Few brands are as closely linked to the wild west frontier days of video gaming in the 1980s.
From the launch of Computer Space, the world’s first Arcade Cabinet, in 1971 to the introduction of the iconic Atari 2600 console it was the Icarus of the industry.
At the height of their power the Atari console was every kid’s must-have Christmas item and Atari properties appeared on T Shirts, Toys and even in a licensed comic line from DC Comics.
And then in 1983 the nascent video game industry imploded and Atari was the main casualty.
It would limp along for decades struggling to maintain relevance as the giants of industry like Nintendo, Sega and Sony asserted their place at the top of the Mount Olympus of Video Gaming.
Now as the company celebrates its 45th birthday Atari is back and partnering with DYNAMITE Comics.
First it was last year’s book celebrating the glory of the classic Atari box art but now it returns to a story 30 years in the making.
SwordQuest, the high concept 8 Bit Action Adventure combining ideas of Sword and Sorcery with Kabbalah and Yoga returns to comic book stores next week.
We spoke to them about how they came to be involved in the book, their writing method and Tomax and Xomat in the first part of our exclusive interview.
AC: Dynamite published a collection of Atari box art last year but Swordquest is the first in a relaunched line of Atari licensed books, how did you come to be involved?
CHAD: I’d been emailing back and forth with a few editors at Dynamite for about a year, when Kevin Ketner reached out to me and asked if Chris and I would be interested in doing something with an Atari property, and we said “yes”, of course! Kevin’s offer really couldn’t have come at a better time, either, as Chris and I had just recently had a long conversation about how incredible that Atari art book was. So we were definitely primed and in the right mindset to get to work!
CHRIS: I remember looking through that art book and seeing all that beautiful painted box art next to the screenshots of the games, and there’s such a huge gap between what they intended and what the technology could provide back in the early ‘80s. That gap is a really fun place to tell stories, because you have to piece it together for yourself from those weird blocky figures on the screen — and in the case of SwordQuest, it’s bigger than most. Even before you get into the real-world contest that’s so compelling, there’s this deep mythology behind those games that’s meant to be influenced by stuff like the Zodiac and the I Ching. Trying to bridge that gap is really interesting for us.
AC: Why do you think now is the right time to reintroduce the world to SwordQuest?
CHAD: 2017 marks the 45th anniversary of Atari, and it’s a great time to celebrate not just Atari the game system, but Atari the culture. Video games and comics have shared a similar evolution since the 80s, and with this new line of Atari-inspired books, there’s a unique opportunity for creators to explore the concepts of these classic games without any kind of mandate, or directives from Atari or Dynamite. The only expectation is for us to make good comics, and hopefully that’s what we’re doing!
CHRIS: For me, I think a lot of it came from just being really interested in retro games, and the stories behind how they were created. 1983 is a fascinating year, with the crash of the video game market that would really mean the end of SwordQuest. When we started doing research into the game and the contest, we realized that this was a story that existed in real life and in the world of video games that never got its proper ending in either. That’s a rare thing to find, and as writers, we couldn’t resist trying to tell it.
AC: I was in kindergarten when the SwordQuest games were released and I had never heard of the game until I started researching for this interview. What are your memories of the games from your childhood?
CHAD: Honesty, I’m right there with you. I think I remember at least seeing the box art when I was a kid, but maybe I’m just confusing that with Krull or something else. I mean, the 80s were the legitimately the height of the sword and sorcery craze, and one of the coolest things about the SwordQuest games is just how much the whole series committed to the genre, and just sat right down in the middle of it all and made itself at home.
Going back to the Atari art book for just a second, those SwordQuest pages jumped out at me right from the start. The advertising campaign alone let you know it was like nothing else happening in video games at the time, and now that we’ve researched the whole phenomenon, I know that had I been a few years older, SwordQuest would’ve been my full-tilt jam. It’s exactly the kind of thing a small town kid like myself would’ve been obsessed with, no doubt.
AC: The early 80s were such a strange time for video games. It was as if the lava was still cooling and people were still codifying the rules of what games could and couldn’t be. Is there some spark of genius or inspiration that we just don’t see any more now that games are a multi billion dollar a year business with franchises, release calendars and Funko pops?
CHAD: 80s video games are a lot like Golden Age comics, in that so much of what’s great about them is watching these incredibly talented people trying to figure out what they are exactly.
CHRIS: Yeah, exactly. For me, sitting down to read about SwordQuest gave me that same feeling that I get from reading through those old comics from the ‘40s. No one’s quite sure what you can do, and a lot of times it feels like they’re just making up rules so they can break them. The thing is, when you really look at the history of SwordQuest, it seems like it was one of the first big attempts to make one of those blockbuster franchises. There was a contest with a hundred thousand dollars in prizes, a story that was spread over four games, and they got the guys who were unquestionably the top talent at DC Comics to draw the comic that would tell the story. They might not have had the Funko Pops, but they were trying. It just didn’t quite work out the way they’d hoped!
AC: You have been writing partners for 4 or 5 years now since Down Set Fight but you’ve been friends longer than that is that right?
CHAD: Yeah, Chris and I met about seventeen years ago when I was in college, working the counter at a local comic shop, and he was in high school. We talked a lot at the store, but it wasn’t until Chris started working at the store a few years later that we started really hanging out and getting to know each other.
CHRIS: Yeah, we were both doing some writing projects, and we’d bat around ideas with each other until it just made sense to collaborate. That was in 2008, and we’ve pretty much been stuck with each other ever since.
AC: Can I assume that you’ve gone ahead and had custom Tag Team Champions belts made for yourselves?
CHAD: Do matching Tomax and Xamot banners count?
CHRIS: I am literally typing this while sitting in front of a drawing of the two of us as the Road Warriors that our pal Mike Sudduth did at a convention once.
AC: You also have Ash vs Army of Darkness coming out from Dynamite mid year, are you working on both that and Swordquest at the same time?
CHAD: Absolutely! We’re writing both, effectively, at the same time, but we don’t jump back and forth between the two books all that much. It tends to take us about a week to write a script, so like, for instance, we’re working on SwordQuest #2 right now, and we’ll dive right into AOD #2 the week after that.
CHRIS: Yeah, the deadlines are staggered, so we don’t usually have to work on one before the other is finished. Which is good — as fun as it might be to see a bunch of Deadites show up and start talking about old video games, I don’t think Atari or MGM would be amused!
AC: Does your writing process change when you’re writing creator owned work compared to licensed stuff or other work for hire assignments?
CHRIS: Believe it or not, we’ve been really lucky in that regard. One of the great things about working on X-Men ‘92 was that we got to be in our own universe, which meant that we had all the fun of writing a comic about characters we already loved as fans, but we didn’t have to worry about anything conflicting with anyone else’s comic. We essentially got to treat one of the biggest franchises in superheroes as though we were writing a creator owned book, and I think that shows in how wild we were able to get with it. With Dynamite, it’s been the same way — our editors there have been amazingly supportive of what we’ve wanted to do on both SwordQuest and Ash vs. Army of Darkness, and so have the licensors. Obviously, there’s a little difference in the planning because we have something that already exists to work from — and that really holds true with AOD, where we’re picking up right after the movie — but with SwordQuest, it’s a lot closer than you think.
SwordQuest Zero launches next week on May 3rd with a special 25c Introductory Issue. You can order it online from Dynamite, read it online through Comixology or use Comic Shop Locator to find your friendly neighbourhood comic book shop.
Chris and Chad will be back in Part 2 to talk about following in the footsteps of Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and George Perez and the unbelievable real world story of the gold, jewels and riches Atari offered to those who dared to undertake the SwordQuest.