OH: The first time we talked, Lady Sabre was just starting, you only had about five screens up at that point, and you said that you guys were kind of putting your toes in the water and trying to figure out what the project is and what it could be. Two years later, what do you make of what its become? Where do you see it going?
GR: Rick and I started it because we were desperate to do something together, and to do something together that would be fun. It has been such a blast. It's so nice to be able to do this fantasy. So much of my stuff is, for lack of a better word, "mature-reader" oriented, but one of the delights of Lady Sabre is that it's this gleeful, all-ages thing. There are certainly adult elements to it, but it's just been so gleeful. It's been so energizing to create something like this and not feel like I'm always having to watch my back or satisfy somebody else's agenda, or service it. It was bumpy at the start, because I didn't know how to write a webcomic. That learning curve was real sharp. I think, two years in, I've kind of got the hang of it. There are people out there who are doing a much nicer job than I am, but I feel like you can see that I'm getting better. And I like that too. Frankly, there was a while there a few years ago where I felt like I was running in place, and I don't want to be a writer who isn't challenging himself, who isn't trying to get better. Simply on that basis, I needed this. I needed to find something else that I could try and educate myself on.
OH: I also asked you back then if working on a steampunk, high-adventure story was a conscious effort to break away from the darker, more intense material you're more known for. At the same time that you're working on this, you're also working on Lazarus, which seems to fit in more with that heavier storytelling readers are used to seeing from you. How has it been balancing the different tones of the two works? Has that been difficult?
GR: No, it's actually kind of delightful. I wrote a book a couple of years ago and the research I had to do for it was so ugly and traumatic, and it took a really long time to put it down (and I'm not sure I've actually succeeded in putting it down). When I'm playing in one area only, it colors your perceptions, so the ability to go from something light...maybe "innocent" is the word, because "light" implies there's a lack of gravitas. There's serious stuff that happens in Lady Sabre, but there is a purity of it. You don't have to worry that I'm going to pop a rape story on you. I'm never going to reveal that one of these characters was molested. That's never going to happen in Lady Sabre. In Lazarus, it is a sordid frickin' world, man. And it was designed to be from the start. It is "a dystopian future." It is a malfunctioning world. There are amoral, immoral, depraved people running around this place. Lazarus isn't a book I'm going to put in front of my kids. Lady Sabre: no problem!
Being able to stretch arms in both directions is wonderfully liberating, honestly. It's really nice. I've always loved fantasy, I've just never thought of myself as a good fantasy writer, and that was mostly because I've just never tried it. In that sense, trying Lady Sabre, you're correct, it was going in an entirely different direction, but it was a direction I've been eyeing for a while.
OH: Getting back to what you said earlier about feeling like you've improved over the course of Lady Sabre, were there specific things you feel like you've had to work on, or was it more of a general feeling?
GR: I really needed to learn how to pace it for the screen, as well as to write it for the screen. One of the things we do on the site is post the scripts along with the screens. Rick and I have always had a very good working relationship and a good shorthand with each other, but I needed to figure out an entirely new way to write this that would still fit in my head with how to write a comic. Pacing, composition, remembering the medium...the nice thing about a webcomic is that you can go back. If you don't have an archive button on your webcomic, then you're doing something wrong, I think. You need to be able to go back and catch up. But also, (and I've actually fallen down on this lately, I've gotta get better about it), it provides a wonderful opportunity to add supplemental material, to talk about and show things that aren't directly related to the story at hand, but that are clearly influences upon it. That is something I still haven't quite figured out how to use. There are also elements about it that I wanted to avoid. A lot of people dabbled in webcomics as motion comics, you know, Flash [animation] and that directed reading experience...I'm not interested in those things. I want...[sighs] I suppose I'm somewhat conservative in my comics, so trying to find the balance in what digital options offer while still maintaining what feels to me like a comic book purity...that's been another learning process.
OH: Since you brought it up, what are your thoughts on digital comics and distribution, and what it looks like right now?
GR: I think we're getting there. Like I said, I'm a book guy, I want to hold the stuff in my hand. The biggest problem I've had with digital comics isn't so much the digital nature of it so much as the reading experience of it. The reason we're doing the book in landscape [format] is that's what the screens are. Trying to force that into a portrait format is a waste of paper and a waste of space and doesn't utilize the form. It resists it. One of the problems I think we have is we don't have appropriate readers yet. Once we get a tablet that actually folds closed, that shuts the way a laptop shuts, but is an iPad thickness, and you have two screens, I think that's going to change the experience incredibly. But that may simply be that I'm a holdover. One of the things I experience when I read a comic, the eye moves in certain ways across the page. Well, you don't actually have a page when you read digital, you have a screen. We look at people who will adapt digital to print, and a double-page spread becomes a different thing on the screen.
I think the distribution methods are getting better. Comics has a history of just "we have a distributor!" There needs to be more. There needs to be more than just the one mechanism, there needs to be more than just ComiXology, I think. But I've come around. I think at the start I was very suspicious of digital, and I am now far more embracing of it. I think it does work. I don't think we're there 100%. Like I said, I think it's more an issue of technology than of medium. But there is a reason why you're seeing the big publishers move towards it more and more as well. We always hear that the industry is dying. I have no idea if the industry is dying or not, but it's clear that comics are always going to continue. Speaking from first hand [experience], printing costs a lot of money [laughs] Digital actually makes things viable that weren't viable before.
OH: Getting back to Lazarus, which, going by the preview, is sort of a science fiction, dystopian future story, but also includes a lot of examination of class issues. What got you and Michael Lark thinking about this type of material?
GR: Lazarus came about because I had an idea for a scene, which is the first scene of the first issue. I saw this scene, and I had all these questions, and amongst them was "why?" Followed very quickly by "how?" and "where?" Not so much "when." That scene floated around and linked up pretty quickly with the Occupy movement, which was really starting to get a lot of attention when I was thinking about this. I was looking at the arguments and discussion, in particular the discussion of the economics, and I was wondering "what happens if that economic disparity becomes even more savagely acute? What is the extrapolation of that?" That's what Lazarus is. Lazarus is the extrapolation of [the notion that] all wealth ends up residing in the hands of very, very few, and with that wealth comes all the power. What happens to everybody else who's left out, and what happens to the people who end up holding all that power?
That was the rough start of it, and then what happened was I was in Dallas on a book tour for my last novel, Alpha, and my literary agent, who lives in Dallas, and Michael and I all went out to dinner. I hadn't seen Michael in a while, and when I run through Dallas, I want to see him. He and I had been talking about another project for a couple of years, but it just wasn't coming together, so I mentioned to him this opening scene, and he was sitting opposite me and he leaned across the table and said "I want to draw that scene now!" And that was how it happened, it literally went from "you want to do that?" to "Ok, I think we can get Image to do it, let me see if they're interested." I talked to Eric Stephenson, who came back and said "hell yeah. You, Lark, this? Great!" I wrote the script, sent it to Michael and Michael called me up and said "that scene's not in here!" And he was right, it wasn't in there, and I was like "well, I wanted to get to this other stuff" and he said "no I want to draw that scene!" And he was right. All of his notes on the first issue were dead on. He was like "this is really dark, there's nobody sympathetic here, and I really want that cool scene!" And I was like "oh, I hate you, I'll go back and rewrite it." It took me a couple of weeks, but I went back and revised the issue, and like I said, Michael was absolutely right, it's a much better first issue than what I had initially presented him with. But that was it, we were off to the races. It started with a dinner, and Michael liking what I said. Which is good, because if you're working with a collaborator who doesn't like where you're going, it's not a good collaboration! One of the delights of working with Michael is that he's not passive. This is an idea in equal measure. I'll call him up and I'll say "this is what I'm thinking, this is where I'm going to go with the story, this is what's going on," and he'll say "well, have you thought about this? I would like to see this, I would really like to draw this." He and I have known each other now for quite a while, and I think we're pretty good friends, and that makes it so much easier. I'm blessed right now. Like I said, I've been in comics for fifteen years, and I'm lucky enough that at this point, I have a lot of incredibly talented friends, and it makes working with them a delight. It's how Rick and I got to working on Lady Sabre. The only real surprise about Lazarus for me is that it took Michael and me so long to do something together.
OH: You've worked with both Rick Burchett and Michael Lark before on a few different projects before this. Can you talk a little bit more about why you like working with them specifically, and in what way they're able to realize the concepts you write?
GR: It's funny, Dennis O'Neill introduced me to Rick in 2000, maybe 1999. It was pre-"No Man's Land." Most of these things actually seem to happen over meals. [laughs] We went to dinner, and Rick and I hit it off like a house on fire. I've said this in other interviews, but Rick and I are sort of brothers, but separated by a couple thousand miles and about fifteen years. So many of our references and so many of our interests are so similar. Some arcane stuff; he and I can talk about obscure British comedies from the 70's for hours. Rick and I have always spoken the same language, and that friendship I think has translated beautifully more than once in comics. We got to do some really good stuff on Batman when I was on Detective Comics. He did a wonderful Queen & Country: Declassified. I honestly believe that Rick is one of the best graphic storytellers in the world today. We live in an age where a lot – not all – but there are a lot of artists out there drawing comics and they know squat about how to tell a story visually. They maybe know a lot about anatomy and posing, but they tend to be far more concerned about their own style, and (some of them) far more concerned with how much they can sell a page for, than with actually telling a story in the medium. Rick is just a preeminent storyteller. He is a guy who has spent his life looking at the medium, and the masters of it, and trying to learn. And it shows. I can give Rick anything, and he will find a way to not only deliver it, but to deliver it better than I could imagine.
With Michael, it's interesting. Michael does not come from a purely comic book background, and he only explained this to me fairly recently. He's a graphic designer by training, and he came into comics bass-ackwardly. One of the delights of working with Michael is that no matter how fantastic your story or setting, and I think it's because of that graphic design and literal design background, will render it with real gravitas. You believe it. I look at Lazarus pages, and I believe the world. I believe the texture of the world, and I believe the emotion of the world. That's one of the other things, and I don't think Michael gets nearly enough credit for this, one of the worst things I do in my writing is I ask for too little. I tend to mute moments, and I get uncomfortable if I write really big. I like subtleties, and comics are not a medium that embrace subtle storytelling. They don't reject it, but they don't really embrace it. The combination of moment and story and artist who can do that successfully is fairly rare. What Michael can do just in terms of the "acting" on the page, what characters are doing, I think is second to none. It is so deft and so precise, I mean I can literally give him a panel description that says "this is that emotional moment where you feel this way but you kinda feel this way, but this thing has happened..." and it'll be arcane. It'll be like "it's that moment where you realized you lost your car keys and you're going to be late for the meeting at the PTA, and on top of that you got a parking ticket, but you're still really happy because of that great date you had last night," and somehow he'll draw that expression! [laughs]
Both Rick and Michael are very smart guys, and if I put a script in front of them, they will not let me get away with lazy. Ever. They demand the best from me. Who wouldn't want to collaborate with people like that?
OH: There's a quote by Rick Burchett where he talks about the fact that Lady Sabre came out of the fact that he can't get work from any of the comics publishers, which I thought was insane.
GR: Yeah, I think it's insane too, but the fact of the matter is, The Big Two, he is not what they want. He's not the flavor of the month right now, and he hasn't been for a while. And I think, in all honesty, both Marvel and DC abused him for quite a while. I know of at least one editor at DC really, really, really, really didn't like him, and got him on a book and then went out of his way to sabotage everything he was doing. When we cleared the initial Kickstarter goal, we were all on the phone and we just didn't know what to say. And Rick said "It's the first time in my life where I feel like people are responding...that there is a success based on my work." and I said "says the guy who has two Eisner Awards?" And Rick says "I've got two Eisner Awards for drawing like Bruce Timm." I'm not sure I agree with that assessment, but that was his assessment. That kind of broke my heart, I gotta say. That kind of broke my heart.
Mainstream comics in particular have an artistic style, and sometimes that style can be pushed to certain extremes, but there comes a point where they're in a frame, and you can't go outside of that frame. When I was working at DC, there were issues with books that we did with artists. I remember I had the Editor-in-Chief say "this guy should never have been on this book." He had done a great job, and I'm not going to name names here, but the issues in question I thought were terrific, but stylistically, the comment was "he should be upstairs at Vertigo." I'm not sure I agree with that. This is an artistic medium. To standardize and sanitize it is to wound it. Maybe it's a death by a thousand cuts, but it does nothing to help us. I remember distinctly the moment when I picked up the first New Mutants by Bill Sienkiewicz. I remember that moment. I remember opening that book and going "mother of god what is this?!" I'd never seen anything like it! I still think that that run, artistically if nothing else, is staggering. I would argue you could not do that at The Big Two. Sienkiewicz could turn around and say "I want to do that again," and they would let him, because he's proven, but if somebody were to come in and have a style as explosive, and as vibrantly different and non-traditional, both Marvel and DC would be like "[panicked scream] Get it away! It burns!"
OH: You had some pointed words last year about the Big Two and you announced that you were going to be concentrating more on your creator-owned work, and that led to a lot of internet discussion about that and a lot of "column inches" being devoted to that subject. What are your thoughts on the state of comics journalism and discussion today?
GR: I think it was a non-story story. I don't take back anything I said. I think there are huge problems at The Big Two. I also think there are some great things. The fact of the matter is, we live in an era where Marvel and DC no longer exist. Marvel is now Disney, and DC is now Warner Bros./DC Entertainment. These are IP farms. They're owned by huge entertainment corporations who want to sell a product at a profit. That's not a bad thing, but it's problematic when it becomes the only thing. Now, I'm not sure it has become the only thing, but I think there's a clear danger of it. That said, both companies have produced, and are still producing, remarkably good work. It's not that easy to find, but I suppose you could argue that it never was. When you're publishing something every month, and you're doing sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety of these books every month, quality control suffers. Quality control will always suffer when bottom line becomes more important than product.
With regards to comics journalism, I honestly believe there isn't much of it. I think what we have in comics journalism is a lot of gossip reporting, a lot of mouthpiecing, a lot of sites take the releases from The Big Two and jump when they want to. It was significant when CBR, after the Bob and Bobbie interview sequences, said "we're not doing this anymore." CBR was doing there what I think comics journalism always needs to do. There are questions that need to be asked, and light needs to be shone, and I want that. I think this is why the loss of Comics Alliance is so painful, because agree or not with what they were doing, they never softballed. We need more legitimate comics journalism, just as we need more legitimate comics criticism. The age of the internet has allowed a tyranny of the minority in a lot of ways, and has also blurred the line between freedom of expression and professionalism. Just because you can blog your review doesn't necessarily mean your review has merit. The line is "everyone has a right to their opinion;" that's actually not true. Everyone's entitled to their well-informed opinion. Your ignorant opinion has no weight. No matter how shrill you get about it, it still doesn't matter if you don't know what the hell you're talking about. Journalism's purpose is to inform and make sure we do know what we're talking about. There are some great, sincere journalists and critics out there, and god bless 'em. We need more. We really need more. So many of the news sites in particular, what do they report on? They report on the new event. You're talking to somebody who knows how the sausage gets made. So many times I've seen stories that to me, it's like "this person left this book because this thing happened," and I'm like "no, that's not why. I know that's not why! Empirically, that's not why!"
The other problem is that both publishers, I'm talking about Marvel and DC are incredibly defensive. Incredibly defensive. They don't make it easy. They will deny, they will lie, and they will mislead. It makes a certain amount of sense to deny, lie, and mislead about say a story that has not happened yet, but there are some questions that need answering. Who else is going to ask them? We're a passionate fanbase, but a fanbase can only operate on the information it has at any given moment. If that information is not present, if [the fans] don't have it, by necessity, they're going to be either be ignorant or incorrect. Neither is ideal. An informed comics community will lead to better comics. Better comics will lead to a larger community.
OH: What would you like to say to wrap up?
GR: I feel like a broken record now, because everytime I talk about the Kickstarter now, I say the same thing, which is "oh my god, thank you." And that is kind of all I can say. We remain overwhelmed. We have nearly 2,000 backers on this project now and we've got thirteen days to go. We ran the numbers, and if we got 666, we were going to be ok. I'm incredibly grateful. I remain incredibly humbled by the response. We're still going, and I have no idea where it's going to end.
We're talking about an an industry that I love. You don't do comics because you hate them. There are good books that need your support. Sometimes I write one of those good books. Most of the time, it's other people. They deserve your support. It's out there. People can find it.
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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch
As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well. You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.
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