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Knocking the Dust Off History with 'By Water: The Felix Manz Story'

We chat with Richard Mommsen, the scriptwriter/researcher, about this unique exploration into the Reformation era.

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our new reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Richard Mommsen about By Water: The Felix Manz Story and about the unique process of how it came to be.

 

How do you contextualize events that occurred five hundred years ago for a contemporary audience? The question weighed heavily on comic creators Jason Landsel, Richard Mommsen, and Sankha Banerjee. Their new graphic novel, By Water: The Felix Manz Story transports the reader to Zurich during the Reformation. From their perspective, they saw a society struggling in the same fashion as we all seem to be struggling today. Through their book, they sought to draw those connections and knock some dust off history.


War, plague, political manipulation. Swiss student Felix Manz desperately bashes against titanic forces while battling internal demons. He's not the usual Reformation hero we see idolized in texts. He's a deeper cut; executed by water like so many radicals of his day.


The graphic novel originated with Jason Landsel, but he sought Richard Mommsen and Sankha Banerjee to help bring the story to sequential life. By Water could have been a novel, movie or television series. Realizing it as a comic book required a specific spin, and one Mommsen was eager to achieve.


We chat with Richard Mommsen about his By Water collaboration; how it came to be and what was involved with keeping it visually arresting. The Felix Manz story could have easily devolved into a dense, boring history lesson. Instead, it's a stylishly dynamic exploration of a tempestuous internal life. Mommsen and his creative pals challenged themselves to deliver an urgent and relevant saga. It took work.

 

Brad: I am fascinated by the collaboration on By Water. How exactly did it come to be? Richard: So it's a pretty fun story. Jason Landsel, who's the creative inspiration behind this novel. He's sort of been thinking about this story for I would say 25 years. In the last three years he actually got serious about turning it into a graphic novel, and he asked me to help him create the story arc because there's so many different facets to this story, and to sort of distill it down into something that people would understand today without having a tremendous background in reformation era history, which is pretty complex.

I worked with him over the course of about a year to write a script. I've written scripts for films and for online video and for theater. So that's kind of my background. So I just sort of brought that skillset to the table and wrote basically what you might recognize as a film script. And he then took that and collaborated with an artist in Calcutta, India, Sankha Banerjee, who has written a number of graphic novels. Jason's an artist, but he felt like he wanted someone who really had experience in writing successful graphic novels. We kind of worked together a lot on Zoom. Jason and I, of course, are co-located, so we were able to hang out in person, but it was pretty fun to see how the whole thing came together. Brad: When you joined up with Jason on this project was it at the comic stage or the film stage? Richard: It was at the comic stage. Jason had actually drawn up a lot of the character sketches and sketched out a whole bunch of different scenes that he was inspired about. From studying the history, he actually visited Zurich and the area where this story took place with his son and his family, which is pretty cool, and took a lot of pictures. He knew a lot of the events and he sketched them out and had a lot of ideas, graphic ideas, visual ideas, which I then took and tried to mold them into something that would be comprehensible for an untrained audience. Brad: And that's me. I'm the untrained audience. I have an idea of what these types of history stories look like as graphic novels. They're usually very text-heavy. The first thing that I was shocked by and delightfully so was how the story really allows the art to tell the narrative. It's not a text-heavy comic. It seems like it was something that was on your mind, you didn't want to scare people away. Richard: Yeah. I think a lot of the concepts from back then, sort of the religious world these people lived in just wouldn't be comprehensible to people today. A lot of the language they used, if you read a lot of the primary sources, it's pretty heavy going. We actually thought we'd really dial back on that and let the visuals do the work because it is such a visually interesting time. I think people sometimes have these ideas of what medieval art looks like, and it's a lot of weird hats and funny clothes, and we wanted to get beyond that to who are people actually, because they have some very contemporary concerns and ideas, which we wanted a modern audience to understand. Brad: Well talk about that a little bit, this idea that the young people of this story, having these intense, non-violent ideas and wanting to change the world, what was it about this point in time and where we are today that felt so easy to connect? Richard: A lot of the same things were happening back then that are happening today. A lot of political instability, a lot of dissatisfaction among the lower classes who felt like they were getting a bad deal, a lot of corruption in high places and just geopolitically the whole world is fairly unsettled. The Holy Roman Empire at the time was the big man in town, but then you also had the Ottoman Turks who were threatening the Holy Roman Empire, actually ended up laying siege to Vienna around the time this story takes place. And so that was a fairly existential threat for the government at that time.

At the same time, you had, like I said, dissatisfaction among the lower classes, and they wanted to throw this off. They wanted to throw off economic oppression, injustice, inequality. And that's where the story starts. There were a lot of ideas flying around at the time. Obviously you had the different philosophers and thinkers at that time. Moore's Utopia was published around this time. You had Erasmus, other very important thinkers who ended up writing things that have effects to this day in terms of the rights of individuals and so forth. So that's kind of what we were trying to bring across. Brad: You start the book in some ways at an obvious place with Felix as a young boy in the middle of a fight, a bloody little fisticuff match involving some ids teasing him because of his mother's supposed profession. Richard: Felix grew up in Zurich, his father was a priest, so he was obviously not supposed to be having kids, but I think many of the priests back then did take on mistresses or concubines or what you will. Felix was an illegitimate son and was raised by his mother, and he went to a Latin school. He was a pretty smart kid, but the school, from what we could reconstruct, had a pretty rough reputation. All the students were kind of hoodlums. There was a lot of street violence. And so we imagined him growing up in this milieu. The overarching theme I drew from his life is - here's a guy who was always looking for a father, here's someone who's looking for a way out of this difficult life that he was born into. Brad: That theme of looking for a father, he finds a mentor early on and you think it's going to be like, "Oh, well, here's a father figure." But then that father figure betrays him. Can you talk about that relationship and that longing that Felix has? Richard: Felix, he's a pretty smart kid. Like I said, he goes to a university in Paris and he studies a lot of these thinkers that I spoke about. Life doesn't have to be as we're experiencing it, things could be different. He meets another student there, Conrad Grable, who apparently was a bit of a rough guy, was into drinking and womanizing and got into duals and apparently killed a student there. Anyway, they end up back in Zurich in Switzerland. When they get back there, there's a new priest in town who's sort of, he's stirring things up a lot.

He's not doing a lot of things that are expected of priests. He refuses to read the liturgy. He breaks mandatory fasts. There's a famous sausage eating party during the Lenten fast, which was completely illegal. And Zwingli gathers this group of young men around him, and they have this little group. They meet several times a week in the evening, and they're reading Homer, they're reading Greek literature, they're reading Latin literature, and importantly, they're reading the Bible, which was recently translated and getting a lot of ideas about how life should be from what they're reading. it's a very unfamiliar context for us in the 21st century. But so many of the ideas are the same, social justice, freedom of faith, freedom of religion, and equality among people and refusal to be dominated by forces. Those felt like very contemporary things to me. You see in these people almost 500 years ago, that they were working for very much the same things.

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