'I'm fond of that geeky stuff': Chatting with 'Twelve Gems' author Lane Milburn

A weiner dog with butterfly-esque wings that's a master mechanic. A space-faring Amazonian warrior who's handy with a blade. A pig-faced, hard-living bounty hunter. Mad scientists with really odd-shaped glasses. These are just some of the characters and elements that make up Twelve Gems, Lane Milburn's ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek sci-fi opera.

Drawing on classic adventure role-playing games, fantasy films and manga, Gems finds the first three aforementioned characters banding together at the request of a mysterious Dr. Z to find the titular gems for purposes unkown (at least initially). Along the way they come across all manner of strange creatures, hostile planets, old foes and metaphysical craziness. Milburn lets his imagination run rampant throughout the book, resulting in a fast-paced, crazed graphic novel full of scenes that could easily be blown up onto a black velvet poster. Plus it's a lot of fun to boot.

I recently chatted with Milburn about the new book, its inception and his work with the Closed Caption Comics group.

Robot 6: I first came across your work in the Closed Caption Comics anthologies. How did you get involved with that group? Were you making comics before then?

Lane Milburn: I occasionally made and read comics as a kid but I didn't become a serious creator or reader until college. I entered Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004 and majored in painting. My ambition at that time was to do traditional figurative painting, and I clocked some serious hours drawing and painting portraits and figure studies. I think that plays into the drawing style I eventually developed as a cartoonist.

I quickly became friends with Conor Stechschulte, Ryan Cecil Smith, Noel Freibert, Mollie Goldstrom and Pete Razon, and one or more of them proposed the idea of doing an anthology that we could print and assemble on campus. I owe that crowd a lot! I doubt I would be doing comics if I hadn't met them (Molly O'Connell, Chris Day, Erin Womack, Zach Hazard Vaupen, Andrew Neyer and Eric Stiner soon joined up). Another friend of mine had mailed me a copy of Paper Rodeo he'd found in Providence [Rhode Island]; I was blown away, especially by Multiforce. For me it was the perfect entry point into comics at that time: comics with a certain "fine art" mentality, or maybe just that they lacked the professional veneer I associated with lame fan art, etc. The giddy energy of Paper Rodeo was infectious, and my first comics were deliberately crude and scribbly and scatological, with a lot of fantasy-genre elements I was channelling from my pop culture-riddled childhood brain. So in summary: The two events mentioned above (receiving Paper Rodeo via mail and creating CCC #1) were sort of the initial spark for me as a cartoonist.

Did the CCC group have a shared credo or aesthetic? 

Not really. We were primarily held together by our friendship. Even though we were inspired by Fort Thunder, etc., I don't think we were imitating them stylistically, and actually I think we had strikingly diverse styles/goals. I always winced at the term "art collective." Maybe it sounds too cutesy. When I hear "art collective," I think of Fluxus or something. We definitely never had a manifesto or anything besides the desire to publish our work.

How did CCC work? Who oversaw, say, editing the various anthologies or the design? Was it a democratic consensus or did one or two people tend to take the lead?

There was a pretty democratic feel to the group, but I seem to remember Conor, Ryan and Noel taking the lead on a lot of the logistical stuff.  They had the most printing know-how. I still feel like a bit of a dummy in that regard. But I really enjoyed collating, stapling, assembling, etc. on long overnight sessions. We drained so much toner making our books. The school put up signs telling people not to "abuse their printing privileges."

Is CCC still a functioning group? Do you have plans to put out another anthology or have you all more or less gone your separate ways?

I don't think there'll be another anthology. We all remain great friends and there is still some smaller-scale collaboration (Conor's Sock anthology, Noel's Weird Magazine).

At least two of the main characters in Twelve Gems, to my knowledge, appeared in slightly different form in one of the CCC anthologies. How long have you been working with and developing these characters? Have you always had the intent of working them into a larger story?

I think so! Yes, two of the characters appeared in a short story in CCC9 entitled Venus and Furz. That was their test run. The title of the story (and consequently, the characters' names) is derived from the Velvet Underground song "Venus in Furs," which in turn is derived from the title of a novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. After I finished my book Death Trap, I had sketched out some ideas for the characters. My initial idea was for Twelve Gems to be an erotic space adventure with Venus and Furz as lovers.  I'm a big fan of the first two Appleseed books, and I was intrigued by the idea of a beautiful woman who is partnered with a hulking non-human creature. I later added Dogstar to the mix and came up with the idea of three strangers reluctantly sent off on a space quest by the creepy Dr. Z.  I thought it would be a funny premise with awkward sitcom-y moments and I love having human and semi-human and non-human characters interacting because it allows for visual jokes that can only exist in comics.

What were some of your strongest influences on Twelve Gems? I’m picking up a good deal of Heavy Metal and other French cartoonists, but that might be solely because they tend to work in sci-fi tropes as well.

Heavy Metal for sure! It was a huge revelatory experience for me to see Moebius and Druillet for the first time. Crumb is another big big one. I checked out the R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book from the library as a teenager and it floored me. Something that these artists have in common in varying degrees is an interest in drawing bizarre, twisted, and deranged or magical, fantastical, otherworldly things with great seriousness and devotion. The cinematic characteristics probably come largely from movies I loved as a kid and have been indelibly printed on my psyche (Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Terminator 2 ...) I'm also crazy about '70s-'90s manga like Tezuka, Shirow, Otomo, Umezu, Miura, etc.  I also take in lots of literature and trash movies (and good movies!) that all probably work their way in there somewhere.

The story also has the feel of a role-playing game quest at times. Was that intentional or am I just projecting?

It's definitely there! I think its partly a product of the time in which I grew up. I don't play video games anymore, but I was obsessed with them as a kid. Also, Magic: The Gathering. Japanese RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Final Fantasy 7, 8, and Tactics were some of the most intense cultural experiences of my childhood. Magic: The Gathering is of course a competitive game, and I remember trading cards and playing when I was about 10. The RPG video games are a mostly solitary experience, but I just remember sitting with my friends in the cafeteria in middle school and we would just talk endlessly about the games we were playing at home and it was a blast!  Sometimes we'd hang out and watch someone else play. Good times.

What was your working method on this book like? Did you plot and script (or thumbnail) the book out before hand or did you tend to improvise more?

Most of the book is improvised. The drawing was often so labor-intensive that I had ample time to think of what would come next. The longer monologues were scripted somewhere along the way.  I had a few things I wanted to hit on from the beginning and I jotted those down. Some were included, some scrapped.

I had this nutty concept for a surreal planet covered entirely in frat houses (I briefly lived in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston). The characters were going to discover one of the gems being inserted into a frat boy's anus as part of some hazing ritual. Another odd moment I had in mind was a collision between the ship and a coffin that had been jettisoned into space, as seen in many sci-fi films/shows.

For materials I used a tiny nib and India ink. I drew the pages as spreads on 14-inch by 17-inch sheets of Bristol board. I work on pages in a pretty unusual manner: There'll be six to eight spreads tacked to my wall and I'll grab one and work on a panel here, a panel there, pencil here, ink a panel here where the rest of the page is blank. Eventually it all links up into something readable.

Why do describe the process as being “labor-intensive”? What specifically about it was difficult? Were you attempting to create a certain visual style or effect that was difficult or was it something else? How did you arrive at this unique method of working and what makes it more comfortable for you than, say, starting at the top corner of a page and working your way down, etc.? 

All the decisions regarding my approach (to inking, drawing) are made pretty unconsciously. I think the crosshatching and interest in light and dark and modeling of forms comes from my fine art background. It just looks right to me. The inking was time consuming but not tedious ... it's hard to explain. I feel like my working method is pretty fluid in spite of the "obsessive" look or disorderly way of working through pages.

Another reason the term "labor-intensive" came to mind was that I developed a pretty bad case of wrist tendonitis while working on the book. I also had (have) a day job that involves heavy lifting, and I play guitar. The tendonitis was bad around 2011-12. I am MUCH better now, and the reason for that is interesting.

After the tendonitis persisted through a cortisone shot, wearing a brace, wearing a cast, and expensive occupational therapy (stretches, etc.) I randomly Googled "tendonitis relief" and found a website that helped me fix the problem. It's tendonitisexpert.com and the "Ice Super Dip" technique for wrist tendonitis cured the inflammation better than anything else.  I barely ever have pain now. I know I sound like a crazy, paid shill for this program but it's the truth!

Your mention of the abandoned frat-boy plot reminds me of how carefully the comic straddles the line between humor and drama. It’s clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but you don’t go for any obvious laughs — the characters play it pretty straight. Was it difficult for you to maintain that fine line?

Thank you for the comment. I think it was a bit tough at first but I feel like I eventually got the hang of it and was able to roll with it. I'm thinking of the panel in the first battle that's a large close-up of Dogstar through the visor as he zaps one of the androids, and his face is totally blank. That for me characterizes the dry, absurd tone of humor I wanted to maintain.

How much preplanning did you put into the characters' back stories? I can see you creating elaborate character sheets a la D&D

Yeah, I'm fond of that geeky stuff! I was tempted to make charts of what weapons and supplies each character carried, something I loved to do as a kid, but in the end I decided against that and I'm not totally sure why. I guess I had to rein in the fanboy indulgence somewhere, which sounds funny because it's such a hedonistically silly book.  The backstories were improvised and I suppose I would've liked to have fleshed them out more, especially for Dogstar and Venus.

What’s up with the mad scientist’s crazy glasses? 

I'm not sure! That design must've creeped up from buried memories of my pop-cultural past. I wanted them to look like sci-fi goggles that someone working with radioactive material would use. I dunno.

Twelve Gems has a slight hint of a sequel at the end. Would you like to tell more adventures with these characters? Do you see this as being an ongoing series?

I don't think so. I had actually envisioned the book as a series at the beginning, then I had to sort of tie it up into a single volume, which I think worked out better by far. I'm intensely eager to work on new projects, and the stuff I have lined up is drastically different from TG, I think.

What are you working on now? 

Well, I just finished an 18-page full-color story on my Tumblr called Organized Grime. It's sort of a simple gangster story with creatures, etc. A little thin on plot, but I really just wanted to do a color exercise.

Since I finished Gems in December I've made plans (and in one case drew 20 pages) for a couple different graphic novels that I had to scrap. The stories weren't flowing. So now I'm plotting out a completely different book – something semi-autobiographical with a supernatural element sort of hovering in the background. A lot of it draws from people I knew growing up in Lexington, Kentucky and I'm really excited about it.

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