Adventure abounds in the world of webcomics, where the freedom for artist to follow their muse has led many to compare the digital comics space to the Wild West of the medium. And this week, two mainstream comic creators well known to superhero fans are making a jump into the online fray with daggers in their teeth.
Yesterday, writer Greg Rucka and artist Rick Burchett launched “Lady Sabre & The Pirates of The Ineffable Aether” — a new webcomic which will update with installments every Monday and Thursday at IneffableAether.com. Known for their work together and separately on major superhero franchises like Batman, the collaborators spent years looking for a place to ply their trade on stories in a different vein, and with “Lady Sabre,” they’re giving fans a mix of Steampunk world-building, swashbuckling adventure and pulp-inspired danger all set in a reality where giant, galley-like airships patrol through the clouds.
CBR News spoke to both Rucka and Burchett about the project, and below, the creators detail how the idea for their adventurous heroine came to be, why this series is helping them break free of the pre-conceived molds some comic companies have for them, how they’ll use their site to push the boundaries of their comics work all week long and what the Steampunk strip holds for the future of their careers.
CBR News: While each of you have done some independent work, Greg through Oni and Rick on projects like “Gravedigger,” I can’t recall a time when either of you have done something wholly self-published. What made you want to go to the Web for something totally on your own, without the considerations of a publisher?
Greg Rucka: We wanted to do a webcomic because we really, really wanted to work together, and we just couldn’t find anybody who was willing to pay us for the privilege. So. [Laughs] In all blunt sincerity, I think that Rick and I have known each other for 12 years now, and in that time we’ve only managed to work with each other like maybe six or seven times. We keep trying, and we’ve had several projects over the years that we’ve pitched to someone, and they go, “Ohhhh, okay…no. We don’t want to.” We’ve been talking since last fall about another project we’ve been trying to get of the ground, and we both reached a frustration point. We said, “We just need to do something together! We can do a webcomic!” And that’s what started it rolling.
Did that decision end up changing your overall approach? Before, were you pitching while thinking, “It’ll be a crime comic” or “It’ll be a superhero comic?” Because “Lady Sabre” seems set in a time period and genre we don’t often see in comics. Did the web free you up to think in terms of what you didn’t see in the market?
Rick Burchett: Partly, but I think that part of it — at least from my standpoint — is that you tend to get pigeonholed in the industry. I did a lot of work on the DC animated books, and after a while, editors seemed to think that’s all I could do. I drew in that style, that was my style, and if they had another book, they wouldn’t even think of considering me. And I think in the same way, they pigeonholed Greg — not quite as much, because he’s got a wider range of things, but they think of him as crime and ground-level superheroes and spy stuff. They never think, “Hey, these guys can do something else” or “Maybe they want to do something else. Maybe their passions are somewhere else — but we don’t want to ask them.”
Rucka: That’s what a huge part of this is. I think I’ve talked about this elsewhere, and I’ll talk about this on the website. We have a whole slew of parallel passions — stuff we both love, stylistically and genre-wise — and one of those things that really drove this is that we just wanted to do something whimsical and fun. Whimsical and fun! Not full of angst and not full of continuity. It’s just to create a world and have fun in it. Ideally, we’re building a world that, as the comic progresses, people will begin to see more and more of it, and it will become that much more real and that much more investing.
We love swashbuckler. We love cowboys. We love Steampunk, Victoriana clockwork stuff. There’s all these elements, and we’re saying, “Let’s mash them all up in a ball and see where they go.” That’s just what we’ve done.
Tell me about the origins of the comic’s story. You’ve got all these influences and genres — at what point did they coalesce into one thing? Was there something specific about the history or the stories you felt was underdeveloped to play with?
Rucka: Well, I don’t think we’re actually mining a new territory. I hasten to add that. There are plenty of people who have plunged into Steampunk far before us. And this was more, I think if there was a kernel it was one of floating ships.
Burchett: Yes! [Laughter]
Rucka: There is a moment that’s fairly early on — I think it’s about the third week — where Lady Sabre does and says something. There were two scenes that came to me very early, and the first screen posted on Monday was literally the one that established the environment. When I shared it with Rick, he immediately grokked it. “Yes! I see it.” Then there was this other beat from later on that provided the character. Once I had the character, the story started filling out, and when I was talking to Rick saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking,” I could almost hear him sketching and scribbling and designing and making it happen.
Burchett: Another thing for me is that when you work within the confines of the big publishers, you really don’t have a lot of creative freedom unless you’re one of the top tier, marquee talent. You’re dealing with the company’s characters. You’re dealing with a lot of designs that somebody else created. Usually, you’re having to mold what you’re doing into a larger story that’s a year-long event. And the opportunity for creativity is getting smaller and smaller all the time. On this project, I’ve gotten to design the characters, I’ve gotten to design the logo, I’m coloring it so I can determine what color everything is…just the sheer freedom of the thing is exhilarating.
Rucka: And that idea translates into an exchange of ideas. There’s a synergy that comes about. Those are what the best collaborations have.
Burchett: This collaboration between Greg and myself is one of those rare accidental occurrences that you can’t plan for. It just happened. [Former DC Editor] Ivan Cohen invited us both to dinner in San Diego one year. We didn’t know each other, sat next to each other and it just happened. Working with Greg, I equate it to a really great tennis match. He sends me the ball over the net, and I see what he’s done and send it back with a little something on it. Then he sends it back to me with something on it and it grows.
Rucka: It’s like playing tennis with snowballs that get bigger. [Laughs] That’s a bad image, but it’s like pushing a thing downhill and it keeps growing. I’ve got all these notes that will not even be evident to the reader for a year or so. There are cultures, there are places. There are cities and people that I have notes where this just keeps feeding itself. It’s wonderful.
How did you determine the schedule for this in terms of where it fits in with all your other work?
Rucka: Right now the site’s going to update four times a week with two new screens on the comic on Monday and Thursday. On rare occasions, there will be three or four screens a week. One of the things about working on this is that we don’t want to spend all the time we’ve put in too early. The nice thing about it is that my experience of webcomics is that they can roll out slowly if you want. A reader can come in at any time and then go back and read it from the start. So the site will be very active, but the actual comic will only update twice a week.
Early on when we heard you were talking about working together, we saw some sketches from Rick involving Revolutionary era New York crop up online. Does that play into this project?
Rucka: Ah, see you’re conflating two projects. There’s “Lady Sabre” and “American Soldier.” “American Soldier” is a different project that we’re working on. That is its own project that Rick and I have been trying to get off the ground for six years, now. The overview of it is to tell American history through the military service of one family, beginning with that service in the Revolutionary War. That’s what you’ve been seeing, and that’s old from my website. It’s something Rick and I have talked about, and we’re still trying to get a publisher on that for what’s likely going to be a fairly substantial set of graphic novels. That groundwork and the research required means we need to find the right publisher to back that play.
What “Lady Sabre” is has nothing to do with that. [Laughter] “Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether” is entirely fictional Steampunk that has nothing to do with anything real. There are certain analogues to certain historical periods — certainly in costume and style and culture — but it’s a world where there are floating airships that sail the ineffable aether and clockwork automatons that serve as crew members and crazy swordfights and steam-powered repeating shotguns and things like that. It’s an entirely different beast.
Well, if the webcomic is something meant to be more fun and whimsical, do you see that drive being heavily influenced by years spent on a very stringently researched piece of historical fiction? Is one the B-side to the other?
Burchett: Yeah. The curse that I have is that whenever I design these whimsical machines, in my mind I have to figure out how they work. It’s like, give me a set of circumstances under which this could work. I designed a flying pirate ship and figured out how it would be propelled and everything. Sometimes, that means things aren’t designed as well as they could be, but they’re practical in nature. To that end, you have to have a pretty good grasp of the nature of the laws of physics. In a way, there’s as much research there as would be needed for “American Soldier.”
As we’re starting the story, do we jump right in to the life and story of Lady Sabre, or is there another outlet through which we’ll be introduced to the world?
Rucka: No, this is very much inspired by one of our other loves: the pulp serial. We start with her being chased and don’t waste any time. She is being pursued by people who are shooting at her — and then we go into a sword fight. [Laughs] We have more along those lines coming. The first chapter is an introduction to her Ladyship.
How have you built the world of piracy we’ll be playing in? Does Lady Sabre work mostly for herself and her own crew, or is there a broader kind of political story she’s set to get involved in?
Rucka: Oh, there’s a much larger world of political intrigue and a chase for an item that everybody wants and grand politics at play. She’s not actually a pirate. She’s a privateer. She’s been granted a letter of mark and reprisal by the regent of her nation. Ostensibly, she’s serving her monarch. So there will be — well, they’re not really sea battles. They’re air battles. There are searches for hidden treasures and gunfights and mysterious creatures.
Burchett: Some people may balk at the Western element coming into this, but people have to remember that the American West and our expansion Westward took place during Victorian times. The people here were very aware of Victorian culture, and they wanted to read about and know what was going on in England or back East in the cities. They were very, very cued in to what was happening. It’s not a stretch at all, really.
Well, it does bring up a point I’ve heard from some others about matching your art to the period. For example, I’ve heard Steve Dillon does not like to draw horses. [Rucka Laughs] Was there anything challenging for you in creating this strip in those terms?
Rucka: Rick draws the hell out of horses. You cannot believe how well Rick draws horses. I remember that was one of the first conversations we ever had: what Rick likes to draw and doesn’t. But he draws the hell out of horses.
Burchett: The only thing I really don’t like to draw is crowd scenes, and Greg seems to like crowd scenes a lot.
Rucka: Of course I do. They’re fun! [Laughter]
The last piece of all of this coming together is the question of the ways you’re playing this project as a comic on the web, first and foremost. Have you created it at all with a mind towards print, or is it more a focus of what looks best on the screen for a computer, a tablet or what have you?
Burchett: We talked about that a lot very early on. One of the things that I wanted to do was explore how comics can be told on the web. So far, all the webcomics I’ve seen have either been like a comic book page or set up like a newspaper strip. And my thought was that you don’t have to do either one of those. You make it a true webcomic. To that end, you lean more towards a storyboard format where you take as much time as you need to tell the action. We are not beholden to the page anymore. We’re not beholden to the 20-page magazine. That can really affect storytelling. This has opened us up to the point where, from a storytelling standpoint, we can do whatever we want. I designed the screens so that they should be fairly modular and fairly easy to put together on a page when they go to print.
Rucka: Yeah. Rick seems to think that this is going to be a bit easy to compile for a print version than I think it’s going to be, but that’s a headache we’ll deal with when the time comes. But our decision very early on was that this is for the web and that you could read it on your Android phone or for your iPad or on your laptop or your desktop. No matter where you’re at, we wanted to provide the same reading experience as best we could and really use the medium. But that’s going to be a slow evolution which you’ll see more and more of as we progress. We’re experimenting. For us, this is new. I’ve had to modify my writing style. When I write a script for a print comic, I’m writing in terms of page and panel count. This is a different approach than writing that, and there’s a different pacing for the readers who come to this at different times. If you’re reading every update, the pace is obviously very different than if you wait a few months and read a bunch of screens at once.
Burchett: And over the past three months, I’ve taught myself how to do comics on the computer. I’m still learning, but I feel relatively confident in the process. I haven’t spend a lot of time with color theory, but I’m coloring things and trying to make them look pretty. One thing we should mention is the man behind the curtain: Eric Newsom who is the webmaster for this. Really, without him this wouldn’t be happening. Greg and I would be sitting in our rooms drawing stuff and nobody would see it. Eric has been incredibly helpful and is very knowledgeable about the webcomics scene — certainly more than I am. His council along the way has been invaluable.
Rucka: Eric has been fantastic at every turn and is the silent partner because he does have input and is part of the process.
Read part on of “Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether” right now at http://www.ineffableaether.com