NYCC 2018: V.E. Schwab Shares ‘The Steel Prince’s’ Story In Comic Form [Interview]

Fantasy writer V.E. Schwab is known for her Shades of Magic novel series. However, thanks to Titan Comics she’s brought to life the story of one of the side characters in the novels, the Red Prince Maxum Maresh, in comic form. We caught up with Schwab at New York Comic Con last weekend to discuss the first issue and the series. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your comic, Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince #1?

Yeah, absolutely. Shades of Magic is my book series, [comprised of] A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering Of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light. The comic is set thirty years before A Darker Shade of Magic. There’s a character in the Shades of Magic series named Maxim Maresh and he’s the king. He’s a fairly antagonistic figure set in his ways and definitely an obstacle in many ways, but we don’t ever get his back story. 

You find out in the third book, long before he was ever king he developed this almost mythic reputation as a figure called The Steel Prince. It is one paragraph in The Conjuring of Light that mentions this. Another man says to him “I know of you from long ago” and Maxim says “its amazing we never know what part of us will be remembered.” 

So he thinks everyone will remember him for being king, but long before he was king he had three feats which solidified his reputation as the Steel Prince. One was referred to as “the rebel army,” one “the night of knives,” and one “the pirate queen.” These comics are about the Steel Prince and the Pirate Queen. 

He’s essentially exiled by his own father at the time and he is sent to a port city called Veros, nicknamed “the blood coast” because it is incredibly lawless and violent. He is sent there to whip it into shape and he’s completely in over his head. He has no idea what he’s doing. It is only thanks to a rag-tag band of soldiers led by a woman named Isra, who basically sets out to keep him from getting himself killed and all of them with him.

What made you decide to explore his story as a comic as opposed to a novel?

It was a really opportunistic decision. I had just sold the next three books in the Shades of Magic series – the next arc is called The Threads of Power – so I had stories moving forward. I had the books moving forward. But I had little side projects that were past. They were flashbacks. I just didn’t think there had enough space in the Shades of Magic books, they would have been diluting to the main story. 

So I earmarked them and Titan, who is my English book publisher, had their comic team come to me. They said, “well have you ever thought about writing a comic?” I love comics, I’m a very voracious comic reader but I have a lot of hesitation about working in the communal space. I didn’t want to play in somebody else’s sandbox. I feel like that is a bit onerous to a creator and there is – for all the positivity – a lot of negativity in fandom, a feeling like you can’t make everyone happy. 

I said [to Titan] I didn’t want to play in someone else’s pool. They said, “what about Shades of Magic?” and I said “that’s a thing I can do?” So I was able to go back and look at these earmarked stories that I had set aside and this was the perfect one. It was not large enough to be a book but it was intensely visual, a magic based system, and I was really curious to see if they’d be able to convey the magical elements of this book series into a visual format. 

It was a really fun challenge. I’d always wanted to do it so it became a nice aligning of motive and opportunity. 

What have you noticed are the difference between getting a novel published and a comic published?

They are very different from the craft side, anyway. You write a novel and you have 300 to 700 pages on my end, comfortably, to explore a story. You can explore it non-linearly and you can jump all over the place.

When you move to a comic you suddenly have an arc that for me is broken into four 22-page installments where I need to convey a story with an awareness of how each page is laid out, what the last panel before you turn the page is, what the spread functions as, so you’re thinking in a completely different language. 

Creatively, I like the visual aspects. I’ve always been a cinematic writer. I visualize things before I write them down anyway so that part of it is natural. But there has definitely been a learning curve on the structural side of it. Like how much story can you fit into a single issue? That’s very much been a trial-and-error process for me and I’m grateful to have a great editorial team headed up by an incredible editor who helps me figure out how much material can go into a single issue. 

I have had to try and fail several times to learn that process and I’m still learning. 

How did you get connected with your illustrator?

I was really fortune, Titan has wonderful connections with a lot of fabulous illustrators because they’re a large company. I was given several illustrators to choose from and I looked very seriously at each one and considered all their strengths. What drew me to Olimpieri’s work was that he had not only a gift for dynamic perspectives – I didn’t only want this to feel like nine panels per page, very structured – but he had this fabulous mobility with his characters. 

I felt like with how much of these comics were going to be fight scenes, how much was going to be action-based movement, that he was a perfect fit. I knew that he could do them in a dynamic way on the page. He has not disappointed at all.

Not only are the characters looking good, but the world gets to be brought from your mind and the books into the visual world. What was that like?

It was the coolest thing ever, I’m not going to lie. I came in thinking “this is going to be fun, this is going to be a cool marketing thing to do”, and I got sucked in so quickly into the collaboration of it. To be able to art direct, essentially, and get to say “this is what the world looks like” then get to see creative interpretations, to see an artist bring it to life in another medium, in a visual medium… One of the greatest gifts I’ve probably ever been given as an author is to see the world of Shades of Magic visualized. 

How long did it take, tweaking, to get the characters looking right?

We started with the characters and it was definitely about four or five rounds of back-and-forth, minute detail changes of the hair, skin tone, bone structure, [etc.] It was a really lovely, collaborative process and they were very lovely and continue to be very indulgent of me being very specific. 

What are you most looking forward to as the story progresses? 

It sounds really shallow to say the art, but I just really love getting to envision something and pass that to another creator, another artist, and get to see how they bring it. One of the coolest things I never anticipated loving as much as I do is seeing the covers, because different artists tackle each cover. Not only do I get to have this incredible artwork on the inside but I get to see the way that different artists interpret my characters. It is so cool!

And not only with one cover but with two, or three, or four. I get to see these extraordinary artists. One of my favorite covers is actually coming up in issue two, and it is [of the pirate Queen] and [the artist] is incredible. I never thought I would be lucky enough. I want a poster of every cover that’s come in so far, I feel spoiled! I feel like this is just an incredible luxury that I get to do it, that they’re letting me do it, that anyone is letting me do this. 

I feel like a kid who has gotten away with something. 

How has it been working with the other design aspects like colorists and letterers and all the layers that go into creating a single issue of a comic?

To be honest, it is amazing. I get to see the line art, then I get to see the color as it is added, and the dynamism and depth as it is added. We have a really good working relationship so my colorist will send me a message and she’ll say, “hey I’m working on page 4, panel 5, and I’m thinking for this one it might look better in reds and oranges to set it off…” And I can work with them, and sometimes I can admit I’m super specific and sometimes I’m now getting to the point where I trust my artists and colorists enough to give them that creative space. 

I’ll say, “I don’t have a strong feeling about how that outfit looks on that page just as long as its looks different from this one. Do what feels good for you.” There are times where I’ll be hyper specific and there are times where I’ll trust. When I say to Andrea, I know his strengths I’ve seen his strengths now, I’m like “do this and I don’t know if it needs to be from overhead or behind, just give it the depth that you think would look good in this moment.” 

Or with the colorist, Enrica will say “I’m leaning toward this color but I’ll show you these iterations and you let me know what you like.” It is a really collaborative, communal experience. 

Are there any artists you’d like to see do a cover page in particular?

I don’t know. I feel like it is jinxy – I’m that person who says “don’t jinx it!” Honestly I haven’t been disappointed by a single one of the covers so far. 

Are there any other side stories you’re thinking of doing comics for in the future?

I don’t know. I’m going to finish The Steel Prince right now and focus on surviving this one. What I will say is I have had so much fun, that unless they tell me I can’t do this anymore I will probably try to do more of these because it has just been such a delightful creative experience. 

What would you say has been the biggest challenge and the best moment?

Biggest challenge has been learning how to write in such a different format. Coming from novels and coming from just a completely different world, it is definitely a learning curve and it was rocky in the beginning. I would feel really stupid and I’d do something and in retrospect it would feel very obviously static and my editor would point out, “hey, this is going to look – it is a way that would absolutely work in the pages of a novel – but isn’t right for this.” 

I would feel like, “well duh, you can’t have seven panels on a single page.” That was when I did my very first issue. There are things you only learn by doing. I learned to write books better by doing and you learn to write comics better by doing. I’m very fortunate to have a team that has allowed me to learn as we’re going and allowed me to make those mistake. It is very weirdly like, “teach a man to fish” moment, because I don’t need them to tell me just what’s wrong with a panel. I need them to help me learn how to think of the world. 

Probably, today is the first day I’m holding a finished hard copy of any of these and that’s kind of a moment. Getting to hold a finished issue that I’ve seen digitally and bring it to life in this way is pretty cool. 

We had a great time talking with V.E. Schwab and look forward to what comes next for The Steel Prince. After reading the first issue I can safely say readers are in for a serious treat! The comic is available today where comics are found (like Comixology!).

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.