Above the Grave (Graphic Novel) + Exclusive Blog Q&A with the artists/authors Mitchell Hall and Andrew de Zilva

Rick Mastertine is having a bad first day on the job. He’s getting grief from his “customers”, staff and boss. His place of employment? He’s the new chief warden of Mako, the world’s super villain prison, located deep in the Namibian desert and converted from an old diamond mine.

Can Rick uncover the true secret of Mako, while preventing an ingenious jailbreak by the likes of the shape-shifting Mister Twister, luck manipulating Russian Roulette, sentient tree Davine and brilliant crocodile-man hybrid Crocitis?

Image from: Above the Grave

Blog Q&A Exclusive with artists/authors – Mitchell Hall and Andrew de Zilva…

When did you both decide to co-write your comic book “Above the Grave” and how did you come to this decision?

M: I mentioned it to Andrew and at that stage had it as an issued comic mini-series. Andrew liked the idea of the story and expanded out the story and wrote it out in a Screenplay format.

A: This would have started about ten years ago. Mitchell has oodles of story ideas but there was something about this concept that really grabbed me, plus I thought the characters were fun and distinctive. It goes deeper than that though, as Mitchell established some themes that resonated with me. For example, at the time I was a supervisor and on one level Rick, as the warden, is a middle manager so I could identify with his issues working at Mako! The tone was also right up my alley, it’s really a big, brash action-comedy. I stayed true to those aspects while expanding the story with among other things Rick’s redemption arc and I introduced a few more characters to drive the expanded plot.

How do you structure the content, for example, does one write while the other illustrates and do you go through several drafts of writing and illustrations before you get to your finished product?

A: With the story, there was a baton passing from Mitchell to myself. Once I took the baton, I ensured I kept Mitchell’s authorial voice throughout the many subsequent drafts. Only once I thought the story was nailed down did I begin drawing because I knew it would be a lot of effort to redraw pages. However, I ended up redrawing about 40% of the panels anyway because this was the first comic I ever drew and I learned many lessons about comic storytelling as I went along! This, by the way, was only possible because I drew it digitally.

It looks like a lot of work went into “Above the Grave” was this a long journey just to put content together for publication?

M: Oh it was a LONG Journey. From concept to writing and Andrew learning on the job and drawing it at the same time took many years.

A: To be honest, at first I was too scared to want to draw it myself. I had always liked drawing but to bring this story to fruition, I was only too aware it meant I would have to draw many things I had never drawn before and the volume of drawings needed was going to be huge, something in the order of 500 panels. But thanks to Mitchell’s encouragement (and prodding), I took the plunge. It was really intimidating sitting with that first blank page in front of me on the drawing table knowing I had 136 pages to do. In fact, I might have even said to myself I’ll just do the first 20 then we’ll get someone else to do the rest. But you know what they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

After I finished drawing there was still the lettering to do! Not a glamorous part of creating comics, I can tell you.

Now that’s it’s done, we couldn’t be prouder.

What was the inspiration for the characters you use and the storyline in “Above the Grave”?

M: Inspiration came from seeing a prison line up of Villains in a Spiderman cartoon and hearing a radio news broadcast many years ago about the South African Government considering building an underground prison.

A: I’ve always liked reading the news and I know Mitchell is an avid book reader. Mitchell came up with some really bold concepts for characters and I filled in their back stories from things that floated around in my head. The references to Russia and North Korea for example. But they’re from years ago, it’s just that those countries have stayed topical. It’s true afterall that the more things change the more things stay the same. As for the character designs, that was nothing but hard work, lots of google picture searches and constant iteration. Especially Da Vine, I swear I will never draw another plant/human hybrid for the rest of my life!

What else do you have in the pipeline that us comic geeks can keep an eye out for? Is this a series by any chance?
M: While we have ideas for upcoming projects the focus right now is just letting people know about Above The Grave from conventions to getting the book into stores.

A: I’m going to work on some fan art of other popular properties to try to attract attention at cons. It’s hard trying to sell an original story.

Some illustrators really don’t enjoy drawing – especially as scenes can get repetitive, did you really enjoy writing/illustrating this comic book?

A: This is what I would say to people who are thinking of drawing a comic: If you do 100-odd pages you will find out just how much you really like drawing! Seriously, drawing a comic is nothing like drawing a pin-up or even other kinds of picture books. It’s fun but it is certainly repetitive and there are times when it feels like a horrible grind. The only thing that keeps you going is that promise of the finished product and getting your story out there. The other process I adhered to that made it easier for me to reach the finish line is that I made sure to keep up momentum and do all the pages, even if the art was terrible to begin with. Then I went back and improved them A LOT. Working that way, I knew I could have quit at any time and still had at least something in hand. As it turned out, I never quit because I saw constant improvement in myself that drove me to cut no corners and do every page to a high standard. I see no reason to be modest about this lol.

If you stumbled into writer’s block (or illustrator’s block) how did you overcome it?

M: For myself and very luckily never had an issue with writer’s block. Just going forward and focus on the next part of the story without getting too far ahead.

A: Luckily that was not an issue with this project. It was a miracle how it came together. Sometimes your brain’s neurons just work!

For those who are thinking to branch out into publishing comic books, what would your best piece of advice be?

M: It’s a hard journey, break things into small areas that you have to complete. I know for myself that it would of been such a harder journey if it didn’t find such a great collaborative partner. If i don’t cross paths with Andrew. Above the Grave doesn’t happen. PERIOD.

A: I would definitely advise any aspiring creators not to do 136 pages! The most important thing is to FINISH. If you just finish you will be ahead of 99.9% of other people. We all know about the proverbial screenplay sitting in a drawer. So choose a manageable story!

Getting to know you….

When you’re not writing/illustrating, what would you be doing?
M: Plotting ideas, playing guitar, game and watching television.

A: I was illustrating in most of my spare time for the duration of this project so I listened to a lot of podcasts. When I had forced breaks because I needed to recharge my drawing tablet I spent the time reading stories about all kinds of things online. Because the internet is random! You never know what will give you an idea later on down the line.

Who are your role models when it comes to your writing/illustrating journey?
M: Paul Hogan, John Cornell, Matthew Reilly and Kevin Smith.

A: Jim Lee for drawing. His longevity in the comics industry is astounding as well.

What are your favourite comic books? (graphic novels or manga included in this question)
M: Watchmen, Superman: Red Son, Guardian Devil (Daredevil)

A: For me it all began with Asterix and Tintin. (I actually homage the artist of Asterix, Albert Uderzo, with a character named after him in ATG.) Then in high school I loved the X-Men. Y: The Last Man opened my eyes to what’s possible in the medium as it’s not a humour or superhero story. I like Red Son as well.

Besides comic books, what is your favourite genre to read?
M: Music Biographies, True Crime, Horror, Self Help.

A: I don’t read many books these day but I like to read long-form journalism and sites like io9 for nerds. I used to read action adventure novels like James Bond and Jurassic Park. But I read more fact than fiction overall.

Where is your ultimate holiday destination?
M: San Diego during Comic con.

A: Disney World when the Star Wars hotel is completed in 2021!

If you had the power to adapt “Above the Grave” to a TV show, Stage Show or Movie, which would you choose and why?
M: …. Let’s go the movie! Let’s go HUGE! Lol

A: …. $200 million major motion picture! Actually, ATG began as a comic, then it was written as a screenplay for a reason that I forget, then it became a comic again. That’s why it’s 136 pages, it’s very cinematic for a comic.

Special thanks to Mitchell and Andrew for taking the time for our Blog Q&A and for also attending as our special guests for the Read3r’z Re-Vu Comics Day Exclusive… It’s so exciting to meet friends with hidden talents and amazing achievements!!! Hope to see more from you both in the future!!!

-Q&A and content compiled by Annie

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And the Ocean was our Sky by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Rovina Cai

A Moby Dick retelling – told from the whale’s perspective!!!

‘With harpoons strapped to their backs, the proud whales of Bathsheba’s pod live for the hunt, fighting in the ongoing war against the world of men. When they attack a ship bobbing on the surface of the Abyss, they expect to find easy prey. Instead, they find the trail of a myth, a monster, perhaps the devil himself… As their relentless Captain leads the chase, they embark on a final, vengeful hunt, one that will forever change the worlds of both whales and men…’

Beautiful – Lyrical – Interesting…

A thought provoking story with amazing illustrations that really brought this story to life and really makes the reader see things in a different light.. It was an interesting experience to read the story from the whale’s perspective but it does take some time to get your head around it at first as it’s not everyday that your storyteller is a whale. A Moby Dick retelling that takes you into the eyes of a whale who is part of a family that are proud protectors of the ocean and live for the hunt as they are constantly hunted by humans.. The story was so beautifully written and the illustrations really bring the story out – I believe both author and illustrator nailed it with this one, I can definitely see this book shelved as modern classics..

Special thanks to Walker Books for sending me a review copy of this book, it was great!
-Annie

Run, Riot by Nikesh Shukla

A powerful, gripping book about 4 teens who standing up for themselves and their community.

Hari and Jamal film an unarmed youth from their estate being beaten by police and suddenly they find themselves hunted by the very people who should be protecting them. But as they go on the run with Hari’s twin sister, Taran, and Jamal’s girlfriend, Anna, they soon discover the truth goes much deeper, with terrible personal consequences at hand..

I found this to be a fast paced, action packed thriller of a story that I believe to be The U.K’s answer to “The Hate U Give” (THUG). A story that explores social injustice at the hands of corruption, and rogue police. A story that turns the lives of 4 teens upside down when they become privy to too much information and the decision they need to make – either stay silent and go on the run or take a stand and have justice prevail. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, the dialogue between the characters and I even came to care for the characters we followed. The book’s structure was also well done as it was following a time line (as in time of day) rather than chapters so it really brought the story to life for me. To be honest, I really hope this story is adapted to film as I believe it would be well received by the YA reader community. I recommend this book to readers of YA who enjoy suspense, action and is interested in reading stories that explore deep themes such as social injustice and community.

Special thanks to Date A Book YA (Hachette) Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.
-Annie

Short Stories – Muslim Voices

The 9th month of the Islamic Calendar marks the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. A special time of the year where Muslims worldwide reflect on their faith, commemorate the birth of Islam (divine revelation) and engage in a month of sun up to sun down fasting. A time to reflect and a time for prayer. And.. in a blink of an eye – the count down is on again as we are due to start mid-May 2018.

As we enter the holy month, I wanted to take a quick moment to share 2 books that bring out Muslim voices in Australia as I found these collections of short stories so insightful and inspiring. Personally, as a Muslim reader, I love seeing stories like this becoming more and more available for Muslim and Non-Muslim readers alike as I believe wonderful books like these do in fact help bring a mutual understanding within the community. They bridge gaps, dispel myths and even open up positive discussion.

Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia – edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

“Muslim people in Australia come from over 70 countries and represent a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences. Yet we are constantly bombarded by media stories feeding one negative stereotype. What is it really like to grow up Muslim in Australia? In this book, famous and not-so-famous Muslim-Australians tell their stories in their own voices.”
Growing up a Muslim, hijab wearing Aussie of Indonesian heritage, I related to this book and the stories within very much. Sadly, the battle is real and when we say this, it’s not to play victim – it’s simply to call it what it is. These honest stories resonated with me and I believe them to be insightful for all readers as it provides different snapshots and perspectives of Muslim life in Australia that most importantly, dispel myths, stereotypes, and above all celebrates diversity, courage and friendship. A beautiful coming of age group that is said to be “coloured with many shades of humour, warmth, sadness, anger, determination and honesty, it will resonate with readers from all backgrounds and beliefs”

Headstrong Daughters: Inspiring Stories From The New Generation Of Australian Muslim Women – by Nadia Jamal
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

This book is a collection of short stories written by Nadia Jamal and based on interviews she conducted with ordinary Muslim women around Australia. This book takes a deeper look into the lives of Muslim women and their determination to stay true to their faith and to themselves. These are resonating stories told by working professionals, mothers and students and reveals a side that is little known and often misunderstood. This too, is a book I really related to as a young Muslim woman living in Australia, a working professional and a woman who strives to live a well balanced life with faith, work, family and being in touch with her culture without it clashing with faith. I also found this book dispelled a lot of myths that hang about with Muslim women – particularly with the hijab and status of women in Islam. I found it quite inspiring myself. Special thanks to Allen & Unwin Publishers for sending me an advanced review copy of this book – this book should be available in leading book retailers.

Wishing all who commemorate the Holy Month of Ramadan a wonderful and blessed month. May your fasting come at ease and may you all have special time with loved ones this coming month.

Ramadan Mubarak!!!
-Annie

I am Thunder… and I Won’t Keep Quiet by Muhammad Khan

“A thought-provoking and empowering story which will encourage readers to question what they see and hear.”

One of the most confronting books I have read this year and a story that really hits the nail on the head. A new YA voice that demonstrates how far one can go to protect what they believe in and accurately depicts the world today. I really want to take this moment to thank the author, Muhammad Khan, for writing this story. As a Muslim woman reading this book – I felt this was a real eye-opener for non-Muslims and a warm hug to the Muslim brother/sisterhood as he stated in his author’s note.

“I am Thunder” is told by protagonist, 15 year old Muzna Saleem, who dreams of being a novelist but is trapped between 2 worlds: controlling parents who only care about her studying to be a doctor and growing up in a world that tells you to be what you want to be. As Muzna’s father lost his job, Muzna is forced to move to a new school in South London at a critical time of her life and after her best friend is shamed in a scandal.

Whilst dialogue among teens can be cheesy, I found the book to be very well written and honest. It’s a book that will definitely spark positive discussion. I had such a personal connection to the story and the character but felt extremely thankful I didn’t experience absolutely everything Muzna went through.

When Muzna is thrown into this new school, just like the real world, she realizes bullies are everywhere and yes difficult times are ahead but do you take a stand and fight for what is right or do you fade out because it’s easier? Struggling with home life and school yard prejudice against her culture and faith, the world looks bleak for Muzna until she meets Arif – her knight in shining armour – or so she thinks…

The author did a fantastic job in demonstrating the constant confusion in families who put culture first, Islam second which is a leading cause of clash and confusion in families and the wider community. Cultural identity is a real challenge especially among the youth and I really felt for Muzna being an only child growing up in the western world with strong ties to her cultural traditions and expectations, it can be a challenge but it can also be an opportunity. I felt Muzna had the right idea of wanting to be a novelist as a means to set a passive example that demonstrates that these acts committed do not represent her or her faith.

In addition to cultural identity, the fury Muzna and her parents felt when waking up to headline news of terrorist attacks and murder of innocent victims carried out in the name of Islam was all too real for me. It was a wave of mixed emotions – anger for what this mob do in our name and the compounding weariness of stepping out of our house wearing the hijab, that need to constantly be vigilant in your own home in case you’re next to be on the receiving end of hate attacks for crimes you never committed or endorsed but refusing to live in fear. 

The story is so real – with strong characters making poor decisions or turning a blind eye to things you think is so obviously wrong, but that’s exactly why it was so real – because it demonstrates exactly how extremists operate. They select articulate, intelligent individuals and targe their vulnerability as leverage for their own agendas.

Again, this book is extremely well written and fast paced. I am sure readers will have an emotional reaction to the story. I gasped, cringed, laughed, cried and I even had to put the book down for a moment as I was getting so worked up over it (it’s so real). I feel this is an important story and I do recommend this as your next read. Suitable for the YA audience from ages 14 years and up.

Special thanks to Pan Macmillan Publishers for sending me an Advanced Review Copy of this book as part of the Summer Readings Blog Tour.
-Annie

Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

Synopsis from Goodreads
Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah. But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is…

My Thoughts
I can’t believe that I just finished a book that took me on emotional roller coaster ride. It’s been well over a decade since that has happened. The tears are still coming. Throughout Autoboyography I was crying my eyes out, squealing with joy, felt like my heart is braking in two and slowly mending again. I’m going to be recommending Autoboyography to anyone who asks me for a book recommendation. I leave with this question – How soon is too soon for a reread? …I’m off to get a tissue…
-Meredith

The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

A new Black Witch will rise… her powers vast beyond imagining…

“Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of the last prophesied Black Witch, Carnissa Gardner, who drove back the enemy forces and saved the Gardnerian people during the Realm War. But while she is the absolute spitting image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above all else. As evil looms on the horizon and the pressure to live up to her heritage builds, everything Elloren thought she knew will be challenged and torn away. Her best hope of survival may be among the most unlikely band of misfits…if only she can find the courage to trust those she’s been taught to hate and fear.” -Synopsis from Goodreads.

With such mixed reviews on this book, I just had to read it for myself as soon as possible. To be honest I really couldn’t understand the negativity surrounding it but then again that’s my opinion..

The best way I can explain my thoughts would be to use Harry Potter as an example. For those who have read Harry Potter, do you remember the prejudice in that world by “pure bloods” who would look down on “half bloods” and “muggles” or “muggle borns” and go as far as to say “mixture of magical and muggle blood is an abomination”? That was the sort of world I discovered here, a fantasy world where such prejudices exist and naturally the dialogue brought that out of each character and in doing so, profiled the characters quite well. I read each dialogue in context and understood it was typical of what that character or that particular race/group of people would say etc therefore the story and what was said in each dialogue made sense to me. I was able to draw a parallel with what I read in this book and conversations I hear in real life. Sad, but true and with all stories I read, I find nasty characters either grow to become good or are destroyed at the hands of good.

Overall I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed getting to know each character (even the ones I hate in the story) I particularly like the beginning where in a world of “status quo” the protagonist’s Uncle was the one person who puts his foot down against the concept of the “wandfast” at a young age (which is like an arranged marriage) in order for his niece to go on and get educated first by going to university and learning apothecary then make her own decision in life later on. Again – not very far from what I have heard in real life. There are more examples however I don’t wish to spoil the book for anyone and I would like readers to be their own judge of this book. Personally I liked it and I recommend it to fans of YA fantasy who enjoy stories of power struggle, magic and a whole new world building.

Many thanks to Harlequin Publishers for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest review.
-Annie