Talk Over Balloons: Rotten Roots

Six summers ago, when I was in between high school and college, I worked on a congressional campaign for a candidate who couldn't quite get over. It's too bad-- he would have been a good congressman. Just because he didn't get elected, though, doesn't mean the experience wasn't worthwhile--among other things, I met Paul Axel, then a University of Wisconsin student, now a comic book creator on the verge of completing a successful Kickstarter for his first series, Rotten Roots, which he wrote and features Renée Majkut on art. He and I spoke, for the first time in several years, about the comic; you can read the interview below. Rotten Roots is in its final days-- but there's still time to help Paul and Renée out. 

JK: Can you give a little bit of a synopsis of Rotten Roots, and a little bit of a history about how the project came together?

PA: Rotten Roots is, as I've described it, a neo-noir crime drama, mixed with historical fiction. It starts with the murder of Harold Wood, the wealthy and well-respected patriarch of one of the oldest families in Osprey City, a fictional place located on Cape Cod. As Detective Mark Robles investigates the case, he uncovers the family history of the Woods, and a 400-year-old legacy of schemes, betrayal, and murder.

When I finished a rough draft of the script for issue 1, I sent it on to my friend, Brian McKenzie, who does a lot of editing for superhero and comic-type stories - just to get his opinion on the work, and get a few pointers. Since he liked it so much, I decided to show it to the owner of my local comic book shop, Bob Howard at Comicazi. Bob's a co-writer on a self-published comic, and I figured that, if I ever turned Rotten Roots into something real, it couldn't hurt to have a shop owner in my corner. Bob also loved the script, and offered to help publish under his nascent independent press, Bad Kids Press. Through a little monthly event he holds at the shop called "Drink 'n' Draw," Bob got me in touch with Renee - and her art blew me away. You can see it for yourself. It's a style you don't see too often these days in comics. It sort of reminded me of the Miller/Janson work on The Dark Knight Returns. I signed her to a contract to produce five completed pages of the first issue, and she's been with the project ever since. She does the pencils and inks, her husband Tom does the formatting (and is perhaps the best pitchman we've ever had - the video on the Kickstarter is all his doing). I wrote, and I do the lettering. Add in Brian as editor, and that's pretty much the Rotten Roots team right there.

I’m always a little curious about how people came to comics—what got you started? What are you reading now?

I think my dad gave me my first comics before I was ten. There was a little used-book store in Sheboygan, WI (where my grandparents lived). He would buy them there for me - lots of Batman and the Outsiders (the original '83-'86 run). I stopped reading for a while, picked it up in high school, dropped it for a couple years in college, picked it up near the end of college, and I haven't stopped since. On my pull list currently is Captain AmericaBatman,Batman: EternalFuture's EndNovaThe Fade OutFablesLegenderry, and a few random issues here and there if the story intrigues me, like the new Batgirl run.

Branching off of that, how did you decide you wanted to make a comic? Is Rotten Roots your first attempt?

I always joke that Rotten Roots came about in the midst of a bout of extended unemployment. I figured, I had always read comics (even if it was on-and-off at times), and I love the medium. After I read Scott Snyder's "Court of Owls" arc in Batman, I decided to try my hand at writing a comic - I won't deny that Snyder's over-arching themes influenced my own story. But I feel like I've gone in a different, more realistic direction; I would have been disappointed in myself if I had turned out too similar to Snyder's work.

Rotten Roots is my first attempt at writing a comic (apart from that mini-comic that I wrote and drew in third grade and sold for a quarter a copy), and my first serious attempt at creative writing. I've written for academia and for op-eds, but I've never told a story like this before. It's a lot of fun, which I think is the most important part!

Can you talk a little bit about your influences for the project? Specifically, what do you mean when you say it’s a neo-noir?

"Noir" and "neo-noir" are a couple of terms that a lot of people feel have been thrown around so much that they've lost all meaning. I'd like to think that I do adopt a lot of the characteristics of the noir style - the use of flashbacks to disrupt the main narrative, in particular. Every issue jumps back and forth between the present and a historical period in American history. Consequently, there's a lot of "voiceover" narration from dead people - also a hallmark of the noir style. The fact that Rotten Roots, at its core, is a detective story, a type of story that's key to the very idea of noir.

As far as influences go, apart from noir, I'm inspired by the works of James Michener (multi-generational historical fiction), and the writing styles of Scott Snyder and Ed Brubaker. There's probably a bit of Law and Order in there as well, I won't lie.

I know that you’ve finished the scripting for the series—are you and Renee working together to revise it, or is your part more or less finished? How was the process been different or similar than what you expected?

My part is more or less finished, though sometimes I will go back to a script to make a small change if a new historical fact I've learned warrants it (for example, I got a clarification on colonial-era tar-and-feathering from a graduate school colleague of mine). I'll share with Renee my thoughts on how characters or places should look - I really wanted to use Clancy Brown as an inspiration for one of my characters in Issue 2 (you hear that, Mr. Brown? If you're reading this, drop me a line!). I'm sitting on more stories, but I probably won't start really settling down to write them until this project is completed. For now, I'm occupying myself with the Kickstarter campaign, and then more of the business end of Rotten Roots.

The process - getting from script to Kickstarter - took much longer than I anticipated, and that's a good thing. If I originally went at the schedule I wanted, it would have been a much more half-assed product, and I don't think the Kickstarter would have been as successful as it was. So, it's a good thing that people - especially Bob - told me to slow down and wait.

How have you found the process of using Kickstarter? Do you think you’ll use it again?
Kickstarter is ridiculously easy. It shouldn't be this easy, but it is. I'm probably feeling that way because of my awesome team and how well we've done, but if you take the time to put together a well-crafted pitch, explain everything clearly, include some pretty pictures, and just spread word as much as you can, you can reach your goal. I've got to say, you have to really do your research before you present your project - above everything else, have a budget written out, shop around for prices, but be able to tell everyone how much you're spending on what.

If Volume 1 of Rotten Roots sells well, and people like it, I probably will Kickstart the second half. This volume is only half the story, and I'm hoping people want to see how it ends, because I really want to show everyone how it ends!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Other than "visit the Kickstarter," yes. If you want to write a comic, sit down and write a comic. Of course, have an idea first, but write the comic. People will help you fine-tune your story, and maybe help you find an artist, but none of that happens unless you actually write the comic. It has never been easier to write and publish a comic, so do it. We're living in a golden age - take advantage!

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