Recently we spoke with comic writer and artist Rafer Roberts who is the co-creator and writer of the comic Grumble which is published by Albatross Funny Books.
Rafer spoke about what has come before and what is on the horizon for Grumble. The collected second volume subtitled, “Raising Hell in the Garden State” is coming to shops and will be available digitally in February. The third arc, called “Memphis and Beyond the Infinite” starts in March. Be sure to check with your LCS about pre ordering.
This book is definitely one of our favorites. The concept is fantastic and the art, dialogue, and creative execution is just wonderful. Mike Norton is the co-creator and artist, Marissa Louise is the colorist, and Crank! is the letterer on Grumble.
You can listen to our conversation below or read the transcript below that, or you can go crazy and do both.
Pop Culture Squad: Let’s talk about the plot of the second arc of Grumble that has just concluded. We spoke at the end of the first arc, and you warned me that this one would take place in different parts of New Jersey. What was your reasoning behind bringing the story to the Pine Barrens?
Rafer Roberts: Well, I grew up in New Jersey. So, that whole second arc is basically a love letter to the state that formed me. I grew up on the shore, which is why the first part starts in Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore. But the state is not that big, and we would drive around and get lost and go into the Pine Barrens.
You hear the urban legends, like the Jersey Devil, and there was an albino asylum down there. I mean it’s somewhat offensive in the stories of roaming bands of albinos in the woods.
RR: It’s just a very haunted state, and I wanted to take all the myths and folklore that we heard growing up and just sort of mush them all into one town, and put it all in the Pine Barrens.
For example, there is a Devil’s Tower that I put in the middle of the town, but that is actually in North Jersey, and I relocated it.
PCS: That’s awesome. One of the great parts of this book is the realism that Mike Norton imparts into the visuals. Despite the out of this world plot, there is a very grounded imagery. For example when I saw the boardwalk in Asbury, it was immediately recognizable. What do you think that adds to the book?
RR: Yeah, well we set the first arc in Baltimore, and the second arc in New Jersey, and we are going to be going all around the country. We felt that if you are going to visit a place in the comic, you might as well feel like you are actually in that place instead of generic city.
If we are going to go to Baltimore or New Jersey, there has to be a reason for it, and that next city or state becomes the next character, and influences the story. Otherwise, it’s just a name of a place that you could put in the upper left hand corner of the panel.
Mike is amazing at this. I’ll send him some reference pictures, but he’ll also find his own. He really captures the atmosphere of the city itself, and it’s great working with an artist that you know can actually do all this stuff too.
PCS: That is really fantastic. You and I have talked in the past about the emotional component to this cutthroat, morally questionable, chase story. How do you go about bringing that line through the crazy antics that occur in the book issue after issue? There is this tender piece that is always there. How do you go about doing that?
RR: Well, I start with that. If you start with the weirdness and craziness, then it’s hard to put that emotion in there, but if you start with that emotional core, and then you add the craziness that comes out from that, then it all feels right. The relationship between Eddie and Tala, especially in that second art is the heart of the series. All the weirdness is there as a fun sugar to help the medicine go down.
It’s the comic that you didn’t know that you needed in your life, but now it’s the comic that you can’t live without
PCS: Ha Ha. That’s a great way to put it.
RR: Yeah, the trick for me is to try to keep from adding too much weirdness and action, because I have this nice base. I don’t want to cover it up completely. So, it is more of just making sure that I don’t hide it all under additional action and bizarreness.
PCS: In the next arc, what can we expect to see for Eddie and Tala?
RR: Well, I mean at the end of the second arc, they have reached a better understanding of who each other is. You can see, even in the second arc, they work together better as a team. They are learning.
For example, when they go to kidnap Jimmy, the Keeper. They are working as a perfect unit, because there are a lot of unsaid things. They don’t have to tell each other the next thing they are going to do.
Although, Eddie sometimes takes advantage of that and pulls out a gun, unexpectedly, or lights somebody’s crotch on fire, as he will do. But, as we move into the third arc, that begins in March, they are definitely working much better as a unit. The do still have secrets from each other.
PCS: Sure, big ones.
RR: Yeah, Tala, especially. I think all of Eddie’s secrets are pretty much laid out on the table. It is interesting that Tala, the so-called “moral center of the book”, is actually pulling one over on Eddie.
So as you say, “Where does the emotion come from?” Eddie doesn’t quite trust Tala, because he senses that she is keeping secrets.
PCS: Well, I wouldn’t think that Eddie would really trust anybody.
RR: No. Eddie sees everybody as he sees himself, and Eddie knows that he can’t trust himself, so why would he trust anybody else. Especially now that he has come to accept that Tala, and this is a minor spoiler, is his daughter, he starts seeing her as even more devious, because he thinks, “She’s even more like me than I realized originally. I should start keeping a better eye on her.” Tala, for her part, is actually trying to dick Eddie over, or at least is keeping a secret about how the mission across the infinite is going to go.
I can back up a little bit. It’s no secret that the purpose of the third arc is that Eddie and Tala are going to rescue Tala’s mother, who is imprisoned on the other side of reality. They are going to team up with Tala’s uncle Seamus who is down in Memphis, and his group of army buddies.
It’s interesting, because in this arc everyone is happy and friendly, and working together, but at the same time they are backstabbing each other right in front of their faces. For example, in the first arc, everyone has their own agenda, and they are fighting each other. It is very clear what the sides are, but by the third arc, the sides are a little bit muddier. Tala likes Eddie now, but she still has to screw him over. Eddie liked Tala, but he doesn’t trust her. He is very much willing to screw everybody over as long as he can get out of danger himself.
So, even more than before, everybody is just bouncing off of each other. Our colorist Marisa Louis, who does an amazing job on the colors, actually very succinctly described the series like this. “Everybody in the series wants to love each other, they just don’t know how.”
PCS: That is absolutely perfect.
RR: Yeah. I was like, Jesus, I wrote this book and I couldn’t put it in as simple of a sentence as that.
PCS: Well, she is pretty amazing in general.. So, how has the dynamic between you and Mike been in the development of the plot to Grumble? I know originally Mike came to you with the idea, and you went for it. As you get to this point is there still a lot of back and forth in terms of where things are going to go?
RR: Plot wise. Since we are at the third arc, the first two arc kind of dictated where this was going to go. So, all the discussion of what was going to happen in this third arc took place long ago. The minor details I am putting in there just to surprise Mike, because he likes that.
Yeah, the basic idea of the story came from Mike. The idea of the John Constantine-style con man who gets stuck in the body of a pug, and has a demon sidekick. Beyond that, everything else came from discussions. The idea of Jimmy, the Keeper came from Mike having this weird idea of a dude who turned into a warehouse. Then, I just turned that into a five issue ar, based around Mike’s weird idea. He still pitches me stuff like that all the time, and it’s great.
Actually, as I am flipping through the third arc, I can’t tell what I came up with on the spot or what came from Mike, or even other places. It just all blends together.
PCS: That’s great. That is sort of what you want.
RR: Yeah, it’s like songwriting. You see a song with a bunch of names of who wrote the song. But if you listen to it, you shouldn’t be able to pick out the pieces that was done by one member of the band versus another. It should all blend together and be harmonious. And I think that’s what we are getting.
PCS: So, you are kind of leading into one of the other questions that I have here for you, which is: From my perspective this book is the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Please don’t take any slight from that, but the group of you, Mike, Marisa, and Crank! are a fantastic team that fits together perfectly. Is that what you are trying to say it feels like from the inside?
RR: Yeah. Absolutely. I am definitely inspired by Mike, Marisa, and Crank! to write a story worthy enough for their art, and I kind of think that they try to do the same. We are just constantly pushing each other, but not in a slave driving way. It’s more like, “Holy crap! Do you see what Marisa’s colors look like? I better write better dialogue to go with this panel.
PCS: What is the process for this book in terms of production? From the time you give the script to Mike, what parts of the process do you see?
RR: OK. Basically, I write the script and give it to Mike. Mike draws the whole thing. Depending on deadlines, and we are pretty far ahead now, he’ll ink all twenty-two pages and give the whole thing to Marisa. At that point, I might go back and start tweaking the dialogue on what I see already. Then, we will get the colors back, and I will do another dialogue pass. Then, it goes to Crank!, and if we have all done our job, I will have very minimal edits. Usually minor tweaks, or if I didn’t quite eyeball the available space in panel and something is too tight, I’ll go back through and try to rework some dialogue. Otherwise it’s all pretty straight forward.
PCS: I know that sales is big factor in how long this goes on, and in today’s market, getting two trades worth of story is an accomplishment. So, you are three trades in, but I could see this have some real legs in terms of an indie comic story along the lines of a Chew, or Sweet Tooth. Do you have plans for that?
RR: Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, sales is a big part of it. Both Mike and I are committed to making as much Grumble as humanly possible, and I know that we don’t want to do it without Marisa or Crank! either. I know both of them are really enjoying working on the book as well.
The end of this third arc witch would take us to fifteen issues, is, in my mind, the first third of a larger Grumble story. So, that would be three trilogies. We had issues 1 – 5 as “You’re the Dog Now, Man.” and 6 through 10 as “Raising Hell in the Garden State”. Originally, the third arc, “Memphis and the Infinite Beyond” was going to be issue 11 through 15, but with the singles market the way it is, we decided to just do mini-series for each arc and have a new number one, going forward.
PCS: There are other publishers doing the same thing. They are just saying each arc is a mini-series.
RR: Well the floppies market is at best flat. So, what they are really looking for is bookstores and libraries. There is too much cursing in Grumble for me to say the school market, but that is another place publishers are looking for. But, the mini-series format for the trade makes much more market sense for us.
But, yeah. I have at least forty-five issues worth of main story in mind. That would be the Grumble “Uber-Arc”. Plus, we have been talking about doing some short stories that take place between arcs. There is some talk of crossovers. I can’t really say too much. I can say that there is a Battlepug crossover planned in the works, and then a crossover with another series that you might have mentioned earlier in this interview.
PCS: Ahh?? I will say no more. What do you find most gratifying about telling this particular story? I know you a little bit, and I can tell how much this story means to you.
RR: Ok. Working with Albatross Funny Books is about as close as you can get to self-publishing and having someone else foot the printing bill. I don’t say that to say that Albatross isn’t doing anything for us, because they are doing quite a lot. But, in terms of us being able to tell the exact story that we want to tell, we have no interference with that. So, every page of Grumble is the best page that we can do and as close as possible to what we wanted to do.
When you make other comics or work-for-hire, there is always an editor saying you can’t do this or that, and you still make some really good comics. Grumble is basically us. If you read Grumble, you see Rafer, and Mike, and Marisa, and Crank!. We are on every page, and when I look at the final production, I think, “This comic is Fucking good!” I am just very proud of it.
Everybody in the series wants to love each other, they just don’t know how.
There is a certain gratification of getting that freedom to do what you want and at the end looking at the final product and thinking that it is a pretty good comic. That doesn’t happen all the time. It’s rare, and the fact that Albatross is allowing us to complete this is great.
There was a time in the beginning when our sales weren’t great, and we thought maybe we would only do five issues. I was wondering if I should rush the story, and they stood by us and said we were going to finish this thing. That is really gratifying.
PCS: That is really awesome.
RR: And it’s such a weird book with these alien bounty hunters and this dick-head guy in the body of a pug. There are sequences that, as I am writing, I am cracking up laughing and others where I am actually crying. It’s just everything I wanted to put into a comic, and it all works.
PCS: That’s great. So, we talked about what you get out of it, but what do you hope people take from it?
RR: This is going to be a very egotistical thing. The first time I read an issue of Stray Bullets. It was issue #10. I was home for Christmas in like my freshman year at college. I picked it up and read it, and it changed what I thought about comics. I hit me in a different way, almost like an ASMR where you get those tingles and goosebumps on the back of your neck. When you read something and it hits you in that strange harmonic that hits your brain in the right way, and it’s the comic that you didn’t know that you needed in your life, but now it’s the comic that you can’t live without.
If Grumble can hit that same sort of feeling that I got the first time that I read Stray Bullets, that is what I am going for. I just want to give people that same sensation.
PCS: That is a noble goal. It may be self satisfying for you, but the feeling that the reader would get is a positive thing. So, that’s great. Ok, just to wrap up. One more time, what are the details on Grumble coming to comic stores in the next few months?
RR: Grumble: Raising Hell in the Garden State drops in February. The volume one collection is obviously available now. Issue #1 is still free on Comixology if people want to check it out. And arc three “Memphis and Beyond the Infinite” starts in March. That goes for five issues. I have seen the entire first issue and it is gorgeous. Even as good as the first two arcs are, the third one is going to blow people’s minds.
PCS: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for doing this.
RR: Oh, Thanks for having me.