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Futuristic Fairy Tales: A Look Into Once Upon A Time Machine

Once Upon a Time MachineThere's an enduring quality about fairy tales that enthralls audiences, seemingly no matter what the age. Whether the musical versions in Walt Disney pictures or the darker tales told by the Brothers Grimm, these stories of magical creatures, brave heroism, clever adventurers, and enduring love have stood the test of time.

Dark Horse Comics presents a new re-telling of these classic fables in the anthology Once Upon a Time Machine (978-1-61655-040-0, $24.99), scheduled for release in October. Featuring the works of over 80 creators, this collection presents a number of classic tales retold with a science fiction twist. From "John Henry" as a deep space miner, to Pinocchio as an artificial intelligence-generated hologram, to Hansel and Gretel recast as young bees trying the escape a spider's web, the stories in this graphic novel offer new interpretations of the familiar legends.

Editors Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens have assembled a wide variety of creators, from established writers and artists such as Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War), Brandon Graham (King City), Cary Nord (Daredevil), Khoi Pham (Mighty Avengers), Ryan Ottley (Invincible), and Jill Thompson (Beasts of Burden), along with new and up-and-coming talents.

BookShelf spoke with Andrew and Chris about the project, the process of assembling such a large group of talent, and the enduring qualities of fairy tales.

(Click on the page images to expand.)

Where did the idea for this book come from?

Andrew (Editor): From Chris!

Chris (Producer): The idea for Once Upon a Time Machine came during a period where I was frustrated with the progress on getting other books published and wanted to start something new, with no perceived pressures. I've worked with a couple of agents over the years, trying to get my book, Dream Compass—a collection of stories I wrote illustrated by, among others, Farel Dalrymple, Jae Lee, Arthur Adams, James Jean, and Rob Woods—out into the world, and it got to be frustrating. Once Upon a Time Machine felt like a low-key way to get back to the fun of making comics, and to do it with a ton of new talent as well as, in the case of our brilliant cover artist, Farel Dalrymple, good friends. That it's now coming out from Dark Horse is pretty sweet considering how we got started.

Once Upon a Time Machine Page 62Andrew: The concept of "futuristic fairy tales" was really perfect for a book like this, and not just because it was something that any reader could instantly relate to. It was a wonderful way to keep every creator contributing to a single, over-arching idea, without putting any uncomfortable creative restraints on them. Often, themed anthologies can feel rather one-note, but we were in no danger of that. When choosing from the countless folk tales in existence, creators could work in virtually any genre – comedy, drama, action, horror (what else would you call "Hansel & Gretel"?). And the future/sci-fi approach, which could take us anywhere from ten years in the future to several thousand (or million), ensured that each story would be overflowing with fresh ideas and visuals.

How did you assemble all the creators for this project?

Andrew: A lot of the writers ended up with us through our informal pitch process early on. In most cases, once a writer had successfully pitched a story and had at least one solid draft of a script down, we'd show it to the best artist we knew, or could find, who'd fit the style and tone that the story called for. Most of this was accomplished through various social media, and our ever-deepening creative connection pool as time went on.

Chris: The creators are a healthy mix of folks we knew or "met" on the internet and creators I met at Locust Moon (Comics) in Philadelphia. Tomas Aranda brought in the Spanish Contingent, as I like to call them, a bunch of talented artists Tomas either knew or taught at the Joso School in Spain. A few creators, like Jason Rodriguez, brought their own artists in. And we called on old friends like Farel, Ryan Ottley, Brandon Graham and John Workman to join in as well.

How were the fairy tales chosen? Was it by the creators, or editorial?

Andrew: We wanted writers to work with tales and concepts that they had put (and would keep putting) serious thought and heart into, so they had to choose their own fairy tales. Generally, a writer would pitch us a one-paragraph breakdown of his or her unique take on a tale, and we would "yea" or "nay" that basic outline. If we approved a story pitch, our input from that point on would generally be to help a writer focus on what exactly made his or her chosen fairy tale, and its futuristic twist, compelling.

Chris: Creators made pitches, we made suggestions. It was a nice balance.

Once Upon a Time Machine Page 386Were there any stories that didn't make it in, or that you wish had been covered?

Andrew: While the stories adapted in Once Upon a Time Machine come from around the world, we unfortunately never received a working pitch based on any African folklore. We did end up with a story that's set in future Lagos, Nigeria, and very much informed by the local culture, but I'm afraid that's the closest we got, this time.

Chris: "The Cat Who Stole Sour Cream" got left out, hard as I tried to get it in there. Oh well. Next time.

Andrew: Well I'm glad we at least got one cat story ["The Boy Who Drew Cats"] in there, thanks to Chris!

Some of the stories seem to take great liberties with the original fairy tales. How much direction were the creators given, if any?

Andrew: There was really one main conceptual requirement for any story: this new take on a fairy tale and its future setting had to be inextricably linked. If I could run a find-and-replace on the script for futuristic words like "robot" and "New New York" and end up with the exact same story as the original, it would not fly. Instead, as long as a reader could still recognize a story's source material without much difficulty, the creators could pretty much go wild. Some told very original stories built on the original tales' most basic beats, others presented more straightforward adaptations but with newly reconsidered conclusions, and still others went down even more interesting paths that I won't spoil here.

Chris: As far as direction goes, the only thing we really stressed was that the material had to be all-ages. Otherwise, folks were left to go in any direction, or take any approach, they wanted.

This book took two years to put together. What was the process like? How much had you gotten together before you approached Dark Horse, and how did they respond?

Andrew: Well, I think it's safe to say that putting this thing together involved a lot of moving pieces, a lot of raw talent, and a lot of interesting personalities – close to a hundred personalities, in fact, at the end of the day. When I first joined the crew, I was actually just one of several young, unpublished writers. Chris knew I had wanted to edit comics, so after seeing that I could write a decent script of my own, he invited me to work with a few other writers on perfecting their scripts. I guess I did a solid job at that, because as months passed, an increasing number of stories were ending up in my care. And as more of the project came together, Chris and I realized just how special a book Once Upon a Time Machine could truly become; it just needed a special level attention to really live up to its potential. So that's when I became the book's official Editor. While trying to turn all this great work into something the world could see, I had to make sure that every writer and artist would be represented at their absolute best. After all, for most readers, this book would be an introduction to the many up-and-coming creators within – and I wanted all those first impressions to be great ones. With so many ambitious stories and distinct personalities in the mix, it took some patience to get everything just right.

Once Upon a Time Machine Page 196When the book was in good enough shape to (hopefully) impress publishers, the stories were almost entirely drawn, but only some had been colored or lettered. Dark Horse, proving their characteristic great taste, dug everything we had. I think the level of work that we'd already put into the book endeared us to them, but probably not as much as the huge amount of exceptional, and largely untapped, talent that we'd somehow assembled in one place. Randy Stradley was the first person at Dark Horse to get behind the book when we were showing it off, and he took on the role of our editor there once they picked us up. Thanks to Randy and everyone else we've worked with, our experience at Dark Horse has been truly fantastic so far.

What drew you to comics? What do you enjoy about them?

Andrew: The superhero cartoons of the '80s and '90s first lured me in. By ten or eleven, comics had become my new favorite medium, and that hasn't changed since. I love comics' unique ability to be an intensely personal visual storytelling medium. More than in film or even animation (both of which I adore), what you see in a comic is truly only limited by the imagination of the person or people creating it. Whether you're looking at individual work by folks like Barks or Miyazaki or Miura, or some collaboration between masters in perfect harmony (see We3), there’s really no better way to watch a story unfold.

Chris: I've been in love with comics since I was eight years old. It's the greatest medium for telling stories.

What do you think it is about these stories that have made them so enduring, that people still enjoy telling and re-telling them?

Andrew: The lessons and the patterns in human behavior that they demonstrate never get old. That's why we still tell some of the same stories that have been around a hundred years, or a thousand. And we'll continue to do so, as long as we're human (and maybe even beyond that). The stories may get dressed up in new ways or amended for new generations or different cultures, but they'll never go away. That's sort of what this little book's all about!

There seems to be a strong interest in re-told fairy tales lately (for example, the recent Snow White movies, NBC's Grimm, DC Comics' Fables). Why do you think these stories are so popular right now?

Once Upon a Time Machine Page 411Andrew: I feel like genre entertainment in general has been on the upswing over the last decade or so, among folks who historically wouldn't be into too much science fiction or fantasy. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings films probably had a lot to do with this, along with the recent trend of blockbuster superhero movies. These big movies have done a lot to get wide audiences more used to seeing, and eager to see, the fantastic. At the same time, one thing that's helped many of these characters and franchises succeed is that they've been around for years, decades even; so when most people see the trailer for a new Spider-Man movie, for example, they'll immediately feel some kind of connection to the character. Whether your personal connection to him or her (or it) is casual or incredibly intense, it can be very alluring to watch such a familiar character face new challenges, inhabit new worlds, or grow in different ways than you're used to. And that's where fairy tales have come in. There are a bunch of fantastic stories we've ALL been told ever since we were born. Every generation, boy or girl – fairy tales don't discriminate. So when you see Snow White in a movie or comic or TV show, no matter who you are, you look at her as you would a close friend, with a familiarity and intimacy built over an entire lifetime. And you want to see where she'll go next.

Chris: These stories have a kernel of truth in them, they all tap into the human condition. And I think there's something comfortable in reading or watching something that's fantastical yet familiar at the same time.

Are there any thoughts about a follow-up volume?

Andrew: If enough people really like this one and end up clamoring for more, what choice will we have? There are certainly many, many more stories waiting to be told through fresh (and/or alien) eyes.

Chris: It would be fun to go and try to put a different spin on the same concept. We'll see what happens.