An Interview with the Creator of SPQR Blues — Carol “Klio” Burrell

Carol "Klio" Burrell is the Glyph Award nominated creator of SPQR Blues — a webcomic set in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the era of the Roman Empire. Burrell is really talented which is a great thing because a historically-based webcomic like SPQR Blues appears to be a really  demanding task:  set in Roman times with a wide-ranging cast;  all of it meshing with our collective sense of the Roman empire both in terms of the writing and the visuals — it's extremely interesting to say the least and perhaps the education-oriented publishing company (Graphic Universe)  Burrell works for ought to consider putting it out as a book when she's done.

I was really excited to see Burrell's Roman take on "steampunk" for our cover at ComixTalk this month.  I think there's a whole new subgenre of speculative fiction waiting to emerge from that image.  I got a chance to interview Burrell about her and her webcomic via email earlier this month.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?  What's a typical day for you this year?

I'm a native New Yorker, but I've lived all over, including overseas, and my favourite place of all was Wales, but followed closely by the ancestral family haunts in northern Italy.

This year has been a lot different for me than the past. I have a new-ish job editing for a graphic novel imprint at a children's book publisher. There's not a lot of staff for our imprint, so I am crazily busy, all the time. Starting this year I get to work on books from the ground up rather than projects inherited from past editors, and also on some GN translations. That's satisfying and interesting, but what goes into the publisher's side of creating a book can be as exhausting as having to script and illustrate it.

When I'm on a roll with doing the webcomic daily, I draw a row or two of pencils in the morning, read stacks of graphic novels on my long commute, work like a busy bunny all morning, read webcomics and surf comics blogs in the midafternoon (which actually counts as work), do more editorial or admin stuff until evening, commute back, then inking and scanning the webcomic and replying to comments or staying up all night on ClanLord. I'm turning into a workaholic hermit.


Your webcomic SPQR Blues is an impressive achievement so far.  Comixpedia describes it as "SPQR Blues is a webcomic–a sword-and-sandals soap opera in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Mysteries and danger are daily duty in the life of a bodyguard–or so Felix hopes when he signs on. Who is threatening the life of the young girl he has been asked to protect? What secrets lurk in the tunnels below the city? And who keeps putting animals on top of the arch?"  How did you come to choosing to write a webcomic based in ancient Rome?

Years ago I created an online 3D virtual walkthrough of the ancient city of Herculaneum (where the webcomic is set), but I realised I was more interested in the people who would have lived there than in pretty empty buildings. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, it preserved a single day in the lives of normal people. Pompeii is more famous, but in little Herculaneum you can literally get to know every street and every home (of what's been dug up so far) and sidle up close to all the people who lived there, poke around in their things, and otherwise pry into their personal lives.

Plus, Rome is fun, what with the togas and the banquets and the bears on top of arches. It's like Middle Earth or Camelot or the Star Trek universe in that it's a place where unlimited stories can happen, to people who are sort of like us but a little bit different. Like Klingons and elves. (We can just skip over the time I wrote a Middle Earth/Julius Caesar epic crossover.) There are a lot of parallels between the general Roman personality and the stereotypical modern American one, but our so-called "values" aren't as universal as some people would like to think. Even behaviour that looks the same on the surface might have a completely alien perspective underlying it. That's a little way-out-there and esoteric, but exploring that is part of the fun for me as a writer.

Also, I could draw Roman legion uniforms all day. I like to play with swords in real life, too.


What kind of research do you do for the story?  Both in terms of writing it and in crafting the visuals?

After years feeding in all sorts of information about the ancient world into my head, a story just started to tumble back out. I ended up choosing a time period that's outside the time I studied most, so I don't get to write about the wicked Octavian or the insane Caligula, but there's an even more frightening, damaged character in Domitian (I mostly write about everyday people, but the crazy emperors get a few cameos). Trust Rome to provide a huge source of really warped villains.

As a kid I went right from an obsession with dinosaurs into an obsession with the Roman Empire, probably from seeing too many 1950s movies with Richard Burton and Victor Mature. The real thing is even more of an action movie and a soap opera than the Cecil B. DeMille version, so I read a lot of classical journals, visit museums, peruse archaeological site surveys. I studied Latin in junior high school and high school then later majored in Classics (among other things…). I pore over maps, study Roman murals, and read a whole lot of original sources to get a feel for how people communicated and thought about themselves–plays and inscriptions and graffiti. I don't go to a museum to see some fabulously precious glass urn that only the equivalent of a millionaire could have owned. I want to see the cracked dinnerware and old spoons and cheap souvenir gladiator glasses that are heaped on the dusty shelves at the back of the museum. I also like to cook recipes from an ancient cookbook–even knowing how a home would have smelled, knowing which sorts of pots would have to simmer all day, knowing what they'd serve to company or what they'd give the kids for an upset stomach, is part of knowing how to draw the comic.

I usually don't do specific research, but pick up a general book on something like "Travel in the ancient world," so I'm not focussing on one question like "what would a horse-cart look like?" I don't want to miss the whole picture, and you never know what will come in handy. When you're drawing a comic set in your hometown, you can automatically put in all the incidental details like what would be lying on the coffee table–a remote, a pizza box, junk mail, a stack of magazines. If you just research one thing about a historical period, you might miss the little extras to include in the background. Bonus: all that incidental information leads to story ideas, character motivations, unexpected ways to pull the plot together.


Do you have any favorite books or other comics about Rome?

My absolute favourite books about Rome are the Falco mysteries by Lindsey Davis. Sometimes her Rome feels more like modern England, but she always has a sense of humour, and her people act like real people, not characters in an overblown epic. I haven't found a lot of modern comics specifically about Rome. I've been reading some from France, but something always irks me. Maybe the architecture is wonderfully drawn, but the costumes are all wrong, or the people act like they stepped straight out of the movies or a cable miniseries. I love the old movies, but sometimes I want to see what life was really like. Every now and then I run across a short comic about Rome, but the focus is usually either entirely on battles, or entirely on crazy emperors. Or it's naked people in olive wreaths. Not that there's anything wrong with olive wreaths.


What are your influences in terms of comics and more generally, art?

This might sound a little weird, but I know precisely that my three major influences are: Leonardo da Vinci, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant, and Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini. I ran across each one at just the right time to twist my life. Prince Valiant to show that comics aren't all like Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes (both of which are incredible, of course). Leonardo to show that it's all right to be multi-disciplined, and to paint and scribble on walls if you like (I drew on the high school walls a lot, usually some long epic story). Elfquest taught a lot about pacing, about the emotional heart of a story, and about b&w art. There were several Japanese students in my class at primary school, so I was probably influenced by a lot of Japanese comics and culture, way back when nobody thought kids in the US were reading manga. Donna Barr ("Desert Peach") has been a huge influence more recently. I'd given up thinking I could ever draw a comic, and if I hadn't met Donna Barr, I probably wouldn't have tried it again. 


How far into the story of SPQR Blues are we now?  How long do you think you'll be working on it?

Well, that would be telling. But I'll tell: It's spring on the Bay of Naples, and the volcano is looking irritable. Occasionally shrugging a bit and clearing its throat and wondering why nobody's paying it any attention. The volcano finally erupted late in the autumn. I'm about halfway through chapter four, which is called Last Days –but it's not necessarily where the story ends. Much of the population around the bay didn't escape the eruption, but some did. There's is a definite ending planned, and every character has an arc, some short and some long. Even though they spin off in different directions, each one eventually comes back to the center before it all ends. There are villains who need their comeuppance, and there'll be at least one happy ending in the midst of all the really, really unhappy ones. I'd like the end of chapter four to coincide with the date we believed the volcano erupted, so, since right now it's only June, there are a few months to go. I wish I could spend more time working on it, so i could tell the story not necessarily more quickly, but more elaborately. I'd draw all day and all night if I didn't have to go to work. Or eat. Or bathe.


Do you have any plans to put SPQR Blues into print at some point?

I'd like to. There was a little minicomic of the first chapter, but the format of the art doesn't fit well into the usual page sizes. It might work better at a large, European size. I missed my chance to exhibit at either MoCCA or SPX this year, but maybe by next year I can put something pretty with all four chapters together. Of course, I wish the comic were polished enough for a publisher to pick it up and to do all the work for me. But I think publishers would rather it be in colour. And not quite so weird as a bunch of ancient Romans who aren't even having any naked orgies or fighting gladiators like Romans are supposed to.


I noticed another one of your websites is titled "10,000 Drawings: The long, weird process of relearning how to draw"  — what's the story behind that title?

I worked a grueling job as a programmer for a while and ended up with pinched nerves and repetitive stress injury to both arms. I couldn't draw, I couldn't drive, I couldn't play piano, I couldn't hit people with swords, I couldn't do anything precise with my hands for a long time. Around the same time, I met Donna Barr (at a Rat Patrol convention). I mentioned that I'd given up on ever being fast enough to draw a comic in a reasonable amount of time, and she told me the old adage that it takes 10,000 drawings to become truly good. I figured I might already have done my 10,000 drawings, but that was before the injury. She encouraged me (by sort of snorting at my bad attitude) and inspired me to start over again, so I decided to draw the 10K as a webcomic. I'm keeping a countdown. Each panel of SPQR Blues counts as one drawing.


You didn't win but you were nominated for in the Rising Star category for this year's Glyph Awards.  It must have great to get that recognition.  Do you pay attention to reviews or other public feedback to your work?

It was pretty darned astonishing to get that recognition. I was up against spectacular competition like Marguerite Abouet ("Aya"), and the more I think about just how talented she is, the more my ego feels puffed up to be nominated alongside her.

I do google the comic about once a month to see if anyone is noticing it, which I probably shouldn't do, since I'm very susceptible to negative critiques. A negative criticism can send me off into a corner for weeks trying to figure out how to fix it. Usually I shake it off and go back to the original plan. But I do worry a lot.


You're a part of the Sugarskull collective — what benefits have there been to participating in that and what kinds of things do you do with the other members?

The collective is a work in progress, but it's a nice and cosy group with diverse and quirky styles. The initial benefits were sharing a readership pool and introducing new people to our comics. In the future, I hope we can take advantage of our different geographical locations and activities to take our minicomics and webcomic advertising to various conventions and events.


When did you get interested in comics at all? When did you get interested in making them yourselves?

I don't remember any time when I didn't want to be a storyteller. When my mother read bedtime stories to me, I wanted to tell my own in return, and she usually made me go to sleep before I was done! Frustrating! Maybe that's why I dream in long, elaborate narratives with twisted plots–still trying to tell a story after I go to sleep. I drew constantly as a little kid, usually stick figures in panels, and whether that was emulating comics or movies I'm not sure. Sunday ritual at my uncle's house was reading the comics (Prince Valiant), we had French comics in school. I discovered that with comics I get to be writer, director, cinematographer, set designer, costume designer, special fx coordinator, and even, a little bit, the actors. It's a complete way of presenting your story the exact way you want it. As I mentioned before, I had given up on doing a comic because I thought I was way too slow. Now all I need is more discipline to stick to daily drawing. And more time. Always more time 🙂


Do you read any other comics on the web or off?  What are your favorites these days?

Wow, that's a long list. It used to be longer before work got so hectic. Order of the Stick always makes me happy. Templar, AZ keeps my brain nicely boggled. Dicebox, Family Man, Lords and Death and Life, Hereville, Emma, Minus

Recently I've been reading Girls With Slingshots, even though I always claim I've read too many webcomics about 20-somethings dealing with jobs and love life, but GWS is smart and snappy and weird. The Antagonist is about dealing with jobs (being an ex-supervillain and an ex-sidekick) and love life (loving your supervillain) too.

More on the meta side, the Comics Curmudgeon keeps my snark honed.  I'm leaving a lot of really great things out.

About once a month I grab a handful of minicomics from Jim Hanley's shop in Manhattan, then walk up to Midtown Comics and get whatever the staff recommend based on my weird tastes. I'm finally reading Bone, I was a fanatic for about the first six volumes of Death Note, and I'm reading Hikaru No Go, because I love Takeshi Obata's art.

Looking over at my bookshelf I see Les Enfant d'ailleurs by Bannister and Nykko, Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, everything from First Second Books, Dirk Tiede's Paradigm Shift, and all the Twisted Journeys books. I don't have very much manga, nor much superhero genre, but if a comic sits still long enough for me to get my hands on it, I will read it — I read insanely fast so I have a big appetite to fill. Overall, I like being surprised by each new book I pick up. I like to get a brand new experience in art style and storytelling, no matter what it is. Just put pictures on the page or on the screen, and I'm there.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.