All Hail The Kings! Eric J & Arvid Nelson talk 'Rex Mundi' #3

Tue, April 22nd, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Rex Mundi #3]Ever since the premiere issue of Image Comics' "Rex Mundi" flew off stands, both writer Arvid Nelson and artist Eric J have been busy men. But it wasn't a result of being caught off guard- both men felt they had created something special and wanted to put their best foot forward when presenting their work to the world. With issue #3 set for release next week and the series recently announced as switching to a monthly schedule, as opposed to the bi-monthly schedule it had been following, CBR News caught up with the "Rex Mundi" creators for some good old-fashioned questioning.

"'Rex Mundi' is a murder mystery of biblical proportions," explains Nelson of the series, helping readers who've missed out on the first few issues. "It's set in Paris during the early 1930s, but in a world only superficially similar to our own. In 'Rex Mundi' the Catholic Church never lost its grip on power, and feudalism prevails. Magic also exists, in the form of Cabbalah, an ancient tradition of Jewish and Christian mysticism.

"Take a gangster movie from the 1930s, replace the hoods with sorcerers and the feds with the Holy Inquisition, and you've got a pretty good idea of what 'Rex Mundi' is about.

"A mystery involving a medieval scroll leads to a series of horrific murders connected to a thousand year-old secret society. The society claims to possess the Holy Grail. But the grail is not a cup or a physical object at all, it's a secret of some kind, a secret of tremendous political and spiritual power.

"Julien Saunire is the main character. Although he's a brilliant doctor, he's an alcoholic and he lacks ambition. He's also self-righteous at times.

"Issue two saw the introduction of Genevieve; she and Julien used to be lovers. She's also a great doctor, but in every other respect she is Julien's opposite. She's ferociously ambitious and will do absolutely anything to achieve political ends. At the same time she has very powerful maternal instincts; she genuinely cares for Julien, and in the course of the story she's going to have to make a difficult choice.

[Rex Mundi #3, Page 1]"Another important character is the Duke of Lorraine. I don't want to give away too much of him right now, but he's extremely powerful and a very popular politician. Genevieve has just been appointed his personal physician-an extremely prestigious post and a stepping stone for greater things.

"Lots more on our Web site!"

But before readers do that, artist Eric J chimes in with some additional description of the series' core concept. "Arvid has come up with a clever little saying that I like, he says that it's 'The Lord of the Rings' as written by Raymond Chandler. It's basically a noir mystery that starts as a sort of simple murder mystery, but will morph over the course of the series into something much more epic, the search for the holy grail, and will encompass an apocalyptic war, political intrigue in both the church and state, secret societies and their macabre machinations. All sorts of fun stuff.

"Right now we're looking forward to issue #3 coming out on the 23rd, and that issue will introduce the last of the really central players, The Duke of Lorraine, and we start to get some hints that the mystery is much, much deeper than previously shown. Issue #3 also begins to show the depth of complexity the relationships that we've seen so far have. Gen's convenient reappearance in Julien's life looks to be explained, but nothing is strictly as it seems in Rex Mundi, so who knows what her real motivations are. Issue #3 sets the stage for issues #4 and 5 which really kick the story into a new gear."

But all this excitement and multi-layered storytelling will be executed maturely, without the gore and swearing that many comic fans have come to associate with a "mature" tone. "I think it's a shame 'mature' usually means 'adolescent at best,'" comments Nelson. "My rule is this: if the story needs it, include it. If not, leave it out. Julien, the main character, doesn't swear any more than you'd expect your average doctor to swear. But when a gangster speaks, every other word will be 'fuck.' That's what you'd expect of that character. It would sound odd otherwise.

"As to the extremely gory stuff, Eric and I like to pepper scenes here and there because it heightens the tension. I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with gratuitous gore, but that's not what 'Rex Mundi' is about."

[Rex Mundi #3, Page 2]J says that the lack of gore is another way for "Rex Mundi" to show that it's not just another comic book. "I know that we're sort of consciously not playing down to our audience, so I'm certain that has at least something to do with it, that and the subject matter is also rather mature. We're definitely trying to avoid, sort of, 'comic book clichs' if you know what I mean. The best example I can give you is that very early on Arvid and I debated very briefly about whether or not to put these, like, metal shoulder pads on the Inquisitors along with the masks We nixed that idea very quickly, but retained the idea that the masked inquisitors wear armor, it's just under their robes, and the most the audience will probably ever see of it are the gauntlets they wear. We may see more in places, but it's probably never going to be in the form of some big splash page of Brother Moricant throwing aside his robe in true super-hero fashion to do battle, that's just not what 'Rex Mundi' is about. I think we're trying to introduce these ideas that WE think are really cool, but not go over the top. We're really trying to mix the ingredients of a great comic: strong characters, strong plot, identifiable themes, big action, epic scope, intrigue that keeps the readers on their toes, and neat stuff, but not too much neat stuff, and keep it small and believable. The delicate balancing act is taking the reader to a fantastic place, but making them believe that it's real, putting them IN that place, and so often comics get so hung up in costumes, gadgets, and crap like that that they leave believability, story, character development and such on the side of the road. What we're trying to say is that there is room for all of that in moderation and the result is something that's more satisfying overall. You can see the same happening in several other books that, happily, are enjoying success right now. If the comics industry is a trend based business, and it is, hopefully, just as it has latched on to Manga style books with a fierce vengeance, hopefully it will latch onto books with strong art and story as well. We'll see."

Through Nelson's writing, "Rex Mundi" is exploring one very familiar theme- the idea of one man trying to make a difference against overwhelming odds. While a classic and popular theme, it's also ripe with clichs and Nelson says he's aware of that when crafting scripts. "It's definitely a clichd theme, and it's something we're careful of. As the story progresses it will become apparent that while there are forces conspiring against Julien, there are a lot of people helping him. So I think 'Rex Mundi' is just as much about the importance of knowing one's limits as it is about 'one man vs. the world.'"

Even if readers are impressed by the ideals of these two creators and their approach to storytelling, there's always the need to connect with the characters and in the case of "Rex Mundi," many of the characters are quite shady. Most are hiding dark secrets and even Julien, the series' hero, isn't the most endearing character yet. "I don't think anyone will find 'Rex Mundi' depressing or have much trouble connecting," contends Nelson. "All the characters, or at least most of the characters, are capable of doing brave or cowardly things, and if anything I believe this will make them more interesting and more accessible. I just try to make the characters three-dimensional."

This is a series populated by real people, explains J, and Julien is supposed to represent how the average person might react in similar circumstances. "A noir mystery isn't ever populated with overly joyous people, and I think that the flawed nature of the players makes them easier to connect with. You may not be an alcoholic, but I daresay you can see a bit of the everyman that's being tossed into something totally beyond his ken in Julien. For myself, I can really see myself in Julien's shoes and feel what he must be feeling. That could be because I'm essentially 'playing' him through the art, but hopefully a little of our understanding of his character shines through. The brooding hero is nothing new, and part of the reason they're so popular is because we can feel the weight of their burden, we all have problems, and we can superimpose our own troubles onto them, and then take on the added pressure of the mystery or whatever, and an empathic bond is created because we can believe the character as a real person, and that extends to the rest of the characters as well. We can feel Father Marin's shame all the more because we've all been tempted by something, and we've all succumbed, maybe not on the level that he did, but on some level we can identify with him.

"Beyond that, realistic characters, both as they are written and as they're portrayed in the art, further ground the rest of the story, and, like I was saying before, the realism and the way that we present the rest of the story will hopefully make the fantastic elements more plausible."

With three issues of the series releases, including the #0 issue, "Rex Mundi" has already revealed itself to be set in a complex world and full of complex plotting. Previous CBR News interviews with Nelson and J have revealed that the duo have a long story arc planned for "Rex Mundi" and the artist explains, fans haven't even seen the seeds of the series' eventual end. "No, they haven't seen anything yet. Well, maybe the very tip. Like I said earlier, we'll start to see hints of… big, for lack of a more eloquent term, this thing is going to be in issues #3, 4, and 5, but it's definitely going to be like a snowball, or, as Arvid and I usually refer to it, an onion, because every layer that is exposed will reveal yet another. That's why we've had periodic trades planned since the very beginning. One of the first things Arvid and I decided to do when we started planning out 'Rex Mundi,' was that we'd collect issues into trades, and we planned to do that after every six issues. So in this instance we're hopeful that we'll be able to release our first trade after issue #5"

[Rex Mundi #3, Page 3]With a sly smirk on his face, Nelson says that readers have only seen a little bit of his plan for the "Rex Mundi" world and in some ways, it's all they'll ever see. "The tip, just the tip. In fact, that's about all we'll have space for in the context of the story. I have done a lot of work on the background, but I don't think it's necessary or even desirable to get into excruciating detail. If Tolkein showed off how intricate his setting was, 'Lord of the Rings' would have been unreadable. As much as possible, I am trying to follow his example and focus on the story and characters."

However, this alternate version of Paris is being fleshed out by faux newspaper reports at the end of each issue and while they make take a reader a bit more time to read than some comics, they do add a lot to the comic series. The inspiration was Nelson's and he says it's his way of giving fans a "bonus" with each story. "It takes a lot of time, a few days of intensive work, in fact. I have to be careful the details in the stories don't violate any of the parameters I've established," explains Nelson. "But it's very worthwhile. The newspaper's origin is actually very closely tied to the 'tip of the iceberg' question. One of the things I love about books like 'Dune' is the glossary at the back. I'm always looking for original ways to insert background material into the story without being too obvious about it. The newspaper serves that purpose: it goes a little bit deeper, but it's not essential to the story."

"That was an idea Arvid had from the very beginning," adds Eric J. "We included it in the very first B&W version of 'Rex' that we did back in 2000 for the SD Comic-Con, and there was never a doubt that we would include it in every issue from thereon out, the one exception being the zero issue, because we wanted to introduce people to 'Brother Matthew,' because we planned at the time to continue doing 'Brother Matthew,' but circumstances have conspired against us in that regard unfortunately, but the response that we got from those that bought the book in SD was so positive it just really strongly reinforced our resolve.

"I think just as we do with 'Brother Matthew,' when we're able to produce it, and our Web site, the newspaper is just another tool for us to give our readers as much insight into the world of 'Rex Mundi' as possible. It's a large complex world, and Arvid and I are both very much of the opinion that the more information that you have the more enjoyment you'll be able to take from the story. The surface elements will hopefully be enough to keep readers engaged, but if you're really into it, we're going to try to do everything we can to give you as full an appreciation of the world and story as we can."

One thing that the creators of "Rex Mundi" have always had is a sense of timing, for better or worse, and next week's issue #3 is very representative of that. Ironically, it deals with France talking about aggression towards other countries and protecting it's borders, something very relevant in today's world. As the two explain, this isn't the first time something like this has happened. "The timing is really interesting, but then, the timing for this book has been interesting throughout," laughs J. "Just about the time issue #0 and #1 were coming out, and Father Marin was talking about his sexual tryst in spite of his vows, the Catholic churches pedophile cover-up scandals were at a fever pitch, and now this. I think it's interesting, and if it gets people talking about 'Rex,' so much the better, but it's just a story, our politics don't have anything to do with it. Just like everything else, we're trying to tell the best story that we can, and I think, at least I hope, that people are savvy and intelligent enough to know that this story, and this issue in particular, was plotted out and written well before any of the current international political trauma began.

"I don't really worry about it that much, but sometimes, especially with some of our senators pulling the idiocy of renaming French fries and French toast in their cafeteria, well, I'd be lying if I said that I haven't worried about it just a little, but I still have a little faith in people to be able to distinguish between a story and reality."

[Rex Mundi #3, Page 4]Nelson agrees and adds, "I, for one, have very strong feelings about current events, but I don't think it creeps into my writing. I hope it doesn't.

"At the same time, 'Rex Mundi' deals with issues like religious intolerance, nationalism, and the seductiveness of people in power. All I want readers to come away with is an awareness that the conflicts affecting our world have a very, very long history, and the issues are extremely complicated."

As much as the writing impresses fans of "Rex Mundi," Eric J's art continues to attract new readers as well and with issue #3, Nelson says that you can expect to see his work get even slicker. "I realize I'm not Eric (dream on), but I, for one, am ecstatic about the change in his style," raves the writer. "I think both of us have become much more precise and lucid storytellers."

"Overall, I think I'm pretty pleased with the evolution of my art, though my answer may vary from hour to hour depending on the day," chuckles J. "You know, we've always tried to be strenuous on ourselves regarding timeliness, but it's very different when you're confronted with deadlines that aren't sort of artificial, if that makes sense. I mean, now we're at a point where we've said a book will come out on a certain date, and to facilitate that I have to get the art done in a certain timeframe, so now I'm working on pages quite a bit less time than I'm comfortable with, and trying to reconcile the conflicts that I'm finding in the face of that. It makes me really uncomfortable at times, but it's also given me some really cool moments in which I've surprised myself. I think that 'real' evolution is always precipitated by outside forces beyond our control, in this case the inability to spend as much time on a page as I'd like, but still produce art that I, and my partners, can be proud of and that makes our readers go, 'wow, man, that's something!' You know? So it's caused me to do some real experimentation, and in the process taught me so much about the craft that I'm not certain I would have recognized if left to my own devices. So, while it's made me uncomfortable at times, I'm really pretty stoked on it because it's ultimately been so beneficial. And it's a continuous process, as long as each book has something I can point at and say, 'that's better than it was in the last issue' I think I'll be cool. Issue #4, which is the book I'm working on as right now is, in my mind leaps and bounds better than #3, just as there are parts of #3 that I like much better than in #2.

"It is interesting to see how the outside factors, like timing and such, are affecting my art. I'm still very young in my inking career, so, while my penciling has been at a certain level that I've been happy with for some time now, my inking continues to be the aspect of my overall art that has been evolving and progressing the most rapidly over the last year or so, including allowing my penciling to become more loose so that I can speed up that particular aspect of the process, and my line is both becoming more confident, and looser, as I choose it. It's been a really interesting exploration into my own aesthetic tastes, one that's been going on, really since I decided to do my own inks, but has certainly accelerated dramatically over the last couple of years. The really interesting thing there, though, is that it's not been a conscious deliberation, because I haven't got the time to ponder over it, so it's been very fluid, and a little surprising at times. The coolest thing right now has got to be seeing how my art changes from issue to issue, though, because, while I think I've established a sort of overall style, it's constantly in flux, and that's exciting. Hopefully I won't see a time where that changes.

"I think right now, you have two basic types of artists working comics. The first is the 'artist' that says, 'deadlines be damned, this is how long it takes for me to do this work.' I guess there's nothing wrong with that as long as you're blowing people away with your work, but there are strong arguments that could be raised about why that's a thoroughly unhealthy attitude, especially if you're trying to be a regularly employed professional. The other is the workman, the guy that gets work because his stuff isn't horrible, but certainly isn't the reason you're buying the book, but is fast, workmanlike, on time like clockwork. You talk to a lot of people today and they'll tell you this guy is their man, especially in light of the serious timeliness issues that the industry's seen over the, what? Past decade? The problem with these guys, is that they settle on a style, never push it, and crank shit out, that's how they can be so fast. There was a point, especially a couple of months ago, where I was on the road to being the first type of guy, and then, more recently, I think I've been dangerously close to settling into the mindset of the second. I think, right now what's got me excited is that I'm attempting to merge those two mindsets, and seeing the resulting work, which is surprising and fresh to me, but it all stems from the artist saying, 'this is total crap, I need to do much better on the next page!' and the professional adding 'within the time that you've been allotted.' Very interesting, and, I'm finding, very fun."

There's also some very interesting design work in issue #3, alluded to earlier by both creators, and Nelson says the look comes from a variety of sources. "There are lots of visual influences on 'Rex Mundi's' 'look.' One very important source is the photographs of Eugne Atget. Atget photographed Paris around the turn of the (last) century. It's a wonderful visual record of how Paris once looked: the decaying, medieval city. There is something very dark about Atget's pictures, and it's perfect for 'Rex Mundi.'

[Rex Mundi #3, Page 5]"Masks are always scary because you never know what's beneath. From 'Star Wars' to 'Eyes Wide Shut,' I think it's a great visual element if used well.

"'Rex Mundi' also gets it look from French and American movies from the 30s, the 'film noir' look. Movies like 'Double Indemnity,' 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'Dark Passage,' 'Out of the Past,' 'The Concrete Jungle'… the list goes on!"

One artistic influence on "Rex Mundi" that doesn't seem to be changing is Eric J himself, who is adamant about the fact that there will be no fill-in artists. "No way! Just like there will never be a fill-in writer. 'Rex Mundi' wouldn't exist if not for Arvid and I both, at least not in any way that would be recognizable. There are equal parts of Arvid and I in this book, and the notion that an artist is interchangeable is flawed in my opinion."

Since the book's success and subsequent announcement as a bi-monthly (now monthly) series, Eric J has made this series his full time, which might make some wonder how this has changed the pressures on him. J says the challenges may not have changed, but he won't know till he's been at it a bit longer. "I don't know that they've necessarily changed, I think we're just starting to really identify them. What I mean is, I think the same challenges are before us, but they're rearranging themselves in a fluid and unpredictable ways. I think quite a bit of that has to do with the fact that we're so new to all of this. Arvid and I have been working 'Rex' for damn near four years now, so when we got picked up by Image I think that we had an excessive amount of hubris, that I really think, at the time, served us well, but you know, the fact was that we hadn't ever released a book at all, much less on any kind of a regular basis, and we just didn't know what lay in front of us both from a creative and business standpoint. So the whole thing has been a learning process, and one I suspect will continue for some time now. We just need to really take advantage of the wonderful resource that we have in Jim, Eric, and the rest of the staff at Image Central, and also the different forums in which we get to interact with retailers and other pros. That said, there is no teacher like experience, so a lot of what we need to learn we're just going to have to learn by fumbling, making mistakes, as well as successes, and going from there."

While enjoying both the writing and art in "Rex Mundi," readers notice one big thing- no ads. "I think it's an Image thing; no Image comics have ads save for other Image titles," contends Nelson. "I guess it would be too complicated given that every single title is creator-owned.

"It's a question of resources and logistics; there's just no way for us to do ads, even if we wanted to! You've got to remember 'Rex Mundi' is just myself, Eric and Jeromy, plus the Image staff. It's not like we have an advertising sales staff working for us!"

But for J, it's all about a commitment to giving readers to most bang for their buck in an age where comics just cost too much. "We've always, even before we got together with Image, been very keen on the idea of giving our readers as much content as we possibly could. Arvid and I are incredibly committed to making certain that our readers get as full an experience as we can provide!! You can see that commitment not only in the content that we put in the book, but also in our website, which from day one we intended to be an incredibly rich additional resource for our readers, including back history, a lexicon, previews of each issue, our webcomic 'Brother Matthew.' I think that's a goal that Image shares with us, because they've been very, very cool about letting us include what we like, as long as we stay within our page limit, and you can see that in just about every other Image title as well. So, yeah, it's definitely are intent to give our readers the most bang for their buck, and I don't see that changing anytime soon."

As previously mentioned, "Rex Mundi" will be going monthly with issue #5 and while it's exciting for fans, some do wonder why the schedule is suddenly changing. "We're going to start going monthly with #5 because it will give us the time we need to build up a buffer of finished pages in case of catastrophes," says Nelson. "That's really the only reason.

"We see going monthly as absolutely critical to success. Eric and I took a hard look at why some comics like ours succeed and why some fail. One thing kept coming up: be consistent and be monthly. Everyone has seen a lot of comics-good comics-fail for coming out late or not at all, and just a many comics scrape by for not coming out often enough. 'Rex Mundi' is a murder mystery, and it's vitally important the story not lose steam. Eric and I are absolutely committed to the monthly schedule.

"So yes, we were late once, but we feel there's a certain amount of leeway given to rookies like ourselves. All the goodwill is just about used up; we understand that. We have clawed our way out of the hole, and we don't plan on falling back in."

Though he's as enthusiastic as his writing buddy, Eric J cautions fans that the "Rex Mundi" team is new at the monthly gig and may need to work on it a little more than they anticipated. "We need to be very clear that we haven't announced that we are definitely going monthly after issue #5. That's definitely what we're shooting for, but we're not going to do anything like that until we're 100% certain that we can maintain the schedule. As of right now, I don't see any reason why we can't accomplish that goal, but after the unorthodox and semi-rocky manner in which we got off the ground the very most important thing at the present time is to make certain that the books are coming out when they're supposed to. Issue #2 was about a month late, and that was due to the fact that I just had too much on my plate and burned out badly. Since then we've drastically rearranged things so that I'm working full time on Rex now, and, not only is #3 good as far as timing is concerned, so too will #4 and #5, and I'm finding that a monthly schedule, under the present situation, shouldn't be a problem at all, but as I say, until we're totally 100% ready to make that jump we're not going to commit to it beyond the fact that we ourselves will be working under that assumption, and when I say '100% certain' that basically comes down to being at least one issue ahead of schedule. Like I say, though, that is our biggest, most important goal right now.

"The timing is based on our long standing plan and hope that we'll be able to collect issues into trades on a six issue cycle, and #5 would be the end of the first cycle. There are more nuts and bolts parts to this, but we still need to work with Image regarding all of this, so that's all I can really say right now, but that's why we're looking at #5.

"I have to say, because issue #2 was late, and #3 isn't, we're getting a taste of what it's going to be like once we are able to go monthly, ad I have to say it's freaking sweet! I mean, it probably shouldn't be so exciting, but I'm all about giddy that our last issue just came out last month and here we have another in such a short timeframe. Ultimately there are any number of things that are exciting about increasing the speed at which we release books, but I think the best thing is that it's going to allow our readers to get further involved, and stay involved."

Even more of a testament to the series popularity, there's already a film in development and Nelson says things are going well thus far. "It's exciting, extremely exciting. We're partnered with Barry Levine of Brigade Entertainment, and Alan Riche of Eagle Cove Entertainment. We have Pitof, who directed a film called 'Vidocq' and did the special effects for 'City of Lost Children,' one of my all-time favorite movies.

"Right now we're looking for writers, and some very talented people are interested in writing the script, which is very gratifying.

"It's all a little bit like a dream, I mean, it's unbelievable to me that we've come this far. We owe a lot to Barry; he really went to bat for us, and he's got a very good handle on what needs to be done to make the film work."

But when asked what readers can expect from upcoming issues of the series, both writer and artist look at each other, laugh and Nelson says, "BLUE APPLES!"

 
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