Over the past few years, writer James Robinson has been building up the universe at DC Comics, first with his alternative run on Justice League of America, and ultimately on his world-building titles The Shade and Earth 2. Now the time has come for Robinson to create his own world over at Image Comics with the December 24 debut of The Saviors, a new ongoing series with acclaimed artist J. Bone. With All-New Invaders and Fantastic Four on the horizon at Marvel, Robinson has a ton of work coming in the new year, and we sat down to chat about the first book at length, what it’s like to work with different artists’ styles, and the origins of his first creator-owned work in many years.
Matt Santori: James, thanks so much for taking time out of your increasingly busy schedule! The Saviors has been a long time in the making. Why did you feel the time was right now to return to creator-owned work?
James Robinson: I don’t think there was any sort of “it’s right now” about it. It’s just that I’d been working at DC at the time, but I was no longer exclusive. I realized there were a lot of interesting ideas out there in the world of creator-owned comics, and Image had already asked if I was interested. Eric Stephenson, who is a great fellow, had reached out.
I had chatted with J. Bone a couple of years ago at Fan Expo in Toronto, and he had said he’d been wanting to do something. I had assumed he meant in the world of young adult comics, because that’s sort of what he’s known for when he’s not finishing [penciller] Darwyn Cooke. But he said he didn’t really like that he was marginalized like that. He had a style that he felt could suit a range of themes and types of stories. He wanted to do something in the horror realm, so I said I’d give it some thought and see if I could come up with something. I think he thought I would come back with something in the realm of Mike Mignola or Steve Niles — sort of a dark and classic horror comic kind of feel. What they do is great, by the way. I’m not slighting them, but I think that’s what he had probably imagined. But what I came back with instead was this alien conspiracy idea with horrific elements.
It’s a comic that at times will feel akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the Invaders tv show (1967), and at other times will veer into the gory horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the one I probably had in my notes the most when I was coming up with the idea.
But in terms of the timing, everything just happened by chance. I had just happened to decide to do something in the creator-owned world, had just talked to J., and the project had a long gestation period for one reason or another. And it just happens to be coming out as my first work at Marvel is coming out. It’s all sort of lining itself up perfectly like some master plan, but it wasn’t a plan that I’d masterminded certainly.
MSG: Speaking directly to J. Bone’s style — or even more generally — how much do you find the way that you write is influenced by the style of the artist you are working with?
JR: Well, that depends. It definitely was a factor when I was doing Starman way back when, in that I had a lot of say about who we would bring in. None of those guys were fill-in artists; they were all guest artists. I would say to Archie Goodwin or Peter Tomasi (who took over as the editor), “I really like this guy or that guy. I have a great story that would suit his style.” and they would say “Oh, great!” So that’s one example.
I think you can wrong yourself and your story if you try to suit the artist at times. You need to be very careful. For Invaders with Steve Pugh, many people were a little surprised we were using him because you expect a certain kind of artist. And I had said to Mark Paniccia, the editor on Invaders, that we needed someone who you don’t expect. I always use as the example there the way that Matt Fraction has done such a brilliant job on Hawkeye, in that if someone had told me they were doing a new Hawkeye comic, I would imagine a certain kind of comic. And he does exactly the opposite, like what Hawkeye does in his day job, he’s a landlord, he’s brought in these knuckle-headed gangsters, and everything else. And David Aja is brilliant on Hawkeye, but he’s not the first person I’d think of to do that book.
With Invaders, I knew that if we went with what was expected, people wouldn’t be intrigued or want to try it to see where it went. So, when Steve’s name came up it was perfect, because he does super-heroes, but has a different look and feel. Steve has slightly tweaked his style to make it look a little more super-heroish, but it’s still not what you expect when you see The Invaders. I think it works brilliantly. But I haven’t compromised my story just to suit his style. If anything, he’s slightly finessed his style to suit the stories that we’re telling. Then with Leonard Kirk on Fantastic Four, you have someone who has this sleek, beautiful super-hero style, so he just suits the idea of the Fantastic Four and the kind of book we’re trying to do there.
With J. Bone, if I tried to suit his style, it would all fall apart. It wouldn’t feel right. What I like about this is J. is bringing his style — and again, he’s finessed it slightly — so that when I look at it, it definitely feels like his art, but his art as if he were working for Pixar. There’s a slightly more animated quality to it, which is a subtle but nice change. Bringing that to this world of intrigue and violence, and all the stuff that we have planned in this book, is what will make this book stand out. If I tried to suit his work, it would be a mistake.
All that said, there are times when you get certain artists and you should try to write to their styles. If was given a fill-in in the middle of Fantastic Four and it was Steve Bissette — just pulling a name completely out of the ether — whose style is radically different, I would definitely come up with a story that suits his unkempt, organic art style. It’s really a question that you have multiple answers for, depending on the day of the week and what project it’s for and what artist.
MSG: So, what was your initial spark for the idea behind The Saviors?
JR: One of the things that always stuck in my head for some reason was the Ditko Dr. Strange story — that big, epic story back in Strange Tales — where he ultimately goes into the other dimension and meets the Mindless Ones, Dormammu, and Eternity, but at first it was just this cult on Earth. It was only like one issue, but it got stuck in my head. He was on the run, in the rainy alleyways of Casablanca or some exotic Middle-Eastern, shadowy, noirish city as drawn by Steve Ditko in the 1960s. It’s all sort of knocking on the walls and getting entrance into cultish ceremonies, and it’s all very dark and intriguing. And it’s that little moment in Dr. Strange’s life — probably only one issue or a couple of pages — but in my mind it’s all full sequence. I guess I’ve just written this whole story for Dr. Strange getting to this point in the comic, in my head. That idea was probably the seed of it. The idea of combining one kind of alien invasion story with another kind of alien invasion story appealed to me.
MSG: The scope and locale of Passburg seems a little bit more remote than the more classic metropolitan settings for conspiracy stories. Why begin world conquest in a small town, and what do you find interesting about that environment?
JR: Well, you’ll find that Tomas doesn’t stay there for too long, and it’s one of the subplots of this whole series. This goes way back to folklore and fairy tales, where you have Jack the Woodsman’s son who goes off and ultimately becomes King because he has to do all this amazing stuff he didn’t know he was capable of doing. That’s going to be Tomas’ story. It’s going to be him looking up from having a joint at the wrong time and seeing the wrong thing, starting him down the rabbit hole of this crazy world he’s now experiencing.
The other thing about the book is that it will be pretty international. As we go on, after the first five issues, we then jump to Paris and focus on another character for a while — and see the extent of this alien conspiracy/invasion and also the people who exist to silently combat it. If you also remember, the six page Comic Book Legal Defense Fund prequel story features a character that you won’t see until issue #3 who is in Canada. So, the book is set all over the place.
The reason why I started it in Passburg is just the idea of the guy in the small town, in the way that Jack the Woodsman’s son is on the farm with Daisy the Cow and his mother living a very tranquil and placid life, and then for one reason or another he’s forced to go on all these exploits and amazing adventures. I think that’s why I picked that particular locale, more than having a grand scheme for that town. This isn’t like William Faulkner, where he sticks to one sleepy burg or rural area and finds drama within in. You’ll see that the book grows and changes issue by issue.
MSG: You have another genre-blending, creator-owned series in the making, Grand Passion for Dynamite Entertainment. How does The Saviors works different writing muscles for you genre-wise than something like Grand Passion, or Fantastic Four even?
JR: Well, they just do. You’re right that they are all very different. That used to be the kind of stuff I would do, back in the day when I was first writing. I was doing Grendel Tales,and there was 67 Seconds for Epic, and then Legends of the Dark Knight — I was all over the place, doing different projects. Back then, I was a young writer trying to get in.
So, going back to that, it does stretch your muscles a bit. You can fall into — a “trap” is the wrong word — writing a certain way if you don’t try different things. All of the good writers out there now all tend to have their passion projects. Everything should be a passion project. You should care about everything you write, but there are the things that they do for the Big Two and Dark Horse, and then there’s there things that they do for themselves, like at Image. I think I’m just getting back to what I was doing in the past. It is absolutely like a good cleansing of the creative air, so to speak, to go from doing super-heroes to creator-owned, where the only rules of writing this character are whatever you choose them to be. It’s interesting that Robert Kirkman has lived that life his entire comic book career, with the exception of a little work he’s done for the Big Two.
MSG: Any last thoughts for the Comicosity audience?
JR: Something to look forward to: The Saviors is in black and white at first. As the book evolves and experiences become more evolved and extreme, we will use different colors to express different moods, but it will be in that same monocolor style you’ll see in the first issue.
I’ve no idea if releasing issue #1 on Christmas Eve is a good thing or a bad thing — is it an actual honor, because there’s so few comics arriving on the shelves, or will people be too busy drinking egg nog and eating turkey? We’ll have to see.
MSG: I guarantee I’ll be in my shop that morning, no matter what. Thanks so much, James!
The first issue of The Saviors, a new ongoing creator-owned series from Image Comics, will be hitting store shelves on December 24, 2013, followed by All-New Invaders in January and Fantastic Four in February, both from Marvel Comics. A special thanks to James Robinson for being Comicosity’s 200th creator interview. Here’s to the next 200!