Spotlight Interview with the Creators of Grumble: Mike Norton and Rafer Roberts

Hey! Welcome back to our special feature Spotlight Interview column. When we are fortunate enough to get to talk to creative professionals, we love to bring those conversations to you folks.

Last month on March 24, 2019, we were able to get together with the creative team behind the hit comic series Grumble, published by Albatross Funnybooks.

We interviewed artist Mike Norton, and writer Rafer Roberts at their tables on the floor at C2E2.  The pair have previously worked together on Valiant’s Archer and Armstrong.

Mike is a veteran comic artist, having also done work for DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Devil’s Due. He is also well-known for the multiple award winning webcomic BATTLEPUG that he both writes and draws. Last year, he published a collected edition of his web comic strip Lil’ Donnie which is a satire of a certain orange infant that resides in a big white house.

Rafer is a writer and artist who has done a lot of work for Valiant, including Harbinger Renegade, and also wrote Modern Fantasy that was published by Dark Horse.

Grumble is a comic about a guy that magically gets turned into talking pug, and with his companion Tala, is on the run from multiple entities that are out to get him. It is fun and action packed. The writing and art are top notch, and the colors by Marissa Louise and lettering by Crank! make this an excellent book all around.

Pop Culture Squad: Where did the idea for Grumble come from?

Rafer Roberts: It started with Mike.

Mike Norton: I’ve always got pugs on the brain. That is not like a hidden thing about me, but I really was longing for a “Howard the Duck” sort of thing. I love those adventures with a character that you can sort of relate to, but it’s a completely alien sort of creature. I don’t know how it happened in my head, but one day I said out loud to the other guys in the studio, “What if John Constantine was Howard the Duck?”  Everybody hates John Constantine, but what if people didn’t want to be around him, not because he was bringing the devil or he was dangerous, but he was just an asshole.

So, I thought about it and said, “Well, he’s not going to be a duck. He is gonna be a pug, obviously.” I put that in my back pocket as one of those things that I am going to write and draw one day, which was not something that I am ever going to do. BATTLEPUG is the only thing that I have ever done like that. It’s a very personal thing, and I find writing to be very difficult.

At the time, I had already finished working with Rafer on Archer and Armstrong. That is in exactly the same vein of comedy that I was thinking [for this]. “Comedy and adventure”, which is my favorite genre to do. I don’t know why it didn’t just click in my head to ask Rafer to do it. Several months passed, and it finally did click in my head to ask him.  So, I asked him if he would be interested in this, and thankfully he was.

RR: Yeah, I think it was about fifteen minutes after we were doing a remote interview together that I got this email from Mike, and all it said in the subject was “Grumble.” I was thinking, “Jesus! What did I do in this interview?” I thought that I pissed him off and was like, “Oh No”.  I opened it up, and it was describing the basic plot [for Grumble]. There is a pug, and he is an asshole, and I was like “Yeah!” I was thinking about the Steve Gerber and Englehart, Howard the Duck stories that I loved growing up. That is literally what we were doing on Archer and Armstrong. That was a love letter to those types of comics. So yeah. That’s in my wheelhouse. I love working with Mike. The idea of a jerk pug walking around and stealing magic was just so much fun. This is great.

Then, we went trading emails back and forth with things like “What do you think about this?” “I like that, but what if it was like this?” It was so much fun, and then it seemed like from out of nowhere Albatross [Funnybooks] came along.

MN: It was sort of out of nowhere. I was essential describing the book to Eric Powell of Albatross at the same time I was talking to Rafer about it. Eric [asked], “Do you want to publish it with us?” I said, “Ok!’

PCS: Awesome. Well that answers one other question for me. Scratch “How did Albatross get involved?” Ha-ha. So, what is the collaborative creative process like for you two?

MN: It’s a pretty straight forward artist/writer sort of thing. Now that we have done it lot more, there is more collaboration going on. I am not one of those artists where the writer goes “Hey. What do you like drawing?’ It’s kind of already there. I like drawing dogs. My big thing (Jeff Parker told me this was a cop-out a long time ago, but it’s absolute truth) is that when a writer asks me what I want to draw, I say, “Surprise me.” I get excited by drawing stuff that I have never drawn before. The thing about Rafer is that a lot of the time he puts in these huge mall scenes or like outdoor festivals.

PCS: The stuff that every artist hates. Ha-ha.

MN: Yeah! Car chases and stuff like that, but the thing is that those are the things that make it an interesting story. You’ve got to have that. It’s big, and it blows your mind. It is like watching a very expensive movie.

PCS: So, when I saw Rafer [in Baltimore] after Issue #4 came out, and when we were talking about how much I like the detail in the art, I mentioned that you had snuck the “Preacher lighter” in the car scene. Rafer hadn’t seen that detail and jumped to the page to see it.

MN: Yeah. I do it a lot in a lot of my books, but so many of them in the past have been for corporate comics, and they frown on any kind of “inside” jokes. However, in particular with Grumble because it is mine and Rafer’s baby, I put everything in it that I always wanted to put into a comic. I dump every B-Movie reference I can. If he ever says in the past that he liked something, I am going to try to find a way to get it in there. Like the lighter. “Oh, it’s from Preacher? There you go.”

PCS:  That’s awesome. I am going to give him [Rafer] up a little though. He noticed the condom, but he didn’t see the lighter.

MN: Well he wrote “condom” in there. He wrote that there was stuff coming out of the glove box. So, I thought well… “I am going to put a Rick Springfield tape in there.” I was a Rick Springfield fan when I was a little kid. I was actually in a Rick Springfield fan club when I was kid. I am not afraid to admit that.

RR: Yeah that is one of the things that I like about working with Mike. He is not afraid to put anything in the background. We don’t have to ask permission for anything.

MN: I think we have worked together enough. One of the things that I have come to love at this point in my career is the collaborative process. It doesn’t always work with everybody. It’s like finding a friend. Sometimes, somebody is too annoying, and you don’t want to hang out with them. You don’t want to share ideas. Rafer is not that person. I feel like we have a very good give and take. He is very subdued sometimes. He has his ideas, and I feel that I am going to everything that I can to put those ideas in there. I never had a moment where I felt that I didn’t want to draw what he wanted.

RR: You could.

MN: Yeah, I know. The only time that I haven’t drawn something that he put in there is because there was just too much going on to physically put it in there. So, I try to do what he tells me.

PCS: What do you guys want to say about your plan for the longevity of Grumble?

RR: I’d write a million issues of this if America would let me, but right now, I think we are focused on getting to fifteen issues. We feel that is going to be an amazing story. It is the first major chunk of story. There is plenty of story that can happen after that, that I would love to get to, because I want to watch Mike draw it.

I have an amazing idea for Mike to do with what the bulk of the second major section of story will be about, which I don’t want to give away at all, because it’s horrific. It needs to be seen on the page to have the right impact. We have some good ideas, and I hope we get to do them. Right now, I am focused on every issue being the best it can be, which I think it is.

There are so many comics that I have written in the past, and I go back and read them and think, “I guess this is alright. I don’t want to read this ever again” With Grumble, I like going back through it and thinking, “I still like this. This is great”

PCS: That is great. I have seen a lot of people interested in it. What do you guys think is the appeal of Grumble?

I mean there is the pug thing, which I have proven time and again, brings people to the yard, but you need more past that. Otherwise, it is a one-trick pony.

Mike Norton

MN:  Like I said before, I only write BATTLEPUG. I don’t think in writer sorts of [ways]. I do have more of an editorial mentality. I think macro when I am looking at stuff. When I see a book that somebody else has done or an idea, I go, “Yeah! That’s a thing that is going to hit. That should be a movie or a TV show!” That kind of thing. I don’t think there is anything out there like Grumble. I mean we talk about it being influenced heavily by stuff that has happened before, but I don’t think there is anything like it. So, I think the actual appeal of something original … I mean there is the pug thing, which I have proven time and again, brings people to the yard, but you need more past that. Otherwise, it is a one-trick pony.

Rafer has ideas for days that I think will keep it going past this one lengthy origin story that we have written out. The object is to entertain, and I like to have this very eclectic thing that nobody else is doing. I’ve been surprised. I did not think that I would have as many people having already bought the book coming up to the show to have it signed. I mean it is a very small book. It is not even at Image. I am very happy that people are taken to it.

RR: This show has put me in a really good mood to get back and keep working. You work on a book for a year before it even comes out. When it comes out, you hear some stuff, but you put all this effort in, and you hope people are reading it. People are liking it, but still sometimes with a smaller book, it’s like working in a vacuum. Then you have a couple of dozen people come up to your table, and you are like “Oh! You have read it! You are actually current with reading it!” It is unusual for me.

To go back to the “appeal” question. I like working on books that are fun. I like having fun in my writing, and I feel that that carries through on the book. I have read a lot of books that even if they are a serious thing, you can tell that the creators enjoyed it, and put passion behind it. It carries through on the page. But if everything becomes a slog, and everything is just a chore, that shows up too. I am having the time of my life writing this, and I think that Mike is enjoying it. I think that shows on the page. I think that people can tell.

PCS: Well, having read it, I can tell.  There are a lot of local references in the first arc. They seem to be going to Delaware. Are we going to see different locales going forward?

MN:  Yeah! When we started doing the book, I wanted to put it in places that [are different]. Most comics are in LA or New York, even Chicago, doesn’t have as many.  I wanted to do stuff that we haven’t done before. I am from Memphis originally, so I wanted to have them go there. He lives in Baltimore, and is from New Jersey, so we were like “Hey! Let’s do that.” Because we have a working intimate knowledge of those places, we can do things that only those people that live there can get. I have places in Memphis that people who read that and are from Memphis are going to go “OH!!”

PCS: I did the same thing, being from Baltimore. The whole first issue was a love letter to Baltimore.

RR: It is such a weird, wonderful town. The car chase in Issue #4. You can plot it on the map.

PCS: I actually did that in my head as I was reading it. And Rafer, I came to an event that you were at in Baltimore just after reading it, and as I was driving up North Avenue, I saw the exit on to the Jones Falls Expressway, and I said, “That is the panel right there.”

MN: Yeah, we wanted to make sure that the cities were as much a character. Not so much that people say that in Batman, “I love drawing Gotham! It’s the third character.” I mean that without making reference to a place that feels lived in…. I mean you could do that like in Savage Dragon where every city is a box in the background, but [in Grumble], the environment is just as important as the people running around in it.

RR: I think what I like is that we set the story in a city. If you are just going to make a generic city in the background, why make it Baltimore?

MN: Yeah! Why not make up a city?

RR: If you are going to put it in Baltimore, it better be Baltimore. If it is going to be in Asbury Park, New Jersey, it is going to be Asbury Park.

PCS: Is it going to be in Asbury Park?

RR: Arc two starts in Asbury, by way of Philly, and then goes around New Jersey, but not the parts you would think. The hillbilly parts.

Note: At this point our interview was interrupted by a fan bringing a cup of beer full to the brim for Mike. He had tweeted out earlier that not enough beer was showing up at his table, and sure enough, someone took notice and followed through on Mike’s subtle request.


PCS: How do you want to describe Issue #5 to people?

MN: Issue #5? The last one of the first arc? Issue #5 is, in my opinion, the emotional core of our series. Up until now, it seems like a surface level joke. Now this is all credit to Rafer, because I would have been happy with it being a straight up goofy comic. But he added an emotional core that makes you go, “Huh? These are real people, and there is actually a dark side to this.” I think that makes it SO much better on so many levels. It makes me love this book. This is the sort of thing that I could not add to this. I mean I draw BATTLEPUG. It is a silly love letter to dumb things I liked as a kid, but I would not be able to put that emotional core in there like that.

RR: It keeps me from getting bored. Honestly, you can [only] write so many big goofy [things], and I like doing that too, but it just gets repetitive after a while. Now they do this. Now they do this. You have to have that emotional through line, and working on Archer and Armstrong taught me about [dealing with] different people. I fell in love with that style of the two main characters being against each other. Like they are working together…. kinda?  They are working together because it serves both of their purposes. Issue #5 highlights that. They might not be as big of allies as you thought.

I think when I turned in the script. I said, “Everybody, please read this one, because if this one doesn’t work, the entire series doesn’t work.”

PCS: It worked.

RR: I was so scared coming into this show, because it just came out this past Wednesday. Oh God. Everybody is going to either love it or hate it, and they are going to be able to tell me in person.

PCS: Well it totally worked. I loved it.  Do you have any other projects that you are working on separately? Mike, are you still doing Lil’ Donnie?

MN: I am trying. It’s been hard the last several months. I kind of got burned out. Every time I watch the news to come up with an idea. All I can think about is that “I’d just rather you go away.” So. it has been like three months. I do have a script in mind that I want to do. I’ll get around to it maybe next week.

I am still doing some Hellboy stuff. I have BATTLEPUG in the pipeline for Image as a relaunch. I have a new series that I want to do. If I could get it down to just doing pug related comics, and just have Grumble and BATTLEPUG, I would love that. I might have some more Hellboy stuff in the future.

RR: Mainly Grumble right now. I am working on project with A Sound of Thunder, the heavy metal band, that I did anthology work for. We are gearing up to do a twelve-issue series that also goes along with an album that they are going to write based on the comic. It is very much in the vein of the old Glenn Danzig comics from the 90’s. Super Metal. Super Gnarly. Grumble’s emotional core is, even though it is broad humor, sort of from the heart.  A Sound of Thunder is not. The title is Queen of Hell. It is just full throttle. It is nuts, but at the same time, it is me. There will be some emotional core, because I can’t not do it. I have to care about the characters.

PCS: Well that’s great. That is all I have. Thanks so much for doing this with us.

 

You can find Grumble in your local comic shops and on Comixology here.

Issue #6 of Grumble will be in stores on April 24.

Mike’s webcomics  can be found below

Rafer’s website for his art and comics is plasticfarm.com

You can follow all the creators on Twitter:

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