Talking Comics with Tim | Chris Roberson & Rich Ellis
Wednesday marks the release of the second issue of writer Chris Roberson and artist Rich Ellis’ IDW miniseries Memorial, which centers on Em, a women recovering from amnesia only to have a magical shop with unique transportation abilities enter her life. The story also features a talking cat, an element that captured my interest (and as I learned, the cat talks like a comics associate of Roberson’s [your guess who it is as good as mine]). Last week I caught up with the Roberson and Ellis via email to explore their collaborative process. In addition to delving into the six-issue miniseries, I briefly learned about the advantage that Ellis finds in being part of Portland’s Periscope Studio. Once you’ve read the interview, avail yourself of IDW’s preview of Issue 1 and Roberson’s November interview with CBR’s Josie Campbell.
Tim O’Shea: In a recent CBR interview, Chris described this project as using “mythological tropes that are somewhat familiar but twisted.” Who had more fun twisting the tropes, Rich (from a visual perspective) or Chris (from a writing perspective)?
Chris Roberson: Rich may claim that he had more fun, but he’s clearly wrong, as I am having a BLAST.
Rich Ellis: If Chris is having more fun, then I am the person who benefits most from his enjoyment. The fun for me has been in the challenge of getting my head into the complex characters and wonderfully intricate world of Memorial.
O’Shea: With at least two or three of the six issues already in the can, I am curious if you two feel like you have established a rapport as collaborators? What assets do you both see each other bringing to this story?
Roberson: I knew from the first time I looked at Rich’s website that he would be perfect for Memorial, and I have yet to be proven wrong. I can describe a crazy bit of architecture or a character’s look or a setting, and as soon as Rich turns his hand to it he produces EXACTLY what I had in mind. Or improves it in a way that I hadn’t even anticipated. Some of the stuff we have in the upcoming issues just looks AMAZING.
Ellis: To put it simply, collaborating with Chris has been ideal. It usually takes time for a team to really understand each other creatively, but from the first synopsis I read, I felt like Chris and I were on the same page. As for what Chris brings to the story, he has said before that he’s throwing everything he ever wanted to see done in comics into Memorial. I can tell you personally that he was NOT exaggerating. Each script has included characters and concepts I have never seen anywhere else.
O’Shea: Without giving away too much, the first issue ends with a door opening in the midst of a seascape. Chris, could you describe your thought process when you realized you wanted to write that scene — and Rich, how challenging a scenes was that to draw?
Roberson: It was really just a question of Em stepping through a door and it being immediately obvious that she was in a MUCH different place. Originally I toyed with the idea of her ending up in some different city, or some rural setting, but there was something about the stark isolation of a desert island that seemed to fit.
Ellis: Drawing that particular page was actually a breath of fresh air. The most difficult pages for me in that issue were actually the pages in the shop. It is an important setting, and I was very focused on capturing just the right feeling for it. I wanted it to feel like the kind of place where you could find ANYTHING.
O’Shea: Another art/writing challenge, how do you feature a talking (and hilariously snarky) cat in one’s story without making the character seem cheesy?
Roberson: I didn’t realize he would be snarky until he started talking. I always hate it when writers talk about characters writing themselves or coming alive on the page, but the experience writing Schrodinger has very much been that kind of thing. But once I’d written a few issues, I mentioned to my wife Allison that for some reason I never had to struggle to imagine what the cat would say, and that I knew EXACTLY how he talked. It was like I heard his very distinct voice in my head. Then she realized that I had unconsciously modeled Schrodinger’s speech patterns after those of a good friend of ours. As soon as she said that, I knew she was right.
I’m not saying who the person is whose voice I’ve stolen for Schrodinger, but he works in comics. I’m curious to see if anyone can guess who it is. (To be fair, though, I’ve never heard him call a woman “toots.”)
Ellis: I think a lot of what makes Schrodinger work is how Chris chose to deal with him. Schrodinger is normal as far as he’s concerned, and in a story with a evil puppet and statues coming to life, I think he may have a point. I think of him as just being another character at this point, the main challenge for me being that I have to be creative with my acting.
O’Shea: How important was it to the two of you that this story be in color, and speaking of the color — how critical is colorist Grace Allison to the look and feel of this series?
Roberson: Memorial wouldn’t be HALF the book it is without Grace’s colors.
Ellis: It never occurred to me to do Memorial in anything but full color. From the outset I imagined Memorial to be a rich, vivid, and inviting place. I had previously worked with Grace on a number of different projects and she was my first choice for Memorial. Grace has been a part of defining the look and feel of every character and environment in the book from the very beginning. I can’t imagine the book without her.
O’Shea: Would it be fair to say you both have an affinity to a certain degree for urban fantasy (and would you agree Memorial has an element of urban fantasy to it)?
Roberson: “Urban fantasy” is one of those terms that used to have a much broader definition than it does today, and has come to identify a fairly narrow sub-genre. So if you mean writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Ellen Kushner … then yes.
But I think Memorial owes more to prose writers like Roger Zelazny and Diana Wynne Jones, which I suppose could be termed “urban fantasy” in the original sense of the term, which indicated fantasy stories in a contemporary setting, at least in part. With Em’s story, I’m trying to capture that same sense of the extraordinary and fantastic intruding into the real world. Hopefully we manage to accomplish it!
Ellis: I have a great love of fantasy stories in general. Knowing what I do about Memorial and where it’s heading, I find it entirely impossible to classify it as any one specific sub-genre.I describe it to people as a contemporary fantasy story in which ANYTHING can happen. I hope that answer isn’t too vague, but I think one of most exciting things about the Memorial universe is that, when it comes down to it, I can’t think of a type of story we COULDN’T tell.
O’Shea: Rich, one question for you solely, when struggling with a scene or a facial reaction or some other aspect of you art, how beneficial is it to be working in the talent rich environment of Periscope Studio?
Ellis: I cannot overstate how useful a resource being a member of Periscope Studio has been for me. Aside from the obvious benefit of NOT spending 60 hours a week alone in my apartment, I get access to a multitude of incredibly talented and experienced artists and writers. There is no problem that I can’t ask the room about without receiving at least six different solutions back. I work in the company of artists I admire and respect, and I can’t recommend it enough.
The only downside is that at some point my studio-mates found out I was very good at making ridiculous facial expressions for photo reference. So our studio’s iPhoto library holds enough incriminating photos of me to ensure the end of my career, should they ever be released.
O’Shea: Chris, since Rich got his own question, it’s only fair you get one as well: How did the Memorial team score Michael Kaluta for the covers?
Roberson: Getting the amazing Michael Kaluta to do covers for Memorial was entirely up to the fine people at IDW. We had originally talked about Rich doing the covers himself. But when IDW wrote to ask us if we MINDED if Kaluta did them instead, well … It’s not as if Rich or I were about to complain! It’s thrilling and a little humbling to get a chance to work with such a monumental talent, whose work I’ve admired for as long as I can remember.