Image Mystery Theatre: 'Rex Mundi' creators talk about new series

Ask any comic fan what they're looking for in a new series and chances are that the answer will be, "something different." Both writer Arvid Nelson and artist Eric J hope that their multi-faceted mystery series "Rex Mundi," debuting from Image Comics in late July, may be that "something different." Both Nelson and J spoke to CBR about "Rex Mundi," their online site for the series and where they plan to go with the ongoing series.

"The plot of Rex Mundi is going to take place in two large chunks. The first part is a murder mystery based of the model of a 1930s film-noir detective story," explains Nelson, who flirted with a career in the film industry. "By the end of the first part, Julien, the main character, will have uncovered enough of the mystery to know what he has to do to prevent a tragedy. The second part of the story will take place in Southern France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and it will be more akin to a swashbuckling Indiana Jones pulp adventure. The main thrust of the mystery will fuse the two parts together."

"Rex Mundi is set in Paris, 1933, but two things make 'Rex Mundi' radically different: first of all, kings and queens are still in power, because in 'Rex Mundi' the Protestant Reformation never took place-Martin Luther was assassinated early-on in his career by agents of the Holy Inquisition. So, although the outward trappings of 'Rex Mundi' look very art deco-fedoras, trench coats and lonely street lamps-social conditions are basically medieval. The Church still enforces its power through the Inquisition, which has become an organization something like the FBI or the Gestapo; the nobility still have a stranglehold on power, and trade is regulated by the medieval system of guilds."

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"Secondly, magic is real in 'Rex Mundi.' By 'magic' I don't mean the 'Lord-of-the-Rings' stereotype associated with sword-and-sorcery fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but Eric and I wanted to do something a little bit different. Magic in 'Rex Mundi' is a little bit more subtle, based on heretical Christianity, occult Judaism and supposedly 'hidden knowledge' encoded in the Torah and certain books of the New Testament. The plot of Rex Mundi is a quest for the Holy Grail in the form of a murder mystery. I don't want to give too much away in this regard, but suffice it to say an investigation into a bizarre theft of a medieval manuscript becomes, as the main character discovers, a quest to uncover an ancient secret revolving around the origins of Christianity, a secret of tremendous political as well as religious importance. Think of it as a detective movie, except instead of cops you've got Inquisitors, and instead of gangsters you've got secret society members and occultists."

But Nelson hasn't just tried to shoehorn some fictional ideas into the real world setting of 1933- he's done a lot of research to make sure the characters and circumstances ring true with readers. "Three years and still counting," says Nelson of the time spent researching for this story. "The mystery of 'Rex Mundi' extends over a period of one thousand years, so there is a hell of a lot of boning up to do. I've done a lot of reading, primarily on early European history, the early history of Christianity, and Jewish mysticism. I've also read a lot of kooky conspiracy books. The most significant book in terms of the plot of the book is called 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail,' by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. One of these days I'm going to post a bibliography on our web site. Aside from the obviously fantastic aspects of the story-the magic and the persistence of feudalism-all of the history behind Rex Mundi is either true or allegedly true."

While the sheer amount of research itself differentiates this endeavor from most other mainstream comic books, another relatively unique aspect of "Rex Mundi" is that it is planned to be a finite series. "'Rex Mundi' is actually going to be a limited series of 36 episodes, so it's just one big story, and it revolves around one very big mystery. That's another very important part of what 'Rex Mundi's' about: it's an epic story, with a beginning, middle and end. Once the story is finished, it's finished. It's not open-ended. 'Rex Mundi' is inspired by European history, the history of the Catholic Church, and a mutual fascination Eric and I have with magic and secret societies. The driving theme behind 'Rex Mundi' is that the normal, mundane world is only the surface of a vast, underground world of secrets, magic and hidden power. Conspiracy theories are very titillating, but they're impossible to prove or disprove in the real world, so one is always left guessing. 'Rex Mundi' is a world in which all the conspiracy theories are true."

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"Like most murder mysteries, the plot centers on one or two main characters, backed up a large supporting cast. One main character is Julien Saunière, a member of Guild of Physicians. He's a brilliant doctor but a bad politician, and he is constantly being harassed by the Guild because he accepts Jewish patients, which is against Guild policy. Also, he'll occasionally treat poor people for free, which is again verboten. He does these things partially because of his egalitarian sensibilities, and partially as a "fuck you" to the Guild. Consequently, he is always in danger of having his license and Guild membership revoked. Julien is based in part on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and partially on Yukita Kushiro's Doctor Ido from 'Battle Angel.'"

"Genevieve is the other main character. She's a little bit more morally ambiguous than Julien, but in a lot ways she's more caring and nurturing. She too is a doctor, but unlike Julien she is a brilliant politician, so she has become a very high-ranking member of the Guild of Physicians at a young age. She and Julien when to school together, and became lovers. She left Julien to pursue her ambitions when it became clear that he wasn't going to climb the political ladder. They both still have feelings for each other, but neither will admit it, even to themselves. Genevieve is very beautiful, and she can be very cunning and cruel, but she can also be very sweet, even mothering. She feels obligated to protect Julien in a lot of ways, but in the course of the story Julien's activities are going to force her to make some hard choices. Genevieve is kind of a twist on the classic femme fatale character, so she's going to be a very seductive petite, always dressed in black. She definitely knows how to make men feel good, and she uses everything she has-charm, body and brains-to her advantage."

"Another important character (or set of characters) is the Inquisition. As I mentioned before, they take the place of the cops in an ordinary detective movie. They wear dark robes and spooky metal masks. It's an important visual element in 'Rex Mundi,' one of the few distinctly different things about the world."

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The heavy focus on the Catholic Church, specifically the fictional world of deceit and corruption envisioned by Nelson, may seem ironic when placed in the context of the current crisis facing the Church in current times. But while some creators might worry about the controversy or how others would perceive the timing of a story with such overtly similar themes, Nelson smiles and says, "No, I'm not worried. We welcome and thrive on backlash. In fact, I think I think all the controversy makes 'Rex Mundi' very timely."

But how did both Nelson and J meet to create this series together? Nelson explains that after some less than pleasurable experiences in Hollywood ("I'm still interested in film, but comics also seemed like a less bullshit-and-ego driven medium" he says), he went to Paris and the ideas for "Rex Mundi" finally coalesced in his mind, leaving only one problem: a lack of an artist. "I had some very supportive friends who convinced me to go to the San Diego convention in '99," says Nelson. "I was actually worried I wouldn't meet any artists-I had never been to a convention before. Needless to say I met an overwhelming number of talented people, and I actually had a few story ideas bouncing around in my gray matter. But when I saw Eric's work I had a revelation. It was literally a mystical experience. I knew he'd be perfect for 'Rex Mundi' (which didn't even have a title back then). It wasn't just that he could draw super heroes, he could also draw fire engines, Arabic calligraphy in perspective, buildings... I knew Rex was going to require an especially gifted artist, and Eric was it. The first day back from the con I emailed him my idea, and he got back to me that same day. I really appreciated the fact that he was so prompt and so actively interested in the story. I knew I needed someone who'd help me shape the story and realize its potential. I needed a fellow revolutionary, not a mercenary. Eric is definitely the former, and it's been great partnering with him ever since. I also owe a lot to my friends Alex Waldman, Billy Kartalopolous, Matt Pasteris and Tait Bergstrom. They've been really supportive of me from the beginning and gave me the courage to forge ahead with Rex Mundi. If not for them I would never have met Eric. Billy's comic is at www.katydo.com and Tait and Matt's book is at www.mojomechanics.com."

This isn't just another case of two aspiring creators settling on an idea and grudgingly working on it in order to pay the bills: this is an idea that genuinely excites both J and Nelson. "Eric and I are both into history and archaeology," reveals Nelson. "I had the initial germ of the idea for 'Rex Mundi' because of my interest in the occult and in 'shadow' history. When I explained it all the Eric, he told me 'Rex Mundi' was right up his alley. He was so excited, it fueled my excitement… for some reason the themes behind the story titillate us both. When it comes down to it, 'Rex Mundi' just seemed like a good idea to Eric and I. It combines mystery, horror, magic, suspense and religion… it simply seems like a good mix of elements."

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While almost all the advance reviews of "Rex Mundi #0" have been phenomenal, a few people have noted that they sensed similarities between this comic and Crossgen's hit Victorian era mystery series "Ruse." Nelson doesn't worry about comparisons, mainly because he's never read "Ruse," but his partner in crime, Eric J, isn't content to be quiet on this particular point. "Let me first say this, 'Ruse' is a great book," says J. "But right off the bat, it's a different beast- it's an ongoing series and we're a series that has a planned beginning, middle and end. I love the series- everyone is doing a great job and Laura [De Puy, colorist on 'Ruse'] has been a big supporter of ours since before she went to Crossgen. Ours is a very distinct story and the fact that it does have an actual ending is something I really love. Mind you, we have ideas for a sequel, but we're toying with the concept of using periphery characters in the follow-up as opposed to the Julien or the other main cast. When I read 'Ruse,' I get more reminded of 'Brother Matthew' [the online 'Rex Mundi' companion] in that both have the more traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery elements while 'Rex Mundi' is more a hard-boiled, film-noir detective story. As far as any comparisons between the visuals of both series' leading men, I think that's the result of drawing from a universal leading man archetype more than anything else. But in the end, I don't think the stories are all that similar at all. I honestly think that the comparison is really only coming up because they're both period pieces with mysteries at the forefront of each series' plotting. The reason I really wanted to comment on this was that you have people like Larry Young or Warren Ellis saying how the comic book industry needs to diversify and make superheroes a facet of it's output, not the majority, but when you put out two books without super powers with very superficial similarities, people automatically compare the two. It seems like there isn't room within fandom for this diversity though you can walk into Barnes & Noble where you have rows upon rows of mystery books."

Speaking of the elusive and quite busy Eric J, it is his art on "Rex Mundi" that has drawn a lot of attention to the series and Nelson confidently reminds readers that what they are seeing is the reason why J is the perfect collaborator on "Rex." "Eric and I have an agreement that we're always going to err on the side of subtlety in 'Rex Mundi'," says Nelson of what readers should expect of the art. "While the occult is a very important part of the story, we don't want it to devolve into overproduced, vulgar shit. I think magic is more believable when it's understated, so we're going to keep the magical and fantastic elements of the story very subtle, in fact unnoticeable most of the time. We prefer to just hint at things and let the reader engage his or her mind. That's not to say there won't be some "over the top" scenes, but they will be few and far between. If 'Rex Mundi' were violently different from the world we know, it wouldn't be interesting."

As some online reviews have revealed, there is a two-page spread at the end of "Rex Mundi #0" that will surprise many readers and convince them that this is a serious comic; however, it is also quite a graphic scene and one that is sure to meet with some mixed reaction. "It never even occurred to me to worry if what I'm doing is tasteful, and I don't think Eric has ever brought it up," admits Nelson. "At the same time, we don't want 'Rex Mundi' to devolve into a gore-fest: that's not the point of the scene at the end of the book. Scenes like this serve to heighten the tension of the mystery. It lets the reader know exactly what sorts of people Julien and Genevieve are dealing with, and what kind of danger they are facing. The "extremely graphic" scenes will be few and far between, because mindless gore is really boring and it's really shitty storytelling. I guess for me that's the only thing that's distasteful about it. We want to maintain the visceral shock, not habituate our readers."

"I really respect Eric as a writer as well as an artist. He always provides me with useful insights and advice about characters and plot. In fact, Rex Mundi was a very nebulous idea before I met him. But the instant I saw his art, it opened up miles of pathways in my head. I just felt like there were no limits. He's directly contributed a lot to the story, and given me a lot of great ideas. I'd also like to think that I've contributed significantly to the visuals. Also I'm the writer and he's the artist, the boundary is somewhat permeable. If there's a secret strength to our relationship, that's it."

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Similarly, Eric J is very conscious about making sure that each panel of art serves a purpose and that violent scenes aren't gratuitous. "In regards to that two-page spread, it wasn't nearly as intense when Arvid initially wrote it," reveals J. "As I got to redrawing it, I agonized over it for a few days and Arvid even offered some advice, telling me to keep everything subtle, which I do think is true to an extent. I think a better way of explaining my approach to it- and the whole series really- is to 'punch up' parts that people might not expect. Instead of the big hero scene pose splash page, we'll have the double page splash at the end of the month like in issue #0."

Working on the "Rex Mundi" comic book isn't the only thing occupying these guys- they're also hard at work on the "Rex" website. "We spent the better part of a year on our Web site, and we owe most of it to our colorist emeritus Asa Taylor," discusses Nelson. "Eric and I did most of the conceptual work, and Asa coded and designed the entire thing. The site has gone through a lot of changes since it debuted, and now I think it's a really lean, mean piece of work. Most comic book websites are sort of glorified promotional pieces. There's nothing wrong with that, but we wanted rexmundi.net to be much more. I always love it when a science fiction book comes with a glossary of terms at the back, and that's more or less what rexmundi.net is. There is a lot of content on the site, including "'rother Matthew.' Rexmundi.net is a huge, free online compendium for our readers. There's a massive online glossary, in-depth explanations of the different aspects of the world, character biographies, sections for readers and fans to get directly involved… you could spend hours on the site. My web-designer friends would call it 'dynamic and content-rich.' Interested readers can check it out at http://www.rexmundi.net."

As both men have mentioned, "Rex Mundi" has a cousin in the online e-comic "Brother Matthew" and it has developed quite a fan following. "Eric initially had the idea for a 'Rex Mundi' comic strip, and we came up with the idea for 'Brother Matthew' together;" explains Nelson. "The plot of 'Brother Matthew' is episodic and only incidentally connected to the plot of 'Rex Mundi', so it will give Eric and I room to explore certain aspects of the world without detracting from the main thrust of the mystery of 'Rex Mundi.' 'Brother Matthew' is a stand-alone strip, but we're hoping people who like it will also find 'Rex Mundi' interesting. Other than that, there's no 'fine print'-we won't ever include a cliffhanger ending to an episode of 'Brother Matthew' in 'Rex Mundi,' and reader's won't need to pick up 'Rex Mundi' to know what's going on in 'Brother Matthew.'The main character of the series is Brother Matthew. He's a very young, bright Inquisitor, but he's also very naïve. 'Brother Matthew' started as a marketing concept for 'Rex Mundi,' but it's grown into something much more. It's definitely helped up get noticed, but even more than that, it's given Eric, Jeromy (the colorist) and I the chance to experiment and to figure out how we work best together as a team. We have all learned a lot about storytelling in the process. The first story arc is just one episode shy of completion. It's 38 episodes long, and we're all very proud of the work. In the realm of web-comics, I feel like it stands out as one of the best. It basically amounts to two comic book issues online totally for free, so it's really a labor of love for all of us. No strings attached! Interested readers can check it out at http://www.rexmundi.net/bm.html"

While the Internet was a good enough publishing venue for "Brother Matthew" (though Eric J still holds out hope of publishing a printed collection of the episodes), "Rex Mundi" was a project that Nelson and J needed to bring to print, with Image Comics seeming like the best place to do it. "At first, Eric and I were very gung-ho about self publishing," says Nelson. "But we've been slaving over 'Rex Mundi' for three years, and during that time a significant amount of cold water has been thrown on that ambition. It's just really, really tough doing it on your own. The comic shops are so flooded as it with independent titles, it's really scary. Every time I'd go into a store and see the rows and rows and rows of books, a knot would form in my stomach. How the hell do you stand yourself out? And it's very expensive. It's not impossible, but it is next-to impossible. So we had a number of reasons for going with Image. Basically, Image offers the best deal on the block. Image really respects the fact that 'Rex Mundi' is our story, and no one else's. They really give creators a sweetheart deal, and ask for very little return. It's like self-publishing without a good chunk of the problems that self-publishing entails. The bottom line is we get to put the 'Mighty I'[ the Image logo] on our book, which exponentially increases the likely hood of it being a hit. We also get the fabulous resources of the people at Image central, and they are giving us an enormous amount of support. All that, and we retain all the rights to 'Rex Mundi.' In the long run, how cold we say no? Who else offers that? Eric and I have been steeled to self-publish 'Rex Mundi' if necessary since the earliest days of our partnership, but being with Image is a tremendous source of support for us."

So if you're already sold on "Rex Mundi #0" or you think you might be skimming through the issue, Nelson leaves you with "The whole point of issue #0, from a narrative standpoint, is to set the tone, present plot overtures, and introduce some of the main characters. So, by the end of issue #0 it ought to be very clear to the reader about where the story is going. All the same, Rex Mundi is going to end up in a very different place from where it began, but the change isn't going to occur until much further down the line. We are very dedicated to putting it out on a regular basis, and we have some really knotty surprises for readers in the near and distant future!"

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