The Thrills and the Waste of the World of “Lazarus” with Greg Rucka and Michael Lark [Interview]

By | October 21st, 2013
Posted in Interviews | 2 Comments

Tell us if you’ve heard this before: “Lazarus” by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark is outstanding, and one of the most exciting launches in a banner year for Image Comics.

It’s unexpected that this book would be good, but so far, all four of the issues have earned rave reviews from our staff, including two picks of the week.

Previously, we had spoken to the two of them in anticipation of the book, and now that the first arc has wrapped, both Rucka and Lark took some time to chat with us before Saturday at New York Comic Con. We talked to the team about the response so far, how satisfied they are with their performance, the people who are helping them bring this book to life, and much more. Thanks to both Greg and Michael for taking some time to chat with us, and don’t forget to tell your local comic book shop to order issue five. Today is the final order cut-off date, so if you want this comic, let your retailer know!

So Lazarus, the first trade dropped this week and you’ve had huge lines for your signings. How happy are you with the response so far?

Lark: I’m thrilled.

Rucka: (laughs)

Lark: Nothing more needs to be said.

Rucka: It’s wonderful. People apparently are reading it and liking it. That’s pretty much all one can hope for when you do this sort of thing.

I know you’re both sort of perfectionists, and I’ve talked to you Michael about some of your art about how you wish you had done some things differently, and then you realize it’s how it should have been. I have to ask, after the first arc, how satisfied are you guys with how it worked out, and where its leading?

Rucka: I keep taking the lead on these!

Lark: I’m thrilled. (laughter)

Rucka: Say something else!

Lark: Something else. (laughter)

Rucka: I said this a few times to someone yesterday, and we were talking about it before the camera started rolling, but this is 15 years in comics for me, and I’m hard pressed to find something I’m prouder of. I think these first four issues are some of the best comics work I’ve been part of.

I say that knowing full well that there is some work in my body extent that I am very, very proud of, but this feels different. The whole experience feels different. The feeling I’m getting from fans I’ve talked to is different.

Lark: Absolutely.

Rucka: I think we’ve thus far delivered something that people really welcome and something they’re really excited by. And as a creator, as people who want to tell a story, that’s an incredible feeling.

I think one of the cool things about it is you’re both known for your more grounded, noir-ish storytelling throughout your career – not to put you in a specific hole, but that’s where a lot of people look at you. People come to it for so many different reasons. There’s the very grounded story of Forever finding out who she is, there’s the amazing sci-fi future cycles and the science that goes behind it, like how Warren Ellis helped derive how Forever could have survived her wounds. It’s kind of amazing how you’re blending this all into one masterful recipe.

For the two of you, why decide that this was the time to go with a story like this, and what made this the story you wanted to tell?

Lark: Greg, this one is on you. (laughs) I’m thrilled. (laughter)

Rucka: (laughter) Finish your coffee. Maybe you’ll be more talkative when the coffee hits.

Lark: Maybe I’ll be even more thrilled (laughter).

Rucka: The story came out of a whole bunch of places at once. I need the sci-fi element to justify what we wanted to do with Forever, but I also wanted the vision of the world was a vision of the world where we took where we were last year and extracted worst case scenario over and over. By definition that means you are telling a speculative future.

I remember when the Battlestar Galactica reboot premiered on sci-fi. They…I remember being kind of annoyed by this…they ran these two hour specials in advance of the premiere talking about how the power of science fiction is allegory and social commentary, and they have experts from the University of Winnipeg and things like that, talking about the power of science fiction and allegory, but they’d never cite material, and it was basically one long handjob for what you were about to see.

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Which is fine, it’s publicity and I know it and I get it.

That said, science fiction is very powerful as allegory (laughs). It is. It’s very natural in that sense. That’s why.

There’s another factor that developed as soon as we worked on it. Michael’s style is so detail oriented. I don’t like calling it photo realistic, but there is a lot of verisimilitude in the art. When you’re working with an artist who can deliver like that, your ability to portray a future becomes that much more powerful. Because everything Michael puts on the pages is believable.

The chair looks like a chair. When you put that next to Forever getting up again, she becomes that much more plausible. That extends throughout the world building. I have no doubt Michael’s ability to execute anything but you know, you talk about how we’re known for crime and noir, I actually think this plays more to Michael’s strengths.

Lark: I’ve been pigeonholed so many different times. It started out as me being the “architecture guy” when I was doing Terminal City and then I was the “noir guy” and then…

Rucka: “Cop guy.”

Lark: Yeah, “cop guy.” So, I’ve been pigeonholed so many times, but I just like to draw good stories. I see the world the way I see the world. That’s the way it comes out.

At least you’ve never been the Spider-Man guy.

Rucka: It was nearly a thing.

Lark: It wasn’t as near as you might think (laughter). There was never any danger of that.

I’m curious, and this is mostly for you Michael, but Greg, you’ve done a ton of creator-owned work, and Michael this is you transitioning back into it. What have you learned about releasing a book on a monthly schedule as a creator-owned book. I know Brian Level is helping and Eric Trautmann and David Brothers…

Rucka: And Santi (Arcas, the colorist). Santi’s been remarkably helpful as well. Just aside from what he’s doing for the book.

What have you learned from your reentry into creator-owned?

Lark: It’s a lot more work than I remembered. When I did it before I was in my 20’s, and 20 years later…it takes a lot of people to put it together. It’s been more of a reminder that there is so much to do.

On one level it’s made me kind of grateful that all of these years there has been someone to handle all of that stuff. All I had to do was turn in pages of inked artwork. Just turning in the inked artwork is only the beginning. Doing all of the other stuff…it’s a lot of work.

But thankfully we’ve put together a really good team. There are people who also don’t even get on the credits page who have been assisting us. My assistant Jodi, she’s fantastic. I’ve got two different people who help me build models for backgrounds and sets and stuff.

Rucka: That’s not counting everyone at Image backing us.

Lark: Yeah, we’ve got a great team backing us.

I think initially the idea was this was going to be our book. I wanted to do everything. The design work, the lettering, I was going to farm out the coloring only because I don’t know how to do it, but trying to put it out monthly was impossible.

I wish I was Sean Phillips. I wish I could do that.

Boiling it down to the two of you before we talk the rest of the team, what have you guys learned about your collaborative process since starting? Has that developed?

The panel mentioned from #4
There are some sequences where you read the comic and think, “I don’t think anyone else could pull this off as well.” There’s this one part in issue #4 after the battle, where Joacquim, you can just see the shame he feels for revealing his robotic nature.

Rucka: Brilliant panel. Brilliant, brilliant panel. It was such a powerful panel.

I’m thinking about it and getting chills, it’s such powerful storytelling. How do you two bring something like that to life?

Lark: I think we did that with Gotham Central too.

Rucka: Yeah, I think we developed a good shorthand. That’s how we’re able to do everything.

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Lark: I think for me, when I read Greg’s scripts, I understand what he’s trying to get across. He makes it real clear to me. Also, there’s a great balance in working with Greg. I was saying this to someone yesterday, they were asking how would you describe Greg Rucka?

Rucka: Bastard! (laughs)

Lark: There are a lot of artists who want to draw people jumping around and punching each other and gritting their teeth, but I like working with Greg because I want to draw people who aren’t saying what they mean. The truth is somewhere in-between what I draw and what they’re saying. It’s really nice. It’s a fun, fine line to walk.

We did a sequence in “Half a Life” in Gotham Central where Renee’s on the phone, and there’s a point where she hangs up the phone and stands there leaning against the wall. And I remember just thinking how proud I was of that one tiny little panel. It’s kind of like that Joacquim panel you’re talking about there, where Greg tells me what the character is feeling and I get to try and convey that. It’s really fun. It’s satisfying for me.

I’d much rather draw two people talking than two people fighting.

Rucka: I honestly think that’s it. Describing an action, “person is doing X, Y or Z”, I know Michael can execute that. The thing that’s always made working with Michael so great is I know…comics are capable of incredible subtlety, but they’re not often utilized for it. I know that Michael will dig his teeth into and rip the flesh from the bone of the quiet moments, and that I can give him a panel description that’s as…”Forever’s reacting, she’s doing the sort of aw shucks…it’s the type of reaction a 16-year old girl would have if she was just told she was pretty.” You know he’s going to nail not only that reaction, but the right instinct of it.

It’s relatively easy for me to say that “this is the moment,” but even when I write “this is what’s happening in the panel” there’s still a selection of instances in there. Michael’s instinct is unerring, and I remember writing the panel you’re talking about. I knew he was going to nail it.

I remember in “Half a Life” and we’re talking about the phone hanging up, to me it’s the moment where I was trying to explain, it’s the moment where Renee was telling Dario to go back inside. The panel description was “she’s doing that thing that David Caruso used to so well on NYPD Blue before he imploded, where it’d look like he was asserting control of the situation.” If you look at the panel, it’s dead on. There’s no visual for that. I gave that description to Michael, and the panel is the quintessential Renee Montoya panel in my opinion.

You work with an artist like that, and you cannot…collaboration requires trust. When we are at our best, our communication is open, we are absolutely honest, and we’re unafraid of what the other person is going to say.

Lark: That’s not true. (laughter)

The trust level is extremely high. I know Greg’s never going to phone in a script for me, and I know he’s going to have worked as hard on a script as I am on the pages.

It helps that we know these characters. I was telling somebody yesterday that I’m sure that Forever has changed a bit after you saw me draw her. We’re both getting to know these characters at the same time. For me, it’s easy when Greg says she’s reacting like a 16-year old girl who was just told she’s pretty because I know Forever, and I know how she’ll react.

It helps when Greg describes her that way, and it’s not that difficult.

Rucka: It’s not difficult for you. (laughter) I couldn’t draw it.

Lark: It’s my super power.

The page mentioned from #2

There’s another sequence in issue #2, the silent sequence where Forever is being chased by Mason. I think it’s funny where I think of another team doing that, I feel like it would be overloaded with narration and words. You guys trust in each other to tell a sequence like that. It allows for storytelling that fits really specifically to the comic book medium.

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Lark: I get a lot of panels in the scrip that say “no copy.” I love that.

Rucka: Me too. (laughter)

Lark: You know, none of the panels say “no drawings.”

Rucka: We can do a sequence in pitch black if you want. (laughter)

It’s funny that you talk about that sequence, what dialogue is there? That’s the thing. I looked around and wondered, “do I do crowd noise?”

I absolutely know that when Michael draws that decrepit shantytown, you’re going to hear it because of what he has drawn. Anything I’m going to write will only detract. That’s a get out of the way sequence.

Lark: That was a really fun sequence, though. It was just fun. We’re saying there is no copy, and nobody is saying anything, but there’s just as much script for those pages as anything else. Greg is letting me know what’s going on. I don’t have to do much guesswork, if any.

Let’s talk about the secret players, the ones who are helping out. Brian Level on art assist, Eric Trautmann who is helping with publication design and bringing the timeline to life, and David Brothers. And Santi. What do they bring to the table? How do they help make Lazarus what it is?

Lark: Well, I can talk about Brian and Santi.

Brian is helping me out with the inks. For me, it’s a lot of work to pencil and ink an issue every month. It takes me six to eight weeks every issue, and if we have an issue coming out every month, well that’s just not going to happen.

Rucka: You can see the problem (laughter).

Lark: Brian is incredibly dependable. I challenge anybody to pick out the backgrounds that Brian has inked vs. the backgrounds that I have inked. He’s great. He’s fantastic. I’m going to hang on to him until someone else discovers that he’s a great inker and a great artist in his own right, doing his own gig.

He’s really great. I’m really happy to have him onboard.

Rucka: You know what you’re doing right now? You’re advertising for Brian Level.

Hire Brian Level. (laughter)

Lark: Hire Brian Level, but wait a couple years. (laughter) Sorry Brian!

Again, Santi…I’ve really grown to trust Santi over the past four issues with stuff. There was a sequence in issue four with intercutting during the fight scene…Greg sent me the script and I think he was a little unsure of it. I know he worked really hard on that, and he wasn’t sure how it would work.

Immediately to me, color was going to be what made it work. “We’re going to separate each thing out with a different color” and Santi just knocked the ball out of the park with it. He’s done it on really, really tight timeframes. The guy is amazing.

I’m not making it easy on him when he’s getting the last half of the issue with less than a week to go before the deadline. I’m sorry Santi, I hope I don’t do that to you any more.

Rucka: He gets the meritorious service award. Above and beyond.

Lark: Let’s send him a patch (laughter).

The Carlyle family patch

He’s now a Carlyle officially.

Rucka: I wouldn’t wish that on anybody (laughs). I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. I suppose if you’re living in that future, your life is better if you get to wear the patch.

At least you’re not the Waste.

Rucka: Exactly. You get a roof and three squares.

Trautmann I’ve known for a long time now. I knew him when he was still doing story bibles for Microsoft. I did two Perfect Dark novels with him as an editor. He’s a co-writer, a friend…he does world building like nobody’s business. He’s always done his own graphic design stuff.

The way it started was we asked, “how are we going to layout the back matter in issue one?” Eric came in and we started talking about back matter for issue two, and he proposed the timeline. That’s like the whipped cream on my sundae. I looked forward to…part of my process each month is prepping back matter and we write it up and we lay it out. It’s been fantastic.

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Eric’s also created a lot of the little computer artifacts inside. It’s funny, if you look at it on ComiXology, far less than on print, but if you look digitally and you go a little closer, you can see some of the world building details that are coming out as a result.

Basilisk keeps coming up as the communication system. All the comms windows when Forever is talking to her window or other military comms, they’re using Basilisk communication. That’s now something in the world. That’s now in my bible, and I love that kind of stuff. The danger in that kind of world building is we’ll go all the way down the rabbit hole.

Here’s an example. The back matter in issue #4 which is basically the collapse of the US, it’s late X-12 and X-13, and it covers three separate instances and it links them. The last instance being “Bloody Tuesday”, which is presaged by the Pendleton Five. That’s the heading. He lives in Washington, I live in Oregon, and I was up at the comic store his wife runs and owns, and we were doing that, and by the time I get back home there’s a five page, single spaced PDF that he’s batted out, about this unit that I had mentioned in the script for #5.

He’s now written the whole unit history, he’s tied it into the Pendleton Five, he’s done a draft design of the unit insignia. (laughter) I thought, “Dude, didn’t you go to sleep?”

Lark: Greg said they had customized their armor, the guys in the unit, and I was thinking that Eric likes that kind of military design. I had asked Eric if he had any ideas or anything, and I wasn’t expecting a short novella about these guys and their history.

I don’t think he did any of the custom armor designs that I had asked him to do, he just did the other stuff.

Rucka: He has some ideas for it.

Let’s talk about David Brothers.

Rucka: When you have an editor on a comic in particular, there are different types. Sometimes what you need from an editor is for them to be a policeman, or more specifically a traffic cop, where they’re blowing the whistle and saying, “okay, I need pages! Where are the colors?!”

The thing that I’m more getting out of David as our editor is that, we don’t really need a traffic cop. We’re well aware of where we are in the traffic and how quickly we need to go and where the red lights are. What I personally like about David is he is really fucking smart. I mean, really fucking smart.

I do better, like most people, when I can work with smart people. I can call Michael and say “here is this thing” and I know Michael and I will be discussing on the same level. And I know I can get a good response, a considered response, from David. A response that is going to make what we’re doing better. That’s across the board. That affects every aspect of the book, the writing, the art, the design, the production. He’s terrific. I’m very, very happy to be working with him.

Lark: He’s also got a really calm temperament.

Rucka: He hasn’t freaked out on us! (laughter)

Last question: the first arc ended with some interesting news.

Rucka: People just don’t realize that was just spam.

Was it from a prince in Kuwait?

Rucka: Everybody gets those. (laughter)

So far, we’ve focused on the Carlyle part of the world. Where is the next arc going to take us, and what can we expect from it?

Lark: We’re finally going to meet some Waste. We’re going to follow some Waste around. We’re going to see what their lives are like. That doesn’t mean we’re going to go away from the Carlyle family, they are still very much a part of it. Those two families are going to come together.

Rucka: It’s probably fair to say we are still with Forever. You’re actually going to see some back-story. We meet a family of Waste called the Barrett’s, mom and dad and sister and brother. They are not urban waste. They are rural waste. In issue five, the first issue of the arc, something happens and it forces them to have to reevaluate how they’re trying to survive. They are Carlyle subjects, and to carry the feudal imagery further, they are peasants working on the land rather than in the city.

The arc is called “Lift” because one of the things the arc is about is how Carlyle manages the Waste, and how the Waste survives and attempts to get out of the hellish life that they are in. That’s juxtaposed pretty tightly with Forever having to deal with the repercussions of the first arc, and in particular, having to stay close to Johanna.

Jo…Jo is a lot more complicated than people think. You might come out of the first arc and think, “oh, I get her.” You’d expect her relationship with Forever to be bratty or bitchy, but it isn’t at all. You read in the first issue they give Forever oxytocin to make her fonder of her family, but the fact of the matter is if someone loves you, not in the creepy stalkerish way, if someone is sincerely affectionate to you, it’s difficult not to respond to that.

David Harper