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JC Lau's blog about geekery, gender and other rants

Team Cassius: The Interview!

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Ann Uland, Emily Willis and Cat Batka are the creative squad behind Cassius, a new comic series that depicts Ancient Rome as a wonderfully diverse place, and with a driving story of political intrigue and loads of strong female characters. We’ve reviewed Issue 1 here, and Issue 2 here. Issue 3 comes out in March 2016.

They took a little time out to have a chat with us at GeekGirlCon about Justin Trudeau, their favorite books, and making their own comic company!

L to R: Ann, Emily, Cat. Photo provided by Emily Willis and Ann Uland

L to R: Ann, Emily, Cat. Photo provided by Emily Willis and Ann Uland

Tell me a little about yourselves and Arbitrary Muse Comics. How did you come up with the idea for making your own publication?

Ann Uland: We first met online because I started drawing things for a story Emily was writing. When we started dating, it was pretty natural for us to start coming up with stories we wanted to tell together and comics is the perfect marriage of writing and art for us.

Emily Willis: Arbitrary Muse evolved as a small comics company to encapsulate what we do when we sell our own self-published work and help to distribute other webcomics in print as well. Cassius is our latest project because Julius Caesar is my favorite Shakespearean play and I wanted to work on something inspired by it.

What sorts of things did you read as kids? Were you always into comics?

EW: I was a voracious reader, man. My claim to fame amongst my relatives was that when I was two, I once was looking for something to read and started reading my grandfather’s car manual because it was laying on the kitchen table. I love all sorts of books, but what got me wanting to write was Garth Nix’s Abhorson series. In fact, I have Clariel on my bookshelf and I keep meaning to read it but I want to go back and read the first three before I do, so I have to wait to read it! But I started reading comics when I was maybe eight or so? My mom loves Garfield so there were always plenty of those books around. Whenever a new one came out, it was immediately added to the household book collection. And then of course, Calvin and Hobbes was popular in our house as well. But I didn’t get into anything more until I met Ann. I read the occasional graphic novel for college classes, but it didn’t really sink in how cool comics were until she showed me.

AU: I read a lot of different things growing up! I was fortunate enough to be homeschooled in a house overflowing with books, so my Mom read to me a tremendous amount and I also went through a huge number of fiction and nonfiction books on my own. I remember being very little and my Dad would read Walt Kelly’s Pogo strips with me while Mom brushed my hair—that might be one of my earliest comic memories. I also remember liking Herge’s Tintin comics when I was a little older, as well as Brian Jacques Redwall novels. I liked comics, but not only comics—I was into all printed media stories as a kid. I went through the manga phase in my teen years and I got into webcomics around that time. I think I got more into independent and mainstream comics from that as a young adult.

Cat Batka: I read everything I could get my hands on, but I always really enjoyed fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. I remember finding my uncle’s Spiderman comics as a young kid and absolutely loving them. They were the first comics I really ever got into (it helped that I watched the 90s animated series as well!) I got into webcomics pretty hard in middle school and high school as well, so as long as I have been conscious of the medium, I’ve been reading comics.

What do you do when you’re not working on Cassius?

AU: Mostly I freelance on comics and illustration projects-it’s my job! I also work on our ongoing webcomic, Grave Impressions (we’re finishing re-vamping it) and I’m finishing up art school at Savannah College of Art and Design.

EW: I’m writing other comics. Ann and I are currently revamping Grave Impressions, as she said, and I have a few other projects in the works that I’m collaborating on. When I’m not writing, I’m usually taking millions of cat photos.

Cat Batka: I really just indulge in a lot of geeky pasttimes. I’m really big into tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, as well as MMOs, video games, comics… you name it. I’m probably either gaming or drawing in my free time on any given day, but occasionally I get worked up on a Netflix binge too.

That awkward moment when you realize you have the Mark of Cassius. Image source: Arbitrary Muse Comics

That awkward moment when you realize you have the Mark of Cassius. Image source: Arbitrary Muse Comics

Tell me a little about Cassius. Who are the main characters in the story?

EW: Cassius may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar but it’s really its own story. It’s about a young woman, Junia, who finds her comfortable life shattered when her father-figure and mentor, Caius, is murdered in front of her. When it’s revealed that Caius was also the mysterious figure known as Cassius and that Junia now bears the Mark that deems her as such, she is thrust into a much larger web of political intrigue and power as a central player. It’s about her growth and change as she matures into the latest bearer of the Mark of Cassius amidst such chaos. The story mostly follows Junia, but there are other key figures who have their own role to play – some already introduced and some still to come.

Cassius is originally a character in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. What inspired you to write this version of events?

EW: I take a lot of my story-telling influences from literature and history. Then I try to warp them to create something compelling and reflective of life around me. Shakespeare took a very dramatic event in history and created a compelling story of betrayal. I wanted to take all of it—history, literature, and create something new. So here is this new, very obviously historically Roman-inspired land, with characters whose names mostly come from Shakespeare’s play, but in an entirely different story structure. Now it’s a hero’s journey story, updated to reflect the modern world—but still tied down to the basic roots of original story: betrayal, murder, political power—and even regret.

The main characters in Cassius are all very different and represent a range of races, sizes, genders and gender orientation. Why do you think it’s important to show diversity in your comics?

EW: I’m not Canadian, but can I use a Trudeau-ism? Because it’s 2015. 🙂 Honestly, there’s a lot of what I would have loved to see as a kid in this. I liked action-packed stories, but I always felt like the women had to pay a price or be punished in the end for being a hero or a main character. Especially if she was queer. Junia may have a lot of things happen to her, but it isn’t going to be because she’s black or because she’s a woman or because she likes women.

CB: All of these races, sizes, genders, and orientations exist. There is literally no reason why they shouldn’t be shown.

Prima and Junia. Image source: Arbitrary Muse Comics

Prima and Junia. Image source: Arbitrary Muse Comics

Between Issue 1 and Issue 2, you brought Cat Batka onto the team. What motivated this, and how has that worked out?

AU: We’ve wanted to collaborate with other creative people on more projects for a while now, so when my schedule prohibited my finishing the second book on time without help, it presented a great opportunity to bring Cat onto the team.

EW: Cat brought a different kind of energy and vibe to Cassius that I think it really needed. It’s worked out very well and we’re looking forward to doing issue 3 together, all three of us!

And Cat, what has your experience working on Cassius been like so far?

CB: It really helps that I’m friends with Emily and Ann to begin with. It makes communication MUCH easier when you can just message or text them with “Hey, is it cool for this character to cry in this panel?” and to get an almost instant “yes” or “no.” It also has the added benefit of getting to instantly geek out and share songs and playlists with each other to inspire us while we work on the comic. They’ve been an utter joy to work with!

Who is your favorite character and why? Which characters were the most difficult to conceptualize?

AU: I’ve got a couple, but since we haven’t met some of them yet, I’ll say Prima. It was great fun to create her design, with the hair and clothes inspired by the styles of the Roman nobility and then incorporate her symbols of traditional power like the laurel crown and purple cloak of the head of state.

Emily and I collaborated on the designs-trying to get what’s in her head on paper is always a multi-step process. I remember that we went through quite a few visual iterations of Marcus before we settled on a character design!

EW: Junia. From the get-go she’s been stuck in my brain with a very distinct character voice. She has a lot of opinions about life, and she’s quick to vocalize them – even if that sometimes displays her naivety. I feel like she’s incredibly human too? She’s worried about what’s in store, but it isn’t stopping her from pressing on. There’s a scene in issue 2 where she admits everything is out of her control and that scares her, because life had been pretty comfortable and safe up until that point – but then she immediately bounces back and presses onward. Junia is resilient in a way I sometimes wish I was, haha.

As far as a character that was tough to conceptualize, I’d have to say Albia. I didn’t know what I wanted them to look like or sound like – but I knew how they acted and what the reasoning behind their actions were pretty immediately after creating them. Ann did a great job on Albia’s first design, but Cat REALLY fine-tuned Albia’s character design which in-turn helped me give them a distinct voice.

CB: Albia’s cheekbones are my favorite character.

But in all seriousness, I love-love-LOVE Antony and Albia. Their relationship is really fun to watch and draw and they’re both very layered as far as character and motivation goes. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for them!

Antony (L) and Albia (R). Those are some pretty amazing cheekbones! Image source: Arbitrary Muse Comics

Antony (L) and Albia (R). Those are some pretty amazing cheekbones! Image source: Arbitrary Muse Comics

Do you draw inspiration from your friends and family for the characters?

EW: I grew up as a military kid – we lived in Germany for six years, and all around me during that time period, I was introduced to people from various cultures and backgrounds. They’ve ALL found their way into my writing one way or another.

AU: I think all character designers subconsciously draw on visual information around them-including people they know (or random strangers on the street). But I didn’t intentionally mimic anyone we know when I was designing the cast.

How long will the Cassius series be? Do you have any other projects planned?

EW: Cassius is fifteen issues long. I used to say it was longer, but then I realized I needed to get on with the plot! We’re almost halfway through the first arc already – issue three is really going to pack a punch! I always have other projects planned, but we’ll see how many actually make it to fruition. You never know which ones are going to spend forever in development hell.

Ann and Emily, you mentioned meeting online, but what was it like when you met in person?

EW: I don’t know if there’s a word in the English language for what it was like to meet her. Ann is absolutely incredible. She’s a Cascada remix with the swagger of old-school retro and a mind worthy of a slinky jazz horn line.

AU: I had to ask about the Cascada reference—Em pulled up the song on her phone and I’m like, yeah! That! I don’t know how to be half so poetic about this-that’s why I draw and she writes. We’d been talking online for a while before we met in person and it felt like we were really good friends already. Then we met in person and it was like we were on exactly the same wave-length from the get-go. I can’t say that about anyone else.

Arbitrary Muse working at a con! Photo provided by Emily Willis and Ann Uland.

Arbitrary Muse working at a con! Photo provided by Emily Willis and Ann Uland.

Do you feel like you have to separate your professional life and relationship?

EW: Sometimes. It’s healthy not to always be talking about work. But we love what we do, and that sort of passion and enthusiasm is what I think drew us to each other, so it’s not boring to me to talk with Ann about work-related things most of the time.

AU: Like Emily says, you can’t be about work 100% of the time and expect to have a functional relationship, so we do talk about other things together and do other stuff. You’ve got to have a hobby and some family time to stay sane and inspired! But it’s not usually a hard-and-fast line we have to draw, it feels natural to talk about a mix of creative things and business things and life things.

What other things have Arbitrary Muse comics worked on?

EW: Grave Impressions was our first comic together – it’s the story of Howard Graves, a 25-year-old first-gen Italian gay man who’s trying to make a living as a private eye in Pittsburgh in 1942. He’s read almost every pulp detective story out there, so he’s got the classy dame on his arm, a rocky relationship with the police, and friends in all the wrong places – but it’s still not enough to give him the big break he’s been looking for. Howard needs THE CASE: a mystery so big that when he solves it, all his financial woes will disappear. He just doesn’t know he’s already of it. Grave Impressions is being currently revamped but will return to the web on December 1st of this year.

AU: We created a one shot retelling of Cinderella together called If The Shoe Fits. Both Emily and I really love fairytales, so we thought it would be fun to do a version of a popular fairytale with a more all-inclusive cast and a less European-derived setting. The book is done completely in watercolor, which helps keep the fantasy feeling. Some of the pages were my favorite comic pages to create as far as process and hand-made quality goes. We’d like to make it a series of books, and are working with friends of ours on the script for a Sleeping Beauty retelling next!

What can readers expect from future issues of Cassius?

EW: You can expect some more new characters, a very dramatic sword fight, a few anticipated deaths and some surprising returns!

CB: I’m not sure I’m at liberty to say anything in regards to the story, but when I finished up drawing issue 2, I was looking back at the pages going “crud. I can do better.” Doing an issue for a comic really works out your art muscles and by the time I was done, I already felt like I had improved beyond where I had started. From me personally, at least, expect better art.

AU: Look for us on Kickstarter on the Ides of March, 2016! We’ll be looking to fund issue 3!

 

This interview was originally published at GeekGirlCon.

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