Return of the Steampunk Samurai

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Your favorite spaghetti western/samurai/sci-fi dish is back on the comics menu. It's somewhat of a misnomer to label Robotika: For A Few Rubles More that way, because for a book to be a standout among its genre peers, there have to be more titles like it on the stands. And that isn't the case...

As Alex Sheikman showed in 2006, Robotika is not a mish-mash of genres by a creator who couldn't decide whether he wanted to go the science fiction or the martial arts route. Instead, it's the door to a wonderfully complex world where a warrior learns how to become a hero.

That warrior is Niko, and we'll soon find out where his path will take him next. BF spoke Sheikman and his new co-writer David Moran to get a first tease...

BROKEN FRONTIER: Alex, you wrote the first mini-series on your own. Why did you bring David along for the ride on the second one?

ALEX SHEIKMAN: When I do something for the first time, it’s hard for me to figure-out all the "ins and outs" beforehand. I’m more one of these guys who learns by doing. I guess it's a bit like doing a construction project. The first time I added a room onto my house, I knew exactly what I had to do to make the next remodeling go smoother and make the next room better.

Same with Robotika. Once the series was done, I knew that in order to make the second series better, I needed a writer, a real writer. I think in terms of images and how they flow across the page, I felt that I needed someone who thought of scenes and storylines in terms of verbal descriptions and who had a better understanding of how to develop characters through their dialogue (rather than always trying to do it through subtle face expressions).

It was never an ego thing for me. I don't have to be the writer/artist/designer/letterer/all-in-one creator. I just want to make good comics. There is also a very cool tradition of collaborations in comics that goes way back. Everybody contributing their strengths to make the book the best it can be. I felt that Robotika needed that in order to evolve into a better book.

DAVE MORAN: Just to throw my two cents into the ring here, I think the real reason Alex got me is because I came cheap.

BF: Was it hard for you, David, to get acclimated to the fictional world and the themes Alex has set up?

DM: No, actually not at all. In fact, how Alex and I hooked up to begin with is I wrote a very favorable review of the first issue of the first miniseries for another website. Alex read it, and actually contacted me for a more in-depth critique of the book. I gave it to him, and we started trading emails back and forth during the course of the first series.

Along the way, it became pretty apparent that Alex and I share the same tastes in a lot of movies, comics, and books. So when he got the green light for a follow-up series from ASP, he asked me if I’d help him write it. I thought it would be fun, so I said, "Yeah!"

Now that’s the short answer. The long answer, trust me, I won’t share with you.

As far as getting acclimated goes, I guess I’m just a really conscientious reader, because when I first came on board for the new mini I sent Alex an email detailing some of the themes and concepts of the series that I thought need to be followed-up on, reinforced, and just further elaborated on and continued (and a few that probably shouldn’t have been).

We must have been on the same page from the get go, because we both seemed to hit the ground running, and we actually had the whole series pretty much mapped out, broken down, and scripted in a little under two weeks. And I can write pretty fast when I’m under deadline for the day job, but even I was kind of shocked at how easily Alex and I fell into seamless-collaborative mode. It was very cool.

Oh yeah, and I added a monkey.

BF: If you had to name three strong points of the concept, what would those be?

AS: For me the center of Robotika is a story about a hero, a character who wants to do the right thing. That is very appealing for me.

I also tried to make Robotika a visually exciting book to look at. Be it the graphically oriented storytelling, or the cross of samurai/steampunk/western pop culture, I wanted to make the book a visual experience.

The technology of virtual reality that plays a major part in the storyline so far is pretty exciting for me, because it enriches the story and gives me a chance to bring in a bit of historical fiction to the series (yet another ingredient in this brew).

DM: Hmmm… Very good question, Frederik. How about this:

Just Alex’s unbridled imagination for starters. It’s a sci-fi book set in the future, but it’s not like any sci-fi book set in any future that anybody has ever seen before. And I think we pushed that a little bit further in this series, and we plan to push it even further in the next, by just bringing in crazy, wild concepts and placing the characters in just really, really interesting, difficult, sometimes downright bizarre situations.

So far, working on the series, there’s really been no point where I’ve said to myself, "Well, maybe we’re pushing things a little bit too far to extremes here. Maybe we should be a little bit more conservative." If there’s any sort of an envelope to push to the edge of, Alex pushed past it a long time ago. Now I’m just along for the ride and, most of the time, it’s careening along at 120 MPH. So, yeah, lots of fun.

I’d also agree that it’s fun to get to play with all these different pop culture tropes, archetypes, and elements. And that was another really run aspect of getting to work on the series: no idea couldn’t be made to fit somewhere! In fact, at the end of each issue, there’s going to be a short back up tale that explores a little bit more of the fringes of the world of Robotika.

I wrote those, and that was a lot of fun, let me tell you, and a nice bit of "creative stretching." There’s a straight Western (more or less) called "Seek" that comes at the end of the first issue, and is illustrated by Alex. Then I believe we’ll have a bit of a fractured fairytale type story at the end of the second issue, illustrated by hot newcomer Brian Churilla. After that a sci-fi comedy riff on mad scientist movies, that was illustrated by the extraodinary Norman Felche, and, actually, I think the fourth issue is going to need every page possible to cram in all the story we’ve got planned for that one, so I don’t believe there’s going to be a backup tale at the end of it.

But we’ve actually stockpiled quite a number of these backups for further down the road, including historical riffs, gripping family dramas, a straight-up action movie… I’ve even got a tale set in space that I haven’t gotten around to writing yet (but I will), and one with pirates!

If it’s not obvious yet, just the sheer amount of creative freedom that working on Robotika allows for.

And did I mention there’s now a monkey in the book too?

BF: What does "A Few Rubles More' refer to? Where and when does the story take place as related to the events of the first series?

AS: The story takes place right after the first mini series. Cherokee Geisha, Bronski and Niko are all on their way to the sword fighting contest mentioned at the end of the last series. On the way they stop over in a little town that’s being torn apart by two rival hallucinatory drug dealing gangs. They get involved...and the fun begins.

"For A Few Rubles More" is, of course, a take off on For A Few Dollars More/Yojimbo/Last Man Standing retellings of the same story. However, in our story, "For A Few Rubles More" is the price that our heroes could have paid for the train and avoided being stuck in the middle of nowhere in the first place – and involved in a fight they did not start.

DM: We’re both really big Kurosawa and Leone fans, and how can you not like any movie with Christopher Walken in it (Last Man Standing)!!! So I guess we both kind of felt it would be fun to do our own take on that and put our own little signature on it.

For Alex, I guess, it’s the design element, and him just wanting to draw crazy things, like Cyber-Horses, and lots and lots of fight scenes. For me, I suppose, it’s building strong, believable characters, sewing the whole thing together with a strong plot, and having fun with dialogue whenever possible (OK, and getting to have a monkey in the book).

BF: How about the advancement of the characters? Where's Niko's path taking him?

AS: Dave, all you.

DM: …Uh, thanks, Alex, man, thanks… (Great, more work!). So where’s Niko’s path taking him? We have no real idea. Okay, not true, we do have Niko’s journey mapped out, but part of the fun is getting lost on the journey (both for Niko and his compatriots in the series, I guess, and for Alex and I creatively).

Also, just because the story starts off in a small, rundown town, don’t thing that that’s where it’s all gonna end up. And don’t think that all the characters are going to be left unchanged by the end of this series, or even fully intact, or maybe even alive.

Remember, there’s still the small matter of that sword fighting tournament to be resolved, which, I promise, we do get by the end of this series as well. And I don’t think anybody’s really going to expect what winds up happening.

BF: The original Robotika arc stood out because it combined sci-fi and samurai elements like never before, but also because of its stylish page compositions and the use of vertical typography. Are those graphical treats making a return?

AS: Thank you for the kind words about the first series.

Yes, I am continuing to implement my ideas about graphic design into the book and I am continuing to experiment with storytelling. Storytelling can be tricky when it comes to experimentation. I feel there has to be a balance between experimentation and solid storytelling in order to engage the reader. Sometimes, as a graphic designer, I can go overboard and I sometimes fear for loosing the readership. So I need to stay aware and find that sweet spot.

I think folks like JH Williams and Sergio Toppi are great at striking the balance between pushing the envelope and incorporating graphics into their work. As far as vertical typography...I attached page 10 from the first issue that addresses that.


DM: As I can’t really add anything to that, I’ll add that I think now’s the perfect time to mention that the new series has a monkey in it.

Have I already mentioned that before?

BF: Alex, do you attribute the book's success to those unique style elements? In this day and age it's pretty hard for a new or returning creator to find a place, so Robotika winning the Bronze Foreword Award for Best GN of 2006, for example, must have come as quite a surprise?

AS: It was wonderful to be nominated for the Foreword Award and to be selected for the prize. There are so many new books coming out all the time...good books at that. Sometimes I get a feeling that for every one person buying comics there are three creators putting their own book out.

That makes for a weird marketplace. Theoretically, the work should speak for itself. Folks take a look and those that like it will support it, and those who won't, will pass. If the work is good enough, it should have enough support...but there are so many books out that the storeowners can't possibly order enough of every title to give it exposure.

The Internet and the rest of the media is full of stories about new books everyday, Previews is 600 pages thick now, and on top of that entire comic book readership is shrinking. It’s tough and it's weird and every review that Robotika got was a special treat, and every good review that Robotika got was an extra special treat.

DM: Personally, I think the monkey should at least net us the silver this time around.

BF: Regardless of the book doing extremely well, was your plan always to release multiple arcs?

AS: Yes. Even now that Dave is involved and I can focus on the art, I still can't produce pages fast enough to do a monthly 24-page comic book. I was talking to someone the other day and I was explaining to him that in an odd twist of events it is now taking me longer to complete pages than during the first series. It is surprising because I imagined that once I got more familiar with the characters and their environment I would became a lot faster at drawing Robotika.

That has not been the case. As I learn more about drawing and about making comics, I realize all the elements of a comic book page that I did not consider when I was drawing the first series. Now I have a chance to really think about page construction and the flow of storytelling, and with Dave taking the weight of dialogue scripting off my shoulders I can really focus on the art. I am having a great time drawing (sometimes it is frustrating, I admit), but I am taking longer penciling/inking every page.

Given a chance, Dave and I would love to do another Robotika arc to finish the storyline. But, that depends on the response to this second series.

DM: Yes, and we did map that arc out in Schenectady, New York, over a pizza and a several mile walk towards the end of the summer. (It was a good pizza!)

I’m really hoping we get the chance to do it too, because I think it’s going to be great…and not what anybody’s expecting. Plus, we can use some more of those back-ups.


BF: Someone who isn't making a return is Ryan Sook on covers. Was that no longer in the cards, or did you simply decide to go at it alone now?

AS: Ryan did a wonderful cover for issue #1 and I am sure that really helped to raise the awareness about the book in the beginning. Ryan did the cover as a personal favor and also because he was genuinely excited about me getting my first series published. He is a wonderful guy and he wanted to do anything he could to help me out.

In fact, that was true with everybody who contributed to the first series: Frank Cirocco, JH Williams, Leif Jones, Benoit Springer...I am fortunate to call them my friends and I was very touched to see them rally around me at such an exciting time.

This being the second time around, I did not want to impose on them again because they already went "above and beyond" to make time on their schedule to make a contribution to the series. However, I am not venturing out on the art alone for the second series. There will be pin-ups by Guy Davis (The Marquis), David Petersen (Mouse Guard), Mahmud Asar (Dynamo 5), and Jason Felix (Star Wars). There will also be two back-up stories, one drawn by Brian Churilla (The Engineer, Dark Horse Presents) and the other drawn by Norman Felchle (Spider-Man, EA's American McGee’s Alice video game).

Also even though Ryan, Leif, Jim and Frank might not be contributing artwork to the series, I talk to them all the time. Showing them new pages, getting feedback, talking about new techniques...they are very supportive of my efforts and are extremely helpful.

DM: If I had a pet monkey, I’d probably solicit advice and get help from it. But, sadly, I do not have a pet monkey.

Maybe if the new series takes off, I can afford to get one.

So, for no other reason, everyone should buy the book so that someday I might be able to buy that monkey…

Come on, people, help me help myself.

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