Saturday, March 08, 2008

Alex Sheikman on Robotika

Jim and Lee have both reviewed Alex Sheikman's work on Robotika before. After Jim 'discovered' this book he passed it on to me and for that I'm grateful. Alex tells a visually stunning and hauntingly elegant tale. I was lucky enough to get him to agree to an interview!

Gwen: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Alex: Sure...but I am afraid it is not very exciting. I was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to United States when I was 12. I always enjoyed drawing, but I did not get exposed to comics until my later teens. A few years afterwards I got the "bug" and did a couple of black and white comics and slowly worked my way up to doing some Marvel work. Regretfully, once I saw that work printed I realized that I was nowhere near ready to do comics full is an eye opener. I stopped trying to break into comics and tried to focus on improving my drawing and storytelling skills.

Then life "interfered" and I pretty much gave-up on drawing comics. However I continued to practice drawing when I could and collect comics and I got into doing some illustration work for Role Playing Games, mainly for White Wolf Games. Eventually, after a few years, I got inspired again to give comics another try. I spent about a year working on Robotika before I tried finding a publisher, and right away I got lucky by connecting with Mark Smylie and Archaia Studios Press. I finished the first Robotika mini series last year and now I am finishing-up the second mini "Robotika: For A Few Rubles More".

Gwen: How did you first become interested in creating comic books?

Alex: I have always enjoyed drawing and dreaming-up stories, but it was not until I encountered some old copies of the early independent titles published by StarReach comics that I even thought of trying to create my own comics.

StarReach comics included work by such greats as Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, Craig Russell and Marshall Rogers...the cool thing about StarReach books was that they were the first comics that I encountered that were not focused on superheroes. The stories ranged from sci-fi adventures to supernatural horror and I thought that was just great. That was also the first place I encountered the work of Frank Cirocco.

Later on, Frank Cirocco co-created and illustrated the first 6 issues of Epic's series called "Alien Legion", which was a sci-fi take on the French Foreign Legion. I remember reading that and being very excited about the fact that it was a well drawn and written comic that was not superhero based. I thought it was so well crafted (design, storytelling) that it really inspired me to try my hand at comics.

Gwen: What are a few of your favorite comic books?

Alex: I have been a fan for a long time so I have a long list of books that I have enjoyed throughout the years. My favorite books tend to be not only stories that I enjoyed reading, but the ones that also taught me something about making comics. For example Frank Miller's "Ronin" series really made me think about graphic storytelling and also lead me to seek out comics from Japan (which I must admit I did not enjoy at all at took time to appreciate manga for me).

Later on I also discovered the work of Rodolfo Damaggio who did a lot of work for DC before moving on to work as a storyboard artist. What I enjoy about Damaggio's work is that not only is it very cinematic (set designs and sense of rhythm), but his pages are so well designed that every page is a pleasure to look at. He is such a great draftsman.

Recently I have been very much enjoying the work of Ryan Sook, JH Williams III and Claire Wendling.

And of course, Berni Wrightson's "Muck Monster" is always within reach on my bookshelf :)

Gwen: How did you end up with Archaia Studios as your publisher for Robotika?

Alex: As I mentioned earlier, that was just luck. I have been working on Robotika, thinking that I will publish it myself as a black and white 48-page comic when I discovered that Mark Smylie was thinking about expanding Archaia Studios Press (ASP) into publishing creator owned projects. He was accepting submissions via his website and I sent a package off with as many pages as I had completed.

I have been a fan of Mark's "Artesia" so it was really cool to hear back from him. He liked what I was doing and wanted to publish Robotika, except that at a minimum he needed a 4 issue miniseries and Robotika needed to be in color.

I had doubts that I could expand Robotika to 4 issues...but my fears proved to be groundless. In fact, everything that Mark asked me to work on turned out to be fun and a great learning experience.

In the end I turned up as part of the initial ASP expansion with "Mouse Guard" and "Lone And Level Sands". Mark has given Robotika lots of attention and put a lot of care into the production values for everything that he publishes, so I am very happy to be under ASP's banner.

Gwen: What inspired you to pull so many different genres together for Robotika?

Alex: It was a very natural sort of development. I did not mean to put a lot of genres together, in fact I just wanted to write a very straightforward story about a "heroic quest", but the story just sort of evolved into something that spanned many different visual genres and I liked the fact that it looked very unique, so I did not fight it too much.

I also think that working as an illustrator for a number of Role Playing Games, exposed me to a lot of different genres and for years I have been assimilating elements from different settings that I felt went together and could create one environment.

After I was done with the first 20 or so pages I had a real tough time trying to explain to folks what I was doing. Finally I came-up with a one-sentence description: Robotika is the first steampunk sushi western. All my friends thought I was being funny...

Gwen: To follow up on that, how did you manage to make so many genres work together? I doubt that many people could make samurai, sci-fi, western (and the many other ideas mixed into Robotika) mesh so well!

Alex: First of all thank you, I am very glad you enjoyed the way all the elements work together.

Secondly, I think that a story is a story; it is all about what happens to the characters as they move around in the landscape created by the writer/artist. In this case, the environment is also a character and I want to be able to tell more and more about what makes the world of Robotika unique and explore the futuristic world just as one would work on making any of their characters to appear real to the reader.

Graphically, I think that spanning a number of different genres makes it much easier to create contrast, which in turn makes the artwork more exciting to look at. For example nothing makes new technology look more fantastic than placing it next to a rusty, broken down piece of antiquated junk.

Gwen: How did you come up with your character designs for the 'three yojimbos'? All three are fairly unique character concepts.

Alex: Niko was the first character that I designed and he went through a number of revisions. In the end he is sort of homage to the "Mad Max" movies and the comics from the 90's...the guy has more pouches and things hanging off his utility belt than anyone I know. It makes it difficult to draw from panel to panel, but I think it looks good.

When I was designing Cherokee, I wanted to draw a female hero who would actually look like an athlete. That meant no disproportionate anatomy to accentuate her femininity and no fancy dress. Her shaved head and tattoo markings are supposed to give her a martial appearance.

Bronski...he is just fun. A real gunslinger partially inspired by Yul Brunner from "Westworld". His name in Russian roughly translates into "ironclad".

Gwen: What (if any) have your main influences been while writing and illustrating Robotika?

Alex: That is a tough question. I am influenced consciously (and subconsciously) by anything and everything. I am sure that all the movies that I watched and all the books that I read have in some way found their way into my work.

Definitely the samurai film work of Akira Kurasawa and the Sergio Leon Westerns were starting points in developing Robotika. I do think that I slowly moved away from character stereotypes, while trying to keep the feel of the environment (dusty, dirty, broken down civilizations) the same.

Visually, I was very much inspired by Ludwig Hohlwein. Hohlwein was a German poster artist from the early 1900's, and his work has made me re-think how I designed pages and how to create high contrast within each individual panel.

Gwen: After the follow up story to Robotika, For A Few Rubles More is complete; do you have further stories planned?

Alex: I would love to do more Robotika stories. In fact, David Moran, my co-writer on "Robotika: For A Few Rubles More", and I got together a few months ago and worked out a third mini series that would finally resolve the Queen subplot that was started in the first mini series. The third series would be awesome to do because it draws a lot on the "film noir" and it would be a challenge artistically.

Of course that would depend on the response to the current series and ASP willingness to continue with the series.

Gwen: Is there anything further you'd like to add?

Alex: I know that there are a lot of very talented folks out there who have great stories to tell, but writing and drawing a 22-page comic book looks like a daunting task. It does take a lot of work, especially if you are doing it part time, but it is very rewarding when it is done and if I could do it, anyone can do it. So I do hope that folks who are inspired to be storytellers don't get discouraged too quickly and get their stories out on to the stands.

If you haven't read Robotika it would be worth your time to give it a shot. When you inevitably become hooked, pick up A Few Rubles More. It's gratifying to know that if you work hard enough you can not only produce a great story, but be allowed to share it with others. Thanks again to Alex for the interview, it was a pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview and Robotika has become a favorite of mine!