How Cameron Lucente’s Personal Journey Transformed ‘RoomZero’ [Webcomic Q&A]
At least nightmares end. They may destroy your night's sleep, imperil your mental health, and unearth long-buried skeletons, but at least they're fleeting, banished mostly when the sun rises, right? Well, not for Alan. His nightmares follow him around town, through his home, and even to his work place --- much to his employer's annoyance. In Cameron Lucente's RoomZero, Alan learns that burying your demons won't stop them from coming to life.
ComicsAlliance spoke with Lucente about monsters, toxic masculinity, and developing the RoomZero world through DeviantArt roleplay chats!
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for RoomZero? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Cameron Lucente: God, to be 100% honest, it all came about through RP chats on a DeviantArt group back in 2011. And even then, it was mostly just me writing by myself in the chats because I was bored. I started giving Alan "acid trips" where weird stuff just… happened.
The whole thing gained notoriety in the group, I think, because you’d see these smaller two-person RPs and then, wham, I’d post five paragraphs and jar the whole chat. It was great. As I kept writing, I fleshed out an entire world and slowly began entertaining the idea of a comic about it. I started and stopped about a million times over the years and then, in the summer of 2014, I put it through a massive rewrite; I put in more characters, split the focus from one main protag to two, and made basically everyone queer.
While I was writing and plotting and drawing all of this, the main concept remained "weird nightmares." I’ve always been fascinated with dreams, layered meanings, and all that stuff that goes on during sleep. I also pull a lot from horror movies --- Pan’s Labyrinth, Poltergeist, The Cabin in the Woods, etc. I’d be remiss to say that Inception didn’t make a big impact on me as well. I kinda took all these movies and concepts and just shuffled through them, looking for sharp visuals and iconographic elements that I then tugged and warped in ways that interest me.
I also have always pulled inspiration from abandoned homes and towns. It’s always a thrill to explore a place left to the elements and try to put its history back together, to look at what was left behind. The setting of RoomZero is going to reflect a lot of that, especially the look and feel of eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania.
CA: What’s it about?
CL: RoomZero is a story about Alan and Eva, and their battles with nightmarish creatures that seem to be coming out of Alan’s dreams and into reality. As they figure out more about the nature of these dreams, secrets start to unravel from every direction. At its core, it is a story about healing and redemption. Redemption, bad choices, and creepy, horrifying monsters.
CA: RoomZero also reminds me a bit of horror genre video games, through the Silent Hill-esque monsters and claustrophobic room design, the animated "glitching," computer motifs, and lighting effects. Have horror video games inspired this story at all?
CL: Video games in general have been a big influence on my life since I was a little kid, for sure. Pokemon, Super Smash Bros., Sonic… I was a Nintendo and Sega kid, through and through. And weirdly enough, I can trace a lot of my visual aesthetics to the glitches in them, like MISSINGNO. That whole idea that you can get to that island with the truck and find a Mew? Hidden characters? That stuff entranced me, and playing bootleg ROMs on an old PC monitor gave me more to play around with.
Weirdly enough, there were plans to make sections of RoomZero into a game as well! Around the time that [the RPG] OFF was at it’s peak, I was also planning on using that same RPG engine to make mini-games of Alan’s nightmare segments. I had drawn out enemies, floorplans, all sorts of stuff, but I just never had the time to really start building the assets. I still may return to this idea in the future, because I do think it’d be a cool way of telling a story while also breaking the traditional webcomic format.
Even more weird, I barely ever touched games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil; I was aware of them, and I read up on them, but I never did play them. I hardly play any recent horror games either. If anything, I have played through the Bioshock series. The entire section with the mannequins stays with me to this day, to say the least. I was deeply affected by the atmosphere and world-building it contained more than the gameplay or the story, honestly, so I can at least attribute my environments to the claustrophobic Rapture.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
CL: It’s definitely for a mature audience, mainly for all the blood, body horror, cursing, alcohol abuse, and other occasional intense subject matter. A variety of relationships will be explored and examined as the comic goes on, including multiple romantic and platonic queer ones. However, since one of the main characters liberally drops the F-bomb within the first few pages (in the style of the opening minutes of Four Weddings and a Funeral), I’d probably put an R rating on it.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
CL: Originally, I was drawing this entire thing based on just Alan’s POV. He was the first and only character I had developed and during my first attempt at drawing it out, I found myself incredibly bored. It was boring. It was a straight white dude dealing with weird dreams, and that was it.
I knew in my gut this had already been done before, so I dropped it for a while. Between that attempt and my current publishing of the story, I grew a lot. I surrounded myself with people and stories and ideas that often I found myself at odds with, that made me really think about what I needed to be doing with my voice. I did a lot of thinking, self reflection, and came away from it a whole lot better as a creative person and as a person in general.
Coming to terms with my bisexuality and mental illness was sorely needed. It pushed me to let the story become very self indulgent, I think. I stopped trying to mimic other plot lines and themes and just threw everything that I unabashedly loved at the board. I wanted to see things that I dealt with, that I needed to have seen when I was confused and hurting. It’s been very rewarding, and I enjoy making this comic a lot more than I used to!
CA: Alan, so far, is an impenetrable, guarded character. He doesn't speak much and, when he does, he's not the most charming in terms of message (as when he first meets Eva) or means (his impressively curse-laden vocabulary). Will RoomZero's mystery and characters peel back layers to Alan that he might've otherwise been reluctant to reveal?
CL: We’re going to find out a lot about Alan over the course of this comic: his connection to Izolda, Eva, and others, his past, his reasons for relying on alcohol, and a lot about him that he himself doesn’t know about either. While I am very proud of the entire cast, I’m particularly excited for Alan’s character arc. I’ve always been very observant of the destructive idea that men are only allowed certain emotions, that a lot of men just bottle things up and never confront a lot of the more uncomfortable ones.
I’ve written Alan to be a character that starts off that way, but cracks and breaks, and soon we’re seeing a whole spectrum of emotions and relationships that aren’t as widely depicted in media and in real life, unfortunately.
I want him to be a character people can point to and say, “Look. He’s sobbing, he’s terrified, he’s grown as a person, he’s being emotionally bare with people and it’s good.” I’m utterly sick of seeing the Male Macho Stoic Power Fantasy everywhere, so, I’m taking it and breaking it down into tiny little pieces (and throwing in queer romance for good measure). Hopefully, readers will go from scoffing at his terribleness to rooting for him as he grows into a better person, and those that may have been ok with his earlier behaviors will walk away with a lesson learned as well.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
CL: Back in high school I was going to either be a fine artist or a musical theatre star on Broadway. However, I ran across Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name by Tessa Stone and... I never got over it. I later ran across Emily Carroll’s comic work, and never got over that, either. I saw these beautiful, charming, terrifying stories and characters, and the idea of becoming a comic artist just would not leave me alone. I always considered RoomZero a pet project with no real legs, but the more I read and consumed comics, the more I realized that was what I needed to be doing.
As for my current platform, I’m primarily focused on Tapas! I started posting the comic originally on Tumblr, but found that I wasn’t reaching a lot of people like I had hoped. The minute I began posting on Tapas, my audience skyrocketed within a year. I owe a lot to them for providing such an incredible service, and while I will mainly stick to digital publishing, I can’t wait to start really putting my work into print.
CA: What’s your process like?
CL: My process is messy and not to be looked up to at all, but for the most part it kind of follows a normal pipeline: think of a scene, thumbnails, larger sketches, scan the sketch in, ink and color digitally in Clip Studio Paint, and then compile any animated elements in Photoshop.
However, this comic is my first longform project ever. The plot arcs, interactions, scene placements, even major events get written and re-written to this day because I’m so dang fickle. I do try and stick to the final product as it’s posted, though, but up until I officially post it things can and often do change! I sometimes thumbnail out an entire scene and halfway through inking pages realize I need a whole extra page… it’s messy, but it’s my mess.
CA: On a panel-by-panel basis, the story swings between realistic depictions of its settings to ones that are more nightmarish or surreal (using halftone dots, colored filters, etc). How do you approach each page or panel in trying to determine what style to take?
CL: A lot of my background choices are rooted in one major choice --- how can I quickly finish this page? If I had more time, more financial freedom, a dedicated colorist I could rely on, I think a lot of the same elements would remain, but the detail and use of them would change.
A lot of my scenery is a complicated mess of wires and pipes and technology and, for god’s sake, a car shop. I’m going to be a car expert by the time I’m done with this comic.
Plus, a lot of RoomZero will take place in a weird dreamland that is constantly changing and warping. Because of all of this, I need a way to effectively render these places while not spending a week on each page. I think as time goes on and as I get better, that’s where a lot of my attention will be focused on, because a major player in this entire thing is the setting. I want people to really fall into this weird place and be able to walk around in it in their heads.
CA: The animated elements add an unnerving, disarming effect to the story. Could you talk about when and how you use them? And, since you mention putting your work in print, have you figured out how you'll incorporate them in that transition?
CL: The animated panels and pages are some of my favorite things to do! I reserve them, for the most part, for when things start going weird in comic. I want them to be simple but disquieting, in a similar way to the Bongcheon-Dong Ghost webtoon. I remember that scaring the living hell out of me when I first read it, and while I don’t have the ability to program webpages like it did, I want to evoke that kind of shock and unsettling visual quality. A majority of them will fall in the weird dreamland for now, but as more things start to “leak” out of Alan’s head, it’s gonna get a lot more fun.
Moving RoomZero into a printable format is on the whole pretty easy. I choose a visually impressive frame for most of the animated panels and just use that page frame nine times out of ten. However, on the few pages that rely on the animation to convey movements or dramatic changes, I often create spreads or entire new pages for the frames to be laid out on (for example, the scene in chapter one where the buildings sink into the ground). Each one gives me a different challenge, and so far it’s been fun to solve.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
CL: I think in terms of how long it is and how much I want to tackle within this story framework, definitely. I could easily parse the entire plot down, chop out a few characters, and make it into a single 150 page graphic novel or a limited series. But I don’t want to do that! It’s too fun working on this on my own terms and especially at my own pace. School is already grueling enough, I can’t imagine having a giant deadline for 100+ pages on top of everything I do already. When I graduate, then I can consider that kind of work schedule.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
CL: Oh lord, this…is hard. I already mentioned Emily Carroll, but like, Emily Carroll! All of her online work is just superb. It’s distressing, horrifying, and chock full of charm; her use of space and the web format is also just absolutely phenomenal. I also mentioned Tessa Stone, so I can’t not recommend their new webcomic Not Drunk Enough. It’s monsters and blood and spookiness dipped in the most saturated color scheme. Tessa is also a powerhouse, so if you’ve somehow never heard of her, go read. Immediately.
Another few I think fall in the same vein are Glamour by PocketFloral, The Sisters by Peter Violini and Brian Richmond, Brainchild by Suzanne Geary, and Is This What You Wanted by Ananth Hirsch, Tessa Stone and Sarah Stone.
I’ve also got a big ol’ list of comics that I just adore that you can check out here, I guess!
If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”