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Every God Has His (Or Her) Day - An interview with Chuck Rowles of The Gods of ArrKelaan

Chuck Rowles is the creator of the long-running webcomic, The Gods of Arr-Kelaan, a consistent favorite at the webcomic community DrunkDuck.com.

Rowles describes his comic's world as "Mortals find themselves the gods of a magical planet called Arr-Kelaan. Can they successfully rule the planet, or will it end up as messed up as their home planets?"

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island but have spent most of my life in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I’ve loved comics since high school (starting with Groo the Wanderer) and have been an aspiring comic artist for longer than that.

The Gods of Arr-Kelaan started as an offhanded way of creating gods for role-playing games that didn’t require any sacrifice from my characters. Normally, there would be tithing or more demanding religious requirements -- which were really just annoying. What I needed was a god who wouldn’t drain my character’s coin purse or tie up their time or behavior.

Thus Ronson (God of Apathy/Alcohol) was born.

After about a decade of false starts, I decided to start rewriting the beginning and “For the Death of Kings” – the first official part of the current storyline was created. After that, there was a 3 year gap where I was drawing a daily comic strip called Drawing From Life. When that ended, I started drawing The Gods of Arr-Kelaan again with “Myths & Legends”.

Nowadays we’re a three person team, where I write and draw the pages, my wife, Martha, proofreads them (and is the story’s first audience) and my brother Steve adds color and effects.

 

Where are you located these days?

I live in a small town in Pennsylvania called “Pittston”, strategically located between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. I work only a few miles from home, which is very convenient.

Scranton, as you may or may not know, was recently lampooned on Saturday Night Live as being a “genetic cesspool”. I disagree, because the creator of Station V3 is from there, and he’s a great guy.

 

I've never been to Scranton but that was a pretty funny SNL skit.  The guy doing Biden was pretty funny.  What's Pittston like?  Are there other cartoonist types lurking about?

Well, first of all, I want to make sure that you know I thought the SNL skit was hilarious. It was just pointing out the need politicians - who all spend most of their time in big cities - need to draw on "small town values" (whatever they are) to appeal to people who don't worry about issues or policies. There are some humorless people around here who tried to make a fuss about the skit, but they're pretty much few and far between.

Pittston is unremarkable, but pleasant. Like most northern towns, it's been around for a hundred years or so, and bits and pieces of it are falling apart. But the traffic is light, the people are friendly (or at least mind their own business) and the pizza is the best in the world.  Martha and I spent six weeks crossing the country early in our marriage, and we did discover that most towns and small cities are similar in many ways. They have their unique attributes (Pittston claims to be the "Tomato Capital of the World" and has an annual festival celebrating that self-appointed title. It was also a mob town way back when, so there are some interesting stories if you look for them), and should be enjoyed for what they are.

As far as other cartoonists, I already mentioned the author of Station V3, Tom Truszkowski, whom I met a few times. I know a few offline guys who do some great work, but I don't have their names at my fingertips right now. There's a lot of creative talent in the area, in fact.

 

What's a typical day for you like recently?

I have to admit that unless I’m careful I’m very rut prone. A typical workday is 9 hours at work, home hanging out with Martha (watching tv, playing chess, strolling around the neighborhood), drawing for a few hours before bed.

 

What is your day job?

I work full time as a technical illustrator for a health care products company. So, while my day job does allow me some creativity in the artistic field, my attempts at adding sacrilegious jokes and slapstick into my technical illustrations are almost always summarily rejected.


That actually sounds like one of the cooler "day jobs" I've heard of from cartoonists.  How long have you done that?  Did you have other illustration jobs before that one?

I've been a technical illustrator for almost ten years with this company. Before that, I was a compositor for a local newspaper - which means I laid out the advertisements on the computer. Prior to that I did a similar job for a phone book company. It's a challenging job that is often quite enjoyable. But if anyone wants to pay me to draw my comic for a living, that would be super fantastically awesome.

 

Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?

Here are the writers and artists I follow in printed comics: Mark Waid, Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Paul Chadwick, Mike Mignola, Alex Ross, Kurt Busiek, Chris Ware, Zander Cannon, Alan Moore,  Warren Ellis,  James Robinson, Scott McCloud, Phil Foglio, Paul Chadwick, Peter Gross … and probably at least a half dozen others.

Current comics I collect (off the top of my head): Superman (Busiek), Top 10, Hellboy, BPRD, Futurama, Thieves and Kings, Astro City, JLA, JSA, The Goon … lots of others. I usually buy about 20 titles per month.

As far as online strips go, I read quite a few, but not on a regular basis. There are some collections I buy regularly: Alpha Shade, Girl Genius, Super Fogeys, Mr. Scootles … lots more.  Online,  I usually end up digging through the archives of comics like Station V3, Madscott, Zorphbert and Fred, anything from squidi.net, anything from KC Green … I’m going to not think of a dozen of them right now but there are lots.

The only continuing story I’m reading online currently is D.J. Coffman’s Flobots which is so far been very clever and enjoyable. I’ll probably buy that if and when he collects it into a print edition.

I am a reading machine, by the way. I’m actually in the process of re-reading all of my old back issues in alphabetical order. Currently, I just finished a few issues of John Byrne’s She-Hulk from the early 90’s and was very disappointed to find out that I stopped collecting just after Steve Gerber started writing it. Steve Gerber was an awesome writer, so now I have to go searching for back issues. D’oh!

 

Did you read comics as a kid?

As a kid, I liked the old Harvey comics, especially Casper and Richie Rich. Sunday funnies were a big thing for me as well. I loved Peanuts, Shoe, Beetle Baily and Hagar the Horrible and then eventually was blown away by Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury. In high school, a friend of mine gave me a copy of “Groo the Wanderer” and I’ve been hooked on comics ever since.

 

Give me the 30 second “convention pitch” for your comic.

Ordinary mortals (mostly humans from Earth) end up on the magical planet of Arr-Kelaan. They have been transformed into gods. Real gods. The story follows these gods as they grow into their new roles as leaders of an entire world. Hilarity ensues. Well, not hilarity, but comedy. And drama. And some tragedy. There’s a lot of ensuing, I guess. Oh yeah, Ronson, the God of Alcohol, is their reluctant leader.

 

How has the strip evolved over time?

I’m glad you asked that. I personally think there is a lot of evidence for strip evolution. I personally reject those that insist that strips are guided by intelligent design. In fact, I think you’ll find that my comic is proof of that.

Actually, many of the characters back stories have changed from my initial inception, but are pretty much the same since I re-booted the story in 2003. Ronson is the same as always – a depressed wannabe alcoholic who is just slightly more interested in living than dying. But characters like Bunny, Dulcifer, Sharra, Shadowscared, Sploon and Krushcor have changed (sometimes quite a bit) since their inception, mostly because I really didn’t give them as much thought back then. A good example of this is that Dulcifer (The Goddess of Love) was initially conceived as a high-class prostitute. That was back when I was single and alone, and honestly a very immature teenager!  As a more mature adult, I’ve re-conceived her as a very empathetic and successful romance novelist, who understands the intricacies of a meaningful relationship.

The art style has changed somewhat. My earlier stuff (“For the Death of Kings” and “Myths & Legends”) was intended for printing and photocopying, so I used a lot of crosshatching instead of grey tone. Nowadays, I have a fairly thick-lined with solid fill approach with very few flyaway lines which makes coloring it easier for Steve (my brother and partner in crime who colors and adds effects in Photoshop) and ends up looking quite a bit better, in my opinion.

Storywise, I think it’s only changed a bit. I am steadily progressing toward a goal that I’ve always had. There have been a few surprises for me along the way, but the essentials remain the same.

One of the more difficult decisions I made to the comic in the early years was getting rid of Ronson’s mascot – Boozer – who was a talking corkscrew that acted as Ronson’s conscience and always dreamt of being a real boy.

 

What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?

The great thing about comics – as opposed to prose – is that the reader can contextualize the scene immediately and know the reactions of the characters before even reading the dialogue.  I am not a great prose writer, and when I’m handling scene setups or dialogue in the few  written stories I’ve done, I can be very ham-handed. What you see on my comics page is pretty close to the way I have it in my head, and drawing it seems so much more natural for me.

 

When you create a comic, how do you approach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?

I start with the overall question: What will this story hope to achieve. With “Consequences”, I am establishing the frames and limitations for my gods, as well as finally dealing with Ronson’s wife issues (I decided on that last part only at the last minute. It was originally going to be a separate story).

Then I break it into story arcs, with simple descriptions of each arc’s contribution to the story, including how it starts and ends. In “Consequences”, I decided on 3 major story arcs (just like in “Going Home”, but longer).

Then I break the arcs into chapters and decide what each chapter needs to do to push the story to the end of the arc.

Then I break up the chapter into pages, going from my established beginning and getting to my established ending – this is where some unexpected changes occur as I develop the details. The first pass of this chapter is in text, the second is in drawn thumbnails for character placement.

After that, finally, I start working on the finished layouts for the pages.

 

Any non-comic influences on your art and/or writing?

My favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut (RIP), and you’d have to decide what impact his writing had on mine. I think he shaped a lot of who I am today. Other writers I am a huge fan of are (in order of discovery): Douglas Adams, Robert Heinlein, Mark Twain, and Terry Pratchett.

My favorite comic’s artist are Dave Sim and Gerhard, who have such talent – especially in black and white artwork – that it blows me away. Cerebus was a great story, and I still miss it. Non comic artists that I think are great are pretty much standard – Van Gogh, Dali, Escher … things in that vein.

 

What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?

I used to draw a page of comics on a sheet of paper, scan it in, add gutters in Photoshop and word balloons in Illustrator, then hand it over to Steve.

Now, I sketch the page right into Photoshop with my new Tablet PC, which has a Wacom Penabled stylus that has 256 levels of pressure. It’s pretty sweet! Anyway, I sketch the page in Photoshop, then make a new layer and trace over the sketches taking advantage of the pressure levels with the stylus and being careful with my curves. Then I add the gutters. Then I add the word balloons (in Illustrator).

After that, I make a layer in Photoshop that Steve deletes when finished giving him  instructions for effects, color or whatever. He finishes the pages and posts them online.

 

Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic? Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most?

I tend to like my short stories better than my long sagas. Currently, “The Point Of Some Return” – written for the third Drunk Duck anthology, Drunk on Laughter (and printed missing a page in the middle! AARGH! The full version – in color – is available as a download for $.75 in my online store) – is my favorite. It was a retelling and expansion of a story I tried to do years ago, but with a lot more detail and a bit more humor.

My fans seem to mostly like Ronson, though I think they might be getting their fill of him in this current storyline “Consequences”. I think all of my characters appeal to someone, and am always surprised at how they are perceived by the fans.