Ever since last year’s Image Expo, Image Comics has been rolling out creator-owned series, one after another, to amazing results across the board. Coming this June, however, is one of the most anticipated (and certainly mine) series yet — Lazarus by the writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark. Perhaps best known as a team for their Eisner-award winning Gotham Central, both gentlemen have an impressive pedigree of creator-owned work, including Whiteout, Queen and Country, and Stumptown from Rucka, and Scene of the Crime and Terminal City from Lark, not to mention a long list of series done for DC and Marvel Comics over the years. Greg and Michael took time out of their busy schedules in the run-up to Lazarus‘ release to share thoughts on their collaboration, their main character Forever Carlyle, world-building for a science fiction title, and navigating the waters of female graphic representation.
Matt Santori: Thanks for making the time today, gentlemen! I wanted to start off by making an observation. It seems like it’s been a while since the two of you worked together, since 2008’s Daredevil story and the series Gotham Central before that, I believe.
Greg Rucka: We did an issue of Punisher than Michael called me out on forgetting last time we talked. Issue 7.
Michael Lark: And don’t forget the Captain America story in I Am an Avenger, which we actually won an Eisner for!
GR: It’s hard to forget that! It’s our second one together.
MSG: So, what about those experiences drove you guys to work together again, and how has it been different this time around with Lazarus?
ML: Greg and I just seem to share a storytelling sensibility. We seem to share the same kind of pig-headed refusal to kowtow to the mainstream. We’ve always just had good experiences working together. We don’t always share the same approach to how we want to tell a story visually, but we always share the same approach to the kinds of stories we want to tell, which is definitely more important.
We also share the same attitude about collaborating, which I think is the key word in anything that we do together. It’s always a real collaborative effort. Greg, more so than any other writer I’ve ever worked with, is really open to whatever ideas I bring to the table. The story, characters and dialogue that he writes are just kind of a jumping off point.
As far as what’s different with Lazarus, this is the first time we’ve created something brand new. With Gotham Central, despite the fact that we started at issue #1 and created a new series, we were still playing in the Gotham and DC sandbox. With this we’re starting from scratch, with all-new characters and an all-new world, which has forced us into being more collaborative than we were before. Greg will write Forever (the main character), but I don’t think when he started writing her that he had a clear picture in his head exactly what she was supposed to look like. So, even from that early stage, the collaboration began. I asked, “So what does she look like?” and Greg would say, “Well, I don’t really know.” Then we’d start kicking ideas back and forth, and it’s been like that with pretty much every single thing that’s happened in the book — to the point where I’ll say I think she should do such-and-such and it’s something Greg hadn’t even thought of. And he’ll say, yeah, I like that.
GR: We didn’t really know each other when Gotham Central started, and very quickly we discovered that we not only shared a lot of the same storytelling sensitivities and interests, but we actually liked each other and got along, which obviously helps. From a writing point of view — from my point of view — I can’t draw. Comics don’t exist if I don’t have a collaborator that I’m working with. The comic then benefits enormously on the strength of that collaboration. It was clear very early on that we collaborated well. We got together and told stories that we both wanted to tell, and we brought to one another the missing things in the relationship. I was providing the missing words Michael needed and Michael was providing every thing else. (laughs)
The ability to do Lazarus at Image is as Michael perfectly describes. It is an entirely organic process now and the collaboration is that much deeper as a result. And hopefully, the result will be that much more rewarding for the audience when they receive it.
MSG: So, how has the creative process of specifically developing Forever Carlyle been for you two?
GR: You know, you go into a work-for-hire process and there’s reference. There’s always something for the writers to be working with, and the artists to be reaching for, and be able to use. But in this instance, this was whole cloth. I had the idea. I had the character, but as Michael says, what does she look like? And I think my notes were “She’s big.” I wanted a big girl. She’s not a waifish thing. She stands almost 6 feet. She needed to be big and tall and strong. And that was it. I didn’t really have a whole lot else there. And that’s the smallest example of what the collaboration requires, because Forever’s design then was collaborative design. We went back and forth on that.
When you enter into any creative endeavor with anybody else, not to sound hokey about it, but there’s an element of incredible vulnerability to it. And if you do not trust the people you are working with, you are going to hold back. And the work will be less for that. I am not exaggerating when I say that I trust Michael absolutely.
It’s funny, just the other day Michael put up on twitter a sketch of Forever from the beginning of issue #2. This is a sequence where our main character has taken a shower. Lazarus is not meant to be an all-ages book. It has an M on the front, so we can get away with nudity if we want it. The sequence was not written to be a cheesecake-y sequence. This is objective, and frankly that’s one of the things I think Michael does really, really well. The nature of his style, while not photorealistic, is almost photojournalistic and I think that services a story like this really well. Michael was like, we have her wrapped in the towel, but that isn’t working here. So, I sent him an email back saying, “Look, if she needs to be naked in this sequence, then she’s naked in this sequence. I trust you here. I know that if that’s the way we’re going to go, it’s not going to be lingering butt-shots.”
And you’re talking to a guy who worries about the exploitation of women, in comics in particular. I don’t want my daughter to open this and be confused or offended by those images as much as the violent ones, you know what I mean? I want to be responsible here. There are artists to whom I would say, “She’s in the damn towel. Keep the damn towel wrapped around her. I don’t care.” But when Michael comes to me with that, I can genuinely say I trust how you’re going to do this sequence. Make the sequence work the way it needs to work. And that, in a nutshell, is the relationship.
MSG: And I can say without hesitation, neither of you could be accused, as creators, of being exploitative.
GR: Well, there’s always a first time. I was just looking at a conversation on twitter and a couple of women I follow there were talking about the Bechdel Test and its limitations. I found myself weighing in a little bit and going, well, Lazarus fails.
MSG: That is, a comic (or movie or book) has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man.
GR: Lazarus fails the Bechdel Test. She exists primarily in a world of men. The other women she interacts with don’t talk to her about men, but they’re not friends. She has no peer-to-peer relationships that we see in this first arc with other women. And I do worry about that. I know that the Bechdel Test has its limitations, but it bothers me that this fails it! (laughs)
MSG: You know, I’m afraid I’ve led you down the rabbit hole of this interview without giving you a chance to give your elevator pitch for the series. What’s the premise of Lazarus in a nutshell?
GR: I’ve been describing it as Children of Men meets The Godfather. The quick version is, it’s a dystopian near future — we’re not talking about space ships and lasers. We’re extrapolating a lot of modern technology. It’s a world that’s suffered an enormous economic collapse, and that collapse is such that wealth is now concentrated in very few families. Almost everybody else has nothing, and the result is that the world more represents a medieval feudal state than any sort of rule-of-law government that exists now.
And brought into this world is this woman Forever Carlyle, who is the Lazarus of the Carlyle family, one of these ruling families. Her position is such that she is the bodyguard/defender/commando of her family. To do that job — to be that person — has required that she is a heavily genetically modified woman. As in almost everything that I write, the question is a nature versus nurture one. She has been brought up to believe certain things and built — quite literally constructed — to do certain things, and yet she is asking questions that are problematic.
MSG: Familial obligation, genetic destiny, notions of autonomy (which I suppose is just another way of saying nature versus nuture) all seem to converge on Forever’s character. It’s clear we’re looking forward to seeing this tension manifest in her, but how does it extend outwards to others in the story?
GR: This first arc is very much built to establish the world, but we throw people into the deep end. I don’t offer a whole lot of explanation and it is an issue that is going to demand the attention of the reader. I always maintain that the audience is smarter than I am, so I don’t think that is the issue as much as there is a lot of information that is being implied.
Forever’s journey has immediate ripple effects. It affects everyone around her. It disrupts her family. It raises questions. Our first arc keeps her pretty much in the realm of the family. Our second arc moves her amongst the waste — the peasants. As she discovers truths about herself, about the world and her family’s position in the world, that obviously forces actions on other characters. They have to respond. That’s the story.
MSG: This near future, as you describe it, is not exactly an inconceivable economic scenario. What motivated you to create the world of Lazarus in such a particular way?
GR: Anger and fear! (laughs)
I’m reminded of Mythbusters, finding things “plausible” or “busted.” This is a plausible future, although it’s not a very likely one. There were two things going on. The first thing is the character. I’d seen this sequence that we open the first issue with very clearly, but I didn’t understand mechanically how it could happen. That was on one side. On the other side was the Occupy movement and looking at how bad the economy was coming out of 2008, and into 2009, and seeing how painful the recovery was going to be. How long it was going to take and how precarious it all was.
I have a friend who works in finance and I saw him in 2010 and he was telling me people did not realize how dire things were in 2008/09. He had been pricing shotguns and stocking up on baked beans. People really don’t understand that the government really saved us in a way that cannot be conceived. And I’m a fairly educated guy. I pay attention, and I hadn’t seen that. I had missed that. As we kept talking and he explained it, it became clearer and clearer to me that we had come kissing close to not just economic collapse, but a global economic collapse that would make those charts and graphs you see talking about economic distribution in the world skew even more wildly between the haves and the have-nots.
I found myself thinking, what happens when 99% becomes 99.99999999%? What does that world look like, when it’s not about government but about capitalism? And what about when that capitalism goes rapidly out of control? And that gave us the world. Is it plausible? Ehhhhh. I don’t see it happening. I’m not that cynical.
MSG: Well, the crux of any great science fiction story is that it has quite a bit of truth at its core. But looking at the work you guys have done together (and separately), I haven’t seen a ton of science fiction, at least recently. What challenges or opportunities do you think that genre offers that you haven’t encountered previously?
ML: My first comic I did at DC/Vertigo was kind of science fiction, Terminal City, and I vowed after doing that I would never do another science fiction book again for as long as I lived. While I enjoy all the design challenges that come with it, there’s just not enough time in comics for that. They spend years working on that kind of stuff for a movie that runs for two hours, but I’ve got a comic I have to draw that runs for years. And I’m the only one on the crew. I have to be the designer, the lighting designer, the director, the set designer… you know, everything. That is a huge challenge.
When Greg says, “Forever is riding through the desert on a badass motorcycle.” it takes him three seconds to write that, to write “badass motorcycle.” I’ve got to know what a badass motorcycle in this world looks like. I need to know every detail of how it works. Does it run on gas? Is it electric? What color is it? I need to know everything about it. So that’s the big challenge for me right now.
I’m sitting here designing a bedroom, even as we speak. What kind of furniture is in the bedroom? What style is it? I’m not the kind of artist who’s going to just draw a cube with a couple of handles on it and call it a dresser. I need to know all that kind of stuff. And especially for what we’re doing here. The setting in Lazarus is a character — it’s part of the stories. And people aren’t going to talk about it. The characters aren’t going to say, “Well, that’s a fine dresser you’ve got there! What kind of style is it?” So, I’m fully responsible for that. No one is going to give that information to the reader but me. It’s quite a task.
Thankfully, the story and the characters are compelling enough, I don’t mind doing it at all. I want to get it right. And I totally Sheldon Cooper out on this stuff. I get really nerdy and I have to know every single thing about it. That’s the biggest thing right there. The characters will always be the easiest thing for me — they’re just people. All of the characters Greg writes, even the most vile and distasteful among them, have parts of them that I can relate to, that I can tap into as I tell this story. Getting this environment right has been a huge challenge.
GR: It’s interesting. I’ve had sci-fi and fantasy ideas in the past, but I’ve always been somewhat daunted by the world-building required. Michael is absolutely right when he talks about the division of labor. It is a different task to come up with these things than to execute them, and that execution on the page is clearly more labor intensive. That said, I take my world-building very seriously, so I’ve always been a bit daunted about embracing it and running toward it. That’s been one of the things that kept me comfortably away. Doing work-for-hire, they’ve done all that world-building for you and you can just add pieces as you see fit, you know what I mean?
But the appeal? You were talking about how sci-fi works really well as commentary. It works very well as allegory. We’ve done a couple of interviews at this point and the Occupy movement comes up. This isn’t a polemic. I’m not writing a political treatise here. This is a version of the world that extrapolates an idea. Obviously, there’s an opinion about that idea, because there’s an opinion about the extrapolation. It’s a pretty dark world. But the allegorical elements, the issues of social commentary, those I feel I want to be responsible with. You never want to hit the reader over the head with anything. Nobody wants to be lectured to, and the goal — first and foremost — is always to tell as good a story as we possibly can.
And it goes back to what we were talking about regarding collaboration. There are not many artists I would have felt this comfortable going this far out on a limb with. Michael is at the top of the list.
ML: And I feel the same way. There are not many writers I would trust enough to work on science fiction with. Greg does have the same kind of detail-oriented attitude. He doesn’t want to do something just because it looks cool. There has to be a reason for it. I’ve run into way too many writers that I’ve worked with on various little things here or there, or just known, who just want me to do it “this way because it looks cool. It doesn’t matter. Just make it look cool.” And I like that Greg doesn’t want to do anything in this book unless there’s a reason.
He mentioned the towel scene earlier. I was thinking, the towel wrapped around her isn’t going to work because we want to see that she’s this perfect physical specimen. A woman with a towel wrapped around her, even if she’s a perfect physical specimen — that towel is going to make her look kind of dumpy, because it’s not formfitting. I said, “Well, maybe she’d just be holding the towel up in front of her.” and Greg said, no, because in this scene, why would she be walking around with a towel up in front of her except to be coy about the fact that we’re not going to show her nude?
GR: That was the conversation. You know, it sounds like all we’re talking about is this character naked. (laughs)
But that conversation is so indicative of how we work together, because Michael raised a fair point and my counter was, we cannot flinch. It needs to be honest. Especially when you’re talking about a sci-fi setting or a fantasy setting, honesty is crucial. If the reader at any point thinks that you’re cheating, you’re going to lose them. Because you’re asking them to buy all this other stuff that is patently not true.
ML: In having this conversation, I can’t help but think about the mini-controversy that’s going on with the new Star Trek movie with the underwear scene. J.J. Abrams has had to come out and apologize for the woman stripping down to her underwear, which was completely gratuitous. Even he said, “Yeah. It was completely gratuitous. Sorry.”
We don’t want to be those guys. And that’s one of the reasons I like working with Greg, because Greg will never be that guy.
GR: Or if we end up being those guys, it will be entirely accidental. Mistakes will happen. We’re not going to catch everything that happens in our storytelling. We’re going to screw things up. I know I do.
ML: Yeah, but we’re not going to have some woman running around in her underwear just to have some woman running around in her underwear. That’s my point.
GR: Our interest in cheesecake is limited.
MSG: I think it’s fascinating the amount of thought and discussion that you guys put into just even a two or three-page sequence.
ML: It’s got a point to it though. I don’t think a lot of people who read comics are consciously aware of the fact that at least in the hands of a good creative team — which I hope we will turn out to be — the real story is going happen somewhere between the pictures and the words. The action of a comic doesn’t take place inside the panels. The action of a comic takes place in the gutters, between the panels. You see the beginning and the end of the motion. The motion itself happens in-between those panels, which is not something most people realize.
What we’re trying to get at is somewhere between the words and the pictures. When Greg writes his pages — yeah, it may only be three pages — it may not be that important how the towel looks on her, but what we’re trying to say in the scene is important. So, it is an important discussion. It does all matter. I know what Greg is trying to say in this scene. The characters never say it.
GR: The subtext in that scene is enormous.
ML: Yeah, and I can see when he’s doing that, which is one of the reasons I like working with him. I have to get that right, otherwise it’s just a scene of a chick in a towel.
ML: It’s going to be all chicks in towels! They might be naked. We haven’t decided yet! (laughs) Check it out!
GR: I am having so much fun with this book and am working so hard on it. I can’t remember the last time I worked so hard on my scripts. I have to go back to the Batwoman stuff with J.H. Williams. To me, this is very reminiscent of that collaboration. I am really excited for this book to go out into the world.
Final order cut-off is June 3. If you are interested in the book, please pre-order! Please, please! It helps. This is a creator-owned endeavor, and Michael and I have bills on top of everything else, so if people don’t show up, we’re kind of SOL.
ML: And this is the first creator-owned book I’ve done in over twenty years! I was thinking about that this morning. And Scene of the Crime (with Ed Brubaker) was creator-owned, but that was not the same beast that this is. Scene of the Crime was only four issues. This is maybe the book I’ll do until I retire. If it sells enough, it will be.
MSG: That’s exciting!
ML: Exciting and a little daunting!
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark resume their collaboration on their first creator-owned series together, Lazarus, arriving to comic book shops from Image Comics on June 26, 2013. Greg also recently spoke to Comicosity about his web comic and Kickstarter campaign for Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether.