This December, writer Chris Roberson and artist Rich Ellis are bringing readers six issues of fantasy, mystery and danger with their new IDW Publishing miniseries, “Memorial.” Created by Roberson, the man behind Vertigo Comics’ “iZombie” and IDW’s “Star Trek/Legion Of Super-Heroes” crossover, the miniseries delves into the life of Em, a young girl with amnesia who discovers a strange curio shop. Stepping through its green door, the shop transports Em to magical lands and introduces her to extraordinary creatures, as well as extraordinary dangers as terrifying enemies begin to hunt Em down.
Speaking with CBR News about the series, Roberson confirmed that while no official release date has been set, the first issue will be out from IDW in December. The writer then jumped into discussing character details, divulging his literary inspiration for the series and explaining how “Memorial” saw him in tense and heated negotiations — with a seven-year-old.
CBR News: Last time you spoke with CBR you compared “Memorial” to “Doctor Who” and a lot of other genre/fantasy work — Sandman, Miyazaki, etc. Is “Memorial” your chance to tell your classic fantasy/adventure epic?
Chris Roberson: Yeah! It’s an idea I’ve been working on for a long time. It was originally going to be a novel back when I was first starting my novel career. I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work, so I kept noodling on it on the side while I was working on different projects. By the time I finally figured out how to do it I was working in comics, so it became a comic. But its roots were definitely in the prose fantasy soil. I cite “Doctor Who” and “Sandman” because those are kind of the pop culture touchstones people will most likely recognize. In my head it actually owes more to Roger Zelazny and Diana Wynne Jones. Its much more in that school of big crazy ideas with a foot in the modern world, that plays with mythological tropes that are somewhat familiar but twisted in ways we hopefully haven’t seen before.
With your use of the magical shop in the comic I was also getting that classic fantasy trope of a moving magical shop, like in Bruce Colville’s work or films like “Gremlins.” Is that the idea in the series — to take fantasy tropes that show up all the time and explore that with Em and her supporting allies Peter and SchrÃ¶dinger the cat?
Definitely. And the reason the [shop’s] door is green comes from two places. One is the mid-20th century pop song “Behind the Green Door,” which ultimately led to a fairly soft-core Marilyn Chambers film in the ’70s. It’s from the song, not the porn film! [Laughs] But one of the really early instances of that idea, of the place you would go that would have exactly what you wanted and you could never find it again, was in a 19th century short story about a green door that a guy in England finds; he doesn’t go through it and spend the rest of his life trying to find it again. So definitely that’s an attempt to do a contemporary spin on a very well worn, well-trodden idea.
“Memorial runs six issues, but is it a finite story or are you leaving enough room to continue once this story is wrapped?
IDW is adopting the same model they did with “Locke and Key,” that kind of “Hellboy” model where it is an open-ended series of miniseries. So the first one will tell a complete story in six issues, and then immediately after that we start working on the next one.
Let’s talk about the main character in “Memorial,” Em, who has amnesia but is obviously connected to greater magical going-ons. What can you tell us about Em?
There’s enough hints I think in the eleven pages that have shown up as a free preview [from IDW] that I can talk about it without spoiling it too much, but basically something has happened in a supernatural realm that has caused lots of people to lose their memories, either in part or in whole. At the center of the very big confusing struggle, that we’re only just beginning to learn about in the first few issues, is the search for the thing that will control all memory. So Em appears to be, when we first meet her, one of the casualties of this conflict, because she wanders into a hospital in the modern day with no memory whatsoever of who she is or where she’s been or where she’s come from. She has no identification on her of any kind. The only clue to her identity is a necklace she’s wearing with the letter M engraved on it. So the hospital staff takes to calling her Miss M, and that leads to her adopting the name Em when she leaves the hospital to try and rebuild her life for herself.
In the preview we see some of the other characters including the primary antagonists Hook and Bellow. Are they just involved in the first miniseries, or do you plan to have characters and threads roll over into subsequent miniseries?
It’s a little bit of both. [Hook and Bellow] are definitely the main antagonists for this first miniseries, and they will be around and causing problems in subsequent storylines. In subsequent storylines we will probably meet other obstacles and opponents that Em will have to deal with, but Hook and Bellow won’t be going anywhere, they’ll still be hanging around the periphery.
I like them both a lot, but my daughter despises Bellow because he’s “wrong.” The reason he exists is that, my daughter is seven now, when she was five a lot of kids that age have an imaginary friend. My daughter had an imaginary nemesis and she would have long protracted conflicts with the imaginary nemesis, who was Bellow, an evil puppet. At the time my daughter ran a pet store called Pets ‘R Us, which was also imaginary but it occupied a lot of her time, and Bellow was a guy who was trying to get the secret of the pet store. Because she learned everything about employment and the way businesses run by watching “Spongebob Squarepants” she just assumed every business had an enemy who was out to get its secrets. So I put Bellow in the book and I thought she would be sort of pleased. But when I finally showed her the art she told me it was all wrong because Bellow was a hand puppet, not a marionette! So we had long negotiations and she finally allowed me to call the character Bellow even though he wasn’t the “real” Bellow.
What’d she get in return?
She gets everything when I die anyhow! [Laughs]
With some of your other comics and stories, such as “iZombie,” the villains often don’t see themselves as villains, just people with an agenda different than the protagonist(s). Is that theme something you’re going with in “Memorial” as well, or is it more black and white?
Again, it’s a little bit of both. I think that Hook doesn’t see himself as a villain. We find out more about him probably in subsequent miniseries. I mean, we find out who he is and how he operates in this miniseries but we don’t really know how he came to be here until later. Bellow is just a straight up villain. He just hates everybody. He’s a very bitter, angry puppet, he really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. So he probably doesn’t think of himself as the hero of his own story, he probably thinks of himself as the villain in somebody else’s story.
Rich Ellis is doing the artwork for the series. Did you know Rich before you started working together?
No, I started talking to IDW about doing the book and we didn’t have an artist attached yet. To IDW’s credit one of the first things they said when we started the negotiations was they preferred to do straight-up creator-owned books and not to have the writer own it and then do the writer for a work for hire-basis. So if it was possible, could I go and find an artist I could partner with? I got done with that conversation and called up my friend Paul Tobin, writer extraordinaire, probably best known for his work on “Marvel Adventures” or his collaborations with his wife Colleen Coover. But Paul is one of the members of Periscope Studio in Portland and there’s lots of artists at Periscope and they know tons more artists. I asked Paul if he had any suggestions; I described the basic idea and he suggested two names, and before he finished saying the second name I had pulled up Rich’s website while we were on the phone and told Paul to stop talking, this was the guy! Just looking at a handful of pieces Rich posted to the website I could see immediately that he would be perfect for the project. I think within forty-eight hours we had his name on a contract with IDW and we started working almost right away. It’s been great, though I’ve still never met him in person!
What was it about his art that made you realize so quickly that Rich was the artist for the job?
Rich is really adept at being about to draw convincing, believable, regular people in mundane settings and at the same time also draw convincing otherworldly characters in very fantastical settings. In this book, because it shifts gears back and forth between our world and other worlds really quickly from panel to panel, that is an invaluable skill to have.
Is Rich the permanent artist not just for this miniseries but for subsequent ones as well?
So far as I’m concerned Rich is onboard for the long haul. He’s the co-creator, he’s done all of the character design work and now as we’re moving more and more into exploring the various otherworldly locations he’s designing all the settings as well. I’m delighted to have Rich onboard for as long as he keeps wanting to do it. Sadly he was going to be doing the covers but that didn’t work out, and we had to settle for Michael Kaluta. [Laughs] I’m being sarcastic, of course. The idea was that Rich would be doing covers as well and then we got this very apologetic email a couple of months ago from IDW that said sorry, Rich wouldn’t be doing the covers, Michael Kaluta will be doing them instead. And now I’m driven to come up with even cooler stuff to put in the book so hopefully Kaluta puts them on the cover!
I’ve been reading comics for a long time, I’ve been an every Wednesday shopper since Wednesdays fell on Thursdays, and for as long as I’ve been reading comics Michael Kaluta has been a super star. Getting to work with Mike Allred or getting to know Matt Wagner and guys like that blows my mind! The notion that I would have a conversation with Michael Kaluta is really too much for me to bear, so I’m happy to let the good people at IDW handle that interaction at the moment until I can muster the courage to address the man directly!
“Memorial” hits stores in December.