Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
So Arvid, first of all, thank you very much for talking to us. So, for those of our readers who don't recognise the name, you're a veteran writer who created and wrote an Alternate History comic called Rex Mundi which was published by Image and Dark Horse from 2003 to 2009. Rex Mundi was one of the first pieces of AH media I'd ever read as a young man and helped introduce me to the concept. What was your equivalent, the thing that got you interested in AH and what do you think the appeal of the genre is for you?
So pleased Rex Mundi resonated with you. I’ve read a lot of great AH, and it was actually a comic that first got me interested, Batman: Holy Terror. I’m a little sad to see the Wikipedia entry describe “far too much exposition and far too little intrigue”. Haven’t read the story in a long time, but I thought it was deliriously brilliant. I’ve certainly been guilty of clumsy exposition on occasion.
Rex Mundi, as a comic book reader, felt like nothing else on the shelves at the time. The Alternate History, the lack of comic book tropes like superheroes, the focus on religion and politics, the fact it was an original self contained story. How did you come up with the idea for the story and how difficult was it to get the idea green-lit, was there much pushback against doing a story like this?
I was in Paris in 1999, fresh out of school, as an equipment humper for a documentary on a literary magazine. There I was! Outside all these monuments, unable to go into any of them because I was guarding the baggage. I’ll never forget seeing the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés – Rex Mundi was born that very minute. Maybe I’ll get to go inside some day. The story itself no one really green-lit, I just started writing and hunting for artists on my own. I didn’t know any better.
The obvious comparison that everyone made at the time, given it was a story about conspiracies and heresies within the Catholic Church, was the books of Dan Brown. I think there's more differences than similarities but, given the Da Vinci Code came out and became huge while Rex Mundi was being created, what similarities there were were exaggerated. What was your reaction at the time, more relief that there was a proven market for this or annoyance that his version somewhat overshadowed yours?
I can’t be upset at Dan Brown: good for him. The only thing I feel obligated to point out, when someone says Rex Mundi “ripped off” Da Vinci Code, is that Rex Mundi came first. And I appreciate you noting that. Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code feels like a vindication to me. When I embarked on Rex Mundi, everyone told me I was crazy to do a murder-mystery about Jesus set in Paris.
The way Rex Mundi is written is the main story is a mystery/urban fantasy about the hunt for the grail and then you have a politics/war story told as a subplot, particularly via the newspaper articles that end each issue. The politics/war story never really concludes in the same way that the main story does. Was that a deliberate choice to not wrap up everything in a neat bow in case you wanted to tell other stories in this world?
It was a conscious choice – I’m of the opinion conflicts don’t really end, they just enter new phases. And the hope, the change for the better doesn’t always come as a result of the Big Important People making Big Important Decisions. So that’s one of the things I wanted to say, tried to say. I wanted to end on a moment of hope in a context of greater darkness.
Rex Mundi is a book very interested in religion. The fact the main character is a Jew is an important plot point, because it's set in a world with a more powerful Catholic Church, members of the Inquisition and Clergy are major figures and conflict between Christian and Muslim states form a lot of the plot. How much would you say your own Ba'hai faith and the belief in Unity of religion was reflected in that plot?
Ever more often, I feel like the stories I see splashed all over billboards and fast food wrappers are a little… empty, despite the computerized pomp, the pornographic spectacle. I hope my faith gives me a point of view, that, whatever faults my writing has (and the faults are many), I at least have something to say. But yes. Judaism, Catholicism: I realized these were and remain sensitive subjects. Nothing to do but take a deep breath jump into the tiger cage.
Obviously as a comic book writer, you're reliant to some extent on your artist to turn your vision into reality. What are you normally looking for in an artist to work with and how does that collaboration normally work in practice?
This is my number-one advice to aspiring comic book writers: learn about art, about illustration. Learn how to spot good illustration. Very few people have the ability to draw professionally, it’s just a cold fact. Working with an artist is a wonderful, bewildering experience. I don’t believe you can maintain a “purely professional” relationship, because the end product ends up flat and uninspired. The closest thing I can liken it to is marriage, and not all marriages last, despite best intentions from both parties.
What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of working in a comic book format rather than prose books?
Working in prose is advantageous over comics in virtually every way –much faster, much less expensive. Producing the story, the “thing” for which you’re going to charge people money, takes zero collaboration. Comics have one great advantage, though: the reader can actually see the things you’re visualizing in your head. And that’s a big advantage.
I believe Johnny Depp bought the rights for Rex Mundi many years ago with the aim of turning it into a movie. Can you talk about what happened with that, why it never reached production?
It was fascinating tracking the arc of Johnny Depp’s career. He was a big star when he first took an interest in Rex Mundi – for which I’m deeply grateful – and then Pirates of the Caribbean happened. The story of the Rex Mundi film is a sad but common one: we partnered with Warner Bros for “development”, but, despite four or five attempts, we never got a screenplay everyone felt comfortable with. But not all hope is lost, the rights are back with me. Who knows what the future holds?
Your new project is Crowfire Studios and you talk on your youtube channel about how instead of chasing after a carrot being offered to you by a big business, you're growing your own carrots, something I think a lot of us amateur writers can relate to. What can we expect from Crowfire as a Studio and how are you finding being your own boss versus working for Image or Dark Horse?
Crowfire has exactly one purpose, publishing my new project. I have no interest in other titles, becoming a mogul or a “player”. I’ve just noticed that, in my life, the best things have always happened when I simply do the things I want to do without caring what anyone else thinks. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a good offer from a publisher, if it arises. We’ll see what happens!
You've been heavily teasing your new Fantasy comic on twitter. When do you think that'll be out, is it going to be a webcomic, like 'Brother Matthew' or something released into the direct market and what can you tell us about it?
I have a script for a Web comic, for this new mystery project of mine. What I don’t have is an artist to draw it. Oren, the artist for the actual comic, is hard at work on concept art right now, and then we’ll be on to pages. Without help, it’s going to take him a long time, so we’re looking at years. A Web comic would only delay things further. It’s very sad: prior to Oren, I’d been working with another artist, for four years, but our relationship ended unexpectedly last year. I can’t use any of that art, for a variety of reasons. Just douse it all in kerosene and strike a match.
Do you have any plans in the future to get back to AH or you do feel like you've told your alternate history story?
I actually wrote another AH comic – or, it’s more like an “alternate present”. Zero Killer. About five people read Zero Killer, which makes me sad, because I really poured my heart into the story. Whatever its merit, there’s no doubt the art and coloring was absolutely phenomenal.