Comicadia Interviews: Otto Gruenwald (The Power of Stardust)

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I’m guessing “taxes” isn’t one of his powers…

Today we’re in for quite a treat. We were able to interview Otto Gruenwald of the spectacular webcomic The Power of Stardust. What makes this doubly interesting is that Stardust and some of the other characters that appear in The Power of Stardust, are public domain characters. That’s like open season for story tellers! So, without further adieu, let’s dive into the creative minds behind The Power of Stardust!

Tell us about yourself?

ELA teacher’s assistant by day, webcomic creator by night, presenting the one and only Otto Gruenwald!

Now “Otto Gruenwald” isn’t actually my real name. Much like a superhero, I have a secret identity. I like to keep my online life online and my offline life offline. I do this mostly because, as I’ve said, I’m a teacher’s assistant working my way slowly but steadily up to principal, and one thing they stress to you in EDU classes is that you should always present yourself as a professional to your students, not a peer. That means no playing video games with them, no friending them on social media, no hanging out with them, and no getting them to follow your webcomic. You want them to know you as their teacher and only as their teacher and I take my job very seriously.

The handle is also because I’m old enough to remember when dial-up was a thing and the first rule of ye olde internet was “no real name, no real pictures.” As a culture, we’ve moved far away from pushing anonymity on the internet likely because governments and corporations have a vested interest on getting us to willingly surrender our private information through the honeypot that is social media.

I miss the days when we treated the internet like a speakeasy instead of a market square.

I also miss Street Sharks. Anyone remember those?

My hobbies and interests include comparative religion, pre-Tolkien fantasy (such as Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald), folklore, superhero comics, forteana, and conspiracy theories. I spend a lot of time at gutenberg.org and sacred-texts.com.

My favorite book is Flatland, my favorite movie is Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, my favorite overall author is Harlan Ellison, my favorite overall director is John Ford, my favorite television show is the Twilight Zone, my favorite magazine is Fortean times, my favorite superhero is Superman, and my favorite color is white.

…By the way, “Otto Gruenwald” comes from two of my favorite comic writers. “Otto” comes from Otto Binder who wrote for Captain Marvel and Superman back in the silver age (he created Mary Marvel, Supergirl, Brainiac, Kandor, and Adam LInk best known for being the robot on the Outer Limits episode I Robot) and “Gruenwald” comes from Mark Gruenwald who wrote Squadron Supreme (his ashes were mixed in the first printing of the trade paperback) and Quasar.

Tell us about your work?

The Power of Stardust is a weird superhero comic featuring reimagined public domain characters in an alternate 1940’s where WW2 started sooner, lasted longer, and involved things and beings vastly more destructive than nuclear bombs. An Earth full of golden age superheroes are going to go up against the most infamous golden age superhero of them all–Stardust the Super Wizard!

You can think of it as “All-Star Squadron falls into an episode of the Outer Limits.”

Stardust is an outsider. He’s a being from a simple universe where problems are solved instantly, there’s no such thing as death, and beings spend their time sharing their forms with each other for the novelty of it. He accidentally comes to Earth’s universe and he’s horrified by what he sees. People die. People suffer. Where he’s from, you are what you want to be. But no one on Earth decides how they’re born. And his revulsion at the cosmic order is furthered when he sees that pain extends down to even the smallest part of the universe, to even a planet called Earth stuck in a long and bloody world war.

He sets about to fix things. But he’s an inhuman being judging humans, and his solutions are likewise inhuman solutions.

Can a planetful of superheroes defuse the walking timebomb that is Stardust before it’s too late for Earth–and the multiverse?

You can find out for the the low cost of a single click…

Why did you decide to use a character in the public domain?

I’ve always liked the public domain. I would have to since I became an ELA teacher right? And I’ve always liked adaptations and reimaginings. I think it might have started back in middle school when I first got exposed to Alan Moore. Watchmen reimagined Charleston Comics characters. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen put a superhero spin on Victorian era science fiction and adventure characters. Supreme was Alan Moore’s take on Superman. Terra Obscura reimaged Nedor Comics characters. And so on, and so on. I love the idea of taking a familiar character and applying them in a new context.

When I first decided to make a webcomic, I knew it had to be about a public domain superhero. I ran through a couple of ideas–a war story involving the Black Terror, a spy story involving Daredevil (the two-colored guy with the boomerang, not the blind lawyer–he came later), and I even gave some thought to using the Marvel Family. But I settled on using Stardust the Super-Wizard. He was at just the right level between obscure and popular. Stardust is fairly popular for a public domain superhero. He’s not Captain Marvel or Plastic Man, but he’s got a cult following from the weirdness of his stories. But he wasn’t so popular that I felt intimidated using him like I did considering Captain Marvel. I felt I could use him comfortably. With Captain Marvel, I had a million different ideas but with Stardust I instantly knew the kind of story I was going to write.

When I use the public domain, my goal is to provide interesting reimaginings. I don’t want to just copy and paste all my characters from out of the public domain superheroes wiki–which by the way is an excellent source for anyone interested in reading about or using public domain superheroes as is the digital comics museum which has scans of thousands of golden age comics and…if you don’t mind I would like to plug them here:

https://digitalcomicmuseum.com/

https://pdsh.fandom.com/wiki/Public_Domain_Super_Heroes

Anyhow, I don’t find copy and paste jobs interesting. Writers have done some cool things putting their own spin on public domain superheroes. Alan Moore’s Black Terror turned himself into a computer program. Jim Krueger’s Black Terror was a modern-day rebel against the system that stormed the white house. And our Black Terror mass-produced his formula and created an army. All these different takes came about from using the same character to tell different kinds of stories. Alan Moore wanted to do a story involving vigilante justice getting out hand. His Black Terror turns himself into a computer that can police an entire city at the cost of his humanity. Jim Krueger wanted to make his Black Terror modern and bad-ass and edgy because he wanted to tell a story about superheroes from the past having friction with the modern world. And we wanted to make our Black Terror a symbol for how crazy WW2 has gotten in the setting. It gotten so crazy that a guy who can lift battleships over his head rates as basic infantry fodder.

Stardust in the original comics was a weirdo, but he wasn’t as weird as a star-creature from another universe. Compared to Fletcher Hanks’ Stardust, ours is far more of a poignant character. Hanks’ Stardust was the distilled anger of a very bitter, very bad man. He was a revenge fantasy. He was a “superhero” in the same way post-Gardner Fox Specter was a “superhero.” He didn’t protect people. He only existed to punish evildoers in surreal and frightening way. He was immoral and cold. Our Stardust is far more benevolent and thus far more sad as a character. He legitimately thinks that what he’s doing is the right thing. He thinks he’s bringing light to a fallen world and its sad because he’s wrong. If we made our Stardust closer to the original, we’d lose that pathos.

As the comic develops, you’re going to see a LOT of different public domain characters especially in issue 3 (pity my artist!). And they’ll be little bios of each of them as bonus material. I might even make a game out of it–correctly name all the characters in issue 3 and get drawn as Stardust’s next victim or something like that.

Who doesn’t want to be in the hands of an angry god?

The lore behind Stardust is fascinating. Where did you come up with such an interesting concept for the universes?

I’m afraid it’s the result of a misspent education in the liberal arts. Thankfully I never had to take out a student loan with my scholarships! I read weird things–folklore, the occult, anthropology, silver age comic books…And like every writer I take from what I read.

Our multiverse pulls from a lot of sources. The Eye of Light as “God as pure observing thought” comes from neoplatonism. The creators under the Eye come from agnosticism. The neoplatonic difference between mind and soul and body made our multiverse a triad. The cosmos of light is mind, the cosmos of darkness is soul, and the local multiverse where Earth resides is body.

Time has a huge influence on the multiverse partially taken from Lord Dunsany, but that’s going to come up later in the story.

A lot of people think that the Heart of Darkness is a reference to the final boss of Darkest Dungeons. It is not, though I have nothing against the game. I made the Heart to contrast with the Eye of Light. They’re both organs of God but communicate their functions and roles through radically different designs. The Eye of Light immediately communicates that its an uninvolved, orderly creator by being two geometric shapes casting down a curtain of light. It creates by seeing. And underneath it is all these forms in a tangled soup reaching up to it without ever touching. I thought that was a nice visual. In contrast the Heart of Darkness isn’t at the top of its own cosmos, it’s in the center. Universes are in flux and beat through its veins which are narrative paths. It’s as uninvolved as the Eye but communicates this by being faint. You have to squint to see it because its not only in the background of the cosmos of darkness, it IS the background. It is the very motion of never-ending stories.

Above all, I wanted the multiverse to be visually striking and memorable because it’s the impetus for Stardust’s actions. I wanted the reader to feel like Stardust and have a “What the hell is this?” reaction. Eventually, Stardust is going to have to confront his ideas about the multiverse and hopefully the reader will have a “Huh, so that’s how it really works” reaction along with Stardust.

I think I did a pretty good job designing the Heart and the Eye. The local multiverse…eh, we’ll see. “Multiverse as a bunch of Earths” is an old DC comics tradition but I think we picked a nice cluster to help support Stardust’s idea of “all of creation is out of control and needs to be fixed.” We got a bunch of worlds that make you think “what happened here?” We got a world held together by tubes, a world frozen over, a world that’s solid black and has an eyeball, Bizarro world (there would have to be a cameo since Bizarro is a huge influence on Stardust’s character)—not a lot of “normal” worlds!

I think I could have done better with the wall. A lot of DC comics readers are going to see the wall and think “Aha! The Source Wall!” But I promise there’s a twist beyond “it’s cracking” that’ll make it distinct and interesting

The art of The Power of Stardust is great! The black and white really adds to the mood of the project. Could you tell us a little about your process?

Here’s a good time to pass the baton to my awesome artist Nyamo, but first a few words on the art direction. The Power of Stardust’s elevator pitch is “All-Star Squadron falls into an episode of The Outer Limits.” The story takes after episodes of the classic series like The Galaxy Being, Soldier, I Robot, Demon with a Glass Hand, and Behold Eck. These episodes featured dangerous, unintentionally violent outsiders who would meet characters that would try and understand them and characters that would try and destroy them. In Power of Stardust, Stardust is our outsider, the Ray is going to try and understand him, and Spectro is going to try and destroy him.

So being based on The Outer Limits, we have the look of the Outer Limits. We have black and white with lots of chiaroscuro. It also helps further the visual similarities that both The Outer Limits and Stardust make use of retro-technologies. I gave Nyamo lots of Frank Tinsley illustrations to look at to help her get the feel of the technology in the setting.

And speaking of Nyamo, it’s now time to pass the baton:

Nyamo: First I fill in dialogs from the script in my page template, to be sure all speech bubbles fit.

Then I roughly divide page into panels. Usually each page of Otto’s script contains at least one panel of striking imagery. This is the main attraction, usually this panel will be larger, or have broken border, or something else special to highlight it. It also usually has the greatest value contrast of the page. I try to make it memorable, like a metal record cover art or something. I do several sketches, if I need references I get them from google. Overall, I try to make every page visually fun and unique.

When I’m okay with the page sketch, I outline panel borders, place speech bubbles and draw clean lineart. Then I paint it black and white, trying to maintain contrast and points of interest. I do lots of small adjustments, go back and forth many times and finally page is done.

I do pages at 200% of publishing size and in 300 dpi. I resize them with bi-cubic resampling. I try not to use brushes with variable opacity, because they make image look mushy.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the Circled Square and what their mandate is?

The Circled Square came about through storytelling necessity. When I started the comic I knew I wanted a magician character to be Stardust’s nemesis.

A lot of people that discover Stardust are taken aback by his weirdness and power. He’s got all these rays that can do anything the writer wants and people think “Woah! This guy is crazy powerful! Superman at the time couldn’t even fly!” But Stardust’s power wasn’t actually a unique gimmick back in the 40’s.

Stardust was 1939 and that makes him very early for a superhero–in comparison, Superman was 1938 and Batman was 1939. But Mandrake the Magician was 1934 and he started the whole genre of “hero with magic powers that allow him to do anything” that was carried on by Dr. Occult in 1935, Zatara in 1938, Dr. Fate, Ibis the Invincible, and the Specter in 1940, Sargon the Sorcerer in 1941, and a slew of suit wearing Mandrake clones throughout the golden age. I figured it was fitting to give Stardust someone from his own genre to be his adversary. Plus the contrast between an erudite magician in a suit that knows so much about the universe that he’s mastered its secrets and a weird outsider that knows the universe like a fish knows a cloud

So I went through the public domain superheroes wiki and looked at all the not-Mandrakes. I came upon Spectro–first appeared in 1944, had only 9 total appearances, and had only a goofy red cape with stars on it to help him stand out from the not-Mandrake hoard. He was perfect. As the distillation of the not-Mandrake aesthetic, I could mold him into whatever kind of character I wanted while preserving the archetype. Plus he had a cape of stars that I decided would make for a cool visual if made literal. Stardust vs cape of stars. I love it when a motif comes together!

So then I had Spectro, but where did Spectro come from? Well, he came from the Circled Square which is Earth’s foremost authority on magic. Every one of them is a public domain character with Tabu being the most changed from his original version. His original version was that of a not-Tarzan with magic powers running around the jungles of Africa and I decided it would be more interesting if I took a page from actual sub-saharan African mysticism and made him a zangbeto.

And yes, that is the Rock of Eternity from Captain Marvel they hang out in.

The Circled Square’s origins aren’t too important for the comic. Narrative wise they’re a organization struggling to hold Earth together under the strain of a world war growing increasingly insane. But for the curious, they’re the result of a shadow war at the dawn of the 20th century between Helena Blavatsky’s theosophists and Aleister Crowley’s Thelemites. Blavatsky wanted to cause an apocalypse that would force humanity to become pure thought without bodies but was stopped by Crowley who founded the Circled Square to guide the future development of thaumaturgy.

Is The Power of Stardust going to jump between worlds in the imperfect universe? Are we going to get to see all of the interesting concepts that have been hinted at so far?

There’s actually not going to be much universe hopping in the story. Stardust is going to stick to Earth and explain his decision to do so as one of practicality. He figures he shouldn’t bother fixing the entire multiverse until he can figure out how to fix a tiny planet orbiting a tiny star. In his simple world, if you fix the smallest part of something you fix the whole of something. He’s surprised when he finds out that transforming a couple of military bases into dreamscapes doesn’t fix the Axis.

But I promise I didn’t just make all that lore in issue one just to shove it in the face of the audience and then ignore it. The multiverse will return in a big way. After all, our story is about Stardust learning to accept that Earth’s world is different from his own and that its okay for it to be different. It’s about him struggling to accept death and pain whether death and pain are at the heights of the macrocosm or on the battlefields of Earth. He learns to hate the world from a top-down perspective and he has to learn to love it from the bottom-up–if he can.

We will return to big cosmic stuff, but only after spending time examining the lives of characters like Spectro, the goddess Amaterasu, and the Ray and how they deal with pain. All the big cosmic stuff involving the Eye of Light and the sea of forms means nothing if I can’t ground it with human drama as true in fiction as it is in real life. The multiverse and its flaws are just an exaggeration of the flaws of human existence, and if Stardust learns to love the flaws of one he can learn to learn to love the flaws of the other because in the end, the multiverse is just a poetic take on human existence. To be human is to be constrained by reality while having the ability to look beyond its walls.

For those looking forward to more multiverse stuff, keep a look out for issue 6 in particular.

How can the heroes even compete with something as overwhelmingly powerful as Stardust? Do they even have a chance?

If it’s one thing I like about old superhero comics it’s that they weren’t afraid to take the limiters off the power levels. The Justice Society had a genie and the wrath of god hang out with a manlet with rage and a blind guy that threw smoke-bombs and had an owl. Captain Marvel was completely invincible–even more so than Superman. You could take down Superman with magic or kryptonite or red sun radiation but nothing could harm Captain Marvel.

And Captain Marvel is just one hero on this Earth.

Stardust is powerful. He’s VERY powerful. But so are the other characters. What makes Stardust a threat is that he’s able to go into enemy territory the others can’t (walls made out of Vril energy function in this setting in much the same way the spear of destiny did in DC comics–as a way to keep the superheroes from flying over to Rome and arresting Mussolini) and he’s willing to do things the others won’t. This creates an incredibly volatile situation. Stardust is tearing through the Axis but he’s also a walking warcrime that’s forcing the Axis to threaten the Allies with abandoning every rule of war. Either the Allies stop Stardust or they start liquidating prisoners of war in relations for Stardust’s crimes.

But while other characters can fight Stardust on his level (wait until you see what Spectro and Ibis do in issue 2!), the story isn’t about physical conflict. It’s about getting something inhuman to develop humanity. There will be far more talking than fighting in this comic.

A nice, hot cup of joe heals the soul

Spectro claims he is the hanged man. Does that mean the Circle Square members are all based off of tarot cards? If so, who is what and what is the interpretation of that role?

Yep! Spectro is the Hanged Man and everyone on the Circled Square represents one of the tarot trumps. The trumps are like seats on the Circled Square and occasionally they get passed down to a successor.

The trumps come from the Circled Square’s Crowley origins. Crowley was big on tarot, or as he called it, the Book of Thoth.

The whole group isn’t present in Power of Stardust (the war is stretching them thin) but here is a list of who everyone is:

The Fool–Diamond Jack (Appropriate for a man that knows more about the streets than magic)

The Magician–Sar Dubnotal (Being the oldest magician character on the Circled Square hailing from 1903 means he earns the Magician card, though Crowley was the first to be The Magician)

The High Priestess–Margret Trelawney (A woman from Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel Jewel of the Seven Stars who shares her body with the ancient Egyptian Queen Tera)

The Empress–Fantomah (See below)

The Emperor–Tabu (Both Fantomah and Tabu are jungle rulers)

The Hierophant–Randolph Carter (From Lovecraft’s Dreamcycle, an expert dreamwalker at home in libraries and the courts of alien gods)

The Lovers–Jason Croft and Princess Naia (From Palos of the Dog Star Pack by John Ulrich Giesy. An astral projector and his alien bride in the vein of A Princess of Mars)

The Chariot–Captain Marvel (Both because the Chariot represents strength and because Billy acts as a vehicle for Captain Marvel and vice-versa)

The Justice–Fascinax (For being one of the oldest proto-superheroes from 1923. A Frenchman given superhuman power after performing a kindness for an Indian yogi)

The Hermit–Dr. John Silence (An Algernon Blackwood character who healed the sick without pay and battled the occult)

The Wheel of Fortune–Semi Dual (Another John Ulrich Giesy character. An occult detective that can predict the future using a combination of magic and mathematics)

Strength–Leothric (From the Lord Dunsany short story The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth written in 1908. As the hero of what may be the first sword and sorcery story, Leothric is a man from another world armed with a magic sword named Sacnoth)

The Hanged Man–Spectro (For seeing what others do not)

The Death–Nightspoor (From the surreal and metaphysical 1920 novel Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. He was born from death and reincarnated on Earth to tell people what he has learned from death. He often acts as a psychopomp)

The Temperance–Zongar (For balancing his power between himself and his smoke familiar)

The Devil– Sedna (She was going to have The Moon and be Nelvana of the Northern Lights, a Canadian Whites character, but it turns out Nelvana is not actually public domain. But sticking the Inuit goddess of the sea in her place gave us a good Devil character as she’s the mother of all sorts of sea monsters)

The Tower–Michael Mirdath (Based on the narrator from the William Hope Hodgson novel Night Land. He astral-projected himself into a future without a sun and back again thus earning the trump representing total catastrophe)

The Star–Ozma of Oz (From the Oz series. Ozma was often a guide and protector for her mundane friends watching them through a magic mirror and taking action whenever they were in trouble)

The Moon–Ralph Rinklemann (An average man chosen by fate to be king of the shadows, a race of beings whose hearts are white though their forms be black and terrible. He comes from the George MacDonald story The Shadows)

The Sun–Ibis (For being a resurrected immortal…and something else…)

The Judgement–Carnacki the Ghost Finder (Another William Hope Hodgson character who investigated hauntings and judged them to be real or not)

The World– King Justice the First and Last (Based on Mr. Justice, a ghost superhero. This version is an ancient ghost who forgot his identity and decided to be whatever he wanted to be–thus a king of his own country. He created his own Earthbound afterlife under the Atlantic Ocean called Pax for the souls of WW2’s dead and he rules over it fairly and justly)

What are your dreams for The Power of Stardust?

I see Power of Stardust as the foundation for more comics and stories within its multiverse. Right now I got my eye on getting 250 subscribers on tapas and hitting that milestone. That’s the current goal. But eventually I would like to try and kickstarter a Fantomah spinoff. I’m also going to be writing a spin-off novella with Ibis. It’s a big multiverse. I don’t see myself getting tired with it anytime soon.

In future projects I do want to try and move away from using the public domain. It’s fun. I like using it. But there’s an appeal to making a character that’s entirely “yours.” It’s silly, I know. Almost everyone in Power of Stardust could be given a costume tweak and a name change and be wholly “original characters.” There’s more difference between our Spectro and the original Spectro or our Stardust and the original Stardust than there is between DC’s Superman and Marvel’s Hyperion. But Hyperion isn’t Superman, and our Spectro is Spectro.

Where can we see more of your works?

Ah, the homestretch! Keep watching tapas. That’s currently my homebase, though I have mirrors on smackjeeves, comicfury, and my blog. I like to plug my other works through Power of Stardust so if you keep checking the comic you’ll find links to other projects. My big project right now is Ghost Guide, a horror mystery comic about ghosts and the psychompos that guide them through the afterlife. I’m doing that with an artist named Antonello Strignano and you can find that here:

https://tapas.io/series/Ghost-Guide

Also, be on the lookout for Capeworld Stories and Capeworld Comics. They’re going to be collections of my previous miscellaneous works brought up to my standards. All the stories and comics will be in the same setting as The Power of Stardust.

Running is of no use…

And we would like to thank you Otto and Nyamo for your time! This was a blast to read and I, for one, will definitely be checking out The Power of Stardust as it continues to grow!

We would love to do a follow up in the future and see how this story has continued to grow and evolve. For now, however, we must end this interview. We would highly recommend that those interested go and have a look at Stardust. It truly is something else.

If you are interested in getting interviewed by Comicadia, please do not hesitate to send an email to comicadiacollective@gmail.com. We’re always happy to read new comics and interview their creators. There’s no requirement that you be a member, friend or even know anyone in Comicadia. We interview everyone! We just want to discover new stories, like our mascot, Cadence!

Thank you for taking the time and joining Otto, Nyamo and the Comicadia crew on this interview! Until next week!