From superheroes to sword-and-sorcery and fairy tales to counterculture Portland zombies, if you have been reading comics in the past two years then Chris Roberson is a name you have undoubtedly come to know.
Bursting on the scene in 2009 as the writer of the “Fables” spinoff miniseries “Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love,” in relatively short time Roberson has made a name for himself in the comic book world, collaborating with some of the industry’s best such as Mike and Laura Allred, Neal Adams, Gilbert Hernandez, Bill Willingham and even Stan Lee. With one creator-owned series under his belt, another on the way, and a slew of fill-in work on non-superhero titles like “Jack Of Fables” and “House Of Mystery,” Roberson rose to the attention of the mainstream comics audience this year after he took over J. Michael Straczynski’s “Superman: Grounded” story arc. Earning praise from fans for reviving the floundering story, that same group expressed outrage and indignation when he was one of the many writers skipped over by DC Comics for their September New 52 relaunch.
However, this quick acceptance by wider audiences has not given the writer an ego — if anything, it has only convinced Roberson that we are “in fact living in my hallucination, because I don’t think that any of this is actually happening!” laughed the writer as CBR News sat down to speak with him about the current state of his career. A native of the Lone Star State, Roberson greets you with a cheerful “Howdy!” and a laugh before waxing poetic about his favorite writers, from the likes of Philip Jose Farmer to the post-modernist sensibilities of John Barth. Even before breaking into comic books Roberson walked among rarified circles, part of the writing workshop Clockwork Storybook, which included Willingham and “House Of Mystery” writer Matt Sturges. With two Eisner nominations for “iZombie” and “Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love,” two World Fantasy Award nominations for his novels, a successful small press and a growing reputation for excellence across genres — or as Michael Moorcock puts it, “One of that bold band of young writers who are taking the stuff of genre fiction and turning it into a whole new literary form” — Roberson is one of the many creators changing the very way comics are written and proving there’s more to the medium than capes and super powers.
CBR spoke with Roberson about his career, his opinions on the controversy surrounding “Superman: Grounded,” and his thoughts on the state of the industry, demonstrating why the affable Austin writer is One To Watch.
CBR News: Chris, you are currently working on “iZombie” which you co-own with series artist Mike Allred for Vertigo; you just finished the latest “Cinderella: Fables Are Forever” miniseries also for Vertigo; you recently wrapped “Superman: Grounded” for DC Comics; and you are working on the new “Elric: The Balance Lost” series for BOOM! Studios. In addition to that you run a small press called MonkeyBrain Books, write science fiction novels, and did a comic prequel to Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep” for BOOM! — anything else I’m missing from this giant list?
Chris Roberson: [Laughs] So I’m still writing “Starborn” for BOOM!, I’ve just turned in the second issue of “Star Trek/Legion Of Superheroes” crossover for IDW, I’ve turned in the second issue of the creator-owned series I’m doing with Rich Ellis for IDW called “Memorial,” and I’m supposed to start working on the next Cinderella series!
Will that be another six-issue miniseries like the last two?
It will be six issues, but it’ll actually be an arc on the new ongoing “Fairest” spin-off of Fables — it will be me and Shaun McManus on the art. I think that’s all of it!
Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about your early interest in comics. I know when we talked about “Superman: Grounded” you said Superman was a huge favorite of yours growing up — were you a big superhero comic book reader as a kid?
I kind of came of age at exactly the right time for a comics fanatic. I was born in 1970, and just started out reading comics before I discovered specialty stores. Now, I was pretty lucky in that my small town up in Dallas, Duncanville, had what was arguably one of the first comic specialty stores — one of the first dozen in the country. Up until that point I was buying things off the newsstand. You could buy everything off the newsstand, they had not just the regular individual issues but digest collections and big tabloid-sized specials and tons of black and white comics magazines that people like Marvel were doing at the time. I don’t remember not reading comics. Whenever I got money I would spend it on comics, I would ask for comics for birthday and Christmas gifts, and I started riding my bike to the local direct market comic shop every Thursday, because back in those days, Wednesday was on Thursdays! It was right around the time direct market allowed for folks to go independent so Pacific Comics and Eclipse and I read pretty much everything. I still liked a lot of superhero comics but I got deep into “ElfQuest,” I was a huge fan of “The Rocketeer” and “Starslayer,” and by the time I was in high school probably the most important comics to me were Matt Wagner’s “Mage” and “Grendel.” I read a bunch of stuff but those two things I built a religion around! To be sixteen, seventeen and finding stuff that was that fantastic but also spoke to me personally, it was so different than everything else that was going around. That really affected the course of my comics reading and also my creative drive from that point onwards.
I understand that while you were in college you tried writing stories along a more realistic, post-modernist bent. When did you decide to fully embrace writing genre fiction and go into writing science fiction and comics?
At first it was all science fiction and fantasy and super heroics. I had a brief dalliance, thanks largely to the work of people like John Barth and Paul Auster, with kind of — not exactly mimetic but more realistic, post-modern nonsense. But even then it was largely informed by genre trope. So I’d write a really realistic story about a gay werewolf! [Laughs] It was not exactly straight literary stuff, and I think that’s the problem I run into — I had some talent, I could type fast, and I would try to get into these various writing programs or literary magazines and they would get this stuff and say, “What the hell is this? Why am I reading about this gay werewolf?” I wrote an entire novel my senior year of college that was very much informed by people like Barth and John Dos Passos and guys like that, but about a guy who’s essentially Captain America who turns into Superman who then turns into Jesus. I enjoyed it! [Laughs] I mean, the closest I came to real literary models was somebody like Tom Robbins and I think there’s only room for maybe one or two Tom Robbins up there. So I eventually decided I should just do genre stuff and leave aside literary aspirations.
Was this originally how you got involved in Clockwork Storybook with Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges? Were you all looking for a place to write your gay werewolf stories together?
Kind of, yeah! [Laughs] I don’t know if Willingham was really excited about writing gay werewolves but I’m sure Matt would have done [it]! No, he was writing gay vampires, that’s totally different.
It seemed like it was a long time later but in retrospect it was just five or six years after — but yeah, I went to college in Austin, moved away, taught middle school for a while, lived in San Francisco and the whole time was trying to break into comics and trying to write. I came back to Austin and just kind of lucked into that because I knew a guy who worked at a comic shop, Mark Finn, who had met Willingham as he was putting together a writing group. And Sturges, who was my college roommate, had just moved back to town. So it just sort of happened because all of us had aspirations and also nothing better to do, which helped. Boredom is the best thing to drive a writer, or really any creative person, if you have no other alternatives — and that was certainly the case with us.
It’s not up anymore but I understand at one point you guys had an online webzine anthology as part of Clockwork Storybook. Was that harkening back to those big newsstand digests from when you were a kid?
You know, we hadn’t really thought of it in those terms but you’re probably right, it’s probably not far from that. I think our approximate model was the shared world anthologies that were really big in the late ’80s, early ’90s; things like George R.R. Martin’s “Wild Cards” or Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s “Thieves World.” There were just tons of those things around where people would establish an environment together or a set of rules and then write their own stories. I think that most of the Clockwork website is still accessible through the Internet Archive if you use the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine you can read all the embarrassing stuff we wrote. What’s interesting, though, is we did it from 1998 until 2002 and the stuff that we were doing in a lot of ways prefigured what we did later. I think you can kind of see the bones of what became “Fables” or Sturges’ “House of Mystery,” or certainly a lot of the things I’ve done with “iZombie” and “Memorial.” They’re there, implicit in nascent seed-like forms.
The webzine had you guys working in a comic book-esque shared universe as well, which is similar to the shared universes of the old Lovecraft and Moorcock stories. Talking about that, how did you get into doing the “Elric” stories for BOOM!?
That is an excellent segue because that’s one of the things that we did to generate content for the Clockwork Storybook site, which ostensibly was a short story or a chapter from a novel from each of us once a month. But Willingham has a complicated relationship with deadlines so we didn’t always make it! We’d always be scrambling to find something to put up if something that I wrote was terribly short or Sturges was too busy dong something else — so we did lots of reviews and things, editorials about what we thought about things going on in genre fiction and wrote reviews of books and comics and movies. I’d done a big sprawling, largely autobiographical review of three of Moorcock’s then fairly recent novels: “Blood,” “Fabulous Harbors” and “War Amongst The Angels.” And I talked a lot about my obsession with Moorcock’s work going back to the middle of high school. I put it up and within a couple of days I got an email that just read, “Thanks for the great review, M.M.”
I thought it was Sturges messing with me, I thought he was playing a trick on me! But it turned out that a mutual friend had sent it to Moorcock. Moorcock had read it and liked it and contacted me. We struck up an email correspondence that went on for a couple of months, so while I was supposed to be answering the phone and addressing technical questions at Dell Computers I was really just writing a six paragraph long email to Moorcock and back and forth. He lives part of every year, and did then, in Bastrop, which is only half an hour from where I lived. When he realized I was in Austin he invited me to his house. So I dragged Sturges with me, because I was terrified, and we went there and hung out at his house all day. He was very generous to us, and very supportive to me and my career. When I started up a publishing company, MonkeyBrain Books, his was one of the first books I published, a reprint of one of Moorcock’s non-fiction works.
Every year or two my wife and I go to dinner with him and his wife. So when BOOM! found out, because they are tricky bastards, that I was friends with Moorcock they approached him through me to see if he’d be interested in either licensing his characters to them to use or essentially appointing someone else to write for them. I wrote to Mike on their behalf and Moorcock’s only response was, “I’d be OK with you writing it, Chris.” So then I was writing “Elric!”
From “Elric” to “Star Trek/Legion” to “Superman,” a lot of your comics have you working in incredibly complex worlds with tons of continuity behind them. Is that sense of history behind these books something that appeals to you as a writer?
You know, that may be a factor; if so, it’s an unexamined one and after the fact because the reality is all the things you mentioned that I’m getting to do, “Superman,” “Elric,” “Star Trek/Legion” — hell working with Mike Allred — these were all things I was obsessed with. I was obsessed with Superman as a kid, and that kind of obsession never goes away, “Star Trek” and “Legion of Super-Heroes” from about the age of nine to high school. I was obsessed with Allred from college on; I was obsessed with Elric from high school on.
So I’m sorry to tell everybody that you are in fact living in my hallucination, because I don’t think that any of this is actually happening! I’m getting to work with all the creators I’ve ever admired and all the characters and properties I’d ever loved. It’s pretty ridiculous. And yeah, I think the richness of those worlds and the depth and breadth of those kinds of franchises probably was what drew me to them; at age nine I would sit in my fifth grade class quizzing myself on the real names and home planets for the members of the Legion Of Super-Heroes. Which is something I can still do — every once in a while at a convention someone will try to stump me, and then I spend the next six hours answering those questions. So I’m sorry everybody, but you’re all just fever dreams and I’m sitting in a corner drooling and hallucinating all of you.
I think at this point we can play six degrees of separation from Chris Roberson.
I have met just about everybody! I go to the comic shop every week to buy a big stack of comics and this week I went and bought 140 bucks worth of stuff — and I realized as I’m sorting through them that only two of the comics I bought were written by people I don’t know. I’ve met them both but I’ve never had a drink with them. Everybody else is a pal of mine. I have either very talented or very prolific friends, one of the two!
Moving on to your DC work, when we talked months ago about “Superman: Grounded,” you laughed off the idea of coming onboard as the permanent “Superman” writer as above your pay grade. I know fans have been surprised that you were not tapped to write Superman after September, but was this a surprise to you, or did you always expect to go back to working on “iZombie” and other projects?
It’s kind of the latter. It’s fun to do these things, but I think that if you don’t resist that temptation it’s very, very easy to become the guy who churns out more work-for-hire stuff forever. I think there are lots of people who have done work-for-hire stuff almost exclusively that have done fantastic work, but there are lots of tragic stories about creators who had only done work-for-hire that, when they are no longer in vogue and the publisher stops returning their calls, they’re essentially out of a job. Then they spend the rest of their years wondering what went wrong. The people who do really well, I think, can do both: kind of dip their toe in the work-for-hire stuff and do the franchise stuff they really enjoy but manage to maintain focus on the books they own and control. I mentioned Matt Wagner earlier. I think Matt Wagner will always be remembered for “Mage” and “Grendel” but he also did some really stellar runs on “Batman” and “Zorro” and “Green Hornet” and those are awesome. But at the end of the day he’s going to go back and do his own stuff again. At the stage of my career where I am now, I’m very consciously splitting my attention 75% and 25%, so 75% is the stuff I own and I control and the stuff that after I’m dead and gone my kid will inherit the rights to and be able derive some benefit from. And the other 25% are kind of short-term projects that scratch some fannish itch I have that allow me to go and just have fun for a while and get a paycheck and walk away and go do something else.
So you’re definitely one of the people who see creator-owned work as, maybe not the wave of the future, but what comic book writers should be investing in?
You know it’s funny; it might be a function of when I came onboard because the creator-owned thing is something that every generation or two seems to discover on its own. There’s usually one of two success stories and then suddenly there is a rash of defections from the ranks of the dutiful work-for-hire folks and lots of discussion. Of course in the past year there’s been lots of discussion about creator-owned, and it’s always this kind of rallying cry. But for a kid who was just getting really serious about comics at the age of ten or eleven in the early ’80s, this is old hat. Howard Chaykin owned “American Flag.” Dave Stevens owned “Rocketeer.” Richard and Wendy Pini owned “Elfquest.” These are battles that have been fought and won before arguably some of the creators now were even born. So for me it’s not so much the wave of the future as it is the thing that I think that creators should always be aware of — not just where they are going to get their next paycheck, but what’s going to happen to them in ten, twenty, thirty years.
One of my other obsessions is the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was one of a lot of pulp writers in the teens, ’20, and ’30s, and he was certainly more successful than most, but he wasn’t the only successful one. But what set Edgar Rice Burroughs apart from the rest of those guys is that Burroughs incorporated. He wasn’t just a guy, he created ERB Inc. and he trademarked all of his characters and created a company that would be managed by him and then his family that would look after the rights and royalties and adaptations of all his creations. And ERB Inc. is still a thing that exists seventy years later. Walt Disney is another example. There were tons of talented animators in Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s. Everyone knows the name Walt Disney and it’s because he was smart about what he was doing.
Going along with this, I know lots of people are talking about “Superman” #712 which DC yanked and replaced with a Krypto story at the last minute; is that something that was disappointing for you, but you think is part and parcel with working on a licensed property versus something creator-owned?
Yeah, I mean, a bit of both. When you’re doing work for hire, when you’re doing something someone else owns, realistically you’re not in control. Unless you are some big shot Hollywood douchebag who is able to get some sort of exclusion clause written in to the contracts, you don’t have any sort of no edit clause. So you’re working for them, they are going to do what they like. It was disappointing that it got to the point where the issue was about to come out and it was spiked. I would much rather have had the opportunity to fix it. But yeah, if it’s my book, if it’s something that belongs to me and there’s going to be media flack it’s going to be directed at me, those are risks I’m willing to take. As it stood they paid me, so it sucked but at the end of the day it’s not my character or my comic so there’s not much I can do.
How does working on a limited run on things like “Superman” compare to your ongoing work on things like “iZombie,” which does not have a mandated endpoint to it?
It’s a little intimidating. Part of it is that the reality of the situation is that I’ll get to keep doing “iZombie,” at least in its current form, so long as DC and Vertigo want to keep publishing it. So I have very long-term plans, but I couldn’t say definitively that “iZombie” is going to run for X number of issues. I always get a little bemused when creators who are doing creator-owned books published by big companies say, “Oh this is going to run 100 issues, no more or less.” Well, good luck! I would happily keep writing “iZombie” forever, but I know the reality of the situation is that it may get to the point where the sales don’t justify Time Warner continuing to publish it. So with a limited series you know what you’re getting into. You know “I’ve got this many issues to tell the story.” With “iZombie” I had to kind of break it into discreet chunks to keep it manageable on a conceptual level; I’m going to tell this story that lasts five issues and then I’m going to tell this story that lasts five issues. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll get to an endpoint that’s way off in the future. But always in the back of my head is the knowledge that we may not get there, so I have to make every chunk I’m working on as satisfying for the reader and me as I can.
With all this talk about creator-owned work in your career, is there any chance you’ll adapt your Bonaventure-Carmody stories or Celestial Empire novels into comic books?
That is an excellent question! I don’t have an answer for you! [Laughs] I can tell you that yes I have ideas, I might even go as far as to say I have plans, I might even have sketches done, but we’re still trying to work it out. We’re talking about doing one that wouldn’t be an adaptation so much as it would be characters and concepts from one of those books revisited in comics form. Keep your fingers crossed!
A theme that crosses over from those science fiction novels to your comics and one that we talked about with “iZombie” is your tendency to write strong female characters, which you attest to your personal experience with the women in your life. Do you also focus on strong women because you want to create role models for your daughter and other girls to be able to look up to?
That’s a dicey one, because on the one hand if in the aftermath having done the work and it [having] gone out to the readers, if someone says to me, “You’ve created a strong female character that’s a role model for women,” that would be immensely flattering. But I think as a dude, as a straight American man, it would be presumptuous of me to have that as a goal, if that makes sense. I feel like that would be beyond my station to say that I’m setting out to write role models for women. I will say: am I trying to write female characters that my daughter can read and enjoy at some point? Yes. But far be it for me to claim I’m setting out to write role models — I think that’s too big of a burden from me.
To start wrapping things up, your entire comics career has such a wide breadth, from limited series to creator-owned work to science fiction to fantasy to comic books to novels. What do you feel you get out of doing a wide range of projects compared to doing things that are specifically work-for-hire or all one medium?
I think that writers in particular and creators in general — artists tend to be better chameleons — but writers in particular tend to be at their best when they are writing things that they’re interested in, that they’re passionate about, that they care about. There are writers who as readers or consumers of television or media are only primarily interested in, let’s say, crime dramas. So they are most comfortable writing crime dramas. For me, and maybe it’s the short attention span, I have very Catholic tastes in that I tend to like a lot of things. I like Universal monster movies, I like romantic comedies, I like historical stuff, I like space opera, I like Saturday morning cartoons. I like all those things, and I’d be bored senseless as a reader and a TV viewer just watching one kind of thing. If I had to write just one kind of thing I think I would be bored beyond senseless, I’d go straight to insane. So getting to work in a bunch of different genres helps me maintain my interest in all of them. I don’t have to just do superheroes week after week; I could do a superhero book one week and the next week I get to write this romantic comedy about a zombie girl and the next week it’s about a dimension-hopping albino dude with a sword. And it keeps it interesting for me.
I know the population of readers who are going to enjoy all those things is pretty small. But the nice thing about the way comics work are that comics are racked by publisher or genre or simply alphabetical by title, so it doesn’t matter. The reader doesn’t have to follow me from “iZombie” to “Elric” to “Starborn” to “Star Trek/Legion” to “Superman.” They can buy the one they like and be happy. The thing that I learned from my novel career is that novels don’t work like that. Because everything is racked by the author’s name, readers are much less apt to follow a writer from one genre to another if they are too disparate, but in comics no one cares. If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t read it. And I think that’s great.
The way comics are read and produced are undergoing a radical shift, especially at DC and Vertigo — after all, DC is making all its new titles available digitally (and other companies like Marvel are starting to follow suit), and Vertigo is transitioning entirely to all creator-owned work. What do you think your place in comics is at this moment in time? Are you just riding the wave of change or do you feel you are one of the active participants changing the industry?
Definitely not the latter because I have nothing to do with the way things are run or put together! I’m mostly baffled by it! Surfing the wave maybe — I think I’m just bobbing up and down on the surface and hoping to continue to breathe. One of the things I’m doing now actively is finding different homes for different kinds of projects. I love working at Vertigo, I love working with Shelly Bond and Karen Berger, but there are projects I want to do that are not Vertigo projects that I don’t think would appeal to them. So I’ll go work with IDW for one of those. Or there may be work-for-hire jobs I want to do or properties controlled by somebody else, so I’ll go work with BOOM! on “Elric.” Personally, I am opposed to exclusives, I think they are too limiting for creators, and so I see my place in the current comics industry and marketplace as — I don’t know if scavenger is the right word, but maybe opportunist. I’m basically just scrambling around trying to find the work that I want to do that other people are willing to pay me to do.
What’s the goal for you? Five years down the road, where do you want to be in terms of your writing career?
I’ve got to tell you that right now I’ve pretty much ticked off my entire bucket list. I don’t want to get hit by a truck tomorrow but where I’m at right now is where I want to be. So my goal for the next five years, for the next fifteen years, for the next fifty, is to not screw it up! I want to keep doing this. I’ve got a creator-owned comic at IDW that’s launching, so pretty much that and “iZombie” are the anchors. I’ve got a number of other short term, cool franchise projects I’m working on; “Elric” is twelve issues, “Star Trek/Legion” is six, and there’s others coming down the pipe. But yeah, just to have a couple things I own that are different enough to maintain my interest and then just take on other cool jobs as I can get them.
Looking back, how would you sum up your comic book career since you first came onboard to write the “Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love” miniseries?
How do I sum it up? I think it depends on how close someone is paying attention because the common answer would be, “Well who the hell is that guy?” Because my first published comics work came out two years ago this month. I feel like I just got here. I was referred to in a press release as “comics veteran Chris Roberson,” so apparently that’s all it takes: twenty-four months and you’re a vet. I have no idea! If anything, I hope I’ve gained a reputation for doing the best job I can on a lot of different things, and if you like one of mine you might like another!
For more on Chris Roberson and his many projects, check out his website and stay tuned to CBR News for more coverage in the coming weeks.