For a Few Monkeys More: An Interview with Robotika's Alex Sheikman and David Moran

A comics interview article by: Rob Murray
For those of you who don’t know, Archaia Studios Press is producing some of the finest fantasy comics in the industry, comics such as Mouse Guard, Starkweather: Immortal, and Robotika. I had a chance to chat with Robotika’s Alex Sheikman and Dave Moran about their newest mini-series, For a Few Rubles More. As you’ll see, we talked about a wide range of topics, from influences and fight sequences to monkeys and.... a Skrull?

Robert Murray: How did you two get together to collaborate on For a Few Rubles More?

David Moran: Long story short, Alex actually contacted me after reading a review I wrote for the first issue of the first Robotika series. It was a mostly favorable review, and even in the parts where I was critical, Alex still seemed open and accepting of my criticism. All he was generally interested in doing, I discovered, was making Robotika the best, most compelling story possible.

He actually solicited my opinion on what I thought worked and didn’t work in the first issue (apart from what I mentioned in my review), which I happily sent his way – in a six-page email!

From there, we traded emails every few weeks, and it soon became apparent that we shared many of the same tastes in comics, movies, and books. And, of course, whenever a new issue of Robotika would come out, Alex would get another lengthy email.

Somewhere along the line, Alex discovered that I was a writer myself (I mean other than of comic book reviews and lengthy email chains), and when Archaia green lit the Robotika follow-up, Alex asked me if I’d like to help him plot the book and do the scripting honors.

Our email threads were getting pretty long at this point, so I didn’t foresee too much of an increase in my workload, so I said sure.

Alex Sheikman: I can only add that apart from discovering that Dave and I enjoy many of the same pop-culture stuff, I also noticed that Dave was very tuned to telling stories through visual media. That is a very important factor in collaboration like ours.

RM: Alex, have the illustration chores changed from the last series due to Dave’s input? How has Dave’s scripting changed you as a comic book creator?

AS: Having Dave involved brought some very unexpected benefits. In the beginning I felt that I really needed Dave’s help with the basic story structure. Looking back at the first series, my impression was that the issues were uneven from number to number, and not every installment had a nice balance between action, character development, and set-up/hook for the next issue.

Dave definitely delivered that balance by taking my outline and writing up treatments for every issue in the series. But also because Dave took over the dialogue scripting, which I was never very comfortable doing, I felt…liberated. I stopped worrying about exactly what each and every character was going to say. I knew that was in good hands, so I focused on the drawing, especially body language and facial expressions that would go along with the dialogue. It is just so nice to be able to concentrate on something without distractions and really pour myself into it.

Working with Dave showed me how exciting collaboration can be. When folks who work together are on the “same wavelength” it is possible to have lots of fun AND be productive.

RM: Alex, the fight scenes are truly electric in the first issue. How do you inject so much energy into your panel constructions?

AS:Thank you. I actually put a lot of thought in the fight sequences because my natural inclination is to draw the scenes either right before or right after the action, leaving the fighting up to the reader’s imagination. I believe that it is very important (and artistically rewarding) to capture the energy that is present in the air both before and after the fight. When I do draw action sequences, I try to work out the whole fight in my head before I even put pencil to paper.

The fight scenes in the first issue are mostly centered on a bar brawl and as such do not have a continuous flow to them. In a situation like that, I felt it would be better to create chaotic looking action with characters being punched and thrown any which way in a very claustrophobic space. In the second issue, actual fighting or dueling between individual characters occurs and these fights I worked out in detail before I picked the angles and the compositions that I thought would make the storytelling flow.

In fact, because one of the fights was very involved, I ended-up asking for help from a jujitsu instructor, John Nguyen, who teaches at my gym. John was very gracious and patient with his explanations. It also turned out that Bruce Lee was one of his inspirations and because of that he had a pretty good handle on how physical action translates in visually oriented mediums like movies and comics. At one point I even brought a camera in and took some photos of John posing in different scenarios. It was a very educational experience for me.

Dave, was it easier or more difficult to write a comic book with the series’ creator as a collaborator? What drew you in to Robotika?

DM: Easier, I’d have to say, primarily because Alex is so accepting of others ideas and easy to work with.

Coming on board at first I was actually a little leery because I’d never done this sort of collaboration before, and I didn’t know how “married” Alex would be to his ideas. After all, I was playing with someone else’s toys…and you never want to break someone else’s toys.

Fortunately, I discovered that he wasn’t very wedded to too much, and what he was wedded to about the first series was all the stuff that I primarily enjoyed about the book myself. Before we even started working together, I sent Alex a pretty long email detailing all the things that I thought worked well in the first series…and also some of the things that I thought worked, uh, not so much.

Then I was a little nervous until I actually heard back from Alex, because I didn’t know what his response or reaction was going to be (although, I figured I’d get a pretty good idea of what our working relationship was going to be [or not be] based on his response). Like I said, Alex was accepting of the fact that not everything in the first series worked out exactly as he had planned.

And the more I read my response over here, the more it sounds like I’m being overly critical of the first Robotika series, which I’m not. I was first and foremost a fan of the initial series, and I don’t want to run it down, I just felt there were some things that could have been tightened, further fleshed out, or completely left out for the new series in order to craft a more compelling story. So far, the response to the new series seems to be very, very favorable, so I guess we did something right. And wait ‘til you see where things go from here…

RM: Dave, I haven’t read any of your work previously. Are there any past or future works you’d like to discuss?

DM: Robotika: For A Few Rubles More is my first published comic book work. I wasn’t one of the those guys who was looking to “break into comics” at the time that Alex, uh, ‘discovered” me…but that was mainly because I was living in New York at the time and trying to break into the Film and Literary world…when I wasn’t wasting every other waking hour working, so I could pay my grossly exorbitant New York City rent.

But I’ve had so much fun getting the chance to work on Robotika with Alex, that I’ve since started cooking up loads of ideas for my own comic creations someday (most of which are sitting in a folder on my desktop at the moment). And I’m currently working on a graphic novel adaptation of the story of Gilgamesh, which I hope to have completed shortly, and then go shopping for a publisher (and artist).

RM: Inquiring minds want to know: Was the change in Cherokee’s dialogue boxes due to fan criticism or was it a personal style decision?

AS When I first conceived of doing Cherokee’s vertical dialogue, I wanted to make a statement about communication and at the same time be a little playful with people’s expectations. I believe I have achieved both of those goals, but at the time I did not realize just how hard it was going to be to implement and that the orientation of the dialogue was going to pull some readers out of the story. The fact that some were pulled out of the story by the text was the most disturbing, because as a storyteller I want people to live in the world of Robotika while they are reading the book. So I guess the change was a result of both of those factors.

The tricky part was how to work the change into the story to make it fit the scenario and the character. I think the final solution works, and it leaves space for me to experiment further some time in the future (because after all, if there are different setting, who knows what setting the switch will click to next time Cherokee gets kicked in the head?)

RM: To the uninitiated, can you briefly describe the concept of Robotika and the plot of "For a Few Rubles More?"

DM: Uh, the future sucks, and there’s a lot of bad people in it looking to do bad things to you. And nanobotic-narcotics, cyborgs, mutants, a fascist dictatorship, a browbeaten and cowered populace, bad bad lands where you don’t want to even think about venturing into (which, ironically, are where are heroes seem primarily to always wind up), and a monkey or two (my esteemed contribution to the new series).

And, in the future, whenever you have the opportunity to take the train, even though it might cost you A Few Rubles More, take the train. Always take the train.

RM: What should readers look forward to in the next three issue of Robotika?

DM: I already mentioned the monkey, what more could you possibly want?

…Okay, okay… How about: TONS of action and intrigue, eye-popping action scenes, some really big, really emotional, really surprising deaths (don’t think I’m spilling the beans here, though), one heck of a sword fighting tournament, at least one of our protagonists finding love, another coming face-to-face with his nemesis, and someone loses at least one significant part of their body. And at least one major character is revealed to be a Skrull (no, I’m lying…sorry…).

Not sold yet?

AS One thing I can mention is the longest fight in comic book history. The confrontation starts on the third page of #2 and does not end until page 25 of #3…in a very surprising way.

You have added more humor to this title than the last mini-series possessed. Was this an intentional addition?

DM: Wait, are you saying that the monkey is funny? Does it amuse you? Is it some sort of a clown-monkey, is that it?

If I can get serious for a moment here, or at least as serious as I can get, this is something I brought to Alex’s attention when we first started trading emails back and forth about this series. I noticed that there was a fair amount of humor in the first series, but that it wasn’t a comedy, and I mentioned that I’d like to try and continue that tradition in the new series (because I’m sometimes told I’m quite a funny guy…usually by women…and, usually, never as a compliment…). But it’s not as thought Robotika is now a full-out comedy. As the ridiculous amount of action, ass-kickery and explody we’ve packed into the next three issues I think should clearly prove.

Oh, and don’t forget that monkey.

RM: Besides the obvious Sergio Leone touches, what outside influences contributed to For a Few Rubles More?

DM: Yeah, Leone’s a pretty obvious touch, and so is Kurosowa. Other Western and Samurai flicks, too. And, of course, the grand tradition of bleakly dystopian futuristic worlds like in Mad Max, Blade Runner and, of course, Planet of the Apes.

We’re both really big Robert Altman fans, too. And, of course, all my old film school classmates have already tasted the John Ford in the script of the first issue (tastes like chicken!).

AS Anything and everything. Comics, movies, books…just recently I really got into manga and Korean manhwa. I actually think that there are some cultural precedents that make manhwa a little bit difficult for me to completely understand, but I love some of the energy that I see in the character designs and storytelling in books like “Shaman Warrior”.

RM: Do you have any celebrities in mind that influenced the looks of Cherokee, Bronski, and Niko?

AS Actually, I do sometimes “cast” certain personas into roles, however what happens is that as I keep drawing them over and over they take on a life of their own. They might retain some certain characteristics of the original physiognomy, but they are very different looking from the original persona. For example, the main antagonist, Honcho, is based on Lee Van Cleef, but mostly what he has retained from that is the hawkish nose, almond eyes, and high cheek bones.

The interesting fact about Honcho is that he has made an appearance in the first mini-series. In the back-up drawn by Leif Jones, Honcho takes out Bronski’s eye with a branding iron and sets him on the path to becoming an outlaw. Leif has used Lee Van Cleef as the model for Honcho, but when I started drawing him in “For A Few Rubles More” I shaved his head and his moustache…so I am not sure how similar Honcho looks from series to series.

RM: I noticed that Niko plays a much more subdued role in the first issue of For a Few Rubles More. Will this continue, or will he make his presence known in future issues?

DM: Niko’s story sort of slowly builds to a pretty significant climax by the end of the series…but if I said more, I’d spoil some things (nice try, though, Robert!).

Don’t worry, though, by series end Niko will have gotten plenty of “screen time.”

RM: The dialogue has a very good and appropriate rhythm. What kind of process goes into the characters’ dialogue?

DM: I actually hear all the voices in my head, and then I just write them out on paper.

A lot of people have told me that this is something that I should probably be worried about, but I’m not…at least not until the monkey starts talking to me

AS OK, that right there explains a lot…

RM: Any plans for the next Robotika series?

DM: Yes. Two words: Noir, baby.

AS It would be awesome to continue working and developing Robotika. The truth of the matter is, that just like any story, Robotika needs to find an audience that is interested in its story, art and characters. If we can build a readership, there will be lots of new Robotika material…did someone say ”Noir, baby”?

RM: What comics do you both read in your spare time?

DM: I seem to be in the process of compiling the world’s greatest unread comics collection. I buy a lot of stuff…but I seem to have less and less time to actually read most of it.

The latest Hellboy or Goon trades are two Wednesday purchases whenever they come out, Kirkman’s Invincible is fun, almost anything by Grant Morrison of late, I’ve really been digging Messiah CompleX, and I’ve just gotten into Matt Wagner’s Grendel in a MAJOR way, so I’ve been reading lots and lots of old Grendel trades of late.

AS Right now I am very much enjoying reading Ultimates volumes 1 and 2, which I missed when they originally came out. After that I got the 3 volumes of “Bird” by Carlos Trillo and Juan Bobillo waiting for me. I loved Bobillo’s work on “She-Hulk” so I was very excited to find out that he has some of his European comics translated into English. I also just recently really enjoyed reading Moon Knight Annual #1 by Duane Swierczynski, and I read a number of Archaia’s title including Mouse Guard and The Engineer.

RM: How has the creative experience been with Archaia (ASP) as your publisher?

AS Mark and Aki, ASP’s publishers, have been excellent. Both of them are totally supportive of Robotika and together with Brian Petkash are working very hard to raise awareness about the book. The book is kind of a tough sell, because it does not nicely fit into any particular category. But that never turned them off about the material and they have been very forthcoming with advice and help. I just really lucked out when Robotika ended-up under their publishing banner.

RM: What would you say to entice Comics Bulletin readers to buy your comic book?

AS There are a lot of great books out there coming out every week. I know that everyone works very hard to get their ideas and their visions out on the weekly shelves, so it’s kind of weird to try to convince folks to pick our book instead of someone else’s. I do know that Dave and I have worked on this series for over a year, and we have put a lot of care into every page and we hope that our dedication and passion shows through. We have tried to make every issue as engrossing and as entertaining as we can…hope the preview art will peak your readers’ interest to seek the book out for a closer look.

DM: Dudes (and dudettes): Monkey. “Nuff said.

RM: Could either of you last a day in the world of Robotika?

AS Only if everyone agrees to follow my carefully choreographed fight sequences.

DM: I’m a runner, so I’d just run away from everyone. But I don’t know if I could run for 24 hours straight…nor am I in much of a hurry to find out.

While Alex is Russian, and that’s the country that invented Siberia, Gulags, and really, really tedious 19th Century novels, so if I had to put any money on either of us, I’d probably bet on Alex myself. And then take a dive!

Even I like them odds.

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