Parlez Vous 'Success?': Eric J & Arvid Nelson Talk 'Rex Mundi'

Mon, September 30th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Issue #1
When CBR News spoke extensively with "Rex Mundi" creators Eric J and Arvid Nelson back in July, very few people knew who they were or what the series was going to deliver when it shipped soon after the interview. Even fewer people could have expected the series to sell out completely and be in such high demand months after its initial release, something that is attributed to the strength of "Rex Mundi" as a comic rather than some elaborate variant cover or a staged promotional event. With "Rex Mundi #1" now available for pre-order from in the latest issue of "Previews," with the series scheduled for launch in December, both Nelson and J were glad to speak in-depth with CBR News once again about "Rex Mundi," but first they have a primer for anyone new to the series.

"'Rex Mundi' is a 30s-era detective story with a medieval twist," explains writer Arvid Nelson. "It's set in Paris, 1933, but this world never crawled out of the dark ages. Magic is also a reality. Think of it as a gangster movie, but replace the feds with the Holy Inquisition and the hoods with sorcerers and secret society members. That's basically what 'Rex Mundi' is all about!"

Artist Eric J takes that explanation one step further and adds "As far as the story itself goes, it starts off with our aged priest, Father Marin requesting the assistance of our main character Julien Sauniere in locating a manuscript that has been stolen, he suspects by means of sorcery. Julien agrees to help and quickly finds himself embroiled in a mystery much larger than the theft of a stolen manuscript. In the next few issues we'll also be meeting Rabbi Albert, an old friend that understands sorcery better than Julien does, Genevieve, Julien's ex as well as a colleague, The Man in white, who… well you'll see, and The Duke of Lorraine, who is the political epicenter of the world of 'Rex Mundi' at this point in time. That's the bulk of the immediate main cast, although the extended cast of 'Rex Mundi' will ultimately be much larger."

The appeal of "Rex Mundi" and the huge demand are the result of the series offering a unique experience in the world of comic books, according to most fans, and that's what both creators admit they were trying to achieve. "With obvious exceptions, I think there is a paucity of horror, fantasy and detective comics in the US," explains Nelson. "Since the moralistic crusades of the 50s there hasn't been any room for our much-maligned medium to grow. But I think that is changing. Readers want something a little bit different now; they're ready for something different. 'Rex Mundi' is just that. Its mixes a lot of genres, and I think it's a synergistic combination."

Page 1
Eric J says that while it's important for the writing to have a unique identity, he wants the book to jump out at the reader visually because he knows that if it doesn't, they may not get to Nelson's solid scripting. "One of the reasons that I agreed to work with Arvid on 'Rex' is because the idea was absolutely wonderful. The focus on religion, history, and weird mysteries from both mixed in with noir trappings is very cool, and something very different than most of what you see on the stands today. I think that most of the books that we enjoy are ones that are well crafted from both an artistic and story standpoint, so that's what we're striving for as well, and I think you can see all of the research and reference that we use showing through in the final product. For me, in terms of the art, I want Rex to have an utterly unique look, I don't want people to look at my art and go, 'oh, that looks like so-and-so's.' I'll also be very happy if people say to us that they feel like our Paris is a living character in the series, that they can feel and empathize with our characters, etc. It's been wonderful hearing the great reviews that the book has gotten so far, and some of the repeating themes regarding the art are very gratifying. Makes me feel like Jeromy [Cox, colorist on the series] and I are doing something right."

The concerted effort by both creators to keep the series fresh and different is something that factors into their work, but don't worry; they're not the kind of creators that reject mainstream comic books as the root of all evil. "A friend of mine who's a Jazz musician asked me if I compared how I wanted my career to go to music, if I'd want to be the Jazz guy that made great music, but didn't make millions, or if I'd rather be the pop star that makes, well, crappy music but makes millions of dollars," says J. "I told him I'd want to be the Jazz cat that made millions of dollars, if you get my meaning. That's what we're trying to do with Rex, hopefully make a book that has substance and quality, that hopefully inspires, but that also appeals to a large audience." Nelson feels the same and he adds, "Although Eric and I try to make Rex Mundi as 'pretty' as possible, we maintain a punk-rock attitude on the inside. We want a comic book that has both the substance of indie fare and the lavish slickness of your standard superhero book. We strive to offer the best of both worlds, which is something you don't get very often."

However, this creativity does come at a cost for fans: "Rex Mundi" will be a bi-monthly book after its launch in December. "For now it will have to be bimonthly, which will be difficult but do-able," reveals Nelson. "We're caught in a catch-22: to be on a monthly schedule, we have earn enough money to draw, write and do everything else full-time. But to earn that kind of money, we have to be on a monthly schedule. Believe me, no one would like us to be monthly more than us! Hopefully it will be a reality within a year. Eric and I want to keep 'Rex Mundi' on a reliable schedule, and that's why we won't promise monthly until we're ready. I've talked to dozens upon dozens of shop owners and they have all confided that the secret to success, beyond having a worthy comic, is sticking to deadlines. Eric and I have really taken that to heart." Consistency is the key, agrees J, and he hopes that fans understand that the duo would rather put the book out at a slightly slower rate but at a higher level of quality than speeding up by sacrificing quality. "Bimonthly shouldn't be a problem for us, but Arvid's absolutely right that we'd like to be putting out 'Rex Mundi' on a monthly schedule. Honestly we want to be monthly as much because it will signal that we're doing well enough that we've been able to focus ourselves completely on 'Rex Mundi' (read: we quit our day jobs!)"

For those fans who were lucky enough to grab a copy of "Rex Mundi #0" before it sold-out, they'll be interested to know that both Nelson and J say that it sets the tone for the ongoing series, something that both creators understand may not be welcome news to everyone. "Well, I have heard comments from many people that 'Rex Mundi' progresses at a comparatively languid pace," admits Nelson. "It definitely doesn't leave the starting line at break-neck speed. It's a mystery, and like any good mystery it builds tension slowly. But make no mistake! There are going to be some gratifying chase scenes, and things are going to explode down the line." J adds that he believes that fans who stick with the series will realize that the deliberate an decidedly different pacing of the series really does pay off, but it'll take a little while when compared to some other comic book series. "I think part of what sets 'Rex Mundi' apart is the deliberate pace and the fact that we're taking the time to tell the story the way it should be told. I sincerely hope that we can resist the urge to do buckle under and artificially pick up the pace. I think the only reason a book like 'Rex Mundi' seems to have a slower than average pace is because most comics aren't written the same way 'Rex' is. What can I say, a lot of comic book readers are used to comics that are three quarters fight scene. We need to challenge them and hopefully entice non-comics readers at the same time. One thing's certain, though, we need to tell the story at it's own pace."

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Through all the sweat and tears, these guys are having tons of fun with the series. "The easiest part is working with Eric and Jeremy," says Nelson with a smile. "When I see the pages in ink and then in color I feel euphoric. My relationship with Eric in particular is great. It's been three years, and it's almost like a marriage now. We have our disagreements, but they always produce strange and wonderful fruit. The hardest part is time. I think you'd be surprised at just how much goes on behind the scenes to produce a comic book. A lot of studios have a production coordinator or business administrator. We don't. I haven't written anything in months because of mindless, but essential administrative work. Lately it's become even more intense, but it's intense for the right reasons!"

For Eric J, he says the only real downside has been just wondering if the series would get past the #0 issue or if it'd all be for nothing. "I have to say the most difficult thing up until now was the uncertainty as to whether or not we'd be able to stick with Image. Now that we've had the sellout and Image has announced that the book's regular run is going to start in December, that immense weight has been lifted from us and we feel much more secure. Now, like Arvid said, it's back to the way it was pre-Image, just stressing on getting the book done and finding time to get all of the creative and non-creative stuff done while working day jobs. It's hard, but it's very cool as well, now that we know we're going to be with Image for the foreseeable future. The easiest, and I'm not certain if easiest is the word, maybe the best part, but beyond working with Arvid and Jeromy, it's just been the fact that I'm getting to draw a comic and it's being well received. Ah, the easiest part has been the fact that all of the research, and it's been a ton, that Arvid and I have been doing has been about things that we both genuinely enjoy and that we'd be researching anyway. There you go."

One aspect of the series that is of continual concern to both writer and artist is balancing the fantastic elements of the story with the human aspects of the series so that neither overwhelms "Rex Mundi." Moreover, since the story involves a conspiracy as a central plot point, Nelson knows he has to be careful not to get caught up in being clever and lose sight of keeping the comic book fresh, vibrant and focused on the end goal. "I think the best way to keep the story in focus is to constrain the story's point-of-view," explains Nelson. "'Chinatown' is a great movie because it's told completely from the point-of-view of the main character, Jake Gittes. In 'Rex Mundi,' we're going to do the same thing: as much of the story as possible is going to be seen through the eyes of the main characters, Julien and Genevieve. That forces me to think of interesting ways of getting plot information across without resorting to clunky exposition, and it forces me to focus on the characters. And because the reader only knows what the characters know, it heightens the mystery too."

"I think, for me, the fantastic elements aren't fantastic unless they're juxtaposed against the human," adds J. "Part of the problem I have with most superhero comics is that you see more super than you do normal, to the point that super becomes normal, if that makes sense. One of the things that I want to do visually is make certain that the reader never forgets that they're reading a story about a world that's inhabited by people, and that we as readers are being privileged with information that the poor, or lucky(?), souls we see wandering around Paris and the countryside will never be cursed with. The only way stories like this work in my mind is if you really keep your eye on the 'normal' or human aspects of the story. A thing can only be fantastic when put into a proper context."

While the duo admit they'd love to develop "Rex Mundi" into other mediums, they have no specific plans for the franchise beyond making the current comics series the best it can be right now. "Long term, I think we'd be happy if we saw 'Rex Mundi' through to completion," admits Nelson. "As to other stuff--film, video games, television, whatever--we're going to take it easy. If we see an offer we like we'll take it, but I don't think Eric and I are in any rush. It's easy to be lead astray by visions of grandeur, but I think Eric and I are realizing that the comic book has to come before anything else if we're going to be successful. J has the same attitude and re-affirms the notion that the comic comes first. "You know, complete the series, put out the trades, do everything in our power to make sure that 'Rex Mundi' is as good a comic as we can make it. We really want to make sure that anything that comes from there, be it video games, TV or film, etc. is both respectful to the comic, good for us personally, and that it somehow serves the comic, rather than having it be the other way around. The source material shouldn't serve the offshoots in my mind. The main thing is trying to make 'Rex' the best comic that it can be, flat out."

Before proceeding any further with the interview, Nelson and J both want to make one thing clear to all readers: "Rex Mundi #1" will be a fine jumping-on point for all readers. "I certainly wrote it with access for newcomers in mind," Nelson says of the issue's accessibility and adds, "It's analogous to watching an episode of a television miniseries: we'll have a 'Previously in 'Rex Mundi'' blurb somewhere near the front, and it's written in such a way that new readers will be able to figure out what's going on. Keeping a serial accessible is a challenge, but it's largely a technical one. Eric and I obsess over the narrative structure. We have very specific goals. Every panel should build on the last, each one should drive the story forward and increase the tension. Every issue should end up in a different place from whence it came. The tension building is, I think, what will draw newcomers more than anything else. No matter where you are in a story, I think you always respond to that ever-increasing potential energy."

Page 11
"Exactly," adds J, "and I hope that people are able to jump aboard and enjoy the series, and we plan on releasing trades every so often to help facilitate that, but really, 'Rex Mundi' is a finite story, so there's not a lot of opportunity to "start fresh". Readers are definitely going to be rewarded by reading each issue, and frankly they'll get even more enjoyment by reading 'Rex Mundi: Brother Matthew' as well."

The sell-out was exciting news when Nelson and J learned about it and to this day; they still smile when they recall where they were when they heard the news. "I was coming back from 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' when I found out," explains Nelson. "I passed by a comic book store, and because I live in New York it was of course just closing up at two in the morning. I spoke to the comics manager there, and he said he couldn't get any more issues from Diamond. I actually thought it was a bad sign-had our comics gotten lost or mislabeled in a warehouse in Siberia? Had sales been so bad that they were being turned into toilet paper? I even called Eric Stephenson and Brent Braun at Image to ask if there had been a problem. Turned out there wasn't! When I realized what had happened was a good thing, I of course proceeded to drool and jabber like a lower primate. As far as pressure goes, I just sort of gave up on worrying about 'Rex Mundi' when it debuted August 1st. I don't know what happened, it was some kind of letting-go. I know the story is good, and if people like what they've read so far, they'll love the rest. All I can do is focus on the story as much as possible, making it as good I know it can be. You can only worry for so long before you start to realize it's a waste of time. The readiness is all."

Oddly enough, Eric J says that his story is somewhat similar too. "Arvid called and told me about the shop in New York, and I had independently gotten similar news from a shop up in LA. My reaction was similar to Arvid's in that I was afraid there'd been a problem with Diamond, so I sent an e-mail to Brent and Eric, I wasn't aware that Arvid had called them, asking if they could look into it. The problem as far as I was concerned was that Image was determining whether or not Rex would be with Image after the 0 issue based on retailers reorders, so if the retailers couldn't get the reorders for some reason we'd naturally have a large problem. About a week later, I think we got the first draft of the press release Image was going to put out. Actually, Arvid got that e-mail first because he was home and I was at work, so he called me and told me. He was really excited, but I'd been pushing so hard for so long that it really didn't hit me, I was just like 'right, on to the next thing,' but it hit me as soon as I put down the receiver. I just raised my hands and yelled it out to the office and then excused myself for a little bit. It was a really intensely good feeling. It was one of the best moments of my life so far. As far as added pressure for future issues, I don't know, I think that we just have to worry about keeping up the level of quality that we've established and everything else will come. We really can't be worried about whether or not the nest book, or books, sell-out. It would be nice, and that's certainly what we're working for, but we just have to focus on making the book as good as possible."

While it's nice to sell-out, it's even nicer to receive critical acclaim and on that front, the creators of "Rex Mundi" are doing phenomenally as well. "I hear a lot of 'great first issue-can't wait til the next one!'" says Nelson of fan reaction. "I think people are really waiting to see what to make of 'Rex Mundi,' and that it will take another two or three issues to really figure out what's going on. Some people who are into the topics I built the story around-the Templars, the Holy Grail, the Merovingians, etc.-have expressed hope the story won't be "ruined" for them because they already know the back story. I don't think that will be a problem, because I have extrapolated some original conclusions from my research. All the books I read left more questions unanswered than not. There will be enough shocking and blasphemous surprises for all hands."

When it comes to the art, J says the comments have been similarly gratifying and positive. "The response to the artwork has been overwhelming and it's very gratifying. In fact the comments that I've been hearing have been incredibly positive for both the art and story. We've already gotten a few nitpickers which is kind of cool because we were able to engender a response in them, they dug the book enough, and it spoke to them enough that some have taken a good deal of time to let us know their views on this and that. I think that's one of the coolest things, if you can touch someone enough to make them sit down and write, but beyond that to get them to dissect the story. Very cool. I read somewhere that we should get a new inker, that "the inkers" inks made the artwork look to cartoony when viewed against the pencils. That was interesting. Mostly it's been just been really positive, though. The really cool thing is just reading and hearing positive feedback about things that I work very hard to get in to the work. It's really nice, especially considering that up to this point positive feedback is the currency we get paid in."

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Doing well with the fans is always the main priority for any comic book creator, but the "RM" creators take great pride in their success with comic book critics, scoring across the board glowing reviews. "I think every review I've read has been positive, very positive," Nelson said. "And I am so overjoyed that the critical community likes it. We really want 'Rex Mundi' to be a comic book reader's comic book. All the same, I think critics, like readers, are still waiting to see what to make of 'Rex Mundi.' I have every confidence that people will be all the more enthusiastic about it a few issues down the line, so I feel like the best is yet to come (knock on wood)." As with the fan response, J is just happy to see people like his work he admits. "Like I said, it's overwhelming. We hoped that we'd get this kind of support, but we'd have been out of our minds to expect the kind of blanket positive remarks that the critics have greeted us with. It's wonderful. We've been working so hard on Rex for the last three years, and in that time we've, to a certain extant, been working in a vacuum so it's been very nice. It's a little hard to explain it, but it feels a little like vindication, because we were told by so many people that we should lower our expectations, like gratification, because the book is so much our baby, our vision of what a good comic should be, like positive reinforcement, that we and those close to us were right in believing in the book and our work. It's just been really cool, and I hope that we can continue to get reviews like these first ones. Like I said, I hope that we can be the jazz cat that make millions, so far we've done accomplished that goal as best we can, we've gotten very positive reviews and the readers have responded by making the 0 issue a sell out. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a very cool ride."

Many fans were introduced to "Rex Mundi" through the convention circuit this summer and both creators have some fun stories to share with readers, starting with Nelson. "Lessee, there was riding around in the back of a pickup truck on a Georgia highway (I'm an American now!)… being stranded at the Chicago airport for 13 hours… nearly killing David Michael Linsner of 'Dawn,' (sorry, David!)… nearly saving William O'Neill of Hurricane Entertainment's life (welcome Bill!)… being attacked by two space-playa afro dudes who turned out to be the talented duo behind the 'Mac Afro' comic book… nearly passing out from heat exhaustion while going to every damn comic book store in Manhattan, Queens and Southern Connecticut with a saddlebag full of 'Rex Mundi' previews… going to my first Wizard party… taunting Klingons and Stormtroopers… getting beaten-up by Klingons and Stormtroopers… Shouting my 'Rex Mundi' pitch at 1,001 indifferent convention attendees… squandering what little money I made off 'Rex Mundi' on grossly overpriced Japanese mecha toys… trying not to stare at the gorgeous booby-girls… staring at the gorgeous booby-girls… and of course, meeting Arune Singh. That was about it!"

"Going to the east coast for the first time since I was very, very young was very cool," says J. "We attended the Atlanta Comicon in April and it was very cool, we came away from that con with some very good new friends including the coordinators of that con who are all very cool, especially Mike Searles who, along with his wife, Cammy, were just incredibly gracious hosts to Arvid and I. That was a really cool con because it was the first one that we were invited to, and the sight of the first panel I've ever been asked to be on. We met and became good friends with Jason Alexander, artist on 'Empty Zone' from Sirius and an upcoming arc on 'Queen and Country' from Oni (I'm trying not to be jealous.) Meeting Tony Harris, Dan Jolley, and the other cats from Jolly Roger Studios was very cool. Becoming a con cautionary tale for them was not. Getting to see and hang out with our friends from 'Violent Messiahs' and 'The Red Star' is always very cool. In Chicago going to Crobar with Josh Dysart, Andy Lee, and Kelly Howlett was incredibly fun. Saturday, um, yeah, we'll leave it at that. Watching Kaiju Big Battle from our booth rocked."

"In San Diego, wow, so much fun. Opening the first box of the new book. Pulling out the first one and just feeling it there in my hands. Meeting Mark Texiera and him sending a young lady over to our booth the next day telling her to show me a sketch he'd done for her of the Crow and telling her to ask me for one as well. Honestly that may have been the highlight of every con that we attended this year. Chatting with Larry Young and Steven Grant was awesome as well. The quote that Larry gave 'Rex' still makes me smile. Hanging with this cat Arune and another guy named Jonah was really cool. Man, there were just so many cool things that happened over the last few months I feel a little odd trying to even list some of them. I wish I'd been in a better mood overall for most of it, though. Ultimately the coolest things were the reactions the fans had toward us and the book and getting incredible respect from people that we respect. And we can't forget the people that we met online as well. It's been really crazy. My life right now today is very different than it was this time last year, and it feels like it's just beginning, it's really exciting. Maybe next year we'll be able to go abroad."

Sadly, both Arvid Nelson and Eric J have to return to their day jobs but have some special words for fans of "Rex Mundi."

"What can I say but thanks for giving us a chance, and thanks for supporting us," exclaims Nelson. "'Rex Mundi' has been a long three years, but response from readers makes it all worth while."

"Thank you so much for buying the book, giving us a chance, and for all of your incredibly kind words!" says the energetic J. "It's been such an incredibly long road, and it's just so wonderful to get the response we have so far. It's been incredible, and I hope that we can keep it up."

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