Note: First appeared on Quail Bell Magazine June 5th, 2015.
When Iron-Gibbet Studios officially opened in 2007, no one imagined that it would grow to be where it is now. Chelsey Rockwell-Román and Alex Román met online in 1997 and have collaborated on projects and are now married. Chelsey took the role as artistic director, head writer, and illustrator. Alex is a panelist, writer, and illustrator. Kristin Fisher joined the team later on and currently serves as a writer, editor, and community manager. Eight years in operation, Iron-Gibbet has generously given access to their comics and other work as a gift to the community.
What started as an obsession with The Phantom of the Opera gave the studio its name, referring to the torture device used in the Phantom’s torture chamber. It also led to the birth of Requiem Mask. The comic is an extension of the original novel (not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway production) in the modern age. Erik (the name of the phantom not included in the play), the opera ghost, along with the other original characters appear in the comic. This includes the Daroga, the Persian advisor to Erik that does not appear in Webber’s version. It is a vivacious, vividly colorful comic filled with comedy, drama, and suspense over an obsession that may never die. In 2013, Chelsey published a prequel novel to Requiem Mask called Dies Irae that takes place the same time as Leroux’s novel. It provides exclusive information to the plot not included in the online comic. Though Requiem Mask is wrapping up soon, there are many more projects lined up for long-time and new fans to enjoy.
Their most recent comic is The Refuge, an action comic with mystery and uncertainty right from the beginning. The main character “Alex” awakens on a beach with no recollection of who she is and is swiftly enlisted into a militia. The comic keeps readers guessing as Alex attempts to make sense of her situation and piece together her own memories.
Recently, the studio has set up a Patreon to support the comics. Each subscriber receives benefits such as early access to new comic pages when they’re completed, exclusive desktop wallpapers, and art prints. As well as collecting sufficient funds to continue providing free, quality comics, it is a thank you gift to loyal fans.
I was given the privilege to interview the studio, located in Edmonton, Canada, on their work process, inspiration, and future plans for the studio. Their responses are heartfelt and humble:
Back in 2007 when Iron-Gibbet was officially formed, what were the expectations of the outcome of the projects?
I don’t think any of us planned on making Iron-Gibbet our number one career goal, actually. We have such high expectations for it now, and will work ourselves ragged to accomplish our dreams for the studio, but back then… I think we were just trying on a name for our collaboration, and when we realized it was working and gaining attention we ended up assuming the identity entirely. In regards to Requiem Mask, we definitely didn’t have plans for it to go on as long as it has, but when you imagine a story and write a script – and then release it on a weekly basis – you sort of underestimate just how long it takes to tell a short story.
Are there any plans for a hardcopy of any of your comics?
Of course! It was always the plan to get hardcopy versions of all of our comics, but it hasn’t worked out so far because printing costs would have had to come from our own pockets. For a short while, Chelsey worked at a printing and publishing firm, and even with an employee discount, the cost was too great for us to even fathom a free comic. We considered doing them on a print-to-order basis, but we couldn’t seem to find an appropriate 3rd party printer to supply us with the quality we wanted. Now with the help of our Patreon subscribers, we have some more room to really invest in a good printing establishment.
Requiem Mask was obviously inspired by Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. What works, if any, inspired The Refuge and upcoming projects?
While I can’t say anything for our upcoming projects, The Refuge, believe it or not, was inspired by Pokémon. It’s rather groan-worthy, but we can’t deny it because we wouldn’t have been where we are now without it. Alex was actually a fan of Chelsey’s Team Rocket fan artwork, and that’s how they met, fell in love and started collaborating. It’s kind of embarrassing after all these years to say that [Chelsey and Alex] are now happily married because of Pokémon. But at the same time, it’s sort of awesome. We’ve been incorporating little homages in-comic to honor that fact, and it’s sort of fun to think back on. I mean, Ash Ketchum is supposed to be only 3 years younger than us… We got older, he hasn’t aged a day. How unfair is that? That’s also the plus side to writing fan fiction… you never know the potential a story has to turn into its own original creation. So if we have any advice for the prospective comic artists out there, it’s to just go with it! Write whatever it is that has inspired you. You’ll never know what can become of it if you don’t do it!
Besides time constraints, what other challenges do you face regarding your creative work?
All the same sort of problems that I assume all artists face with their work: perfectionism, stagnation, criticism, and exhaustion. Despite what many people think, there are currently only three of us doing the work. From web-design and maintenance right down to community interaction, we try to keep the face of a big production company, which needless to say can be overwhelming. We know there are lots of other comics out there run by fewer people, but since the very beginning, we’ve kind of been flying by the seat of our pants!
What keeps you motivated to keep updating the comics and creating new work even with the various barriers?
Every few weeks or so, we have to have a sit down chat and remind ourselves that we are doing it for ourselves, not for anyone else. It sounds selfish, but the more demand that’s put on us by our fans, the more it feels like a job that we weren’t being paid to do. Not that we don’t appreciate the love from our fans, but up until recently we were doing everything for free in our spare time. So after a while it started to weigh down on us. It is a labor of love. We’re doing it for ourselves. We can’t forget that, otherwise we fall out of love with our own stories and the drive disappears. We’re story tellers first, and it’s the thrill of telling our stories that keeps us going.
Who has had the biggest influence on your comic career, and how has that person changed your work?
Both of our illustrators studied animation in college, so many of our influences are based on cartoons and animated movies such as Disney and Dreamworks animation. You can kind of see that in our style. It’s coincidental that we ended up having a similar style of illustration to The Road to El Dorado for example. But we’ve adopted little pieces here and there that we think add to each comic separately. Squared fingers in Requiem Mask actually come from Mike Mignola’s style in Hellboy.
Favorite comics, shows, and books growing up?
Chelsey: I lived on cartoons and comics. I collected Spider-Man, Archie comics, and later mangas such as Mermaid’s Forest and Ghostsweeper Mikami. But I mostly grew up on TV cartoons such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Mighty Hercules and Inspector Gadget. I read all the time, but it got to the point where I had read so much that most of the stories blended together. *Chuckles* My favorite book was about some house pets, and in particular, a cat that thought his name was Mucus. I’m still trying to find it again.
Alex: I didn’t really have any favorite comics – wasn’t big on comics, actually. I did read the Disney Adventures ones, because all my favorite shows were in the Disney lineups. Such as Gargoyles and Darkwing Duck. I wasn’t much of a reader growing up, either. I’m more in to reading now than I was as a kid.
Kristin: I was never really a comic person growing up, but now I like to read some of DC’s Batman series, especially ones with the Joker. I grew up watching shows like Hey Arnold, Rocko’s Modern Life, Angry Beavers, etc. – basically whatever was popular in the ‘90s and early 2000s. I was a big reader though, and still am. When I was younger, I would have said my favorite books series was Harry Potter, but now it’s the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. Good stuff.
Describe your typical Iron-Gibbet work routine.
This has changed progressively over the years, but our current setup begins with brainstorming sessions with our entire group. We make sure we’ve got any non-comic related issues out of the way, and then discuss what needs to happen. We always have the ending of the comic in mind while we debate middle content, and we all pitch ideas on what would be most interesting or fun in getting there. Once we’ve hashed out an idea, we start drafting out scripts. We usually have all the writers in on this as we go, so that if someone has an idea, they can add it in on the spot. We are not believers in the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth”, because we try to utilize our ability to collaborate on every level. If something isn’t working, we discuss why. It ends up coming down to a democratic style vote most of the time. When the scripts are finally cemented, Alex and Chelsey plot out the page layouts, and when everything is agreed upon, the art gets penciled in, digitally inked and colored, and then worded. All in all, each page after scripting is finalized, and takes a minimum of a full day’s work to complete.
When you’re out of ideas, what do you do to get those creative vibes back?
Your tools of choice for drawing?
We try to stick to pencil and paper for the most part, but we’ve had a few moral crises in regards to environmental waste. We switch back and forth from digitally sketching and completing to starting with pencil and paper and then finishing digitally. We imagine that one day we may offer up original sketch pages for fans. When we’re doing our digital work, we use SAI Painter for the bulk of the illustration and Adobe Photoshop for touch-ups and layouts.
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
When people notice the subtleties put into the acting of the characters. For instance, one person commented on Kash raising his knee up to gently support Alex’s broken arm in The Refuge. These are little things that may not mean much in the long run, but as writers and artists, they are very important little details that clue the readers in to our characters’ personality. Collectively though, I think we can all agree that the most satisfying thing is the reaction of readers after a long setup; whether it’s a happy moment or a devastating blow. We know we’re doing something right when people react to it.
At what age did you realize that you wanted to draw comics/write scripts?
Chelsey: That would be … *looks at her non-existent watch* about last week for me. I only just realized that whether I’m good at it or not (that’s always a matter for individual taste), I am a writer. I like writing. I like telling stories. I just didn’t realize it until recently that that is what I’m meant to do.
Alex: It’s funny that we both joke about this, because it seems like neither of us knew that this would be what we were going to be doing. My first thought on it was, “Oh, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do comics!” But then my Mom says that she had to shove a crayon in my hand and force me to draw, because I had no desire to.
Kristin: I can’t draw to save my life, but I’ve always been the one to create elaborate stories in my head, and until about 2-3 years ago, I never put anything I thought about onto paper. I’m just extremely grateful I was given the chance by joining Iron-Gibbet Studios.
What improvements have you seen in your own work (artistic, writing, professional, etc.) over the years?
Chelsey: One of the original The Refuge stories has Alex squealing like a teenage monkey about 95% of the time… I think since we started, the stories have at least gained a defined direction, where as they were rather aimless before. When it comes to artwork, we’re always improving. Slowly, but improving. I think that’s one of my favorite parts about doing this for so long… we get to look back at our earlier works and laugh at how bad it looks by today’s standards.
Alex: Artistically, I want to say I’ve improved on all aspects. Not substantially, but we’re our own worst critics. Because working on a comic forces you to learn how to draw things you otherwise wouldn’t… I still remember a time when I had problems drawing shoes on people.
Chelsey: You still have problems with that.
Alex: It’s better than it was.
Where do you see the studio in the next five years?
Chelsey: Hopefully in a pretty building with big windows that overlook a beach on a tropical island… That’s the best part of having a product that’s mostly online. We don’t have to be anywhere specific to complete our work. And I’m tired of being cold. *laughs* I want warm oceans.
Alex: Working on a movie deal. For The Refuge – A good one. Yeah.
Chelsey: I still want to see the cartoon first… I would love to see the studio that did Attack on Titan take on The Refuge. Then a movie. With lots of special effects. But not cheesy.
Kristin: Maybe in England. Or France. But according to Chelsey, it has to be on a beach. We’ll have to rethink this. *laughs*
Some characters are based off of people you know in both looks and personality. How true to character are they in the comics to their actual selves?
Chelsey: It’s been eight years since we started Requiem Mask, and so they’ve all grown and changed somewhat from who they were then. I don’t think our friendships have changed that much, though. We still get the occasional message from Grant commending us on how we portray him, and I think of all the friends, he’s the most accurately pictured. But that’s just our friends… When it comes to the Chelsey and Alex in the comic, we’re pretty different. We’ve both basically had to mentally separate ourselves from our counterparts because of some of the hate mail that the characters get. *Laughs* Chelsey in Requiem Mask is much more ditzy than I am, and probably better represents myself when I was closer to 15… The character of Alex, while loosely based off of Alex in real life, pretty much only shares careers with him. Alex in real life is actually a lot of fun to be around and jokes… and doesn’t resemble Erik much at all…Especially in height. *chuckles*
Alex: I’m short. *pouts*
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career – in or out of comics – and why?
As much as we complain about it, I think Iron-Gibbet Studios is our most rewarding project. It’s a lot of work, but we like what we do when it gets right down to it. It reflects us and all the passion we have in our creative specialties, and at the end of the day it’s what makes us happy.
There’s a couple of projects marked “coming soon” on your website. Any sneak previews of what they’ll be about?
Well, the first one that will be coming out is called Harmonia’s Chain. It’s going to be about elemental gods and magic. We’re still in the research stage for it, since we’ll be borrowing a lot of inspiration from world religions and we don’t want to end up offending anyone by getting something incorrect or generally in bad taste. Our fourth production is currently calledNeko*Neko, though the name may change in the future. It’s an action, adventure based on a doomed love affair between two dying species. And our fifth is called The Gates of Time, which… is pretty self-explanatory. Time-travelling. We have even more in the works, at least 6 more series waiting to be announced… but that’ll just have to wait. We don’t want to do too much at once, lest we lose our heads entirely. And we want to keep people coming back to see what’s new! [Since this interview, an additional comic, The Superfluous Adventures of Indifferent Girl, has been added]