Ricky Rouse is a familiar sounding name, but I suddenly can’t quite put my finger on why….
Next month SelfMadeHero will be publishing ‘Ricky Rouse Has a Gun’, from the creative-team of Jörg Tittel and John Aggs. A manic, wildly satirical and unpredictable book, the story sees our hero – a soldier who sees a chance to abandon the war effort and takes it – move across to live in China. Having escaped a war he doesn’t believe in, he tries to make a new life for himself – but finds that his only option is to take a job working in a theme park.
A theme park with strangely familiar characters! Because it’s a ripoff of American copyright, you see. Featuring characters like ‘Carribean Pirates’ and the aforementioned Ricky Rouse, the park is designed to rip off Disneyland in every way possible. But even as he takes the job, other forces come to play, as terrorists descend upon the park.
And so Ricky Rouse has to take up arms against the terrorists.
It’s a wild, silly, massively enjoyable book, told well by Tittel in his first comics work, and drawn wonderfully by Aggs. In order to find out a little more about how it came about, I spoke to Tittel about the book, working at SelfMadeHero, and if he’s worried that the lawyers are coming…
Steve: What’s your history with comics? When did you first start reading, and what sort of books hooked you in? Growing up in Belgium, would it be fair to guess you might have read some Tintin?
Jörg: Did you hire MI6 to perform a background check on me? What else do you know, huh? But seriously, I was born in Belgium and from early childhood read quite a lot of (for lack of a better word) “Euro” comics as a kid, e.g. Asterix, Tintin, various Schuitens & Peeters books (I would get lost in the art and architecture), Jean Giraud/Moebius’ Blueberry and the excellent Thorgal, for which our family friend Grzegorz Rosinski has been doing all the supreme art for decades now. I wasn’t really the Marvel/superhero type at all, except for Batman.
I know this isn’t technically a comic book, but I loved Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series and Mask of the Phantasm in particular. I consider them perfect and all consecutive Batman films have paled in comparison. I have to admit I then more or less dropped out of touch with comics and graphic novels for a while, except for the usual suspects (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, etc.). Until a certain ripoff rodent reignited my love for the medium.
Steve: This is your first graphic novel, but have you written comic scripts before? What made you want to start writing comics?
Jörg: It’s all Ricky’s fault. His story just begged to be told as a comic book. Describing Rambi as a deer with a red headband for instance is funny enough on the page, but much funnier when a reader sees her drawn so beautifully by John Aggs and goes, “Oh, look, it’s Bamb-, no, Rambi!”
It’s a story packed with such visual jokes, discoveries and references but for those who don’t care to geek out over such things, the comic book manages to get them out of the way as part of the bigger picture and make you focus on the story and characters first and foremost. I never wrote a comic script before this but now I’ve caught the bug and I’m afraid I’ll do many more. At least until someone makes me stop, but that would require quite the weapon.
Steve: How did this particular project come to mind – what about the concept of the story made you think “yes, this is the one I want to write”?
Jörg: That is an awfully difficult question, because I have a dozen stories rummaging around in my brain at any given point, but there is always that one which – for some inexplicable reason – manages to burst through all the noise and pushes me to take it all the way. But one thing is for sure: whenever I thought about it, Ricky Rouse Has a Gun would put a big, naughty smile on my face. It was so wrong, it was right. And in this current entertainment landscape where originality is hard to come by and going to the cinema has become an exercise in choosing between a prequel, sequel or a remake, it felt timely and like something I could dig my heels into.
Steve: It’s a spectacular high concept – can you explain it a little, tell us about the premise of the book from your perspective?
Jörg: The sophisticated Hollywood pitch for it would be something like “Die Hard in a Chinese knockoff Disneyland” and on the surface that’s pretty much what it is. But the terrorists – and this is a MINOR SPOILER – are Americans. And that’s where things get truly interesting in my view. The 20th century was America’s century, the 21st is and will likely remain Chinese for a while yet. In the “West”, we’ve been crippled so much by the financial crisis, a general sense of paranoia and our fear of “pirates”, that we only get to make “sure fire hits” and “risk averse” entertainment… sadly at the expense of original ideas.
China doesn’t really appear to have that problem. Look at Stephen Chow’s films for instance. They are made with massive budgets and they’re completely and utterly insane. We don’t have that spirit anymore, and that’s what Ricky Rouse is ultimately about. Perhaps we are the pirates and plagiarists and we need to look East for inspiration.
Steve: Were there worries about copyright infringement, and a certain large movie studio descending on you with a legion of lawyers?
Jörg: All is fair in love and parody. And Ricky Rouse Has a Gun is infused with both a love for the characters and cultural legacy it’s “ripping off”, as well as a visceral need to take the Mickey, sorry, take the piss out of them all. Because, let’s face it, that’s getting old. Think of Ricky Rouse as an “eff-you hug” if you will.
Steve: Would it be fair to say that there may be just a hint of subtext here? Having worked in the film industry yourself, was this a way to address some of the frustrations of that business?
Jörg: Yeah, sure, I – like most creative people in the “industry” – have had a few ideas, sometimes even entire stories, concepts and scripts ripped off. But it’s been decades since any individual has won a copyright suit in Hollywood. The system’s become untouchable and copyright laws and extension acts have all been rewritten in favour of studios and corporations thanks to powerful lobbyists in Washington and beyond.
My theory is – and it’s a naive if not intentionally provocative one at best – that sequels, prequels and remakes are the real ripoffs and their mere existence devalues 20th century ideas to a point where any new “Chinese” and pirated copy has as much if not more value. In my view, originality gains love and respect, glorified ads do not. I just returned from Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, it’s a Marvel movie, but it was an unlikely one, directed by an unlikely guy, and it was a total delight. A total celebration of ideas and fun and creativity. If we’re only going to get movies based on stuff with a big logo behind it, I hope it’ll at least be as good as James Gunn’s movie.
I got off track there a little bit, where were we?
Steve: The story could easily have turned into the sort of generic action film that you’re parodying – was it difficult to walk that line, and keep control of the satire?
Jörg: The original Die Hard is still pretty much the perfect action movie. Very few films have managed to blend story, character development, suspense, comedy, current affairs etc. in such a seamless, endlessly entertaining way. And it’s been harrowing to watch each and every sequel almost destroying the memory of that classic. The fact that Die Hard is still a Christmas classic today is a testament to its staying power and immunity against shitty, soulless, unwatchable sequels.
So there’s a part of me that’s furious at every new diabolical sequel and every new pathetic attempt to copy Die Hard as if a true original could ever be a “formula.” But another part also desperately wants a new Die Hard, something that will bring all those thrills to today’s audiences. Argh! Perhaps Ricky Rouse Has a Gun is, in fact, a “Die Hard knockoff in a Chinese Disneyland.” Perhaps I truly beat myself with my own weapon?
Steve: Did this begin with the high concept, and then you started developing the characters and narrative – or did this come together pretty organically, all together? How did you assemble the story, so to speak?
Jörg: It all came together organically, really – none of these things can or should exist in a vacuum – although it did start with the “sophisticated” Hollywood pitch I mentioned earlier.
Steve: How did you meet John Aggs, who became artist for the story? I believe you were introduced by Paul Duffield?
Jörg: I originally met Paul Duffield via our mutual friend Liam Young at the Architectural Association in London. His art blew me away and we explored working together on Ricky Rouse. But as you know, making a graphic novel is a massive commitment and Paul had other things in the pipeline – his beautiful epic, The Firelight Isle. Paul introduced me to John and he just happened to have that window we needed to make this silly book. And boy did he deliver. He’s incredibly talented. I know what he’s working on next and it’s pretty freakin’ awesome.
Steve: What about John’s artwork style made him such a strong fit for this story, do you think?
Jörg: John is very much inspired by Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii and other stuff I loved growing up. Actually, if you go to JohnAggs.com you’ll see that his personal style is quite dark and cyperpunk and sexy. Ultimately, what I think made John perfect for Ricky is that he’s a hybrid of East and West in terms of style and influences and also since he’s half-American, half-English. I’m a weird multinational blend myself and so is Ricky Rouse, of course. I think we were a pretty good team to take on this clash – and ultimate marriage – of cultures.
Steve: Was he the one who suggested bringing the project to SelfMadeHero? How did they get involved?
Jörg: No, incidentally SelfMadeHero were the only graphic novel publisher I knew, having helped organise a launch event for their “The Master and Margarita” years ago. I pitched the project to Emma and she said yes right there and then. Beginner’s luck. And what luck! They have been open to run with my crazy ideas. The limited edition gold-plated hardcover is a thing of beauty and, rather miraculously, I think the paperback which is coming out in September can proudly stand next to it and hold its own. They certainly know how to produce beautiful books and I hope we’ll work together again.
Steve: Have you plans for any more comics work in the future?
Jörg: Oh, why not.
Steve: What else do you have coming up otherwise? Where can people find you online?
Jörg: My partner- and wife-in-crime Alex and I have been working on feature length adaptation of György Dragomán’s multiple award winning novel “The White King” which we should be shooting next year if all goes according to plan. Then there’ll also be a West End show in January 2015 and a videogame project I’ve created, oh, and the next comic book. I’ve written a series, but don’t tell anyone.
Hope you all enjoy Ricky Rouse Has a Gun!
Many thanks to Jörg for his time! I also want to mention that the book launch for Ricky Rouse Has a Gun will be held at Gosh Comics in London, and both of the creative team will be on hand to sign copies. Head on over if you’re near!