Behind the Scenes: Designing Rocketo

rocketo.png Last Friday, we hosted our orientation for new and returning graduate students in the Comparative Media Studies Program. One of the featured speakers on the program was Frank Espinosa, the creator, writer, and artist behind Rocketo, a comic book series which he is self-publishing through Image comics.

Rocketo has been singled out by Entertainment Magazine as one of the best new comics and is currently in the running for three Eisner Awards. Espinosa came to comics following an extensive career working in animation at Disney and Warner Brothers, which included contributions to the redesign of the classic Warner Brothers characters and the writing of the in-house guidebook for their animators and work in the design of toys, games, and theme park attractions.

Rocketo is not like any comic you have ever held in your hands before -- for one thing, it's an adventure comic (decisively not a superhero saga) at a time when this genre has all but disappeared from view. It borrows as much from classic science fiction (the Lensman books, Cordwainer Smith, among others) as it does from classic mythology (Harpies and Kraken anyone). From the first page, you realize you are entering into a thoroughly imagined, deeply immersive world -- one which mirrors our own and yet is strangely different at the same time -- a world fully stocked with interesting creatures, strange lands, and well defined characters. For another, it's structured horizontally; the artwork is highly expressive and often abstracted (reminding me at times of the most accomplished work to come out of UPA during the 1950). His use of color to capture emotion and movement is nothing short of breathtaking. Rocketo is a remarkable blending of the pulp elements of popular culture and the formal experimentation one associates with the outer limits of alternative comics. The first graphic novel, Adventures in the Hidden Sea, has been published and he is just now finishing his first story arc dealing with this character.

We are lucky enough to have Espinosa as a Martin Luther King Fellow in our program for the coming year, where he will be teaching classes in Character Design and World Building, as well as supporting some of our efforts in educational games and media literacy.

We recorded Espinosa's talk as an experiment and I figured I would pass it along to my readers here. Every Thursday, throughout the term, the Comparative Media Studies Program hosts a speaker series. The series is designed to introduce our students to cutting edge developments in all of the sites being impacted by media change. So, we may bring in a comics artist one week, an advertising executive the next, a filmmaker the week after, and an activist the week after that. We try to mix and match media, to combine academic and practioners, but to keep it all lively and informal. Some weeks, we host large scale public events through the MIT Communications Forum. The Forum has long had webcast versions of its programs, such as this one featuring television writer David Milch (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blues, Deadwood) or this one featuring long-time film industry spokesperson Jack Valenti. As of this term, we are also going to be offering podcasts of our events and I will be flagging them for my readers.

What follows are a few of the highlights of his talk but there's no way to fully capture his wicked sense of humor, his rambunctious intellect and his engaging personality, all of which come through well in this podcast.

Espinosa shared something of the creative process which led to Rocketo. As an animator, he was fascinated with the challenges of telling stories through comics with "no sound, no movement." The book, which deals with a heroic explorer and map-maker, reflected his childhood fascination with the adventures of real world explorers as well as such works as Thief of Baghdad, Flash Gordon, and Terry and the Pirates. He lamented the shift in contemporary science fiction away from space exploration and towards "fighting viruses and Klingons." The book also reflected his fascination with ancient maps when large parts of the world were still unknown and when uncharted territory might be imagined to be the site of strange creatures or exotic peoples. Yet, though he draws on classic influences, he also taps contemporary tensions in the culture, designing a subplot about Rocketo returning home from a war, destroyed and emotionally devastated, in response to news reports from Baghdad.

The world itself started to take shape around "my crazy passion for birdmen and tigermen" and his desires to situate such man/animal hybrid into a coherent and rationalized world. He went through a process of problem solving: How could there be tigermen? Why would you create one in the first place? How do you create a world that allows for exploration and how do you populate it with tigermen? In trying to answer these questions, Espinosa was drawn towards the realm of post-apocalyptic science fiction. He disliked the dirty looking futures represented in the Mad Max series and yet he wanted to see what would happen if he destroyed the world and then resorted the pieces: "now the continents are broken and reconfigured. This gives us a reason to explore again." He populates the world with a variety of genetic mutants, thus providing a rationale for his Tigermen.

Turning his attention to his protagonist, Rocketo, Espinosa explained, "The hero had to be special. Otherwise, the birdmen will steal the show." Rocketo was literally born to be a hero: his parents come from much generation of explorers and mappers; they were genetic designed so that they have a "living compass" under their skin which allows them to navigate in a world which no longer has a magnetic field. Rocketo, he suggests, is "Marco Polo...not motivated by power, lust or money... but by the desire to see new worlds." He can change his body into steel and become a human space ship.

Along side Rocketo stands Spiro, a dogman. His whole family are psychotic warriors but he turns out to be a guy who just wants to live to see another day and if possible, come out on top of one of his many money making schemes. As he explained, "Spiro gave me trouble from day one -- Rocketo is genetically designed to be a hero. Spiro's the hero because he has to make choices." Spiro started out as a "really mean character -- a human pit bull" but he got softer as the book evolved. Espinosa kept searching for an archetype through which to understand this character and finally began to hear Spiro's dialogue being delivered in Humphrey Bogart's voice from Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As he talks, it is clear that Espinosa takes great pleasure in the freedom that independent comics allows him. For the first time, he says, he is producing his own comics: "there's no Bugs Bunny in it anywhere." As he told the students, Disney asserted claims over everything he produced but Warners was more lax, allowing him time to sit and reflect on his own projects and thus to slowly develop the core concepts and designs that would feed into Rocketo over a five or six year period. The story and themes of Rocketo emerged from an earlier comics project -- Major Rocket -- which was a "funny version of Flash Gordon" and had been aimed for kids. The new book targeted adults but kept Rocket in the name out of "nostalgia." He conceded that the book would have done better in the current market if Rocketo had a "big logo on his chest and wore a mask.": "America is the land of superheroes, whether we like it or not." But the comic has attracted a particularly strong following in Europe, which values its distinctive look and feel and responds well to its borrowings from expressionistic art.

His shattered world framework allows him to mix and match styles and themes from across the planet, to depict ancient Trojan warships in German Expressionist style, to draw his Harpies as if they were African masks brought to life and his Earthmen as if they were walking and talking versions of the heads found on Easter Island, to create multiple variants of flying giraffes and to mix them with mechanisms straight out of Jules Verne, to combine islands which are living coral reefs with giant robots that could destroy the planet and "totem poles as large as the Empire State Building." More than anything else, Espinosa communicated to my students the degree to which even the most idiosyncratic work builds upon a cultural reservoir and takes inspiration from other artist's works. As he explained, "never close your mind to any influence...Every problem has been solved" by some earlier artist or cultural tradition. And so he spends a great deal of time in research -- even though the comic itself is so stylized in its presentation and so wild-eyed in its imagination.

Espinosa suggests that his visual style emerges because he still thinks about comics through the eyes of an animator. In animation, he argues, exaggeration is the norm and if you want to make things realistic, you would be better off photographing them. He suggests that his artwork is interested in capturing movement ("how the torso moves at a particular moment") rather than detail ("How the chain mail fits around the chest"). He wants to convey "the shape of the movement" and allows his colors to do most of the work, suggesting rather than filling in what happens: "Let your mind paint the rest. You are a much better artist than I am." Espinosa described himself as someone who liked to work fest and analyze his choices later, trying to preserve the spontaneous energy and improvisational impulses that shape his work rather than seeking too polished a product.

Espinosa's talk gave our students a vivid picture of his own creative process, the ways that his work is informed by influences that run across history, across media, and across national borders, and the ways that his work depends on the skills in character design and worldbuilding that he will be teaching in his classes this year.