Sheikman talks "Robotika" & Gives Us "A Few Rubles More"

Comics creator Alex Sheikman came to America from Moscow, Russia, of the former Soviet Union. He currently resides with his wife and child in San Jose, California, where he continues his longtime passion of illustrating. Through the auspices of Archaia Studios Press, Sheikman presented "Robotika," a personal science fiction work that, with the first volume of the series finally collected, has begun to generate much acclaim from many quarters.

Sheikman arrived on the comic book scene a long time ago, penciling and inking a short Stingray story in "Marvel Comics Presents" #173; a Caliber Press work "Night Life;" and a few other projects elsewhere before retreating back into role-playing game illustrations for a decade and a half.

In "Robotika" Vol. 1, Sheikman definitely announced he was here to stay. He describes the work as a "Wasabi Steampunk Western." In The project is characterized by forward thinking, featuring concepts like organic batteries, new forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI), cyborgs robot rights, and more. The characters find themselves roaming like samurai or ronin through a neo-Western landscape, battling over what amounts to be questions of slavery and personal worth. The story marries genres and imagery to form an introduction to a world readers will enter this December in volume 2 of the series, "Robotika: For A Few Rubles More."

CBR News sat down with Alex Sheikman to learn more about his increasingly popular project, and to find out what readers can expect next.

"Robotika" Vol. 2 comes out soon, can you tell us what remains the same as far as setting and characters and what is different?

Niko, Cherokee Geisha, and Bronski come back in the new series. In fact, the new series picks up right after [the first volume], with the Three Yojimbos traveling on to compete in a sword contest. However, on their way there, they stop over in a little town that is being torn between two warring gangs of drug dealers. That is when the trouble starts.

What might be different between the two series is that the first time around I took Niko far and wide traveling the world of Robotika. In the process the readers got to see little bits of Robotika world, without much explanation of what they were seeing. This time around the first three issues take place in one little town and the environment for that setting is much more fully explored and explained.

Many reviews suggested the art of "Robotika" volume one was superior to much out there in the world of comics, but some had issues with the writing.  Is that why on volume two you have brought in a co-writer, first-time comics writer David Moran?

I don't consider myself to be much of a writer. I love to draw and I love to design things, but when it comes to storytelling, I think in pictures and images moving across space rather than words.

As I was doing the first series, I realized how much richer the series could have been if I could be working with someone whose strengths were different than mine. I also felt that even though I could talk to my editor, Barbara, about the storyline, her focus was more on the overall quality of the product, and I needed a brainstorming collaborator constructing the story.

Fortunately I was able to connect with David who not only brings his strength as a writer to the table, but who also has a great ability of visualizing action as it flows across the pages. He is also a great collaborator because he always stays open minded about everything and he is always willing to look at things from different perspectives.

What sets your work apart from the rest of the world of comics is not so much the art in terms of straight drawing, but your storytelling. How do you tell a story differently with words versus pictures?

I love to design pages, to direct the reader's eye from panel to panel and across the book. I think the hardest thing for me to do is to integrate nice design with solid storytelling. In other words, it is possible to draw pretty pages that are unreadable, and my struggle is to try to utilize my design ideas while at the same time constructing pages that are real comic book pages that show action and character development.

I don't think this is a unique situation, I believe all artists go through this, and to be honest I enjoy the challenge.

As far as my process goes, I always start out with a bunch of sketches, doodles really, of the possible ways of showing a scene. Once I get the variation I like, I make tighter layouts and then I see if they make sense and if they are dramatic enough. Most of the time, I have to re-draw things a few times at this stage. Once I finish with that, I move on to full pencils and inks and after all that is completed, the dialogue gets finalized.

I should mention here that penciling and inking a page takes me a long time, 6-8 hours. So while I am drawing it, I go over and over what the folks on the page are saying and how they are saying it. After 8 hours I have a pretty good idea of how to script it.

Now, with David being involved I mainly focus on drawing and don't stress about what the dialogue is going to be.

How do you feel storytelling work has progressed since volume 1?

As I mentioned above, I am continuing to work on incorporating design and experimental storytelling into my work. I think that after finishing the 100 pages of the first [volume], I have a better understanding of what I am trying to achieve.

To be honest, it seems that every 10-15 pages I learn something new that I try to incorporate in the next batch of pages. One thing that has seen constant steady progress is my approach to putting pages together. The process of figuring out how and where to get reference, putting all the need material together and getting the pages penciled...even though folks don't think much about it, but that is a huge part of the time for me when I am drawing. And I am very happy that I am growing more and more comfortable with the mechanics of that.

You describe "Robotika" as a Wasabi Steampunk Western, what movies or popular works influenced the whole of what you are trying to do with the series?

Everything. I believe that all of my experiences, in one way or another, have contributed to my artwork. I enjoy watching movies and reading all sorts of things. So there are all these little bits and pieces of pop culture floating in my head that eventually find their way down on paper.

The one thing that I have been getting into lately has been Japanese anime. I was not really aware of it too much until my son picked up "Howl's Moving Castle" at the library. Since than I watched a bunch of different movies and I am starting to develop a healthy respect for that medium. I am sure that will also find its way into my work (if it has not already).

One particular aspect of your writing and storytelling that drew ire from reviewers was that you used vertical dialogue to impart a feeling of oddness or difference. Do you plan to continue this, or if not, do you have ideas how to achieve a similar level of disconnection visually?

Cherokee Geisha was the character that spoke vertically in the first series. In the second series, she won't be doing that but I still want to experiment with her speech pattern because I find the connection between that and comics, which is primarily a visual medium, fascinating. I am working on a few ideas that will surface before the end of "For A Few Rubles More."

What's your long-term plan, creatively? Do you plan to work on "Robotika" long into the future, or do you already have other creative works in planning stages?  Do you get so involved in one thing at a time that you are unable to think otherwise creatively until project A is done?

I can't help but scribble different ideas as they enter my head. I am always designing characters or creating scenes that have nothing to do with "Robotika," but my primary focus is on "Robotika."

Right now I am finishing up "For A Few Rubles More" and my hope is to do one more "Robotika" installment with ASP to bring the storyline to a satisfying conclusion.

How do you relax when not writing or drawing?

Actually, drawing is my "relax time." I work fulltime, and my wife and I have a young child and we live in an old house that always needs something done to it. Drawing seems to be taking more and more of my free time and I need to stay aware of that so I don't neglect the relationships in my life.

How does where you live inform your work, first in general then specifically to living in California?

I guess there are direct and indirect influences. As I go out and sketch trees and buildings, the shapes eventually make it into the comic book pages, so I guess there must be a western feel to the pages, which is actually very fitting.

It also seems to me that California is a hot bed of crossing cultures. There are first generation immigrants here from just about every corner of the world. So I think I get exposed to lots of different cultures and indirectly that must influence the look of the book.

Are there any "new" artists whose work you would hold up as being worth far more attention?

There are so many excellent artists doing comics right now that it is amazing. Leif Jones collaborated with David Mack on an issue of "Se7en" from Zenescope Entertainment that just blew me away (Leif did not just draw it, he colored and lettered it!). Brian Churilla, David Petersen, Muhmud Asar are all doing fantastic work. Just recently, Jason Copland shared some of his pages from the new book that he is working on and I was very impressed with the quality of the work.

And I am just mentioning a few names. There are lots of very talented artists and writers doing some very innovative work in comics. The trouble is that the audience appears to be shrinking almost proportional to the increase in books being solicited every month. I don't quite understand that, but I do realize that it is becoming harder and harder to highlight new series and new creators.

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