Let The Characters Do The Talking: Terry Moore On ‘Rachel Rising’ And ‘Strangers In Paradise’ [Interview]
Terry Moore writes almost exclusively about women. He self-publishes his work through Abstract Studios, his independent Houston-based imprint, and he's been doing the kind of stuff that's currently inspiring strurm-und-drang in the comics world ever since the Internet first tied up our phone lines.
Today he works on Rachel Rising, a horror story where a pretty young murdered woman wakes up in a shallow grave and decides to take back her life — or, at least, her afterlife — from the otherworldly forces that wrenched it from her. With work ranging from science fiction (Echo) to epic love story (Strangers in Paradise), and even some superhero experience (Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane), Moore cuts a distinctive creative figure in the industry. ComicsAlliance spoke to him at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss female comedians, stories about underdogs, and the future of self-publishing.
ComicsAlliance: Where did you get the idea for Rachel Rising?
Terry Moore: In all my books it's about the underdog coming back against the predator. The ultimate thing is how we start Rachel Rising, which is a woman waking up in a shallow grave in the woods, climbing her way out and hitching a ride back to town and trying to put together what happened to her. That's the premise of the story.
CA: A lot of your work is essentially self-published under Abstract Studios. You are the only person I could think of that has accomplished what you've accomplished with your studio, but I know it's not easy, and you've had issues keeping Rachel Rising going. How has that been and where are you now?
TM: Part of it is good, really, really good. I can navigate easily, because it's just me and my wife and a few people who help support us in the corporate system. But, I'm very agile in terms of, "OK, the industry turns on a dime" ... I can modify what our plans are and how I publish, so that's good. I don't have to talk other people into every idea. I like that about self-publishing.
The bad thing is that I don't have any advertising, it's hard for me to get a big footprint of awareness to new readers; the retailers are focusing on the big money-making books from the big guys, so sometimes it's a little hard to be a small book that's shouting for attention. That's the trick of publishing, trying to capture the world's attention. It's a very busy world out there.
CA: I've had a lot of interesting discussions this weekend with creators who do webcomics, who use crowd funding, who've self-published, and I feel like we're at an interesting point in the industry when self-publishing doesn't carry as much stigma and seems a more viable option. As somebody who really blazed a trail here, how do you feel about these changes?
TM: I love that the creative, independent voice can jump onto the world stage without having to find a sugar daddy. That's the most insulting way I can put it. (laughs) I love that creative people don't have to go through filters to get their voices heard now. Yeah, you can get your own URL and put your stuff out, that doesn't mean that the world is going to find you.
If anything, the role of the big publisher has changed from, "Hey, we can print a book," to, "Well, the only thing you really need us for is our ability to promote." You can put yourself on the net, but if anybody will see it, it's a trick. But determined people find ways to become YouTube darlings or online comic darlings. We do have our heroes out there, and the cream rises to the top. It's like everything else, it's competitive but, it's so gratifying to be able to put your work out. Just to know that at least it's out there and people can see it, it's very good. I'm a huge fan of independent marketing, and the thing is, that's the good side.
The bad side is that the internet has become like a New York subway system. You're the musician that people walk by and nobody pays attention to sometimes. You're talking to a moving crowd, the world is always trying to turn away, so sometimes people get desperate -- the media hounds and people like that -- [and] you have to be mature enough to handle that. Being ignored and not selling out and not getting desperate and sticking there and doing your good stuff... Let the people find you. Be patient.
CA: Your stories are about women; falling in love with women, being women in different ways, looking different ways. I think you were a real leader before many others were paying attention to those issues. So many people that I've talked to this weekend have said things like, "Well, I didn't think anyone wanted to read a comic about a lesbian black woman going on space adventures, so I decided to make a webcomic and people cared." Where do you think the comics industry is going in terms of that?
TM: I think it runs hand in hand a little bit with social movements. I did Strangers In Paradise as a rebellion against my day and time. It seems to me that the awareness of the emergence of women in their role in American society got off to a hell of a booster start in the 60s and 70s, and then in the 80s -- which I lived through -- everybody got derailed by a decade of hedonism and everybody started making a lot of money in the stock market and stuff like that, and they just forgot about some of the social movements that went on. By the time I started making SIP in the nineties, those great ideas and movements had stalled out a little bit and people were getting frustrated.
All the women stand-up comics in 1993 were mad, all of them. I used their anger to create Katchoo, the frustration -- having to wake up every day and it's hard. Having lived through a few decades before I started my book helped a lot, because I could get a point of reference -- how good it could have been, where it fell off, why did it go off track -- so I started writing about how things got off track and the survivors of that. I was looking at the social movement, and it's all very American and all that. I tried to write it generically enough so that somebody else could read it, but it really was a reflection of its time.
Of course, today America is different. Now I have my characters Rachel and Zoe dealing with a very violent society, and trying to keep from becoming victims in their own way. Of course, Rachel lost and did become a victim, but my God, she's back, so now what? It's still me doing it, but I'm bouncing off of my society that I'm in.
CA: I remember hearing plans for a Strangers In Paradise novel. Where's that going? What are your thoughts? Any sneak peeks of what it's going to be about?
TM: I wanted to revisit the story and write about the ladies as they are today, not go back and do a reprisal of an old band. I want to write a fresh story and I started a novel and had to put it on the back burner. I started neglecting these other big projects that I had to do -- like, I have to show up at San Diego with a new book every year -- so it's on the back burner right now, but I hope to get back to that this winter and keep working on it. I don't want to put a bad one out. I have to be careful.
CA: I was interviewing Mark Buckingham, and Fables is about to end after twelve years, and I asked him what it feels like to be about to end something that's been a huge part of his life and a huge part of his career. For you, you're a few years out from that. How does it feel to look back at this enormous work with some distance?
TM: It's interesting. It still today -- I said it at the time and it still does -- feel like I broke up the best band I was ever in and we did it on purpose. I could have kept going -- I was afraid that if I kept going I would just grind into nothing.
But now, when I look back at it, I'm so pleased, because now I have a different perspective. I can look at pages and sometimes when I first look at them I don't have the connection anymore. When you're in the production period, you look at something, all you see is the flaws, and more work that needs to be done, but when you get away from it, you look at it and you think, "I can't believe I drew that, I can't believe I wrote that", you know? Because, that moment has passed. So, I'm getting more of that -- where I can look at it and think "Well, that was cool."
It's like looking at a video of yourself when you were younger and you could do gymnastics or something -- and now you can't, and you think, "Oh my God!" So, it's like that sometimes -- but, I'm really glad that I kept working in comics because if I had stopped after SIP, and I looked back at it now, and I couldn't do that anymore, I would be so depressed. I'm so glad that I kept drawing and I'm making Rachel and things like that so that I can look at it and it's more like great memories.
CA: I know that you've had a pretty intense fan following over the years. What's it like to have that kind of following, and do you have any particularly interesting stories to share?
TM: You know what, you would think that that would mess your head up, right? That you'd be all messed up in the head about it, but I've actually been able to stay distant from it. The love and the passion is for the characters in their world, not for me. I've always been able to see that. I'm just a bald middle-aged guy, and it's not about me, it's about the book.
So, I've always been very proud that my characters, and my stories have had a fan following, and it's something that goes on to the left of me, to the side of me. I continue to facilitate it. I'm so glad that the ideas come through me and I can put those stories out, and it's all about the books. It's all about the stories, and I would be happy if no-one knew what I look like. I don't need to go out in public at all -- the only reason I do is because if I don't, there's no promotion.
So, I love the fact that there is a fan following for the books, I love that Katchoo and Francine have friends all over the world, and they're very passionate about it. I wish I could bring those characters to the convention booth and let people actually meet them -- but they can't, so...
It must have been that way for Agatha Christie when she was writing all those different characters over her lifetime, and people love Poirot, but they could never meet him, and she's nothing like him, but without her we don't get him. I feel like that; it's very fortunate if you're a creator that finally gets a set of characters that develop a following like that, and once you get it, don't be cocky about it. You're just the writer! Shut up! Let the characters do the talking.
CA: Something that I think is really unique about your work and really rare is how real your women feel. It's very physically and emotionally honest. Just the fact that you draw Francine bending over, and her stomach hangs over her jeans, yet she's always seen as beautiful, is huge. Can you speak to that?
TM: You know, what I've noticed over the years, over my lifetime, was that so few women understood that guys love that too. So I knew that when I was doing that I was hitting all cylinders -- that both sides of the readership would like this person, because they were human.
I wanted to write stories about people you could actually run into in the elevator; the ideas for my first comics that I've kept all along was when I saw people that caught my eye and captured my imagination -- I wondered what their life was like and they were very real people.
I never had those thoughts about beauty queens; I had never met a pin-up girl until I came to a comic book convention. So I was trying to write, basically, on the same level of high school and college romances. The people you see and you get crushes on, and then you learn more about them and learn that they're human, they're good and they're bad. Then you learn to deal with it. Are you mature enough?
I always tried to write on that level, and we can all relate to it. That's going to be people that might look different in their underwear than they do in their clothes. Deal with it! The truth of the matter is that that's actually what people love. That's where people’s hearts really are.
CA: With Rachel Rising, you just finished up the first big arc of the story, which was huge and encompassed Biblical stories, American history, death, life, and points in between. Where is it going from here?
TM: I have no idea. (Laughs) I've got it roughly in my head on where to go and, you know, to me, it's like a road trip. I know I'm going to point B, but stuff happens along the way. Once I point my writing towards that, things happen and develop -- I get nice surprises. I never thought that Zoe would develop into such a personality. I pictured her a little more two-dimensional when I started, and she emerged, so those are happy accidents that happen while you're creating.
A lot of things happen as you're working, so, I point myself in a good direction and then hope for the best.