INTERVIEW: Greg Rucka On Breathing Life Into ‘Lazarus,’ The Thrills of Kickstarter and More

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By Matt O’Keefe

In July Greg Rucka and Michael Lark debuted Lazarus from Image Comics, and in five short months they have already established a rich dystopia full of conflicted characters, political corruption, and broken families. I had a conversation with Greg about collaborating, world building, and carving his own destiny.

Now that the first arc is done, what’s surprised you the most about Lazarus?

I think Michael and I were really taken aback by the reception. It’s been almost universally positive and extremely positive in many cases. Neither of us had any idea of what we were facing or how it would be received. Anytime you put something out into the world you’re a nervous parent. It’s been really nice to see the book get the reception that it’s gotten so far. Hopefully we will be able to maintain [the early momentum] and people will continue to enjoy it.

You work so well together. What makes you two sync?

Well, we’ve known each other quite a while; obviously that’s a big part of it. I think it’s interesting, you have friends – really, really close friends that you only talk to once every couple of years and you’re still close, and friends that you see all the time and are certainly friendly with but… Michael and I realized very quickly when we met and when we began working together that we were on the same page more often than not. We had the same concerns with regards to storytelling, with regards to execution… we were in many ways simpatico and I think that led to what has become a really tremendous friendship.

There are certain things you want in any artistic relationship, or any relationship. You need to be able to trust each other, you need to be able to have a clear and free discourse, you need to know that together you are working for the best, that there isn’t ego involved. Ego can be a dangerous thing; no one who puts their stuff out there has no ego because if we didn’t we wouldn’t share it. We want people to respond; we want people to like it. But I think at this point Michael and I have a long-standing trust. And it helps that we genuinely like each other. We’re friends outside our profession.

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First of a three-page sequence with no dialogue.

Especially for a novelist, you’re so open to panels and whole scenes with no dialogue. Is it hard to give up that control?

[Laughs] God, no. God, no. It’s a visual medium. There’s this wonderful quote that I read; it was Vince Gilligan talking about Breaking Bad and working with the writers in the writers’ room. One of the writers came to him proudly showing their script and said, “”Look at this! There are 5 pages without any dialogue!” and Gilligan was like, “That’s awesome!”

That’s comics – it’s a visual medium. There’s a place for the words and ideally when the words are needed I put the right ones down, but otherwise I know when the hell to get out of the way. I tend to be too subtle for my own good in a lot of my storytelling and honestly there are artists who I’ve been mismatched with as a result. I ask for a subtle piece of characterization or acting that they just can’t deliver. Michael lives in those subtleties. They’re effortless for him.

There’s a whole sequence that I just finished scripting in Lazarus. It’s a page with no dialogue at all. Everything is going to come across based on how he composes it, and I have no doubt at all about his ability to accomplish it. Maybe that’s a bad thing but it never enters my mind that I’m asking for too much from him. I worry more when I say, “I need 5000 people in this crowd.” [Laughs] Then he’s going to come at me with a knife. But if I’m asking for a sequence of panels with no dialogue but the acting and intent is clear I know he’s going to carry it out without any trouble.

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A page from Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s “Gotham Central”.

One of my most prized possessions is the silent page from “Half a Life” of Renee walked handcuffed through the police station.

I’ve got a “Half a Life” page on the wall in our upstairs hall. It’s one of my favorite pages he’s ever done, all because of the physicality – it’s all the acting.

It’s interesting… I saw somebody tweet yesterday about how the artist isn’t the director – the artist is the director, the cinematographer, the actor, and all of these things. I found myself thinking about it and getting a little annoyed because by extension it was saying that the writer is just the writer. That’s a misunderstanding of what comics are. There are elements of all that which are true, but it goes both ways.

But as an actor Michael is amazing. We talk about storytelling in terms of carrying forth the narrative and that being clear and conveying it properly but there’s a whole realm of actual acting. Most superhero comics fail at this because most superhero comics are histrionic – there’s not room or need in many cases for subtlety. For lack of a better analogy you can say “X” artist is like “Y” artist, or “X” artist is like “Y” director and I would offer that Michael Lark is like Robert De Niro – he’s incredibly gifted with the acting along with everything else. [Laughs] This is turning into a great big love letter for Michael. He can never hear it.

In the past you’ve described Lazarus as a nature vs. nurture story – but it seems like she was both created and raised to be an obedient soldier. Would that make it a story of her fighting against both her genetics and environment?

Her nature she can’t change. If we’re going to be rigid in our definition, she is what she is. She’s made to do what she can do, and there are things she can do that we haven’t seen yet. There’s a sequence in I think Issue 6 where you realize she can see heat signatures; she can literally activate a thermal vision genetically.

She cannot not do that; that’s not going to go away. So the nature that she was created to do is now a question of that nature was reinforced. One of the through lines in the lift arc in the next couple of issues is you see what the nurture was. You don’t see all of it, but you get a pretty good idea. Once she’s exited that environment at the beginning of the first arc she starts to encounter not just the nurtured world that’s been presented to her but this world that is beyond her makers’ control even at their best efforts, that’s where the fractures start to appear. She’s been raised to do a job and been raised to believe in the job she’s supposed to do. The question now is whether or not she can continue to believe in that job.

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Lazarus #5

At the end of four she’s told she’s not a Carlyle. Does she have an identity outside of her family?

That would be telling. [Laughs] That’s a very good question. What do you think given everything I’ve just said? There’s a question as to whether or not the message she received should be believed. One might argue whether or not it even matters.

[Pause] Does she have an identity outside of her family? No. Not right now. But I think we are starting to see it. I think that’s part of the story, part of the very core of the story, actually, which is why I’m sort of coy about answering it.

Image and Kickstarter projects aren’t just creator-owned; they’re largely creator-controlled. Have you enjoyed becoming involved in the business and marketing aspects of comics?

They’re two separate things. The Lady Sabre Kickstarter has been extraordinary. I now have a much, much better idea of what every publisher is doing, because when you’re your own publisher you learn a lot of stuff real quick. The ability to take control of the destiny of the work is thrilling. It’s also daunting and it also takes a hell of a lot of time and a hell of a lot of energy, and there are only so many hours in a day. When I’m working on that other stuff I’m not writing, I’m not creating any content, and that is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since the Kickstarter ended.

One of the beauties of working with Image is that it’s not entirely un-analogous to Kickstarter, but it comes with the benefit of a really well conceived and executed support system. What Image has done for us is beyond count at this point… I could not be happier with Image. I adore working with them. They have been nothing but accommodating and nothing but helpful at every turn. They’ve saved our bacon more than once. I don’t have a bad word.

Would you do a Kickstarter again?

Rick and Eric and I are discussing that. I think I would like to simply because, having learned what we learned, I feel we can do a better one next time. I’ve got an update going out next week on that. The fact of the matter is things took longer than I expected. That’s inexperience, that’s something that you learn and you hopefully can accommodate and adapt to in the future. And I’ve said this before but holy mackerel I had no idea how expensive shipping is… holy cats, wow, it’s a lot more of our budget than we thought it would be and we thought it would be substantial.

The other thing I’ll say about the Kickstarter is that, at least for us, the money that was pledged is not our money. That money belongs to the project. And until the project is completed, until the last book has been shipped, until everyone has everything that they pledged for it’s not over and that money is not ours. So, I will say from this side of the equation, what appears to be a lucratively successful Kickstarter actually at the end of the day probably isn’t going to be.

I think it’s very dangerous to start thinking of that money as yours too early. I’ve said this before but I really can’t say this enough: in particular with Kickstarter, we are talking about a crowd-funded project. You are entering into an agreement with your backers when you take this on. The agreement is that with your help, we will be able to accomplish this thing. The second people have pledged and are backing you they are part of that process and it is crucial beyond measure that that be honored and respected and never forgotten. I think the second you take your backers for granted you are asking for a lot of trouble and you are heading down a very dark road, and it’s rude on top of that. It matters so much for Rick and I to get this right and…

I’m getting ahead of myself as there’s a big update coming out next week, but one of the reasons that we’re delayed is we had a choice that we had to make and one of the choices was do we want it to be what we promised or do we want it to be on time? It was more important for us to deliver what we promised, because that’s what people came to back. In many ways it’s minor details. Sorting stuff with the printer, getting the right material for the hardcovers, but God is in the details. You’ve got to get it right.

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“Lady Sabre” from Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett

It never seemed like you thought the money was yours with all the stretch goals.

Yeah, I think we were a little ambitious. We always imagined stretch goals, but then when it became possible to do some of them we did all of them. Maybe next time we’ll be a little more restrained, a little more rational. Because I’ve got to tell you, for $30 and you’re going to get a beautiful 192-page hard cover and a little 64-page hardcover in-world artifact and then a 128-page process book… you get 3 books for $30! That’s a bargain no matter where you look! I think, should we do another one, it probably won’t be 3 books for $30. I suspect we’ll have to seed that out a little more. But like I said, we were so excited, so overwhelmed by the response, one of the things we felt was, “Wow, look at all the people believing in us, we want to give that back. And thus, perhaps I think you might fault us our generosity.

I think one of the most exciting stretch goals was Rick Burchett getting a Cintiq. Has he received it yet?

Yes, he’s got it. Oh man, there’s such a story behind that too. The computer, then the Cintiq… he finally got it started and starting to use it. We have regular calls on Monday and every Monday for the last month I ask, “Are you using it yet?” and he says, “I’m not using it yet”. He described it last Monday as exciting and terrifying. I think we are going to start seeing screens from the Cintiq soon, but it’s clear that he’s worked the way he works for a real long time. When we first started doing Lady Saber I sent him a Wacom tablet, because he didn’t have one, and he said, “Oh, this is great!” and now he’s jumped to the Cintiq. I think we’re going to see some really cool stuff, and it’s exciting to see how it’s developing for him.

You’ve done a massive amount of world building in Lazarus and Lady Saber. Was that a deliberate effort on your part?

It was. There was an acknowledgement at the start of each project that for this to work the world was going to have to be understood. So, as it’s progressed there’s been more and more [world building]. Some stuff was done in advance, some stuff gets done as I find time to do it, and some stuff gets done because it has to be done as I’m doing it. I enjoy the world building but it can be very distracting, it can be the thing that scoops you up takes you away, and that is obviously not conducive to meeting deadlines. And the other problem is it just reiterates out – the more that you examine it, the more time that you spend exploring it, the easier it is to stay in that wormhole.

I’ve got a Lazarus folder that has information that people are never likely going to see and then at the same time has stuff that I’m writing up because I know I’m going to need it for back matter in the next couple issues. I’ve got bios on most of the families, not all of them. I’ve got bios on the Carlyle kids and others, I’ve got locations, I’ve got an entry on the nature of the Catholic Church in this future, and one on military protocol and how that structures. That’s just some of what I’ve got. You have to walk carefully with it or else it will be the only thing you do. And honestly, if I had my druthers, it would be the only thing I would do. There’s a piece of me that would love for Lazarus to be my job as opposed to one of them.

Have you considered doing an encyclopedia like the Lady Sabre pocket guides at some point in the future?

I’ve thought about stuff like that… there are two or three different ideas bouncing around. The thing is that I can want to do them, but it doesn’t mean other people want them. I really want to do a short story collection. I really like the idea of getting 10 writers and giving them the timeline and access to the world building and telling them there are stories here that are dying to be told. Find out what you want to tell and write it and give it to me in 500 words or less. Michael will do a couple spot illustrations and we’ll do that either as a digital release or an actual book and we could conceivably do that with Kickstarter, I suppose.

But I don’t know; I’ve yet to really discuss it with the Image folks. That’s my current pipe dream, to maybe do a short story collection by the end of 2014. Certainly by that time we’re going to have more world building materials.

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“Alpha” by Greg Rucka

What’s the status of the next Jad Bell novel?

I just spoke to my editor yesterday and he tells me I will receive the copy edit on the 24th of December, so the timing is impeccable. The book is scheduled for release in July, and it’s called Bravo. Everything looks good and according to plan.

Was the first optioned as a movie? It just seems perfect for a film.

No, Alpha was not and I understand why it wasn’t. If you’re a major studio do you really want to do the terrorist-in-a-theme-park thing? Even if the book is not what it appears to be at first?

[Laughs] True.

It’s all right; I don’t write them to be optioned. If someone comes along I’m always willing to listen, but just like with Lazarus and everything else the work is created for the medium that it initially exists in. I’m not adverse to seeing it live on with other mediums but if I write a novel it’s a novel; it’s not a script treatment.

Are you involved in the Queen and Country movie developments?

I am aware of them. Those involved who have no obligation whatsoever to keep me informed have been sort of reaching out and keeping me apprised. But when Country was sold many years ago one of the first things that happened was I stepped back. That was not a screenplay I wanted to do. That was because at that point I didn’t think I was equipped to write it; I didn’t think I could do a good one. And I was right because when I read John Rogers’ draft, which is apparently the one they are working off of, I was floored by how good it was. I read it and put it down and said, “Well, that was better than anything I could have come up with.” It was the right choice there.

That said, over the last two years I’ve had multiple calls with the producers where they’ve said, “This is what’s going on; this is what we’re thinking; what are you thinking?” That’s something that they are no way obligated to do, and I am very grateful that they choose to do it when they do. With regards to the Ellen Page news, I have no idea what the standing is right now. I think they could make a hell of a good movie with her.

Do you want to do more in film?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Like I said ten years ago I was not the guy to be writing screenplays. One of the things that I have tried hard to learn to do well in the last ten years is be able to write for television and film and the like. There are some options and opportunities I’m pursuing out there; we’ll see. I’m not the only guy out there that wants to write for TV. There are a couple of irons in the fire, and unfortunately they’re all at the stage where I can’t talk about them yet.

What’s inspiring you about that we might not know about? Whether it be life/fiction/non-fiction?

Huh… that is a good question… what is inspiring me right now? I was living in what felt like exile for a very long time, and in the last two months or so I’ve been able to come out of it and I get to see other writers and artists and I get to talk to them more. That interaction, honestly, has been lifesaving; it’s been energizing.

There are some days when it is so hard to fight your way through all the traffic and the phone calls and the emails to get to your work, and by time you actually get things clear enough to write you’re exhausted already. Being able to talk to a peer group that is dealing with the same thing, that always seems enthusiastic about the work they are doing, and also seems to be dealing with their own crisis and hardships and roadblocks… that has been huge. To read the work they are putting out and to see the effort they are making… it’s very hard not to want to match it.

I don’t like naming names because I never want to offend someone inadvertently but I will say my wife Jen Van Meter has been working on a project for two years with a really cool artist and the day before yesterday was informed unceremoniously that it was not going to happen. The publisher just killed it dead. It’s two years of work down the tubes and it can’t be repurposed. There’s no way to take a kick in the teeth like that and not fall down. Watching her pull herself up and dust herself off and get back to work I’ve got nothing to complain about.

Lazarus #5, part one of a new arc, is now on sale from Image Comics. New screens for Lady Sabre are added every Monday and Wednesday at the Ineffable Aether website. Greg is active on both Twitter and Tumblr.

Comments

  1. I can relate to what he’s talking about in that last answer. If it weren’t for the moral support I get from the crowd at SequentialWorkshop.com, I probably wouldn’t have accomplished most of the work I’ve done in the last several years.

    But don’t hold that against them. :)

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