ComicBuzz Chats With Dave Maass and Patrick Lay

With the release of Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis graphic novel from Berger Books and Dark Horse Comics today, we are delighted to be joined by Dave Maass and Patrick Lay. Dave is a journalist and a writer. Patrick is a comic creator, educator and artist.


Could you please introduce yourselves to our readers?


Howdy! I’m Dave, and I’m the writer of a brand new graphic novel adaptation of a satirical anti-war opera written in 1943 by two brilliant prisoners at the Terezín concentration camp. The rest of the time, though, I investigate police surveillance technology at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and teach watchdog techniques to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Reno. On the side, I also covered San Diego Comic Con for Rolling Stone, Vice, Daily Beast and other publications for about a decade.


Hi, hello! I’m a comic creator and educator from Northwest Ohio. I’ve been self-publishing in the indie scene for almost a decade. A decade? Wow, yes. I was on art duties for mult-, an all-ages scif-fi book written by Nick Dutro and I wrote and drew Screaming Mimi Kids, a webcomic. I also teach Comics and Narrative Illustration at Columbus College of Art and Design; shout out to all my comics students!


When did you first discover the suppressed opera written by Peter Kien and Viktor Ullmann?



Almost 25 years ago, when I was a young mallrat learning that there were other rebellious music genres other than punk, I came across a classical music sampler featuring music by 20th century composers suppressed by the Nazis. I took it home and was instantly enchanted, particularly with Der Kaiser von Atlantis, since it felt so very modern and defiant and included a lot of elements from science fiction and fantasy that I was reading at the time.


I learned about it from Dave when we met in 2018. There is a very cool convention and comics camp in Juneau, AK put on by Alaska Robotics Gallery and we both happened to be there that year. Dave and I started talking about what it would take to get this long-term project he had been working on off the ground and he laid out his plans for Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, which absolutely blew me away.

Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis

How would you describe the suppressed opera written by Peter Kien and Viktor Ullmann?


Der Kaiser von Atlantis is set in an alternative universe where Atlantis never sank, but instead became a technologically advanced military state, ruled by a cruel emperor obsessed with the mathematics of war. When the emperor declares that everyone left alive must battle everyone else, Death decides to walk off the job, leaving a hellscape where everyone fights but no one dies. It’s a dark comedy full of wordplay and absurdity, but also a lot of hope.


Could you tell us about the origins of Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis graphic novel?


I’ve wanted to turn Death Strikes into a comic for a couple of decades, but I didn’t really pursue it in earnest until 2018 or so. That’s when I headed to Alaska Robotics’ Comics Camp to learn more about what it would take to pull it altogether. In 2019 and 2020, I began drafting the script and recruiting artists–first Ezra Rose to do the designs, and then Patrick for the sequential art. Then in 2021, with a solid proposal in hand, I started approaching agents and publishers.


What can you tell us about Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis graphic novel?


Death Strikes isn’t the raw libretto overlaid with images. We really set out to honor the source material by adapting it into a compelling narrative that stands on its own. We stayed true to the story and flow, but we expanded the dialogue and deepened the characters, yet always drawing inspiration from history. But we weren’t overly reverent, since irreverence is the hallmark of the opera. I like to think readers will find this book is closer to Neil Gaiman than it is to Art Spiegelman.


I agree—I think this will be really interesting and unexpected for most comic fans. You may be able to read it in a single sitting, and you’ll have a fascinating experience, but the more you learn about the origins and the history the more you’ll want to revisit the story. It feels so relevant to the present moment, too. It’s almost shocking to learn the story is 80 years old.


Patrick, what sort of research did you carry out or reference materials did you use to get the visual look for Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis?


The goal was to fill up the world with history and context that enriches the experience, but keeps the story the main focus. Dave had specific touchpoints already included in the script, so you’ll find references to Peter Kien’s artwork, photos from his life, and the lives of others that were affected by Nazi violence. We also went on a research trip to Terezín and Prague, which was a huge influence on the architecture and settings of Atlantis. Chapter headings, medic bags, weapons, and vehicles are all derived from historic artifacts, some of which we saw in person and others we found while researching. One of my favorite tidbits is a wrecked Tatra 87 in the middle spread of the book. The Tatra 87 was a Czech car from the 30s that looks like it came from space and had a reputation as a Nazi-killer. Several were commandeered by occupying Nazi officers who weren’t used to the powerful engines and handling, so they ended up in fatal car crashes. It was a subtle way to add history to the art without interrupting the narrative.


Dave, in terms of writing the Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, how would you describe that process; was it difficult?


Early on in the project, I wasn’t sure how much to veer from the original. Should I just write something that’s mostly fresh, but just “inspired” by the opera? Should I stick verbatim to the original libretto? Finding the right balance was important to me. Ultimately, the writing flowed pretty well, once I’d put in the leg work of talking to experts, tracking down the original texts, and visiting the Czech Republic to see some of the sites in person.


Patrick, visually, what was your aim for Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis?


The original opera was developed in pretty extreme circumstances so they leaned on the audience’s imagination to fill in a lot of the settings. We got to visualize those fantastical settings, and I wanted to indulge in smoke and mist that impossible things could emerge from. Death Strikes comes from the stage, not a movie, and I kept that in mind as I posed the characters and thought about the lighting. We thought sticking to black and white would immediately remind the reader of the historical nature of the book, but also allowed us to point towards theatricality. The art was always a balancing act between fantasy and realism: creating both on the page in the same moment.


How did Dark Horse Comics get involved with Death Strikes: The Emperorof Atlantis?


I’d met Karen at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019, while working on a story about Nnedi Okorafor’s LaGuardia, which to me was one of the most defiant books of the Trump era. It was political and topical, while still being a satisfying science fiction comic. So, when we were compiling a list of publishers with our agent, Madison Smartt Bell, I asked him to add Karen’s name as a long shot. And sure enough, it paid off!


What has it been like working with Karen Berger?


Wonderful! Karen is one of the most influential comic editors of all time; she really changed the way the comics industry sees the medium and I think Death Strikes probably wouldn’t have been possible as a comic without her work. So it was a huge honor to work with her, but she is also so kind! Creative work is hard and having someone that pushes for the work to be the best it can be, but in a way that’s respectful and kind? Makes it a joy.


As a first time comics author, I was hyper-aware that my lack of experience would leave some major flaws in my story telling. But with Karen involved, it meant that we had the best possible editor to ensure the final product matched our vision. Throughout the process, Karen was great at identifying the narrative weak points, but instead of making suggestions or rewriting chunks, she always left it to me to find new solutions. That not only made the book better, but made me a better writer.


Dave, do you have a character from Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis that you enjoyed most writing for?


I’ll probably change this answer every time I get asked it, I love them all so much. Each of the first three chapters focus on a dynamic between two characters: Life and Death, the Emperor and his radio, an unnamed soldier and a worker–so it’s really hard to separate them out. Life and Death are probably my favorite characters, but their dialogue is really quite close to the original text. The character that really took on a life of her own was the worker: in the original, she is just a farm girl with not a lot of depth—perhaps all-too-typical of the treatment of women in fiction. Without changing the story, we were able to cast her as a give-no-f’s rebel with a penchant for bleak poetry, who really becomes one of the heroes of the book.


Any message for the ComicBuzz readers?


When you’re reading this book, don’t focus too much on its origin. I hope you’ll lose yourself in the world of Atlantis and absorb the beauty and humor, so that when you’re done you can reflect on the circumstances under which it was conceived, what it would’ve meant to the prisoners of Terezín and how it reflects on the world we live in today.


Thanks for hanging out with us here on ComicBuzz! Check out Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, I think it’s really unique and you’ve probably never read anything quite like it before.

We would like to say thank you to Dave and Patrick for chatting with us. We would like to wish them both the best of luck for the Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis graphic novel release.

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