A Writer’s Commentary: Genevieve Valentine on Xena: Warrior Princess #1. Art by Ariel Medel.
Welcome to the comic commentary for XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS #1! The arc title for this is “All Roads,” for reasons that become very clear very quickly. To me, one of the most fascinating things about the post-time-jump canon on the show is the brief glimpse we get of a kid who’s become a Caesar in their absence, and though he’s portrayed in the show as morally gray rather than just Julius-level megalomaniac, he did do some fairly iffy stuff even in the brief time we met him again, and the Roman Empire at this point was only expanding its influence. The show went to new locales after the Livia/Eve arc, but to me the combination of the time jump, the Twilight of the Gods, and coming back to this new Roman status quo was the perfect jumping-off point for a Xena story.
And like so many Xena stories, this one starts with Gabrielle.
This vision/fever dream sequence is technically a talent she exhibited in the show (only once or twice, and usually for immediate plot reasons), but this sidestep into comics gave us a chance do a lot of things. One, to make her running joke with Xena that she has the “gift of prophecy” come into play; two, to give us a chance for some fantasy/surreal imagery in a story that’s earthbound, and three, to ask what is to me a very interesting question – what would Gabrielle do with visions? Gabrielle, as a storyteller by nature and someone who’s been through vampirism and a couple of musical episodes, probably has vivid dreams to begin with, but she’s also seen plenty, and has grown more practical about the supernatural as we’ve gone alone. Here, in the middle of her vision, we see her trying to make a narrative out of them, as storytellers do, though the vision still knows what matters most to her:
For Gabrielle, that will always be Xena. Nothing else would rattle her like Xena in danger. But we also wanted an image vague enough that Gabrielle wouldn’t have to act in the moment; it’s a suggestion that lingers.
Let it be noted I am a sucker for Xena showing up suddenly and unexpectedly where she’s needed most on behalf of the defenseless. (It’s a very handy skill of hers I could probably take more advantage of, honestly; the logistics of transit are the worst.) And this is also an example of the body-language beats Ariel put in that I love so much. It was important to both of us to avoid girlish poses. Xena is always ready to rush into the fray, and her feet are rarely less than shoulder-width apart.
I also wanted to sneak in a hint of damaging legacies—blaming the next generation for the sins of their forebears—and a glimpse of Xena’s party line on the moral responsibilities of the world in the wake of the gods. Turns out it’s as insistent as her usual party line, and just got more ruthless. (Also, using your god of choice as a reason to hate kids is shitty, full stop.)
I wanted to iris out into the full scope of the arc rather than opening wide; Xena and Gabrielle left Rome with some amount of residual forgiveness for the guy in charge, but the problems of an empire are going to keep cropping up. And I don’t tend to go for moppet-y kids in fiction: Ariel gave them a lot of animation, but I like that they get grim rather than sour; they’re survivors. I wanted kids who had already internalized a lot of the problems that people are facing.
Two-point distraction will keep cropping up; for now, we know Xena has a soft spot for kids that can manage a decent pickpocket trade in hostile territory.
I love writing for Xena and Gabrielle at this point in the canon. It’s a bond that’s been tested by so much, and by now it’s a relationship that has its own life underneath any of their dialogue. For that same reason, I wanted a few lighter moments in this issue, since – as with most things that involve Xena – the drama level is going to escalate, and we started heavy. Plus, so much of what makes Gabrielle great is how she works to hold on to joy as her reason for fighting, rather than as a harbor from it. She’s going to tell stories to offset the dinner bill, and she’s going to tell the goofiest-ass ones.
My script for this issue was vague about the choreography of her storytelling, since I wasn’t even sure what would be feasible; Ariel did great work with her Serious Storytelling face, and the coloring here is such a warm, comforting palette that it feels like a beat of respite between problems. Plus it has my favorite old-marrieds beat in this issue – that quick check-in with each other as they realize it’s time to skip town and get to the bottom of something.
Borias! I love the glimpses we got of Xena’s past in the show, no matter how occasionally-convoluted everything became or how many centaurs got involved. It’s a very human journey; she’s had some very dark times, but you can see the joy she took in the moment and the struggles to hold on to what she wanted. She and Borias could be destructive, but they were also two people who respected one another and found a connection. It was messy, and eventually tragic, but her time with him was an important part of her past. (I also love how Nanjan sets the white space against these beats. I think memory can often work like that; certain impressions linger as the rest of that beat in time falls away.)
But Xena back then could also be a jerk! She definitely hated feeling as if she was in someone’s debt or that someone was setting themselves morally above her in a world she viewed as ruthless, and her first introduction to the Harpies goes about as well as you could expect. (I love the contrast between her expressions here and her much more open expressions with Gabrielle and the kids in the modern day. Xena’s changed a lot in the intervening years.)
The Harpies, as you might expect, come back into play later. One of the things I wanted to do was make the most of the scope; Ariel grounds the geography, but he also made sure everything felt lived-in, sometimes even crowded, and that makes it easier to introduce characters like the Harpies, a deliberately-nomadic group that we know has a fight on an ever-widening perimeter: this world is wide. (This Harpy is also the most magnanimous of the ones we’ll meet. The rest of them have some deals.)
A sign you have come to comics from prose is when you spend a full sentence describing the texture of a piece of fabric that signifies your band of roving women warriors so that later, when one of them has a slightly different texture, your heroes will know it’s a fraud, and your artist and editor point out that if you just gave them a sigil it would save everyone about one hundred years of wondering what the hell was going on with the random scrap of fabric. It’s nice that this is a collaborative medium.
Part of what I find so interesting about the spread of an empire is the small ways in which the system of power tries to desensitize you to the tools of the police state. You can’t just start with an invasion; you start with propaganda about someone on the fringes, and so suddenly the Harpies – rather than fighters for indigenous rights against the encroachment of Rome – become agents of destruction with their eye on innocent people who should just ally with Rome for their own good, or else. And that authority comes in small doses, at first: you allow them to occupy your land because to refuse them means making a powerful enemy; you submit to searches because to do otherwise gives the people in power grounds to arrest you for having something to hide. I’m not saying this is the equivalent of Xena agreeing to go through the bullshit X-Ray at the airport in order to avoid anybody searching her suitcase, but I’m not NOT saying that.
In the show, Xena and Gabrielle had to deal with some giant and immediate consequences of being gone for 25 years and then killing several gods, and then the show moved them to new pastures. I really wanted a quiet beat of this. Xena and Gabrielle have been so committed to changing the world for the better that their absence should hit home.
We get a hint of the increasing prejudice against those still not “civilized” by Rome. We see that while people might not even believe in Rome’s promises, the Twilight of the Gods is still a shake-up that has altered the emotional landscape in which people are trying to function, and Xena and Gabrielle get that. (Plus I wanted to put a gag banner on a temple. This is Xena, and I’m not made of stone.)
We also see Aya omitting the names of her rescuers. Given everything that’s going on, it’s best for Xena not to publicize right away, and Aya knows it. She went through that town; she’s a smart enough kid not to announce anything and draw attention to herself or Laila. Enjoy their happiness! They are the only two people who will not be in peril in the next few issues.
Some discussion of the arc-long problems, which tie into Gabrielle’s fears about the future and Xena’s ruthless pragmatism. Gabrielle wants to believe that people are innately good, and takes bad people as they cross her path. Xena assumes everyone’s capable of darkness at any time, and acts accordingly. It means she’s actually more prepared for a worst-case scenario than Gabrielle is, moment to moment. Gabrielle’s sadness at the top of page 19 isn’t naivety; she figured some people had been vicious, but hopes the kid she fought beside 25 years ago still lives inside the emperor, and Xena assumes that this is a deliberate campaign run by a man whom power has corrupted, and that kid is past helping.
The coloring in the woods here echoes the change in tone; a visual cue that we’re getting into some of the big points. It’s one of those conversations that’s only possible with a pair that’s been together for as long as they have, a strategy discussion where the respective starting points are understood. The key point of difference is that for Gabrielle’s, she and Xena have almost always been on the same side, fighting to improve things, and often winning. But all told, Xena knows a lot more about toppling than rebuilding, and has seen how well this kind of manipulation works. At this point, they tend not to have opposing views so much as different shades of the same argument, but the reason Gabrielle can’t talk about her vision here isn’t just that they’re interrupted – it’s that her saying “Rome will be the death of you” isn’t specific enough to a woman who’s been through as much as Xena has.
Whoops, it’s the Harpies! A new roster, so Xena has no Borias-era goodwill to lean on, and a group of warriors who have spent the last 25 years in the vigilante vacuum Xena and Gabrielle left behind. They’re looking for some answers.
Next issue we see them in more detail with a properly pulpy introduction, just before a…discussion breaks out; their introduction here is more impressionistic given 1) Xena and Gabrielle’s perspective in the moment, where their appearance is so sudden, their numbers unexpected, and our heroes know they’re going to have to defend themselves on two fronts, and 2) because if there is a way to cram 24 pages of story in a 20-page issue, I will probably end up doing that, and so the red-carpet intro opens issue 2, when Xena and Gabrielle will fight for their honor as vigilantes! Also just fight.
For more on Xena: Warrior Princess #1, click here.