To mark the recent release of co-writers Ruth Fletcher Gage and Christos Gage and artist Jackie Lewis’ original graphic novel, The Lion Of Rora (published by Oni Press), Fletcher Gage and jackiemakescomics were kind enough to grant me an interview.
Based on true events, the graphic novel tells the story of Joshua Janavel and the Waldensians, the first people in European history to rebel against their ruler for the purpose of religious freedom.
Tim O’Shea: As noted in the book text “The Waldensian uprising was the first case in European history in which the subjects of a ruler rebelled to defend their religious freedom. These actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, The French Revolution and the American Revolution” How is it, Ruth, that this story has not been more widely known?
Ruth Fletcher Gage: Interestingly, much of what we know comes from outside sources – both those who were fighting the Waldenses, but couldn’t help respecting their bravery, and other Protestants who recorded their deeds. I would guess the lack of primary sources from the Waldenses themselves comes from the fact that they were more concerned with simply surviving. Also, the Waldensian Church has always been a small church (they are a part of the Methodist Church in Italy and the Presbyterian Church in the United States); from the beginning, they were much smaller than other Protestant groups like the Huguenots in France or the Lutherans in Germany. I’m Waldensian myself, and grew up going to a Waldensian Church, and even I didn’t realize their significance until I took a world history class in college and was shocked to realize the professor was teaching a chapter about my people! I realized that if I didn’t know much about this story, very few others probably knew it either, and I felt it was important to get it to a wider audience, especially young people. They freedoms the Waldenses fought for in Europe became a part of the founding principles of America, so it has relevance to a broader audience.
After a number of artists tackled this ambitious project, only to abandon it, how gratifying was it to succeed on illustrating this story, Jackie?
Jackie Lewis: I’ll be honest, it was a bit daunting at first. My main concern was that I produce something that Ruth and Christos would like, especially since the project had been up in the air for a while. I tried to keep focus on the project at hand rather than linger on the other artists who had been on this book, really. And, honestly, it felt great to complete Rora, but not in the context of being “the artist to finish it.” It was just great to have this story complete and ready for people to read. This is such a personal story for Ruth’s family, and I came into the project fully aware of that fact. I wanted this book to look good, and working from Ruth and Christos’s script made my end of the production much easier.
Ruth, given the obstacles, did you ever consider abandoning this project.
Fletcher Gage: No, never. I figured we’d taken so much time to get it right, we’d better get it done. Chris and I had been researching and writing on the project since we were in graduate school. We had three artists drop out of the project because it was so difficult – one after doing about a hundred pages of layouts – before Jackie came along. That process had taken five years. But I am actually glad it worked out that way, because Jackie was definitely the perfect choice for this book. I think by the time we were done, all of us were spent—Jackie actually posted that she cried at the end and I asked if it was because the story made her cry or the relief at finishing such a bear of a job. Jackie brought an incredible energy to the project. She just amazed us with every page and we were thrilled with her work, but it was her tenacity that carried us to the end.
For both Ruth and Jackie, how much did James Lucas Jones help you both in editing in a manner that tackle the project?
Fletcher Gage: James was terrific in finding Jackie, and guiding the production process. He always pushed for a high-end, beautiful presentation – the one you see on the final book. In terms of the creative side, he was incredibly respectful about wanting us to tell the story the way we believed it should be told. There were never any notes like “can you ease up on the religion” or “can you tone down the persecution.” He believed in the story and wanted it done to the best of all our abilities. He was really the most awesome editor we could ever ask for—especially on a project as personal as this one.
Lewis: James is a great editor. He knows when to be a hard ass, and when to ease up and give you those extra couple of days to finish some inks. His notes are always precise, his attitude is good, and he’s sharp as hell. I’ve known him for several years now, and we have a really good working relationship. I’d work on twenty more projects with James if I could.
What is it about history that makes it appeal to you, Ruth?
Fletcher Gage: I love to see how ideas come to fruition…of how the fight for freedom of religion (or belief) evolved into freedom of thought (which included everything from literature to politics). And how that went through the Protestant Reformation into the French Revolution and then into the American Revolution.
Jackie, I love your use of sound effects in the story. Were these elements you pursued or were those in the script?
Lewis: Thanks, Tim! The sound effects were included in the script, so I had good stuff to work from. I hadn’t really tried drawing sound effects before (I don’t think I drew any in Play Ball), so I took this opportunity to do so. I used to shy away from it, because I have pretty terrible handwriting. For me, it was about coming to the fact that drawing sound effects has little to do with handwriting and everything to do with creating a complete image. I’m a big fan of well done sound effects in comics, so I’m trying to push myself to do better on that front.
You had some complex battle scenes to choreograph, Jackie. Did one really vex you more than others?
Lewis: Oh, man. The main thing that I always start with was establishing space. I’d draw out little blueprints of the environment, figure out who was where, and when, camera movements, etc. If I set up that an environmental element was to the left, I’d do my best to keep it there. Then you have the moving parts, the characters, the armies, the horses, all of that stuff moves and emotes and you have to keep it clear and readable. Once I’d figured that out, it wasn’t too bad. I approach the planning of the choreography for every single scene in pretty much the same way, it’s just that battles are on a bigger scale. The scene that I revised the most was probably the one where Dauphine leads the Waldensians to the box canyon near Angrogna. It wasn’t the biggest scene, numbers-wise, but it had a lot of small parts coming in to it that I had to keep an eye on as the scene–and the scenes directly after it–progressed.
Ruth, am I right in thinking Jenny Vy Tran has a unique lettering style that is an asset for the story?
Fletcher Gage: Absolutely. Good lettering is like good cinematography: it’s very hard to do well, but if it’s done right, you don’t notice it, because you’re absorbed in the story. Jenny was terrific in matching the lettering to the art so it tells the story without undermining the visuals or getting in the way. And it fits the overall aesthetic, which we agreed early on should call to mind the woodcuts and etchings you see as illustrations in the contemporary accounts of the time. I also have to praise Jackie’s inclusion of the sound effects – many of which she drew in herself – to make them a seamless part of the artwork.
Ruth, were there any characters that were tougher to dialogue than others?
Fletcher Gage: We didn’t have a ton of space to get into the antagonists of the story, like the Duke and Duchess of Savoy, and I wanted to make sure they didn’t come off as one-note, mustache-twirling villains, so that was something of a challenge…using the limited space we had to get across that they were really afraid of the larger implications of their citizens having the freedoms the Waldensians demanded, because these freedoms could end their rule. The threat was to their very way of life, to the monarchy and class system itself. And they were right to be afraid, because the end result is a country like ours, with no royal family whatsoever.
Ruth, is your mother Rheta Micol Robinson still with us? If so, how pleased is she with the book?
Fletcher Gage: Yes, she is! And she loved the book. She got to the end and said, “There were things in that book even I didn’t know.” I’m pretty sure that was a compliment since she’s kind of a bastion of Waldensian history.
In terms of Netflixs Daredevil I would be remiss if I did not ask about one of the episodes you and Christos [episode 9], your wonderfully, brutally written Speak Of The Devil, seeing the episode in its final version, do you have a favorite scene?
Fletcher Gage: Yes. The Father Lantom scene where he talks about how religion can be used for good or evil by men. That’s a favorite theme of mine in general, whether it’s in bigger arenas like politics or everyday life.
Anything we need to discuss that I did not mention?
Fletcher Gage: Well, a significant note to The Lion of Rora story is that (just ahead of the 500thAnniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017) Pope Francis recently visited a Waldensian Church in Italy, the first visit by a Pope in the history of either church. He offered an amazing apology for the oppression committed by the Catholic Church against the Waldenses, and he asked for forgiveness of behalf of the Church. It was a beautiful gesture in a shared history that had been devastating to my people. And it is very much a part of who the Waldensian people are to welcome forgiveness and unity. Of course, the first thing that popped into my mind was that I had to figure out a way to write about it…
Also, we’ve set up a web site at www.lionofrora.com with more information about the book, and it contains a complete study guide for teachers based on the H.O.T.S. (Higher Order Thinking Skills) guidelines, written by an educator. We’ve spoken to many teachers and librarians who said that this book is a perfect way for their students to become interested in history, religious studies and other topics introduced in the story, so we want to make sure they know there are resources to help them.
And lastly, THANK YOU for taking the time to talk to us about this. We really appreciate you talking to us about the book!!