Although his comics pedigree is undeniably A-list, including stints writing iconic heroes such as Batman, Wolverine and Superman, Greg Rucka’s current work is pretty punk rock. From the upcoming Image Comics title “Lazarus” to the Kickstarter-funded print edition of his webcomic “Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether,” Rucka is shaking things up.
“Lady Sabre” is a sassy, swashbuckling, steampunk adventure drawn winsomely by Rucka’s fellow comics veteran Rick Burchett. The series follows Lady Seneca Saber’s travels through the Sphere, meeting friends, crossing steel and discovering romance. Less than a year after its debut as a webcomic, Rucka and Burchett launched a Kickstarter to pay for a print collection of the first five chapters. Featuring rewards for backers including cloth-covered volumes of the book, Lady Sabre dog tags and the chance to become a character debuting in Book 2, it was funded in less than a day. With Rucka and Burchett in complete control of their story, including a very exclusive distribution plan, their approach is reminiscent of the spirit of homemade ‘zines sold tableside in convention halls.
“Lazarus,” on the other hand, is a little darker, featuring a dystopian story of power and violence that is less “science fiction” and more “potential future” for our world. Rucka found himself intrigued by the idea of wealth and power becoming concentrated to the point of establishing new classes that return the world to a feudal state. Enter Forever Carlyle, genetically engineered daughter and family protector to one of the ruling families, who begins telling us her tale just after her own death. With artwork by Rucka’s co-Eisner Award winner Michael Lark and colors by Santi Arcas, the series debuts June 26.
CBR News spoke with Rucka about his two very different books, shunning traditional publication and what the hell it means to be a superhero, anyway.
CBR News: You’re really well known for characters like Rachel Cole-Alves, Batwoman, Tara Chance — all totally kick-ass women. How do Forever Carlyle and Lady Saber stack up to your previous antagonists?
Greg Rucka: I like writing about these characters that find themselves more often than not terribly capable physically, but also find themselves very raw emotionally. These are people who are capable of incredible acts of self-sacrifice and heroism, but there is a toll and that toll isn’t simply bruising and battery of body, but intellectual and emotional scars.
In “Lazarus” in particular, Forever’s story is a journey of self-discovery. She is created to serve a purpose and to believe certain things. Obviously her journey is going to be the exploration of those things and her confronting some very uncomfortable truths.
Lady Sabre is far less overtly wrestling demons, but she does have some deep and highly personal motivations that we haven’t seen yet. She’s much more actively playing a role, and you see that in the strip. She is the fabulous captain of The Pegasus. She must walk her talk, but as the story progresses we see slivers of her internal life when she feels like she isn’t directly on stage and can be herself.
Superheroes with secret identities aren’t so much wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but they are seeking to protect themselves. That’s a large part of the commonality there with these characters beyond gender.
I actually think guys do that more than women, because societally, men are told to be tough and not cry or show emotion. It’s pejorative, in many cases. While it’s seen as a negative in women, they are given permission to be emotional even though it’s often held against them. God forbid women in these hero situations actually show what they are feeling, or any vulnerability; the knives will be out.
And it seems that when people set out to write that “strong female character” they aren’t intentionally writing a female but rather a male character in a woman’s body.
Yes, it’s ridiculous. We have seen a lot of “guys with tits” or a lot of “woman being a bitch.” Neither of those characterizations is adequate, appropriate or reasonable. They’re garbage analogies and they make no sense. That’s not to say there aren’t bitchy people out there —
Yes, but that bitchiness isn’t the price of strength or courage or heroism.
That’s exactly it. The calculus is flawed. There are masculine women and feminine men out there; these terms — “masculine” and “feminine” — just fail. Sex is a binary, male or female thing, but gender and sexuality are not. Societal pressure and morays that we all deal with just confuse things more. The language consistently fails. You don’t say someone is a “strong male character” — you just say they’re a strong character!
Why did you run with “Lady Sabre & the Pirates of Ineffable Aether” as a webcomic versus a traditional print comic?
It had more to do with wanting to work with Rick Burchett than anything else! Rick and I had wanted to work on a project for ages and ages, but could not get any traction at any of the big publishers. We couldn’t get anyone to give us the time of day.
â€¨I’ve known Rick for almost as long as I’ve been in comics. He and I both reached the point where we were incredibly frustrated and wanted to do something together. I had been talking with someone else about doing a webcomic, but that didn’t work out. Then Rick suggested that we do one. I sort of went, “Well, duh.”
It became us putting on a show. If we couldn’t find a publisher to do it, we’d do it ourselves!
What were the obstacles with publishers?
The Big Two don’t like Rick’s work. It’s as simple as that. In the last ten years, he’s gone from being able to work steadily at Marvel Comics and DC Comics to not being able to get hired. They just won’t give him the time of day.
Rick is one of the most accomplished artists I’ve ever worked with. He’s known primarily for winning Eisners doing “Batman & Robin Adventures” where Rick himself says that he was paid to draw like Bruce Timm. So, I think for a lot of people there is a sense that he’s too cartoony, his style doesn’t fit in with what the big two want; it’s not sexy or flashy enough. He has a very distinct comic book style, he doesn’t do photo-realistic. Everything he draws, he can draw it. It’s not light boxing, here.
I know at least one editor who went to great lengths to make sure he wouldn’t work at one company and really set him up to fail and did so gleefully. Comics are like any other industry; there are wonderful people in it and there are crappy people in it.
One of the nice things about “Lady Sabre” is that it’s provided an opportunity for Rick to be Rick. “Lady Sabre” doesn’t exist without Rick.
The collection of the first five chapters of “Lady Sabre” has been funded through Kickstarter, and was actually fully funded the first day. It might be easy to just assume that because you’re Greg Rucka, you don’t need a Kickstarter to make a comic. Why was this the right path for this book?
Webcomics are works that need to build a community, and that live or die on the basis of that community’s presence. If nobody is coming to read what we’re doing on post days, or once every couple weeks to catch up, there’s no audience. The interaction with that audience is crucial.
In print comics, there’s interaction with the readership, but there’s a delay between when the book is completed and comes out. Webcomics are much more immediate. That sense of community is something we have always been very aware of and always very grateful for.
â€¨When we were looking at doing the first trade, we put it on the website and asked how people would like to see us do it. We had publishers we could go to, but the overwhelming response was, “Please do a Kickstarter.”
â€¨With Kickstarter, we have backers for a project, we are representing the project and the project is the book we want to make. We’re going to make it; we’re going to control all the aspects as best we can in its production, we’re going to make this book the one we want it to be. When you provide that to a community who is invested from following the webcomic — well, it’s a shared experience. That shared experience is a very powerful one.
The other big reason is that I’ve been in comics for fifteen years and I still don’t really have a good idea of what happens between the editors and the book press. I understood how a book gets press-ready for the most part, but didn’t understand what happened next. After fifteen years, I figured it was high time for me to learn. If nothing else, knowing more about the process makes me a better writer, learning about all of the other things happening behind the scenes.
â€¨It’s very easy when you’re a writer or an artist to feel alone in a vacuum doing your work. Understanding what happens to get that work in front of people — that was a step I was ignorant of, and I didn’t like that ignorance.
Finally, we had a vision for the book. I know that we could’ve gone to Dark Horse, or Oni Press, or Image, and tried to see that vision through, but I can’t guarantee that it would’ve succeeded. At the end of the day, this is gonna be the book we want it to be. If it isn’t, we have nobody to blame but us.
What does this mean for getting the book into stores?
We’re not going to be putting it into stores directly. Our initial print run was going to be two thousand copies, and we’re about to hit two thousand backers, so that’s over the run.
Our intention is to sell the books at shows by hand, through the “Lady Sabre” website — any books we have left over after the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, that is. There are certain retailers that have indicated they’d like to work out something. We’re happy to entertain that, but we’re not looking at putting the book into Diamond Comic Distributors right now.
I can see in a year or so maybe trying to work something out with Oni or Image to do an edition of this book, but if we do that, it won’t be this book. It will have strips, but what we’re offering now is the Kickstarer edition and it’s going to be unique. It’s a somewhat exclusive item, so to turn around and make it available at another outlet diminishes that. I would feel that it was something of a betrayal of what we said we were doing.
Switching gears, what can you tell me about your new Image book, “Lazarus.”
“Lazarus” is the story of Forever Carlyle, a genetically engineered young woman and the youngest daughter of the Carlyle family. Her family is one of about thirty-odd ruling families left on Earth in a dystopian future where economic collapse has made the difference between the haves and the have-nots so stark, the world has almost returned to a feudal state. She is essentially a member of a royal family.
â€¨As a family’s Lazarus, she is responsible for the protection and defense of the family, hence her nature. That’s why she is the way she is. It’s a very dark, very unpleasant world if you have nothing. The best you can hope for is that maybe a family will find a use for in some way and that they’ll educate you, train you and elevate you to a service class.
The other families are very jealous of what they have. They covet what they don’t have and go to great lengths to make sure that the status-quo is maintained.
What kind of a hero does a dystopian world like that need? How do heroes — or antiheroes — have to be equipped to rise above such a stark reality?
The thing that makes Superman heroic isn’t that he’s bulletproof. I’ve never felt heroism is defined by the power set, but by the action and the heart. It’s one of the reasons why I loved superhero stories. At the end of the day, a good superhero story is one that can take away that hero’s power entirely and they will still be heroic. They will still do the right thing.
I thought the “Captain America” movie was fantastic. One of the things I love is that it makes it clear from the very start that Steve is a hero; that’s why he’s granted those gifts.
I haven’t written pure super-heroism in a long time, since 2009. I’ve written antiheroes. Frank Castle, the Punisher, is very much an antihero. I think he’s capable of heroic deeds, but I don’t think he would ever frame himself in that context.
I believe in the merit of stories like that. I believe in having aspirational heroes. It’s one of the reasons I think Superman is so precious; he would be super anyway. It’s his nature. He has the ability to do these things and it makes him the stuff of comic books, but the core heroism remains.
â€¨We see heroism all the time — think about the Boston Marathon bombing and the immediate reactions of the runners, first responders and the crowd. That was raw, human heroism, people looking and saying, “How can I help?” They do it, putting that desire before their own self-preservation. The willingness to self-sacrifice for others is heroism in a nutshell.
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for cynicism. It’s fucking lazy. It’s very appealing to be a cynic; you don’t have to do anything! It’s harder to do the right thing, and in these moments of trial where people do, how can you not celebrate that?