WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean "Cheeks" Galloway

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|09.13.12

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WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean "Cheeks" Galloway
WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean 'Cheeks' Galloway
Pearl of Pandaria, the latest comics offering from Blizzard and DC, releases September 25. The tale of Li Li Stormstout and her journey to find her Uncle Chen was written by Senior Writer and Voice Director Micky Neilson, whose other works include Unbroken, Ashbringer, and Curse of the Worgen. Bringing the book to life is Sean "Cheeks" Galloway, whose other works include character design for Hellboy Animated and Spectacular Spider-Man.

That's an impressive bunch of credits for an equally impressive book. Sean and Micky were kind enough to sit down with us and discuss the art and history behind Pearl of Pandaria. In addition, we talked short stories and comics as well as some exciting upcoming print projects and the answer to the pesky question of why pandaren eyes are gold instead of green.

Sean, you've done character design work for Hellboy Animated and Spectacular Spiderman as well as a ton of other comic projects. What brought you to Warcraft?

Sean: Well you know, Micky and company at Blizzard were looking for something different with the story in terms of artwork. So they reached out to me and pretty much when they reached out to me I went down and had a meeting with them and I was just really intrigued by the whole meeting. I already wanted to say yes even before leaving the meeting.

I pretty much owe it to Micky and Samwise and Jeremy and Doug who were part of the process of having my team try out for the project. It was such a different type of art style than they were used to for this type of property.

Does anyone on your team play Warcraft?

I don't particularly because I have an addictive type that comes over me when I play video games, but the majority of the guys that were on the project with me had huge knowledge about the game and are huge fans of the game and the property itself. So I knew they had the right fit. They were able to do an extension of the type of art style that I do, so I knew they were a good fit. I tested them out with my own personal property, so I knew it would be a good transition once I got the green light to bring my studio on board.

The backgrounds are dead on with the game world. Were you guys working off of references?

We knew it well, but things change -- so anything that was needed, Blizzard and DC provided. But for the most part, people knew the characters and the backgrounds. It was just a matter of illustrating the most current update of whatever was needed for the pages.

Tell us a little about your team?

We handle the stuff like an animation team. Myself and another guy, we tackled backgrounds and then another guy and myself, we tackled the layouts. Before anything though, I had to get the designs approved, so I did the designs for it. But then I also brought on two colorists, because the painterly style is a longer process than just doing the quick cel-shade animation type of rendering -- so I had to bring on two for that, one guy from the east coast and another from here in LA.

WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean 'Cheeks' Galloway
The book's got a Saturday Morning cartoon feel to it in spots. If Blizzard were ever to do an animated series, is that something you'd be interested in?

You know, if Blizzard would have me in on that, I would be honored. This project has got to be one of the most fun I've worked on in my career. The writing was phenominal. For me, I've been a fan of the property, but I didn't know it like the back of my hand like the other guys. But reading the script, when reading it, Micky had written a script that was already building the images in my head. So it wasn't hard to fall in love with the property from a story standpoint.

Micky: Thank you, I appreciate that!

Sean: Yeah, and I really mean that Micky. I've worked with a lot of writers and all of them are wonderful, but the writing stuff you had with this one, it was good stuff.

You've got a really distinctive art style. Was it hard trying to mesh that with the feel of Warcraft?

Well there's always the fear of fan reaction, but at the end of the day I have to put the fear aside and do what I was brought in to do. So when they initially took me into consideration, I took a test for it, it was more about trying to get the designs approved, so they could see what pages would actually look like. There was always that little bit of stress. But once we started getting feedback with Blizzard and DC behind the pages being turned in, it just made the job a little more relaxing for sure.

Were there any races that were a challenge to design?

You know, it's funny because I just started drawing animals within the last couple of years, understanding their form a bit better. So to take on this type of project was pretty risk-taking within itself. But I think the only design -- it wasn't really difficult, but Rahjak. I had a different vision for him, but I'm really glad that Blizzard pulled me back on it because I think fans would have been really upset of the first initial pass -- it was a little off its mark!

Micky: It was cool, it was really cool! But it was definitely different from the fel orc blademaster, the traditional fel orc blademaster.

WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean 'Cheeks' Galloway
Micky, you've done both short story and comic work. What are some of the differences between writing the two?

The biggest difference for me is employing lessons that I learned writing screenplays. I did a lot of screenwriting, and was in the situation where I didn't get things sold or produced as feature films. But what I learned during that time was invaluable. I did that for about ten years, actually with Samwise. We wrote a bunch of scripts together. The lesson that you learn from that, especially when it comes to economy of writing, is something that translates directly to writing for a comic book.

So whether you're using the Marvel method where you're doing plot roughs and the artist goes in and creates pages and then you come in and do the final script on top of that -- which is how Pearl was done -- or if you do the script from the get go, you'll notice if you look at scripts for comics and you look at screenplays, the format is very, very similar. And there's a really good reason for that, so a lot of writers who excel at writing screenplays will also do very well when it comes to writing comics. That's where you get into the economy and everything else.

For writing short stories and when you're writing prose, you can go into a lot more detail. You can afford to take a bit more time -- I quite often do. I did -- there's a story that's going to be coming out soon called Blood of the Highborne.

What's that about?

It's gonna be really really cool. It goes into the attack on Silvermoon and it goes into the origin of the blood knights, and it goes back into some deeper history with the elves and the trolls and everything else. It started off the same way Unbroken started off -- as just a way to use a short story to explain. Like for Unbroken, it was explaining the draenei shaman.

For this, it was a way to explain the blood knights, but it turned into a novella, because I just spent so much time on it and there was so much that I wanted to say! It was originally supposed to be another short story for the website, but it's going to be published in print form because it turned into a novella. It's going to be part of a bindup that we're doing along with the leader short stories.

You're releasing the leader short stories in print?

Yeah! It's kind of a little experiment, we'll see how that goes -- because obviously those stories have been put up for free on the web. Now we're putting them out in print form and selling that as part of the bindup. We're including other short stories -- Unbroken will be part of that as well.

Sort of like a webcomic model -- giving people a product for free, then selling a physical version of it.

Right, and that's something that we're trying out. For me, as a fan myself, it's one thing to be able to read the content on the computer or even printed out as a pdf. But I really like having a book to put on my shelf and display proudly, having it in that format. It's something that I would buy myself.

Do you know when that's going to be released?

Nothing that I can say for sure just yet. It's on the horizon!

WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean 'Cheeks' Galloway
Let's talk about Li Li. She's a kid -- how old is she?

So with pandaren ages, it's a little bit different. I imagined Li Li as kind of a tween, even though I think she comes across as maybe a little bit younger. To me, it was right in that tween age, but I was actually modeling some of her dialogue and things like that after my own daughter. My daughter's nine. So I'm sure a little bit of that crept in there as well, so she does come across as really young, but she was meant to be a little bit older.

We haven't really seen a lot of child characters that have had this kind of in-depth development before. How did her development come about?

It started with the brainstorming process for Pearl of Pandaria. And what's interesting with Pearl is that Pearl was originally conceived years ago. It was -- I think it was around The Burning Crusade when we originally sat down and started brainstorming what the story would be. And at that time, there were no plans for an expansion where you would be able to visit Pandaria. So the book was really just going to be a way to inform people about Pandaria, and about Chen, and serve also as a kind of travel guide to the world of Azeroth.

So we sat down and started going through that, and it was me and Chris Metzen and Samwise, we were just tossing ideas back and forth and we came up with the idea of this little pandaren who would serve as the observer, the channel that we're seeing the world through. And if we're seeing it through her eyes, then obviously it's a much different viewpoint if we're talking about a younger pandaren. So she's got that wide-eyed optimism and as you observed in your review, she's in this incredibly dangerous world, but she's just having the time of her life.

She's just going out there seeing all this stuff and she's amazed by it and having so much fun in the way that kids don't have these preconceptions, biases and prejudices. It's the same kind of thing that becomes a very important theme in the book -- tolerance and acceptance of other people and cultures, religions and everything else. Having that shown through the eyes of a younger pandaren seemed like the best way to go. So her character kind of developed from there in the writing of that book, and then the character was kind of adopted by team two when the plans were made to actually have an expansion.

Are we going to see more about the Pearl of Pandaria in game at some point?

Not as much in the game. Where you will see it is in Quest for Pandaria, which is written by Sarah Pine. That will be coming up, it'll actually -- I think the first installment of that will pop up a little before the official release of Pearl of Pandaria. So we're going to put up a message on the website that says if you want to avoid spoilers, we recommend that you read Pearl of Pandaria before Quest for Pandaria.

But Quest for Pandaria continues the story of the Pearl, and it continues Li Li and Chen's story as they continue. They're going to be using the Pearl to search for the island of Pandaria. The Pearl will be revealed in Quest for Pandaria, and the way its revealed is really cool and really fun.

Cataclysm saw a whole series of Leader short stories. Can we expect to see anything like that for Mists?

Yes. I can't give details, but yes we are working on a similar execution. It's some really cool stuff that we've got planned, similar kind of thing to the Leader short stories.

WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean 'Cheeks' Galloway
In the back of Pearl, there are extra pages that mention that the eyes of the pandaren were changed from green to gold. Why the change?

Well I want to mention something specifically here, and this is really a huge kudos to Sean and Sean's team, because they really stepped up. You can tell by looking at the quality of the artwork that they take it very seriously and they have a lot of pride in their work, and obviously it's an extremely high level of execution. But they also were very gracious when it came to making changes. So there are a couple of changes in the back of the book I want to mention.

One is the origin of the turtle. It used to be that the turtle actually swallowed the Pearl when the turtle was smaller. And you can see the page in the back of the book and it was just beautifully illustrated by Sean and the studio. We really wanted to get that in there, even though the origin of the turtle changed as the development of the expansion progressed.

For the eyes, if you've seen the Mists of Pandaria cinematic, you see the golden eyes there. And that was actually a decision that was made because the understanding was made that in China -- and I don't know if this is the same for other Asian cultures as well -- green eyes can denote demonic possession. And so it was very important really in keeping with the whole theme of thinking globally and being very tolerant of other cultures and accepting of other cultures and beliefs that we change the eye color, and not be offensive.

Are we going to see any more projects between you guys in the future?

Sean: I'm totally open for it! Like I said, it was a wonderful experience. Depending on if Blizzard and DC would like us to come back, we're totally open for it. I talked to the studio and we all had a really good time on the project.

Micky: Same thing over here! It was really a great experience, and I'm excited to see how Pearl is received, I hope it does well and I hope that people really respond to this style and this type of storytelling, because I had a lot of fun writing it! It was a blast, it was just a departure from the kind of writing that I normally do for WoW, which like Ashbringer and Curse of the Worgen tends to be pretty dark and pretty somber. This was just a fun departure for me to be able to write something a little more lighthearted. I think it would be really fun to do similar kinds of projects in the future.

WoW Insider interviews Micky Neilson and Sean 'Cheeks' Galloway
We've got Dark Riders scheduled to come out soon, and Bloodsworn.

Micky: Those are in progress. The art is incredible, and the stories have been nailed down for awhile now. It was really just about getting the art to be as close to perfect as we could, and getting the right folks on those two projects. We've succeeded in that along with DC, and so those projects are moving forward and back on track.

Any plans for any more comic projects besides those?

We're talking about all kinds of things. We're kind of in the brainstorming phase right now for what we're going to be looking at next year and beyond. So we're talking about all kinds of exciting stuff.

Ever thought about doing a webcomic?

Webcomics is something that we've discussed, and it's an idea that's on the table.

Thank you for the interview, guys – I hope we see more from you both in the future!

Pearl of Pandaria is slated to release on September 25th. You can preorder the hardcover edition on Amazon for $17.32. At this time, it doesn't look like there's an ebook version set to be released. If a digital edition becomes available, we'll let you know.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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