All Hail The King: Nelson and new artist Di Bartolo talk "Rex Mundi"

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Over the last few years, Image Comics has become home to some of the most critically acclaimed comic books on the market, from "Invincible" to "Powers" (now at Marvel Comics) to "The Walking Dead." One of those books is "Rex Mundi," a murder mystery set in a slightly different France of old and written by Arvid Nelson. Last November, CBR readers learned that series artist Eric J would be stepping down from the title, but a new artist had been named yet. CBR News has learned that the man providing the images for the series starting with issue #14 will be artist Jim Di Bartolo. We spoke with both creators took about "Rex Mundi" and explained why it's the perfect time to start reading the series.

"In my newbie opinion, now is the perfect time to start reading 'Rex Mundi' because there is not only a change in artists, but there is a shift in tone coming up in the storyline too," Di Bartolo told CBR News. "Also, with 2 collected trades out as well as issue 13 hitting stores soon a new reader can jump on board without having to hunt down rare, hard-to-find back issues if they decide they want the 'foundation' of the story."

"It's just like Jim said," agrees Nelson. "Up until now it's been admittedly difficult for people to jump on board because of the scarcity of single issues. 'Rex Mundi' is an ongoing mystery: the narrative is tight. It's not like Inspector Gadget or Spongebob, aside from the wacky hijinx. If you miss an issue, you miss a lot. Now with the release of the second trade paperback, people have a chance to read a sizable chunk of story in one go. There are still a lot of surprises ahead, but there's enough material out there for readers to become engrossed in the story.

"That, and Jim and I are really dedicated to putting 'Rex Mundi' out on time. From now on, I pledge we'll have new issues of 'Rex Mundi' on a consistent basis. This more than anything else will help readers connect with the story!"

"Rex Mundi" has been praised for the intricacy of its main story and while that is a blessing for current readers, it is a barrier for some new readers who perceive the book as being too "dense." But Nelson is happy to introduce readers to the basic plot and reveals an easy way to catch up on events thus far. "First of all, by the time Issue 13 hits the shelves we'll have an issue-by-issue synopsis in the 'story' section of our website, www.rexmundi.net. Lots of information on our website!

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"'Rex Mundi' is a quest for the Holy Grail told as a murder mystery. It's set in an alternate-history Paris where magic is real and the Catholic Church never lost its grip on power. Dr. Julien Saunière tracks down a medieval scroll stolen from his longtime friend, Father Gerard Marin. Saunière stumbles onto a thousand year-old secret society which claims to possess the secret of the Holy Grail - a secret for which people are being killed. The Duke of Lorraine, a powerful French politician, is implicated in the theft of the scroll. Things get really sticky because Saunière's ex-lover, Genevieve Tournon, has become involved with the Duke. That's it in a nutshell - much more on our website!

"I think there's an assumption 'complex' stories scare off readers, but I believe just the opposite. 'Lord of the Rings' is detailed and complex, that's what makes it great. Same could be said of 'Dune' or 'Star Trek.' If you like those stories, I hope you'll like 'Rex Mundi.' I spend a lot of time thinking of interesting and fun ways of presenting background information to readers. If I've done it well, you (the reader) won't even realize it when you're getting a brief on the eccentricities of the world.

"But most of all I try not to let the setting get in the way of what's really important - the characters. 'Rex Mundi' is a murder mystery, and it's about two people who care about each other very much even though they can never get close. If you can relate to that, you can relate to 'Rex Mundi.'"

Previous series artist Eric J was quite popular with fans and part of the series' identity and while it may have been difficult in many fans' minds to find an artist who could bring that energy to the book, Nelson said Di Bartolo seemed like a perfect fit from the beginning. "Jim's art is different from Eric's in a lot of ways - superficially. But Eric and Jim actually have a lot in common. Jim's art for 'The Drowned' sold me. For those who don't know, Image published 'The Drowned' last year - a graphic novel Jim drew and his wife Laini wrote. It was one of the best things I read last year, if not the best thing. Jim demonstrated a profound sensitivity to mood, setting and character in that story. Laini is a brilliant writer, in fact I'm envious, and Jim's art brought her script to life. The ability to take a line of dialog and hit on the exact expression and gesture for the character speaking those words is very rare, and it's one of Jim's many talents. That's what I love about Eric's art, and that's why I think Jim's going to be great!"

For Di Bartolo, working on "Rex Mundi" is a dream come true and he says that he's been following the book for some time now. "Well, I've been a huge fan of this title since the start. Fortunately, after my recent Image graphic novel ('The Drowned') was in the works last Spring, I 'met' Arvid and a few other Image creators on the Image message boards. I then had the good fortune to meet (in person) Arvid, EricJ, and a number of other Image creators at this past summer's San Diego Comic Con (great guys and gals all of them!). Anyhow, Arvid and I hit it off and I'd remained in touch with him via e-mail ever since. Since the Con, I'd mainly been doing freelance illustration work with Upper Deck, White Wolf, and Paizo Publishing and when I learned that Arvid might need a new artist for the book I dropped him a line and told him to keep me in mind if he felt I might be a good fit. You know, I definitely wanted my name in the proverbial hat. Well, Arvid had said he liked my art, but I still didn't truly think I would have the opportunity to work with him.

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"And as an aside, now that I'm privy to the master plan for where this story is headed, fellow long-time faithful fans as well as new recruits will be floored with what Arvid has in store! I'm just really pleased to be a part of one of my all-time favorite books!"

Following Eric J is also something that intimidates the new artist, but Di Bartolo maintains a healthy outlook regarding his future on the series. "Heck, I've been a fan of Eric J's art, so I was definitely nervous about taking over! He did such a great job of setting the mood of the story and transporting the reader into 1930s France, as well as depicting the key characters in such a recognizable way so you're never wondering who's who as you read. In regards to your question however, I've been telling Arvid and a few friends, that I'm sure there's bound to be some resentment or resistance to change from long-time fans--it's probably just inevitable. Hopefully those devoted folks will realize that I completely respect Eric's work on the book and will ultimately give me a chance to prove myself and find my groove so that the transition will be as smooth as possible.

In addition to handling the artistic chores, Di Bartolo will also be taking over the coloring chores from Jeromy Cox. "This too is an intimidating task, but luckily Jeromy's such a gem of a guy that he's been tossing pointers and feedback my way. So, while I don't want to attempt to imitate what Jeromy was doing on the book, I'll at least have the great fortune of being able to get his input along the way if needed."

There's also going to be shift in the tone of the series, with a more "Indiana Jones" flavor that Nelson has mentioned in past interviews and while some may question how organic the shift in tone will be, Di Bartolo is quick to praise the coming events. "As a fan of 'Rex Mundi' who's now got the inside scoop, I have to say that I think it's a very wise choice because the story will definitely be opening up in scope. Arvid has this slow unfolding about to take place that I think will feel very natural rather than abrupt as we take the characters into alternate settings. Let me just say that the things about to happen are all for good reasons and they progress the plot along in very BIG ways toward very BIG conflicts, revelations, and twists."

Nelson agrees, explaining, "I think 'organic' is the perfect word to describe the change because it will reflect a change in Julien's character. 'Rex Mundi's' been relentlessly dark and claustrophobic up until now, a conscious decision. The second half of the story will take place in the countryside of southern France; it's going to be much more open, much brighter. It's still a mystery and it's still noir, but it's going to have a different look: more along the lines of Indiana Jones than Philip Marlowe. This is something I've been planning from the very beginning, and I can't believe we're almost ready for the transition. Everything's been leading up to this point, and the pace is going to quicken considerably. Hang on to your potatoes, Dr. Jones!"

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Every creative team has a unique synergy and while these two may have been working on different projects for the majority of their careers, Di Bartolo says the two get along very well… and perhaps a tad too well. "Well, we're still in the midst of our first issue together but so far it's been a lot of heated arguments and threats followed by sending one another flowers the next day with gushing apologies and coy double-entendres. (hmm, maybe my wife shouldn't proof-read this??...) Seriously, thus far we've agreed on most things and where we haven't (minor things really) we've managed to see the light respectively when the other guy has a better idea or take on something. I know that in my day-to-day life, I've always been told that I apologize too much and I have a feeling Arvid suffers from that very same touchy-feely politeness that is rotting our society to the core. Damn us both to hell!

"And, luckily Arvid's got a strong sense of what looks good visually, so that, coupled with my wife being a very talented artist and writer, I have the benefit of being able to run things by two people who're going to give me smart, constructive criticism and/or straight up compliments on the panels and pages as I work. What more could I ask for?!!

"Creatively speaking, I think I compliment Arvid's story because I'm a stickler for getting expressions and interactions between characters to be appropriate for a given scene, so I hope to continue where Eric left off in telling a visually dynamic tale. Likewise, Arvid gives very clear, believable interactions between characters that make it easy and fun to illustrate. For example, one thing I love to portray is a subtle expression of a character who might be saying one thing, but their face betrays their words, and the reader is the only one with the point-of-view to see their expression. Luckily there will be many opportunities to convey that sort of duplicitous scene as the world of 'Rex Mundi' is full of uneasy alliances and it has it's fair share of back-stabbing!"

"Everything Jim said applies," adds Nelson. "Working with him has been just great. He's been extremely understanding of the fact he's jumping into 'Rex Mundi' mid-stream. Visually, a lot has been established, and Jim has been absolutely selfless in making changes where necessary to fit the story. At the same time, I'd like to think I'm good about listening to him when he feels strongly. I have to be his editor and he has to be mine. It only works if we listen to each other and understand we have a common objective: making 'Rex Mundi' as good as it can be.

"Jim's joke about the flowers and double entendres is actually totally apt - a creative arrangement like 'Rex Mundi' is a marriage. Success depends on our ability to communicate and our dedication to the common cause. We've already been through a few trials together, and I think we've demonstrated to each other we're capable of doing this thing. The proof to our readers will be Issue 14. I really can't wait 'til it hits the shelves."

So if you're excited for the future of "Rex Mundi," Di Bartolo reveals something that should have many fans excited, smiling and saying, "He's gonna kill me for spoiling this, but in two words: 'Pajama Party.' That's all I'm going to say." Nelson punches his comrade and adds, "Damn you, Jim!"

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