Rafer Roberts bites into humor, horror with 'Nightmare the Rat'

If you've ever had a recurring nightmare where your teeth fall out, you're not alone. Rafer Roberts, creator of Plastic Farm, also has that same dream -- and channeled it into the creation of the mischievous, tooth-stealing scamp, Nightmare the Rat.

While Nightmare the Rat, a somewhat-twisted homage to 1900s comic strips, has appeared in Magic Bullet and online, Roberts is looking to collect all the strips into one newspaper-sized collection. His Kickstarter for the project went live Tuesday and is already nearly halfway to its modest $999 goal. Rewards include the collection itself, commissions, original artwork and custom postcards from Nightmare himself.

I spoke with Roberts about the project, using Kickstarter and that recurring nightmare ...

ROBOT 6: Where did the concept for Nightmare the Rat come from?

Rafer Roberts: It was Christmas Eve, back in 2009 or so, and I was drinking and watching old, terrible Christmas movies. I came across the Laurel and Hardy Babes in Toyland, which takes place in a town populated by nursery-rhyme characters, all done in this early-1930s style of unintentional creepiness. There was this thing that was probably meant to be a cute mouse character, but was really like a drunk monkey in a cartoon rat costume. I started drawing the thing in my sketchbooks, evolving the design a bit. A few months later I was asked to submit a comic for an online literary magazine, so I pulled this little monster from my sketchbooks and drew "Teeth." It wasn't until a few months after that when the DC Conspiracy decided to put out our own comics newspaper when I gave him a name, Nightmare the Rat.

Since the Magic Bullet newspaper was designed around full tabloid-sized comics, I looked to the Golden Age of comic strips for inspiration (Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, mostly), and the Nightmare the Rat comic took full form.

What kinds of reactions have you gotten to the strip? My wife has this recurring nightmare in which all her teeth fall out, so I know there's no way I could show this to her -- but that was also the first thing that came to mind when I read the strip. So you've seemed to have tapped into something pretty disturbing here.

I think that's a pretty common recurring dream, and one that I share. I'm sure that the "teeth falling out" fear played a part when, after coming up with Nightmare's design, I had to figure out what his name was and what it was that he actually did. The teeth-pulling came first, which led me to think of my recurring nightmares which, of course, led to his naming.

Reaction has been largely positive. The most common thing people tell me is that Nightmare the Rat creeps them out while making them laugh. One friend described the comic as the most unfiltered look inside my brain that I've ever drawn, which is probably pretty true. I have another friend who got a large tattoo of Nightmare on his arm, which is a huge honor. But I think that most people have some level of teeth-related fear, so the Nightmare the Rat comic is going to tickle that little fear center of the brain, but it's also designed to be funny which makes it easier for people to face that fear.

Nightmare the Rat started out in print (in Magic Bullet), and then moved to the web. What made you decide to start posting them online?

The full tabloid-sized comics were always meant for comics newspapers like Magic Bullet and, in my opinion, read better in print. Magic Bullet only comes out twice a year, though, and I really wanted to be able to put out a new Nightmare the Rat more often than that. I tried getting Nightmare into more comics newspapers, but there aren't very many of those and my timing seemed to be pretty awful. Either the newspaper I submitted to changed formats, was already full up, only wanted local cartoonists or just stopped publishing altogether. So, the move to the web was done in order to get around the fact that there really weren't that many places for a full-page comic strip.

Going to the web also allowed me to play with format. Since up until that point Nightmare the Rat followed a full-page "Sunday comics" format, I wondered what the single-tiered "daily comic" format would look like. I once again looked back at classic daily strips like Buck Rogers and Terry and the Pirates, and came up with a long-form story that follows the tone and pacing of early 20th century adventure comics, but with the same Nightmare the Rat flavor.

This is your fourth Kickstarter, as you previously ran campaigns for Plastic Farm and two issues of Magic Bullet. Now that you have a few under your belt, is your approach this time around any different?

Well, I'm definitely going in with my eyes much more wide open. I've timed the campaign to be running during both Baltimore Comic Con and SPX, in order for me to promote the Kickstarter in person. I'm also pushing harder on some "pre-campaign" promotion than I did with the previous campaigns, which having most of the comics online helps with.

I'm also mostly on my own with this campaign. The Magic Bullet Kickstarters were group projects, and the Plastic Farm one had the benefit of other artists being involved, so those had a built in group of people who had it in their best interests to help promote the projects. With Nightmare the Rat, other than a small handful of folks I've recruited for pinups, I'm the only person involved in this project. I'm going to be much more dependent on Nightmare's readers and fanbase to help spread the word and promote this campaign. I'm very confident that they'll come out.

You said on the project's Kickstarter page that this is the "simplest" of the four Kickstarters you've run. How so?

The comics are all drawn, and the only thing I have left to do is gather the pinups and send the files (and money) to the printer. I've also tried to keep the rewards fairly streamlined. We've got the newspaper collection itself, personalized postcards and three different prints. All of those are pretty simple, and no matter what combination of rewards someone chooses, it will all fit inside the same size envelope. Even with the upper level rewards, the commissions and original artwork, I've got a pretty good system in place for drawing and shipping. I tried to avoid rewards such as T-shirts (sorry) that would affect the amount of money I would need to raise as well as bottle-neck shipping stuff out.

I might still add on T-shirts as an unlockable stretch reward if enough people ask me for them.

Tell me about these teeth I got in the mail. (Fake teeth, in case any of our readers were wondering.)

I wanted to do more than just press releases and promotional postcards, so I started thinking about other things I could do to help promote the campaign. In the comic, Nightmare carries his stolen teeth around in a sack, and I set out to make little replica sacks to hand out to folks. I hand drew a crude tooth outline on each of the 200 little bags and filled them each with some bulk candy teeth. I mailed a few bags out to some folks, but the majority of them will be handed out to people at Baltimore Comic Con and SPX.

Besides Nightmare the Rat, what else have you been working on lately?

I've been drawing short backup comics with writer Justin Jordan for Valiant, two of which have appeared already in the 25th issues of X-O Manowar and Harbinger. We've got another in Archer and Armstrong #25, which will be out very soon, and we're working on one for Bloodshot #25. I'm still working on Plastic Farm, though not as much as I should be, and I've got a handful of potential pitches with a handful of other artists and writers in various stages of completion.

I'm pretty much eating, sleeping and breathing comics. Comics dominates my every waking thought, and is most of what I dream about.

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