From NASA Designer to Comic Creator: Sheikman talks "Robotika"

Fri, May 5th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
David Moran, Guest Contributor

You don't necessarily need the skills of a NASA engineer to write, pencil, ink and letter your own comic book, but, then again, having those skills at your disposal sure doesn't hurt either.

At the very least, your comic should look pretty good (since, you know, you sorta design for NASA and all…).

Which is precisely what keeps "Robotika" creator Alex Sheikman very, very busy most days when he's not already very, very busy writing, penciling, inking and lettering his debut creator-owned four issue limited series, currently being published bi-monthly through Archaia Studios Press.

Billed as a "steampunk sushi samurai western" by Archaia, Sheikman's dystopian future yarn fuses together an absolute smorgasbord of pop culture elements pulled from a plethora of sources - including, and to list but a few of the four issue mini's many, many, many overt influences: 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, Art Nouveau, Akira Kurosowa flicks, German Expressionism, and the samurai philosophy/day-to-day life doctrine of Bushido - into an action packed page-turner of a series that is at once bold, distinct, jaw-droppingly beautiful to look at, and unlike any other book currently on the stands at the moment.

"I'm influenced by everything that I come into contact with," Sheikman said when asked to trace the creative roots of "Robotika." "If I enjoy it enough to spend sometime thinking about it and studying it, it eventually filters through my system and appears on a piece of paper. It could be comics, film, books, paintings…anything. The list goes on and on, and only grows bigger by the day.

"As far as influences inside of comics go, well, there's a wide range of those too. A real wide range," the soon-to-be-40-year old scribe said. "It's amazing (and inspiring) for me to realize that the same medium that showcases the work of Rodolfo Damaggio and Kevin Nowlan also recognizes the energy and the brilliance of artists like Tony Salmons and Bill Sienkiewicz. Then there's the grace and simple elegance that a master like Jose Garcia-Lopez can bring to a figure, the almost-iconic representations of a Mike Mignola drawing, the unabashed visual energy and 'pop' of a Howard Chaykin panel.

"But, at the same time, I still very much enjoy work from artists like Alphonso Mucha, Nestor Redundo, Adam Hughes, and Michael Golden. They bring a more organic approach to their rendering and their figure work just seems to flow across the page. [Their stuff] is so very elegant and eloquent to look at. So I'm very much seduced by that type of 'style' as well. I've spent hours and hours looking at those creators work, trying to figure out how they were able to produce the line quality that they achieved.

"And - as if I didn't already have enough creative influences to draw from - several years ago I came across the work of a German graphic design artist by the name of Ludwig Hohlwein [from around the 1930s], whose work, at least in my opinion, has some of the strongest compositions and use of color that I've ever seen...anywhere."

"It's a pretty long list, and, believe me, I could just go on and on and on...."

"Which is why, I suppose, I enjoy working in comics as much as I do: I've always felt that comic books are unique because they may well be the last medium left where creative variety is allowed to flourish and experimentation is actually encouraged to advance the technique of storytelling. I mean, just take a look at any of the works of the very eclectic mix of creators I just mentioned (and many, many others as well) as being perfect examples of just this. You can tell the same story a thousand different ways in comics. There really are no rules or limitations when working in the form -- only those that you place on yourself."

Sheikman's creator-owned series follows the fable-like tale of a young warrior named Niko, a crack member of an elite group of bodyguards (think Jedi Knights, but with a dash of "Matrix" cool thrown in for good measure) in service to the queen of a sprawling, enormous (not to mention beautifully rendered) "Blade Runner"-esque city in the far future, and the quest that he must undertake in order to retrieve a valuable stolen item, which, in the process, leads him down a path of self-discovery and inner examination that ultimately causes him to question the very worth of the society he has so dutifully served all his life. And, in case that weren't enough, Niko also gets into a whole bunch of cool-looking sword fights along the way as well.

A whole bunch.

"I'm absolutely awful at trying to sell myself, or my work, to anybody," Sheikman modestly demurred when asked for his series' "high concept." "I think that there are a lot of very talented people working very hard to get their work to the public in the comics industry, and I'd feel very foolish 'tooting' my work over theirs.

"Other than that, I think the only thing that I can comfortably say is that I tried very hard to make 'Robotika' the best looking book that I could. The story has a lot of twists and turns and I hope folks will pick it up, flip through it, and hopefully decide to buy it. I tried to apply myself and do honest work without cutting corners and I hope that that comes through in the book.

"But, at the same time, I have noticed that a few of the reviews that I've seen online for the series thus far have labeled 'Robotika' as a comic about 'Niko fighting corrupt corporations' and simply dismissed it as a re-hash of something else. And I would just like to say this in response to that: it's been said that every story and every variation on every story has already been done (and many will say done to death). Can anyone be totally original and avoid any and all clichs? I don't think so. But I do like to think that 'Robotika' has enough twists and turns to pleasantly surprise readers and keep them off balance, and, hopefully, coming back for more at the same time.

"'Robotika' is not ultimately about Niko fighting big, bad corporations. Corporations are just a fact of life in 'Robotika' (just as they are a fact of life in our reality), Niko just has to live in that environment and so he comes into contact with them, but, at its heart, 'Robotika' is the story of Niko's development as a hero. So it very much follows the old 'Hero Quest,' mythic type of coming-of-age story that keeps getting told over and over again by various peoples and cultures down through the ages, but with a fresh layer of paint applied."

Even the most cursory of flips through either of "Robotika's" first two issues (issue #3 hit comic stands everywhere May 3rd) is more than enough to reveal the confidently assured pen and ink work of a master storyteller, one who's been dutifully working in the comic industry for years and years and painstakingly honing his craft on panel after panel after tiring panel -- only Alex Sheikman hasn't.

Instead, when he's not busy working on "Robotika" (which he mostly has to do nights and weekends), Sheikman spends his days employed as a full-time Instrumentation Engineer in the rotor research branch of NASA, where he helps oversee wind tunnel tests for state-of-the-art experimental helicopters.

"I'm fortunate enough to have a very exciting 'day job,'" Sheikman said. "I get to spend my days working with cutting-edge technology, and I'm learning something new all of the time. I mean, what's not to love? But at the same time -- and, I suppose, a little sadly -- my enthusiasm for my day job probably has something (probably a lot) to do with me not having enough time to produce a monthly book, but life is a balancing act, and I'm trying my very best at it."

Much like Niko himself, Sheikman's "Robotika" has had a long and extremely colorful journey from its humble beginnings, an errant idea knocking around in the back of the creator's brain for several years, to its final realization as a full color, prestige format four issue limited series.

"I'll be forty years old soon, and I've been drawing steadily in one form or another since I was 19. In fact, in the early 90s I did some black and white comics for a couple of indie publishers. I wrote and illustrated a book called 'Moonsturck' and I illustrated a book for Slave Labor called 'Bloodlust.' I also penciled and partially inked a short story in 'Marvel Comics Presents.' I always believed that a career in comics should be this linear sort of progression of slowly working your way up to the better paying jobs, but it didn't work out that way for me.

"After I saw the printed version of my short 'Marvel Comics Presents' story I was very disappointed. It just seemed sort of bad. Looking at it on the printed page instead of the original boards gave me a chance to see it from a different perspective. I just remember thinking: 'As a comics reader, I wouldn't buy this, this is just awful.' So I decided I needed to learn how to draw and storytell before I could even attempt to do comic books again."

In retrospect, Sheikman believes this was a mistake, thinking he would have progressed faster as an artist if he had kept at it. "But I felt that I shouldn't turn out bad work and expect others to pay their hard earned cash for something that I thought to be substandard," admitted Sheikman. "So, I put together a portfolio and tried to get other illustration work, and I was fortunate enough to luck out pretty much right away. I got hired by White Wolf to illustrate their Role Playing Game manuals, and after that other RPG assignments followed, so I was able to support myself doing that for a while.

"'Robotika' has a sort of a strange genesis to it, because even though I talked about doing comics again some day, it just never seemed to happen. Then through a friend I met Ryan Sook, and through talking to Ryan and seeing his work I started getting more and more excited about doing some comics work again.

"So I came up with a few character designs that I wanted to use in a story set in the 17th Century, but as I continued refining the designs, some steampunk-ish elements began to slowly creep there way in. Through Ryan's help (who really gave me some great ideas to use) and that of another friend of mine, Leif Jones (who is a fantastic artist and storyteller in his own right and also my script doctor -- thanks Dr. Jones!), the story just kept expanding and expanding, until, finally, it had morphed into a 48-page one shot that I was going to write and draw (and letter and tone) myself."

It was at this time that Sheikman began to realize just how tough self-publishing your work is. So, he started to look for other possibilities. "Thankfully, though, through the Internet I discovered that Mark Smylie's Archaia Studio Press was looking for creator owned non-superhero proposals. And I've always been a fan of Mark's 'Artesia' series (it is just such a beautiful book with rich characters and an intricate storyline), so I thought I'd try to submit my story, and, if nothing else, I'd get to write a nice letter expressing my appreciation for Mark's work.

"Sometime went by, I kept working on 'Robotika' and with the help of Michelle, Ryan's wife, we got an ashcan printed for the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con. Then I got an email from Mark asking if I were still looking for a publisher. I have to say: that was pretty awesome. There was one catch, though. Mark said that he was looking for a mini series and not just a one-shot.

"So, with Mark's gentle guidance, I expanded the storyline, developing the characters much more than what I had originally intended, and I must say that expanding my story from 44 to 100 pages has been one of the best creative experiences that I've ever had. Mark and [his business partner] Aki Lao have been just an immense pleasure to work with. They are always on top of everything, answering my questions, trying to do their best to inspire me and make the book the best comic that it can be."

With his work on "Robotika" (almost 2 years worth of work) almost complete, does Sheikman already have plans for a follow-up project in mind? Will fans get to see more of Niko and company's adventures in the future?

"Right now my efforts are focused on finishing the first 'Robotika' mini series, but I am also putting together a proposal to pitch to Mark and Aki for a follow-up series. They appear to be interested and I am confident that with the experience from the first mini under my belt, I will be able to craft a much better book. I would love to continue working with ASP and Joel Chua (the colorist for the series), and if all goes well, I'll get a chance to do just that."

"I've spent about two years of my life working on the series, and in that time I underwent a lot of changes, both as a person and as an artist. After completing a hundred plus pages of sequential storytelling, I can confidently say that I am a totally different artist than the guy who used to draw RPG illustrations. Working on RPG illustrations was great. I learned a lot about drawing (composition, anatomy, perspective, etc.), I learned a lot about the business of illustrating (keeping deadlines, communicating with art directors, knowing how modern reproduction methods effect the final printed page), and I learned a lot about what methods work best for me (reference, tools to work with, brand of coffee to drink). However, illustrating text with single panel illustrations is a totally different animal than sequential storytelling. And I've learned so much working on 'Robotika' these past few years and I realize just how exciting the medium of sequential storytelling is now, and how much more there still is to learn and explore!

"On the personal side, the last two years have been an interesting journey as well: I got married, became a father, and discovered that I had skin cancer. Looking back, I'm almost amazed that with all the changes going on in my life and a full-time job as well, I was still able to start and finish the series. Most of this is due to the people around me that encouraged and inspired me in my artistic endeavors. My wife has been my biggest (and only) fan. She's put a lot of stuff on hold in order to give me the opportunity to work on my comic. Leif Jones and Ryan Sook are two friends who consistently boosted my confidence when I would run out of energy or get stuck. Other folks have been great in offering advice and creating an environment in which I was able to succeed as well.

"I believe that my completing my first series is a sort of hymn to other artists and writers who may be trying to create something themselves while still maintaining their family lives and supporting their families through full time employment. If I can do it, then I'm convinced others can too, and, if nothing else, I hope that 'Robotika' will be sort of an inspiration to these people. Not necessarily because they believe it's the greatest thing since 'sliced bread,' but because it's something that has been done and they should understand that they can co it too (and do it better!)."

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