Comics: Dirty, Sexy Storytelling Secrets — Royden Lepp on Building a Better Robot

No guru, no method, no teacher...

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Royden Lepp

This cover mock-up, originally released when the series was first announced, showcases creator Royden Lepp's initial versions of the two main characters, which were refined during the process of creating Rust: Visitor in the Field.

In this second installment of my extended interview with Royden Lepp, the award-winning animator turned graphic novelist reveals why he chose Archaia Entertainment as the publisher of Rust: Visitor in the Field, and explains how a good editor helps an artist build a better story, before he provides detailed information about his roundabout creative process. [Read part one here.]

Well, how did you end up with Archaia, and why did you go with them? What about that particular imprint caught your attention and made you want to work with them on Rust?

You know, I can say everything that everybody else says, and wholeheartedly. They make gorgeous books. And I won’t make two bones about it — they have great people to work with there.

But what drew me to them was the quality of their printing. I remember walking into their booth at San Diego Comic-Con, and they were a publisher that was accepting submissions without an agent. And, although at the time I had an agent, I was looking for as many avenues as possible for this book.

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So I just walked into the Archaia booth in San Diego and it felt like a little bookstore. And I pulled a handful of books off the shelf, and started flipping through them, and they were beautiful. The artwork was good, and so was the quality of the printing. And that was important to me, because that’s the publisher’s hand in it. You know, really making sure that the product is gorgeous going out the door. And then, at that moment, I sat down with Mark [Smylie, publisher of Archaia], and the way he talked about Rust, we were both having the same kinds of thoughts about it—putting it in sepia tone, obviously making it a hardcover, and the mood for the actual publishing of the book. Mark had the right direction. He had the right idea. I was on board with all of it, so I left San Diego that year knowing that I was going to work with them in some way.

try this version of Rust Visitor in Field pg 33 roughs.jpg

Was that 2010 or a bit earlier?

That was 2010.

Ah, so it takes about a year to create and publish one of these books?

Yeah.

Now, you mentioned that you had an idea of where this story is going, a basic feeling for it. Do you now know how this story is going to end, or are you going to let the book and the audience dictate how long this book is going to go on?

No, there is a cycle to it. I know how it’s going to end—or now I do. I haven’t always known, not even while I was working on it.

I knew where I wanted to go; I didn’t always know how I was going to get there and what it was going to look like when I got there. The story became less about the superhero aspect. You know, from this kid with a jet pack that’s seemingly invincible, to this story about this family that’s broken, that doesn’t have a father involved, and that has neighbors that really need help. And Roman is doing everything he can to keep the farm running.

try this version of Rust Vistor in Field pg 33 thumbnails.jpg

It became more a story about the people involved, and that was surprising to me. It wasn’t what I planned on doing. And that was one of the great things that Archaia did, [helping me understand that] this is a story about family.

You know, with all the action scenes and the robots, everybody loves that stuff, and everybody has that stuff. But this is a story about this family, and they helped me realize that, and helped me realize that was really the true direction of the book.

So, that has been exciting, to see that come out of something I didn’t even plan.

Were there any other major surprises for you?

Yeah, there are some key plot ideas in the story that I don’t necessarily want to reveal at this point, but that Archaia—and specifically Rebecca Taylor, my editor—brought [to my attention]. She said, “What about this?” which gave me an idea really early on, and it changed the heart of the book and made it focus on where it was supposed to be, you know? I didn’t quite have it dialed in, and Tay helped me take it all the way.

That’s what a good editor does—and she’s not just a good editor, she’s amazing. She really invested herself in the story, and that was really important to me, to have someone like that [as my editor].

Rust visitor in field pg  71 thumbnails.jpg

So it was more of a suggestion, akin to someone saying, “Hey, there’s a path over there you haven’t explored,” then?

Yeah, and it really just heightened the heart of the story. It made everything more important. Yeah, that’s the best way I can describe it, I guess.

Now, one of the things that really stands out to me, and it might be linked to all of your experience in animation and making games, but there are whole sections of the book that are wordless, and some of these are essentially silent action sequences that last 30 or 40 pages long…

Yeah. [Laughs]

But, at the same time, they don’t feel rushed. It’s one of those things that, yes, it is possible to rifle through those pages featuring the action sequences, but there’s something about it that, paradoxically, seemed to slow the reading pace, allowing the reader to just soak each panel, each page in before moving on to the next.

So, were you consciously trying to create that kind of effect, not just telescoping the action, but also literally slowing down the reader at a point in the story when they typically would be rushing through it?

Ah, I don’t know what I was planning. [Laughs]

I’m not sure I could say that I was planning it. I would like to say I was planning it. That would make me seem really smart. [More laughter]

try this version of Rust Visitor in Field pg 71 finished.jpg

One of the joys of working on Rust was, for me, the page count. I knew that each volume was going to be at least 150 pages, and to me that was like handing a painter a huge canvas and saying, "Fill it up!” And just having the ability to stretch…

The constriction of doing a 23-pager, even a 72-page graphic novel or floppy comic, it was just so constricting to tell a story in that short amount of time (and space).

And I like to tell stories with images. I’m not working with a writer, I’m writing it myself. So I have the ability to say, “We’re not going to have text for 20 pages.” I want to see if…

Not just see if; I really want to accomplish the act of telling a story with just the characters moving, the emotions on the faces, the reaction to what’s going on—that’s what I really want to do.

Rust_NOT-FINAL-COVER.jpg

And, so, yeah, it wasn’t the goal to begin with, but now that the book is out and I’ve had people’s feedback, and Archaia’s feedback, they said, “That’s what makes your stuff different. That’s what sets it apart a little bit.” So now, it has become a little more like, “Oh, I’ve got to do that thing that I was doing naturally before. Now, how was I doing that?” you know? (Laughs) Because now there’s this pressure (since I know) people are reading, “Do I have to tell more of the story?” You know, as soon as the book gets out, there’s this pressure that all of a sudden that there’s an audience.

And that’s the other thing that Archaia’s been great at, saying, “Settle down and just do what you were doing. Keep writing it for yourself.” So that’s been really helpful, and keeps the fun in the book.

Right. And, of course, when you suddenly become all too aware of a certain aspect of the art, it can take some of that Zen-like essence from it, doesn’t it?

Yeah. Yeah, it does.

Rust Vistior in Field pg 82 thumbnails.jpg

Well, how do you approach creating this kind of project, especially something that is this extended? Do you start off with a rough script or outline, or do you just sit down and start drawin’ and writin’?

It’s a broken process. I’ll be transparent and say that. [Laughs] I don’t have a system I’ve used from beginning to the end. Sometimes, when the dialogue is light, I’ll just sit down and do thumbnails.

I try to always do thumbnails. There are some sections where I was rushed on deadlines, or whatever, and I didn’t do thumbnails. But for the most part, that is the goal, to do thumbnails for every page. And that means a really quick sketch of the page, the panel layout, and stick figures if needs be. It’s like chicken scratch of just the motion of each panel—if I need to describe this character’s looking that way, or we’re revealing this image over here—just the pacing of the panel.

And if there is dialogue, alongside of the thumbnails, sometimes I’ll write that in. If it’s a heavy dialogue scene, where there’s a lot of exposition going on and there’s story being told, sometimes I’ll actually sit down and write a script that looks like, I don’t know, I guess what a normal comic script looks like—I haven’t seen one. Or more of what a screenplay would look like. You know, “Panel One. This character says this, and this character says that,” and then I can break up how they say it, and when they say it, the beats of when they say it, myself. [But I can still say later] “I’ve decided that this conversation between these two characters is going to be stretched between seven pages instead of five, because it just needs that one silent page in the middle.” It’s fun to be able to make those decisions, out of that freedom, on my own.

Rust Visitor in Field pg 82 roughs.jpg

But, yeah, my process is not perfect, refined, or any of those things. It’s something else that’s really important [to my creative process]. It’s something else that I have to keep doing, but, sometimes the writing of the actual story happens in several different ways.

It sounds like it’s working well for you, so if it’s broken, don’t fix it!

Yeah. [Laughs]

How much do you vary from those rough layouts? Once you’ve figured it out in thumbnail, do you essentially follow that like a blueprint, or do you occasionally, while drawing the actual page, then see a new way of doing it and go with that?

No, I definitely don’t lock myself into anything. I’ll move as far away from the thumbnail [as I need to], even saying, “This whole page doesn’t work. I need to break it into two,” or, “These panels aren’t working.”

However, what often happens is I sit down to do the actual panel and I get all constrained and constricted and I do the drawing and it doesn’t look very good. And I look back at the thumbnail and it has so much life and energy in the drawing, and I say, “Why does this drawing look better than this one? I did this one in five seconds, and I did this one in two hours!” And I end up trying to capture the life that was in the thumbnail, just because I didn’t care since no one would ever see it, and I was really making a not to myself that, “This is the direction and the feel and the speed of the panel.” And how do I get that again, how did I lose that when I sat down to do this “for real”?

try this version of Rust Visitor in Field pg 82 finished.jpg

It’s that Zen aspect of the craft cropping up again, isn’t it?

It is. It’s an important thing, to be in that Zen-like place. [Laughs]

Right. It’s funny, because it’s so akin to the idea in physics that some things can be both a wave and a particle, so you can know the speed of something, but not its location simultaneously. Writing can be the same way, of course.

Yeah, I know!

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Next time: Royden Lepp reveals why he’s content to let others take the lead in adapting Rust for film, what he does in his spare time now that his hobby isn’t a hobby anymore, and what he hopes that readers get from his work, besides a few moments of pure entertainment. Look for all that and more in the third and final installment of our extended conversation in the middle of next week.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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