This month marked the release of the third installment of Chris Roberson’s IDW series, Memorial. The book focuses around Em, a girl who awakes in the hospital remembering absolutely nothing from her past. After being drawn to a strange magic shop, her world is flipped completely upside-down as she discovers the existence of extraordinary lands that exist beyond the fabric of our world. Em quickly finds herself in the midst of a very strange battle between two metaphorical forces. Mixing together elements from children’s literature, science fiction, fantasy, and some horror, Memorial is a vast epic, and it’s only just beginning.
Chris Roberson took the time to sit down with BD to discuss the adventures of Em and friends, his inspiration for the series, the theme of memory, and he even offered his thoughts on Before Watchmen! Read on for the skinny…
Chris Roberson: The simple answer is that it started about 8 or 9 years ago as a notion I had to pitch to BBC books as a series of spinoff novels for Dr. Who and very quickly mutated into a form that wouldn’t fit within the Dr. Who world. The more complicated answer is that were also a number of other project I was working on, one of them was a children’s book, one was inspired by things like Sandman and Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, and all these little bits of pieces of partial ideas, I finally figured out, about 2 years ago, would slot together to make one big idea. Like a robot lines transforming into be one big voltron guy. So that’s where Memorial came from, it’s a bunch of ideas that I eventually realized were just different angles on the same idea.
That’s something that really comes out in the book, you can tell there are so many ideas coming together, and in an interview you did with CBR you mentioned how one of the goals for the series was to bring the fantastic and extraordinary into the real world, why is this something that interested you?
CR: I think that aspect of it came equally from those things like Sandman and Dr. Who, as well as a close study of children’s fantasy of the early twentieth century that dealt a lot with that kind of stuff. Like the intrusion of the fantastic into the real world, or someone in the real world who is held against their will in the fantastic. I like that sense that you get from those kind of stories, the friction between real and fantastic, because if it is set entirely in an imaginative world, that can be cool, but without a relatable touchstone it can be difficult to put in perspective. It’s like looking at a photo of the Grand Canyon as opposed to standing next to it and looking down. So that’s where the desire to rub the two sticks of the realistic and the fantastic against each other in the hopes of creating sparks.
This is something that a lot of creators seem to be striving for, but it seems a bit more evident in Memorial.
CR: Well thank you, I think part of it is a lesson I learned form children’s literature, again. The less specific you are with the real world aspects, the more real they seem because the reader is able to fill in their own experiences into the gaps. So by having a character who is very much a blank slate, like Em, and just giving enough trappings to establish her in our world, it allows the reader to hopefully relate to her in a different way than if she were a very specific character where you knew what she had for breakfast, and her six ex-boyfriends.
You mention children’s stories and that you were working on them prior to this project. In Memorial, you get the fairytale side, but there is also a darker side, a more adult approach to it. What was it about fairytales that you wanted to re-appropriate into an adult world?
CR: Reading and re-reading those stories and getting at what I thought what the writers have originally intended but has been glossed over. For instance, this doesn’t specifically show up in Memorial, but this is something that sparked my thinking about the series. If you look at J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the way that Neverland is presented in the original story is very different how everyone remembers it. It is a much more complicated place. It’s a place populated by the dreams of everybody and we just see a portion of it, and there’s all these weird possibilities that are suggested by the way it is described in the book that I thought would be interested to explore. Nobody really had before, everyone really focused on how it was presented in that one story. So what I did was my interpretation of Neverland, but chuck all the Barrie stuff and start over with my own thing, that’s really where the children’s stuff came in. It was me reapplying how I would approach those stories with a different set of constraints, logic and characters.
Do see this as an all ages book then?
CR: Very much so! I think that I am very intentionally structuring a story that will ideally be entertaining for adult readers but will contain nothing that a clever seven year old couldn’t approach and understand. There is nothing in it that will freak them out, at least any more than any other children’s literature.
You mentioned Zelazny and Diana Jones as influences, so you seem to be a pretty big sci-fi fan. So how does this sci-fi aspect lend itself to the world you’ve created in Memorial?
CR: I was a big fan and I still am. Probably the biggest aspect that comes out in Memorial is in the way that it is intensely rationalized, which the reader may not always see. But I have it all work out on an RPG level, like what are the rules in this world. Then I’m playing around with what the possibilities of it are, in such a way that I’m not beating the reader over the head with “this is how this world works”, but, more so, that beneath the surface there is a coherent logic that makes it all merge together.
Putting Schrodinger’s cat in the book was quite funny, and there are some other elements of theoretical physics and alternate dimensions. Does this stem from your sci-fi influences, or are you also interested in theoretical physics?
CR: I’m a big physics nut! My biggest passions are comics, sci-fi and fantasy, history, and theoretical physics. So memorial actually involves all of those in one way or another. The science stuff will really be treated more with a metaphorical distance in the book rather than bringing it front and center as a rationalization for what’s going on. In fact, the overall structure of the way these worlds work, which gets explained with some degree of detail in issue 6, actually stems from my obsession with the notion that the universe we perceive is this epiphenomenon of a hologram that exists on the boundary of the universe, and we could all be living inside of a black hole. I t’s not really articulated, it doesn’t fit the gravity of the story, but, that is what’s always in my head as I describe these things.
On the other hand, there is a metafictional aspect to the book, lots of different layers overlapping with the Land of Maybe and the Land of Was. How are you able to bring these metaphorical concepts and manifest them into something literal in the book?
CR: It took me a while, thinking back to before the book in those 8 formative years, and what I finally realized was that I was making the figurative literal in this story. So the way to deal with those big lofty metaphor concepts was to give them a literal reality that you could push around and play with. Now, this is a bit of a spoiler. You can kind of intuit, from issue 2, the landscape where all these fantastical worlds exist, they are part of a bigger landscape, and as a place where chronology is geography, where time is a literal place and then it just came to figuring out what possible parts of this landscape would be interesting to investigate. So you will see a couple more in the course of this mini series but I have a crazy map I have mapped out that you won’t see until subsequent mini-series.
So this is working off the now common thing at IDW to do a greater series made up of mini-series. How does writing this way differ from writing for stuff like IZombie?
CR: I actually find it much easier to do this way. IZombie, being on the 22nd issue or so, and it’s the first thing I’ve done that didn’t have a definitive shape, or at least definitive pacing. I knew where IZombie would end up, but we had no idea how long it would take to get there. But everything else I’ve written had restraints, like do this in 5 or 6 issues, or for novels, do it in 100, 000 words. I find it easier conceptually, and I prefer it as a reader to have a discrete chunk of story that fits in a larger framework, but can be consumed in one sitting with a resolution. Or, at least a good stopping place, and then move on to the next bit. I often draw the connection between how TV series are handled on British television versus American. In American television, shows are serialized and open-ended, they go on until they are canceled. But in Britain they will do 6 episodes, or whatever the case may be, and if it merits it, they will do 6 more. And I find that leads to more satisfying storytelling, you have to finish the story in that time, and if you have to you can continue with the same characters for a different storyline.
Is Em going to be a character we see throughout the entire series?
CR: Yeah, Em is the central character.
Obviously a major theme is dealing with lost memory, forgotten stories, and forgetting parts of your life. This can be quite terrifying subject, that everything you know can all disappear one day. Has this always been something you found scary?
CR: It’s funny actually; I never understood it when writer said they didn’t understand their themes until after they had written them, but then over the course of the last four years I realized that everything I was doing was about that. In one way or another it played around with the importance of memory.
So with IZombie, she is losing her memory but is driven by the memory of others. Also onStarborn, it’s about a guy re-contextualizing memories and realizing he doesn’t have the right handle on them. Even the Superman run I did deals with memory. I just came to realize, that it’s a function of, without too much self-psycho analysis, being a parent and having a daughter who is at around the same age that my unbroken memories began. Also, I’m the age my parents were when I was in high school, and it’s this weird echo chamber effect where suddenly I spend a lot of time examining what I remembered and what I found important. At the same time, I’ve lost members of my family in the last few years and this causes you to pause and reflect. So I’ve become obsessed with memory, it’s function and how it defines us. So hopefully I turn it into amusing comics.
Moving on to the antagonists, you have the talking dummy, the shadow people, and you get Hook, who is a pretty classic childhood villain. You mentioned in another interview that your daughter was an influence for these villains in some respect. So much of what your daughter’s experiences have a role in the creative process?
CR: More than a little, Bellow, the puppet was my daughter’s imaginary nemesis when she was five. But she’s mad because her bellow was a hand puppet, not a ventriloquist dummy. Originally it was, “oh she has this crazy idea I’ll work it into my story”, but it worked so well that now I am trying to get into her imagination whenever I have the opportunity. I mean Milne built his entire career of stealing his son, Christopher Robin’s, imaginary friend. So now she’s actually helping me with the plotting and broad structure of the second series. I needed an imaginary friend, so we’ve been debating back and forth what exactly it will be.
Another unconventional aspect in Memorial is your use of third person narration, which you don’t see it much anymore in comics. I guess it lends itself to the storytelling aspect of the book?
CR: Well, basically just that, but there are two overriding motivations for it. On the one hand I had just done, I think, three comics that use first person present tense narrative captions, and was looking for something to distinguish this, at least creatively for me. And then, reading older comics, you don’t see third person past tense either, you see a bit third person present tense now, but it’s all mostly first person. The use of third person past tense had this distancing effect, but also gives it a storybook feel. After playing with it, I decided I liked it and stuck with it.
How did Rich get involved with the book?
CR: He got involved through the good graces of one of my good friends. Rich had done stuff for Marvel, Top Shelf, and he’s a member of periscope studios in Portland, and when IDW told me they wanted to do the book, IDW really likes to do fully creator owned books, where writer and artist are both creators, so I thought about who I might be able to get and I decided to call my friend, and he suggested two names in the conversation and Rich’s was the first. Before he even finished the second persons name I looked up Rich’s website from my phone and decided he was the guy. Luckily I was absolutely right. The stuff people have seen so far has been great, but the stuff on issues 4 and 5 is just phenomenal.
How much of a collaborative process is it, forming of the world with Rich?
CR: The basic idea and the majority of the characters had been conceived before Rich came on board. But virtually everything about their visual look is all Rich. Basically I would describe roughly what I thought they looked like, then Rich just figured it all out. The look of the shadows, that was something I had for which a specific image in mind. I don’t know where it came form, it must be something I saw sometime. It may have been the Shadow Supreme from Alan Moore’s Supreme. But, that was the only time Rich gave me the design and I asked him to go back with it. A whole lot of what you see visually is all Rich. After I saw what he did with the first script, I got a lot more vague in my descriptions, knowing he would fill in the gaps.
I’m sure you heard all this news about the Watchmen prequel coming out, do you have any thoughts on that.
CR: I’ve actually expressed myself on twitter, but I’ll have to be a bit more circumspect. I think it’s a bad idea. The reality of the situation is that the people who were talking about doing more Watchmen books are approaching it with the idea that Moore and Gibbons did these books as work-for-hire projects and that we should resect their creative vision. Or they did these books and therefore they have no claim and if DC wants to do more that’s fine. But in fact that’s not what happened. Watchmen and V for Vendetta were both done as, what we would now term, creator owned books and were licensed to DC to publish with the idea that when they went out of print, that all rights would revert to the creators. But while DC owned publishing rights, they would also have the ability to exploit some other rights like films and sequels. But then they just never let the books go out of print. So twenty-six years later it’s still in print, and they are still exploiting those rights. And as someone who makes his living making up stories, I’m not okay with it; I don’t think it’s a very good idea.
It’s definitely pretty controversial, things are exploding on the internet right now. It’s hard for me because I wasn’t around when the book originally came out but I still feel a certain sense of pride and I don’t want to see it be tainted.
CR: That actually doesn’t bother me as much. The idea of making a sequel or prequel or spinoff of something great. That doesn’t tarnish the thing. But when it’s done over the expressed desires of the creator who would own that thing, that’s when it’s an issue. Alan is often characterized as this cranky old guy, but my wife and I own Monkeybrain books and we publish the League of Extraordinary Gentleman Companions among other things, so we’ve had direct dealings with Alan and he is, no lie, the most scrupulously honest, gracious, professional dude I have ever had the pleasure of dealing with.
Even watching interviews with him, you get the sense that, although he has become this archetype of a cranky old man, he’s a great person.
CR: He’s very, very nice. I dedicated one of my novels to Alan, and I called him because he doesn’t have an answering machine or email, he just answers his phone, so I asked if I could mail him a copy, and he legitimately thanked me for mailing it to him! He’s just the nicest guy.
Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us, Chris! I’m sure the fans will appreciate it, and we look forward to what you have coming up in 2012.