Imagine a world where an epic war has been waged for so long that robots were eventually created to fight alongside humans.
Then more robots were created to replace humans altogether.
Royden Lepp's graphic novel series Rust looks at the aftermath of what a battle like that could do to farmers as it takes away fathers and forces their children to take over.
Rust, a powerful and poignant tale of hope, responsibility, grief, and family, is a sci-fi adventure that takes place in the farming heartland. The Taylor family farm is quiet until the war's greatest weapon, a lifelike robot boy named Jet, saves them from a dangerous machine.
Since 2011, Archaia / Boom has released three Rust graphic novels and reprinted them in four softcovers. This week, the final hardcover and softcover, Rust: Volume 4: Soul in the Machine, hits comic shops and will be available in bookshops next week.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Lepp ahead of Rust: Volume 4's release to take a look back at the big story elements so far, dig into his world-building process, and reflect on the magic of comic books.
This series has taken up almost 10 years of your life. Did you always envision four hardbound graphic novels (five softcovers) for Rust?
Royden Lepp: What the series was going to be was always set in stone for a long time. I work in the video game industry full-time, so before it ever became a book it started out as some game design sketches and a game design document.
The last comic I did, David: The Shepherd's Song — and I had begun working with a division of Harper Collins — they were really keen to see what my next project would be. That's when I pitched them this Rust series, not knowing the full scope of what this series would be. I had this idea of a video game, but now I'm thinking of writing a story around it. They said, "Great, let's do eight 150-page graphic novels."
I said, "Hell no." I would die before I finished eight. I came back with two, and they came back with six. I came back with four. So I always knew it was going to be four, but I didn't know how I was going to get there. From there it changed hands -- Harper Collins let go of it but let me keep the rights, and then I went to Archaia. That's a very compressed account of 10 years.
You chose to draw from some of your personal experience to set Rust in a rural setting. What made this a good setting for a science fiction story?
I want to say that I always crafted it as a part of my youth or my background, but the truth is that when I started Rust, I thought, science fiction was a mash-up. I had read Kazu Kibuishi's Daisy Kutter, which is really cool. It's robots and the Western setting, not that that hadn't been done before, but it struck me as taking these familiar ideas and putting them in an unfamiliar environment.
I thought about what I did know. I know farming. I love drawing robots and I love science fiction. Then it started becoming more of a personal story. I was becoming an adult in a lot of ways and going through things in my family but also spending time thinking about what it was like to be on the farm, and that became a way for me to tell a story that I knew.
One of the things that stuck with me when I talk with other writers is to write what I know. In this case, putting Rust on the farm, having it be about an adult son who has lost his father and a few other things around that, allowed me to sit comfortably in the seat of what is at the heart of the story. I didn't have to think, what would it be like for this person to be in this situation? I had to try hard sometimes, but for the most part it was pretty personal.
What's it been like to revisit some of these moments in your life? Did you have something you wanted to work out and Rust wound up being a nice way to do that, or were you able to compartmentalize these moments to put you in the flow of creating the story?
I didn't want it to be selfish. I think that's where artists can go astray when they sit down and write a personal story and it's really personal. You read it and you go whoa, and realize that it's a very specific personal story. I didn't want that. I still wanted Rust to be about this family, for readers to fall in love with the Taylor family and have a sense that they were real people making real decisions. Compartmentalizing is a good word for it because I tried to stay away from mentioning it was a personal story until this last part.
Up until this last chapter, I was still very clearly creating a great science fiction story for a younger version of myself. In that way it's still kind of selfish but not in a way where it was a big therapy session for me.
Was it fun to come up with the nuts and bolts of the robot design, the materials used to create them, how they worked, how they were coded, and what powered them?
Yeah, that was fun. I wish I could go back and fix some of the things, too, because I've grown as a designer and world builder; I would have made a few different design decisions. Ultimately the goal of the robots was to make them feel like they've been built out of tractor parts or at the same factory. There are two types of robots in this world; the first is Jet, super-complex advanced A.I., and the other is these really automaton, marching metal, and it was fun to make those both exist in this world.
I wanted the robots to feel like they were believable and were functioning off fossil fuels, and they would run on some of the same components that you would see in a typical engine in the '30s. There's enough familiarity with them that you can see this split universe where something was different and machines were able to exist that they looked like this. They're simple in engineering but complex in behavior.
What was it about the medium of comics that opened Rust up to becoming a reality as opposed to a video game or a different medium?
If you're passionate about film, you're going to have to learn how to work with gear, people, and money. If you're a visual storyteller, comics are absolutely the best avenue. That and children's books, depending on what kind of story you want to tell.
Some writers aren't artists and some artists aren't writers. For me, I was kind of ignorant enough to decide to write it myself.
Rust is best as a comic book. As a creator you come up with these ideas, then you think about the method of communicating your idea. Sometimes you have a good game idea, sometimes you have a good movie idea, and some of the good movie ideas don't make very good comic ideas. But Rust was always best as a comic. That's why I love comics. It allows me the freedom to tell the story wholly and completely. It is the one medium [in which] if you want it, you can own it. I have control over the whole thing.
I'm glad that it was never made into a game.
Your background in photography and animation have served you well in not only allowing the art to tell a bulk of the story, but there is power in those panels without words.
Yeah, there's a joke among the editors at Boom that it takes me 10 pages to have a character tie his shoe, [laughs] which is not entirely accurate — but is accurate.
I think there's really strong power in that thing I call visual literacy, which is your ability to read somebody's body language or facial expressions and put that with a composition that has boundaries and borders, lighting and value that tells you what's going on. There's so much more that's being told in that image than if you put some narration that the mood was tense. Show me that the mood was tense.
That was a huge challenge to me as an artist. I don't have the same skill as some of the artists have in comics. For me it was, can I tell this story with just pictures? Do I have a good enough command of the human body to convey emotions through anatomy? Do I have the ability in composition to set up the mood? That was the challenge on every page. I think I have succeeded and failed in Rust.
What did you learn throughout your process?
I was experimenting a lot [in] Volume 1, and I think about some of the things I did and didn't do and knew. I corrected my course for my own storytelling method. There was a process; if you look back, I think I got better.
In film school, I actually got bad marks as a storyteller in storyboarding class, as I was told that I used too many boards. I think back and laugh at that, because I felt there was so much to tell about the way this person walked across the room that I didn't want to do it in two boards. It was more than just "he started here and ended up over there." There's more to the motion than that. I wasn't always right, but when I look back at what my instincts were, even at a young age in film school, that was always my inclination — to really describe the motion.
For some reason, that was important to me.
As I've matured and learned from other fantastic artists and writers in the comics industry, I've learned when to hold that back and when that's my superpower. Here's where I got to do this because this is where it matters. I don't do this here because it just makes it cumbersome to tell the story this way.
You've stated that you never set out to make an all-ages book, but Rust is all-ages accessible, with each chapter getting progressively darker. Can you share with us some of the variety of reactions you've seen as different audiences connect with Rust?
As far as how people have responded to Rust, it's totally been better than I thought. The thing that affects me the most is that people come up to me to say that "it's such a good book that I can read this to my family for its all-ages content, and we can read it together."
I also have those fully grown adult fans that don't have family. They don't say anything different. They say, "I love this."
I think it's accessible for a lot of ages, and that's not something I ever expected. It was Archaia that told me, after reading the first story, that if I took out one of the war flashback panels that showed a bullet exit wound, it would be an all-ages book. I didn't even realize it. I have one fan on the East Coast who has written a few times to me and said, "Your book got my son and I to connect again. We were kind of disconnected until we both realized we both loved comics. It was Rust that brought us together and started us on our journey of finding books that we love."
Wow. How awesome is that?
It doesn't get any better than that [and] should be absolutely enough for me, forever. If that affected one family in that way, then that's what the books are for. I didn't have a purpose for them that high, so if that's what happened, then they served their purpose. Everything else is just for fun.
Rust: Volume 4: Soul in the Machine is available in hardcover and softcover at your local comic shop and digitally on comiXology. It will be available at bookstores on February 28. Check out the gallery below of a preview of the first few pages of the softcover release of Rust: Vol. 4: Soul in the Machine.