Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2004 : Interview:

Interview with Arvid Nelson

Arvid Nelson created, with artist Eric Johnson, the comic book series Rex Mundi. The first volume, Guardians of the Temple, was released earlier this year. Nelson is unique among writers in that writing the story is only the first step in bringing Rex Mundi to life, as we shall discover...

Eric Emmanuel Macaulay: Tell us a little about Rex Mundi and what drove you to write this story.

Arvid Nelson: Rex Mundi is a quest for the Holy Grail told as a murder mystery. It's set in 1933 in an alternate-history Europe where magic is real and the Protestant Reformation never happened. There's much more information on our our website.

I came up with Rex Mundi the summer I graduated from college. I went to Paris to help film a documentary on the Paris Review, a literary magazine founded by spoiled Ivy League ex-pats in the 1950s. It was the first time I had been to Europe and it radically changed my view of the world. All the history that had seemed so dull and remote in high school became suddenly visceral and alive. My only prior experience of cities was American fare like New York and Boston, so I hadn't realized how beautiful a city could be. One day I was sitting across from a church at a café called Les Deux Magots, which is featured in Issue Two of Rex Mundi. A woman sitting with me told me the church had been built in the 800s by the Normans. In other words, it was over 1000 years old. That's when it occurred to me just how ancient the world is, how the weight of all those millennia accumulates and becomes so heavy it can almost crush a person. So I had an idea, very vague at the time, about a story set in a place that looked very modern but was actually very medieval. Rex Mundi was the result.

Arvid Nelson?

Someone purported to be Arvid Nelson

EEM: One of things that I've noted is how Americans who visit the Old World always notice "the history." I remember one guy remarking on how "young" he realized America was. Do you think lack of an appreciation of history is endemic to American culture? If so, what are its positive/negative consequences?

AN:  Yes, I do. It's not that America doesn't have just as much history as rest of the world, it's that we decided to bulldoze it and pave it all over. Many years ago my brother Malcolm found a beautiful quartz arrowhead in the woods outside the house I grew up in. It's eerie how completely the Indians have been erased from our consciousness. [Present-day] Americans sometimes don't respect the past. The negative consequences of this are probably being felt in Iraq right now. I think it was the same impulse that led {the} to the destruction of the old Penn Station in New York City. Sometimes I feel like America is a giant strip mall.

As to the positive, Julia Child might be a good example. Some Americans, and it's probably a reaction against the prevailing sentiment, are obsessed with "authenticity," much more so than Europeans, I'd say. I recall seeing Julia Child cooking with Jacques Pepin. They were making Caesar salad. Child was horrified when Pepin wanted to put chopped garlic directly into the dressing—the original recipe didn't call for it. "You have corrrrrrupted it!" she cried. Some Americans, and I'd like to think I'm in this camp, have an implacable yen for the "real" experience, probably because so much of what they're surrounded by seems artificial. I think it causes them to be fanatical conservationists about the things they're passionate for.

EEM: You spent several years researching Rex Mundi. But in an area as vast and complex as this you could conceivably spend the rest of your life reading. How did you know when to stop and start writing?

AN:  The reading and writing are actually concurrent processes. As I read I think of new things to include in the comic. At this point I've settled on most of the story, and I've more than had my fill of kooky "grail mystery" books. Henry Lincoln's work is interesting, but aside from him all Grail "researchers" seem like crackpots with the literary aptitudes of lower primates. I will projectile vomit if I have to suffer another dumb "secret of the Grail revealed" book, so I suppose I knew when to stop reading when I couldn't stand to read anymore.

EEM: This particular subject has been heavily mined for stories, as you yourself have pointed out. What new ideas does Rex Mundi bring to the table?

AN:  You'll just have to see. Halfway through we'll be where most Grail-inspired stories end. Beyond that is uncharted territory.

EEM: Now you're unique in that writing is but one of your responsibilities, right?

AN:  As far as I know! There are, of course, the great writer/artists like Dave Sim and Bryan Talbot, but for someone who's "just" a writer, I think I handle an unusual amount of the production. In fact, only ten percent of my time is spent writing. I also letter, webmaster, produce, and prepress Rex Mundi. It all started in college when I put together a comic book with some friends; we had to figure out how to do everything ourselves, so I took on a lot of the extra duties like lettering and laying in zippatone. When I started Rex Mundi many things naturally fell on my shoulders because we had to save money however we could.

There are advantages to lettering myself. It gives me one final edit of the dialog before it goes on the page. It also ensures the word balloons are the exact sizes and dimensions I want them to be. I'd say lettering is to writing what inking is to penciling.

EEM: Why did you feel that the graphic novel was the right medium in which to tell Rex Mundi? What does it allow you to do that prose couldn't?

AN:  I think the latest issues have demonstrated why this story really couldn't be told in a format other than comics, and if it were it would have to be radically altered. Rex Mundi deals with a 2,000-year-old mystery. It's peppered with codes, secret geometry, and historical recollections. The combination of words and pictures in comics allows us to present everything in a way that's manageable and exciting for the reader. We couldn't do half of what we're doing on screen or with straight text; it would either be didactic or disjointed.

EEM: Who are the writers that inspire you?

AN:  I love Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Clark Ashton Smith.

EEM: What's the hardest lesson you've learned?

AN:  In terms of business, it's that you get what you pay for. I have always regretted cutting corners and ended up spending more money than I would have doing things properly the first time. Jeromy, our colorist, takes a big rate cut to work with us, but he's still expensive. And by God he's worth it.

In a more spiritual, artistic sense, it's that nothing ever turns out as well as you imagine it could be. That old saying "paintings are never finished, only abandoned," is so true. Every time I finish an issue of Rex Mundi there are dozens of things I'm not happy with, dozens of things I know could be done better if I only had the time and resources. But you have to know when to let go. That's the hardest lesson and I'm not sure I've got it down yet.

EEM: In the past you spoke of the computer game character of Mannanan who frightened you "because he was so human and his power was immediate." Do you feel he serves as inspiration or the antagonists in Rex Mundi?

AN:  Well, not directly. When I write characters, I try to base them on people I have known. But I hope the villains in Rex Mundi inspire the same terror in my readers Mannanan inspired in me as a child! I also try to make my villains human, even sympathetic—that's part of the seduction of evil.

EEM: At the end of every chapter is a new edition of the newspaper Le Journal. Other than fleshing out the world of Rex Mundi a bit more for readers, what were your aims in creating it?

AN:  Adding depth to the world is my primary aim; the politics are simply too complex to exposit in the pages of the comic without being clumsy. I also interject little plot tidbits in the Le Journal pieces. None if it is critical to understanding the story, but I hope it's fun for readers to either see what the "official" version of events is or to know the fate of a secondary character.

EEM: You've said that email is what made Rex Mundi possible. Do you find such far-flung collaboration to be at times a double-edged sword?

AN:  Honestly, no. It would be nice to be able to see Eric and Jeromy more often, but we all have high-speed internet access, and cell phone calls are free after 9 p.m. I think we all feel pretty comfortable working at the distance we do.

EEM: Are there areas you would like to see technology improved so as to facilitate closer collaboration with (artist) EricJ and (colorist) Jeromy?

AN:  Again, [the] technology is all available. Sure, a faster internet connection and a faster computer would be nice, but we could produce Rex Mundi with computers from two generations ago. It's a lesson to anyone who wants to make a pro-quality comic book: all you need is a Macintosh G3 (or a comparable Wintel), a scanner, an inkjet printer, and some willpower. Until recently, Jeromy, our colorist, was using Photoshop 3 for all of his work. He's one of the top colorists around, and they're up to Photoshop 8 now. It just goes to show all the obsession with "upgrading" is sometimes mindless.

EEM: Of course, you don't just use tech in creation, you've got the web comic.

AN:  That's true. Brother Matthew, the Rex Mundi web comic, is great because it's instant gratification. As soon as an episode is done, bang, it's online for people to see. The problem with it is twofold: one, it's extremely time consuming, and two, it doesn't make any money. But it really helped Eric and me gel as a creative unit. It's also always available for free on our website, a sort of showcase for our talents. I don't regret any of the time we spent on it and I hope we can get to the next story—which I've written and I think is much better than the first—as soon as possible.

EEM: I read Guardian of the Temple and tried to imagine what it would have been like to have to wait two months (at least!) between chapters. There is no way I could have kept it up. When you say people should buy the single issues to get a trade paperback what you're really saying is that you're only targeting the diehards who will buy both the singles and then the compilation. But the paperbacks can do better. You can get people who will never enter a comic shop. In fact they're arguably where Rex Mundi's real audience lies. So why make them contingent on how the singles sell? Even Hollywood seems to have got this right. Cancelled shows like Wonderfalls and Firefly went quickly to DVD even though the shows did not do all that well...

AN:  Yeah. These are all really good questions. Truth is, comics are in a weird transitional phase now...transitioning to what I'm not sure, but the industry has been in decline for about ten years. Fewer and fewer people seem to go into comic book stores, even though movies like Spider Man are so successful.

Conventional wisdom is that graphic novels will save comics. I hope that proves to be the case, but I have my doubts. As I see it, the big McBarnes and Noble-type chain stores must start selling more graphic novels, and more people must be made aware of them. Problem is that right now those big stores don't stock very many Western comics. Japanese comics are doing extraordinarily well, and they deserve to, but I think that if comics like Rex Mundi got more attention from the big chains they could do comparably well.

All of this, of course, impacts the way we produce Rex Mundi. Sales of the single issues essentially subsidize the graphic novels. There is no way we could pay for the cost of producing 160+ full-color pages up front, but the single issues let us spread the costs. We wish we could produce more quickly, but you have to keep in mind Eric and I hold down day jobs and do a lot of the boring administrative crap for Rex Mundi ourselves. Rex Mundi doesn't make us any money, quite the opposite, in fact. By and large, the big bookstore chains don't carry it—I don't think I've ever seen it in a Barnes and Noble. However, it is carried by Amazon.com; that's a huge help, so maybe the internet is the answer to the problems comics are facing. But for now Rex Mundi is a labor of love for us.

EEM: There's no doubt you've chosen a hard road to hoe in creating Rex Mundi. What keeps you going?

AN:  Another great question! I keep thinking back to my last term in college when I put together my first comic book. I had never had so much fun in my life. My friends and I would stay up till three every morning drinking green tea, eating Little Debbie snack cakes, and waging psychological warfare on the staff of our college's "humor" magazine, with whom we shared equipment and office space. Holding that comic in my hand when it came back from the printer was better than heroin, or so I assume.

And here I am five years later, still chasing after that dream of writing for a living. Maybe I'm a just a junkie, looking for the perfection of that first high, the happiness of my last college term. But I'm also being published by Image Comics. I'd be a fool to complain about how hard it is because it's an incredible honor to have other people follow my story, to see my comic on the stands with everything else. What more could I ask for?


Copyright © 2004, Eric Macaulay. All Rights Reserved.

About Eric Macaulay

Eric Macaulay is a freelance writer living in the United Kingdom. In addition to conducting interviews he also writes computer programs.