Next week DC’s “We Are Legends” initiative formally kicks off with the release of Spirit World #1. The series comes from the creative team of writer Alyssa Wong, artist Haining, colorist Sebastian Chang, and letterer Janice Chiang. Picking up where a prelude story in February’s Lazarus Planet: Dark Fate one-shot left off, the new series follows Xanthe, a spirit envoy from the afterlife, as they work with John Constantine to find and rescue Batgirl Cassandra Cain, who has been pulled against her will into the titular Spirit World. The series blends magical superheroics with East Asian traditions for an off-beat, high-stakes adventure that takes place on two planes of existence at once.
The Beat chatted with the creative team behind Spirit World about the genesis of the series, its connection with the greater DC Universe, and much more. Check that out, as well as an unlettered preview of the series’ first issue, below.
Joe Grunenwald: Alyssa, which came first, the character of Xanthe or the story of Spirit World? How did you develop them?
Alyssa Wong: My editor, Jessica Chen, and I were talking about the Qingming festival, when people sweep their ancestors’ graves and burn joss paper money so that their loved ones can have it in the afterlife. Jess asked, “What happens to the dead who don’t have anyone to send them burned offerings? What does the afterlife look like for them when they’ve been forgotten?” I thought that was a fascinating concept. Jess was like, “Do you want to write a book about that?” That’s how Spirit World was born.
A story never crystallizes for me until I know who the protagonist is. Once I figured out Xanthe, everything else–the plot beats, the feel of the environment, the supporting cast, the voice of the book–fell into place.
Grunenwald: Talk a bit about Xanthe. Who are they, and what do they want?
Wong: Xanthe Zhou is a Spirit Envoy, someone who tends to the wishes of the dead. Their abilities are based on the practice of burning joss paper offerings to send them to the afterlife. As someone who is both dead and alive, Xanthe can take a folded paper object and turn it into a real one by lighting it on fire. They use this talent to deliver goods to the Spirit World’s forgotten people.
Xanthe is clever, sly, and fun. They were born in Gotham Chinatown but grew up in the Spirit World, so they consider the afterlife their home. Their mischievous streak is only rivaled by their kindness. My visual touchstone for their look was LA Asian American streetwear: sneakerhead kicks, embroidered silk bomber jacket, West Coast cool. Their design is all Haining’s, though!
Grunenwald: Haining and Sebastian, Xanthe’s look is very striking. How did you approach designing them?
Sebastian Cheng: Design-wise, Haining did it all by herself! It was simply mind-blowing when I received Xanthe’s character sheet from Jessica!
Haining: The design of Xanthe is based on the idea from Jessica and Alyssa. Xanthe is the envoy who can travel between the lands of the living and the dead, use paper talismans and joss paper magic, carry a sword that can ward off evil spirits…All these remind me of Taoism.
So I borrowed some Taoist elements [for] Xanthe. Black and white colors symbolize Yin-Yang (also suitable for their Non-binary gender). Yellow top with button knot and sneakers both came from the concept of Taoist clothing. I wanted to blend traditional Asian culture and modern streetwear style, making it look neat and energetic.
Grunenwald: Alyssa, How did you decide on bringing Batgirl Cassandra Cain into the mix?
Wong: I’ve wanted to write Cassandra Cain for a while. She’s my favorite Bat! I’ve borrowed her for a few short stories, like “The Hunt” in The Doomed and the Damned and my Batwoman story in Batman: Urban Legends #8-9. Bringing her into something with a bigger narrative scope gives me the chance to explore her character and really let her shine.
Xanthe and Constantine’s abilities are magic-based, and I wanted to have someone on the team who’s very grounded in their body. Her special ability is that she’s very good at what she does. I see her as an intense, direct person with a complex, compassionate heart. That quiet honesty balances Constantine and Xanthe’s more sarcastic, banter-y dynamic.
Grunenwald: What went into visualizing the Spirit World itself? Was there a specific aesthetic you were going for?
Wong: The Spirit World is primarily based on Chinese ideas of the afterlife, with additional East and Southeast Asian influences. (As someone who is mixed race and comes from both an East and Southeast Asian background, I didn’t want it to feel culturally monolithic.) It’s also a place where historical and modern elements meet: for example, you might encounter a centuries-dead, hanfu-wearing spirit with a skateboard and sleek over-ear headphones. All kinds of paper offerings make their way to the Spirit World.
Haining: The Spirit World is definitely an Asian fantasy. This world is full of surprises and wonders, but also scary and mysterious. It’s the place that I’d love to live in after my death haha.
Cheng: As a Chinese who grew up from Southeast Asia, I was surrounded by a living place which formed from a large part of traditional Asian cultural heritage. I feel like this is something I was inspired by and brought to the color art of Spirit World. Warm yellow, Red, and Jade green often decorate oriental environments, temples, and attire of characters in the story. Glowing neon, magical colors are applied when it comes to the need of special effects. I think the contrast of these 2 historical and fantasy elements will create something fun and interesting to the Spirit World.
Grunenwald: For the whole team, what’s your collaboration been like?
Wong: I love Haining and Sebastian’s work! It’s a pleasure to collaborate with them. Every time I see a new page, I’m just delighted and inspired. I tend to adjust my scripts and write for the specific creative team I’m working with, so I always try to come up with stuff I think they’ll have fun with. And Jess’ notes are always insightful and enthusiastic.
Haining: I still can’t believe I’m part of this amazing team. Every time I see Alyssa’s script, Sebastian’s coloring and Jessica’s notes, I’m reminded that I’m working with such talented people! I’m grateful for that.
Cheng: It’s a wonderful experience to collaborate with this bunch of talented creative people! My pleasure to work with the whole team!
Grunenwald: What are you all excited for readers to see when they check out Spirit World?
Wong: I can’t wait for you to meet Xanthe! The Spirit World is a beautiful, strange, and dangerous place… and Haining and Sebastian have done an amazing job bringing it to life.
Cheng: Imagine Xanthe, John Constantine, and Cassandra Cain are in a story! You will walk into a fascinating imaginary world by Alyssa. Brilliant and dynamic art by Haining and my humble colors. ;)
Haining: With all these cool characters, I can’t imagine there’s any reason not to be excited about this story!
Spirit World #1 is due out in stores and digitally on Tuesday, May 9th. The prelude story for the series is reprinted in this week’s Dawn of DC We Are Legends Special Edition #1, out now.