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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/11/2009
The Man-Machine/Steampunk-Sushi Western Intersection
Alex Sheikman on Robotika: For a Few Rubles More

Let me begin by stating that I'm a huge fan of Alex Sheikman and his work. Honestly, I don't often turn into a gushing fanboy when discussing comics or talking with creators, but we all have our weaknesses. And I'd be remiss if I didn't state at the outset of this interview that Sheikman's work on Robotika is definitely one of mine.

Still, I'd be hard pressed to nail down exactly what it is about this series that so captivates me. Yeah, I really dig well done sushi westerns and samurai epics. Dystopian futures filled with strange and exotic creatures, human and otherwise? You bet. So a crossbreed concocted of all those genres seems a no-brainer and an instant fun time for me, naturally.

Still, there's something particularly singular about the world that Sheikman has created within the pages of Robotika, some ineffable essence that strikes me as true and right and wholly believable in a very visceral way…while remaining just out of my reach to fully explain why in a coherent manner, even after giving the matter a great deal of thought.

So, perhaps it's best that I cease babbling, and just let Alex Sheikman explain it all to you himself . . .

Bill Baker: How do you describe Robotika to those folks who are unfamiliar with it?

Alex Sheikman: I always have a bit of trouble when asked to describe Robotika, mainly because I did not conceive it as a property to be sold off to Hollywood, so I never came-up with a one sentence sales pitch. It is not "Terminator meets the Wizard of OZ" or "Muppets Vs Gremlins a la Star Wars"

To me, Robotika is a Steampunk samurai sushi western. It is my contribution to the "hero's journey" mythology that has been running through stories told ever since the dawn of time…it just so happens that the setting for my story is the future where samurai warrior culture has became mainstream.

BB: Where'd this particular mixture of genres and tropes come from? Is it purely a reflection of your own particular interests and concerns, or are there some wider societal influences in the mix?

AS: It is a reflection of my own twisted mind, but I am influenced by everything around me…including the 12 years I spent living in the Soviet Union. I think that has been the biggest influence on me and the stories I tell.

BB: How'd you originally envision it, and what kind of changes did it go through as you developed that vision into the first miniseries?

AS: My original thought was that I was going to write and draw a 48 page graphic novel with a beginning, middle and end.

After I drew the first 20-24 pages I started thinking about how to publish it. I thought about self-publishing, but that (soliciting, pre-press, distribution) was going to take time away from actually drawing the pages, so I decided to try to find a publisher interested in it.

I was pretty happy that I got hooked up with Archaia, because not only were they going to take care of all the business side of things, but I also respected Mark Smylie as the creator of Artesia. However, Mark wanted to publish a mini-series, at least 4 issues. By this time I had been working on Robotika for almost 4 months and I started seeing possibilities for a more involved storyline. I re-wrote the script, had to re-draw one or two pages and continued working.

Folks who have read the first series have noticed that there is a definite transition between issues 2 and 3. The first two issues are sort of "dreamy" and a bit more "fairy-tale" like, and the last two issues are much more action/adventure oriented.

The first series did well enough to have Mark approve the second mini-series and that is definitely an adventure story through and through.

BB: It seems like the series has continued to morph as you've worked on it, with one of the chief examples being the addition of David Moran as your co-creator on the For a Few Rubles More arc. What are some of the reasons you decided to bring in another creator, and what aspects of David's approach to storytelling make him the perfect fit for this project?

AS: Writing and drawing the first Robotika series was a great experience, and I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses as both a writer and an artist.  I knew that for the second Robotika series to be better than the first mini, I needed a real writer… someone who works at the craft of writing.

I always considered myself to be an artist, someone who thinks in images, and by the end of the first series I felt pretty confident in my abilities to translate a story into a comic sequential format; but I wanted to get someone to help me translate my ideas into a tightly interwoven storyline that not only moved the plot along, but also showed how the characters are being changed by the events around them.

I tried to do all that in the first series, but after re-reading the collection I felt my efforts were somewhat clunky.

When I read a few of David's short stories, I was very surprised at how well-paced they were and at all the cool imagery that they contained. Later on I found out that David studied film and that he was a natural when it came to pacing his scripts for comics.

The very first thing we worked on was a short story that I mentioned earlier called "Seek." It was intended to be a story drawn by someone else, but when we were done I could not wait to draw it myself.

Working with David on "Seek" was very smooth. I had a very easy time communicating with him and it seemed that every time I had a concern about something, David was two steps ahead of me with another re-write. After "Seek" I asked David if he would be interested in helping me with the main story, and he graciously agreed.

BB: Well, how do you and David work together? Do you provide him with an outline, or perhaps even a detailed script, which he then tweaks or rewrites before passing it back to you for approval? And what do you work from while creating the pages—a bare bones outline or full script—and how different is that from the way you worked alone?

AS: The first mini-series was always a "work in progress."

Partially this was due because it started out as a 48 page story and evolved into a 120 page series, and partially because I was feeling my way around learning how to create comics. Parts of the story were a tightly scripted panel-by-panel document, parts were little thumbnail layouts that got captions/dialogue added after they got penciled, and parts were created pretty spontaneously, with me just pulling a blank piece of paper out and starting to draw at the top left corner. I was experimenting and learning what worked and what did not work.

By the time I finished the first series I pretty much figured out that I worked better from tight layouts that were derived from a full script. Knowing what comes before and after any particular scene gave me a chance either to create interesting references or to pre-plant certain objects/symbols that showed the careful reader what will come next… this might be the advice given to all starting artists by the "how-to" books, but like I mentioned earlier, I seem to be only able to learn by doing.

When David joined me, I already had an outline written for the second series, breaking down the story into 4 issues. David took my outline and wrote a "treatment" for every issue. The "treatments" varied in their detail, some parts were tightly scripted scenes and some pages were just designated as "fight scenes for the next few panels."  This gave me structure that I needed and at the same time lots of freedom to experiment with storytelling.

I did layouts based on the scripts, setting the rhythm of the pages and sometimes adding/deleting scenes. After I was done with layouts, I penciled and inked the pages and I sent David the finished artwork so he could script it. Most of his scripting came right out of the original "treatments," but some of it had to be adjusted based on the changes that I made.

Once the script was finalized, I would scan in the pages and digitally letter them…wow, here is another topic, lettering. That is an art form all in itself!

BB: You're so right on that. In fact, it could easily turn into an entire book.

As you mentioned earlier, another way you've brought other perspectives on the world of Robotika is through the inclusion of short stories crafted by other creators. What lead to your decision to add those fine little gems to the mix, and what do you hope to accomplish with their inclusion?

AS: I have always enjoyed seeing how different Jack Kirby's artistic version of Thor is from Walt Simonson's, or from Olivier Copiel's, so to get other artists to draw my own characters and the whole world of Robotika was a real treat. Plus I got to read more Robotika stories without having to draw them!

I also got to have some fun acting as an editor, sometimes giving ideas to writers for stories, seeing the stories created, and picking the artist who I thought would enjoy illustrating a particular story. I do that all the time with my own material, but there is a lot of difference between doing all the work yourself and being the "manager" of the creative process that is running on the steam of other talented people. I found the experience very instructive and very inspirational.

The first two stories I wrote myself and it was so awesome to see my scripts turn into pages! Leif Jones, a great artist whom I met while working for White Wolf, illustrated the first story. Leif not only drew the story, he also colored and lettered it as well. That was the first time someone else drew one of my stories and it was simply mind blowing. I will always remember when the pages arrived and I got to see them for the first time…it was a great day.

For a completely different artistic approach, I got Travis Sangus to illustrate my second story. Travis is someone I met on-line and very much liked the style of his work. It has more of a "hip-hop" anime feel to it and I thought it would be perfect for a story about

Cherokee [Girl]. And sure enough, Travis did an awesome job. His pencils had real energy and I was so taken with the pages that I ended-up inking it myself; another first for me, since I rarely ink other people's work.

For the second round of back-ups, David Moran wrote all the stories and I got Norman Felchle (Legends of The Dark Knight) and Brian Churilla (The Anchor, We Kill Monsters) to do the art honors. The third back-up, "Seek," was so clearly visualized in my mind by the time David and I finished writing it, that I ended-up illustrating it myself.

In each one of the stories I learned something new about creating comics. From Leif I learned a different way of approaching lettering, from Norman I learned about the importance of a consistent color palette...so editing each story has contributed to my deeper understanding of what it takes to make good comics, and I hope that every new take on Robotika brought enjoyment to the readers.

BB: Your drive to evolve as an artist is readily evident on your blog, where you often spotlight some of your sketchbook work. One thing I've found particularly fascinating are your attempts to recreate or re-imagine certain pieces by other artists whose work you admire. What does that do for you and your art, and how do you move from mimicking another artist to making those particular techniques and effects your own?

AS: I am a self-taught artist, and pretty much I learn by "doing." In my sketchbook I feel the freedom of being able to "re-imagine" the work of others in an attempt to learn from other artists. I got the idea after reading a book about Steve Rude and seeing pages of his sketchbooks filled with studies from Andrew Loomis and James Montgomery Flagg.

I am always trying to figure out different techniques. For example, when I look at Leyendecker, I just love the chunky muscular brushwork that he utilized on drapery and other objects…for me a fun challenge is to figure out how to get the same effect with ink that he got with oil paints. Another guy whose work I am looking at currently is Charles Dana Gibson; the way he used dip pens is just incredible.

I also find that by doing a close study of another artist, I take my appreciation of their work to a different level. A perfect example is the early Barry Smith work on Conan. I got all the Conan Saga reprints and I just think that even at 19 or 20 Barry Smith was an incredible storyteller; but it was not until I tried to re-imagine a few pages that I realized how great of a figure artist he was even at that early stage. All of his figures are wound like a spring, powerful yet in perfect balance…until it's time to go into action. Looking at his work made me realize that I need to keep all of that in mind when I work on my stories.

As far as how I can make these techniques my own after studying them…I draw when I am at the park, and I know that I need to learn how to introduce texture, how to transition from black to white; hopefully I can look at the work of other artist and get some clue as to their thinking process and that will help me solidify my own approaches to illustration.

BB: Who are some of the folks, be they artists or authors, whose work has captured your imagination over the years, what about their efforts has inspired you, and how have you used that inspiration to better your own work?

AS: Wow…I don't even know how to begin mentioning all of the creators who have influenced and inspired me. I would have to mention Berni Wrightson and Jim Starlin as the earliest inspirations that I found in comics.

Artists like Trevor Von Eeden, Walter Simonson, Alex Nino, and Frank Cirocco came along and showed me that it was OK to draw comics in your own style, one that was not all superhero-oriented, and I was just blown away by it.

Recently I have been very much taken with the work of Rodolfo Damaggio, who I think is one of the best storytellers around, and ever since I bought Flash Gordon reprints, Al Williamson has been an inspiration.

I am also very fortunate to have friends who inspire me with their work and challenge me to always try to do better. Guys like Ryan Sook, JH Williams, Timothy Green each have individual styles that they continue to develop and they all continue introducing new life into storytelling.

And before I forget, I've got to mention Bernard Cornwell, who I think is one of the best historical fiction adventure writers out there right now. I loved his Winter King trilogy and his Sharp novels.

BB: As you mentioned earlier, you're also a well-established artist in the gaming world. Which made me wonder how your work in that industry fed into and affected your efforts on Robotika, and vice versa? Also, do you in some sense have to throw a mental switch when moving between those two endeavors, or is it all the same for you?

AS: Working on Role Playing Games involves reading the script and coming up with an image that captures, in one snap shot, the feel of an environment. There are lots of things to consider and it becomes an exercise in building an illustration that will fire-up the imagination of the reader. Comics are way different, because here the main focus is the storytelling and the direction of the story from page to page. So it's two different fields of commercial art and they have to be approached differently…but good drawing is good drawing, so they share that.

My years of working in gaming illustration have exposed me to all sorts of genres like Sci-fi, Steampunk, horror, supernatural…it was all very interesting and sparked my interest in many different subjects.

I also got to see how a writer or a group of writers go about world building, creating a whole new setting that has some basis in reality and has enough of a background story to make it feel real. It was all very fascinating and eye opening.

BB: What do you have planned for Niko, Cherokee Girl and Bronski in the near and far future? Obviously, you'll be wrapping up Rubles, but what comes after that…and how long do you plan on telling stories set in that world? Is this a project you could work on the rest of your life, or is there an over-arching storyline with a beginning, middle and an end guiding you?

AS: I am finished with For A Few Rubles More and David and I do have a third (and final) installment, Robotika: The Big Switch, planned. Just as much as Rubles is homage to westerns, The Big Switch is homage to the great crime noir films/books. This last chapter has a pretty definite ending and it would be the last Robotika mini-series.

BB: Do you have any aspirations or interest in working on any company-owned characters or titles, or are you happiest working on your own creations?

AS: My first impulse is to answer by rattling off a number of characters that some of my favorite artists or writers have worked on…but that would be me talking like a fan talking. As an artist, I would have to say that I would like to have a crack at a character that no one has touched in years (and no one really expects anything from). Otherwise I would probably always suffer by comparison to some other great artist.

I would definitely love to do something Space Opera-like. I think Adam Strange would be fun to try if the storyline was right. Also a character like Dr. Strange or Dr. Fate could be very interesting visually, since in both cases there is a whole challenge of creating a visual language/shorthand for magic that is being used.

So all of that…and Conan!

BB: What do you get from creating art, generally?

AS: For me, drawing is a form of expression, so if I have something to say, I usually figure out a way to draw it to communicate it to others. It's a way for me to exchange ideas and start a dialogue with an audience.

BB: How about Robotika? What does that project give you that you might not get from your other work?

AS: Doing Robotika, or any other comics, goes even deeper than that, because it is not just about a single image. Here is a whole story to be told and I love crafting all the different elements—storyboarding, penciling, inking, lettering, color—to serve the story. It is both a very challenging and a very rewarding experience.

BB: What do you hope readers get from your work, in general, and from Robotika, in particular? Is it all about the eye kicks and crazy-fun ideas, or might you hope that they get something more from it?

AS:  I hope that the "eye candy" will help draw readers into the story, after that…my first hope is that folks will enjoy the book and find it entertaining. I really wanted to create a fun comic book to read and to look at. There are subversive ideas floating just underneath the surface…but I hope the book can be enjoyed on many levels, with every successive reading bringing something new to the surface.

BB: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to wok?  

AS: Just like the first question, this one is a bit tough, because I don't usually have any special places/packages to promote.

The first Robotika collection is available for sale at Amazon.

The second Robotika collection is available for pre-order as well:

And I have a blog where I post almost daily my "one-a-day" sketches: http://sheikman.blogspot.com



For more on Alex Sheikman's Robotika, Mark Smylie's Artesia and the many other fine titles published by Archaia, head on over to www.Archaia.com, the publisher's website.
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