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How the West Was Won

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This June Alex Sheikman and David Moran's Robotika returns from Archaia Studios Press in the second miniseries Robotika: For A Few Rubles More ( Diamond Code: APR09 0652 ). Set in an elaborate future civilisation this critically acclaimed series follows the travels of Niko, Cherokee Geisha and Bronski in genre-crossing adventures that combine elements of the western, Japanese culture and out-and-out science fiction.

Robotika's creator Alex Sheikman spoke to us about the book's conception and what we can expect from the second series. For more about how to ensure your retailer orders you a copy of Robotika: For A Few Rubles More check out the easy to use coupon on Alex's blog. We have also reproduced the coupon at the end of this interview.

BROKEN FRONTIER: A steampunk samurai western with sci-fi overtones... would that be a fair way to describe Robotika Alex? For readers unfamiliar with the book what is the central premise?

ALEX SHEIKMAN: I call Robotika: the first steampunk sushi western. This is a reference to the great Italian spaghetti westerns from the ‘60s and ‘70s that continue to fascinate me. Since Robotika take place in futuristic Japan, "sushi western" seemed appropriate.

Robotika is my attempt to retell the story of a warrior's quest for a purpose and identity...ultimately it’s my take on the timeless story of a tragic hero's journey.

The first Robotika series introduces all the major characters and opens a window into the world of Robotika. Niko is the djihit, a member of the elite bodyguard assigned to protect The Queen, and he is sent on a quest to recover something that has been stolen from the palace. Originally, this was going to be a huge homage to the James Bond films and I was going to call it Robotika: In Her Majesty's Service but I sort of got away from it, so even though Niko has some pretty wild adventures, it is just called Robotika.

The second series, Robotika: For A Few Rubles More, picks up right after the first series. I tried to make it a good jumping on point for new readers who might like to try the book (without having to read the original series).

For A Few Rubles More, as you can tell from the title, is all western (with samurai and Cossacks in it…in fact I was wondering if I should rename Robotika as the first ever borsch western) and has the classic elements of a small town that is in trouble and the heroes becoming the unwilling participants in the drama. It does have a few different twists that I think folks will find interesting but it is all about revenge, love, and brutality that can be found on the fringe of civilization.

BF: Can you tell us a little bit about the motivations and background of your three central protagonists Niko, Bronski and Cherokee Geisha?

AS: I tried to create personalities that would be complimentary to each other and thus help me in my storytelling…but somehow the different characters ended up a bit different with their own personalities. I know that sounds odd. How could a fictional character that I created, be something different than what I intend it to be? The truth is, I started out with Cherokee as someone who was going to be as good a warrior as Niko, but just more obnoxious and loudmouthed. Since Niko does not say anything (yes, my main character has not said a word…yet) I was going to use Cherokee as someone to "talk" for both of them. Well, Cherokee is indeed loudmouthed and she is indeed good with the sword, but she is also very insecure and an emotionally damaged individual. Her main goal is to be recognized as a "dangerous individual", which she believes will make her happy.

Bronski, who was supposed to the non-nonsense bandit to counter Cherokee’s bluster, is the "dangerous individual" that Cherokee aspires to be, but he also turned out a poet with a good sense of humor and someone who just sort of got forced into the life of violence. And once he found himself living the life of an outlaw, he can’t find a way out…

Niko was the guy who really surprised me. I made Niko up to be the strong, silent type. The perfect "man with no name". In the beginning of the first series, Niko does not display any emotion whatsoever and that was (as readers discovered by the end of the first series) because Niko is not really human…nor is he a machine. He is something new and I sort of struggled with how to develop that…and here is where I got surprised. As I started writing the second series together with David Moran, Niko just sort of "grew-up", with a nice sense of humor, honor, and a need for justice.

BF: The world of Robotika is a very elaborate and detailed one. Just how much of the characters’ environment and society do you have mapped out in your fertile imagination?

AS: The "World of Robotika" is pretty well defined in my head and I have sketchbooks full of little details about Niko's reality and in fact I see the environment as one of the characters in the story. However, I have made a choice not to explain all of that right out for the reader. My approach is based on my experience as a child immigrating to the USA from USSR. When my family came to California, I had very little knowledge of English and no understanding of American culture and I was just submerged into a new experience. I present Robotika like that. I do not explain how the future works, I just draw it and I let the reader look through the panels and figure it out for themselves...like I did when I was a kid in San Francisco.

In this I ask for the reader to participate with me in the comic book and be a part of it.

BF: What were your inspirations for the series? Both in terms of comics and the obvious cinematic influences in your pages...

AS: The umbrella answer is that everything has inspired me in one way or another. Comics, books, illustration, cinema, music...everything that I came into contact and has inspired me to think and daydream is a part of all of my artistic efforts.

A more narrow answer would be that works by Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and George Miller are "front and center" in the parade of influences as they relate to the feel that I wanted to bring across in the environment.

I believe that storytelling in comics is way different than it is in cinema. Because both are very visual, lots of people believe that they are the same, I think that there are some similar aspects, but they are two different mediums. When it comes to comics, Rodolfo Damaggio and Ryan Sook are tops in my opinion. Their stories are so thoughtfully crafted, so neatly laid out, it is a pleasure reading the stories that they worked on. I can only hope that someday I will reach the same level of ability.

I am self-taught, so I learn from books and looking at artwork. It's hard for me to define any particular influence in the style of the artwork because when I look at art, a lot of the time I don't look at the structure but rather at technique (the way the cross hatching is done, the way the shadows are applied, the type of rendering done with different tools). There are definitely artists whose work has inspired me through out the years. I can't wait to get back to the drawing board after I see work by guys like Michael Golden, Frank Frazetta, Chris Bachalo, Jose Garcia-Lopez, Frank Quitely, Guy Davis, JH Williams, Leyendecker...the list just goes on.

BF: As a Brit, to me Robotika’s eclectic mix of genres always seems like something that would really appeal to the 2000AD fans out there. Are you familiar with the European comics scene to any great degree?

AS: I am not as familiar with the European/international comics scene as I would like to be. There is so much good work out there that it is impossible to buy it all.

With Amazon it is relatively easy to get British publications and I have been able to buy collections of work by Frazer Irving (all excellent and highly inspirational), Frank Quitely and Colin MacNeil's Shimura, John Bolland's early Judge Dredd work, as well as some classic strips by Frank Bellamy. I was even able to buy some older reprints of John Bolton's horror and fantasy pen and ink work. Just beautiful.

I also try to follow the French editions of the work by Oliver Vatine, Claire Wendling, and Benoit Springer (in fact I wrote to Benoit via e-mail and was able to strike up a dialogue and eventually he contributed an awesome Robotika pin-up).

I am also a big fan of some of the Italian and Spanish artist (mostly through French reprints of their work) guys like Sergio Toppi, Dino Battaglia, and AH Palasios simply amaze me. Their ideas about storytelling are definitely more geared toward illustrating pages rather than having a smooth flow from panel to panel, but their work is simply beautiful.

In the last few years I have also started paying a lot more attention to Japanese comics. Just about anything by Otomo Katsuhiro (although my favorite will always be Domu) and Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike Goseki Kojima is just fantastic in storytelling and draftsmanship.

BF: One of the big draws, and joys, of the first run was your willingness to experiment structurally with storytelling and layouts. Even sound effects and speech balloons were presented with neat visual tricks that added to the reading experience. Can we expect the same level of innovation in For A Few Rubles More?

AS: The first series was a great learning experience. I came in with a bunch of ideas of how I was going to present the story and try to involve the reader in the storytelling. I wanted the reader to participate and Cherokee's dialogue being vertical was one of those hooks that I wanted to use. The idea was that Cherokee spoke a different language and was not always understood by other characters, however I wanted the reader to be able to always understand what she said...but still know that her way of communicating was foreign. I also wanted for the readers to be able to progress with the other characters, in being able to learn how to understand Cherokee as the series continued. This was again something that I drew from my immigration experience.

I have tried other hooks throughout the story and the feedback was that sometimes it worked...and sometimes it just interfered with the story, by making it too difficult to follow (and the vertical dialogue used by Cherokee was one of the latter).

So in the second series I have tried very hard to introduce new storytelling ideas, but in such a way as to not ruin the reading experience. I think the most important lesson that I learned was: "It is good to experiment and try to be inventive, but always consider what effect experimentation will have on the presentation of the story and how it will influence the reader."

So the short answer is "yeah, there will be some fun stuff, but it will be more seamless this time".

BF: Can you elaborate a little on your writing partnership with collaborator David Moran. Why did you bring David in for the second series and what does he bring to the mix?

AS: I feel that I am a much better artist than I am a writer. When I have a free chunk of time, I take out a piece of paper and start sketching instead of writing. That is what I enjoy doing and that is how I see the world...in pictures.

After I finished the first series, I got to sit down and think about what I wanted to do with the second series. I wanted to make sure I made the second series the best it could be, and I decided that apart from improving the art and how my line work interacted with color and lettering I was going to bring in a real writer. Someone who thinks in words, and not in pictures.

Comics have a rich tradition of collaborative efforts, where everyone is contributing their strengths to tell the best story in the most exciting way and I thought Robotika would benefit from something like that. I was right! David is an awesome writer. He took my outlines for individual issues and fleshed them out into full scripts adding characters and new beats to the story. His involvement made the story much richer and stronger. If the first series had an almost dreamlike feel about it, the second series is a rip-roaring adventure story...with a bit of dreamy artwork quality to it.

BF: Colorists are often the unsung heroes in the creative process so I have to mention Joel Chua’s work on the book. His coloring really is quite stunning...

AS: I feel I really lucked out with getting Joel to work on the series. Mark Smylie, the Archaia editor, found Joel and brought him to work on the book and Joel has been a joy. The first series was the first real color book that I have done (not counting odds and ends) so I did not even think much about color. After seeing what Joel was capable of, I got really inspired and for the second series I applied myself and used color as part of the storytelling (this is part of experimentation that we talked about earlier). So Joel got pretty long color notes from me...he never complained, just turned in the best possible jobs I could hope for.

BF: The book has certainly caught the attention of your fellow pros with both Ted McKeever and Ron Marz writing forewords for the hardcover collection of the first series. That must be hugely encouraging for you.

AS: I am humbled by the fact that these guys, whose work I follow and enjoy so much, are reading my work and think it is worth their time.

I must say that doing this series has really been a terrific experience. I have met so many folks who are my heroes, like Guy Davis, Tony Salmons, Ted McKeever, Ron Marz, Sandy Plunkett, Timothy Green...it's been pretty sweet.

BF: How do you feel you have developed as a creator between the original Robotika miniseries and For A Few Rubles More?

AS: Here is an honest answer:

I have been thinking and talking about doing comics for years. I have read all sorts of books about storytelling and I have talked to a lot of my friends who are professional comic book artists and I have always spent a lot of time drawing pin-ups and different designs. So once I made a leap to commit to doing a comic book it should have been a "snap".

Oh, man…there is no substitute (at least for me) for actually doing the work. The first series turned out to be a crash course in storytelling, composition, anatomy, lettering, coloring, printing and scheduling.

I am bringing a lot more experience to the second series. Hopefully a more mature rendering style, better grip on storytelling, a better understanding of how color will interact with my line work, and most importantly a better story.

BF: Do you have more planned for the characters and their world after their latest adventure? And are there any other projects on the horizon you’d like to tell us about?

AS: If the second series is well received and sells enough copies to be printed, I would love to do the third Robotika installment: Robotika: The Big Switch. This will be my homage to all the great crime noir films (and in fact I want to do it in black and white) and it would finish Niko’s, Cherokee’s and Bronski’s quest.

Apart from that I have done some short stories, like "The Odd Ball", that experiment with storytelling timing and will hopefully be printed in upcoming anthologies.

Robotika: For A Few Rubles More goes on sale from Archaia Studios Press this June priced $4.99. Diamond order Code: APR09 0652. For more information on ordering the book from your local retailer check out Alex Sheikman's blog here or print out and fill in the coupon reproduced above right.

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