We Talk Ares and Aphrodite with Jamie S. Rich and Megan Levens

aa06aComic veteran Jamie S. Rich and comic newcomer have recently been drawing attention for their collaboration on a new series Ares and Aphrodite, a romantic comedy presented uncharacteristically in the medium of comics.  The meeting of the two talents has made for an unconventional series, but one which is turning heads for putting romance back into the medium.  WE got a chance to talk with them about their new series.

Graphic Policy: The romance genre once ruled the comic medium, but has been all but dead since the 70s, with the few remaining romance characters incorporated into superhero universes.  Why did you think that romance can work now?

Jamie S. Rich: I’d say it was dead in terms of mainstream comics, but the alternative side of things–for lack of a better term–has kept the basic genre alive more than they maybe get credit for. So many comics are relationship based, be they Dan Clowes and Los Bros Hernandez or Seth or even Michael Allred. I think more often than not they get called slice-of-life these days. We did all kind of comics at Oni Press when I was editor-in chief that were about teenagers dating or someone pursuing their romantic ideal. Comics are like pop songs. They’re all kind of about love.

For me it’s kind of like veering back to where I started. My first comics as a writer were 12 Reasons Why I Love Her with Joëlle Jones and Love the Way You Love with Marc Ellerby, and so for a while I was the “love” guy. It’s been funny to have seen some reactions to Ares & Aphrodite where people have said, “Well, it’s weird that Jamie Rich is doing a rom-com, but I trust Jamie Rich.” It’s like, wow, do I have some fans who only read the crime stuff?

a&a3Megan Levens: Jamie has a good point about the romance genre being re-branded as “slice of life”. I grew up on mainstream superhero and fantasy comics, but my real interest in actually creating comics came after reading what I always considered romance books—Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore, anything by Adrian Tomine, and definitely Blankets by Craig Thompson. These were all comics that revolved around people and their relationships with one another, and no matter what you call them, I think those kinds of stories are universally appealing.

GP: How do you feel about the medium of comics as the grounds for a romantic comedy?  Are there challenges that you face as compared to other mediums?

JSR: I think some of the more physical stuff might be more challenging from a visual standpoint. Megan, is it hard to draw kissing? You’re pretty good at it, but I think a lot of comics artists are bad at it.

MLHa! Drawing kissing is only as hard as actually kissing is…once you figure out who’s leaning to which side.

In all seriousness, the most challenging part, which I put more of my focus on, is trying to sell the characters acting. It’s very hard to convey in just a few lines on a page that two people are gazing into each other’s eyes lovingly. It takes a lot of subtlety of expression.

GP: Is it hard to switch genres from a creative standpoint within comics?  Comics are known for either action or adventure, but this series focuses on human relationships. Is it harder to relate?

aa3.1JSR: I would think it would be easier to relate. We all have human relationships and for the most part everyone falls in love, but you know, only a handful of people have been in space. I don’t readSaga or The Fuse and think it makes no sense because it’s somewhere other than my life. Yet, I have no idea what it’s like to be on space station, and I want to find out. So, I would argue the point of access for something like Ares & Aphrodite is more broad, more welcoming, because it hits a common ground more people actually share. Yet, the purpose to all of these books is the same, to entertain and to maybe say something about how human beings get along with one another through the chosen genre.

ML: I agree. I think that when you look at the best stories from any genre, they’re the ones where the focus is really on the relationships and journeys that we can all relate to, and the science fiction or fantasy worlds are just a backdrop to heighten the stakes. I read Saga, too, and what I enjoy about it is that it’s a story about two people who are in love and starting a family and wanting to protect their child. Believable, compelling human relationships are what make the more fantastical stories relatable.

GP: The series Ares and Aphrodite which is an excellent case of opposites attract. The name perfectly matches the concept though, and so kind of begs the chicken-or-egg question for which came first the story of the title?

JSR: Honestly, both. James Lucas Jones, who is the current editor-in-chief at Oni Press, handed me the concept, he had a bunch of different basic one or two-line pitches and he was farming them out to different writers for us to develop. He suggested the idea and he had the title. I built the characters from there, including giving them names that related in some way to their corresponding deity. Will was actually going to be Will Ayers, but I realized that name was popping into my head because of Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground guy that the Republicans were saying was pal’s with President Obama. Like, you know, his Jimmy Olsen. “Obama’s pal, Bill Ayers.”

Anyway, I guess relating to some of what you were asking about dealing with genre, I find the challenge with all books with a romantic undercurrent is trying to find a way to make it interesting. Like, when I did A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat, a major challenge there was moving the story to the future and creating scenarios for the main characters that would make them interesting–because your goal is that if you make them interesting to each other, the reader will fall in love at the same time. So that was why in Ares & Aphrodite I decided to make the divorce lawyer the hopeless romantic and the wedding planner the cynic. Just to turn expectations on their heads.

GP: Will is an unconventional lead for a romance, seeing as part of his life is tearing people apart.  How do you go about making him a sympathetic character?

JSR: By not giving him evil intentions. Yes, unhappiness is a byproduct of what he does for a living, but at the same time, he views it as helping others and providing a service. He’s not vindictive, officiating a divorce is not a grudge match for him. Plus, we don’t spend any time with him really working this go-around, so what you see is how he deals with his friends, his generosity, and just his normal demeanor. He’s a regular dude.

ML: Yeah, the way Jamie wrote him, I never saw him as anything other than sympathetic. That very first scene shows how he’s trying not to let his job title define him, and how disappointed he is that some people will never see him as anything other than a divorce lawyer. I may have exaggerated the puppy-dog eyes a bit to help him out from a design standpoint. Even when he’s upset, he never really looks cold or hard, just sad.

GP: Part of the themes explored in this series is the invasive role of reporters on the lives of the rich and famous.  Is there a reason that you chose to pursue this approach?

JSR:  Once we landed on the Hollywood scenario, that sort of stuff just emerged naturally. It seemed an obvious hurdle that would drive the plot. When I originally mapped out the idea for the series, actually, my intention was to not tell this particular story, I wanted to start a year or more in Will and Gigi’s relationship. I was honestly looking at the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies where they work together or in the same field and that brings up interesting problems. Like Adam’s Rib is one of my favorites, the one where they are lawyers on the opposite side of a case. So Carrie and Evans, the teenage starlet and the seasoned movie producer, they were part of an extended cast I envisioned. It’s only as we developed the backstory further that we decided the first volume would basically be how they were all tied together.

ML: I live in Los Angeles, so I actually see this sort of thing happening…not every day, but there are a few well-known actresses who go to my yoga studio, and I’ve gone to class more than once to find the place surrounded by paparazzi. I probably photobombed some TMZ story.

GP: Recently it has been stated that people are interested in the depth of the comic industry, especially looking into its development in the future. Do you think that romance has a bigger part to play than what it does now?

aa3.2JSR: Certainly. As I said, most books have some trappings of romance anyway. Terry Moore’s books are a great example. Echo had a romance at its core, despite being a science-fiction adventure. And, like Megan said, Strangers in Paradise was a romance comic through and through. I think what we are really seeing is most folks are just hungry for variety, they want to see a broader range of people represented. So you got someone like Rick Remender dealing with families and married couples in Black Science and Low, or more representation for women and people of color, something like the young Ms. Marvel coming into her own or the women of many races in Bitch Planet.

Keep in mind, when Joëlle Jones and I did You Have Killed Me back in 2009, we had people asking the same thing about the crime genre. But Darwyn

Cooke was starting his Parker books and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were already starting to take off with Criminal, and now there are more crime books, more variations, be it the straight-ahead approach like Stumptown or something more out there like Copperhead or my own weird crime book Archer Coe & the Thousand Natural Shocks. This kind of stuff is expanding our readership, the way Vertigo did in the early 1990s, the way manga did in the early 2000s, and the more the merrier, I say!

ML: I definitely think romance is already a huge part of the comic industry. A lot of creators now (myself included) were absolutely influenced by the manga boom, which introduced this huge variety of stories about real people and their relationships, which was something that was lacking from most mainstream comics at that time. We’ve brought that with us into the books we’re writing and drawing now. And to reluctantly point to Saga again as an example, it’s selling ridiculously well, and I don’t think it’s just because of the robot TV porn. It’s a love story, and people are eating it up.

JSR: Hell, in Lady Killer, which Joëlle and I are doing for Dark Horse, people are expecting a romance. It’s like, “hey, I know there’s buckets of blood anywhere, but a heart has to be pumping all that, right?!” Because where there’s a heart, there’s love.

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