The Small Press Spotlight chatted with the creative team of Mark of Death: Year of the Right, a new graphic novel available now from Bliss on Tap Publishing. Writers Elle León Nostas (he/they) and Andrew Penczner (he/him) offered a deep dive into the 64-page book that also features art from Steven E. Gordon. 

Nostas is an award-winning, trans/non-binary, Bolivian American director, writer, and producer who previously directed the short film, Savior. Penczner is a screenwriter, producer, and author who produced the feature film, Buck Alamo.

Read details below:

After the deaths of everyone he’s ever loved, Mark Thompson tries to end his life only to discover he can’t die. Confronted by an Eternal Order of sociopathic anti-heroes and their serial killer companions, Mark is thrust headfirst into a battle between the forces of life and death. Enlisted into a world of time stealers and death dealers, Mark finds himself a pawn at the center of a brutal war where an evil rebellion has broken every rule in the universe to keep him alive-but why?


Deanna Destito: What was the creative inspiration that sparked the story?

Andrew Penczner

Andrew Penczner: We’ve all experienced or will experience grief and loss. It’s an inevitable part of being human. And yet, each person’s experience with these emotions is profoundly unique. This universal yet intensely personal aspect of life (and death) intrigued us. We wanted to examine this through the lens of our protagonist, Mark, who is thrown into the most bizarre and surreal circumstances, yet he’s grappling with the very real and relatable pain of loss. 

The concept of time also deeply intrigued us. In our modern world, we’ve all felt the pressure of time ticking away, not having enough of it or wishing we could have more. So we created this world where time is a tangible, transferable commodity, where death isn’t the end but the beginning of an entirely different journey. And humor has always been a muse. Elle León and I have always loved writing stories that can make you laugh out loud one minute and tear up the next. Life is absurd, tragic, hilarious, and beautiful, and we wanted our story to reflect that.

Elle León Nostas: Undoubtedly, the pandemic forced many of us to confront our mortality head-on. It wasn’t something we could dismiss or put on the back burner. Suddenly, death wasn’t an abstract concept but a very present force. The losses I experienced during this time were heartbreaking and left us grappling with the same existential questions Mark does: Why do good people die? Why do some people get more time than others? Why is life so seemingly arbitrary and unfair? These questions are fundamentally unanswerable. So, in the face of this insurmountable mystery, we decided to create a world where we could offer some answers, even if they were entirely fictional. We created a universe filled with sociopathic anti-heroes wrestling with the powers of life and death. Injecting this humor and irony into a narrative about death, grief, and time felt challenging and necessary. It allowed us to delve into these heavy themes with lightness and relatability, making the story enjoyable and thought-provoking at the same time.

Destito: Why was it so important to craft this story and create the characters that you did?

Penczner: Elle León and I have always been drawn to the narratives that delve deep into the human psyche, spotlighting characters who are not afraid to face the more somber, disturbing facets of existence. They are the ones who bravely gaze into the unfathomable abyss and dare to question why. In the world we’ve created, Mark becomes a reflection of all of us – the everyday person seeking answers and justice in a world beset by chaos. Mark (just like all of us) wants someone to set it straight. When he is given the power to decide who lives and who dies it’s almost euphoric, a sense of God-like control in a world where control is often elusive. But as Mark soon discovers, power is not only intoxicating but also incredibly burdening. The stark reality of having such a monumental responsibility begins to set in, and the complexity of his emotional journey unfolds. 

Elle Leon Nostas

Nostas: We all think that we would make the world a better place if only given the power. But the reality of what that means is completely different for everyone. There is no universal answer to what constitutes a “better world,” which makes the exercise of power a far more complex endeavor than many realize. Our characters, including Mark, embody this complexity. They’re not the stereotypical, spandex-clad, superhuman champions fighting obvious villains. Instead, they’re flawed, chaotic, and deeply human individuals who must navigate the gray areas of life. Mark’s smart-mouthed, individualistic nature might not fit the typical hero mold, but that’s the point – real heroes rarely do. The Order, which ostensibly fights for the side of good, is full of individuals who are just as disordered and broken. In our universe, no one is perfectly good or entirely evil. Instead, characters are morally nuanced, reflecting the multifaceted nature of humanity. This narrative is significant, particularly in today’s world, where it’s easy to get swept up in the illusion of binary battles between good and evil. Our story serves as a reminder that no perfect saviors are coming to rescue us. It’s ultimately up to us to effect the changes we wish to see and save ourselves.

How does your novel fit into our current world, and are there any relevant issues or topics you embedded throughout? 

Nostas: Mark Of Death looks at the inherent imbalance between those who wield power and those who are powerless. By exploring how Mark reacts when granted the immense power he’s always craved, we delve into the moral and ethical dynamics of power and the pursuit of justice. We invite readers to question: How does one wield power responsibly? What are the potential consequences when it’s abused?

Penczner: These are questions very much present in our society today. Our goal is to entertain and prompt introspection, spark dialogue and challenge readers to think critically about these issues while laughing in the face of death. Because ultimately, what everyone craves is liberation from the shackles of helplessness. In grappling with the profound and the absurd in Mark’s journey, we hope our readers feel that sense of freedom and empowerment.

Are there any personal inspirations that you each took from when creating the story?

Nostas: Andrew and I share a decade-long friendship and collaborative partnership. From the outset, we’ve engaged in a thought experiment we dubbed “Earth 2.0.” The premise is simple: what would it look like if you had the power to re-engineer the world into your ideal society? It’s a fascinating deep dive into dissecting societal norms and conventions and attempting to substitute them with novel paradigms. But here’s the catch – there’s no winning move. (laughs).

The moment you resolve one issue, another springs up. This problem is the essence of Mark’s predicament. No matter how he approaches it, there’s a finite amount of time in existence, and he quickly realizes that he must preserve a balance. We all have to maintain balance to stave off chaos. This constant juggling act, the struggle to improve the world while dealing with unintended consequences, is the story’s lifeblood and living inspiration.

Penczner: Another significant source of inspiration was Kurt Vonnegut’s book, “Cat’s Cradle.” The novel brilliantly navigates themes of free will – or its absence – in a world teetering on the edge of chaos and the potential devastation we can unleash when we attempt to control our surroundings. It delves into the unforeseen consequences of trying to rein in an inherently chaotic universe. Which my Earth 2.0 would never have. (laughs).

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know before diving into the book?

Nostas: Immerse yourself in the world we’ve created, and prepare for the unexpected. We’ve planted seeds throughout this double issue that hint at the larger, expansive universe, and we can’t wait for you to dive into it.

Penczner: Gear up for a fast-paced, action-packed journey into the other side of life. This is just the beginning. 

Order your copy of Mark of Death: Year of the Rat here.