Origins: Chris Roberson

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In “Origins,” comics creators talk about their formative experiences with comics. This week, Chris Roberson, the writer of Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?: Dust to Dust and iZombie, is in the hot seat. (And scroll down for an exclusive preview of Dust to Dust #2!)

What was the first comic book you ever read? What do you remember about it?

I honestly don’t remember what the first comic I ever read was. Comics were just always around, part of the landscape of growing up in the ’70s. The first comic I ever spent my own money on was probably a mass-market paperback collection of Silver Age Superman stories that I bought at a school book fair when I was eight years old, but pretty quickly thereafter I started picking up the DC Blue Ribbon digests when they hit the newsstands in 1979, and after that I was hooked.

(More on Techland: A Brief, Selective Timeline of 3 1/2 Or So Legions of Super-Heroes)

What comic book has made the deepest impression on you, and why?

Different comics have meant a great deal to me at different points in my life. When I was a kid, I was hugely obsessed with Legion of Super-Heroes. Then in high school I was a fanatic about Matt Wagner’s Mage, and in college I was the perfect age for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman when it first started up. In my twenties I read and reread Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville and James Robinson’s Starman, and in my thirties I’ve revisited Mike Mignola’s Hellboy titles over and over again. But if I were to put my finger on the one single comic that has had the greatest impression on me over the years, it would probably have to be Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. I’ve literally lost count of the number of times that I’ve reread Astro City from beginning to end, over and over again.

Who were your favorite comics creators when you started getting into reading comics?

When I was just starting out as an Every Wednesday Comic Fan (back when Wednesday was held on Thursday), I probably bought more Roy Thomas comics than anything else. By the early ’80s I was obsessed with All Star Squadron, Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, Infinity Inc., etc. Right around that time I was introduced to Marvel Comics by my friend Chris Cannon, though, and very quickly became a confirmed Chris Claremont fanatic. Those two writers, Thomas and Claremont, continued to dominate my comic purchases for the next few years, until I discovered people like Alan Moore and Matt Wagner, and there’s probably still more Thomas and Claremont in my work than even I realize.

What was the first comic book you tried to write?

I had completely forgotten about this until the last couple of days, but Chris Cannon and I collaborated on a number of overly ambitious comics in middle school. Deeply, deeply influenced by Chris Claremont’s X-books and Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and Ronin, they were a hodgepodge of undigested influences crowding each other out on the page. Rogue bounty hunters in futuristic dystopias, mutant heroes protecting a world that despised them, et cetera, et cetera. They were a lot of fun, but thankfully nobody but the two of us ever saw them.

Tell us about the Clockwork Storybook era–what did you pick up about writing comics from it?

Clockwork Storybook was a writers’ collective that started up in the late ’90s in Austin. Bill Willingham was the driving force behind the group even then. He was the only one of us with published credits, after all. This was right before Proposition Player came out, when he had just started doing his creator owned superhero comics for Lone Star. In fact, it was at the signing for Pantheon #1 that I first met Bill, introduced to him by Mark Finn, who was working at Austin Books at the time. I brought in my old college roommate, Matt Sturges, and the four of us decided to fight crime together… that is, we decided to form a writing group together.

Without Clockwork Storybook, I doubt very seriously whether I would be writing comics now, or in fact whether I would have ever gotten the chance. Writing comics is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was eight years old, but I could never figure out how to break in. I became a novelist by default after years of failing to get a foot in the comics industry door. It took Willingham opening that door just a few years ago for me to break in. Just as importantly, though, Bill shared his “rules for comic scripting,” which helped me immensely. I was always worried about being one of those novelists who, when they start writing comics for the first time, put way too many words on the page. Bill’s rules for comics helped me avoid that, since they are simple guidelines for how many dialogue balloons a panel can reasonably hold, how many lines of dialogue per balloon, etc. Just invaluable advice.

What was your first published comics work? What’s your impression of it now?

My first published comics work was actually just a little over a year ago, the “Jack ‘n’ Apes” issue of Jack of Fables, in which Jack travels to Africa and inadvertently ends up the lord of the apes. I reread it recently after receiving my comps of the trade paperback which collects those issues, and I felt like it held up pretty well. The nice thing about writing comics is that someone else is doing all of the hard work, so I’m able to go back and look at comics I’ve done and just enjoy them in a way that I can seldom ever do with my prose novels and short stories. With prose, I always home right in on the phrase that I could have improved, or the word that really should have been replaced with another. In comics, once the artist has drawn it, the comic is done, and I’m able to appreciate it on its own terms.

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