Over the past couple of months, I was able to discuss Roche Limit; Image Comics, with creators Michael Moreci and Vic Malhotra for Comics Bulletin. Here’s what they had to say.
Michael Bettendorf for Comics Bulletin: I suppose to start, why don’t you say a little something about Roche Limit for those who aren’t familiar.
Michael Moreci: Sure! Roche Limit is a sci-fi trilogy consisting of three distinct parts–each volume takes place many years from the rest, but is tied together in theme/place. A little unusual, but works perfect for the scope/ambition of the story we’re trying to tell.
The first part–which is five issues long, the first four issues out right now–is a sci-fi/noir combo that is like Blade Runner meets Dark City.
In a nutshell, Roche Limit centers on a recently discovered planet, near Andromeda, that is semi-habitable. A wealthy explorer builds a colony there–called the Roche Limit Colony–that is meant to be a waypoint for mankind’s next big leap into space exploration. Only that doesn’t happen. The colony, instead, turns into a mirror of Earth, with the rich enjoying excessive luxury and the poor left with everything else. The dream of exploration and discovery crumbles under humans being humans. Hanging over the colony is a mysterious energy anomaly that factors into the book as well…
In this context, the story follow a cadre of the colony’s figures as they search for a missing girl–and get more than they bargain for in the process, revealing the deep underbelly of Roche Limit. We focus on Sonya, a cop from Earth, and Alex, a manufacturer of the popular drug, Recall, as they search for the missing girl–who is Sonya’s sister–and uncover a most disturbing truth about the colony.
CB: Oh wow, that’s an interesting take on the construction of the story. Reminds me of Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. That novel takes place over hundreds of years in three major parts and is strung together with common themes/place. Like you said, with the scope you and Vic Malhotra are working with, it seems to fit the bill.
You mention the combination of Blade Runner and Dark City and the sci-fi and noir genres for the first part of the series. Can we expect a similar blend of genres for the next installments? If so, is there anything particular you want to explore within the noir and/or sci-fi genre with Roche Limit?
Moreci: Absolutely. Each volume is distinct and certainly has its own influences that help guide it to where I want to story to go. I don’t want to give anything away for fear of spoiling what’s to come, but we definitely move beyond Blade Runner and Dark City in volume two.
You know, both noir and sci-fi are perfect genres to employ for Roche Limit because both have deep underpinnings in existentialism/fatalism. I’ve always contended that the best sci-fi examines who we are as humans, particularly in the context of our social mores. Gattaca, Upstream Color, Dark City…all these movies had something deeply meaningful to say about the human condition. Noir is similar, but a bit more personal. The investigation of a crime is usually an investigation of the soul–Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Blood Simple, Le Samourai, The Killing…I can go on. Point being, I want to explore that intersection of existentialism and popcorn fiction as only genre fiction can.
CB: That’s an interesting cross-section where the two genres meet. You’re able to depict existential/fatalist themes on a micro and macro level that way. Speaking of genre fiction, you’ve created a name for yourself within the horror and sci-fi genres. You’ve proven it with Hoax Hunters, Curses, and those Apes to name a few, but how did the inclusion of noir trickle into your writing?
Moreci: Oh, man, I’ve always loved noir–especially noir with an existential bent, like Thief, Long Goodbye, Drive, Big Sleep, things like that. My prose work is mainly crime/noir.
The thing is, I love a lot of genres. And, ultimately, my goal as a comics writer is to never tell the same story twice. I want to take a page from the great film auteurs if I can. Kubrick, the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson–none of these brilliant artists never replicated themselves, and I hope to follow that path. Not to say I’m anywhere in their league, at all, but I never want to be pinned down as any one type of writer. Granted, it probably hurts me when trying to establish my “brand” or whatever bullshit, but I’d much rather my brand be intelligent, challenging comics that actually have something to say. I’m moving more and more in that direction, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
CB: I think you’re right when you talk about branding or whatever. Getting pinned as only one type of writer is extremely limiting. I think you’ve already hit on a lot of big ideas that establishes you as a writer who challenges readers; I mean the title of the book is stemmed from a scientific theory.
I was doing some research on the theoretical limit known as the Roche limit and from what I understand it’s essentially the point at which one celestial body will disintegrate due to another celestial body’s gravitational force. There’s enough momentum going already in the first three issues that this could be direct foreshadowing, literally or metaphorically, for the Roche Colony. What can you share about the significance of the title of this book?
Moreci: Oh, for sure. There’s no hiding the theme of everything and everyone falling apart. That’s a big part of the book, how we all kind of crumble under the weight of our own dreams and ambitions. Every character is looking for something in the book, it’s a book about searching–for missing girls, for meaning, for the recipe to a drug, for messages from the other side of a weird space anomaly, etc. Everyone is searching. But the problem arises when these characters get lost in this singular focus and lose sight of what’s truly important. I’m of the mind that there’s only one path of redemption in this life, and if you lose sight of that, then you are truly adrift as a human being. We’ll see what this thing is by the end of this volume, but right now the focus is on its antithesis, and these quests that obscure what’s really important.
CB: That’s so perfectly human. Our desires often create a tunnel vision in our minds eye. I’m looking forward to the remainder of this volume and where the obscurity leads your characters.
Alrighty, for this next question I admittedly did some creeping, but we’ll call it research, to make sure I wasn’t repeating any interviews you’ve already conducted. In an interview with Bloody-Disgusting, you said, “We’re not comfortable unless we’re uncomfortable” regarding your work with Tim Daniel on Burning Fields. Does that apply to your work with Vic and Roche Limit? What is it about Roche Limit that makes you uncomfortable?
Moreci: Yes, absolutely, I do feel that way. I think good art, in some form or other, should make us uncomfortable because it reveals some truth that we actively hide from ourselves. You know, I just saw Birdman the other day, which not only covered this with excruciating élan, but it was the right movie and the right time for me to see. I’m just exhausted with so many comics that exist purely in the entertainment sphere, that aren’t really about anything, that don’t challenge readers in any way whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong, I think the aspect of popcorn fiction is vital to any storytelling medium. But, man, give me something to think about as well! Birdman nailed this battle between art and entertainment so absolutely perfectly. I can go on for pages on it, but I’ll just say that I’ve very much been in that headspace for about the past year now, of wrestling with my desire to having something important to say while maintaining that entertainment quotient. There’s something freeing about saying “you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to trust the audience to enjoy being challenged as readers the way I challenge myself as a writer.” Once I got to that place, I was able to embrace the fact that Roche Limit, in many ways, is a book about human failure. How we cannot cooperate, how we can’t work together to achieve essential goals, how we haven’t gone as far as we should in creating something better rather than ruining what we have. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but there’s truth there, uncomfortable truth, but truth nonetheless. That’s the story I need to tell, and Burning Fields exists in this space as well.
Roche Limit makes me uncomfortable because it’s an expression of my disappointment of the past seven years of hope gone sour and the realization that ignorance and fear are going to cripple our world until I don’t know when. And I know, all the same, how risky it is to tell that story. It’s not a book about a rampaging serial killer or clobbering superheroes, it’s not a crowd-pleaser. But it’s a necessary story, I feel, about who we are as people and where we’re going, and that’s why I’m telling it.
CB: I know a lot of people that don’t like to be uncomfortable, myself included sometimes, but it’s incredibly important to challenge readers and you guys are achieving that with Roche Limit. Entertainment is important, but I understand the desire to contribute to society and pick readers’ brains. Put them in a place that makes them as uncomfortable as you and force them to look at the world or themselves or whatever in a different way. I don’t think it’s possible to progress or grow without some sort of challenge to start the wheels to turn. I think it’s interesting and humble of you to mention your fears and your own barriers. Artists are here to change society, even if it isn’t noticed for a while. Your work on Roche Limit poses questions people may not want to ask and to me, that pursuit of progress and societal challenge is what sets good writers from great writers.
I’m glad to have had the opportunity to talk with you and Vic about Roche Limit. It’s off to an incredible start and I’m anticipating the future issues. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the series or any other projects you’ve got going on right now?
Moreci: The main thing I’d want to stress is for readers to have patience with Roche Limit. The response has been fantastic, and I’m so grateful, but it’s a slow build. That’s how I write, instinctively. So much of comics storytelling, to me, is based on reveals. A lot–too much–relies on reveal after reveal after reveal. It smothers the experience, sometimes. Too much attention is focused on that kind of soap opera-esque tendency to constantly shock readers with brand-new information. I like more subtlety and nuance, story threads coming together organically for a rewarding payoff as the pieces all align. Beginning with Roche Limit #4, I think readers will be rewarded with that kind of experience as the plot begins to converge.
Right now, I’m hard at work on volume two, which is going to be very, very different from volume one. It ties together thematically, and in place, but where volume one is sci-fi noir, volume two is, well, something else that I don’t want to spoil here. It’s another layer of challenge, which I love, in getting all three parts of the trilogy to align just right and deliver the same message without being too on the nose in the delivery. But I love a good challenge, and that’s why I’m torturing myself with Roche Limit, haha.
Otherwise, I’m also writing Burning Fields, an original series with Boom! that’s kind of like The Thing crossed with “Zero Dark Thirty.” And my very first series, Hoax Hunters, is coming back in March, now on Heavy Metal. That’s been a blast to start writing again.
Otherwise, just trying to keep making books that have some value as art in that they shake up the status quo a bit and, hopefully, have something important to say. As long as people keep reading, I’ll keep writing. Hell, I’ll probably keep writing anyway.
Michael Bettendorf for Comics Bulletin: How does the blending of sci-fi and noir impact your approach to your artwork in Roche Limit?
Vic Malhotra: To be honest, not a whole lot. How I draw a story doesn’t take genre into account. There are more personal choices at the root of that decision. There isn’t a conscious check list of images I want to hit that fit within a genre. I’ve avoided casting the shadows of horizontal blinds across a characters face, thus far.
Early design work was influenced by some of the classic sci-fi movies: their storyboards and concept art. Blade Runner and the original Alien are probably the two that I took the most from. Those two shared the idea that I had of Roche Limit not being overly sleek. Favoring boxy and clunky designs throughout the series.
CB: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The noir aspects of the story keep it from having a sleek feel, like you said. A friend and I were talking about sci-fi a while back and concluded there’re usually two main approaches to representing the genre: the pretty, shiny, sleek way like Star Trek or the dirty, kind of crappy/primitive tech sort of approach like Firefly.
There’s an interesting duality to the limited broken down Roche colony and the limitless universe/space that surrounds it – how do you ground yourself when drawing for this book?
Malhotra: That’s a good point. I find it really tough to get my imagination going with stories set in sleek sci-fi settings. The sense of history is lost. That’s why it’s more fun to draw old buildings rather than new ones or an old tennis shoe rather than a brand new one. What made Star Trek so great was that, even though most episodes take place in the sterile ship, they often visit planets or civilizations that look a bit alien but also have a lot of history behind them.
In drawing Roche Limit, I keep it close to the colony for most of the story. We don’t show the condition of Earth or how technologically advanced it might be and I doubt we ever will. What ends up at Roche Limit is usually old Earth technology. Old ships, scrap material, stuff that might be in junk yards on Earth. Roche Limit isn’t a priority to Earth. It’s a failed experiment, one that people on Earth want to forget. Mostly, so they can focus on other pursuits. Of course, we don’t really get into this stuff in the actual book, but it’s part of the thinking that goes on behind the scenes as we create it.
CB: That’s one thing I really like about Roche Limit and how you represent the colony. Readers get a glimpse of the colony and its history just by seeing the people who inhabit it, their actions, how they carry themselves and how the structures are drawn. It’s very well done. You mention some of the thinking that goes on behind the scenes. How did Roche Limit come about? What kind of approach do you two take in the creation process for the book?
Malhotra: I had just wrapped up Thumbprint and was awaiting word on more projects with IDW, which ended up becoming the X-Files related work I did this year. I emailed Michael, since we were acquaintances and aware of each other’s work. I dug what he was doing with Hoax Hunters; the concept especially and wanted to write and draw a story set in that world. The idea of working together on a book came about pretty quickly. I wanted to work on a sci-fi story since I was fresh off of a book that was so grounded in reality (Joe Hill’s Thumbprint). The initial concept that Michael had for Roche Limit was more than enough to convince me to commit to working on it. A few days later, he sent me the script for the first few pages of issue one and the rest is history. The book changed quite a bit from that point though!
As far as process goes. Michael is ahead of me on the scripts so he writes the story and how it evolves. When I get a script I go off and make it work for my vision. I find that certain things that work on the written page may not work on the visual page, so I change panels, sequences or entire scenes. Other times, the descriptions in the script will be perfect. Mostly, what we’re after is hitting the points we need to in the story and being happy with how we’ve accomplished that.
CB: Seems like it fell into place with Michael and his script. It takes a true understanding of the medium and trust from the team to be able make the decisions to change up scenes, sequences and panels as you’ve mentioned. The comics medium has an active level of reader participation different from reading prose or watching television or film. The final pages of each issue of Roche Limit always stick out to me because of that level of engagement. They make me feel like there’s a Roche colony out there already and I’m reading about recall or Moscow through a magazine. Could you tell us a bit about the inclusion of the magazine-like structured pieces at the end of the issues?
Malhotra: The articles and back of the issue stuff, which I really want to refrain from calling bonus material since it actively adds to our world building and includes some important story information, was part of the Roche Limit concept from the beginning. A big influence on this book was Image’s own Nowhere Men. Michael and I really loved how everything worked together to build such a dense story so we wanted to try our own hand at that element. Most of those pieces are all Michael. I chip in with an illustration or two here and there and a formula on how to activate our fictitious drug Recall.
CB: Oh definitely. When reading each issue I felt like the articles contributed directly to the world of Roche Limit. It helps take readers out of the story in terms of following a narrator or characters, but it keeps us plugged into the plotline and the world you’ve created. I think you two hit it on the head with this element.
To piggyback off the question for Michael, do you find comfort in being uncomfortable while drawing this book?
VM: Every project I’ve done has pushed my artistic and storytelling limits in some ways. That’s just the constant challenge of drawing and creating stories– It’s stressful but rewarding. The only way to avoid that uncomfortable feeling would be to rely on stock poses and story structures, and once you go that route the quality can’t be very good.
CB: Right, I’d argue that all creative/artistic avenues require constant growth and challenge or else stagnation/plateauing occurs. What specifically has been the most challenging with Roche Limit? What are you most proud of up to this point in the series?
Malhotra: The most challenging thing has been controlling the ambition to push the futuristic and sci-fi elements too far too early. In order to set the story for the trilogy on solid ground we had to start here. In a world that’s familiar. A world that’s not too far out there… yet.
I’m proud of a lot of stuff in the Roche Limit books. There’s a lot of me trying new things in each issue. To my eye, some work and some don’t, but I’m always happy to try new things on the actual pages. I’m probably most proud of my covers for entire run so far. Even the promo images. They all turned out to be pretty striking.
CB: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about Roche Limit. It’s been fun and insightful. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the series or about any other work you’ve been working on?
Malhotra: Let’s see…. Well we’re wrapping up volume 1 right now and it’s looking great. Volume 2 is already in the works and we should have an announcement on that one fairly soon. The stuff that I’ve seen from that volume looks fantastic!
The entire Roche Limit creative team has been working really hard on the series over the last year so it feels really good to have carved out a passionate reader base. I think from the very beginning, we had hoped to make a cool little book at Image that would gain a cult following and the response so far has been so far beyond what we expected. It’s pretty amazing.