Interview With Benton Rooks, creator of Kali Yuga and the YUGAVERSE!

Treta Yuga 1

The Comic Crusaders are always eager to chat with the creators of the comics that we review and recently had the pleasure of speaking with Benton Rooks, the fantastic mind behind the Kickstarter-funded Kali Yuga comic. He took some time to tell us about that book’s background as well as his new project, Treta Yuga.

CC: We’ve talked a little about your previous project, Kali Yuga, and I recently posted a review of it,  but some of the readers out there may not be familiar with the book.  Would you mind explaining a little of the motivation for that project and what you wanted to accomplish with it?

BR: KALI-YUGA was meant to be a sort of strange experiment into a non-linear narrative and I also intended for it to be a bit more cinematic, almost in the widescreen format. I do feel that some pages achieved this intent while others did not, and with Treta Yuga I wanted there to be a bit more of a consistent art style.

There was a lot of obvious winks at Grant Morrison and occultism in Kali Yuga, but I think Treta Yuga is really much closer to being my own original thing, with less obvious influence from others. When I was first coming up in the indie comics scene I think the time traveling wizard elevator pitch was appealing to engage people and get their attention, but I spent around 5 years really developing the lore of the YUGAVERSE as a academic thesis in college.

Treta Yuga is a stand-alone graphic novel that will parallel and make reference to Kali Yuga, but can be read on it’s own. In the YUGAVERSE, it’s also lot further back on the timeline. Kali Yuga was about wizards from earlier timelines surviving and dealing with diminished magical powers in the Iron Age, where as Treta Yuga has a sort of cosmic feel, as magic is very prominent in the Silver Age (wink wink Jack Kirby).

Treta Yuga is also decidedly science-fantasy, which I know some people on the internet are skeptical about, but the influences from Gene Wolfe, Jack Nance, and Roger Zelazny are definitely there.

In general the psychedelic elements are toned down in Treta Yuga, too. They exist, but I think in a way it’s more grounded to serve the story and it’s less overt compared to Kali Yuga.

A year and a half can make an enormous difference in an artists confidence/technical ability, and I hope that evolution shows with TRETA.

CC: Tell me a little about the direction that Treta Yuga will take and how will Abaraiis function in the new book?

BR:  Abaraiis will not have a direct role in TY. Essentially TRETA is influenced much more by Eastern mythology, the Wuxia genre, JRPG’s, and supernatural kung fu narratives, where as Kali Yuga was more about Western occultism, subverting medieval fantasy genre tropes and the wizard archetype. TY fortunately revolves around more characters which I think gives it a less claustrophobic feel. In a sense, both series are my own take on anti-heroes that have to defeat an evil greater than themselves.

I was reading a recent interview with one of the co-creators for Mortal Kombat, John Tobiasand, and he was talking about how the series was influenced by the cult classic Big Trouble in Little China (which I love), but also more distinctly by Hark Tsui, who was responsible for the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy with Jet Li. He talked about how the intent was to infuse Western lore into Eastern genre tropes, similar to TY.

When I was 6 years old I encountered Mortal Kombat for the first time and I think even then I was fascinated by the idea that there was kind of this old lineage of shaolin masters who could tap into hidden powers that were hidden from the public eye of the West. I loved the early lore of the series too, even though it did sort of rely on some old cliches, I feel like the original trilogy still felt really fresh in terms of how dark and disturbing the overarching story was.

When the second one came out and they expanded the mythos and improved the graphics I was certified obsessed with the game. I think that sort of solidified my lifelong interest in concept art in general, too.

I’ve also been inspired by the console games Bayonetta and Nier in the way they handle the over the top, holographic depiction of magical effects. The combat and boss battles are so fluid and badass looking.

CC: You’ve said that you plan to do the artwork on Treta Yuga yourself, instead of bringing in outside talent as you did with Kali Yuga…why the change?

BR: There were a lot of issues that came up in communication with the artist which was not the fault of either party, but basically motivated me to do the art myself for TRETA-YUGA, which I feel is much closer to the original intent. I have a background in film (though strictly as an art school drop out) and I sort of wanted to “shoot” this comic like an art house action film. It’s both thrilling and terrifying to have control over every single surface, and to choose each material/texture for every scene.

In the past year and a half I’ve developed a pretty intense obsession with the photorealistic potential for 3D models in conjunction with photoshop. As I said, I’m inspired by a lot of the concept art that comes out for film and games. So much so that I contacted about 30 concept artists who I wanted to work with on TY, some pros and some amateurs, but none of which I could afford. It sort of forced me to learn the techniques myself and I feel the story has benefited immensely from being broken down systematically, shot-by-shot.

I feel there is an almost sensual longing for the eye to examine every little detail of the page in digital work, and I think the pseudo-widescreen format allows that to happen a bit more freely than some of the traditional panel work that comics are known for. Digital art is very much like music sampling, it has tremendous potential for abuse, but when it’s done with an eye for atmosphere and approached subtly, I feel that it’s a really rewarding medium to work in.

KALI will be receiving a second issue in the near future, but when you spend over a year on a single issue as a creator, you really want to take a break and do something else for a bit before returning—as the burn out factor can be high when projects take that long. But I also love that KALI is a bit more traditional in terms of panel breakdown, speech bubbles etc.

Abaraiis as a character was the first avatar I felt I could identify with in a hypersigil sort of way, but it’s been very nice to expand to broader horizons in the anti-hero cast that makes up TRETA-YUGA.

CC: You’re co- credited with coining the term “entheodelic storytelling”. Would you care to expound on that concept? How do both Kali Yuga and Treta Yuga fit into that framework?

BR: Honestly I’m just as skeptical as anyone else as to the value of altered states and the role they play in human evolution, or what any of it really means definitively. I do think it’s a worthy inquiry, something that merits more study.

Entheodelic storytelling is a kind of anti-brand without any real dogma that is meant to designate storytellers that exist outside of the visionary art community but still thrive and are inspired by it simultaneously.

When I first saw Jan Kounen’s Blueberry (Renegade in the US) the visionary sequences in the film blew my mind. Shortly after I started to read books like Graham Hancock’s Supernatural and I really felt that the visionary state was something that had been sort of neglected or swept under the rug in a lot of the media we’re exposed to in the West as being trivial or unimportant. When I went to Boston to meet up with Rak Razam we really clicked and then the four of us (including my long time friend Jeremy D. Johnson) all sort of developed the manifesto over email, since it’s an international thing, which was fun.

So entheodelica really has to do with taking the Western mythos and utilizing altered states to really address some of the more astral, Terence McKenna-esque hyperspace/akashic records aspects of transmedia storytelling. I think like Grant Morrison and Jeffrey Kripal have previously stated in different ways that there is a potential for archetypes and stories to actually function as a pop culture gnosis that heals the imaginative levels of consciousness. Sort of white magic. Stories always remind us of ways we can be heroes in the real world. John Crowley really gets into the imagination healing palace idea in his masterpiece Little, Big.

Graham basically posits that the majority of his storytelling techniques in fiction were derived directly from his extensive work with out of body experiences with ayahuasca in Brazil. Perhaps it’s obvious, but he claims that the peak entheogenic experience is more conducive to the medium of fiction than non-fiction, that ayahuasca actually communicated certain specific stories to him directly, which I find very interesting.

But before having some experience with ayahuasca and other things, I’ve had pretty intense paranormal stuff happen at a very young age that lead me to at least question the baseline material plane. I am interested in finding out what is really going on in innerspace and the ways we can utilize that world to create better and ultimately stranger works of art.

I feel that the science-fantasy magic of the YUGAVERSE allows for a relatively free framework that can explore certain questions I have about altered states, without losing sight of what really makes a traditional story tick and pulse.

CC: You’ve written extensively about shamanism and entheogens on Reality Sandwich. What, in your opinion, constitutes traditional shamanism as opposed to new age shamanism? Are entheogens necessary to the practice of either or optional?

BR: Contemplative discipline holds equal footing in the entheodelic paradigm. The entheogenic experience has been compared to a helicopter vs. a slow walk up the mountain alongside yoga/meditation and I think the metaphor is apt. Entheogens are absolutely optional but certainly helpful, if used in proper moderation and the whole set/setting and trip sitter thing. Each path can be mutually beneficial to each other rather than be dualistically opposed.

In general I think that paranormal experiences, in whatever fashion they happen, shake up the foundations of any given world view and create better storytellers who are interested in depth beyond metafiction and genre tropes. Meta is cool, but it can only go so far before the self-reflexivity and constant post-modern deflection becomes tired and forces the reader to keep a certain objective distance that in my limited experience can cause an inability to be completely immersed in the story.

There seems to be a kind of new-wave in post-information age writers that place emphasis on personal experience and interaction with transpersonal states that I find fascinating, and I think that deep, sincere genre committal in conjunction with more personal narratives is sort of the answer to metafiction in some ways.

The new age vs traditional shamanism question is certainly tough. Michael Winkelman has pointed out that the superficial distinctions between the archetypes of the wizard, shaman, and priest all have some serious parallels. He claims wizards/witches in medieval Europe are kind of shamans for the West.

I suppose this goes back to cultural lineage and ways that Westerners can make use of indigenous knowledge while being respectful and not engaging in practices that are damaging and unsustainable when it comes to harvesting plants.

I think there are certain neopagan revival movements, mostly in Europe from my understanding, that do feel quite authentic. Ultimately it’s too complex of an issue for me to really dig into here without sacrificing some depth.

CC: With the advent of, let’s call it “tourist shamanism” what cautions would advise to anyone seeking that path as a way to greater understanding of the human experience?

BR: At the moment the only way people can encounter ayahuasca and a host of other entheogens legally is through travel and tourism. Unfortunately many people, myself included, do not have the expendable income in their budget to indulge in such fanciful escapes.

This is the reason I think why Rick Doblin of MAPS and ex-CNN journalist Amber Lyon are really pushing for a larger context for what psychedelic medicine really is and science is forcing people to consider the fact that consciousness altering techniques are actually a fundamental human right.

Carl Ruck and Paul Devareux both argue in scholarly way that so-called psychedelic medicine has been a fundamental part of human history that has been forgotten and suppressed for very specific reasons having to do more with economic purposes and less with actual physiological safety.

I think that shamanic tourism and cultural appropriation of indigenous cultures falls prey to any other given capitalistic trap in focusing on ways to escape political situations rather than attempt to remedy them directly.

CC: Finally, are there any other projects, past, present, or future, that you’d like to discuss?

BR: I have a novel that I’m working on, it will be fun to do something that’s just straight up text. But developing the YUGAVERSE, possibility with other creative talent in writing, will continue to be the central focus for me and I look forward to showing people how cool it will be to see the interconnections amongst the different story lines.

Interview by Adam Cadmon

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