Welcome back to the newest round of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best comics on the web. In our newest extra-length run, we’ve got comics of all shapes, sizes and genres, from a wide variety of creators. And first up, we’ve got a two-part interview with two creators who’ve made the leap from the page to the web.
Comic fans know Greg Rucka from such grim and gritty books as Punisher, Queen and Country and Stumptown, and Rick Burchett from the many all-ages DC animated books, most recently The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold. But they’ve taken a sharp right turn from their usual styles for Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, their new twice-weekly webcomic.
In a world known as the Sphere, Lady Seneca Sabre is among those who sail the Aether between the Lands that dot the seemingly endless sky. There’s swordfights, gunfights, and of course a whole lot of zeppelins – plus tons of bonus material on the site, including Rucka’s scripts and background material for this world with Burchett’s designs.
We got on the phone with Rucka and Burchett to talk about Lady Sabre, why they’ve gone to the web, and why they’ve decided to do something different from the work they’re known for doing in comics. Strap yourselves in and get ready to set sail through the Ineffable Aether with Lady Sabre!
Newsarama: Greg, Rick – what made you guys want to do a webcomic together?
Greg Rucka: The quick version is Rick and I have been looking for years for a project that someone would let us do together. And we kept getting stymied on that for a variety of reasons! (laughs)
We were working on American Soldier and we’re still searching around for a publisher for it, and I think it was Rick who said, “I don’t care what we do at this point, let’s just do something!” And he suggested, “Why don’t we do a webcomic?” and I said, “Sure!”
It took about five minutes after that for us to come up with the idea for Lady Sabre in its rough form. Rick and I have known each other for about 10 years now, and we have so many common interests, both inside and outside of comics. His sensibility is very similar to mine, and I think one of the things we saw potential for in this was to engage our love of pulp adventure and serials.
We both really, I think, are drawn to that steampunk aesthetic. It ties very nicely into our passion for the Western, actually, because as Rick is fond of pointing out, what’s going on in Europe during that Victorian period is also during that period of westward expansion. So in the American West, you’re seeing a lot of attempts to emulate what’s coming out of Western Europe.So it sort of came together that way, I guess. Rick, anything you want to add to that…? Rick Burchett: For me, anyway, it was an opportunity to draw things that nobody would ever ask me to draw. I mean, I love comics, and I’ve loved them ever since I was a little kid. The Catch-22 in that is that when I was a little kid, there were all kinds of comics being published.
There were superhero comics, of course, but there were also science fiction comics, and mystery, and practically every TV series had a tie-in comic, and there were Westerns and romance and war and horror and all that stuff. One of the things that drew me to the medium was that wide variety of subject matter.
Well, flash forward a few decades and I’m in the business…and all anybody is doing is superheroes. Which is fine, I like superheroes. But I want to draw other stuff as well. And this was a golden opportunity to get to do that.
Nrama: Were you reading any webcomics before doing this strip, and what made you want to use this particular medium?
Rucka: I hadn’t been reading any, actually, but it’s something I’ve been looking at more and more seriously for the past two or three years. My friend Eric Trautmann started a webcomic called Wide Awake with Brandon Jerwa. Another friend, Neil Bailey, has been doing a webcomic called Cura Te Ipsum, which is at www.charlieeverett.com. Karl Kershel’s work on The Abominable Charles Christopher, and Mike Norton’s Battlepug, stuff like that.
So I was aware of some comics, and people who were doing things in different ways like PvP and Penny Arcade, it’s a list that goes on and on. But being aware of the format and actually writing for it are two different things.
As we’re doing this, we’re coming up on the end of Chapter One, and this was the first thing I wrote. Since starting almost exactly a month ago today, I have revised the script for Chapter Two about six or seven times just based on what I’ve learned by seeing how the process works. It’s one thing to write it on a page, but it’s another entirely to see it on the screen and realize you had no idea what you were doing and need to correct your course!
Nrama: Did you look at any of the classic adventure strips for inspiration, like Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy or Terry and the Pirates, that sort of stuff?Burchett: Oh yeah. All those guys, they’re my teachers. I learned from every one of those guys, specifically Milton Caniff in the way he told stories. He brought a very cinematic approach to telling a daily comic strip story, so I’ve studied his work a lot.
Roy Crane was of course an influence…Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, I kind of set aside because their strips were more illustrated stories than sequential comics, but there’s still so much to learn from those guys. Going on, there’s Frank Robbins with Johnny Hazard, John Prentice taking over for Alex Raymond on Rip Kirby…all those guys kind of fed the flame. I learned as much from those guys as I did from the guys in regular comic books.
I really like that little chunk of story you get each day in the newspaper strip, but I think the Internet allows you to expand on that whole concept, because we’re not beholden to the page any more, and to the shape of the page and the length of the story and how much story we’re able to tell each day. The freedom that the Internet opens up is unlike anything else.
Rucka: Yeah, it can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be very treacherous. If you don’t take hold of those reins, I think it’s very easy to become overly indulgent in your storytelling, and given the pacing of a comic that for our purposes we’re updating only twice a week, it needs to be very directed. The flipside is that what you can do visually is kind of phenomenal.
Nrama: It’s interesting when you look at collections that reprint classic comic strips at their original size – the Internet lets you do that sort of experimentation with format that you can’t really do in the newspapers any more.
Rucka: It’s a two-fold thing you’re talking about with that – what’s being done to newspapers is a slow and painful process to behold. I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to have them with us. But the newspapers have moved to the web, so it makes a certain sense that at least that kind of comic storytelling would follow - or potentially be leading.Burchett: Yeah, I think so too. Milton Caniff was fond of saying that his number-one job was to sell tomorrow’s paper. And you can see that in his work. We have the opportunity to do that as well – basically, to sell the next day’s installment.
Now, we don’t want every day to be a cliffhanger – that just wouldn’t work. But what we can do is build a narrative drive that will entice people to come back. But we have more than three or four panels to do that in – we can take as many as we need to on that day.
Nrama: Well, the strip does have that feel of a classic newspaper adventure strip.
Rucka: Thanks for that – and that’s owed that far, far more to Rick than to myself, I think. I’m not ashamed to say that Rick is one of the best storytellers working in the medium, and I think his knowledge of the history of that medium is incredible. I think in large part my job on Lady Sabre is to shut up and get out of his way, which seems so far to be working. (laughs)
Nrama: Rick, I think this is the first thing I’ve seen from you in a while that hasn’t been in that DC animated format.
Burchett: Yeah. Well, that’s kind of been the curse of the animated books. I enjoy that style, and I’m really proud of the stuff we did, but unfortunately, it is a career-killer. Once editors see you work in that style, they assume that’s all you can do. And I had 10 years in the business before I ever started on the animated books where I did other stuff.
Editors are very much tunnel vision: “What’s in front of me right now?” And they look at that and they see that and they go, “Well, I’ve got this new book that I want to do, but I can’t use this guy because he draws in that animated style,” not realizing it’s a style you adopt or adapt when you do those books. So the opportunity to walk away from that is great.
Nrama: Greg, in your mission statement for Lady Sabre, you talk about how it’s supposed to be fun, and about adventure, and…well, I just read Punisher…Rucka: (big laugh)
Nrama: …point being, “fun” is not exactly what a lot of people think of when they think about your work.
Rucka: Well, that’s fair. I think what Rick said applies for me as well. You get pigeonholed to a certain extent. And the largest body of my work in comics in the past 10 years has been in superheroes. Of those superheroes, I tend to gravitate toward stories that have as realistic an emotional core as possible.
Coming from a crime-writing background in novels, which is what I was doing before comics and is what I’m still doing, I like writing action on the streets, for lack of a better way to put it. And I personally find, with regard to superhero comics, that street-level point of view is far more interesting than the point of view on par with these godlike beings who are flying around and kicking Galactus in the goonies and, I don’t know, fighting Black Lanterns and so on.
You can’t be realistic, but you can say, “Well, what would it be like to see that from a point of view where you can’t fly?”
That being said, I’ve written an espionage comic, a P.I. comic, a murder mystery set in Antarctica – you can see the interests are broader. So the opportunity to do something that had a bit more wit and flair and fun to it…Lady Sabre bears a lot of apparent similarities to other protagonists I’ve written, but she has a greater sense of fun, and I think that’s keeping with the style of what we want to do with the comic.
Burchett: I think as a whole, the comics industry has really nailed “grim and gritty” now. I think we’ve got that down. Which is why every time I draw Lady Sabre, whenever I get the opportunity…she’s smiling. She’s enjoying herself. She likes putting one over on these guys. She likes doing the audacious things she does. She enjoys herself. And I think that’s something that’s been missing from practically every comic character in the business recently.
Rucka: I think there’s something to that. When referring to “mainstream” comics, we’re talking about a medium that for the most part suffers from the sitcom dilemma where things can’t change, but have to appear to change. And even if you can achieve a character arc with a big marquee corporate-owned character, that’s a long process and there’s the spectre that it’s going to be undone at some point.
I think, as a result of that, we tend to as an industry run with the idea that that the way to make a story appear to be important is to hurt and/or kill people. I mean, that’s the quickest way to do it – somebody dies, we go “This is important!” Death is dramatic. Speaking as a writer, it is a perfectly legitimate story point.Nrama: You’ve killed a few in your day.
Rucka: Absolutely! And a well-executed death…um, that sounds like a pun….it can be remarkably powerful. I was looking at a comics journalist who will not be named remarking on a press release trope, that if they received a press release that said, “An all-new chapter begins!” or “Things will never be the same!” or any of those catchphrases, the press release gets chucked, ‘cause we’ve heard that a million times.
And again, it’s all well and good that you killed the character, but when fans are setting their watches and starting an online pool as to how long it’s going to take for that particular character to return from the dead, you’ve kind of overstayed your welcome on that particular mechanism, you know?
Burchett: Yeah, and I think it takes the comic story one step away from literature and one step closer to a video game where you die, but you come right back. And I think it kind of erodes that sensibility that a reader has to have to invest time and money into the characters.
Next at Newsarama: Rucka and Burchett talk about creating Lady Sabre’s world and some of their current favorite comics.