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Take a trip into a new kind of underworld with 'Court of the Dead'

Tom Gilliland, one of the minds behind the franchise, details Sideshow’s new property

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Across various mythologies, the underworld serves a variety of purposes. Sometimes the land of the dead is a mere way-station before the afterlife; sometimes it is the afterlife. In Sideshow’s new property, Court of the Dead, the underworld contains multitudes: processing station, de-militarized zone, bohemian art enclave. Here, the underworld was originally founded by Death as a buffer zone between Heaven and Hell, but is now on the path to becoming an independent, self-determined kingdom full of weirdos and misfits trying to find a place in the celestial cosmos outside of the eternal war between Heaven and Hell.

The franchise’s print run kicks off with a coffee-table source book out now, Court of the Dead: Chronicle of the Underworld, which introduces the setup, locales, and characters. In July, a Court of the Dead comic series will launch under the Heavy Metal banner (the story first premiered in Heavy Metal #278 in December), following one particular hero’s journey through the underworld and Death’s grand plan of cosmic rebellion.

Below, check out EW’s exclusive interview with Tom Gilliland, one of the minds behind the franchise, as well as art from Chronicle of the Underworld and the first two covers of the comic series.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is this book, The Chronicle of the Underworld, meant to serve as a jumping-off point for this big new world?

TOM GILLILAND: Essentially, The Chronicle of the Underworld is the backstory or mythology that sort of underpins the whole story. Think of it as part art book, part universe source book. The world’s pretty unusual, so in order to give people a leg up once we started to tell a narrative, I felt that having a book that benchmarked the place ahead of that would be helpful to set a stage.

It’s reminiscent of a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook. Were those an inspiration?

Absolutely. I definitely played much D & D through college, and have been a gamer throughout. So all those books that used to give you access to the background was definitely a big part of it. And I’d have to say too that the Star Wars Expanded Universe was and has always been an inspiration for me, in the sense that the films establish the property, but the films went and filled it in in a way that made it much more real, and also I thought provided a tremendous amount of access to the fan of the property.

This book is full of cool art. What were the visual touchstones?

On one hand, it’s about the underworld. So it was a survey of what undead fixtures have looked like. But at the same time, the story has a parable of self-determination to it. So giving the characters a sense of the unusual. One aspect that popped up is that the world they live in is so out of balance with the celestial narrative, where Heaven and Hell are constantly at odds, that a lot of the lot of the characters have an asymmetrical design to them, like multiple arms on one side or something — a sort of visual cue to add to not only the expected undead but also their world’s out of balance, so even they tend to reflect that in the way they look. We looked to a countless host of artists: Ralph Bakshi’s animation, a lot of the fantasy art that Brom has done, Heavy Metal, those citations could go on all day. A lot of dark art that I always loved, where I could see quirky heroes in it, is what I was seizing on with the property.

This underworld is an independent kingdom founded by Death himself. What kind of figure is Death in this world?

He was born out of the original deities that created Heaven and Hell. They thought they could create something that was diametrically opposed and have it balance itself between its law and chaos point of view. When they realized that wasn’t going work, it was just creating an endless conflict and they were being fed upon by their own creation, they realized they needed to take the power away from their own kingdoms and distribute it elsewhere. So in a celestial Big Bang, they destroyed themselves, cast their essences into the farther reaches of the universe. which became the mortal realm, and they put the underworld as a safety valve between the two locations, to serve as a buffer.

Heaven and Hell couldn’t just go there and strip-mine it on their own, they needed to deal with an intermediary. They created Death as their orphan son. They knew they would be gone, and imprinted in his mind images and left it at that, knowing their long-term plan to rebalance this universe would have to work itself out naturally. They said, “well Death I guess you’re stuck here,” so they enslaved him and forced him to conduct the harvest for this material called “etherea,” which is the essence of these original gods that have found their way into the mortal realm. As you live your life it connects to your soul, and when you’re done that part of your soul is harvested by Heaven and Hell to fuel its war machine.

When he started out Death didn’t understand the gravity of what he had been assigned, but over time he slowly but surely saw the mortals become more than just cavemen, civilized beings where thoughts and assumptions are being made, he became more compelled, and realized a great disservice was being done here, not just to the mortals but to the underworld he was slowly culturing as a kind of Ellis Island in this celestial realm. It’s a forgotten place where as long as Heaven and Hell were getting their take, they were like, “just do the job, we don’t wanna hear anything more about it from you.” The Underworld grew up in the shadow of this oppression and the shadow of knowing the truth while its sister realm, the mortal realm, continues to live itself out being beguiled.

Death has become more of a dark shepherd, realizing he has a unique position to do something about this. At the end of it, it’s sort of a celestial rebellion of self-determination against reflexive oppression that is part of the established order. Death’s big game is to build his Court of the Dead. If he were Professor Xavier, these would be his X-Men. They realize they were born in a destructive manner, that was their nature. But they — Death all the way down into his court’s significant elements — are trying to live towards a higher ideal, change their nature and live above it, not be stuck in it.

We have this big anti-hero construct he’s trying to move along. He’s like a Mafia accountant slowly weaning etherea off the top to build his own war machine, and he is looking for those elements in the mortal realm that he has come to realize have a bigger part to play in the underworld and staging his rebellion. That’s where the comic story is going to take off, from that realization.

The Chronicle of the Underworld is written by “an archaneaist,” with annotations from the character Malavestros. How did you build those characters through the book?

The underworld is not just Ellis Island but a trash bin for the entire celestial realm. Things from Heaven and Hell get dumped in there all the time. Not just the people that die in the mortal realm end up there, but buildings, cars, old artifacts, anything that’s been left by the wayside, the essence of creation that pushes itself into the underworld and becomes something there. Not always the same, it tends to morph and twist and become more fantastical. So these archaneaists are constantly sifting through this stuff as part of Death’s plan, because he knows that amidst all this trash are the mysteries of the universe. These archaneaists are slowly piecing this together, and giving Death an edge. He’s going through everyone’s trash, essentially, and slowly concocting things about Heaven and Hell he otherwise wouldn’t have any access to learn, and they don’t remember because they’ve forgotten their past. So the archaneaist is telling the story from that point. 

And Malavestros then serves as Death’s humble mouthpiece. He’s the kind of character we designed to break the fourth wall. There’s a lot of complexities in this property, and I wanted to have some fun ways to bring in the Disney Haunted Mansion whimsy that is also part of the property. It’s not just heavy metal doom and gloom, it’s got that whimsical magic of the haunted house or what-not. Malavestros represents that side of it. While the archaenist gives you the nuts and bolts of the world, Malavestros pleads a more emotional version of the underworld’s case. ‘We’re not perfect, but we’re doing our best to try and live to something better than we are, and we need all the help we can get to correct this hideous problem we’re facing.’

The book establishes a world and characters. What can you tease about how they’ll come together in the comic?

The comic starts with Death reaching into the mortal world and lifting up a mortal hero named Shard, who was a Templar knight in the mid-1200s. We see right away she has something special, a borderline superhero in her day. She’s not a child hero, she was an accomplished soldier/commander, a real mover and shaker who thought she had it all figured out, and then comes to find out she doesn’t. Death has brought her into the underworld at a very opportune time, and is awakening her to his purpose of eliciting the mortal world’s consent in joining his rebellion.

She becomes our mortal window into this fantastical underworld, so we can follow her experiences there and see how it does over time shape her perception. She does get introduced to the truth of what she has been giving herself up to, that it’s not only not true but unworthy of the sacrifices she’s made on behalf of it. Death is pointing out that we can make the afterlife worthy of the decisions that individuals make. There’s a little bit of a political statement there. So the story will take off from there. We originally showcased Shard as an “Issue Zero” in a recent issue of Heavy Metal. That showed how she was taken into the underworld. The comic is really going to start from her awakening in the underworld.

Alice in Wonderland has tumbled through the rabbit hole. Now she’s going to find her own destiny in this challenging environment, especially since we Westerners always view death as a negative issue. And yes, it does end the mortal condition, but what comes next could be something entirely different.