I have a feeling it’s going to happen again.

Last fall, Image Comics and Shrunken Head Studios provided our first glimpse into the world of Rex Mundi, and the effort promptly sold out of stores. With a new year upon us, creators Arvid Nelson (writer) and Eric J (artist) are poised to build upon this success and turn their offering into an official hit, and if the previously released #0 and #1 issues are any indication…shouldn’t be too hard.

In a continuing effort to highlight the New Hotness wherever it may be, I asked the two creators to drop by Ambidextrous to not only provide insight into Rex Mundi, but to shed additional light on what it means to produce an independent comic. The preview images are supplied by the ever so talented Eric J, and appear in the second issue of Rex Mundi, which hits stores on March 19th.

Brandon Thomas: For those people out there that haven’t picked up Rex yet, bring them up to speed on what they’re missing.

Arvid Nelson: Rex Mundi means “King of the World” in Latin. It’s a quest for the Holy Grail in the form of a murder mystery. The story takes place in Paris, 1933, but in this world magic is real and the Catholic Church never lost its grip on power.

A mystery involving a stolen medieval scroll becomes a quest for the Holy Grail. But the Grail isn’t a physical cup at all; it’s some kind of secret that stretches from the walls of Jerusalem during the First Crusade to the halls of Versailles in modern-day France…

There is more info on our website: www.rexmundi.net. Readers can get filled in on just about everything there.

Eric J: The story is getting ready to really start going. So far we’ve just barely scratched the surface. Originally, we planned issue #0 and issue #1 to be one, double sized premiere issue, but due to many, many factors we had to break them into two distinct issues. We’ve been, in our newsletter and on the boards, encouraging people to go grab their 0 issue and re-read it along with issue #1. The next few issues continue to lay the groundwork, but we’re going to really start diving into the story over the next couple issues while that groundwork is being laid.

At this point, Julien Sauniere, our main character, only knows that a manuscript has been stolen, the theft has led to two murders, and he’s starting to realize that, without knowing it, he’s already about ankle deep in it, and it’s rising quickly. By issues #4 and #5, from my point of view, the book will have a full head of steam and there won’t be any turning back.

Arvid and I have always talked about the story in terms of an onion. So far we’ve only peeled off the thinnest top layers; Issue 2 gets us deeper, 3, deeper still, and by issue #4 we’re off and running.

Thomas: You’ve released two issues of Rex Mundi thus far. Has the experience of publishing your own comic been easier or harder than you expected?

Nelson: It’s been a bit harder than I expected, but I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into; a lot of my friends self-publish their own comics, and I followed in their footsteps.

Rex Mundi has been and still is a huge drain-financially to be sure, but mostly emotionally. I mean, Eric and I really, really care about Rex, and that’s what keeps us going more than anything else. It’s sure as hell not fun most of the time. For every hour I actually write there must ten hours of mindless drudgery. The book’s been very well received by the critics, but I think people are still waiting for it to get off the ground. The upcoming issue-#2-will really give people an idea of where it’s going. But until then we’re just baaarely breaking even financially, and that’s hard.

I can’t complain, though. Self-publishing a comic is really tough, but it’s not impossible by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s worth it a hundred times over. There’s that old fable about the man who takes a tour of Heaven and Hell with St. Peter. The man is shown one room which he’s told is Hell, and inside a bunch of writers are hunched over typewriters. He sees Heaven and it’s another room, exactly the same as the first, so the man asks St. Peter what’s up, and Pete responds “in Heaven they’re being published.” I think that’s true for Rex Mundi. What greater reward or higher honor could there be than seeing Rex Mundi on the stands? What more could I ask for?

J: In a lot of ways, when I look back, it’s been remarkably easy, especially when compared to the years that I spent trying to break into the business. I mean, we’ve worked incredibly hard on the book the whole way through, but there were quite a few things that could have been much more difficult than they were.

Having said that, it probably doesn’t seem as if it was that hard because we’ve got some distance. The thing is that you have this incrementally increasing responsibility/workload, and it snowballs, you know? And the further down the line you get, the faster that snowball effect occurs, at least in our case. You get to the point where it’s very easy to realize that the point at which you should have been refocusing, dropping day jobs, or getting outside help, passed you months ago. The problem with that is that it’s very easy not to recognize that point until you reach critical mass. For me that happened a couple months ago, after three and a half years of working a day job full time, and working more than full time on the book, I burned out really badly. It was a very surreal time, but we’ve rearranged things, and now I’m working on the book full time. That’s been a huge relief, and I think we’re finally starting to settle into a good routine that will allow us not only to completely focus on Rex Mundi, which is absolutely what the book is demanding (as if it were an animate object J) but keep our sanity, at least for the most part.

Thomas: How interested are you in translating your characters to other media? If someone were casting a Rex Mundi movie, who would play the lead characters?

Nelson: Very interested. I thought of making Rex Mundi a novel before I met Eric. We’ve already made the foray into web comics with Brother Matthew, and as far as we’re concerned, the possibilities are basically endless.

J: As a matter of fact producers Alan Riche, Tony Ludwig, and Barry Lavine are working with us on developing a movie adaptation of Rex Mundi right now, and we just got some good news on that yesterday. French film director Pitof, who is also going to be directing Catwoman very soon, is now officially attached as Mundi’s director, so we’re one step closer to that happening. So the motion picture adaptation is already in gear and moving along smoothly, so that’s very exciting.

Nelson: If I were casting it, I could think of a few people that would be good as Julien. Eric mentioned Viggo Mortensen, and that really struck a chord with me. I’ve actually been a fan of his since I saw his movie American Yakuza a while back. I think Jude Law would be great too. For Genevieve, the female lead, I think Liv Tyler would be great. Maybe I’ve got Lord of the Rings on my brain, but I don’t think so. I also think Asia Argento would be awesome for the role. In both cases, these are just some initial thoughts. Genevieve and Julien are weird combinations of tough and soft, and it’s important that come through. That’s the main concern I’d have if casting them.

J: Beyond that, Arvid and I have talked about role playing games, video games, and book adaptations, which would all be a little farther down the road. Those are all things that Arvid and I are both really into, but I have to say that the straight book adaptation is something I’d really like to see, because I think Arvid could really pull that off nicely. Well, that and a massively multiplayer online game, hmm, that may be what I’m really looking forward to.

Thomas: Does the recently announced movie deal take any pressure off you guys, or will it actually contribute more?

Nelson: It’s exciting, but we try not to let anything take our focus off the book. Eric and I have been very dedicated to Rex Mundi as a comic from the moment we started, and we believe that the best way to make the movie successful is to make the comic book as good as possible. Regardless of what happens to anything exterior to it, we will always be devoted to making Rex Mundi as good as possible.

Thomas: The major companies have seemingly abandoned the letter column as a forum to interact with creators, and independent comics appear to be their only safe haven. What are your thoughts on the demise of the letter column, and how important is it to you personally to include one in Mundi?

Nelson: I really don’t understand why letters columns are dying out. One would think that email makes writing a letter much easier, and therefore there’d be more and better letters to choose from.

I like having a letter column in Rex Mundi, and as long as people write, we’ll have one. It’s a very good example of one of the things I like most about comics: the closeness between the reader and the creator. We get a lot of interesting letters from a lot of smart people, so as far as I’m concerned it’s in our best interest to include them.

J: Well, you know that’s a tough call. I mean, from a purely nostalgic point of view the majors dumping their letter columns sucks. I mean, I can remember many times when I opened a given comic and skipped directly to the letters page, you know? On the other hand, though, with the internet and the proliferation of message boards and chat rooms the importance of the letters column is greatly diminished, and if you’re looking for space, for anything, expanding actual story content, extra pages for ads, what have you, the first place you’re going to look at is that which is least important to the overall product at this point.

And, if you really want to get down to brass tacks, the internet is a much, much better forum for interaction between fans and creators. Well, actually I hesitate to say that. There’s a whole debate just waiting to be had in that one sentence.

For us, though, Arvid and I have tried to be as accessible as possible from the very beginning, so the letters page is just one more way for us to interact with our readers. Everything we get is either e-mail or from our boards, though, so in most cases, by the time the letters are printed the person that asked the question has been answered long ago, but, you know, it’s kind of the same principle as the F.A.Q. for a lot of websites, why keep answering the same question over and over if you can answer it once publicly? And I think it’s a little naive, or maybe I am, to assume that everyone that enjoys that interaction between readers and editors/creators is going to go in search of the “official” board, or will like it if they do. I mean, as much fun as I have on message boards the signal to noise ratio, as Warren Ellis used to refer to in on his dearly missed forum, can be horrible. I just don’t know if a lot of readers, that are genuinely interested in a given book, and would otherwise be very interested in letter column-type interaction, are going to have a lot of patience for endless “who would win in this fight” posts.

So, yeah, I mourn the loss of letter columns in the big boys’ books, and I’m pleased as punch that most of the Image books, as well as Oni’s, among others, retain a proper letters column. I just think they’re still very important, even if that importance is diminished from days gone by.

Thomas: In creating the book have you found that there might be such a thing as too much creative freedom?

Nelson: I have always thought there’s such a thing as too much creative freedom. I think just about every film director I admire did better work when he was answerable to someone. Even Stanley Kubrick: I think his later films-though still brilliant-are sort of sterile in some ways. And he’s one of the lightest offenders.

I always appreciate criticism (well, ok, most of the time), and if I’ve got any ability as a storyteller it’s because I really try to listen to what people have to say. Of course you want everyone to think you’re Shakespeare, but at some point you have to accept the fact that you need editorial advice just like every Homo sapiens. The trick is knowing when advice is good and when it’s bad. THAT’S tough!

To that extent, I rely on Eric a lot. He’s got a writer’s instinct, and he acts as my editor most of the time. I definitely appreciate it.

J: No. Short answer, no. Well, I guess that’s not true. I guess there always has to be a limit. That limit is always getting pushed, and it’s dangerous to push it too far too fast, which I certainly don’t think we’re doing. I actually am very thankful, though, for the very free way in which Arvid and I have been able to develop Rex. I definitely credit my current style, whether you like it or not, to the fact that I was able to sort of determine on my own the aspects that I want to incorporate into my art. Be those traditional comic book styles, fine art influences, pop art, what have you.

It’s so important, especially for artists, and by that I mean all artists, writers, illustrators, filmmakers, to find they’re own path. I hear a lot of people at conventions asking us how we did this, or how I do that, and so often they want a map to get where we are. The problem with that is that it doesn’t work the same way for every person. Life is incredibly random, and a much better thing to do would be to ask those questions as a way to build as large a frame of reference as possible to allow you to navigate your own path. It’s the same with art. I think it’s very important to know as many techniques and principles as you can, so you can start mixing and matching, but also so that you can recognize a boundary when you’re approaching it and make an informed decision on whether you want to go beyond it, and if so, how far.

Thomas: Is Rex ever going to release monthly, and does the bi-monthly schedule encourage you to deliver tighter, shorter storylines?

Nelson: We will be monthly as soon as humanly possible. But we want to make sure we’re all caught up with ourselves so there aren’t any delays.

As to the storyline… the periodicity of Rex Mundi won’t really have any effect on how it’s told. Rex Mundi is 36 issues long, and that’s it. Roughly speaking there are two parts: the first is modeled on a detective story a la Raymond Chandler, and the second is a pulp adventure more along the lines of Robert E. Howard (his good stuff, hopefully). The plot is further broken down into six arcs, each of which will make up one trade paperback, for a total of six TPBs. But the pace of the story itself is really dictated by the needs of the story, and nothing else.

J: We want to get Rex on a monthly schedule very soon. With me working full time on the book now, the hope is that will happen much sooner than later. That’s definitely what we’re working toward right now, though, and it’s one of our highest priorities.

As far as the bi-monthly schedule affecting the pacing, both from the writing and the visual storytelling, I can honestly say that it really doesn’t affect us that much. I’m not trying to squeeze as many panels as I can into a page in order to get more content onto each page, and Arvid, to my knowledge, is for the most part not rushing anything in order to speed things up. I don’t think the bi-monthly schedule has affected the way that we’re telling the story at all. We’ve always wanted the book to be monthly, so that’s the way we end up approaching it in most circumstances.

Thomas: What about the marketplace makes it difficult for an independent comic like this to find its mark from a financial standpoint? Are you pleased with how it’s doing thus far?

Nelson: Financially, Rex Mundi is difficult because it costs just as much money (AND time) to put together as any other comic book out there, but we don’t have the luxury of any licensed characters or characters with a fan base to boost our sales. That means we have to start by laying the foundation with no guarantee people want to see the 108th floor.

It translates into relatively small numbers at first, and that means that the first few issues of Rex Mundi are going to be rocky going financially. Eric and I have just accepted that fact. There’s a reason low-digit issues are worth a lot of money: very few people take a chance on something new. Eric and I want to prove to everyone who has taken a chance so far that they had good reason to have faith in Rex Mundi. I think we’re going to have to prove that a., we’re dependable, and b., the story is good. In order to do that, we’re going to need a few more issues on the stands in a timely fashion and there’s no way around it. You want to be an overnight success, but I’m learning there’s no such thing. If there is, it takes years and years to get there.

J: So far, we’re pretty pleased. I mean, obviously we’d love it if we were pulling Powers numbers right out of the gate, but that’s just not realistic. I think we surprised, well, everyone besides ourselves by doing as well as we have so far, and I really believe that the best is yet to come. I’m really hopeful that 2003 will be an incredible year for us.

Thomas: I’d like to thank both Arvid and Eric for coming back, and encourage everyone out there to pick up a copy of Rex Mundi. Check your retailer for ssues #0 and #1, and be sure to pick up issue #2 on sale March 19th.

And now…by popular demand…the return of The New Hotness

Powers #29 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming)
There is one simple aspect of Powers that allows it to continually expand the boundaries of what can be done in superhero comics: it’s unpredictable. When the status quo exists in a constant state of flux, you can drop a nuke on Utah, murder the Pope, and atomize the Middle East. While the sudden and widespread destruction threatens to take center stage, Bendis spins this chapter around a very human emotion: complete and total helplessness. There’s a man of monumental power out there murdering millions of people at will, and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about it. There is no contingency plan. There is no magic unearthly rock to save you. You can only pray he doesn’t come for you next. This is pure un-cut Bendis injected into the industry’s vein, and the only thing for us to do at this point is ask for more.

Action Comics #801 (Joe Kelly/Tom Raney/Walden Wong)
Could it be? A Superman title among the New Hotness? Let me explain something to you…Joe Kelly is one of the industry’s most underrated talents. His accomplishments with the Man of Steel have been criminally ignored amid the familiar fandom cry that the S-books are in dire need of improvement. Despite this, he continues to deliver, and this, the first chapter of a larger storyline called The Harvest, successfully picks up on plot threads he’s been providing groundwork the last several months. The metahuman population is undergoing an explosive increase, leaving many dead and others horribly disfigured with powers and abilities they do not understand. And someone out there knows why. Raney’s guest pencils bring memories of Stormwatch to the forefront, and Kelly looks determined to raise the stakes in Action, providing a steady stream of tension and horror as events spin out of control, with no indication of what’s coming next

Reload #1 (Warren Ellis/Paul Gulacy/Jimmy Palmiotti)
This comic is all testosterone, loud, fast, and thereby difficult to ignore. Within two pages, we’ve been introduced to our protagonists, and within five, we realize Ellis is serious with this. The President’s brains have been sprayed all over national television, the Secret Service has been attacked, and a number of police stations have been introduced to sarin gas. Agent Chris Royal doesn’t know what the hell is going on, but something clearly isn’t right. And it’s more than the obvious of course, because as the establishment falls into chaos, there’s a question that must be posed. This lone domestic terrorist, the one with the large guns, the high tech equipment, and a noticeable grudge…could she really be one of the good guys?

Black Panther #55 (Priest/Jim Calafiore/Mark McKenna)
It clearly isn’t fair. Priest has completely shifted the focus and stance of this title over the last several months and it STILL manages to slap the average comic senseless. Kasper Cole’s impersonation of King T’Challa, and his ongoing war with crooked cops, takes a final turn this month, setting the stage for a Usual Suspects style plot twist sure to leave the audience thinking that Priest is beginning to inherit some of the tendencies of his title character. We got played, pure and simple. Priest has been setting this whole thing up for months, and finally decides to shed a little additional light on what’s really been going on. The perfect blend of costumed heroics, crime drama, and conspiracy thriller. Black Panther has distinguished itself as being one of the most engrossing and unconventional reads on the stands…and it hasn’t changed. Not one bit.

The last two inclusions in the New Hotness are First Look editions that hit general release this upcoming Wednesday. Special thanks to my man Jim at ACME Comics who provides me with my weekly fix. There’s your plug man, and whether you realize it or not…you just signed yourself up for an interview this spring. 😉



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