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INTERVIEW: Andrea Lorenzo Molinari, Creator of The Shepherd

Written by Jillian Diblasio

Not too long ago, we reviewed The Shepherd: Apokatastasis, a graphic novel depicting the traumatic and poetic tale of a father seeking his beloved son in the afterlife. Here at AP2HYC, we sat down with writer and creator Andrea Lorenzo Molinari to discuss his work of revenge and a father’s love.

AP2HYC: Can you give us a brief introduction to yourself and The Shepherd? 

Molinari: I grew up the son of an Italian immigrant in a working class family in Flint, Michigan, the home of General Motors. My childhood was deeply marked by the decline of the auto industry in the late 1970s and early 80s and the subsequent impact it had on the city and the people. In Flint, the entire economy was plugged into the automobile factories. When GM decided to move its factories to various developing countries, it impacted my home town profoundly…and not for the better.

Unemployment, periods of layoffs, whole families uprooted and forced to leave their lives behind, foreclosure and abandoned properties, these things characterized my experiences growing up, some impacting my family directly, others impacting my friends.

In the midst of all this, reading was always a welcome escape. Comics were a big part of that, especially when I was younger. I can remember a group of my little friends huddling together on the school bus or in the cafeteria at school, passing around dog-eared and worn copies of Spider-Man, Batman, Justice League of America, Iron Man, Daredevil, etc. Most of the time, we were reading out of sequence. We usually didn’t get to read an entire story arc. Maybe we would begin a story or read the last issue of a three-part arc. It didn’t matter. We loved the characters, the adventure…the escape.

As I got older, I began to look at other, more complicated literature. I think that it was because of this rather chaotic aspect of my youth that I looked to religion as a potential source of stability, of philosophical answers. In high school I took a world religion course and loved it. I was especially enamored with the opportunity to read selections from the sacred texts of these religions. I went on to study theology, particularly the Christian Scriptures and early Christian literature, achieving a Ph.D. in 1996. However, I was never really intrigued by doctrine. Rather, I was always in it for the stories. I found myself drawn to apocalypses, especially the other worldly journeys through heaven and hell, the apostolic legends and angel lore and so many other texts that related myth, parable and story. I was particularly interested in the ways that these Christian writings related or didn’t relate to the large Greco-Roman culture. This means that I was also reading widely in Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Jewish literature.

Instability and anxiety. Family in difficult times. the role of stories about God, faith and eternity in all of this. These themes appear in The Shepherd: Apokatastasis. Obviously, my “origins” are deeply tied to the story. However, the story is even more intimate than one might guess.

The Shepherd: Apokatastasis began as a nightmare. Seriously. The story is directly based on a horrible dream I once had. It was a dream about my family, about losing my son in a drug overdose, the terrible aftermath…and me losing it. in my dream, I couldn’t face what happened to my son. I gradually lost my mind. I was obsessed with the idea that he was lost, that he hadn’t made it to the other side. I decided to take my own life and go after him.

When the dream ended, I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart beating out of my chest. I lay there, trying to catch my breath, waiting for memory of the dream to go away. It didn’t. In the morning, I was still shaken.

I told my wife. She was understandably horrified.

Later, I recited the whole experience to my son Roberto, who had been the focal point of my dream. Unlike his mother, he thought it was “cool”. Then Roberto began to pester me about writing this story. Relentlessly. So I wrote it out, mostly to get him off my back. (For clarification, I should not that he was leaning over my shoulder suggesting additions and edits throughout this time.) When the story was written I thought it was over. However, Roberto was certain that the book had to be a graphic novel.

AP2HYC: In reading the introduction to The Shepherd, you state the concept came from a dream. How much of the story is from the dream and how much needed to be conceptualized? What was the creative process when creating the overall concept and the world? 

Molinari: Briefly stated, the plot of the story of The Shepherd comes almost entirely from the nightmare.

However, I can give at least two examples of elements of the nightmare that to be conceptualized in the story. The first is the Staff of Truth, the mystical artifact wielded by The Shepherd. One of its primary abilities is to make the person who is targeted by its power see the whole truth and consequences of their actions, all at one time. The basic idea is that the average person lives much of their life pursuing what they perceive to be good for themselves, without much, if any, though of how their actions impact the larger picture. (If you doubt this, I suggest you walk down any public beach. The garbage that is left by those who come to enjoy the beach is positively disheartening.) The Staff forces them to absorb all the truth of how their actions have impacted others, all at once. For those who have lived in a particularly evil or self-centered fashion, this can be horrific, even psychologically debilitating. Now in the nightmare, I was able to do this with my hands, by merely grabbing my victim and pouring my power into them. As my son and I thought about this for the graphic novel, we really wanted to create an object that would symbolize this power. However, we felt that it had to be an object that sent multiple signals to the viewer/reader. We settled on a shepherd’s staff because it symbolized protection and defense of the vulnerable but also because it is a weapon.

The second aspect of the story that had to be conceptualized for the graphic novel is the creature Legio, the mystical wolf-wraith that Lawrence encounters. In my nightmare, Legio was a monster, a horrible wretched creature. However, I only felt his presence in my nightmare and sense him lurking in the shadows, moving with lightning speed, striking from the darkness. I never actually saw much more than bloody teeth and sharp claws. This is partly what made it so horrific for me. That which is unknown is always more frightening. Obviously, in the graphic novel we had to conceptualize this creature. We ran through many options but in the end we settled on a spirit wolf because it symbolized the violent hunter Legio was in the nightmare.

On the other hand, the dialogue and narration were created in the writing process. As you may know from your own dreams and nightmares, we often do not so much engage in dialogue or hear words in the dream state as we intuit and feel what others want us to know. Does that make sense? Therefore, as my son and I talked through the various parts of the story, we tried to imagine what the characters would say or think in these situations.

AP2HYC: One of the prominent features i noticed about this work was the choice to focus on a father and son relationship and the age that is chosen. Not only through the main story of Lawrence and his son but also Lawrence and his father and even at one point between Lawrence and his youngest son. What made you decide to choose this as the focus point of the story? 

Molinari: This was largely dictated by the fact that the nightmare focused on these relationships. Still, as we wrote out the story and talked through the scenes, we recognized that the father/son relationships were key.

I think that father/son relationships can be very interesting because they be so complicated and, in many ways, convoluted. Fathers love their sons but they also have dreams and expectations for who their son’s will be and what they will become. Of course, the age-old tension is the fact that, more often than not, the sons do not share their fathers’ dreams and goals. I am not implying that fathers have some kind of nefarious plan for controller their sons (although it may often feel that way from the son’s perspective). However, this tension between the father’s will and the son’s will can be very destructive.

The question that quickly emerges is whether or not the father can learn to accept his son’s individuality and let go of his previously held dreams and expectations for his son. This is a bit of a tightrope walk because some things can and should be abandoned (e.g., the dream that one’s son will grow up to be a great golfer or football player) and some things should not (e.g., a father’s hope that his son will grow up to be an honourable man).

Conversely, the son has things he can teach his father. Sometimes this is more about reminding his father that there once was a time when he too dreamed big dreams. Other times, it involves recalling his father to a purer, more idealistic mode of life.

In any event, there are many issues that need resolution. Sometimes these things get resolved between fathers and sons in a matter of months or years. Sometimes they get resolved on the father’s deathbed. Sometimes they never get resolved…at least not in this plane of existence.

Of course, the same could be said for the mother/daughter relationship or father/daughter or mother/son. Human relationships are fraught with tension, yet also offer the opportunity for growth.

AP2HYC: It’s interesting that your son, who was a prominent figure in the conception of this story, ultimately became a co-writer. What was it like working with your son and the way the creative process might have been altered?

Molinari: I have truly enjoyed working with my son Roberto. We have always talked easily and we share many of the same interests. Believe me when I say that he is perfectly comfortable telling me what is on his mind. (In fact, I often wish I knew less.)

Our creative process is one of discussion, dialogue, and exchange of ideas. The basic starting point for all our interaction is the principle that one should express one’s opinion clearly and without fear but then listen to what the other has to say, always striving to be open to a new (and perhaps better) approach. This is also extended to our interaction with the illustrators with whom we work.

Part of the fun of doing graphic novels is that as writers we have realized that we are not telling our stories by ourselves. Our pencilers contribute many great ideas, our colorists’ choices help to create mood and our letterers dictate pacing and emphasis. Each member of the art team contributes their gifts and talents. Having teamed up with such brilliant people, we would be fools to refuse to listen to their ideas. Time and again, we have seen a member of our team tweak an idea or offer an alternate option. These contributions prove to be a great benefit to the whole project.

Simply stated, if you want to approach greatness, it is best to check your ego at the door and listen to your team.

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AP2HYC: Did any other members of your family play an important influence/part in the creation of this project? 

Molinari: I have had a great deal of support and assistance from my wife, Myrna.

She has always supported my research and writing, beginning with my academic books and articles, and continuing when I made the decision to switch to novelistic work. However, this story was particularly difficult for her. She was the first to hear me describe my nightmare and it horrified her because it seemed to portent the worst possible suffering for our family.

After Roberto and I finished writing The Shepherd, she was the first to read the initial draft. She cried. She still does when she reads it.

Yet, she has seen how this nightmare has impacted our whole family for the better. Beyond the deepening of the bond between Roberto and me, it has also challenged all of us to be more affectionate with each other and make the effort to tell each other that we care.

I should also add that Myrna has been a sounding board with regard to many of the psychological aspects of The Shepherd, in particular, walking us through the various stages of grief and how the loss of a child can impact a family. She has had a long career as a social worker, which has included child protective services, drug and alcohol counseling, working with the homeless, with battered women, as well as her most recent iteration, counseling veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Military Sexual Trauma and Traumatic Brain Injury. This latter area of service has directly informed the conception and writing of our second story arc, The Shepherd: The Path of Souls, which is in page-by-page art development.

AP2HYC: There’s a scene where only the younger son can see Lawrence in terms of the rest of his family. I’m wondering why is that? Is there special significance to this?

Molinari: Simply stated, I really believe that children have an innate ability to be better “plugged in” with the world around them. They stop to wonder at a beautiful flower while we rush past. They see the beauty in worms and insects and the tiniest of creatures. The world has a newness and freshness for them and I think that gives them special abilities to see things that we adults miss. I firmly believe that this can and does extend to supernatural matters.

If you will indulge me, I would like to share an anecdote from my life that actually involves my son Roberto (albeit a much younger iteration). In the late 1990s, I was working as a youth minister in an urban parish in West Allis, Wisconsin, In a sad turn of events, one of my students, a very good young man of about twelve, lost his grandmother to a sudden heart attack. I knew that this was a particularly difficult situation for him as he had been extremely close to his grandmother, visiting her often on his way home from school. This was the first major loss he had ever experiences to to further add to his sorrow, it had been his sad fate to be the one to find her body when he came to visit her.

At the time, my rather meagre church salary would not afford me the luxury of daycare. So I was forced to take my then four-year-old son with me to the funeral home. Together we found my young student and I held him as he cried. Little Roberto hugged his leg. I remember sitting beside my student for some time and then finally saying goodbye and going back to the parish.

On the way back to the church, Roberto asked me what it meant that the young man’s grandmother was dead. He was four so I wanted to try to explain things simply. I told him I believe that people are made up of a soul that lives in a body. When a person dies, their soul leaves their body and goes to be with God. I was relieved that this answer seemed to satisfy him.

A moment or two later, Roberto, who was sitting in his car seat behind me, asked this question: “Daddy, what colour is the soul?” I was surprised by the question and stammered and stuttered, finally admitting that I just didn’t know. I had never thought about it. What was odd was that Roberto asked that question as if he already knew the answer, but wanted to see if I shared this knowledge. When I couldn’t answer, Roberto replied, “Well, Daddy, I think that the soul is many colours and in that way it is just like God, because God is many colours too.”

I was stunned by his statement. I mumbled something in affirmation of his insight and said no more. However, some weeks later, I was reading one of the early Church texts I was researching at the time. The writer, an anonymous Christian from the 2nd or 3rd century, asserted a similar thing: That the virtuous soul was characterized by its many colours (see Acts of John 29).

Later, upon further investigation, I discovered that the idea of associated colours with the soul was not uncommon in Greco-Roman antiquity, although often the colours on the soul were associated with vices and not virtues as in the Acts of John (see e.g., Plutarch, On the Delays of Divine Vengeance 565C-E).

In any event, Roberto exhibited some pretty advanced philosophical and religious thinking.

The theologian was bested by a four-year-old. Knowledge gives way to mystery.

AP2HYC: In the introduction, you mention other stories surrounding these characters being in development. What sort of concepts do you hope to explore within the world and characters? 

Molinari: As I mentioned above, Roberto and I have written the second story in The Shepherd series entitled, The Shepherd: The Path of Souls. 

As I noted earlier, my wife Myrna works with veterans who suffer from PTSD. Obviously, I hear her talk about these people every day and I have been struck by their deeply moving stories. the idea of The Path of Souls came as a result of this line of thought: Many soldiers who come back from war suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If PTSD occurs among the survivors of war, do those who fall in combat suffer from PTSD in the afterlife? (Obviously, this is fiction so I answered in the affirmative.) The result is The Path of Souls. 

In The Shepherd: The Path of Souls, Dr. Lawrence Miller, his father Franco, and his son Val happen upon a very unusual district in the Seam (that ever-shifting place between this world and whatever comes next). This part of the Seam is a “hospital” of sorts for the souls of warriors who have died in combat. Here soldiers of all cultures and time periods gather. For various reasons, these lost souls are locked in ever-repeating cycles of violence and trauma. They are still fighting the battles that claimed their lives, doomed to struggle against the ghosts of unresolved fears, broken hopes, and shattered dreams. Most of these soldiers do not even realize that they are dead, let alone that they are fighting an onslaught of dark forces alongside men who were born centuries and worlds apart.

Our story focuses on FOUR of these souls:

Jason Roberts is a corporal attached to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Jason met his end at the hands of a mujahideen sniper in November 2004, during the Second battle of Fallujah.

In 1648, Ocoho (“Owl”), Wendat-Huron warrior, was not yet twenty years of age the day he and his brother Taron returned to their village from a fishing expedition only to find that the Iroquois had slaughtered their parents and youngest brother and abducted his sister. Enraged and beside themselves with grief, Ocoho, now calling himself Sondaqua (“Eagle”) having taken his father’s name, and Taron gave chase to the Iroquois war party intending to rescue their sister, only to fall in the attempt, unsuccessful.

Henri-Jacques Tournier, was an infantryman of the 22nd Light Demi-Brigade, part of Napoleon’s famous Egyptian-Palestine Campaign in the 1789-1799. Henri’s death came shortly after the Siege of Jaffa in March 1799. The awful crimes committed in Jaffa by the French army still weigh on his soul, even after centuries.

Will Brannigan was only fifteen when war broke out between the states. Like many others in his home of Chickasaw, Mississippi, he volunteered for the 13th Mississippi Infantry, following his unit’s banners wherever they went. Unfortunately for Will, his unit’s banners led him to Fredericksburg, Maryland in December 1862. There, his united was positioned, ordered to defend the town itself from the Federals who were encamped on the other side of the Rappahannock River. In more ways than one, Will never left town.

As I noted above, this story is complete and we are in the midst of page-by-age artwork development. Our hope is to go to press in late 2017.

Beyond The Path of Souls, Roberto and I are working on two other Shepherd stories, The Tether, a love story with Val as its primary focus, and The Burning Maid, which offers a very different take on the Joan of Arc story and its supernatural aftermath.

These projects should keep us busy for a while.

You can check out Andrea Lorenzo Molinari’s The Shepherd: Apokatastasis on Goodreads

About the author

Jillian Diblasio

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