Rick Burchett On The Art Of Storytelling
RickBurchett’s career as a comic book artist has included work with a variety of characters and types of stories, including a satirical reboot of E-Man, and The Death of Superman. He’s twice received an Eisner Award, an honor frequently described as the “Oscar of comics” for his work on The Batman and Robin Adventures and Batman: The Gotham Adventures. At the age of 64 he’s keeping plenty busy with ongoing web-comics, and a new series coming from Image Comics. Burchett was in Cape Girardeau this April for Cape Comic Con and I got the chance to speak with him about some of his current and upcoming projects. Our conversation begins with that new Image series, titled Prima.
Jason Brown: I'd like to start off by asking you to talk about a book that was announced in April from Image comics, and it's set to be released this fall, called Prima.
Rick Burchett: Prima is a book that I am doing with writer Jen Van Meter, and it’s about a ballet troupe during the 1950's that also serves as freelance spies to help people who are still in Europe kind of recovering from the war, people to need to get out, refugees, or whatever. They are kind of their Robin Hood or their Scarlett Pimpernel.
Brown: Where did you come up with that idea?
Burchett: It was Jen Van Meter’s idea, she approached me about two years ago, and said "have you ever thought about doing a book in the style of 1950's fashion illustration?" and I said "yeah, actually I have," and I don't know which one of us was more surprised. Initially it was going to be about a ballerina who was also a cat burglar, but the concept grew to include an entire ballet company, and it's a fascinating concept, something that's never been done in comics before, and it was a big enough challenge for me that I just couldn't turn it down.
Brown: Talk about the art style of Prima.
Burchett: Since I am an old guy, I actually remember the art style, and it's something that's always appealed to me and I always wondered if you could adapt it to a sequential art format… to tell a story using that, and still retain some of the individual idiosyncrasies that art-style has. So when Jen approached me I immediately sat down and started playing with ideas. Maybe the story-telling is not obtuse, but it is a little off-center, you suggest things rather than hitting the reader over the head with them because you're dealing with design as a storytelling technique. It's a challenge, it's something I've never done before, and I just wanted to see how far I could take it. All the women of the period are elegant, and everybody wore a hat, and women wore little white gloves when they went out, and that goes beyond costume, that goes into lifestyle. People dressed up to go to the movies back then. So it's a different era, one that many people think of as dull, but it's totally not; there was so much going on in that period. We're also kind of exploring the arts of that time; we're getting into jazz, and we’re getting into the beat poets, the theater, and all of that will play a part in the bigger scheme of things.
Burchett: Greg Rucka and I have been friends for about 15 years, and he's a great writer, and we kept trying to put together pieces for the major publishers, and none of them hit, they wouldn't bite on any of them. One day he called me and said he was thinking about doing a web comic, and he asked me if I'd like to do it, so I say "yeah, let's see what we can do." We made a list of all the things we'd like to see in it, and when we added them all up they came to steampunk. Greg writes great female characters, and practically everything he does has a lead female character and this was no exception. He created Lady Seneca Sabre who is a privateer, for a government, and it's kind of hard to explain because it is total fantasy. It is not our world but it kind of looks like our world, so we had to create a brand new world, everything from customs to design, to agriculture, to terrain, but still maintain a foot in our own world. It was a daunting task and we just put it together on the fly. We decided to upload the strip twice a week on the web, and it was free. After four years we are still running, we're on a break right now because Greg is busy with other projects, but it is a huge story, and when it is all done it will be about a 600-page story.
Brown: One of the things that I found to be interesting about the presentation of the Lady Sabre web-series is that each page included what looks to be the writer's notes, and I wanted to ask you, is that how you typically work with a writer, and would you talk a bit about the collaborative process of making comics?
Burchett: It depends on the writer you work with. Greg and I have a very interesting relationship, in that we became friends before we worked together. So between the two of us it's kind of like a tennis match. He lobs something at me, I lob something back with a little spin on it, and it's a back-and-forth thing. He is a very visual writer to begin with, and whenever he reaches a point that he doesn't know for sure how he wants to present something visually he'll call me, and say "what can we do here?" It's a very collaborative effort in that case. Sometimes you get a script from a writer that you know that you need to follow it to the letter because that's what they expect. Other times you work with writers who are more loose in their presentation, and they give you a very sketchy outline of what is happening and the dialog, and then you make up the rest. One time I worked with a writer named Paul Dini who was one of the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, and he gave me a three-paragraph synopsis of the story, and I turned that into 48 pages of comics that he then went in and dialogued, that's kind of known as the "Marvel style," so obviously the artist has more input in a situation like that.
Brown: It seems like your most recent work has been away from capes and superheroes, and I know you're an Eisner Award recipient for your work on Batman, so I wanted to ask you, has this been a purposeful move for you away from superheroes and toward a different kind of storytelling?
Burchett: I'm a fascist about storytelling in comics, I want to tell the story, that's the main focus. As to the material used to tell that story, I really don't care. When I grew up, there were comics of every kind on the market, most TV series had their own comic book, there were adaptations of movies, and funny animals, and teenagers, along with superheroes, and crime comics, and horror, and science fiction, and romance comics. When I was a kid and decided this is what I wanted to do, I wanted to draw all of that. So, the fact that we are now seeing comics being produced by a variety of creators on a variety of subjects, and a variety of genre, that just plays into my wheelhouse. I'm more than ready and am always looking for a new way to do things and a new type of story to tell.
Brown: I'm going to set up a hypothetical situation here. You're really in trouble. Who's better to have on your side, Batman, or She-Hulk?
Burchett: It depends on what kind of trouble you're in. She-Hulk is a lawyer. So if you're in trouble with the law… but any other trouble I think Batman just because the guy knows everything, in fact maybe he knows too much of everything!