Interview: Rick Remender Talks TOKYO GHOST & More

This week sees the debut of Tokyo Ghost from the brilliant minds of writer Rick Remender and artist Sean Murphy. The series features two of the best talents in the industry today working together for the first time, and has become one of the most anticipated titles of the year. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the series with the acclaimed writer. The interview is wide ranging from how Rick got to know the guys at Image Comics to how Twitter may just be the worst thing ever. Enjoy, and make sure to pick up Tokyo Ghost #1 this week from your favorite comic book establishment.

John Ernenputsch: First, it’s presumably been a little bit since you wrapped your last piece of work for Marvel. I have to ask how the strictly creator owned life has been treating you?

tokyo-ghost-01-cvr-col-a9586Rick Remender: Well this is just coming back to what I’ve always done. I’ve done creator owned books from 1997 to about 2007 or 2008 when I started taking on work from DC and Marvel, and I was still doing creator owned books until 2011. I was doing Last Days of American Crime, The End League, and Fear Agent. Those wrapped in 2011, and in 2012 I wasn’t doing any creator owned books. Then by 2013 I was developing Black Science, Deadly Class, Low, Tokyo Ghost, and a couple of other things I have coming up. I think it was 2012, or 2011 and 2012. It was the two years I wasn’t working on anything creator owned, and it drove me crazy. So by 2013 I got back on it, and started developing new projects. These things take a long time. I mean here we are a couple of years later. Sean (Artist Sean Murphy) and I started developing Tokyo Ghost back in 2013. It was one of the five books I did. It’s nice to finally have them coming out, and I’m incredibly proud of the work we are doing. I feel like I can say that these are the best of my abilities, and I’m just incredibly proud. If you want to judge my work this is, in my mind, what I want to be judged for. This is exactly what I want to do. This is exactly what my artists want to do. The purity of intention is very satisfying.

JE: That’s actually a perfect segue way into my next question. You have Black Science, Deadly Class, Low, and now Tokyo Ghost all at Image. Historically, it seems as if you have a solid working relationship with the company. As you’ve stepped away from Marvel, what has made Image a good home for your titles?

RR: From 1998 to about 2004 I was working with very small publishers, or I was just self publishing. When I was doing my books like Black Heart Billy, Doll and Creature, and a number of others a lot of those were self published. Some of them ended up at Slave Labor Graphics, and a few of them ended up at a now defunct publisher that, you know, did nothing. So, really, I was putting my own books together, and sort of learned the business of it by handling every aspect of it from the writing to penciling to inking during those years. It was around 2004 when Robert Kirkman introduced me to Eric Stephenson (Image Publisher), and we started to talk. At that time I had pitched Eric a number of books. I had also pitched IDW a book, and Dark Horse. I had pitched them on hiring me to pencil a book. I got all the jobs. Eric basically said do whatever you want and gave me an open invitation. I found that the way I work, and the way I run things, because I do everything, and can handle it all that I am much more comfortable at a place like Image where there is no editorial supervision. Where there is nobody getting involved in anything unless I ask them to get involved. Eric and I get along on a personal level, I think we share a lot of things taste and sensibility wise, and music wise. At the time I was living in San Francisco, so I started going out to Berkley to hangout with those guys.

That’s where Eric and I became pals, and I ended up doing a ton of books at Image for three or four years. Ultimately this was a point in time by 2007, 2008 where creator owned books had all but died. It was nearly impossible to make a living doing them, and you had a number of books… I mean geez, looking back on it there were maybe only three books that were very profitable for anybody in creator owned comic books. When I moved to Portland, and my wife got pregnant, it was time for me to give it up for a little while, and to go make a living doing the regular monthly Marvel books. In the time I was over at Marvel, Eric, with his tenacity, and his vision, along with a handful of very talented people kept the creator owned stuff going. They kept building it and building it. I’m very grateful for that, because I was able to, after a couple of years of being out of creator owned, come back in to a very healthy creator owned market with a very positive, and excited fan base that were hungry for unique books. I don’t think that would have been there if Eric and everybody not stuck with it and fought the way they did.

I own everything with the artists. We split everything down the middle. We run the business, and we’re in a situation with Image where the they’re great at communicating marketing strategies, helping me understand what’s going on with retailer trends, promoting the books, and just being an overall positive place with a lot of nice people who just want you to make the book you want to make and find a way to sell it.

JE: You can definitely see that with your titles right now. I mean I can’t imagine a book like Deadly Class, for example, being published anywhere else. It feels like a distinctly Image title to me.

RR: Deadly Class is an example of me doing exactly what I want to do every month. I talk a good deal about story with Wes and then Sebastian comes in and helps us polish, but that’s it. There are no boundaries, and that is what writing a novel is. That’s what writing is supposed to be.

I think difficulty is that you have to still make sure that you still do you work. That’s something that my time at Marvel really helped drill into my head; The discipline of writing an outline, reworking your your outline, and knowing where you’re going, not just flying by the seat of your pants, but having a long term plan. It was something I had been doing on my own prior to Marvel on books like Fear Agent, but not to the same extent. So all of that mixed into a really wonderful stew that enabled me to return to creator owned comic books with a whole new arsenal that allows me to create the comic books that I would want to read.


JE: The newest of these titles is Tokyo Ghost. Without spoiling anything, I wanted to keep this question open ended, because of the nature of the first issue, and how it introduces the world. What is Tokyo Ghost and who are Debbie Decay and Led Dent?

RR: Speaking to your comment about the first issue being an introduction. I like first issues that feel like the opening of Raiders of The Lost Ark. I like opening issues that might not necessarily speak entirely to the story that’s coming, but setup the characters, who they are, and a bit of the world they live while also dropping us into the middle of the action. It’s something I’ve done on most of my books. Black Science opens that way, and Fear Agent opens that way, and a number of books I’ve done open this way.

Tokyo Ghost is another one like that. The first issue is a counterweight to the rest of the series in that it is setting up a world that is not… unlikely. It’s taking a number of actual problems that we are facing environmentally, and socially. It is sort of doing the thing that dystopic science-fiction does in seeing what it’s like when the glaciers melt, and we live in the Isles of Los Angeles and everyone is tech addicted to avoid the toxicity in the nightmarish realities of the world around them. Then in a lot of ways it’s a love letter to Judge Dredd, Robocop, Lobo, and some of the post apocalyptic action movies of the 80s. This is the stuff I was grown into as a kid growing up in those years. It’s also an examination of that potential eventuality, and some characters who are stuck in that world. The series is also an examination of the human spirit, and what eventually can be done when a couple of individuals set their mind to it. I’m dancing a little bit, because I obviously don’t want to give away too much of the plot.

Debbie Decay, and Led Dent are Constables who work for Flakworld which is a large corporation in charge of everything on the Isles of Los Angeles. While that’s a wonderful stage that’s really just the beginning. That’s where we open up. The adventure is going to examine their society’s counterweight which are the Gardens of Tokyo, a city surrounded by an E.M.P. field that makes tech impossible. Not only is the tech impossible, but it is illegal. So this is a Utopian society built on nature. Led and Debbie will be taking a journey there, and we have some pretty surprising things planned for the characters and what happens. Beyond it just being a lot of action, and an examination of our addiction to technology it’s a love story at its core. It’s the most “love story” love story I’ve written before. When we start seeing more in issue two and three is when we develop into that. I think that the series flexes a muscle that I don’t a lot of chance to flex. It’s something that I’ve been able to write a bit with Marcus and some of his relationships in Deadly Class. Then a bit with Betsy and Warren in Uncanny X-Force. I’ve never been able to do do it quite like I am with this series. I’m pretty excited about it.

JE: My next question was going to be about the fact that your first issues tend to open up fast, not hold any hands, and almost always has a chase scene. You talked about that a bit already, but can you go into some more detail on why you like your comics like this?

RR: Comics aren’t television, and they aren’t film. Somebody has to draw this, and drawing is a labor intensive, difficult thing to do. This is especially true for comic books which are the most difficult art form. You not only have to be a master illustrator you have to be a master storyteller. You have to do the lighting, the character design. There are so many balls to juggle, and I like to see a comic book artist set loose to do giant visually exciting things. As somebody who watched The Road Warrior a hundred times as a kid I endlessly to to it as I’m writing comic books. There’s been points where I think I’ve been doing this to much, but I don’t care because it’s fun. It’s what I want to do, and it allows the artist to flex muscles. It allows me to flex muscles in terms of trying to find exciting new ways to tell stories with that breakneck pace.

Ultimately I think it is something that you can do in comics that you can’t do anywhere else. If Tokyo Ghost was a movie the budget is already at $15mil just for the opening sequence. If someone wants to come around and spend the money on a movie, what a spectacular looking movie it would be, but that’s the farthest thing from my mind as I’m writing. I want to be untethered to any constraints, and I want to make something that is big, beautiful, and visual. I want it to be something I’m excited to write, and that the fans are hopefully excited to read. Hopefully it is most exciting for the artist, because if the artist is excited that is when you get their best performance. I found that writing books like this really engages the artist in a way where they are drawing momentum.

It doesn’t mean we won’t have some quieter moments, but we are also dealing with the fact that there are something like 400 comics a month that people are being inundated with. So if I’m competing with four or five hundred comics a month for people’s attention I don’t have any time to waste in the first issue. In that first issue I have to get to the core of the pathos of at least one character in a way that defines them as unique, interesting, and human. I also have to do something that is visual, exciting, and fast paced. I always opt for narration, because I can tell two stories. In television and film narration is often a crutch. Though, in the case of a show like Mr. Robot we’ve recently seen how brilliantly it can be integrated into a series. In comic books, because of the deficit of real estate – I have to tell so much story with so few images. On a thirty page comic, if I’m averaging four to five panels ultimately it’s about 130 image to tell a story. That’s not a whole lot. So what I do is double up. I’ll be telling you one story where you will hopefully be engaged and watching this story take place as it is unraveling in front of you with subsequent dialogue hopefully developing the characters visually as well the choices they make. Then I am also doing the narration to clearly describe the world, and the characters’ state of mind. That enables me to, like in the case of Deadly Class or Low, or Black Science, or Tokyo Ghost – if you look at the first issues, and they’re all thirty page first issues – you walk away from each one of those with an exciting book that at least defines one character enough that you should care about them. That’s obviously going to depend on whether you do like the character, but they will be defined for you. Whether or not you gravitate towards them will come down to subjective taste.

So that’s why I do it. I think it’s basically having my cake and eating it too.

TG2-674x1024JE: With that said, how much of these big scenes are fully scripted, and how many are left to the artists to run wild with a bit?

RR: It’s all written, and sometimes I overwrite because I’m a storyboard artist, and I clearly see the shots in my head. Some artists like Jerome Opena really likes to have nice, tight scripts so he can sit down and spend three days drawing it. Some artists, like Wes (Craig) want it a little looser. I’ll still write a page out with seven panels worth of description, but what he turns in may be eleven panels worth of work. Or it might be five panels, and Wes will adjust the amount of panels on action sequences, but never the intention. That’s also something that before I write I call these guys up, we’re all friends, and we get excited. I go here’s what I have in mind in a general sense, and discuss the story. With Tokyo Ghost Sean will say “Oh but what if it was this?” and we volley things back and forth. By the time the artists get the final script they get a full script.

JE: Now going back to Tokyo Ghost. The best Science Fiction are the stories that use the setting to reflect on the nature of current society. With that said, Tokyo Ghost has an interesting take on technology. Can you discuss about the concept of technology in the series, and how you feel it relates to where we are at as a society right now?

RR: Well, it’s taking a handful of things that we see in today’s society, multiplying it and imagining exponentially increasing it to where we could be sixty years into the future. This was an idea that as Sean and I were developing this we would talk every few weeks on the phone going on two years now. This is something that we’ve been developing a lot of for some time now. During those conversations we would just explore all kinds of avenues. One of the concepts we’ve discussed at length is being exhausted by our own addictions to the internet. By waking up and reaching for our cell phones before getting out of bed in the morning. The prevalence of absent minded people surrounded by other people, but all in their own bubbles looking at their cell phones everywhere. The more we talked about that the more interesting it was to me. I read a lot of futurism sites about what is expected, and technologically we are expected to have the equivalent of our modern day smart phone about the size of a grain of rice that will then be inserted into the skin above one of our eyes.

Anyway, you look at all these various technologies, and how they’ve changed society in such a short amount of time. Cell phones changed things, but not that much. It was the smart phone that wiped out… you know… civility (both laugh). Sean and I were just discussing seeing old friends for lunch, and five minutes in to the conversation they’re looking into their phone. What are they looking at? If it’s an important email they aren’t going to have time to deal with it right then anyways. No, what they’re looking at is nonsense. It’s a text, an alert from Facebook, it’s an Instagram, it’s fucking Twitter. It’s all of this meaningless distraction. It’s just become an obsession. People are more addicted to technology now year by year – so anyways Sean and I realized it was fertile ground, and it’s something that a whole generation of kids that see any sort of intellectual dissection going on as an old man shaking his cane at the clouds. It really isn’t. I am a member of the last generation that will have spent the first twenty years of life without the internet. That puts Generation X in a unique situation where we can see what life was like before and after. I think the internet is the worst of humanity so often. It’s so easy to just say what you want, be rude, and say whatever shitty thing you want because it’s the internet, and there are no consequences. Exploring what that is going to lead to was a huge aspect of not only the world the characters of Tokyo Ghost live in, but Led Dent, who is addicted to tech in a way that you see in the first issue.

JE: What are some of your influences with Tokyo Ghost? In the first issue alone there were a lot of aspects that reminded me of classic sci-fi, from Blade Runner to A Clockwork Orange, while still being able to sustain a unique take on the future.

RR: Blade Runner, and other movies I grew up watching in the 80s are obvious influences, but it’s such amalgamation of things.Visually there is was a bit of Akira mixed in the soup of Judge Dredd, mixed with Robocop, and Blade Runner. Ultimately that’s only when the story is in one of the more polluted, technologically addicted cities like The Isles of Los Angeles. That serves as a counterweight, and there’s a hell of a juxtaposition between that aspect, and Tokyo. Tokyo is Tokyo overtaken by nature. It becomes the perfect dichotomy between the two places. That really starts to lean in to a very simple, beautiful story that eventually turns into something akin to 13 Assassins, in terms of some of the action.

As for other influences I think you can’t help but see that there is some Frank Miller in Tokyo Ghost. Obviously there is some Ronin in terms of what’s coming up. Sean Murphy and I are both huge fans of Klaus Janson, and Sean is friends with Klaus, and obviously you see the influence in some of the character’s faces which adds a little bit of Dark Knight to the feel. The fun thing about this book is that the first ten issues of it are told in three acts, and by the time we get to the second act we’re going to have very different characters, and will be inspired by very different films. Every issue the book changes so much, and the characters change so much as well that you’ll never be able to guess where we are going next with it. I can’t really get into many more of the inspirations and references without spoiling where we go, but yeah those things are definitely all inspirations.

Tokyo-Ghost-3JE: You’ve been known to have some really good looking books, and Tokyo Ghost continues that trend after reading the first issue I DM’d Sean Murphy and congratulated him on a great first issue. He mentioned how difficult that first issue was, and I can see why. Murphy has become one of the more popular artists in some comic circles. Can you discuss how he became involved, and what it’s like collaborating with like him?

RR: Normally when I work with somebody we know each other beforehand. Sean and I had spent some time together at some conventions, and have become friends, and so that’s the place I want to be when I’m making a creator owned comic book. I don’t want there to be radio silence where I hand in a script, the artist draws it, and we don’t talk. We collaborate, and co-own the thing entirely. So Sean and I get on the phone and we say it’s going to be a quick 20 minute conversation about a scene, and we end up talking for three hours just bouncing ideas excitedly back and forth. It’s the same kind of perfect relationship I have with guys like Jerome Opena, or Matteo, or Greg Tocchini. I’m fortunate in the artists I’ve been able to work with, and the people who want to work with me. We respect each other mutually, speak the same language, we have the same sort of upbringing and ideas. As friends it makes the process a joy, and that’s what I want to do. I want to work with friends and make comic books that we love. I’m also very lucky that these are also the very best artists in the industry, and the people who I think best reflect my own sensibility.

JE: The series has received considerable hype since its announcement at Image Expo over a year ago. First, do you pay attention to any of that, and if you do is there an added amount of pressure? Or do you just do what you do, and know the series will speak for itself?

RR: Yeah I mean all you can do is make the book the way you want, and work hard. I’m very proud of the first issue. I love it. It’s the kind of comic that I would love to read, and that’s all I can do. If there’s a huge reaction and people love then great. If there isn’t, okay then… okay, but ultimately I’ve learned to tune it all out. It’s just white noise. Like for example, a book like Low. Low is one of the things i am most proud of, and most fulfilled by in my career. There’s not a whole lot of online buzz for it, but the trade paperback has sold 40,000 trades in five months. So it’s a phenomenal hit. Looking online for other people’s reactions to something could poison any joy you feel from creation. It’s not easy, but it’s something that I’ve been able, for over the course of the past twenty years of doing this, been able to shut it down and stop caring.

It doesn’t mean I don’t want people to enjoy it, but if I’m worried about what people’s reactions are going to be I’m not going to do the things that feel more risky, or the things that make me laugh, or the things that excite me. I’ll be worried about whether the people online will like it or not. You just have to turn it off. Really, I just got to a point where I do it for me. I do it for the artists. I do it so we both finish something, and feel pride in ownership and accomplishment. All you can do is hope it then finds an audience. If you’re not making vanilla ice cream not everyone is going to like it.If your’e making pistachio almond, it’s a specific flavor, and the people who like it are going to LOVE it.The people who don’t like it may hate it, but that’s better than making something that everybody just feels just okay about. In terms of hype and all that stuff, I’m glad people are excited for it. I hope they like it, but we kind of have to get to a place where we are making the books for us.

JE: Is there anything else Comicosity readers should know about Tokyo Ghost before its debut next month?

RR: It’s a $4 hit for thirty pages to see if you like the first issue, and the second issue is nothing like the first issue. Then the third issue is nothing like the second issue. The series is like a kaleidoscope of interesting scenarios following these characters as they are going through the most tumultuous periods of their lives. It’s Sean Murphy’s best work, Matt Hollingsworth’s best work, and I feel it’s is as good as i’m capable of producing.

JE: Thanks Rick! Remember that Tokyo Ghost is on sale THIS WEDNESDAY 9/16

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  1. Collin Scott said:

    Great interview. Rick is always an entertaining read, can’t wait for Tokyo Ghost. It’ll be the first thing I go out and pick up from my shop in a while.

  2. Joker74 said:

    Picking it up but will then prob wait for the trade. But would like to know how long will be. I don’t want years of trades taking up shelf space……