Interview: Mark Sable on 'Chaotic Neutral'
We chat with the comic book scribe about his ambitious new collaboration with Chris Anderson that promises to deliver Dungeons and Dragons terror.
Once upon a time, parents warned their children to stay away from Dungeons and Dragons. Many considered the dark contents within evil, and by engaging with its gameplay, you were inviting demons into your heart. The notion is laughable today, as the role-playing game dominates pop culture, and numerous podcasts have sprung up around its special blend of adventure. However, writer Mark Sable and artist Chris Anderson stir up those twisted, worrisome psychologies with Chaotic Neutral.
Recently launched on Kickstarter, the epic 48-page first issue has already reached its funding goal. And now the glorious stretch goals are within reach. Chaotic Neutral imagines a D&D-like world where all those concerns perpetrated by those pesky nineteen-eighties parents are a reality. This game is dangerous, and by interacting with it, another layer of treachery could be triggered.
Hoping to go above and beyond the sequential format, Sable and Anderson have also created a game module for folks to play along. The fate of Chaotic Neutral's heroes is in your hands, and you will steer the story, not Sable and Anderson. In addition, they've invited Curse Words' Ryan Browne to construct a series of Chick Tract spoofs that demonstrate the "Satanic Panic" that swept this country forty years back.
Chaotic Neutral is a dream come true for Mark Sable. Role-playing and tabletop games have held a strong fascination for him since he was a youngster. While he never suffered the dread bred by the media and overly-concerned parents' groups, he delights in leaning into their absurd fear today. Revenge is a life well lived, or a die rolled manically.
We had a ball chatting with Mark about his latest passion project. He's a stick-a-coin-in-and-talk kinda guy. A.k.a. a perfect fit for Brad. His passion for this concept has percolated in his system for a long time, and it's busting to free itself finally. Such passion is infectious, and whether you're a die-hard gamer or a novice, you'll find yourself drawn to this unique comic book experience.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Brad: My own relationship with tabletop role-playing and Dungeons & Dragons specifically seems rooted in the point of view that you are taking with your project here. And that is, I first learned about Dungeons & Dragons as a thing that was evil and to be avoided back in the eighties. It was something my mom worried about. Was that your experience?
Mark: So it's funny. Actually, my first experiences were for the most part, really great. I'm an only child, so my cousins were and still are like brothers to me. I remember watching my oldest cousin play a game called Boot Hill, which if people remember was like the Western D&D. Didn't quite catch on as much. Then I started to play a little bit of D&D with them, but mostly I was super shy as a kid. Painfully shy, I would say. And so I loved Dungeons & Dragons and Marvel superheroes and all these other role-playing games.
I would buy them, but aside from playing solo modules, I really would mostly just read them and kind of have my own adventures because I was too nervous to ask other people to play with me. Now, whatever you want to call geek culture, comics, role-playing games, things like that were just not as cool. So I had a hard time finding people to play with. And it wasn't until much later that as an adult really, that I started playing in earnest with other people.
That said, my first experience with the "satanic panic" was this movie with Tom Hanks. It was a TV movie called Mazes and Monsters. I don't know how old I was when I saw it, but it actually legitimately scared me. Tom Hanks is this kid or teenager, who's like playing D&D with his friends and it gets so real for him that literally, spoilers, at the end he can no longer distinguish the fantasy world from reality. And his friends visit him at some mental hospital and they have to still address him as his character name and stuff. I mean, maybe I'm just not playing with enough method actors, but that's never happened in real life.
Brad: What I love so much about Chaotic Neutral as a Kickstarter project is how it seemingly allows you to explore your concept through a variety of delivery systems. There's the comic, the module, the Chick Tract spoof, the dice, the cards, etc. At the same time, that's a lot of extra work. Why go that route?
Mark: I mean, I don't know how cool a publisher would be, or even necessarily not how cool. I don't know that they'd know what to do with - "How do I edit a Dungeon module? How do we fit all this in?" You have more page constraints. And I mean, I work with great publishers. They'd all probably find some way to do it.
I wanted this to feel like an artifact of the times, right. I want this to feel like this could have been made for the most part in 1983 maybe by some people that were a little bit more sensitive to certain issues, but generally that. Just as a comic book storyteller, I love things that are dense. I remember the days when comics would have an entire story fit in them as opposed to being spread out over six issues, and I always try to do as much of that as possible. So this felt like a kind of logical extension of that. Let me give the reader and the player as much as possible in a single package.
Brad: Yeah, a full meal. When you're talking to Chris Anderson about what this comic is going to end up looking like, and in wanting to adhere to that sort of roughness of the original D&D vibe, and playing off the satanic panic era, how did you go about making sure that you were maintaining that nostalgic spirit without it being just a straight copy of those concepts and characters?
Mark: That's a really good question. I think part of it was, when I looked into it, I did a lot of research. Which I know sounds strange for a project that's fantasy, because I think I'm more known for doing books like Graveyard of Empires, which is about Afghanistan, and modern military stuff, or things that are like historical fiction.
But there's a great book called Playing at the World, it's academic but it's well written, that goes into everything that influenced Dungeons and Dragons. And in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there's something called Appendix N which lists all the books that influenced Gary Gygax, who along with Dave Arneson was the creator of Dungeon and Dragons. I went back and read those things. I try to take as much inspiration from those weird things as I did from J.R.R. Tolkien in High Fantasy. So yeah, we have elves but we have other just weird stuff. I mean, I've got Mushroom Men!
Brad: The trick being to get super nerdy with D&D, but not alienate people who may be less familiar with that stuff.
Mark: All people need, I think, is just a little bit of fantasy knowledge. To just get that, okay, this is a D&D-related book or a fantasy role-playing game-related book. Once they do, I really do feel like you don't need nostalgia hopefully to appreciate this book - if we've done it right. And I think if we've done it right. You'll just be like, wait, I knew this was going to be a D&D thing but I didn't know you could do this with D&D. I didn't know it could get this weird.