Blasphemy: Rex & Wolfinger talk "Vatican City, Las Vegas"

Las Vegas, Nevada. Sin City. The world's largest playground. At once everything people say about Las Vegas is both true and false. It's a city that has something for everyone, whether it be family entertainment or adult activities that are never discussed once you leave the city's borders. Remember the advertising slogan: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. It's all true.

One of the big attractions in Las Vegas are the many themed hotel/casinos. You've got casinos that look like something out of ancient Egypt or Rome and there are those that attempt to emulate the feel of major metropolitan cities like New York City or Paris. The list goes on and on. Some casinos pull off these themes nicely, while others, well, others are cheap and tacky. But imagine, just imagine for a second, if someone were to build a themed casino based on Vatican City. You wouldn't put it past Vegas, would you?

Well, it's not a reality (yet!), but this November it will become a fictional reality in "Vatican City, Las Vegas," a 134 page black and white original graphic novel from ICCC Media. The book is by two relative new comers to comics, writer F. Rex and artist Terry Wolfinger, and we caught up with both men to get the low down on this rather uniquely themed casino that's at the heart of a much larger story.

"In brief, the book is about the demise of novelist Thomas Carlyle. Struggling with a terminal case of writer's block, he spends his last drunken night wallowing in Vatican City, Las Vegas," writer F. Rex told CBR News. "While he slowly expires, he finds himself embroiled in criminal intrigue as the Jones corporate family and the Medici mafia family struggle for control of Vatican City. The romantic subplot follows a strange, surreal love triangle between the moribund Carlyle, a desperately passionate French midget mime and a cocktail waitress nun Carlyle mistakes for the Virgin Mary."

The book features a large cast of characters, most of whom are rendered as gross caricatures, but in a setting like "Vatican City, Las Vegas," they almost end up seeming normal. "Some of these caricatures redefine actual historical figures in modern Las Vegas," said Rex. "Thomas Carlyle as a drunken social malcontent; Karl Marx as a luckless, homeless vagrant living in the casino toilet; Adam Smith as a professional hustler exploiting the other casino patrons and bilking Vatican City; and of course the Medici family themselves, though they appear here as a terribly debased, grossly self-perpetuating mafia clan bent on reasserting their economic power in the modern corporate world.

"Some of the other characters register as less directly historical, but historically informed nonetheless: a Chinese communist drag queen impersonating Marilyn Monroe; a former militant black nationalist turned corporate hip-hop sellout; two struggling Arab entrepreneurs financing the casino Mecca to rival Vatican City. I wanted the cast of characters to feel like an updated version of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims with that same sense of social, and in this case cultural and political, cross-section."

The story began with the setting, a Vatican-themed Las Vegas casino, the idea of which came to Rex while in Vegas roughly four years ago while on a weekend bender. "The city struck me as so shameless in its use of historically-derived monuments as casinos to invest the place with some significance beyond the crass exchange of cash, and the thought of a Vatican City casino seemed disturbingly plausible on Las Vegas Boulevard," said Rex. "After playing with the concept a bit, I decided to develop the story and so began conceiving characters and narrative arcs to suit the location.

"After drafting an initial script, I sought an artist whose style matched the content, and so met Terry Wolfinger through an ad at Cal Arts," continued Rex. "His ability to move seamlessly between realism and caricature seemed like a perfect match for the novel's tone, so we began the project in its current incarnation during the spring of 2003."

Wolfinger saw the ad on the Cal Arts job board and submitted his Web site and a few samples when Rex showed some interest. "I was sent the title of the project and a brief synopsis, and it just sounded insane," Wolfinger told CBR News. "So, naturally I was very interested."

Wolfinger's a life-long artist with roots in character animation. He freelanced in the field for a few years, and then switched to illustration. Over the years he's worked on numerous magazines (his work can currently be seen on the cover of "Hardcore Gamer Magazine" each month) and video game titles and spent some time working for Stan Winston Studios where he did concept art and character design on movies like "Jurassic Park 2" and more recently "Terminator 3." In comics, while working for Winston, he did a few covers for "Realm of the Claw" and "Mutant Earth." "Vatican City, Las Vegas" is his first long-form comics work.

"We developed a pitch book of roughly fifteen pages of sample art and a story synopsis to send to the major publishers, and those that responded summarily rejected the idea," explained Rex. "At a loss for what to do with the project, I attended a comic book convention in San Francisco, where I had a chance to chat briefly with Brian Azzarello, and he recommended that I self-publish the book without any industry involvement. Three years of obscurity later, I am self-publishing the book without any industry involvement."

"Initially, 'Vatican City, Las Vegas' was going to be a three part mini-series, so I thought I could handle that no problem," said Wolfinger of when Rex and he first began discussions. "We started working on it with that in mind, but after getting about twenty pages into it, Fred realized he had more story than pages, so he re-worked it into the graphic novel format. The first estimate was around eighty pages, then one hundred, and I started thinking, 'Wow, this is going to take some time…'"

As Wolfinger finished his and Rex's first graphic novel, he learned one very important fact about his own work - his ability to stay consistent artistically all the way through, even when working with a large cast of characters. "For the most part the style is somewhere between an exaggerated realism and caricature," said Wolfinger. "Maintaining the look of each character over such a long period of time (more than three years) was very important. I also learned that I could see a project of this size to the end. The fact that I was still maintaining my freelance career with other projects only made it more challenging.

"I loved tackling the little subtleties in the characters' expressions," continued Wolfinger. "There were a lot of tricky emotional scenes and I hadn't done much of that before. The biggest challenge was dealing with some of the subject matter. You see, I signed on before there was a finished script, and for the most part, Fred was only a few pages ahead of me with the writing. I'd get the new pages and just go, 'Oh man, I can't believe you're gonna make me draw this! What did I get myself into?!' There were a couple times where I put my foot down and said, 'No, I'm not drawing that!' but then he would convince me to do it anyway. So yeah, there's some pretty outrageous stuff in there. Nothing was sacred, and everyone gets skewered!"

With a title like "Vatican City, Las Vegas," it's sure to raise some eyebrows, but Rex said it's meant as a broad-based satire and not meant to be considered anti-Catholic. "Actually, I conceived the story more as a critique of capitalism than Catholicism, and I juxtaposed images from the church and Las Vegas to create a sense of uneasiness between the sacred and profane that helps advance this critique," said Rex.

"In all honesty, I find the book funny and honest, partly because of the blows against decorum, but then I have a poorly developed sense of discretion," continued Rex. "Still, I do believe that the story is reasonably complex and, in many ways, very nuanced, so I hope the work is not regarded simply as some tedious, obvious strike against the Church."

With its controversial subject matter and no holds-barred style, who does Rex see this book appealing to? He admits, he's not quite sure. "The book is so strange, I don't really know if it will have an easy target demographic," admitted Rex. "I always saw the work as literary satire while I was writing, so I assume it will appeal to those keen on social and political commentary, but I remained mindful to keep the story interesting and accessible on a literal level as well. The humor is quite twisted and marginally grotesque, so I suppose readers with a taste for dark comedy - or those with no taste at all -will enjoy the work as well.

"The book moves between social critique, mafia intrigue, perverse romantic entanglements, and even some very strange elements of super-heroism, so I believe the book will actually register with many readers on one level or another," continued the writer. "I certainly tried to honor the storytelling conventions of the comic book/graphic novel, while also attempting to redefine those parameters with some sense of innovation. While the book does not appeal to one particular and specific market demographic, it will hopefully demand attention as something unique in the medium."

Rex himself studied literature in college and published some poetry following the completion of college, with freelance work as a journalist and editor to help him survive. He's a life-long comics fan and has attended the San Diego Comic-Con for nearly twenty years straight. After much art-versus-commerce hand wringing, Rex decided to tackle the graphic novel genre, "because the medium reaches a readership without pandering to vast consumer audiences and advertisers," said Rex. "I'm intrigued to work in a literary form that joins the tight, controlled language of poetry and the heavily visual storytelling skills I developed as a journalist-photographer. I am also quite grateful to return to the comic book literary subculture that I have always loved, this time as a writer."

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