Prior to 2006, Alex Sheikman's career in comics consisted of a few short stories in various outlets, as his full time gig at NASA as an instrumentation engineer specializing in wind tunnels quite naturally takes up a lot of time.
Sheikman finally burst onto the scene with Robotika, a four-issue miniseries from Archaia Studios Press. A visual hybrid of Mad Max and Metropolis, Robotika told the story of Niko the Steampunk Samurai, who moved through a futuristic landscape on a quest to retrieve an important scientific artifact. Along the way, Niko encountered characters like Bronski and Cherokee Geisha, two yojimbos, each with their own purpose.
Sheikman is following that first volume with Robotika: For a Few Rubles More, the first issue of which is on sale now. This time, Sheikman's joined by writer David Moran in his first comics outing. CBR News talked with Sheikman and Moran about Robotika and what readers can expect time out.
Alex, you wrote and illustrated the first series, but with the second you have a co-writer in David Moran. Why bring someone else in to help write the sequel?
SHEIKMAN: I have always considered myself primarily an illustrator/artist. I do have certain ideas about how I like to pace stories or even certain themes that I like to dwell on, but I am not a writer in a true sense. In other words, when I have free time I sit down to draw. It might be just sketching or concept design, but it is not writing. I think in images following each other and not in words.
As I was finishing up the first series I started realizing just how much a writer, someone who deals with words flowing across a page, could bring to Robotika.
I also believe that comics have a great tradition of collaboration between writers and artists (and inkers, colorists, letterers) and I wanted to be able to brainstorm with someone who can contribute their strengths to the overall book.
How did you and David meet and what made you think he was the right guy for the job?
SHEIKMAN: Originally, David did a review of the first Robotika issue and someone pointed me to it. I read his review and was very much taken at the care he took in reading the book and examining all the themes that I tried to incorporate into the story. I wrote to thank him for the attention that he gave to the book and we started exchanging e-mails once in a while.
During our exchange I started realizing that David had a very strong sense of visual storytelling and how that ties into producing something like a comic book or a film. That is a very special sensibility and as we continued to talk I discovered that David enjoyed many of the same movies that has inspired me in my creation of Robotika.
When I started gearing up for the second series, I asked David if he would be interested in trying his hand at writing a short Robotika story to be included as a back-up in the mini. David wrote Seek, a six-page story that shone some extra light on Bronski, the Cossack gunslinger, one of the main characters from Robotika. I thought it was a great script, but in order to make it fit perfectly into the world of Robotika, I felt it need one or two tweaks. And David was so easy to talk to and to work with. We bounced ideas back and forth until we found a perfect sweet spot for that story.
I had such a great time working with David on that story, I asked him if he would be willing to help me on the rest of the series. To my great satisfaction, David agreed and the series is much richer for it.
By the way, Seek, our first collaboration, will be printed as a back-up story with pencils and inks by me in issue #1.
David, what was the appeal of coming into a project like this?
MORAN: I guess, at first, it was the challenge of trying to write a comic book (or co-write or collaborate or whatever), as at that point I'd tried my hand at just about every other type or form of writing other than comics (I can write a mean haiku!). So, at the very least, I figured it would make for an interesting conversation starter on my resume.
But, taking this question from another angle, I was first and foremost a fan of the original Robotika mini. And I think we all kind of play Author on books or comics that we read or movies or TV shows that we watch. Meaning: Well, if I wrote this book, or I directed that movie, here's what I'd of done here. So I guess there was also that appeal to the project as well, sort of getting a chance to -- and Alex very graciously letting me -- play in his sandbox with his toys. So far, I haven't broken anything yet.
Oh yes, and my one act of Premodonnaism, I guess: if we couldn't find a spot for a monkey somewhere within the series, then I wasn't going to be involved with the project. As you're interviewing me about my involvement with the new series, that means we worked the monkey in.
From the experience of the first series, what have you done differently (besides get a writer) in terms of how you're thinking about or approaching the new series?
SHEIKMAN: Robotika was my first real series. I have done comic book stories before, but never a four-issue run. I believe I learned a lot - not only the mechanics of getting something down and done on paper but also the thinking process that goes into creating a story.
When I was doing the first series, I was so focused on the first storyline that I did not have the time to consider all the different options of what the story could develop into. Now that I had a bit more time to daydream, I see this second mini as a piece of a greater story that I would love to explore. I think that can make it a richer experience for the reader because I can now start planting a lot of devices that will have greater significance in the future.
David, as someone who experienced the first series purely as a reader, you're approaching the second series from a different angle. What are the elements you think are essential to the book and what do you think didn't work?
MORAN: Right away, Alex acknowledged that there were some things about the first Robotika mini he himself felt were lacking or just plain didn't work. He said, mainly, that he was concerned with telling a good story, both visually and on the page. Which was pretty much my main criteria for working on the book as well (well, other than the monkey).
When we first started, we talked a lot about the themes and characters, what would and wouldn't feel right for the tone and world of the book (I've always felt that Alex's highly imaginative, downright wonky environment can be said to be a character in the series in its own right), and what each character would and wouldn't do. Surprisingly, we both seemed to be on the same page (so I guess I really did like the first series).
But there were a few things that Alex said he wanted tweaked/changed or further fleshed out about some of the characters. Since I can't draw, I figured that that was the one thing that I could contribute to the series: character, character, character!
Alex, what has your relationship with your publisher Archaia been like? You spoke a lot about how Mark Smylie really helped you shape your idea from a one shot idea into the first miniseries.
SHEIKMAN: I find working for Archaia to be a joy. Mark and Aki have always been very supportive of my efforts and they have created an environment for me to go out and do the best book I can. Archaia has the best production values I could hope for, and I consider myself to be very fortunate to have landed under their banner.
There is also a sense of community between all the creators at Archaia, and everyone is just so nice. I really enjoy conventions when I get to chat with everyone.
In your blog and elsewhere you've spoken a lot about how the biggest challenge for you as a creator is the storytelling aspect of comics (as opposed to the quality of your art, which no one has complained about). Has having a co-writer made that aspect of it easier or harder?
SHEIKMAN: Now that David is on board, I don't spend days and nights trying to double guess myself at dialogue and if it is consistent through out the books for every character. Or how to craft the interactions between characters to propel the story further as well as develop them as individuals. I feel that is now in good hands. I can now focus on drawing the books and specifically on the two aspects that I find most challenging: image making and storytelling.
Image making is everything from composition of each individual panel to my ability to draw believable anatomy and real buildings (as well as far out sci-fi contraptions and monsters). It is about rendering and the balance of black and white. I constantly keep finding things that I do not know how to draw and I keep discovering techniques that I have never seen before. This is tough because I could spend weeks drawing one panel just trying to make it perfect, but that would not help the books being done on any sort of consistent schedule. So I need to learn when to let go and move on to the next image, hoping that with every drawing I get a little bit better and closer to my ideal.
Storytelling is how I can direct the reader from panel to panel, from page to page, to make the story flow through the whole book. This ties back into image making because the composition of every panel has to tie into the larger composition of the whole page.
I have some different ideas about how to tell stories in the comic book medium, but one of the things that I learned from the first mini-series is that as a storyteller I have to strike the right balance between experimental and solid storytelling in order to fully engage the reader.
That balance, just as the balance of when the drawing is good enough, is hard to come by and I try to work hard at it every time I sit down behind the drawing table.
Finally, David, I know you've written about comics before -- including for CBR -- but this is your first scripting gig. Talk about that a bit.
MORAN: Robotika: For A Few Rubbles More will be the first comic that I've scripted to see print. I actually had so much fun working with Alex on the book, that I began coming up with all these crazy ideas for my own comic book series--many of which are sitting in a drawer at the moment waiting for the right artist to come along (and, yes, some of them may involve monkeys).
If there's one thing I've learned from working in indie comics so far (and, admittedly, my experience is limited to say the least), it's that you have to be patient, and wait for schedules to clear up, and be patient, and be patient, and that you shouldn't expect to get paid -- but that sometimes, just sometimes, an exquisitely drawn monkey can be its own type of reward.
Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.