Dark Horse Comics’ Under Kingdom is an exciting and modern LGBTQ-friendly fantasy for young adults that fans of Adventure Time and Trollhunters will love.
One of my favorite weekend memories as a kid is rushing out of bed, pouring a bowl of my favorite cereal, and dropping down on the floor ready to sit close enough to the TV screen to warrant an over zealous warning about the potential loss of eyesight from my mother. The loss would be considered worth it as long as I could sit close enough to feel like I was being pulled into the fold of shows like X-Men: Evolution and Invader Zim. Several years, and an eyeglass prescription later, that nostalgia is brought about again by an exceptional story with words from Christof Bogacs (Meat 4 Burgers, Volume) and art by Marie Enger (The Bones of This Place, Dagger Dagger). This partnership of talented creatives is exactly what makes Under Kingdom an absolute joy to read.
Published by Dark Horse Comics, this fantasy adventure introduces us to Shay, a seemingly normal teenage peacenik. But after his mom goes missing, Shay quickly finds out he is next in line to wield an otherworldly power and responsibility to protect the monster-filled underworld that lends the book its name. As life quickly teaches us, it’s better to not go at it alone, and luckily our hero doesn’t have to! With the help of his changeling aunt Sa’Belle, and a totally chill magical door Golem, he’s able to cross over to the Under Kingdom and that’s where the story really kicks off.
We learn more about Shay’s lineage, are introduced to the Council of The Five Fiends, as well as the threats that loom over the inhabitants of Under Kingdom. Though the story sounds like your typical “Chosen One” fantasy, Bogacs really defies the tropes attached to that moniker by giving us a different type of hero—a hero who chooses to find power in kindness and understanding. However, the book never sacrifices the action and drama that comes with balancing new-found power and the everyday trials of middle school-aged youth.
We were lucky enough to have Christof join us for a Q&A where we got to talk about the book’s inspiration, themes, and we touched on the importance of diverse characters/heroes in media. Read on to see what he had to say!
The preview pages here give you just a small glimpse into Under Kingdom, but you really get to see how wonderfully drawn it was by Marie Enger. Their art really pops and they manage to inject a world full of sharp lines and edges with a grounding softness that made quite a few re-reads of this story as exciting as the first. With each subsequent read I managed to find a new funny bit or detail in the background to focus on (someone please make Fish Flops a thing), that really contributed to the rapid fire pace of the jokes and action. Enger’s style seems heavily influenced by animation and horror.
The characters are drawn with an energy that bring the pages to life and a color palette that compliments that wonderfully. Character facial expressions emote with an anime-like quality that amplify any given situation and really make you want to pay attention to every little detail on the page. The monster designs are creepy, fun, and original; this adds a lived-in quality to the world that made me want to explore more of the factions the monsters are divided into. In particular, a gelatinous species with places to be—seemingly picking up trash and miscellaneous items as they quickly drag their wobbly vessels along the city—became a favorite sight gag. These designs add a depth to the story that makes the world feel expansive and worthy of a ‘Middle Earth’ style map and hopefully we get one in volume two.
The creative trust between Enger and Bogacs is clearly visible. Both are firing on all cylinders; the story and art never feel disjointed which propels the book into an artistically driven territory that is really exciting to witness and makes the book feel all the better for it. The cast of characters are handled so well by Bogacs. You quickly find something to appreciate about the chaotic energy of Shay’s Aunt Sa’Belle, his timid yet refreshingly up-front crush Ed, and even the book’s main antagonist causes such a shift in tone when she is introduced that, you can’t help but be excited to see how her plans unfold.
This book just feels really special. I highly recommend you order it if you haven’t already. Read Under Kingdom and gift it to the young reader in your life. They’ll thank you for it!
The scheduled release date for Under Kingdom is April 12th . We spoke with writer Christof Bogacs. He answered some questions about his process and what he hopes people take away from his work. Here’s what he had to say:
First off, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions! Idk where you are on the spectrum of time right now, but hopefully your day’s going alright?
Christof: It’s mid Monday morning here in Australia (G’day!), so just trying to get a headstart on the week. I recently transitioned to writing full time, which has been great, but also a bit of an adjustment. I’m never not fighting the urge to nap!
Second of all, I really enjoyed the book! It’s the first graphic novel that you’re putting out into the world; have you, Marie, and the rest of the team been able to celebrate, or are there still some nerves to shake before the release?
Christof: I’m so stoked to hear you enjoyed the book! Honestly, it never gets old!
‘Celebrate’? I am not familiar with this term. Is that latin?
In all seriousness though, everyone in my life has been telling me to take a breath but I haven’t really stopped. Working in comics feels like constantly sprinting from one project to pitching the next. It can be very easy to not celebrate and I am extremely guilty of that. My amazing partner Nicky has been (slowly) convincing me that it’s ok to take time off and be happy for what I’ve accomplished. Wild, right?
The other side of the coin, outside of my aversion to taking a win, is the fact that the success of Under Kingdom lives and dies on sales. So, Marie and I have been busy business gremlins, doing everything we can to get the word out. It’s pretty much expected now that if you are a creator and not working for Marvel or DC you really have to do a lot of the marketing yourself.
I was able to pick up an early copy at Emerald City Comic Con and it has the energy and pacing of a great animated show. Is there a particular series that you would say influenced the way you tell a story, either from childhood or currently?
Christof: Oh so many. We approached it like a cartoon in a lot of ways. In a sense, Under Kingdom kingdom (sic) started as a kind of Troll Hunters fanfic, or at least me and Marie wanted to do our take on that show, playing with the stuff we liked and tweaking the stuff we didn’t. Shay’s aversion to fighting certainly came out of wanting to contrast Under Kingdom with the heavy focus Troll Hunters has on combat.
The other big influence is Gravity Falls. I’ll be the first to admit that Sa’Belle the changeling’s chaotic scumbag energy was lifted directly from Grunkle Stan. The other big comparable property is The Owl House. We actually finished the scripting on Under Kingdom before Owl House came out, so it didn’t influence the story, however there’s a lot of shared DNA there and I’m confident that if you liked The Owl House then Under Kingdom will be your jam.
Give the kids some credit
It seems like we still have media geared towards younger audiences that believe kids are incapable of handling topics they consider “too adult,” e.g. love, loss, and even gender identity. How did you go about balancing the lighthearted/funny moments (there’s so many great jokes) with the themes you had in mind for the book, especially in regards to the LGBTQ+ aspects of the story?
Christof: Oh yeah, to me the cardinal sin you can make when writing for kids is to think they can’t handle something. Kids are incredibly perceptive and empathetic. I think you can talk about just about any topic in kid’s media as long as you communicate it clearly and as directly as possible. A lot of my work explores children dealing with big stuff. That’s just the reality of childhood.
To be brutally honest, I don’t see the book as exploring, or really talking about LGBTQ+ ‘issues’. Shay is queer, it made sense for the character to me, but this story isn’t about dealing with specifically queer issues. I’m a straight, cis dude, so that’s not my lane. However, it is very important to make sure that we have diverse characters in the media, especially right now when the right is forcefully removing LGBTQ+ people from both real world spaces and fictional spaces.
In terms of balancing humor and drama, the key is making it clear what is normal and what is considered absurd or funny in this world. Like if everything is bizarre, then nothing is. The other rule I try to follow is to make sure the stakes and conflict are dramatic, not comedic. So there will be a bunch of jokes leading up to key beats, but the actual beats of the story are all serious and grounded, as are any consequences.
An atypical hero
I noticed the themes of acceptance & understanding pretty early on. Our main boy Shay is a character driven by those ideals, which isn’t too common for male protagonists. Was it important for you to make those some of his leading qualities?
Christof: I’m so excited you picked up on that! That was super deliberate. I alluded to it with Troll Hunters, but pretty much all the boys’ media I consumed as a child were focused around combat. Shows like Pokemon, Beyblade, Dragon Ball – they all revolve around getting stronger so you can dominate your opponent.
Shay is a direct response to that. I want him to show kids there are other ways of solving your problems. I also want the story to make it clear that kindness and diplomacy aren’t just an option for resolving conflict, they are often the most effective way. As our world continues to get fragmented and complicated, being kind and peaceful isn’t childish, it’s downright pragmatic.
The strength of a great editor
I mentioned balance earlier. The book reads quick, but with a lot of world and story story packed. You and Marie are able to handle that rapid fire pacing so well, what was it like fleshing these characters and world out together?
Christof: So that tight pacing is all on our incredible editor Konnor Knudsen. Seriously, they were such an important part of the team and helped me cut the story down from 150 pages to 88. It wasn’t super conscious, but rather than the ‘first season’ of a cartoon, Under Kingdom really feels like a double episode pilot.
In terms of cramming in all the world building and character stuff, the ‘explainer’ pages were invaluable. They acted as a fun and organic way to info dump, rapidly move the story forward and establish lore for both the reader and the creative team. Once something was on an explainer page it was cannon!
The Under Kingdom is split into factions and the monsters are categorized within them. The horror fan in me immediately identified with The Creepy, what faction would you place yourself in & dare I ask where you see Marie?
Christof: So I’m pretty sure Marie vibes with The Few. Personally I’m a big goblin dork so The Icky is certainly where my allegiances lie. That said, Marie and I both have a huge soft spot for the imps. In a lot of ways Yseult and the imps are the visual mascot of Under Kingdom. The Pickachu to our Pokemon
The factions came about as a way to be able to fill the Under Kingdom with an eclectic bunch of creatures, from all over the world, but also have structure and order. Plus, there’s something impulsive and human about trying to organize things into categories.
Marie Enger killing it
The art & design of Under Kingdom feels so expansive & Marie’s art really shines, how was it watching them work and seeing those pages come in? Did you ever write something into the story because you wanted to see how their art would bring it to life?
Christof: As any comic writer will tell you, getting pages is the best part of the job. Marie would make my day whenever they dropped new Under Kingdom art into my inbox. They really made the pages their own and I encouraged them to change whatever they needed to change from the script. Afterall, it’s just a guide.
So the dwarves were the main thing I wanted to see Marie draw. I’d been sitting on the idea of dwarves being these weird, tunnel-dwelling mole-people for a while and then Marie built on that and added such a great cave-man element to them. I mean what is a dwarve’s hammer if not just a fancy club?
More. We want more.
SPOILER ALERT: We get a cliffhanger at the end of the series, it sets up the big bad for volume 2. Any news you can share on the potential of that, are y’all hard at work preparing or just riding the excitement of volume 1 for now?
Christof: So we already have a proposal for volume two ready to go. However, unfortunately getting to do more all rides on sales. Picking up the book and spreading the word is super helpful so if you can, please do! We need your support to do more… and we REALLY want to do more.
Under Kingdom is a book I could write forever. There’s so many monsters and magical stuff we want to introduce. Oh, and who says there’s only one Under Kingdom…
Finally, this book was a joy to read and we at The House of Nerd Show appreciate your time! What do you hope readers, young and old, are able to take away from this book & your work in general?
Christof: More than anything I hope my work gives people a sense of community and comfort. You are not alone and the decisions you make matter. You have an incredible power to transform the world around you. Please don’t forget that!
The Under Kingdom TPB from Dark Horse Comics has a scheduled release date of April 12th. Be sure to pick up a copy!
For another great interview be sure to check Oscar’s discussion with the Don’t Spit In The Wind creators! Do you enjoy Dark Horse Comics content? Say no more! Here ya go!