Occasionally in comics, you stumble upon a creator-owned project that is so idiosyncratic, so specifically the work of a unified vision, that it catches your attention for its unique qualities, whether or not it’s something that’s in your usual wheelhouse as a reader. Rarely do you get a chance to follow such an unusual phenomenon through several volumes in the way that readers have been able to with RUST, from Canadian creator Royden Lepp, published by Archaia at Boom! Studios.
Trying to describe the series that has been delivered both as single issues and as graphic novels inevitably leaves you feeling like you’ve failed to put your finger on what you’re actually trying to say about its winning qualities. In fact, I feel I failed in that regard in just about every question I asked Mr. Lepp in the interview that appears below on the occasion of the release of the fourth volume of RUST: Soul in the Machine, arriving this Wednesday, February 21st, 2018 in shops, in both hardback and paperback.
RUST is a story set in a small rural community, so small it only includes a few families, in a recovery period following a massive world war that came to be dominated by technological warfare. The remains and encrustations of that war are a lingering, moldering landscape of metal bits and pieces, hence the title RUST. That alone would make for an interesting story, but add to that the arrival of the mysterious Jet Jones, a young boy who hides his robot nature from the farm family who have taken him in. This is a story about the loss of a generation to war, the role of machines and technology, and the way in which people learn to live in aftermath of trauma and find the strength to move on. It’s also a story about giant fighting robots, endless danger, betrayal, and the fine line between comedy and tragedy.
See? This is impossible. Just read the interview below.
Hannah Means-Shannon: It seems like some of the motivation to create RUST arose from a series of aesthetic impulses that you mention in your photography as well as your comic art—like old metal and mechanical items, wheatfields, etc. Is it fair to say that these objects and places gave rise to the story for you?
Royden Lepp: Actually not really. That sounds like a better way to craft a story than how I did it. RUST came from a simple sketch of a kid with a jetpack and several related sketches of robots and action scenes. It was pitched as a video game and later a graphic novel. It wasn’t really until the first book was done that I looked at this world I had created and began to picture it’s relationship to ours. I began to see it for what it was, just another world where a farmer is trying to buy parts for his broken robot instead of his broken combine. It suddenly became real and tangible. The photo essays I did for the endpapers kinda helped that process as well.
HMS: How long did you originally intend the first RUST story to be? Did you conceive of the world of RUST as a whole, or was it surprising to you to find it expanding as you worked on the project?
RL: I had always intended the story to be 4 books roughly 150 pages each. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that but that was the plan from the beginning. And yes it definitely expanded as I wrote. I very purposely didn’t create an vast alternate earth concept where I had to start the series with an “In a world…” exposition. I wanted to start with the close up on a struggling family and work outwards.
HMS: Something really remarkable that you accomplish through the second and third volume of the story is to keep adding complexity to the narrative, while bringing aspects of a bigger world into the same location. In other words, the central importance of the farmstead location never changes. Was that challenging to engineer the story to preserve this?
RL: Very much so. I did start out the series with the challenge in my mind to try to contain the story on the farm. There’s a really strange claustrophobia you can experience being stuck on a huge open piece of land (I grew up on farm). I wanted to see if I could make the farm almost a member of the family, so everything had to come back to the farm, it was like a huge stage production and the actors are trying to spread out across the stage and tell their own part of the story but they never really get to leave.
HMS: A generational, long-lasting war is something that few people alive have come close to experiencing, though history is full of examples of it. What gave you the idea to have a long-running war as part of the world of RUST, rather than a more limited war? Did you intend RUST to be a story about the knock-on effects of war on human beings?
RL: I stumbled into the war narrative. I just asked what would happen if a war just never stopped and it sucked the life out of countries and continents. And then it basically gets put on a kind of autopilot through artificial intelligence. The purpose of the story of the war was to illustrate Roman’s loss and Aicot’s history. But war can be a very political subject to narrate and I wanted to stay focused the humanity of the characters. That was a little tricky at times.
HMS: This may be too specific a question, but in some of your robot fight scenes, you seem to focus in on detail and convey more individual “moments” than I often see during fight scenes in more mainstream comics. Did you just want to draw as much machinery as possible, or did you have a kind of philosophy behind choreographing these epic clashes?
RL: I definitely didn’t want to draw more machinery 🙂 Those were very difficult pages to draw and they took more time than the average page. I just feel that the action sequence should treated like a story in itself. It has a beginning, middle and end, it has plot twists, and climaxes, and resolutions. I find it underwhelming to read books where the action is illustrated in a kind of “some stuff happens – action pose” approach. If the reader is invested in the characters then they care about the action, and if they care about action then the action is part of the story. It’s not just an opportunity for a spread.
HMS: Volume 4: Soul in the Machine is going to reveal some pretty astonishing information about Jet that I won’t spoil here. But of the machines that we meet in the world of RUST, he seems to be the only one with such a degree of consciousness and autonomy. What made you want to work with a central character who is both limited by, and made mysterious by, his robot nature?
RL: That’s a hard question. I wanted to play with a range of robots, from the ones that look like they’re built from an old tractor to the large war machines, to Jet. I’m not really sure I gave a lot of thought to why I designed the character of Jet the way I did. I remember realizing that his character was stoic enough and quiet enough that we needed to observe him through the eyes of others. That’s when the early version shifted from a story about a robot boy to a story about Roman Taylor.
HMS: The forces of time and the forces of change are held in a kind of limbo throughout the four volumes of the story. It feels like Roman’s family and farm are inhabiting the last space and time in which the war is still going on, or hasn’t been allowed to end. Do you think that the fact that they live through their own “story”, their own crises, is part of what helps them move on and breaks them out of that limbo?
RL: I knew that the only way to get Roman to move on, and get him to think about life outside the farm was to…accomplish what happens in the fourth volume (avoiding spoilers). He had to have his world torn down to even consider leaving.
HMS: What kind of effect has creating such an extended story with such specific themes had on you as a creator? Do you feel like a different person now than when you started on RUST?
RL: It’s a little hard to describe. I wonder who else has experiences like this. Readers may buy all four volumes (or 5 TPB) and sit down and read the whole story in an evening, but I’ve been living on the Taylor farm for nearly 10 years, drawing late every night after my day job. The RUST series really started production in 2007. There were a couple hiatuses but I feel like I’ve been an invisible observer on the farm. And truly observing. There were many times when I felt like I was watching the story unfold instead of crafting it. The last year was marked with many ‘last drawings’. The last time I drew the engineer, the last time I drew Jet, the last time I drew Roman. Those were strangely hard nights. I’m a completely different person and I feel like the luckiest artist alive. This journey I got to go on; who gets to do this? Is it like this for all creators? I don’t know.
Big thanks to Royden Lepp for giving such thoughtful answers on this interview and congratulations to him on finishing this long-running series.
RUST Volume 4: Soul in the Machine arrives in shops on February 21st, 2018 from Archaia/Boom! Studios.