Welcome to another Spotlight Interview with a comic professional. We had a chance to talk to writer Rich Douek. He has written Gutter Magic, which is coming back for a second arc from Source Point Press.
Last year, Rich had two stories in stores. Both Road of Bones, with Alex Cormack, from IDW and Wailing Blade, with Joe Mulvey, from Comix Tribe were excellent stories.
Recently, the spiritual successor to Road of Bones was announced. and Rich will be re-teaming with Cormack for Sea of Sorrows.
We spent some time talking about his inspiration and writing themes. I hope you enjoy it. Below you will find the audio recording of our conversation.
We also transcribed the majority of the interview for you, but there are still somethings that you will only find in the audio.
Pop Culture Squad: When we originally planned this interview, we were going to talk about the return of Gutter Magic and we will get to that, but this week your new series I from IDW was announced. It will have you returning to work with Alex Cormack. What can you tell us about Sea of Sorrows?
Rich Douek: Well, it’s kind of like a follow-up to Road of Bones. I wouldn’t call it a sequel, it similar to the threads running through like, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, or like American Horror Story. That is kind of what we are looking to do.
You know, trying to explore the same themes like horrific real-world events that we get inspired from history and put them side by side with more supernatural horror and just see how those two ingredients play together. So, that was the idea because I think we were really happy how Road of Bones ended and didn’t really want to do a Road of Bones part two. We really wanted to do something that’s like a similar kind of vibe but new story, new monsters, new characters and luckily IDW was on board.
PCS: So, let’s tackle Road of Bones for a second. It has a weight of desperation and hopelessness about it. What was the experience of writing something as dark and gruesome as that like? I mean, it’s harsh.
RD: It is harsh. I wouldn’t say I went to a dark place myself, but I did kind of have to try to put myself in the shoes of someone who is basically struggling to survive at all costs and someone who is faced with choices that those characters are faced with and its hard. You know, you have to take a long look at yourself, you know what I mean?
One of the things I found enthralling about writing horror, because I hadn’t really done it that much before, is that you can sort of engage in that dark side of yourself in a safe kind of “What if?” kind of way, you know what I mean? Anyone can safely come to a BBQ at my house and be assured there isn’t a Russian prisoner or anything like that.
PCS: Ha Ha. Sure. Getting back to Gutter Magic. It’s been a few years now, what brought you back to this world?
RD: Well, the way the first series ended, I sort of deliberately left it open for telling more stories in that world because it is a really rich setting and there are a lot of other ideas that I wanted to explore in there. However, reality being what it was, I could only afford to do just that one series and sort of left it open. There would be more if I ever got the opportunity.
In the intervening time, I wound up working on new projects, Road of Bones, being one of them and also Wailing Blade, and I got a little more experience and a little more well-known. So, the opportunity came up with Source Point Press, which was a new publisher to me, and they have been growing a lot recently. They were fans of Gutter Magic, and they were starting a publishing deal with Comics Experience, which is an on-line course center. If you want learn to write comics or draw comics or whatever it is, they have a bunch of courses, and they also have this “Path to Publishing” through Source Point Press. I got talking with the guys, and they were like, “We really love Gutter Magic. We would love for you to do more of it if you have more ideas for it. I was like, “As a matter of fact I do.”
I’ve always said that if someone said, “You are not allowed to write anything else except Gutter Magic for the next 20 years”, I would probably be able to do it, just because I have spent so much time fleshing out the world. I have characters that have lots to do. I think that kind happens a lot with first projects because, if you are like me, you spend a few years developing it. Then, you are on the fence. “Do I really want to do this or not do this? Let me go write some more before I get started”, and things like that.
If I went back and dug through my notes, I could probably put out like a decent sized Dungeons and Dragons Source Book or something. I have written that much background, and there is a lot of stuff to explore. Also, the beauty of it, when you sit down to write, is it takes you to places that you didn’t expect either. There is a lot of cool stuff that is coming up in the series that people are really going to enjoy.
PCS: What will we see in the new volume? How are things changed?
RD: OK, Well, Cinder is the main character. The first volume is all about him looking for magical power to become a wizard, and at the end, he gets it. So, this volume is a lot about the difference between wanting something and actually having it. You know? So, yeah, he has got the power. He thinks he spent his whole life studying it, and he will slide right in, but the reality is that it is a lot harder, and there is a lot he didn’t take into account. This is not only in learning it, but in how he relates to the world.
Before, he was playing the game on one level with other players on the same level, who are not magic users, and making their way through this world ruled by wizards. Now, he is a wizard. So, now he’s got a whole new class of people that he needs to contend with directly on a level he has never done before, and that is going to cause a lot of complications for him.
PCS: Cool. That sounds awesome. Sounds great. Let’s talk about Wailing Blade, for a second. You did that you did with Joe Mulvey. It is also pretty gruesome, but Chris Sotomayor’s colors lighten the mood a little bit. Where did that story come from?
RD: I don’t know if you are familiar with a classic pulp fantasy writer, whose name is Jack Vance. Jack Vance wrote this series of short stories and a couple of longer works in a setting called “The Dying Earth.” Dying Earth is set millions of years into the future, at the end of the human race. The sun is dying and society has regressed into an almost dark age. There are wizards and magic, but there is also a blurred line where it is implied that humanity mastered science to the point where they learned all the mathematics and physics that they needed to create the magic stuff. It’s almost like the sword and sorcery style stories that are set in our far, far future, and I just love them. Some of my favorite books are in that genre, and when he passed away in the early 2000’s, I went back and I read the books again.
It just inspired me as I really love to kind of tell this story in that vein, you know? What I call a “future dark age.” So, in Wailing Blade, mankind had this star-spanning empire, and that collapsed. Now, you got the whole world as it was in the Middle-Ages, but the people that are in control are the ones that have these remnants of technology that still work. It all just came from there.
Like you said, it is pretty gruesome, but it is a different kind of gruesome. It’s gruesome in the kind of over the top kind of way that Conan is gruesome, like people beheaded and gigantic swords being swung around. I think Joe did this one spread where there is one sword, and four or five people are losing various limbs and losing their heads and stuff. The decision we made from the very beginning was that we were not going to worry about anything close to realism or if something was too “over the top.” So, we just wanted to keep pushing the action to an almost cartoonish level, but still be a serious and grounded story.
PCS: All of your stories deal with some sort of other worldly themes or “magic” for lack of a better world in some way. Do you know why that is?
RD: A lot of it has to do with my background. I grew up loving and being drawn to sci-fi and fantasy. The first books I can remember reading on my own, as opposed to a school assignment or comics, were things like The Hobbit, the Narnia books, and “The Chronicles of Prydain”. As I got older, there was Star Wars, and stuff like Blade Runner. If I go back and think about the stuff that I really loved, it always had some kind of fantastic element, whether it was magic, science, or horror.
So, I think it is like a pendulum. That was the stuff I was into when I was pretty young, and when I started to go to college, I had a feeling that I needed to be much more serious. I would start reading “real word” stuff, and then, when I decided I wanted to start writing comics, the pendulum swung the other way. I rediscovered what I loved about it and just decided to work from there. That is not to say that I would never do something that was straight-up like crime, romance, or any other “real world” genre, but it’s just the stuff that calls me, that is in my head all winds up having that element there.
PCS: What would you say is your inspiration for working in this medium? You have been successful in other forms of writing. What is it about comic book story telling that keeps you moving forward?
RD: Well, I think, what I love about comics is that — I don’t even know the right way to explain it but — I guess there is this sort of magic that doesn’t normally happen with models or with movies. It is something sort of in-between. If your reading novels, at least with me, the movie is playing in my head. I’m reading about the characters, and I’m picturing how things are happening, and I’m making it in my head.
Whereas with a movie, a lot of the time, you strap in, let the images wash over you, and it kind of takes you for a ride and you are almost doing the opposite. You are filling in, in your head, the subtext and the things people are thinking and their motivation and things like that, because you are not reading that.
In a novel, you can have a passage describing someone’s thought process leading up to a decision. In a movie, you can see the decision, and you sort of have to like figure out the thought process yourself. How my brain drafted the story is totally different.
In comics, it is kind of this unique thing, where it’s something about the medium that helps it along both ways. You know? The images help me fill that movie in my head by anchoring it so I have something real; whereas the dialog and the captions and the things like that are anchoring the other way. I’m totally making this up as I’m going along.
PCS: No, it makes a lot of sense.
RD: If it makes sense or if it is complete nonsense, I apologize.
PCS: No, no, I can see that. I’m a comic junkie, so I get that. There is something magic about it. It is difficult to explain, I wasn’t looking for a simple answer. What is your favorite type of comic story? Do you have any go-to books that just sing to you?
RD: I love stories, like most people do. I enjoy superhero comics a lot. I think my favorite ones that take something like superhero or a genre like science fiction or whatever it is and make you look at things from a different way. I like Watchman. I like Dark Night Returns, I like the deconstruction stuff, but I also really like stuff, like books like Planetary.
PCS: You got me with Planetary. I want everyone to read that book.
RD: Yeah, it’s amazing. Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, is a book that I loved. Powers. I am a huge Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison junkie. So, I love Transmetropolitan, The Invisibles, and that sort of era. Like Vertigo-y stuff, I am a huge fan of.
I think what I like about all that is that they are all sort of like each in their own way push the boundaries of what kind of stories are possible to tell in comics. It is very different. Even telling a horror story in comics is really different than telling it in a movie or a horror book. I really appreciate it when comics try to push you in a different place.
PCS: Cool. Talk to me about Comics Experience. I have talked with other veterans and instructors there. What do you think that organization brings to the industry?
RD: The great thing about it is that it is a place where if you want to learn the basics about what to do, Boom! it’s there. The courses aren’t free. They do cost money. I know when I was starting out and thinking, “Gee, I would really like to write comics,” and I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know what a good comic strip was, or I didn’t know how to structure a story-line. I read books about it. I read Peter David’s book about writing comics, and it was good, but also all the books I read didn’t take me to a place where I was interested in it to actually doing it.
Taking a class where I am paying a couple hundred dollars, it made me want to get my money’s worth, and the class project is actually writing a comic, in my case. If you were an artist it be laying out. If you’re a colorist, it’s like actually coloring pages.
From my prospective, I had to do the work, or else I’m wasting my money. The class project was to write a five-page script, and I thought that didn’t sound like a lot, and it’s not, but it was finished. It was the first writing project that I finished. I was one of those guys that started a novel and kind of tap-out around chapter six or seven, because I had no idea what to do.
I think there is a lot of information out there about “right way” to write or to draw, and you can probably cobble together your own kind of self-education program if you wanted to. If you can do that, it’s great, but if you are looking for a community of people that are supportive and want to succeed and help you succeed, I think Comics Experience is great place for that.
It is the brainchild of a guy named Andy Schmidt, who used to be an editor of Marvel and IDW. All the courses are based on his experiences editing for people, and it’s a great place to ask questions of professionals. I think it has a lot to offer. It’s probably not perfect for everyone, but I feel I got a lot out of it and don’t have any regrets.
PCS: That’s great. Ok. Here are a few comic-booky quick hit questions. What was the first comic book that grabbed you as a kid?
RD: I get asked this question a lot, and you would think I would know the issue number by now. The issue number escapes me. It was an issue in The Incredible Hulk. It was the Crossroads Saga written by Bill Mantlo with Mike Mignola on the art.
PCS: It was right before the creator switch, right?
RD: Yeah, I think so. It where you learn about Bruce Banner’s dad being abusive. It has a couple of famous sequences, that I know Greg Pak went back to a lot on his run. I think even Al Ewing might have referenced a couple of them in The Immortal Hulk. It is where Bruce is building an erector set, and his father gets pissed off because he is some kind of monster. However old I was, I was buying comics because I wanted to see guys beating each other up and things like that, and I was not prepared for that deep of a story. It was laser focused, and that is what the fuckin’ Hulk is all about.
That is where all the repressed rage comes from, and to this day, I can’t remember the issue number, but if I close my eyes, I can see the art. You know what I mean? I know the story backward and forwards. It was really powerful and unexpected.
I didn’t realize it at the time, because I was just a kid, but looking back, that is the one issue that really opened up to me the idea that comics have power and the potential to like tell powerful stories. It is not just kiddie stories, or it doesn’t have to be a childish thing. It really affects you. I think that is it.
PCS: Is there a time when something made you want to write comics?
R: So, I mentioned before that when I went to college my tastes got a little more “serious” or mainstream, and I was reading classics and novels and getting away from science fiction and fantasy and stuff like that. That was my reading.
Weirdly enough, I was still into table top games, like D&D and War Hammer. In New York, there is a comic book shop called Forbidden Planet, and at the time, they had comics on the first floor and the second floor was miniatures and gaming stuff. So, I would go in there to buy gaming stuff and look around a little bit on the first floor when I had time to kill. I remember being in there and seeing an issue of Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson and thinking, “What the hell is this? This dude doesn’t look like a superhero.” It was just weird, and I opened it up and started paging through, and I was like, “This is really good!”
So, I walked out of there with everything that had been published up to that point, and then all of a sudden, I was buying comics. Buying Transmetropolitan, The Invisibles, Sandman and sort of catching up on the wave of more adult theme comics that were telling me stories that I never really imagined comic books could tell.
PCS: There is a level of sophistication that happened at that time for a bunch of people, that made comics more than just Super-Friends from Saturday morning for a lot of people.
RD: Exactly! So, then, just being in the store, seeing other things, but I think that was what really ignited in my head that this was the kind of stuff I want to write. I never realized I could write it in comic books. I always thought I would have to write in prose. I think that was the critical moment as far as writing goes.
PCS: So, besides these two announced books, is there more that we can expect from you in 2020 and can you give us any hints?
RD: Ha! Ha! There might be. I think at this point, I’m still kind of talking to a few people at different places, but hopefully. These probably will carry me up to the fall. There may be some late 2020 news, but if it doesn’t, then it will be 2021.
PCS: We will be here of you when it gets announced.
RD: I do appreciate it. I’m always talking to someone about doing something. It’s all the question of “when.” One thing that I can talk about is, I am not sure exactly when, but at some point, we are going to be putting together a Wailing Blade collected edition with art and all and try to put in a little extra stuff in there as well for the people who are with us buying all issues. They will get a little more story and art. So, we are doing that. And everything else is up in the air, but we will see.
PCS: Sounds great. Thank you so much for doing this. We really appreciate it.
RD: Thank you. I had a great time talking about stuff like this. Any time you want, just let me know.
Here are the links to the solicitations for Rich’s two upcoming stories.