Talk Over Balloons: Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett Part One

Writer Greg Rucka and artist Rick Burchett recently came together for a new high-adventure steampunk webcomic, which they call Lady Sabre. Last week, Jon and I got to speak with Greg and Rick over Skype about their new project, and about a whole mess of other things. Because the conversation was long, almost ninety minutes, we're going to be presenting it in a few parts. Here's Part 1.

Josh Kopin: It's good to be talking to both of you

Greg Rucka: It's nice to be talking to you guys

JK: I just wanted to start by asking how Lady Sabre came together.

Rick Burchett: The short version is that Greg and I have been wanting to work together on a project for a longtime, and things just didn't come together. We tried I don't how many different proposals and it just didn’t work out.

Greg Rucka: Five

RB: Yeah, and it just didn't work out, and we were talking about another project we’re trying to get off the ground called “American Soldier,” but that's a big project, and we were kicking around the idea of trying to find something to do in the meantime, and actually it was Greg that was thinking about doing a web comic and so I piped up and said why don’t we do that, why don't we do a web comic. And it happened pretty much that quick. The decision was made six months ago, and we just started work immediately.

GR: Was it six months ago?

RB: Yeah

GR: We were in development on it for a while, there was a long period where neither of us felt safe talking to anyone about it. That sort of vaporware fear that you'll say ‘we're going to do this thing’ and then that thing will never come to pass and, as Rick said, our track record of actually getting stuff off the ground is not what we would like it to be.

JK: How is putting a project together for the web different than putting one together for print?

GR: We've each had to learn entirely different skill sets. I suspect that the learning curve for Rick has been far more cruel than it has been for me. But, you know, we’re finishing up chapter one, meaning that the last few screens for the rest of chapter one... I don't know, I guess we're two weeks, three weeks away from wrapping that up entirely. And then we go on for chapter two. And the thing is that chapter one was written as our first effort and it was approached as our first effort and it aces very strangely for the web, whereas chapter two, once we started seeing the pages posted I went in and did a complete rewrite, and Rick has been drawing from that now, so we’ll see, some of the tools obviously are the same, but, there are so many different in terms of storytelling, in terms of pacing, in terms of what you can do visually, in terms of the amount of content you are delivering, and than there’s a whole ancillary element, we posted a new entry to the almanac on Friday, about Lady S[abre]'s sword, that actually took far longer to write than I suspect it looks like, and I have no idea how long it took Rick to do the accompanying schematic. It’s ironic that for, right now, a venture that is essentially making no money, were putting a lot of man-hours in. But it's very liberating: I think I speak for both of us when I say that all bets are off, that we sort of get to do what we want and we get to experiment and explore on our own terms, and that's a fairly precious thing when you're working in the comics industry, there's really not a lot of opportunity to do that, and the web rally does provide... you know it’s a cliché, it is an open frontier, you can be as risky as you'd like to be, I suppose.

JK: With the almanac, it seems like you are engaged in a lot of world building. Are you doing a lot of long term planning, or is it sort of fly by night?

GR: Oh no, there's a story. We know where we going, it's not so much 'hey I've got an idea everybody lets put on a show in Betty's barn!' There’s not a terminus, I think both Rick and I are thinking of it as books, and thus we are putting up chapters in each book, I know where this book is going, I know where it ends, but I've also learned that don’t handcuff myself to my plans, because things change in the writing, I don't see an end point for the project at this juncture, I don't think either Rick or I are going ‘ well, we’ll do this much and that would be that.’ As Rick referenced, we've got a whole bunch of plans, there are a bunch of things that we want to do, the ideal situation would be hat we can find a publisher for ‘American Soldier’ and, frankly, I would like Rick job to be drawing my stuff. I want to see him draw American Soldier and this [Lady Sabre]

RB: I look upon us as Louis and Clark. We're starting out, 'hey, I wonder what's over that mountain. I dunno let's go look. Gee, I wonder what's on the other side of that river. I dunno, let's go look.'

GR: That's abusive to the native population

Rb: Yea, we don't know what's over the hill, we don't know how long the country goes on in front of us, and we’re just going to see keep going and see what’s out there and that's part and parcel of this whole learning experience, trying to craft a story specifically for the web. I think we've finally nailed the storytelling that we've been looking for since day one, and that's not exactly comic books on the web, and it's not exactly the newspaper strips on the web, it’s its own thing, it’s its own form, and it’s exciting.

GR: And I think there's also, we need to master basic thinking before we get to advanced, and we've talked about other things we can do with the format, you know your ability to scroll down a page and use that in narrative, for instance, but I don't want us to get ahead of ourselves. Right now the most important things is telling the story cleanly, telling it clearly, telling it cleanly, and telling it consistently. You need to know that there's a new screen on Monday, a new screen on Thursday, you're always going to get that. Added content Tuesday and Friday wherever possible, and the site is alive. It’s not going to go fallow. We still have a large enough lead where I'm not panicking on schedule yet, so that's good as well.

JK: Can you two talk about the way the web changes the way you collaborate? Not only the way it influences what you create, but also the way you two work together?

GR: I like getting on the phone, and I like the collaboration. So, I'm not sure... We're talking a lot more we used to, I don't know another way to put it, there’re calls three, four times a week and I just remembered I forgot to send Rick a whole bunch of reference, so there you go. That's where the influence is. There's a lot of link swapping, there's a lot of I found this take a look at this, it’s kind of like this thing. We don't tend to, and Rick I love you dearly when I say this, Rick is not, shall we say, super tech savvy.

RB: I think that's a fair assessment.

GR: We had to drag him kicking and screaming onto twitter, and if you look him up on twitter, I think you'll note he's tweeted all of like twice

RB: Actually, four times. [Ed. note: Jon checked right after we finished the interview, and Rick was selling himself short: the number was actually six.]

GR: Ooh, doubled it.

RB: I've doubled my output.

GR: Also, frankly, and now I am speaking for you, Rick, but I think most of your time is put to, this is the first time you've been drawing almost entirely digitally.

RB: Yeah.

GR: And that's different too. So, you know, I’m not sure that the nature of the web itself, the nature of doing a web comic, has changed the nature of collaboration. I do think that it makes the process more fluid, since so much of what were doing exists electronically. When Rick and I were first working together, it's funny, Rick, I was thinking about it: it was ten years ago this September that we were working on ‘Cry For Blood,’ because I remember our discussions after 9/11 about it, and it used to be that Rick would do a page and I would have to wait three weeks to see what he did. And he finishes, and we get multiples and variations, and I think the editing process is easier on both ends as well. I'm marginally more web savvy, so I can into the nuts and bolts of the site and tinker and post and prepare stuff. We have a web master, who designed the site, named Eric Newsom, who is phenomenal.

Jon Gorga: It's a great site.

GR: I really think he did a brilliant job on it. He is the unspoken, unsung partner in this. And he is a partner, his input is not solely limited to site design and site maintenance, he really is a part of what were doing.

RB: Yeah, very much so, I mean I copy Eric on everything I send Greg, just so he knows what's going on, he's completely in step with us every minute, it wasn’t a matter of, ok guys, here's your web site, see you later, we have a Monday morning meeting every week, the three of us, and if there are any problems or any glitches along the way, he really is part and parcel of the whole thing, he's invaluable. We couldn't do it without him.

JG: That is really interesting. We are entering this new world where any artistic collaboration involving the tech guy, who really is almost an artist in his own right.

GR: it's funny, I was just thinking, to answer your earlier comic, there are so many pieces that are invisible: you have your writer, you have your penciller, you have, in many cases, an inker who is separate from the penciller, a colorist who is separate from both of them, a letterer, editors, and this process, in that sense the collaboration is much tighter, because there's just the three of us. And the lion’s share of the work belongs to Rick, because I can't draw to save my life. It's also interesting, Eric is an academic, and one of the things he's studying is transmedia communications, which provides an interesting insight into what were doing. But, yeah, there are those people out there who are the triple threats, who have the information and the know how to do it themselves. For somebody like me, I don't. My bailiwick is that I tell stories. I'm pretty good at it. I make a living at it, but, you know, I can’t draw, and my ability to code a site is nonexistent.

RB: Yeah, same here. I'm still earning my living with a pencil and a piece of paper. I'm the Luddite, I'm Fred Flintstone in this group, and I've had to learn a lot real fast, and Im not a quick learner.

GR: it's funny when he tries to get his car to go, too.

RB: The car's not so much... It's the shovel

GR: [laughs]

JG: Dangerous.

JK: Rick, would you talk a little bit about what were you just saying, about how your process for the web is different from your process for Batman: The New Brave and The Bold?

RB: It's different in that, the word that I used earlier, fluid, is exactly the word. Change can happen almost all the time, and does. Nothing is engraved in stone, until we post it. I can make changes up until the last minute, up until the last second. If I don't like something, and usually I don't, I'll change it, because it's so easy to make changes, but as far as the big picture process, I've had to learn a lot of things on computer that I had no intention of learning. I still draw it on paper, kind of, but then I scan it in and do everything from there on in on the computer, and that's what's makes it so easy to enact these changes: I can change a look on a face, I can change a figure, I can change the clothes they are wearing. I can do that on a computer in a very short amount of time. You can't do that in print comics. Once it's there, it's there, even if you go back and look at it, look at your copies of it, you can't change it, because it's got to be at press at a certain time, and there's deadlines, and we have deadlines too, but...

GR: We've actually posted pages and gone back and changed the art.

JG: I was about to ask if that’s what you meant, Rick. That's remarkable. That’s brave new world stuff.

GR: and, looking at the site right now, God, we're still trying to master the lettering, speaking of which, did you get that email? That I forwarded to you?

RB: Yea, I did. And I know why that happened. That was because of the email we got earlier from Todd Klein.

GR: [Laughs]

RB: So that won't happen again. And that's the thing, when you get from Todd Klein, who I think has a room devoted to his Eisner awards for lettering, I think they had to build an addition, when he sends you a note on Facebook saying 'I'm loving the site, you did this wrong,' you kind of sit up and go 'ok, let's fix that.' There was a screen, I think about the fifth screen or so that posted, the last panel of which Rick changed, and between the initial post, the panel was one illustration, and had Lady S sort of turning in, turning toward the left, facing your left, and the revision has her facing right, and that, from a storytelling point of view, is a substantial and subtle but very powerful change, looking left she's looking at the way we we've come, she looking at the last panel, but as the last panel on the screen for that day she’s looking right, she's looking to the next panel, she’s looking to the next post.

JK: That's awesome.

GR: It really changes the motion of the story.

JG: Is this the widescreen, very thin panel, where she’s saying 'fancy your Chances?'

GR: No, this is part five, the last panel of part five, which is ‘My Chances Alone’?

JG: Yea, I see, the next page, looking towards the future, if comics is time and space, she's looking to the future instead of the past.

GR: And you turn, you click to your next screen, and that’s a point of view shot, the first panel on screen six, is what she's seeing. That's far more effective storytelling. We've got a bit coming up where she is going to be jumping from something, and we talked different ways, how do you illustrate that fall, because if you do that in mainstream print comics, the way you would do it, you would do multiple panels depicting the individual moving through the air. On the screen, you can conceivably, and I'm not sure at all that this is what we would do, but you can conceivably begin with a screen that has yhr figure beginning their drop and then scroll, so as you scroll you have the figure reappear so that you have the effect of multiple quote unquote panels, but it's all the same image.

JK: That’s amazing.

GR: That is basic sort of embracing of what we can do. I don't want to go to Flash, I never want to go to animation, I don’t want to go sound effects, I'm sort of an a comic purist in that sense...

JG: I'm glad to hear that. I'm the same way.

GR: I think we muddy things. I never liked motion comics for the same reason. If I want motion comics, gimme animation. Embrace it. Don't try to half ass both of them, because in the end that'll be nothing. And, again, trying to figure out what are the ways in which we can do this. And then I’ve got a friend who has been working on this digital platform, means to read on an iPad and so on, and his whole issue is doing everything you can to keep the reader from actually ever having to work at reading. You don't have worry about where you are clicking to go to the next page, you don't have to resize, you don’t have to scroll, everything you need is right there in front of you that you need to tell the story.

JG: that sounds great, because that's really been the main hurdle that I see with digital comics, that there's a weird interaction that's very awkward.

GR: I absolutely agree, and that’s why I think it hasn't been cracked yet. And I think that's why most of the comics reading applications that are out there are, frankly, horribly inferior, and I don't mean to malign their creators but it's hard to read these things....

JK: Yea, it is.

GR: …there's too much in the way and, part of the joy of a comic in particular, I that you open it up and your eye immediately takes the page in. Before you even start reading it, there are images.

JG: There's a lay out as well as storytelling, it's not a movie, there’s a layout on the page, so you can take in all of the panels at once and one of your collaborators, and well get to this later, but J.H. Williams III, he does that. It's intense and remarkable, and that's lost in digital, sometimes.

GR: I think, honestly, I'm not sure how well that Batwoman stuff would translate digitally.

JG: Yea, it would be a mess, wouldn't it?

GR: I'm not sure it would. Having not seen it, I'm not sure, but I do feel that... talking about Jim specifically, his eye for composition, his approach to the page is such a holistic thing. He designs the whole damn thing and he is designing for the page, and that is not the same as designing for the screen. And then if you try to take that and put it on an Android screen? You're going to lose some of that artistry. One of the things we want you to be able to do with Lady Sabre is that I want you to be able to read it on platform. You know if you read it on your iPhone, or if you read it on your laptop, or if you read it on your desktop or if you read it on your iPad you should still get the same reading experience.

JK: You do, I've read it on my iPad.

GR: I think that says far more about what Rick and Eric have done than about what I have done. But I do think that DC is talking about day and date, and I have no idea how Batwoman is going to execute on that. Mind you, this is not something that keeps me up at night, but I have no doubt that if Jim was designing for a digital medium, he would master it, But that’s no what he is doing initially with that art. That art is designed to turn a page and take it, and I don't know if it'll fly. Well, that was a cheerful and long digression. Rick, are you still awake?

RB: Huh? What? I don’t want to go to school, Mom.

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