Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interview: Red 5's Scott Chitwood on Drone, FCBD and the funniest Atomic Robo story ever

If you made it to this year’s Staple! expo, you might have run into Scott Chitwood manning the Red 5 table. And at first it might have been a surprise to find the co-founder of the successful small publisher pulling booth duty, but not once you got a taste of his enthusiasm for the group’s upcoming projects.

This Saturday (May 2), Red 5 will be participating in Free Comic Book Day with a jam-packed one-shot featuring the ever-popular Atomic Robo (if you aren’t reading it, you should be), which includes back-up stories debuting two new titles, We Kill Monsters and Drone. Drone is written by Chitwood and is scheduled to be out sometime in late summer ’09.

The writer shared some thoughts on Drone, an action-adventure story focusing on satellite-controlled robots, hapless hackers and a daring rescue:

Great Caesar’s Post: Who are the creators of Drone? What other work have they done?

Scott Chitwood: Drone is written by me. I'm the co-owner of Red 5 Comics and I co-wrote Afterburn with Paul Ens. The art on Drone is done by Randy Kintz. He has previously worked on Ray Harryhausen Presents: Jason and the Argonauts from Bluewater Productions. The colors are done by Garry Henderson, who does a lot of work for Zenescope including Grimm Fairy Tales, Return to Wonderland, and other titles. The concept art and designs for most of the robots was done by Jesse McGibney. He's still in art school, but based on his work I think you can expect to see a lot from him in the future.

GCP: What's the general idea behind Drone?

SC: The story was basically inspired by the reports of drone airplanes being used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was intrigued by the idea of people conducting war via remote control from the other side of the planet.

The basic story is that it's the near future and the U.S. military has started to secretly use robotic drones in combat in a war in Kazakhstan. The drones are searching for a rebel leader while the operator controls it from a bunker in the U.S. A hacker and his friends stumble across the satellite transmission and start watching the feeds for entertainment. It's kind of a reality TV show for them.

But when rebels capture the robots, lock out the U.S. military and their controls, and start killing the human technicians accompanying the drones, our hackers quickly realize they are the only ones that can save them. Against their better judgment, our heroes take control of a drone and clumsily save a lone female technician. Thus begins a race across war torn Kazakhstan to get her to safety. They must run from pursuing rebels, evade hijacked enemy-controlled robots, and maintain the satellite uplink as the drone becomes more and more battered. It's a little bit War Games, a little bit The Last Starfighter, a little bit Terminator, and a lot of action adventure.

GCP: From the description you gave me at Staple!, it sounds as if it's going to have plenty of near-future, run-through-the jungle robot action; how do you humanize a story centered on remote-controlled soldiers?

SC: The real human story takes place between our technician, Cat Dixon, and the hacker on the other side of the satellite uplink, David Weaver. As the story progresses, he becomes more and more emotionally invested in saving Cat. David is desperate to get her to safety the more he gets to know her. The video from the other side of the planet goes from being reality TV entertainment to something very real to him.

Cat is also very independent, yet she must rely on the stranger on the other end of the line to save her. She must also maintain the battered drone which is her only hope for safety. So there's a lot going on here and we play up this tenuous technological lifeline between life and death. And this robot is also kind of an avatar for David and almost acts as super powers for him. It allows him to do more than he ever could simply sitting on a couch playing video games.

Another important key was to not just have our heroes sitting in front of a computer for half the story. That's not very interesting. We do manage to shake things up on the U.S. side and put David in a life or death situation, too, as he simultaneously tries to save Cat.

GCP: Along those lines, is that part of the reason for the "faces" painted on the robots, as well as being a call-out to the paintings on World War II bombers and phrases written on helmets?

SC: Well, mainly the decorations looked cool. But from a storytelling standpoint, it allowed us to differentiate one drone from another. If they are all identical it makes it kind of hard to tell which character is doing what. But as one drone is singled out to save Cat, that becomes a non-issue up until the big finale where we have a rock 'em, sock 'em battle between drones.

GCP: You had also mentioned the creators were careful when designing the drones; what was the process like, and what were you trying to avoid?

SC: We had to be real careful to create a unique robot look. Turns out it's a lot harder than it sounds. You try one thing and it looks like a Terminator. You try something else and it looks like a Transformer. You try another thing and it looks like it's from Star Wars.

What we ended up doing is looking at the story requirements first. That dictated that it must be human-sized, multipurpose, carry grenades, flares, etc. After that, Jesse created several radically different robot designs and I picked and chose parts off of each of them (the head off of one, the legs off of another, etc.). Next thing we knew we had a robot that looked kind of like the Honda robot or a Terminator mated with an iPod. That then drove us towards creating all the robots with a more reality based approach. For example, the Gun Hound you see in issue #2 is essentially one of the Big Dog robots with a gun strapped to its back. It's incredibly creepy and works perfectly in the story.

GCP: (The art) you showed me at Staple! looked lush and moody; does that parallel the tone of the story?

SC: The scenes in Kazakhstan are definitely dark. We wanted it to look like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. But we flash back and forth a lot between the U.S. and Kazakhstan. To keep from confusing the reader, we made an effort to make both environments look radically different. Houston, Texas, is bright and colorful. The scenes in Kazakhstan are dark, foreboding, and the complete opposite of Houston. The production art by Jesse really set the color palette of the story and Garry has taken that lead and run with it well.

GCP: Along with Drone, what else will Red 5 be featuring on Free Comic Book Day?

SC: The FCBD issue will have an Atomic Robo short story featuring a new character called Dr. Dinosaur. As a reader, I think that this is the funniest Robo story to date. I've been quoting lines from it and people have no idea what I'm taking about ("Bah! Your mass is useless against my genius!!").

We also debut the first 10 pages of Drone. Then the issue is rounded out by a new series called We Kill Monsters. It's by the writers of the Sci-Fi Channel series The Lost Room (Christopher Leone and Laura Harkom). It also happens to be colored by Eisner-nominated Ronda Pattison and Robo letterer Jeff Powell.

Atomic Robo — Free Comic Book Day 2009, with sneak peeks for Drone and We Kill Monsters, will be available at finer comic book shops Saturday, May 2 (check here to find a shop near you). Be sure to put this title on your list.


Lisa said...

I'm definitely going to read some more Atomic Robo after reading that FCBD story.

Maxo said...

Atomic Robo is one of my favorite titles - it's just great, fun stuff. A new storyline started this week, so you should jump in with that. And I can lend you the earlier issues next time I see you if you'd like (you'd better!)

Lisa said...

I would like - so there!