NYCC 2016: Diversity in the Old West & Magical World Building with ‘Kingsway West’ writer Greg Pak
One of my favorite things that I learned during this interview was that the diversity of Greg Pak’s characters in Kingsway West is very much grounded in reality – something that I’m not sure ever occurred to me before he explained how it’s not shown in more traditional western depictions.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Greg Pak at New York Comic Con 2016 to discuss Kingsway West, his fantastical western fantasy series that follows a Chinese gunslinger on a mission to find his wife. Pak talked about his inspiration and the research that went into this series, as well as extensively exploring the world building with us.
If you’re reading this series or thinking about picking it up, check out our interview below for a peek into just how in-depth Pak has thought about the world or read our spoiler-filled review of the first issue here. Pick up Kingsway West at your local comics shop today!
What is the inspiration behind Kingsway West?
Greg Pak: I grew up in Texas and I loved westerns. I was a Boy Scout and spent a lot of time outdoors and westerns were under my skin, I just loved them – that kind of outdoor adventure. I’m also Korean-American, so at a certain point I wanted to know about the history of the actual Chinese in the old west and my head popped off.
I loved these westerns and then I found out that people who looked like me were in the old west, which is not something I knew from the beginning. Since I was very young, I was obsessed with that. For 23 years I’ve had this dream of doing a story with a Chinese gunslinger in the old west.
In the last few years, I’ve worked on different versions of this story and I started thinking seriously about doing it as a comic book. Eventually I partnered up with Mirko Colak, who is the artist on the book, and he is amazing. Then we started talking with Jim Gibbons at Dark Horse, he was the editor at the time, and Dark Horse became a great home for the book, so here we are.
The big difference is that now it is not just a western, it’s a western set in a world that is overrun with magic. So if you like Lord of the Rings and westerns, this is the book for you.
What kind of research went into this series?
GP: Over the years I’ve read a ton about the Chinese in the old west. Actually I’ve read about everybody in the old west, the Californios throughout California before it became a part of the United States, Native Americans, African Americans, and Buffalo Soldiers, every sort of different aspect of the history of the west fascinated me.
In particular, those untold stories, the folks that you don’t necessarily see in older, traditional westerns, that’s where I wanted to go. So our story is about a Chinese gunslinger who is searching for his wife in this old west that is overrun with magic.
His wife is a Mexican woman named Sonia, and it’s set in an alternate fantasy version of the west. The idea is that the gold rush happened, but instead of digging up gold, they dug up red gold and red gold is the source of magic in this world. It becomes this incredibly valuable resource and wars are fought, empires fight over this.
So you’ve got a Chinese Empire in the north of California run by the Queen of Golden City and you’ve got the Republica De Los Californios in the south, which is a Mexican-run Republic. And then you’ve got the United States of New York back east that’s sending in these red gold powered airships and our hero is caught in the middle of all of this. It’s been a blast.
Do you have a favorite faction to write between all of them?
GP: All of them, it’s been a ton of fun to world build. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in comics over the years and I did Planet Hulk back in the day, where I got to invent an entire planet and imagine the religion, sociology, history, biology, and zoology of this planet. So I’m taking a lot of those fun skills and applying it to this world. I love it all.
When did the mythology and magical elements get twisted into the story?
GP: When I started talking with Jim about it. He was great because when I came to him with the story of a Chinese gunslinger searching for his wife in the old west, he thought as an emotional story it was awesome. But then he was like, “Is there something we can do to take it to the next level?”
He didn’t really say much more than that, but I thought about it and I thought about making it into a comic book because I had originally been thinking about this story as a low budget feature film because I first was writing the screenplay when I was in film school.
But I’m doing comics now and in comics, the doors all open up. I’d been doing all this crazy world building stuff like Planet Hulk and I’d always loved fantasy stories for a lot of the same reasons I loved westerns.
I found myself thinking about Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings and all of these fantasy stories I loved as a kid and it clicked. I was like, “Let’s create a fantasy world, an alternate history with these fantasy elements.”
That’s how it came together.
How was working with your artist, Mirko Colak? Did you have an idea in mind about how you wanted the book to look or did you give him free reign?
GP: It’s constant talking and collaboration, Mirko’s amazing. He was on board from the minute I said western. He loves that kind of outdoors stuff, and he’s amazing with drawing realistic people, clothing, grit, and natural environments. He’s tremendous.
When I came back to him and said, “Now it’s going to be in this fantasy world,” he just went wild and he designed these amazing dragons and these jackalopes, he’s just eating it up. What’s great about Mirko is that he draws very realistically so when he adds in these fantastic elements, it’s totally believable. He’s established this very real, tactile, gritty world, so the magic has a real impact.
I send him a script, he reads it, and then sends in designs, and we talk about it. He’s amazing, there hasn’t been a lot of struggle to find the right things, he just gets it. I sent him a lot of references too, if there are historical references, he’s a demon with that kind of stuff. He’s got a real eye for detail.
For the airship that the United States of New York has, we looked at images of actual armored battleships that the Union had. He took that and made them into hovercrafts powered by red gold. That kind of stuff has been a lot of fun.
Did you run into any problems in your world or any speed bumps that you had to adjust for?
GP: Absolutely. There was a point after I’d written the first issue where I decided I hadn’t answered enough questions in my own head about how this world works. I went back and reworked a lot of things because I want to tell the story in a way where I don’t give all of the information out.
You want to have your audience eager to turn the page and find out more and gradually learn about the scope of this world, but I have to know all the answers as much as possible ahead of time. I had most of the answers when I did the first draft, but I didn’t really have it all figured out.
And that’s fine, sometimes it’s a process and as you write you’re going to learn all of that, but I needed to know a little bit more in order to make that first issue really sing the way it should. I needed to slap myself on the wrist and get back in there and do a little more work. It’s a much better first issue than it would have been had we gone with what I originally wrote.
Can you reveal anything that didn’t make it into the comics that you found out for yourself about the world?
GP: In the original version, the magic worked differently. There was this implication that there was a supernatural sphere of magical entities or demons or something that were giving people the magic. Certain governments had been set up to supplicate those entities in order to get the magic and distribute it and use it, which was a cool idea but that’s a whole different thing that didn’t work with the red gold idea.
With the red gold idea, I’m not revealing whether the magic is actually science. Magic is derived from this red gold, so people can use the red gold in different ways to power different things or cause different things to happen. You need that red gold – that’s the hook, that’s how the rules work.
And in the first version, it was just much fuzzier. How do these other entities work with the red gold and what does this all mean? It was this problem we all have sometimes, where we have a lot of cool ideas and we want to stick them in there, but they may not work together well. So I hadn’t worked it all out.