John Linton Roberson has been diligently working as an independent illustrator and writer in the comic book industry for 16 years. During that time he has produced a staggering array of comics. He has been hard at work on his latest book (which just came out), LULU, over the past three years. We got a chance to catch up with Mr. Roberson via email for the following interview in which we discuss: LULU, his career, the challenges facing creators of erotic and adult-themed comics, his artistic process, and much more. Much of Mr. Roberson’s work deals with adult subject matter. He creates mature comics for a mature audience. Fair warning: some of the links in this article may lead to comics with, gasp, illustrations which depict nudity and adult situations. If this offends you, thank you very much for reading, but this particular interview might not be for you. For the rest of you, enjoy.
Comics Forge: Can you tell us a little about the story of LULU for readers who might not be familiar with the work?
John Linton Roberson: LULU is probably the best-known work of German playwright Frank Wedekind. The odd thing about him is that while his work (for instance, Tom Hulce’s recent revival–as a musical–of his very transgressive SPRING AWAKENING) is well-known, I found in my research on his work that he is not, which is a pity; he was a playwright far in advance of his time. The original draft of LULU that was translated by Eric Bentley shows how far he actually intended to go with the play–which started out not as two plays but one, which he called his “Monster Tragedy”–but given it was 1895 he couldn’t, so it was divided into ERDGEIST and PANDORA’S BOX. They still go further than you’d expect for the time, really, but still were a bit toned down from where he meant it to go. It’s a work about class, sex, murder and hypocrisy.
It’s the story of a woman who is pretty much the definition of a “free spirit,” having sex with whomever she likes, mainly because she happens to really enjoy life and sees no reason not to; while every man who is with her tries to possess her–to the point where most of them even call her by a name of their own devising, rather than her own. At the same time, she is in love with one particular man, Dr. Schoen, who basically took her when quite young from her useless, drunken father and raised her alongside his own son, Alwa, who also is in love with her. Besides that this relationship makes Schoen uneasy about her feelings for him, he also is rather obsessed with his social status and believes that an openly declared relationship with her would ruin his name, so he marries her off instead to an elderly, rich doctor named Goll.
But like most every man who comes near Lulu, he dies when he catches her with an artist, Schwarz, who’s supposed to be painting her portrait. In turn, she ends up with said artist, but he freaks out and kills himself when Schoen tells him about Lulu’s past. (A dramaturg working on the play at Carnegie Mellon, Kendra Lee, called Schwarz the “creepiest fuck in the show.”) Schoen still puts her off and plans to marry the “right” sort of woman, but tries to assuage Lulu by backing a show his son Alwa is directing starring her. But Lulu ends up forcing him to break this off and marry her. But Schoen can’t handle this and tries to make Lulu kill herself. She ends up–mostly accidentally–killing him instead, and that’s where things start to go very badly for her and she’s forced to run, Alwa going with her (as well as her creepy father) and becoming her last husband.
Through most of this, a lesbian costume designer working with Alwa named Countess Geschwitz is also in love with Lulu, and I guess you could say Lulu sort of toys with her heart. Just the same, she is the only character who really stays true to Lulu to the end, even running with her and Alwa, but treated as more of an irritation at that point than anything else. This by the way is an example of how far ahead of his time Wedekind was, in that he was one of the first writers in Western literature to deal openly with gay characters, something that also comes up in SPRING AWAKENING.
I think I may have given away too much of the plot here. But that’s the rundown. Mine is also set, rather than turn of the century or 1920s Berlin, in more or less present day Chicago–which will pose some problems when I get to PANDORA’S BOX, but to this point has mainly only caused me to rephrase some of the dialogue, and change some references. Many think–because of the Pabst film–that this is a Weimar work, but in fact it was already two decades old by that time. Lulu has a lot to say about our own very class-based world and I wanted to force that into the open, so I chose to remove the period aspect. Not an unusual thing to do in theatre–you see it often done with the opera–but less so in comics adaptations. I am trying to remain as true as I can to the substance of the work. There are things here and there I will probably cut, but I’m trying to avoid that as I think that’s running away from a challenge, and this is a very challenging work.
Which elements of Wedekind’s LULU inspired you to adapt it into a comic format?
Partly its history–it’s been adapted a number of times before to different media, most famously as Alban Berg’s opera and, even more famously, Pabst’s silent film with Louise Brooks PANDORA’S BOX (which is basically just the second play, and which most readers if interested can see on TCM quite often). Brooks in fact became so identified with Lulu that the name is almost a synonym for her, but i avoided my Lulu looking like her. Mine is based on an Italian actress some might know from 1900 and SUSPIRIA, Stefania Casini. But it was also adapted as a film in 1923 with Asta Nielsen and in 1980 by Walerian Borowczyk for French TV. That particular version is interesting–though it’s not the best–because it deals with the erotic content of the plays more openly than other versions, though Berg’s opera does so too; besides that it’s one of the few modernist operas that appears regularly, it’s also one of the only ones to regularly feature nudity and sexual content. That caught my interest because most people seem to think the classics are “clean” and I like to point out that they’re not, that’s just how we’re taught they are. The work takes a remarkably modern view of sexuality and women–both with Lulu and Geschwitz–and challenges a lot of our set ideas of how women were viewed at the time. It’s also never been adapted for comics, as far as I know, except one scene used in Moore & O’Neill’s LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: CENTURY 1910, mashed up with–and killed by–Macheath from THREEPENNY OPERA. And then there’s that it’s a chance to do something in comics very different than a lot of the sci-fi, horror and superhero stuff that presently predominates, and of which I’m kinda sick.
To be perfectly honest, most comics are pretty irritating to me right now. I miss the days of Vertigo, or further back, the 1980s when there was a hell of a lot more variety and readers who were more willing to deal with experiments in form and content. I don’t think if something like, say, AMERICAN FLAGG! (which was sci-fi, but written in such a smartass adult–in the sense of mature and intelligent–way I think it’d fly right over today’s reader’s heads) or even more pointedly, LOVE & ROCKETS (which back then was able to market itself to non-comics readers, punkers especially, in record stores and other places; sometimes it was the only comic some people had in their house; now we don’t have those kind of record stores, or indeed have any in some cases) began now it’d have a chance. Obviously it still exists but it’s been around a long time; it’s an established institution but the product of an earlier, more artistically fertile time. If it began now you might see more reactions like “Where’s the movie in this? Where are the toys? What genre is this?” Blegh. Enough of that. Where are the COMICS? Nowadays you’d think there’d be more opportunity for this than ever, but it’s so sparse. You have your AGE OF BRONZE or your BERLIN, both of which I love. But that kind of stuff is not as regular as it used to be. We need more variety and a market that can give more stuff a chance. And we need more adventurous readers.
Okay, off my soapbox.
I also come from a theatre background–I was trained as an actor and was a playwright before I was a cartoonist–and have a strong belief that comics and theatre can have a lot in common. This is something some other cartoonists, most notably one of my favorites, P. Craig Russell (his version of SALOME was a big model for me with this project) have done, but not enough in my opinion. It’s this that makes me favor long takes, scenes where you have people talking in a room that play out, something that a big influence of mine Dave Sim once said is the basis of true art. I agree, and I don’t think we see enough comics that focus on character interaction. I took it as an opportunity to focus on this. Comics often seem to think of themselves as film by poorer means and I think that’s a notion that needs to be challenged, especially in this era when so many comics come out that are obviously done as treatments for films. (I’m looking at you, Mark Millar)
Also, a lot of adaptations of comics try to deny the particular advantages of comics, of things like sound effects, layout, and like that, and make works that are more like illustrated text than a living, breathing comic. I know the reasons for this–avoiding campiness would be one reason–but I don’t think there’s anything inherently campy about comics. The ability of comics to split up focal moments for instance gives it the ability to show details in expression–and the progression of same–that you can’t in most other media. Again, this is something I learned from reading Russell. SALOME,THE MAGIC FLUTE and his RING adaptations (and others–I would direct people also to his black and white version of PAGLIACCI) are unashamedly comics and use ALL the tricks but do not lose any of the dignity of the work. In fact, it enhances it, takes out the stuffiness and makes them highly accessible, where with other adaptations the attempt to be “dignified” and “serious” results in something stiff. (an exception being Jon J. Muth’s M, another influence on the work but more in the way I do the grays and other surface aspects–that book is all done from photos but still manages to breathe) Russell’s adaptations are FUN. And use layout and color as the best approximations of how music feels that comics are capable of. I’m constantly in awe of him as a very fluid and imaginative storyteller, an aspect of his work his incredibly brilliant draftsmanship often overshadows, I think.
LULU seemed a work that I could explore this with. And then there’s the fact I’m drawn to subject matter dealing with sex–most of my work from the past decade quite much more graphically so if with satiric intent; this is my attempt to merge what I learned and developed with that with more serious content(more on that further down)–and this work certainly offers ample opportunities in that realm. And then there’s the rather bizarre way Wedekind uses dialogue, with characters speaking in overlapping, almost multilayered ways–often not so much TO each other as PAST each other, and this seemed like a fun challenge to “stage.”
I look at this in fact not as much an adaptation as staging the plays by other means. I began doing comics because I became disenchanted with theatre, both for its limited audience reach and my lack of control over the final product. After reading Dave Sim’s GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING and also reading some interviews with WIll Eisner and some of his work like CONTRACT WITH GOD (which very much deals with characters acting for the reader), it occurred to me that comics and plays both start with a script, so why not just do my plays as comics? That’s how I did my first graphic novel (which people can read online, but I’m not that keen now on how it looks except toward the last third) VITRIOL. So in a way I never really left my theatre training behind. I just moved it into another medium. This work gave me an opportunity to try to take that to another level.
Do you see the character of Lulu as exploited or empowered? I guess just giving you those two options is kind of limiting. A better question would be: what is your take on the character?
That actually brings me to another thing about the work that attracted me. When trying to interpret it I noticed that a key aspect of the character is that if you present her as having guile, as trying to use men for her own advancement–as you might see in a noir for instance–she will ring wrong. Lulu is strangely innocent and naive. While she’s very sexually open, again, it’s because for her it’s just part of enjoying life. She doesn’t think ahead too much, is always very much in the moment.
She’s the exact opposite of the femme fatale, and the more I worked on it the more I liked her, and I see her as, beyond an inversion of the trope, an outright critique of it–remarkable given what a misogynistic time the work was born in. One thing that comes out when you read Wedekind is his love of, and sympathy for, women, and in fact an outright contempt for the foolishness of men. The source of the tragedy is that in this world, Lulu cannot truly be free as long as men around her want to use her and violate her trust. Rather than being a beacon of happiness, every man wants to control her, possess her, make her a trophy, damp her down, and turn her into a blank template for their own notions. Most of the men I would say exploit her–or try–though she manages to slip out of this most of the time–not even really intentionally, just by virtue of what she is.
What we have here is a magnet for self-destructive men who use her as the occasion and excuse for a downfall they desire. (Schwarz and Schoen especially. Schoen in fact is downright frightening in this sense; see Pabst’s PANDORA’S BOX, the wedding night scene, to see what I mean.) They hate and destroy themselves, and use her as something to blame for it. An object in the strictest sense. Something men do, or try to do, to women far too often.
So it seems to me that this is the real nature of what is thought of as the “femme fatale.” It’s a fantasy of men who want to annihilate themselves but also assign some tragic dimension for themselves, be the star in their own drama and drag someone else down with them as supporting character and imagined antagonist. Compare LULU to something like THE BLUE ANGEL and this becomes very glaring. Men love the idea “That bad woman destroyed me, it wasn’t my fault.” Lulu challenges this by her very nature.
The story contains some very erotic “adult” content. Has this factor created any challenges for you as far as distribution or promotion?
Not especially, because I haven’t even tried to use any traditional distribution methods and, as far as what I’ve published myself, I never have. I use print-on-demand exclusively and this work doesn’t go nearly as far as, say, my Vladrushka stories–most of which were published by Eros/Fantagraphics and ended up in stores (I still see a few of them on racks from time to time even after all these years) or MARTHA, or STORY OF OH! which I did with Charles Alverson (former editor of HELP!, and screenwriter of JABBERWOCKY and–uncredited–BRAZIL). Those last two were published in the fifth and first issues, respectively, of my comic THIS SICKNESS, and those went through Cafepress and remained for a year till they banned them. Which is why I chose to stop working with them altogether. I’m not too keen on censorship.
OH! is now online and enjoys a pretty steady page view rate (though I’d love to bring it back into print; I’m rather proud of it), and MARTHA I republished through Createspace and is now on Amazon, and has sold better than any of my other books.
LULU is my move into more “R” material, where I use some of what I’ve learned to do with sexually-oriented material toward more serious purposes, and the sexual aspect of it is not the main point, but part of the plot, and I do not skimp on details when I deal with it because I do not see any reason to. In this book, her portrait is being painted, and the story in this part is her rather slow seduction of Schwarz. I had to bring across the idea here that she simply doesn’t care what anyone thinks and is very comfortable with herself and her body. To soft-pedal that would have weakened it, I feel. This is how it wanted to be. So I went with it. If that costs me some market share–well, then why do a piece like this at all, then? I wanted to do this the way I feel Wedekind always wanted it done.
I haven’t noticed anyone blink an eye at it so far in all the time it’s been serialized online (and, if pageviews are any indication, its audience certainly hasn’t been small), and THIS SICKNESS #6 & 7, which featured the first two parts, are still on Amazon as well. I expect it’s only really a problem when it’s as graphic as Vladrushka is.
I don’t really know how a publisher would react to it because I haven’t tried to bring it to one. Perhaps some readers might be prejudiced against it, based on some of my previous work, expect this to be smut as well. But those same readers love graphic violence and buy comics where Geoff Johns has arms torn off, so I’m not sure how much stock I put in their opinion. I’m trying, I hope, to reach more discerning and mature readers who realize that what I do in this comic is not at all unusual for versions of this work, and is accepted quite regularly in films and cable TV. I don’t really think I could do justice to this work without that. The following books will not have as much of that because the story doesn’t call for it, but here, it did. I use that here when it’s appropriate.
I self-publish mainly because, to be honest, I’m, bad about submitting my work. I’ve never actually been rejected by a publisher when I have, but I’ve done so rarely; my first piece that Eros published, OCTOBER SURPRISE, was actually just something I dashed off for fun when I was working on the much more involved VITRIOL. It was my wife at the time who made me submit it. I was surprised they took it because I did it mainly to see if I could draw something very fast; it took me two weeks and was 24 pages, and drawn in a deliberately sketchy style. I was even more surprised that they kept asking me for more work. It was a great time though because I think my editor, Michael Dowers, made me find what worked in my style and helped me really improve. Drawing naked people all the time certainly helps your abilities in anatomy the hard way. Without clothes, you can’t hide your mistakes! But also I think my ability with shading and grays was vastly improved; Dowers encouraged that direction because he felt that really helped the work “pop out.” I owe him a lot.
I’m not opposed to having a publisher and have genuinely enjoyed working with the editors I have; I just don’t really want to wait for one to accept the work and certainly will not avoid doing a work if it’s “uncommercial.” I honestly don’t care about that. I will put it out there either way. And nowadays one can. So I do. I hope for people to buy this book, but I’ll continue the project even if they don’t.
I’m hoping that the splendid introduction the wonderful Martin Pasko was awesome enough to honor me with–really, a far more complimentary piece than I would have ever expected–will attract the eyes of some readers. We’ll see
With “racy” titles like Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss, and to a somewhat lesser degree Joe Casey’s Sex being published by Image, do you feel that some walls are starting to be knocked down as far as mainstream acceptance of erotic work goes?
That would certainly be nice. You’d think by now they would be. And I really liked BLACK KISS 2. (The less said about Casey’s SEX, though, the better; in that case I believe he’s simply using rather puerile sexual stuff to dress up a very weak premise for what seems like just another superhero tale–it’s nothing like the boldness of Chaykin, it’s a gimmick). I liked the degree to which Chaykin simply didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought, which is really the nature of BK, in both its incarnations. You’d really have thought, in fact, the first BLACK KISS would have knocked down those barriers. Or Dave McKean’s recent and excellent CELLULOID. Or further back, people like Robert Crumb, or Europeans like Milo Manara. It’s actually rather frustrating to me that Americans love graphic violence but get weird when sex is concerned, while the Europeans are exactly the opposite. Material that deals graphically with sex to me is far more true to life because it occurs far more often in life than graphic violence; it’s part of most people’s daily lives. If you look at the way your life is actually lived, all of it, it actually is X-rated. Everyone’s is. But how often are you in a fistfight or gun battle?
But the fact is that the American market still clings to a rather hypocritical point of view, based in some idea that comics are at all read by kids anymore, which they largely aren’t–or on some simplistic notion of taste. It is allowed when it’s rapey; Avatar Press is proof of this. Perhaps because rape is a species of violence, which the American market loves and rewards in comics, that’s why. But people simply having sex? Somehow that’s wrong. That’s bullshit in my opinion.
I actually asked a certain comics pro I won’t name if Chaykin’s current work meant that I might be able to submit my own more graphic stuff now–which I haven’t had a publisher for since Eros, as far as publishing new work by US artists, was phased out a few years ago by Fantagraphics. I was told it meant they wanted to publish Chaykin, not X-rated material per se. What it seems is that if you’re a huge star, you can. Anyone else cannot. So I’m skeptical on that. These works don’t break barriers–they come and then the barriers are still there for everyone else. They don’t establish precedents; they remain special cases. Just the same, I urge everyone to pick up both BLACK KISS and CELLULOID. You’ll thank me. They’re both amazing works.
I find it rather funny though that the same fans who claim in public to disapprove of that kind of material secretly read manga porn featuring characters with full-grown bodies but the faces of children being raped with tentacles. That stuff is perfectly okay. More serious, intelligent smut is not. Americans like to think of themselves as children, I think, and are certainly taught to. In my mind that’s not a virtue, and probably one reason Americans are so easily manipulated by government and media. For my own part, I’m an adult and only interested in speaking to adults.
This is one reason I am absolutely in love with comics as a medium, but mostly detest the industry and the culture surrounding it. It’s so out of sync in that sense with other art forms, and until total freedom is allowed in content–and doesn’t have to have superheroes attached in some way, as with Casey’s SEX or Millar’s awful HEROGASM (which in my view are basically not much more than fan-service, adolescent stroke material of a very sad kind), the industry will never be taken seriously except as R&D for movies, TV and toys.
You both wrote and did the artwork for this title. How long have you been working on this project? Also, can you tell us a little about the process you use to create the artwork? Is it a mix of traditional and digital methods?
Since late 2009, I think, and the current part was completed in 2012. I will be resuming work on it soon; it was interrupted by my move to California from Washington, and also because I needed a bit of a rest from it. During which I did my version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” which should be published in GRAPHIC CANON 4 later this year or early next. Though the project had been brewing in my head a long time before that, but it was only after I completed OH! and MARTHA that I felt I was up to it.
I had originally wanted to try my hand at Buchner’s WOYZECK–also something Alban Berg made an opera–but decided I didn’t really want to do a story revolving mostly around murder. Though I might go back to that someday unless Russell beats me to it; I know he has his eye on that piece. It was slow because…well a lot of cartoonists don’t want to admit this, but I will because I feel more people should realize that cartoonists often do not support themselves with their work…because I have to fit in my work at night and on weekends while doing day jobs. If I could have concentrated on it full-time, it would not have taken me three years, but there we go. Rent must be paid and I do not believe in starving for my art. But I’ve done that, balanced those two sides of my life, as long as I’ve been doing comics, even when I had a publisher. I don’t complain; I don’t do work that’s especially commercial and do not expect to make my living off it (though it would be nice), and indeed working allows me the freedom to not take things like that into consideration or be limited by them.
As far as the technique: it’s a blend of traditional and digital techniques. I started integrating digital inking into my style in one section of MARTHA–try to spot which pages–but LULU was where I went into it full-bore. I still do all my pencils on a drawing board, on Bristol. That’s for a few reasons. One is that I like to do that. I don’t think through my pages as well when it starts as digital, especially as I still work with a fairly small monitor. To me though there’s something a little sacred about the board. It feels right at least at the pencil stage. I was raised with trad techniques and even digital to me is only a way to use techniques myself–and make them reproducible–that it would have taken whole production departments to execute (think MAD for instance and its beautiful printing of grey wash, a look I like very much and use with LULU, or the Marvel or Warren magazines from the 1970s).
When I’m done I want people to not be thinking it looks digital–the way so many mainstream comics look nowadays; I hate the bright shiny airbrushed-looking digital color many use now and try for a look that’s more painted, watercolor-like, but within black line. Adrian Belew of King Crimson, when asked about his use of effects, once said it’s not HOW you get the sound but what sound you get, and I follow that kind of thinking, or try to. The great part of working digital is that I don’t have to worry about anything being lost in reproduction: what you see on the printed page is pretty much the original.
Once the pencils are scanned, I ink digitally–and generally stay very close to the pencils–as well as painting the grey washes, all in Photoshop. In most cases I also do much of the background work at that stage. I try to take advantage of working in layers to make all that tight and as crisp as I can get it. I also use the pencil shading in the greys quite often, bringing it up through the layers and maybe manipulating it a bit, but trying to utilize the texture of the pencils to keep a natural look. After all this the lettering comes in. I use a font I designed myself, called Vitriol, and do a lot of manipulation with “transform” to warp it to try to convey the sound of the dialogue. My model there is Dave Sim, who I believe is the single most creative letterer comics have ever had. It’s his approach I like best. I believe you can HEAR his lettering more than you read it, and that to me is how it should feel.
After all this, the books are assembled in Acrobat.
Where can readers purchase Lulu?
Thanks! This was a blast. Anyone with further questions or comments, by the way, can contact me anytime at email@example.com, and can always see my work and my blog via jlroberson.org.
And a big thank you to John for putting so much time, consideration, and effort into these answers. Be sure to check out his work, and keep supporting indie comics and creators!