysterious alien race, the protoss. "Voice in the Darkness" expands the universe's potential a bit as a horror story, and "Orientation" sets up Ghost Academy along with the other terran factions like Umoja. If you want to know what StarCraft is all about, pick that one up!

Micky: I highly recommend all of them, but one standout I'd mention is Death Knight by Dan Jolley, with art by Rocio Zucchi. It's one of those projects where everything really just came together: story, art, and relevance to the IP.

Q: Any last thoughts?

Micky: I want to express special thanks to the folks at Tokyopop -- especially Troy Lewter, Hope Donovan, Tim Beedle, Paul Morrissey, Michael Paolilli… There are many others as well.

Quite often, art and story would come right down to the wire, with us requesting final tweaks literally while the books were at the printer, and Tokyopop always got us across the finish line.

We worked with some absolutely incredible writers -- David Gerrold, Dan Jolley, Paul Benjamin, Dave Shramek, Grace Randolph, Josh Elder, Louise Simonson, Simon Furman, just to name a few-- and we had the opportunity to continue working with Richard Knaak and Christie Golden, two heavyweights in our franchises.

The art in these volumes is gorgeous. Jae-Hwan Kim, Heinz Furukawa, Rocio Zucchi, Hector Sevilla, Ramanda Kamarga, Carlos Olivares, and several other amazing artists interpreted Warcraft and StarCraft in unique and exciting ways.

I can't tell you how happy I am to see these manga being distributed digitally. Kudos to Cryptozoic for making this happen. I am incredibly proud of the work we put into these manga, and I have no doubt that these stories will stand the test of time.