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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.