Comics: Royden Lepp Talks Rust: Visitor in the Field

Straight from the Heartland

By , Columnist

The cover art for Rust: Visitor in the Field, above, captures the essence of Royden Lepp's heartfelt ode to the landscape of his youth. Eleven pages from this excellent graphic novel follow, below.

One of the frustrating things about publishing is the inevitable end-of-year glut of books launched to coincide with the holiday gift giving season. In years past, too often a large percentage of this tidal surge consisted of far too many titles that had been held back or were late arrivals to the marketplace, making it difficult to pull the polished gem or diamond-in-the-rough from amongst the flotsam and jetsam.

However, in more recent years that annual surge has been composed of so many fine examples of the comics medium that it provides a perfect example of an embarrassment of riches. As you might imagine, that kind of surplus can make a comic reporter’s life a little bit interesting—and proof positive of the power of that old curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Please understand, I’m not complaining here. Just trying to give some context to what I’m about to say…

If you decide to check out just one recently published graphic novel, I honestly can’t think of a better choice than Rust: Visitor in the Field. This is one of those books that not only boasts a story that quietly, subtly draws you into its world with its effortless storytelling and organic, loose-limbed cartooning; it’s also perhaps the most heartfelt and inviting story I’ve read in years. All for good reason, as you’ll discover in this first part of my extended interview with its creator, Royden Lepp.

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What, exactly, is Rust? How would you describe the book to someone who hasn’t seen or heard of it yet?

Rust is a story that I wrote that came from wanting to create a book that I would pick up if I was in a comic shop. I can say, fairly certainly, that I’m a fan of the comic medium, but I’m not a big fan of a lot of the books I find when I go looking for something to read. And this book just came from a place of wanting to create something that I know would catch my attention.

So I was really doing it for myself.

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What about the basic plot and characters?

The story takes place in an alternate reality type of setting. It kind of feels like the 1940s, it feels like World War II, but you quickly realize that it’s more of a “what if?” storyline when you see robots fighting alongside of these soldiers.

So, there was a war, and the war is in the past, and this family—the Taylor family—is trying to hold the farm together.

Roman Taylor is the oldest brother on this farm. He’s trying to keep the farm running. His father is gone. He’s out of the picture. And one day this character, Jet Jones, crashes into his field; Jet is a kid with this jetpack on.

Jet Jones is full of mystery, and kind of turns the Taylors' family life upside down, just through his presence on the farm.

So, that’s the elevator pitch of the book.

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One thing that short description doesn’t quite lay out is that there’s a real Midwestern feel to the book—or at least that’s how I interpreted it, essentially an agrarian sense. Even with the presence of the robots and other advanced tech, I got a real heartland feel from Rust. Am I reading too much into it?

No, not at all. That’s what I want to impart in the book.

Unfortunately—or not—I’m a native of Canada. I live in the US right now, but I grew up in the Canadian prairies—physically, the province of Manitoba. My dad was a farmer, so these are settings and moods that I’m familiar with, [rooted] deep in my childhood, although I haven’t been on a farm in many, many years.

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So, for me, it’s a Canadian prairie land. But, obviously, each reader is going to relate to the setting in the way that they know it. And for US citizens, it’s the Midwest, so I would say that that’s accurate.

You said earlier that generally when you’re looking for something to read in comics these days, you’re not finding stuff you want to read. Could you describe some of the things that have been putting you off from those books, and how you’ve tried to counteract or avoid that with this project?

Hmm…

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Yeah, I know, it’s one of the harder ones I’ll likely ask you today.

Yeah, that is a hard one, yeah. [Laughter] I’ll give it a shot…

I grew up on Spider-Man, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. I didn’t read a lot, but I remember that my dad got me a Spider-Man subscription when I was quite young, so I got it in the mailbox every month.

So I grew up on the medium, and I loved it, but I hit a certain age when it was still okay to buy comics; you just swallowed your pride and walked in as an older teenager and picked up a book.

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But the superhero format wasn’t working for me at that point. I wanted something that was a little fresher, just a different kind of story being told in the same format of panels and sequential storytelling. So it was a lot of independent publishers that were putting out things that got my attention. And they didn’t always get my attention because they were good; they got my attention because they were different. Which is not always the best thing, but it opened my eyes to the fact that, “Oh, we don’t have to do superheroes if we do comics? We can do anything we want!” And these other creators were telling me, in their work, that the answer was, “Yes, you can do anything you want!”

More of those books are more popular now. I mean, we’ve got great personal stories like (Craig Thompson’s) Blankets, and other work, like that of Kazu Kibuishi (creator of the Flight anthology series). I’m a huge fan of his work, and he was one of those creators that spoke to me through his work.

So stuff like that’s fairly common now, but there was a time when I felt like it wasn’t common — at least it wasn’t common to me. I had to see it to realize that it was okay to do it.

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Were you consciously trying to keep certain aspects, effects and themes from that non-superhero work you enjoyed in mind while working on Rust? Were you even aware of what you might have been keeping and what you were tossing out?

For instance, you mentioned Spider-Man, and there’s a sense of not just legacy, but also a real sense of responsibility at the heart of the best tales featuring that character, the idea that with certain choices come real responsibilities.

Sure, yeah, that’s there. And definitely the Jet Jones character…

It’s very true he is a superhero kind of character. So, yes, I’m sure that that stuff is still there—the desire for a savior figure who is unlike everybody else, that young hero who is kind of untouchable. Those stories still do interest me, although what interests me a little bit more is the story about the hero who is a little bit flawed. And that’s not uncommon, even in mainstream comics, but that’s what interests me a lot.

A lot of the themes that I’m trying to approach in Rust, in one form or another, [come from the idea] that nobody in this story really has it all together. That is a human element that makes the story more interesting to me.

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Yeah, it gives them somewhere to grow, doesn’t it?

Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, otherwise, it’s kind of an inaccessible character. Someone that’s just always going to save the day, every time—and, again, I’m not even suggesting that mainstream comics are like that—but that’s what I’m really trying to focus on with Rust, and particularly with the character of Jet Jones.

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Do you remember when this idea first hit you? And how might it have changed as you developed it from that initial concept to what we’re reading today?

It took some strange paths, mainly because I work in the video game industry.

What a lot of creators tend to do is apply their ideas to the medium they’re most involved in, and for me, that was video games. So I was thinking of Jet Jones as this potential game that I could pitch to the studio I was working for.

So, that was the avenue that the idea was headed towards. And then I realized, “Hey, I could just do it on my own. I could do this as a comic, and that would be a lot of fun. I could own the idea and just tell the story.”

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Because, eventually, it wasn’t a good game anymore; it was more of a story. And some games have good stories, but if you want to tell an elaborate story, you probably want to stick to something more traditional for storytelling, like comics or movies or books or whatever.

So I just felt like this was the right avenue for it. And at the time I found a publisher that was interested in it, and I just went for it with the idea—not totally knowing where it was headed, but having a theme and characters in mind, that at least got me started.

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Next time: Royden Lepp reveals all of his dirty, sexy storytelling secrets in the second part of our extended, exclusive interview.

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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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