Talking Comics with Tim: Chris Roberson

This Wednesday, February 3, will see the release of the fourth installment in the six-issue Vertigo miniseries, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love by (writer) Chris Roberson and (artist) Shawn McManus. Recently, I was fortunate enough to email interview Roberson about Cinderella, as well as his upcoming ongoing Vertigo series with artist Mike Allred--I, Zombie.

Tim O'Shea: Looking at the historical flashbacks that open issues 2 and 3 of Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, I'm curious are you a fan of history? Which of the historical flashbacks you have built into the story reflects your favorite historical era?

Chris Roberson: History is one of my passions (alongside cartoons, puppets, superheroes, quantum physics, etc). I minored in history in college, and taught middle school history for a couple of years before I’d paid off the karmic debt left over from being a smartass when I was in school. In the eighteen years or so it took me to break into comics, I built a career as a writer of science fiction and fantasy prose, and a good percentage of my short stories and novels have played around with history in one way or another—alternate histories, period pieces, you name it.

As for which of the flashbacks in Cinderella reflects my personal favorite era, I’d probably have to punk out and say “All of them.” I’m a fan of stories set in each of those time periods, and getting to work all of them into Cindy’s backstory was like being a kid in a candy store.

O'Shea: When you signed on to do this miniseries, was Shawn McManus already part of the project or was that an added bonus later in the development process?

Roberson: If I recall correctly, Shawn wasn’t yet attached to the project when Bill Willingham and Shelly Bond first handed me that particular brass ring, but his name was mentioned very soon after. I have been a huge fan of Shawn’s work for years, back to the days of “Pog” in Swamp Thing (though my personal favorite of his work is his run on Omega Men—or rather, it was until the truly stunning work he’s been doing on Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love took the top spot!). Having the chance to work with Shawn, and see my meager words brought to life with his line work, has truly been a dream come true.

O'Shea: Given the complex and unique nature of the Fables universe, were you hesitant at all to delve into a world built for the most part by Bill Willingham?

Roberson: I wasn’t at first, but I probably should have been. I was a fan of Fables before there was a Fables, as I was lucky enough to be in Bill’s circle of friends when the comic was first coming together, and he shared bits of scripts and early pencils with us before the book launched. When Bill called and asked if I was interested in doing a Cinderella miniseries, it was the perfect excuse to sit down and reread the whole series from beginning to end.

It was only after rereading the entire series that Matt Sturges pointed out to me that my contributions to the Fables universe (my fill-in issue of Jack of Fables and the Cinderella miniseries) would be the first Fables comics not to have Bill’s name on it as either writer or co-writer. And that’s when the pressure kicked in!

O'Shea: How hard was it to construct a Cinderella character with such a modern and powerful tinge to her?

Roberson: You’ll have to ask Bill! Everything I’ve done with Cindy in the course of the miniseries has built directly on what he did with her in the pages of Fables proper. I read and reread those issues over and over, just to get the rhythms of the voice he’d given her in my head, and then picked up the ball and ran.

O'Shea: What's the biggest challenge to writing dialogue for talking animals and it is made harder when they are interacting with humans versus animals talking amongst themselves?

Roberson: The hardest part is remembering whether or not they have lips. It’s tricking for the lipless creatures to make all of the “m” sounds.

No, only kidding. When writing the talking animal sidekicks, I just treated them like people who just happened to be the size and shape of animals. Well, I made the cat lazy and fastidious, but that’s only fitting.

O'Shea: Who are your favorite spy/adventure authors and would you say any of them helped to form your tone in this miniseries?

Roberson: I’ve read loads of spy novels, but the tone of the Cinderella miniseries is probably more influenced by spy movies. Spy novelists so often try to inject some degree of verisimilitude into their stories, and that’s not really what we were going for with Cinderella. I doubt very seriously, for example, that real spies ever end up in death traps, or that arms dealers spend a lot of time monologuing.

My absolute favorite spy novel of recent years, though, isn’t being marketed as a spy story, I believe, but as steampunk science fiction. The novel is a story of 19th Century derring-do and high-tech gear (well, high-tech for the 19th Century) called Not Less Than Gods, by the science fiction novelist Kage Baker, my favorite living novelist. (Sadly Ms. Baker has taken ill, so this may be the last novel we get from her. [Unfortunately, Baker died on January 31, as noted here]) The trade edition is out in March from Tor, and everyone who doesn’t hate goodness owes it to themselves to pick it up.

O'Shea: It's currently a miniseries, but if the opportunity presented itself would you be open to writing an ongoing?

Roberson: Are you kidding? Of COURSE! Writing comics is the most fun a kid can have, and getting to write the adventures of the world’s greatest super-spy, who just happens to be the immortal heroine of a beloved fairy tale? Even better!

O'Shea: Who of the supporting cast do you most enjoy writing?

Roberson: Probably Puss-in-Boots, though I really like Aladdin, too.

O'Shea: In addition to your comics writing, you're a successful prose novelist. How hard is it to shift gears from writing a prose novel versus writing for comics or vice versa?

Roberson: Well, with comics the vast majority of the hard work is being carried on the talented shoulders of the artist, who has to actually draw all of this stuff. The writer just has to suggest what it might look like and write a few captions and bits of dialogue. The biggest sin that many novelists make when writing comics is that they think they have to write everything, and you get pages that are just awash in these huge blocks of text. Let the artists do their job, folks, and get out of their way.

It’s actually harder going back to writing prose, since suddenly then the writer is responsible for everything that the reader sees. You have to actually describe all of this stuff.

O'Shea: Is it too early to discuss yours and Mike Allred's upcoming collaboration, I, Zombie?

Roberson: Not too early at all! The first issue is going to be solicited any day now for a May release, and Mike is finishing the inks on issue 3 this week as I finish the first draft of the script for issue 6.

I, Zombie is the story of Gwen Dylan, zombie girl detective. She’s a zombie, naturally, and once a month she has to eat a human brain or she goes all shambling Night of the Living Dead and loses her memories. But when she eats a brain, she slowly “digests” the memories and personality of the dead person for the next week, during which time she feels compelled to finish any unfinished business they left behind. Her best friends are a ghost and a were-terrier, her nemesis is the vampire who runs the paintball outfit in town, and the two rivals for her affections are a sexy mummy and a kick-ass young monster-hunter.

This is honestly the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything, ever. And we haven’t even gotten to the talking monkey yet…

O'Shea: Back in 2009, what was the highlight of having Neal Adams illustrate your story for House of Mystery?

Roberson: The answer is in the question, I think—the highlight was “having Neal Adams illustrate” my story. I mean, come on. Neal Adams?! Seriously?

O'Shea: Recently on Twitter you wrote "It's always strange to me how the Terrytoon and Harvey characters have pretty much completely disappeared from the popular consciousness." Are you fan of the Terrytoon and Harvey characters? If so, what's the appeal compared to other cartoons in that vein from that era?

Roberson: I’m a huge fan of kids’ entertainment in general—cartoons, picture books, middle reader novels. Fortunately I have a five-year-old daughter now, so it probably doesn’t seem as odd that I’m browsing the children’s section of the bookstore as it did when I was in my twenties, but I know that sooner or later she’s going to outgrow me and I’ll still be there.

There are so many examples of pop culture being evergreen, still as much in the popular consciousness now as they were decades ago (Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Star Wars, etc), that we tend to forget that the vast majority of popular culture is entirely ephemeral. When I was a kid in the 70s, you couldn’t turn on a television without hitting reruns of old cartoons, and the Terrytoons and Harvey characters were always in that mix. These days, the only place that old cartoons are shown are on cable, and even then only at particular times that you’d have to seek out if you want to watch them (which, in our house, we do, of course). But only those cartoons fittest to survive are still on the air, with the Warner Bros catalogue only have just returned to Cartoon Network this year, the old MGM Tom & Jerry rerunning on Boomerang a couple of times a day, and so on. Now, granted these cartoons are better than the vast majority of the cartoons that have become “extinct,” but there’s still a lot of charm in those old cartoons of Casper, Mighty Mouse, Inspector James Hound, and so on.

There’s probably a connection between my affection for the Harvey characters and the approach I’ve taken to I, Zombie. I always loved that the Harvey lineup included one of everything—ghost, devil, witch, rich kid, giant retarded duck, etc.—and there’s a similar kind of “one each from column A” approach in I, Zombie, and though I’d never really considered the link before, there just might a connection there.

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