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Of Mechanics and Samurais

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After a few years spent away from the comic book industry, Alex Sheikman returns with Robotika, a new bi-monthly, four-issue mini series of which the first issue was released yesterday from Archaia Studios Press.

Chances are that you're one of many who went "Alex Who?" when reading the previous sentence. No biggie, Sheikman fully understands that most comic fans don't remember or have never heard his name before. While there are no hard feelings on his part, the writer/artist intends to make sure that you know who he is once you've turned the final page of Robotika. 

BROKEN FRONTIER: Some comic fans may vaguely remember you from the Stingray story you did for Marvel Comics Presents or from Slave Labor’s Bloodlust, among a few other stories. How come it’s taken you this long to resurface?

ALEX SHEIKMAN: “Vaguely" is probably the best way to remember my past comic book work. I was lucky enough to got out into the field, put in the work, and I tried to do the best work I could at the time. But I felt that my storytelling skills just were not developed enough to make quality comics. By "quality comics" I mean comics that I, as a fan, would buy myself off the shelf. That was a very disappointing realization, but I knew that I really wanted to tell stories through comics and I decided that the best thing I could do was to try working at it.  I started concentrating on getting work in the Role Playing (RPG) market, doing illustrations and all the meanwhile trying to learn as much as I could about how to tell stories.

I feel that I learned a lot in the last few years and I am very excited about putting my new skills to the real test of trying to create a comic series that folks will enjoy on a number of different levels.

BF: Robotika is a comic that blends robots, sci-fi and ancient eastern culture together. Why did you opt for a genre-bending story instead of a clear-cut sci-fi or samurai story?

AS: I never though of Robotika as a "gender-bender", it was just a story that naturally worked itself out in my head. Now that you asked this question, I am starting to wonder if working in the RPG industry for a number of years had some sort of subliminal effect on me. In a very short time I worked on horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction projects. I was always switching between genres, and sometimes even working on two different projects at the same time. Maybe that influenced me.

I also feel that juxtaposing elements from opposite ends of a spectrum makes for an interesting situation. Thus taking Niko, who follows the "old fashion" Bashido (way of a warrior), and placing him in a society that is spinning out of control with it's acceptance of decadence, created a good stage to tell my story.

BF: What aspects about the story make Robotika more than just a mix of the basic ingredients found in titles like, for example, The Path, Ferro City and NYC Mech?

AS: I believe that stories are mechanisms by which writers explore a subject that is of interest to them. For me, a question of "what makes a hero?" is something that I find fascinating.

I grew up reading Alexandre Dumas, Fenimore Cooper, and Louis Stevenson. My head was filled with visions of musketeers, pirates, and noble warriors. I think my ambition in life was to grow up to be one of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Later on, I discovered comics and Akira Kurosawa. Robotika is my attempt to contribute to this "discussion" of how to define a "hero".

BF: Every samurai story needs a heroic protagonist. In your case, that character is called Niko, an Asian with a strange origin. What makes him an integral part of the world you created?

AS: Niko's part in the world of Robotika is the backbone of this four-issue mini series, so I don't want to reveal too much about it. I will say that the story opens up just as two segregated castes of society are getting ready to fight for political dominance. There is a new invention that could save that society from a civil war, but the inventor is killed and the invention is stolen. Niko is charged with recovering the invention and bringing it back before it is too late. Needless to say, things don't work out very smoothly for him as he starts out on his quest.

BF: When I browsed your blog, I noticed that one of your close friends is Ryan Sook. Is your friendship a reason why his trademark clean lines can also be found in your work?

AS: Ryan's work has always inspired, as well as challenged, me. He has a great eye for composition and he is a natural storyteller. I definitely admire his drawing ability and I love to look through his books. But I think of a much greater impact on me have been our talks about storytelling and the actual approach to drawing. As good as Ryan is, he still works very hard on every page, trying to make it the best possible. This work ethic is something that I greatly admire and would very much like to make a part of my working routine.

Talking about working routines... I remember reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon. There is a part in which the characters all get together and draw a whole comic book in a day or two. It sounded chaotic, disorganized, dysfunctional and at the same time inspirational and wonderful... creating masterpieces out of chaos. Regretfully, I have come to realize that for me a methodical approach is the best way to create a work that I would be proud of. Starting with the story outline, moving on to the layouts, then pencilling and finally inking... all the while going back and editing/fixing things that don't quite line up right.

BF: Are there any other artistic or creative influences that have defined your style or Robotika in particular?

AS: I am influenced by everything around me. Books, movies, architecture... anything and everything that makes me think.

When I started working on Robotika, I wanted to accomplish a number of things. I wanted to pay attention to the overall look of the book and keep myself focused on the design of every page and the relationship of every page to the next page.
I also wanted to stress the idea of "contrast" in this book. Small versus big, black versus white, rough versus smooth, fast versus slow. By using "contrast", I wanted to draw readers attention to certain parts of the story. 
At the same time I wanted to experiment with storytelling and to present to the reader something interesting and something different, without being confusing or unreadable.
And the most important point... I wanted to tell an interesting story. All the design and illustrative aspects would be slave to telling Niko's story.

As I progress through the story, I am starting to notice subtle changes in my approach to drawing, storytelling, and writing. I am very happy about that because that means that I am continuing to have an open mind and grow as a storyteller/artist.

    

There’s one last thing I wanted to mention about influences: For a long time I have been an admirer of Ludwig Hohlwein, a German graphic artist from the 1930's. His approach to spotting blacks and composing illustrations is very simple and very sophisticated at the same time. I have been studying his work and I hope some of what I learned made it into the book. But I think that even here the idea of "contrast" crept in. I am also a big fan of Alphoso Mucha who defined the style of Art Nouveau back in the early 1900's and I think that the final look of Robotika has both the flowing organic lines of Art Nouveau and the angular geometric Hohlwien shapes.

BF: Your project is the first completely new property that was added to Archaia Studio Press’ list of publications [Mouse Guard was announced later and Lone and Level Sands will be republished in color by ASP, but was previously released by Caption Box]. How did you come to be the first creator to join Mark Smylie’s company?

AS: Actually, when Robotika got announced at San Diego Comic Convention, along with "Lone and Level Sands", ASP also announced that Christopher Moeller's new "Iron Empires" mini series is going to be part of their line-up. I was very flattered to be mentioned in such good company.

I have been working on Robotika for about a year when I heard that ASP was looking at creator-owned projects. I was planning on self-publishing and I was writing, drawing, lettering, and doing all the pre-press by myself. This was turning out to be a huge task. I was spending more time scanning pages and creating PDF files than I was drawing. Being a fan of Mark's "Artesia" I thought that I would try to submit to them and if I got selected I could get some help with the process of putting the book together. Here I would just like to mention that going through the motions of self-publishing, I have developed an enormous respect for all the independent publishers who put out great books without having any huge support. That is a very big job!

Something clicked just right and after a while I got an e-mail from Mark that started the process of making Robotika part of ASP line-up. Since then, I have developed an unshakeable trust in ASP.  They found Joel Chua to color the series and took over the pre-press activities as well as the process of getting the book from me to the readership.  Their main focus is to produce great comics and I am very flattered to be a part of their efforts.

BF: Creatively, Mark’s award-winning fantasy epic Artesia is known for its extremely detailed worlds, but also for its high-quality overall storytelling. Are those two things we can expect from Robotika as well?

AS: I can only aspire to try to achieve the same quality as Mark's "Artesia".

I have been working on Robotika for about 2 years and in my mind the futuristic world of Robotika is well-defined and I hope that I can communicate it clearly to the readers. My editor, Barbara Barni, has been a great asset in this respect. My usual working method is to pencil pages, and after I letter them, Barbara reads the story and starts editing. If the storytelling is unclear, if the dialogue is uncharacteristic, if the face expressions are not consistent with the action, Barbara notes it and I fix it. Sometimes that involves re-drawing whole pages, sometimes it is as minor as re-drawing an eyebrow. After that, I usually send the pages off to Leif Jones, a fellow artist, who agreed to be my "script doctor". I hope that this editing process cleared any pitfalls that creators fall into when writing and drawing their own books. It is not enough to know your storyline inside out, it is just as important to be able to communicate it to the readers.

I also want to add that Leif paid me the ultimate compliment by agreeing to illustrate a short Robotika story that will be published as a back-up feature in issue #2 ( click here  for a preview – ed.) . Leif knows the world of Robotika as well as I do and his depiction of it is awesome.

BF: If Robotika does well, do you plan to continue the story as either a finite or an ongoing string of mini series?

AS: The tone of Robotika changes as the story progresses through the mini series. The first issue of Robotika reads more like a fable rather than an action story and in the second issue the tone of the book starts to shift; there are less captions, all of the action is described through dialogue or character body language. The third issue picks up that tempo and continues to escalate the pace of the story making it a real action adventure mini series.

I hope readers will enjoy this approach and I do hope Robotika will find a readership and that I will be able to tell another Robotika tale. Right now, I have a plot for the next possible mini series and I think it has some interesting twists in it that would make a good story.

For more on Alex Sheikman, visit his blog at http://www.sheikman.blogspot.com.

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