Monday, July 30, 2012

Steampunk at SDCC: Darick Robertson & Oliver

Steam-punk Buzz Lightyear.
Photo by Raymond Francisco,
posted on Xerposa.
One development I've been watching from year to year at San Diego Comic-Con is the exponential growth of the Steampunk community. The costumes are amazing; people are not only creating new characters for themselves, but they are also recreating familiar characters (like Buzz on the left) in the Steampunk style.  In the next two posts, I've asked creators who announced new Steampunk projects at the Con why they think Steampunk is gaining such popularity. 

One observation I had myself while people watching at SDCC is that anyone with a creative spark can enjoy it and put together a great costume. You don't have to have the body of Wonder Woman or Superman to have people "ooo-ahhing" and asking to take your picture. It also looks like a fun & supportive community. I started shopping for some goggles myself!

In part one of my Steampunk exploration, I'm talking with comics creator & illustrator Darick Robertson (Spider-Man, Transmetropolitan,The Boys) about Oliver, a new comic loosely based on the familiar Dickens story set in post-apocalyptic London, to be published by Image Comics.

KM: What did you think of San Diego Comic-Con this year?

DR: It was fun and crazy, as it is every year except bigger, always bigger... I did sense a real attraction and support of more than just movie and established character stuff though. The enthusiasm for actual comics seems to be back at Comicon.

Darick Robertson at
SDCC hanging at the Comic Outpost
booth. Photo by Kim Munson.
KM: I heard the big cheer your announcement got at the Image panel. What has the response been to Oliver so far?

DR: Overwhelmingly positive. I half expected a lot of enthusiasm for my co-created project HAPPY! Because it's written by the incredible Grant Morrison, but I thought Oliver might take a little more time to warm on people, but on the contrary, there seems to be a real curiosity and excitement for the whole concept!

KM: Why do you think Steampunk is interesting to so many people?

DR: I think that we are living in a time wherein we are finding our way back 'down the mountain' in some ways, due to tough economic and turbulent times, people are trying to make sense of their world and make due with less, as well as make a little go further. Yet we are simultaneously engulfed in incredible technology; the stuff I only dreamed of as a kid only a couple of decades ago! We're now carrying around devices in our pockets that make Star Trek look antiquated. But since there is no going back, we also collectively long for days in our zeitgeist wherein you could make a little go a long way. Innovation was something you could create in your garage, the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did, with their wooden boxes full of tomorrow's triumphant technologies.

The idea that you could invent something wild and new with your own two hands from parts in your yard, things in your workshop, with smelting pots and hammers, gears and clock-works is romantic. Steam-punk captures the idea of imagination and magic combining into useful tools. There's something about Nikola Tesla that reaches out to us from the past and invites us to be inventors, and discoverers. At the turn of the century, technology was something that anyone could harness, now it's a matter of convenience. I don't know that I could open up my I-Phone and make it work again, or fix it if it weren't reliably functioning on it's own. Ralph McQuarrie's designs for Star Wars look like Steam-punk to me.

A Steampunk world, offers the illusion of technology for everyman, with a little bit of elegance and a lot of innovation and imagination. Oliver is such a natural fit for this genre that in some ways, the genre found it's way into our concept rather than the other way around.


KM: Could you briefly describe the characters and setting?

DR: The main story follows the theme and loosely, the plot of Dickens' Oliver Twist. Set in a future London after it's been ravaged by war, young Oliver discovers that he is, in writer Gary Whitta's words "...a Hybrid, the extremely rare offspring of an illegal union between a pure-bred woman and an IVC male. Inheriting the genetically-programmed superior strength, skills and combat instincts of the IVCs (clones) but with none of their weaknesses, Oliver is a unique specimen with astounding, superhuman powers – and the most reviled form of social outcast, declared too dangerous to live and marked for termination by a government fearful of the unplanned evolutionary leap that he represents"..."The cloned humans known as IVCs (In-Vitro Combatants), created in haste by the western powers to fight the war and now its veterans, have become a global underclass. An entire generation of disposable people, not considered legitimately human by society and now surplus to its requirements, they have been abandoned, forced to live in confinement and slavery inside the bombed-out, irradiated cities that have long since been deserted by “pure” humankind".

"Oliver is a unique specimen with astounding, superhuman powers – and the most reviled form of social outcast, declared too dangerous to live and marked for termination by a government fearful of the unplanned evolutionary leap that he represents."..."As Oliver gradually uncovers the clues that will unlock the secrets of his mysterious origins – and meets his one and only match in Dodger, a cocky and willful bandit girl whose martial arts prowess is matched only by her attitude – he will meet an incredible destiny that has awaited him since the day he was born, and which will change the course of all England’s future."

KM: It sounds like you found a couple of great collaborators, Grant Morrison on HAPPY!, and now Gary Whitta (Book of Eli). What's your process of working together?

DR: Grant is a fantastic collaborator in that he knows what he wants and also sees the value of creative input. We communicate our ideas to each other candidly and respectfully. It's been a joy creating HAPPY! with him. Of course, he travels a lot, so it becomes necessary to do everything through e-mail, and his incredible wife, Kristan, is an essential part of the process that makes it all work.

With Gary, he's local to me and we grew a friendship before starting this project. So we are working together in a way that I rarely, if ever, get to enjoy with a co-creator, in that we get together and hammer out ideas in person. I'll sketch out pages in the same room with him and we'll discuss ideas. That way, spontaneous inspiration and clever ideas are captured in the moment, and find their way into the finished work. Usually in collaborations, everything is so over-thought, edited and reconsidered, that what is in the final product of a comic is either over cooked with too many chefs in the kitchen of ideas or the opposite with distance making it so that it becomes too much one creator's vision, and in turn, I create reactively. With Oliver, we're two friends working together to create something more than what Gary originally came up with when he wrote this as a screenplay years ago, and having fun in doing so. We have a real enthusiasm and excitement to bring to this as we have been patiently waiting for years to actually put this together! I always believe when the creators are having fun, be it in music, or acting, whatever it is creatively, that the audience can sense that element in the work. If we're having fun, the audience has fun too. At our cores, Gary and I are both big sci-fi geeks and we love the genre as much as produce it.

KM: I saw some of your early sketches for Oliver. Is this book an artistic stretch for you? Do you have to do research?

DR: I wouldn't say it's a stretch, as I'm quite comfortable in what I'm doing with this, but it is a new genre for me. I like to draw things in a gritty way, and create worlds that feel tangible. I like to work in detail and I love to be imaginative with design and structure. I always hope to push myself as an artist and for Oliver, I have an opportunity to design and create a whole cast of characters in a world where the Steampunk and Victorian themes have a way of weaving their influence in naturally as opposed to an exploitative way. I actually traveled to London last year and took multiple reference shots to ensure that when I draw my future, war torn London, that I am building upon the real thing.

KM: What are Image's plans for the book?

DR: Image is supporting us in our desire to break the story into a trilogy, with three arcs of four issues each, and in the end, an omnibus. Gary and I have discussed ways to make each arc it's own event, and create a natural beginning, middle and end for each arc. Then we get a breather in between. Which will be good for me as I tend to juggle more than one project at a time and that will help me to keep calm and carry on...

KM: There was just a great article about Image in the New York Times about their support of creator-owned work.

DR: The exciting thing about what is happening right now at Image Comics is that publisher Eric Stephenson has created a business model that allows creators like myself, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Joe Harris, Greg Rucka, Matt Fraction, Howard Chaykin, James Robinson, Brian K. Vaughan and more, to create titles that we are truly inspired to do. It's more of a structure designed to get the books to the fans reliably but also leaves us to guide our own projects individually, rather than pushing a company meme.

What my colleagues are of doing within their titles doesn't affect what I'm doing in mine, and they are all truly creator owned. The incentive to get the books done and have them be all they can be falls squarely on the creators' shoulders and that's a good thing, as we all have skin in the game, so to speak. When you're drawing or writing someone else's property, you're doing so from a nostalgia for the property, and personally, I try to bring my 'A' game to everything I draw, but there's something wonderful about bringing to those that like my work, something that comes from a real inspiration and desire to collaborate with people who challenge me artistically. And in doing so, bringing out something totally new. Image has provided me a platform to bring new writers to the comics medium and really co-create.

KM:Is there anything you'd like to add that I haven't asked?

DR: I want to say thank you to the fans that are supporting this movement with such enthusiasm, as a party is no fun if no one shows up. The turn out for the Image panel in San Diego and the response Image is seeing in sales figures and attention says to me that there has never been a better time for creators to push the envelope and and really find the potential of this incredible format to tell stories. Like Steam-punk itself, comics look simple, but the combining of great words and great art, is always a bit of luck and a lot of passionate, devoted work to create something that works and entertains.

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