Chris the Conqueror
Chris Roberson takes on Superman, Elric, Captain Kirk, and Cinderella – and wins
Take two icons of 20th century fantastic fiction. On one side is Superman, defender of truth, justice, and the American way. On the other is Elric of Melniboné, the albino sorcerer-king who wields the soul-sucking blade Stormbringer. And between them is Chris Roberson, the award-winning Austin-based comics author who shocked himself by spending the last year writing both. "It's ridiculous," says Roberson. "I'm half convinced that I'm hallucinating my entire life."
Roberson's rise to the top of the comics industry has been faster than a speeding bullet. His first mainstream title, Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love, for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, only hit newsstands in 2009. Yet last weekend, at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con International, he announced a deal with IDW Publishing for two new titles: the creator-owned Memorial, about a woman who inherits a magical shop and gets caught in a war between good and evil, and a six-issue miniseries teaming – are you ready for this? – the original series Star Trek crew and DC's Legion of Super-Heroes. "They're two franchises that I've been obsessed with since I was 9, which is just one more bit of evidence that I'm hallucinating this whole thing," Roberson says. If that was not enough evidence that he can bend time and space, Roberson also has authored a stack of science-fiction novels; collaborates with Mike Allred, creator of the Harvey Award-winning Madman, on their original comics series iZombie for Vertigo; recently started working with Marvel mastermind Stan Lee on the sci-fi-tinged Starborn; and runs fantasy publishing company MonkeyBrain Books with his wife, Allison Baker. He would do his own illustrations as well, but, Roberson says, "My 7-year-old daughter is not shy of telling me she can draw better than me, and she's right."
His biggest break so far came last December when DC Comics handed Roberson its flagship Superman title, pushing him to a whole new level of celebrity and triggering two big flashes of mainstream media attention. The first came when DC surprisingly brought him in to finish/rescue Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski's controversial "Grounded" plotline with the Man of Steel walking across America. The other, less welcome one came when DC abruptly canned his story for Superman issue 712, which had Clark Kent team with new hero Sharif – who happened to be a naturalized U.S. citizen and a Muslim. It's all happened so fast that Roberson has pretty much been holding on for the ride. "Getting the chance at 40 to make up stories that other people would draw and other people would then read is pretty weird," he says.
From cape to kiss curl, the last son of Krypton is the epitome of a four-color superhero and "probably my first childhood hero, aside from my parents," Roberson says. But Elric? Not so much. British fantasy author Michael Moorcock created the character in 1961 and dubbed him the Eternal Champion, a mystical antihero mirrored across parallel worlds. His other incarnations – many of whom appear in Elric: The Balance Lost, Roberson's new comic for Boom! Studios – include bloodstained Reformation-era mercenary Ulrich von Bek and incestuous dimension-hopping libertine Jerry Cornelius. But for Roberson, the similarities between Kal-El and Elric outweigh their differences: "In the most simplistic, reductionist aspects of their characters, both are essentially the last survivors of advanced civilizations who are having to make their way among a community of humans. Both of them are set [apart from] the people around them by abilities that are not immediately apparent on the surface. They have to make their way through a world that is amoral or flat-out immoral, and they live by a personal code that they apply regardless of what the personal cost might be." If DC ever lets Superman #712 see print, Roberson believes that readers will see Sharif in the same light: "The story was about: What would it be like if Superman wasn't the last son of Krypton but was a refugee from somewhere in the Middle East who developed superpowers?"
If you're looking for Roberson's own secret origin, it's hidden in the gears of Clockwork Storybook, a writers' collective that the University of Texas graduate co-founded after moving back to Austin in 1997. "As I always do, the first place I make contact is the comic shop," he says. "I go, and I swiftly start appearing several times a week." At Austin Books & Comics, he met a store clerk named Mark Finn, and "within the first few months, we developed a friendship and started sharing stories with each other, something I was working on, something he was working on, passing them back and forth, trying to critique each other." Finn knew Bill Willingham, already a cult star for his indie superhero comic Elementals, and introduced him to Roberson, then Roberson brought in his old college roommate Matt Sturges. "Originally it was just meeting once a week and reading each other's stories," Roberson recalls, "But in short order, it became a website where we would publish our stories, and then we became a publishing company where we would publish books of our stories."
Flash forward to 2011: Willingham is buried under an avalanche of Eisner Awards for Fables, his subversive take on bedtime tales for Vertigo. Sturges is a DC mainstay and just finished his spin-off series to Willingham's work, Jack of Fables. Finn is now an acknowledged expert on another legend of Texas fantasy fiction, Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and has also lovingly restored Texas' first purpose-built 3-D cinema, the Vernon Plaza Theatre (see "No Strangers to Drama," Screens, June 15, 2007). As for Roberson, aside from becoming one of the hottest commodities in comics, he is a four-time World Fantasy Award nominee. However, the mechanism driving Clockwork Storybook had stopped well before anyone hit that success. Roberson explains, "We hit the 30-minute mark of our VH1 Behind the Music special, and I didn't talk to anybody for about five years, nor they with me."
Clockwork Storybook may have burnt down, but something was already stirring in the ashes. Roberson's wife, Baker, knew accountancy, and Roberson had overseen every part of Clockwork's production process from layout to distribution, so, he says, "We were just like, 'Hey, we know what we're doing; let's just start a publishing company.'" Within six months, they had MonkeyBrain Books up and running. Over the last half decade, the couple has published books by award-winning fantasy and science-fiction authors like Philip José Farmer and Kim Newman, with introductions penned by such literary leviathans as Batman scribe Denny O'Neil and Joe Lansdale, the king of West Texas gothic. "I started a publishing company just so I could get the phone numbers of everyone that I'd ever admired," Roberson jokes. Out of all those big names in his phone book, Watchmen creator Alan Moore most rattles his nerves. "It's not him as a person, because he's a charming dude," Roberson says. "It's that Alan doesn't have an answering machine, so if he's home, he answers the phone." Roberson's nightmare is to interrupt Moore in the same way the Man From Porlock did Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he was writing his epic poem "Kubla Khan." "It's a dream fragment of an opium hallucination – he gets 50 lines in, and then a dude knocks on the door and he loses the rest of it, and that's all we'll ever get. I know the next time I call Alan, I'm going to be that guy."
Yet the success of MonkeyBrain was not the final chapter in the Clockwork saga. Finally, Roberson, Willingham, Finn, and Sturges patched up their differences and entered that VH1 special's final quarter hour of triumphant reunion. Roberson says, "When we reconnected, we had all advanced just enough that we could get back to where we were, which was just sharing advice and criticizing but also using each other as a mutual aid society, helping each other get jobs." In 2006, when Finn completed his Howard biography, Blood & Thunder, Roberson was his publisher. That same year, Willingham helped Sturges join the comics big leagues when the pair launched the Eisner-nominated Jack of Fables. He did the same for Roberson in 2009 with Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love. Roberson called Willingham "the reason why I have a job in comics. Bill vouched for me to his editor."
Not that Roberson was home reading Action Comics all day and waiting for his old buddies to ring. After Clockwork, he had built a career in novels, which he put down to "the fact that I could type pretty fast and was too doggedly stupid to give up." But his six-issue Cinderella miniseries, which re-envisioned the fairy-tale character as a Bond-style secret agent, put him where had always dreamed of being: writing comics. "You hear these stories about Steven Spielberg or whoever, and the first time they got an 8-millimeter camera in their hands, that's what they knew they wanted to do. For me as a kid, it was probably the first time I ever saw a proper comic book store."
Those dual inspirations of comics and classic fantasy literature come together in Elric: The Balance Lost. Again, its origin is a classic tale of the power of networking. During a lengthy drinking session at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, Roberson and Boom! Managing Editor Matt Gagnon discovered a shared love of Moorcock's work. To Gagnon's surprise, the legendary British author not only was living in Bastrop but was also friends with Roberson. A few months later, Gagnon asked Roberson whether Moorcock might be interested in penning any new Elric tales. Roberson says, "Moorcock's response to me was, 'I'd be OK with you writing them, Chris.'" Again, if Roberson had never helped wind up the Clockwork Storybook, this never would have happened. As a UT student, he had raided the shelves of the Perry-Castañeda Library for every one of Moorcock's books. When the Clockwork website launched, Roberson wrote what he calls "this really long, rambling review" of Moorcock's Second Ether trilogy. "Within two days, I got an email that said, 'Great review, thanks, M.M.,'" he says. Once Roberson was convinced that it was not Sturges messing with him, the two struck up an email conversation that has become a working relationship and friendship of well over a decade.
Moorcock recalls that it was another MonkeyBrain alum – Rick Klaw, author of Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century – who formally introduced him to the young Roberson. When Geek Confidential came out in 2003, Moorcock provided the intro. Then Roberson convinced him to let MonkeyBrain publish a revised edition of his scholarly history of fantasy fiction, Wizardry & Wild Romance. "Chris is a great publisher and a fine editor. He has a pioneering spirit and represented all that was best and 'cutting edge,'" Moorcock says. An Elric enthusiast could even see Roberson as the modern parallel incarnation of the grand old man of alternative fiction: a publisher and editor, a frenetic writer, an omnivorous and ravenous consumer of literature, and a serious student of the history of fantastical fiction. When it comes to letting the young writer play with his signature creation, Moorcock says, "I'm pretty much the opposite of a control freak, I guess. If, judging from what I've seen of someone's work, I like the writer or artist, then I'll trust their own talent to do a good and interesting riff." As for The Balance Lost, he says, "I had no suggestions for Chris as to what he should do. I just trusted him to do something good and interesting."
So now Roberson is in the enviable but high-stakes position of being a fan entrusted with one more literary gem. However, he has a very practical reason for not disappointing his old friend: "Moorcock lives 45 minutes' drive from my house and has a cane."