The following is an interview with writer and journalist Dave Maass on the recent release of the graphic novel, Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis, through Berger Books and Dark Horse comics. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Maass about his shared creative process with artist Patrick Lay in bringing the story and characters to life on the page (as adapted from the satirical opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis), what he hopes that readers may take away from the story, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: This month saw the release of Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis. For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the graphic novel’s premise and its original source material?
Dave Maass: Death Strikes is an adaptation of a fierce, little satirical opera called Der Kaiser von Atlantis which was written in 1943 by two concentration camp prisoners as one of their last acts of creative resistance against the Nazis. It’s set in a retro-futuristic alternative universe, where Atlantis never sank and instead its emperor has declared war on literally everyone. It gets so bad that Death himself goes on strike, resulting in a world of the living dead. It’s powerful and poignant, but it’s also funny and full of hope.
BD: The creative process of approaching an adaptation of a prior work – especially one as affecting and heartbreaking as the opera on which your story was based – can be a daunting experience. How would you describe your approach to breathing new life into the story alongside artist Patrick Lay?
DM: Adapting this work was a delicate balance: I wanted to stay true to the source material, but at the same time, a graphic novel requires different storytelling elements than an opera. So, early on I set some basic ground rules. We would stick to the same four-scene structure and the same cast of characters, with the same progression of plot. We could add to the world, but it had to stick to the spirit of the opera, its world-building and wit, and as many elements as possible had to be inspired by artifacts of history or a commentary on the world today. Peter Kien left behind a lot of poetry and illustration, which we were able to use for inspiration. So, as you’re flipping through this book, keep an eye on the small details that we gathered from research in Czech Republic.
BD: What did you find to be most rewarding/challenging about the process?
DM: One of the most insightful and difficult episodes in this trip was arranging a visit to Terezín itself. This was a trip I originally planned to go on alone in 2020–I had flights and hotels booked and everything, before the pandemic wrecked our plans. But as soon as we signed with Berger Books and Dark Horse, I told Patrick to start packing his bags. It was such an amazing experience. We stayed in the dorm (now a hostel) where the librettist Peter Kien lived as an art student before being expelled for being Jewish. We explored literally every block of Terezín, taking photos of the most minute details to include in the book. I think that experience really shows on every page, and it is why the world of Atlantis feels so very real.
BD: What makes Berger Books and Dark Horse Comics the perfect home for this graphic novel?
DM: Our book has a great back story, but it was important to me that the main story stand on its own. This is where Karen [Berger] really excelled as an editor and mentor: She pushed us to focus on the storytelling, challenged us to polish the pacing of the scenes and deepen the characters. I’m used to editors telling me to cut-cut-cut. She reminded us that we wouldn’t be doing justice to Kien and Ullmann’s opera by copy-pasting the script verbatim. We should honor them by creating a genuinely gripping graphic novel. Dark Horse has a strong track record of supporting not just artists and writers, but storytellers, and working with them means we’ll get this work into the hands of people who love stories, not just Holocaust scholars.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Death Strikes may connect with and impact readers?
DM: Certainly, I hope people will connect with the book and learn a bit about history. For me, I learned about this opera in a Best Buy in Phoenix when I was 19, and it changed my perspective on the world and helped me cope with everything from the invasion of Iraq to the election of Donald Trump. Let’s be honest, the last few years have been pretty dark on planet Earth. War. Widespread censorship. The rise of nationalism. If this book helps you process it a little, because it was written by two artists in the middle of it, that would be a dream. If you come away feeling defiant, that would be my goal.
BD: Are there any other upcoming projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
DM: I’ll be spending a lot of 2024 and hopefully 2025 working on outreach related to this book, but I would love readers to keep an eye out from some of my day job projects at the civil liberties non-profit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. For example, next year, we’ll be really expanding our atlasofsurveillance.org, a website where you can learn what police are using to surveil communities across the United States. I’ll also be publishing a zine about technology at the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, Patrick is working on a couple new book pitches, illustrating a comic for a popular sci-fi podcast, and teaching young comic creators at the Columbus College of Art & Design.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Death Strikes?
DM: Of course, Death Strikes is out January 24 – through all the places you usually buy books–you’ll find essays in the back providing historical context for the work. If you do love the book and want to learn more, I recommend jumping onto your music streaming service and listening to the opera itself, maybe even while re-reading our book. There are even some full stage productions on YouTube. Also, you can find Patrick on instagram (@plutarian_2), and we’re both on Bluesky at maassive.bsky.social and plutarian2.bsky.social.