It's a good time to be king.
It seems that 2004 is the year for "Rex Mundi," the acclaimed Image Comics series from writer Arvid Nelson and artist/co-creator Eric J, with the release of the first trade paperback collection and an amped up monthly schedule for the series. CBR News has talked to the creators in the past, but with more "Mundi" available than ever before, CBR thought it'd be a good time to re-introduce readers to the complexities of the series.
"'Rex Mundi' is a quest for the Holy Grail told as a murder mystery set in an alternate-history Europe where magic is real and the Catholic Church never lost its grip on power," explains Nelson. "Although the external trappings of 'Rex Mundi' look like a 1930s Hollywood movie, social conditions are still medieval.
"The main character, Dr. Julien Saunière, investigates the theft of a medieval manuscript from a secret crypt beneath a Paris church. He stumbles onto a series of horrific ritual murders and an ancient secret society dating back to the First Crusade. This society claims to possess the Holy Grail, the most sacred object of Christianity. They are behind the killings, and they will strike again if Julien allows them to slip into the shadows…"
The big event for these creators is the release of the first "Rex Mundi" trade paperback, especially since just a few months ago the creators weren't sure if the collection would materialize. "It's an incredible feeling to have the trade out. I'm so glad that no one was around when I got my shipment because it could have been really embarrassing," smiles J. "It was seriously like Christmas in January, you know? And looking through it, seeing the cool things, like the title page, that Arvid had done, reading the forward that Joshua Dysart was kind enough to write for the book, seeing the quotes on the back, feeling the weight of it, and seeing how cool, and just a little different everything looked collected up, man, what a cool feeling. I've already got a ton of plans for things that I'd like to see in the next one and Arvid and I have already talked about some really cool things that we're going to do. But this one, I couldn't be prouder of our first effort, and I really do think that even people that have been picking up the singles all along are going to be tempted, at least, to go ahead and pick up a copy of the trade. In terms of extras, a lot of things conspired against is to get everything that we'd hoped would in. I got sick, we were trying to get the monthly book on schedule, just a lot of stuff, but everything that's in the monthlies is in there and I think it's been noted in more than a few places that we put in a ton of extra content as a rule, so for people that already have the monthlies they're really only going to be stoked on the fact that the book is collected in a nice volume, For new readers there is enough there to keep them busy for a good little bit.
"As far as it's effect on sales is concerned, we've seen and heard a lot of people saying that they're waiting for the trade, and I have a lot of confidence that they not only will pick up the book, but when they do they're just going to be totally sucked in to the story. I anticipate a lot of them translating into monthly readers. I mean, the things, especially in this second chapter that we're working on just beg for that instant gratification that you can't get waiting months and months for trades, you know? I'm really excited to see how it goes over because I think it's going to be big."
If you are a regular reader of the series, fear not: there are even more "Mundi" bonuses in the collection. "There are a lot of extras," gushes Nelson. "We put a huge amount of effort into the single issues, and the trade is where it all pays off. We'll have a back cover gallery, all of the "newspaper" articles at the back of every issue, and a back cover gallery. Plus the map of Rex Mundi: Europe. And we purposely kept the price down to attract new readers; it's only $15. I think that's pretty hard to beat!
"The only thing I have to say [to those waiting for the trade] is 'wait no longer!' We were very concerned the trade paperback wouldn't materialize because people were waiting for it. I know that's counter-intuitive, but publishers make decisions on trades based on single-issue sales. Rex Mundi isn't Inspector Gadget or Scooby Doo. It ends up in a different place at the end of every episode. For two chaps like us, without established names or licensed characters, that can make single-issue sales a very difficult proposition.
"But all's well. Our single-issue sales have carried us to this point. We are very thankful to everyone who's thinking of buying the trade paperback-and we are especially grateful to the readers who bought the single issues!"
While both creators are ecstatic at the order and re-order numbers for the TPB, J warns that with smaller titles such as "Rex Mundi," if you want the series to stick around, you have to buy the monthly issues. "It's dangerous for smaller books just because it takes away from the health of that book in terms of sales. I mean, if you hear about a book that you really might enjoy, that you feel you're going to enjoy enough to publicly state it (I mean, if you had a passing interest would you even say anything about it?), why would you then wait for a trade that may or may not be coming? I can understand it for the big two because they're sort of trade happy in a lot of ways. I mean, you miss an issue of a Marvel book why bother trying to track it down? Marvel's going to release a trade next week anyway, right? And those publishers can do that because the numbers for the singles don't really put the books in jeapordy, at least not in most cases. The example that's used by proponents of the 'wait for the trade' mentality are the Vertigo books that are in many cases supported by the trades, but even those books numbers are in or above the 20,000 range for the singles. For a publisher like Image, though, that's not trade happy, at least not like the big two, and that has such a very different business model that formula just doesn't work. It breaks down on a number of levels. The model of the B&W publishers like Oni and our friends over at AiT/Planet Lar also doesn't work when you factor in the color aspect. So it's a tricky thing, and I don't begrudge anyone anything, you know? I've done the same thing, I've been guilty of waiting for trades on books that I'm confident will get one, and I know how hard I work for my money and I won't be told by anyone how to spend it, and I don't expect anyone else to either. The only thing that you can do when you come across people that are adamantly waiting on a trade is make the case, you know? Just like they have the right to do what they like with their hard earned money, I feel like I have a right, and maybe even an obligation to my partners, our readers, and myself to try and explain the situation in clear terms. Honestly, now that our first trade has come out, though, I fully expect that Vertigo sort of dynamic to occur. I'm really excited about that."
Buying "Rex Mundi" every month isn't such a bad investment according to both fans and critics- the series has garnered a lot of buzz due to the fact that J and Nelson cram each issue full of lots of story. "It's not my nature to pad a story with brazen exposition or unnecessary panels," says Nelson. "I try to make every panel count; every panel should heighten tension and drama, it should have some purpose beyond filling up space. I think this is actually going to make the trade much, much stronger."
"It's definitely something that Arvid and I talk about," continues artist Eric J. "I think the pacing is part of the charm of the book, and, while we've heard some comments about it moving slowly I think it's much more literary than your average comic. It ends up reading much more like a novel than anything else in my opinion. Arvid says that he's writing it in the model of a screenplay, but it feels much, much more like a novel to me, and I think that's a tremendous credit to Arvid as a writer."
In an earlier interview with CBR, Nelson said he felt the series would hit its stride after the first story arc and open up a bigger mystery than expected- let's hope you haven't missed it. "It is starting to happen, and people have been overwhelmingly positive on last few issues," beams Nelson. "'Rex Mundi' will be told as a series of unfolding revelations, and I'm going to keep readers guessing until the very last issue. Even beyond the last issue. Every mystery begets another mystery.
"A major change in tone will take place at the end of the third story arc, when we're exactly half-way through the story. I won't reveal too much about the specifics, but the tone will change from a detective story to a two-fisted archaeological adventure in the tradition of 1930s pulp-novels. As we get closer to that turning point, I get more and more excited!"
The art style of relative newcomer Eric J has been growing since "Rex Mundi #0" and with issue #3, fans noticed that J was boldly going where he hadn't gone before. "Dude, lack of time," laughs J when asked why his art looks different. "Seriously, that's one of the things, but it's also got to be the constant work. Everyday I learn something new, a new trick to enable me to do what I want within the timeframe I'm allotted. I'm also never satisfied with my work. A page that I'm really proud of when I finish will be the worst thing I've ever drawn in a week, you know, so I'm always trying to improve. I'm even going to be going back to school here pretty soon because there's just always something new to learn. I want to push my art in new directions and give myself the tools to make my art as good as it possibly can be. Right now, and a lot of people may disagree with me, I feel like I'm sort of straddling the fence between being an artist and an illustrator. There's nothing wrong with being an illustrator, but I really want to push myself further into the art side.
"As far as describing my work, man, that's tough. It's sort of traditional, but hopefully with a little distinctiveness. I'm definitely influenced by guys like Jim Lee, Neil Adams, Alex Toth, etc., but I don't want my stuff to ever be a rehash of what's gone before. I mean, it's probably naïve, but I hope my work is fresh, and I hope that I can keep my passion for the work so that it will stay fresh."
Arvid Nelson has a lot to say about Eric J's art, but sums it up succinctly, saying, "I actually never give any thought how 'hard' or 'easy' an issue will be for Eric; he can meet any challenge. I've known this since I first saw his portfolio four years ago. I try to write two or three 'wow' pages per issue that I know will take a lot of time to draw, but when they're done we realize we're doing something special. I know that's immodest, but that's just how I feel, and it's probably the main thing that keeps me energized. I think people are going to be blown away by Issue Nine. It's our best yet."
No matter how much acclaim the duo receive- or the line up of adoring fans at each convention they visit- Nelson and J seem to be hitting the comic book industry's glass ceiling wherein non super hero comics can't achieve those high sales figures. "A glass ceiling… or a steel cage?" asks Nelson. "Eric and I actually relieved we're not losing huge amounts of readers every month. In an odd way, the fact that Issue Zero sold out of two printings might have hurt us. As I mentioned, narrative continuity is very tight in 'Rex Mundi.' And our Issue Zero was really an Issue One, because all the information therein is critical to understanding what follows. True, we have Issue Zero for free on our Web site, but it's just not the same as availability in print.
"But it's not a problem anymore, now that the trade is out!
"Who knows what our sales numbers mean? Maybe they'll never get better, but maybe sales of the trade paperback will be really good. Maybe they'll go up now that the trade paperback is coming out, or maybe they'll go down as more and more people wait for the trade. We've never done this before, so we just don't know what to expect. But we do know 'Rex Mundi' is a great story, one of the best out there today, and we know it's going to become profitable for us in the long term. We have a lot of faith and a lot of dedication. For right now, that seems like the most important thing."
J has a similar line of thinking, but also is willing to take some "blame" for not raising more awareness of the series. "More than anything I think it just means that we've been too busy to get out and talk the book up ourselves as much as we'd like. When we started we were everywhere telling people about the book, but now we, and me in particular, just don't have that kind of time anymore. But we're working on it. Everyday it seems like we settle in a little bit better. I keep saying it, but it's all a learning experience, and the more we learn about how to manage our time and get faster at what we're doing the more time we'll have to do that kind of thing. Still, everyday it seems that there's a new person on this board or that, that's taken up the cause of getting the word out, which is really, really cool."
Neither creator is worried about the future of "Rex Mundi" and as J says, the important thing is getting it done well every month. "We've talked about a number of things, but ultimately right now it's just about getting the books out. I think in the next couple of months, as we get more comfortable with the monthly schedule we'll have some really cool things to start dropping on our readers. The idea of a companion book with us working with other writers and artists has been planted in our minds, and, while it's not at all feasible right now, I think that's something Arvid and I would be interested in looking at if we get the time and funds, and if Image is down with it. I think both Arvid and I are just chomping at the bit to get enough time to start 'Brother Matthew' back up as soon as possible, so we'll see if we can't get that going sometime in the not too distant future, but the main thing is getting 'Rex' onto a stable, predictable schedule and ensuring that it stays there. Everything else is secondary to that at this point."
So you want some teasers?
"Just you wait and see," says Nelson.