Some very wise minstrels once advised their legions of fans, “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” Well, with respect to Blue Oyster Cult, they never met Cliff Rathburn’s Reaper. Originally appearing in a 2004 Image Comics one-shot written by Robert Kirkman, the titular star of “Reaper” set out on a black and white, blood-soaked fantasy adventure with the goal of killing the tyrant Shirak for the simplest of reasons: money. Rathburn, best known to many fans as the gray tones artist on “Walking Dead” and inker on “Invincible,” recently dusted his assassin off to tell the second chapter of his saga, but this time Rathburn’s tackling everything on his own. CBR News spoke with Rathburn about the project’s origins, what it’s like to handle all the creative chores solo and why it took so long to get the second story out.
“The idea [to bring ‘Reaper’ back now] was mine and fans of my work asking if I was ever going to draw my own book again,” Rathburn told CBR. “For the last five years, I’ve been planning on doing something with ‘Reaper,’ but paying work always came first, so I put it on the backburner. Work like inking and coloring paid the bills, and when doing your own book, you have to do the writing, pencilling, inking, coloring and lettering. If you’re not good enough to do all of the production yourself, you have to hire other people too. Hiring people was something I didn’t really want to do because that would mean I would have to pay them from my work on ‘Invincible’ or ‘The Walking Dead,’ which I use to pay my mortgage. I wasn’t willing to take a gamble on hiring for a creator-owned book and not see a return on it, so like a coward I continued my role as cog in the machine and doing inking for Marvel and DC on the side. To enable time and the resources to work on this book, I decided to stop taking side jobs and rework my financials.”
If the seven year gap between issues sounds like a lot, that’s nothing compared to the time that has passed for Reaper himself. In that time, our violent hero has gone through some changes and not for the better.
“‘Reaper’ #2 takes place 400 years after the events in the first issue,” Rathburn said. “The character Death has returned and figured out a way to make a body that can contain his conscience. In the first issue, Death’s conscience was constantly rotting whomever he possessed. Reaper has also become a little more like the tyrant, whom he was hired by Death to kill, in the first issue. 400 years is a long time for him to amass a small army, build his wealth and inflate his ego. It’s also made Reaper become incredibly overconfident. His main drive is immortality, personal gratification — and maintaining them no matter what the cost. His immortality has magnified his original personality traits from the first issue. He was driven by greed and had a lack of morals, hence the assassin part, and becoming immortal has only made those personality traits grow.”
Reaper is not the only one to renovate his personality in that expanse of time. It turns out, Death itself has also evolved, and not into a kinder, gentler harvester of souls.
“My version of Death is a little more cold and calculating, kind of like a machine or computer program,” Rathburn said. “Kirkman’s version of Death had more human traits, but after the events of the first issue, Death goes through a metamorphosis, shedding his human traits, becoming what he was originally meant to be. You’ll learn what Death really is in the third and final issue of the series, which will include how he is different from other personifications of Death.”
New readers might be less concerned about a third issue than understanding the second one, considering it’s been so long since the first issue of “Reaper” came out. Rathburn said the first four pages of the “Reaper” #2 sum things up pretty well, reminding fans that the first issue can still be ordered through Diamond. For those who already know about “Reaper” and want to see that final issue, the writer/artist says he has a story in mind to finish the story arc, but it all depends on fan response.
“I plan on doing a third issue to wrap up all the loose ends that happen in the second issue and bring the entire series to a conclusion,” Rathburn said, “but I’m waiting to see how this issue is received and if the sales numbers are high enough to warrant another issue.”
Unlike his other projects, Rathburn noted “Reaper” is unique because it’s the first time he has taken the reins on everything from scripting to lettering. To help with the process, he bounced ideas off of “Invincible” artist Ryan Ottley and looked to another beloved writer/artist for inspiration.
“It’s a little scary to write my own book,” Rathburn admitted. “This is more or less an experiment to see if I can actually write well enough for me to like. The way I’m writing is more in line with Art Adams’ approach to writing ‘Monkeyman and O’Brien,’ basically thumbnailing out the scene and then working out the dialogue.”
As was the first issue of “Reaper,” this one will be in black and white, an artistic approach Rathburn is intimately familiar with after adding gray tones to Charlie Adlard’s pencils in nearly every issue of “Walking Dead.” This time around, however, he gave himself enough time and space to really dig into the process to produce some amazing artwork.
“I think I’ve gotten better, or at least I hope to have gotten better at drawing,” Rathburn said. “In the past, all my work has fallen victim to me being spread too thin and a lack of confidence. When I was doing ‘Brit’ for Kirkman, I was also inking ‘She-Hulk,’ working on ‘The Walking Dead’ and doing any other paying work that came my way. Now I’m trying to focus on producing art that I’m actually proud of.”
With pride, money and the end of a trilogy on the line, it seems like a lot depends on the success of this second issue of “Reaper,” but Rathburn admitted to changing the way he thinks about such things in an effort to focus on creating the type of comic he prefers.
“I’ve always loved creator-owned comics more than mainstream comics,” Rathburn said. “What I like about creator-owned comics is you get to do whatever you want. The one downside is that what want you might not be marketable or have a small audience in which you will make no money. With ‘Reaper,’ I’ve really lowered my expectations so far that if it can net me one dollar, I would be happy. If not, I still had fun trying something new?”
Cliff Rathburn’s “Reaper” #2 hits stores on July 21