Ray Fawkes has become obsessed with matters of the soul as of late. Best known as the writer of books such as Vertigo’s Lovecraft-inspired “Mnemovore” and Oni Press’ “The Apocalipstix,” Fawkes has more recently btackled the writing and drawing duties on “Possessions,” another uproarious Oni comic about Gurgazon the Unclean, a demon who looks like an adorable 5-year-old girl.
His latest project is a departure from the humorous tone of “Possessions,” harking back to his earlier, darker work. “One Soul” is described by Oni Press as the most ambitious book they’ve published. The story of 18 interconnected characters told from birth to death, it’s a remarkable and refreshing change of pace for Fawkes, one that invites and benefits from multiple readings. Fawkes spoke with Comic Book Resources about the challenges of “Soul”-searching, his career aspirations and what comes next.
CBR News: Where did the idea for “One Soul” originate?
Ray Fawkes: The idea began when I decided I wanted to write a story that could only be properly told in the comic book medium — one that used the strengths of comics, as I see them, to their full advantage. I really wanted to explore the dimensionality of comics — both in “time,” i.e. position on the individual page, and in “time,” i.e. position in the series of pages.
The idea to tell simultaneous stories followed quickly, and then the type of story I wanted to tell — that of several different characters’ lives that are both distinct and part of a greater whole – emerged from my early thoughts about the structure.
Of course, this all makes it sound rather pat, as if it went A, B, C. The whole affair was much more convoluted than that, with a lot of stops, starts and wrong turns. There were a whole lot of over-complicated or unusable ideas that needed to be brought up and tossed to the wayside at each stage before I could come up with what I felt was the right one.
Why start the book just before the characters’ birth and end just after death?
For the overall narrative to work, readers need access to the “big picture,” and part of that involves the common ground shared by all 18 characters. In as much as they all live their own lives, make their own decisions and meet their own fates, they must also all be born, emerging from the same (or similar) darkness, they must all live under the same (or similar) sky, and they must all ultimately die and return to the same (or similar) darkness.
Thus, the book begins before all of them are born, in the silence of the womb, and ends after the last has died, in, well, something else.
How did you decide who these 18 people were and what periods you were setting them in?
This is a bit of a difficult question to answer. Does it help to say that I originally came up with almost 30 characters, knowing that I would have to end up with 18, and then eliminated some until I had the ones who made it into the book? Probably not — but that’s what happened.
There are certain criteria of distinction and commonality that had to be satisfied by all 18 characters, but ultimately there were certain subjects that needed to be tackled in order to tell the story, and the ones who made it onto the page are those who were both relatable (everybody who reads comics knows what a WWI pilot is, for example, and will immediately recognize him as one when he is revealed) and suitable for addressing those subjects.
A lot of thought went into a certain kind of balance, as well, since this is meant to be a story not just about people but also the larger pattern (or lack thereof) formed by those people’s lives. So there must be both men and women, criminals and victims, winners and losers, warriors and pacifists, canny thinkers and fools, etc.
Were there any ideas or characters that just didn’t quite fit for one reason or another?
One of the characters who didn’t make the cut was a female spy. She almost made it, but I just found that she didn’t read that well, visually. It was hard to make it clear that she was engaging in espionage rather than just committing crimes while working as a secretary. Not that a criminal secretary isn’t interesting, but it wasn’t what I wanted for her – and if it didn’t read, that meant that the captions would have to carry too much of the load, which threatened to disrupt their ability to participate smoothly in the rest of the text, if that makes sense. She was replaced early in the scripting process by a character who is much clearer and who I grew to like much more as I wrote him out.
What inspired you to have each character die at a different point and then black out the panels?
While birth begins life the same way and “at the same time” for each character, they all meet their own ends, and those ends, of course, come at different stages in their lives. Some get to live long and experience much more than others, and the best way I could effectively add that element to this book was to remove some characters from the narrative at an earlier point, leaving the others to continue. When they die, the character’s position on the page goes black and remains so for the rest of the book. Something else starts to happen in those black panels, though.
Of course, how much of a part those “removed” still play in the story after their deaths is debatable. I don’t want to give away what I think about it by saying too much here.
The later pages read differently because of that effect. Did you think about the layout and design and how it would read with fewer panels, and where to place the characters on the page?
Absolutely. The shape of the panels on the page and the interplay between the images contained in them is an important part of every page in the book, and no less so when some (or even nearly all) of the panels have gone black. This is a book about patterns and the interplay between “small pictures” and “big pictures,” after all. The choice of which characters would live longest and the decision about which position they would occupy on the page had to be made very early in the process to accommodate the intended final effect.
Your other books are often defined by their dialogue. When did you know that the book would only have internal dialogue, and how big a challenge was that for you?
I knew the dialogue for this book would be exclusively internal almost right away — it was the only way I felt I could get the proper flow across panels and blend the voice of the overall narrative. It seemed that if similar dialogue was delivered by the characters themselves, in balloons within the panels, the flow would be too choppy, and readers would have trouble moving from one voice to the next with the speed that the book demands.
Does “One Soul” reflect any of your own ideas about life, death and the soul?
Ah. That’s a difficult question. Yes? No? Maybe? “One Soul” is built to reflect more than one point of view, and, hopefully, constructed well enough that readers will interpret it in several different ways. It’s pretty hard to deny that my own views are integrated into the piece, but it’s also not correct to say that the piece is completely defined by my own views.
So, yes and no. And I know that that sounds like a cop-out. I’d like to disassociate my views from the book, though — in truth, I don’t think my views are relevant to the reader.
Throughout your career, you’ve been best known as a writer. I think “Possessions” was the first comic of yours I read that you also illustrated. Were you always an artist?
I was, yes. Or, rather, I was for a while, then I stopped, and now I’m back at it. When I started out, I was self-publishing some stories that I wrote and drew myself — a couple of the 20- and 32-page books that I used to sell at conventions are from those days. Some of the locals in Toronto might still have copies of a book I did called “Pink,” or even the original “Mnemovore” (which was a self-published book, er, first chapter of a book, before it was at DC/Vertigo).
I felt, at the time, that I was drawing my own books out of necessity, since I couldn’t afford to pay a professional artist what he or she would deserve. It was a very pragmatic choice. When I got the chance to work with people like Mike Huddleston at DC/Vertigo or Cameron Stewart at Oni, I figured I’d concentrate on my writing alone.
Ultimately, Mike and Cameron were two of the people in my life who took a look at my earlier work and most energetically suggested that I should get back to illustrating my own stories again. I did, and found that I really do love it.
What can you tell us about “Junction True,” the book with Vince Locke that’s coming from Top Shelf next year?
“Junction True” is a book I wrote a couple of years back, and it’s being illustrated in fully painted style by Vince Locke of “Deadworld,” “Sandman” and “A History of Violence” fame. It’s a body-horror piece about self-image and the impetus to one-upmanship in certain subcultures. Top Shelf is planning to put the book out once Vince finishes the art. My hope is that it’ll be out next year, but it may take a little longer than that. We’ll be announcing more details about it when they’re more concrete.
“One Soul” is a very different book for you. What kind of work would you like to do going forward? What sorts of stories are you interested in?
I guess it’d be safe to say that I’d like it very much if, just about every time I put out a book, somebody somewhere tells me that it’s a very different book for me. Let me put it this way: I love structure, I love comics, and I love to tell stories. If I come up with a story I want to tell, it doesn’t really matter what kind of story it is, or whether it suits a certain genre. I just try to figure out the best, most interesting way I can tell it, and I do what I can to try and make it work.
So, going forward, I’d like to tell some stories. And I hope they’re very good ones.
Following up the humorous and dialogue-heavy “Possessions” with “One Soul,” you’ve certainly done something different. After all the formal constraints you placed on “One Soul,” does part of you want to do a very loose, unstructured book with little plot?
Don’t get me started. OK, yes, do. There are two pieces I know I’m working on for the future, and both of them are a visual and literary departure from my previous work. Nothing so radical as a swing all the way to the other extreme of structure — I’m not repelled by my last piece whenever I come up with a new one. I feel that readers familiar with my books, and with “One Soul,” will definitely be able to identify my voice in these future works, but there’s no fear that they’ll seem too similar to anything I’ve done up to this point.