With Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis (Dark Horse/Berger, Dec.), Maass and Lay adapt a 1943 opera written in the Terezín concentration camp into a graphic novel.
How did you learn about the original opera?
Maass: I discovered it way back when I was a teenager at a Best Buy in Phoenix. I saw a collection of work suppressed by the Nazis sitting on a shelf while I was looking for punk rock, and I grabbed it. The opera has captivated me since. You’ve got science fiction, you’ve got dystopia, you’ve got alternative histories, you’ve even got zombies. And you don’t expect that in an opera.
How did you design the world of the graphic novel?
Lay: It’s a sci-fi dystopia that takes place in a version of Atlantis that never sank. Terezín, where the opera was written and rehearsed and ultimately suppressed, was a huge influence, and we visited the site.
Did you do any other research?
Maass: This was a huge investigative project. To give you an example, when we were in Prague, we found the dormitory where Peter Kien, the librettist, slept when he went to art school. We stayed there for a few nights and ate in the cafeteria.
We also found a cartoon Kien drew that shows the evolution of the opera: the editors, the composer going in, the director, the censors. The first panel shows what Death looked like, which opened up the gate for how to design that character.
What was the biggest challenge to adapting this story?
Lay: Operas carry a lot of emotion through the music, so the enormous challenge was choosing moments and actions in the visuals that are going to be reflective of the music.
Maass: Some things in the opera didn’t make sense on the first read, and only made sense later on when we learned how it was put together. For example, one of the characters just disappears in the fourth act. It turns out that was because they didn’t have enough actors to play all the roles, so they had to have somebody double up and remove one character at the end.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
Maass: The message is anti-war and anti-authoritarianism, and I hope people can see that art provides a way to process and understand and resist.
Lay: I hope the history feels alive for our readers, because the story’s very much alive. It’s actually a very funny story—because Peter Kien was funny. He was murdered at 25 years old, in 1944. He was, as far as I can see, like every 25-year-old I’ve ever met.