When one thinks of independent comic creators, one of the first names to come to mind is Terry Moore. Not long after beginning his seminal title, Strangers in Paradise, with Antarctic Press in 1993, he decided to form his own publishing company, Abstract Studio, and from then on used that as an outlet for his creator-owned work. After ending Strangers in May 2007 — and, along the way, winning an Eisner Award for the series as well as putting out a 14-issue run of Paradise Too!, a collection of strips and doodles featuring a fairy named Kixie — he went on to create two other ambitious series that took his art in new directions. Echo, the Harvey Award-winning series published between 2008 and 2011, explored the crossroads of science, technology, and morality. His most recent ongoing title, Rachel Rising, is a gothic tale combining horror (à la Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King) with equal measures of religious myth and philosophy. And while Terry has done plenty of work on properties owned by other companies — Birds of Prey, Fables, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spider-Man, and especially The Runaways — he has nonetheless defined himself best and most memorably through his own Abstract Studio. Indeed, along with his wife, Robyn (who also serves as Abstract Studio’s publisher), Terry has demonstrated what an independent creator is truly capable of.
Last year at the Dallas Comic Con, I had the pleasure of meeting Terry and briefly interviewing him for The Comics Alternative podcast. At the time we talked mainly about Rachel Rising and where he was going with that title. In following up with Terry after that convention, I had asked him if he would be interested in doing a much more substantive interview via email, one where we would go back and forth in a chess-like manner, carefully thinking through our questions or responses before making our next moves. We knew that this would be a long process — interrupted at times by work and travel — but we felt that it would be a great way of getting to the heart of Terry’s work and discussing it in a more sustained, organic manner. What follows is the result of that email-based interview that began on the release of the Strangers in Paradise Omnibus (softcover edition) and unfolded over the next several months.
Derek Royal: I want to start with your most recent series, Rachel Rising. This is quite different from your earlier comics, and I’m curious about the title’s genesis. How did this series begin for you?
Terry Moore: Strangers in Paradise Omnibus It comes from somewhere inside me that has always been attracted to old horror movies and the kitsch that went with them. As a kid I liked The Munsters and thought Wednesday Addams was cute. Today I still think Serial Mom is one of the funniest movies ever made. I just loved the idea of Donna Reed with a hatchet. So, when I was cartooning, I slowly developed my own Wednesday type girl. I did comic strips of Lizzie Borden’s family titled The Bordens. In comics, I had an idea for a character I called Deadgirl. Every night she came out, committed crimes, was killed some way or another, sent to the morgue. The next night she was back on the streets doing it again. I was working on Birds of Prey at the time and thought she’d be a good villain for the Bat family to deal with. That never happened, so I kept the idea for myself. After Echo, I decided it was Deadgirl’s turn. I would have even titled the book “Deadgirl,”but sadly the name was already taken in comics.
DR: Obviously you are not telling a zombie tale in Rachel Rising, but I’m wondering if there is any influence or insights you might take from zombie narratives.
TM: No, not really. I’ve never watched a zombie movie all the way through. I don’t like them, they smell. I’ve seen the middle section of the original Dawn of the Dead, but I didn’t stick with it because the people were so dumb in thought and deed, I lost interest in their fate. Let the zombies have them.
DR: So would you consider Rachel and Jet a kind of “undead”?
TM: Technically, yes. But to explain would be to unravel the story for you. Suffice to say, they’re not decaying brain-dead zombies.
DR: One thing that impresses me about Rachel Rising is the relationship between these two women. Jet and Rachel are always joking with each other, and they appear to know each other as only deep and long-time friends do. In fact, looking back over your creator-owned comics, it seems that female relationships is a theme that runs throughout your work. I know there are male-female relationships as well, but there’s just something about your women characters that appears most genuine and believable. Where does this interest, and your abilities to write in this way, come from?
TM: That’s the question I am most asked, and I never can provide the sound bite answer you’d hope for. It would take a biography to figure that out.
DR: That’s one of the things distinctive about your writing: the attention to life as lived, with both its upsides and its unfortunate circumstances. And there’s a lot of the darker side in Rachel Rising, especially as it relates to the town of Manson and its history. What drew you to this kind of setting and its unsettling, witch-hunting past?
TM: After the bright desert action in Echo, I was in the mood to do something noir in the overcast winter of a small East Coast town. If you read between the lines, Rachel Rising is just a continuation of the discussions in Echo: mankind vs. nature, cold science vs. intuitive senses, rejecting religion but suspecting there might be something to the spiritual senses we carry or bury. The setting and situation provides a perfect petri dish for meaningful dialogue.
DR: Another thing your setting in Rachel Rising reminds me of are some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s narratives. Many of his stories and novels are set in similar locales. And more importantly, his environments are steeped in historical inheritance, the darker kind that comes back to haunt its current inhabitants. This is part of the “noir” tone you mention, the spiritual je ne sais quoi that can’t be contained and finds its way into the material world and the life of a community…for better or for worse. When you were first thinking of Rachel Rising, did you have anything like the early American writers in mind, Hawthorne or Poe or Melville? It seems to me that in your comics, you’re wrestling with some of the same themes as these writers, although maybe in a more fantastic way.
TM: I have a sense of the times when I write about them. I try to convey that in the writing, the dialogue and the visuals. Although evil is timeless, it is displayed in various ways throughout history by the social mores of the communities it visits. At least, that’s how I’m portraying it in this story: evil as an entity that uses and discards people. It’s an exaggerated view, one I picked up from the bizarre stories of extreme violence in the Victorian era. It was so beyond what you imagined that time would produce. The contrast was truly shocking and the restricted social setting made it so.
DR: You mention the timelessness of evil. But I’m also curious about how fluid it can become. In Rachel Rising we see the past deadly deeds of a small community linked to a more supernatural, or otherworldly, form of perniciousness. Lilith is pissed, to say the least, and will stop at nothing to get her revenge. But the kind of evil we see in Echo has much more of the man-made quality, linked to the military-industrial complex, power, and profit. Which kind of moral darkness do you think resonates more with your own writing? Or is it a matter of finding both equally fruitful?
TM: As a writer, I think I stand at the crossroads of philosophical vs. moral evil. You can’t write the bad guy without putting on their shoes and going for walk — you have to see the world from their point of view. Although most of us want to believe there is a line between good and evil, and we can trust others not to cross it, there are some who have decided nothing really matters. You know the classic argument: if there is no God, the only reason left for me not to kill you is tribal law…the other members might get mad and punish me because they needed you and what you provide, and because they can’t trust me anymore. Some people don’t even care about that — screw the tribe. So you have to know which point of view your character has, beginning with that very basic starting point. It defines everything they do, everything they become, every decision, every action. Sometimes the battle between good and evil is nothing more than a battle of wills, sometimes terrible consequences make us feel there must be something very important to resolve but we’re not sure how to assemble an answer for that because we see the history of man and know we and all our tragedies will also be forgotten one day. Somewhere in these philosophical dark woods is every one of us, wandering, changing our questions, changing our answers as years go by. I don’t have any answers, I just write about the things people do and wonder why.
DR: I think this quandary comes out clearly in your work, and especially in Rachel Rising. I’m not sure how you feel about this reading, but I see the character of Zoe as one that is standing at the crossroads you just alluded to. It’s easy to see that Rachel embodies certain attitudes and ideas (although she’s involved in her own kind of struggles), and that Lilith has her own agenda. But Zoe is someone caught between different forces, unsure what to think about the world she finds herself in but at the same time pliable and prone to its various, and nefarious, influences. And she’s a child, someone we usually see as innocent, to boot. Have you created her as kind of sounding board to some of the deeper issues underlying the series?
TM: Yes, she is my Alice, looking down the hole of the world.
DR: Yeah, Zoe is definitely looking down into a dark hole. But I find Echo an even darker title, one with a more ominous message because it’s tied so closely to our uses of technology. In fact, your character William Dumfries, right before he shoots himself, says that “the greatest challenge we face in science is the scientist himself.” This is a theme that runs throughout that series. How do you see the tone of Echo compared to Rachel Rising?
TM: Echo is a little more specific in targeting science vs. faith vs. truth, which I really do see as a triangle, not one side or another. There is a growing, unsettling feeling that the answers come from third position. That excites me, because science and faith both have their limitations. Even implying a third option is a good basis for sci-fi. Rachel Rising, on the other hand, is a broad stroke about life and death of human beings and all options are possible at the moment. Searching for answers while dealing with physical dangers is the premise. In both stories, we look for answers, and at no time do I promise answers would make us better people.
DR: You mention a “third position” here. How does a third, or non-dualistic, way of understanding the world come out in your comics?
TM: Well, considering we humans tend to arrange two sides to everything, my characters tend to deal with pressures from both sides of issues, and they yearn for a solution that can’t come from either side. I mean this philosophically and physically, whether they are debating world-view issues, sexual issues, or social issues. This comes from my frustration with our tendency to divide over issues and argue ourselves to death. So when a character like Katchoo is faced with one of these hot potatoes, such as politics, abortion, or sexuality, she doesn’t leap to one camp or the other. She expresses my frustration with both camps and yearns for a solution that neither can supply. It’s in all my books. Once you’re aware of it, you can see it in every book.
DR: I’d like to talk about Strangers in Paradise, especially since you’ve just released a new paperback omnibus of the entire series. But as a way of getting there, I want to get back to Echo. I see the thematic issues that you mention spanning all of your creator-owned works. I’m curious, though, about the transition from Strangers in Paradise to Echo, two starkly different premises. How did the conclusion of the story of Katchoo, Francine, and David –another non-binary? –bring you to Echo?
TM: I felt like an actor picking my next role. I’d just finished this complex family drama. For my next story I was looking for a thriller focused on one main character. And I wanted the story to be in new locations, away from the Strangers in Paradise settings. My early notes were for a murder mystery, but it just felt too much like a James Patterson book. So, I was beating that horse to death with rewrites when Robyn, my wife, suggested I consider the mystery girl with a more superhero/sci-fi problem, like something hi-tech stuck on her back that she can’t take off, and people chase her for it. I liked the idea of sci-fi because that meant I could introduce anything to make it exciting. And I knew immediately that whatever was stuck to the girl had to be on her front, not her back, because I’m an ape. Once I had that prompt from my wife, I was off and running. The story came quickly, and within a couple of weeks I was drawing the first issue.
DR: Did you know close to the beginning how you might wrap up Julie Martin’s story? And in general, do you have a sense of an endpoint, however tentative, of a series like Echo or Rachel Rising?
TM: I outlined Echo as a three-act book before I started writing. After the wandering excess of Strangers in Paradise, I wanted my next book to be a tight, limited story. I needed the change of pace and I wanted to offer something new to my readers. It’s different with Rachel Rising — this series I’ve always pictured as a TV series. To me the idea was to establish the characters then let them live in this extraordinary circumstance. See what happens. I have so many ideas to explore. I don’t know how long I could run with something like that. If Strangers in Paradise is any indication, I guess for quite a while. But, these days that depends on sales. If the print numbers dip too low, I would be forced to stop and start something new just to recapture the attention of the market. That’s an unfortunate reality of the comics business.
DR: Back in the spring there was the buzz that Rachel Rising had been optioned for television. Was this part of your planning from the very beginning, not only thinking about the series as a TV drama, but actively writing in such a way that would translate well for television?
TM: Actually, yes, I’ll own that. I was deliberately trying to develop a high concept story that was easy to explain and hopefully more accessible than my previous books. It would be nice to have a commercial success before I die.
DR: I guess Rachel Rising is a very accessible concept. From friends and fellow comics readers, I’ve been noticing more reaction to this series, people saying it’s one of their favorites. And last fall we learned that issue #2 was included in the 2013 volume of The Best American Comics. Do you feel that Rachel Rising is a break-out title in many ways, and that you’re reaching audiences in ways you may not have in the past?
TM: I do think making each series different from the one before has helped attract new readers. But just sticking around and continuing to make new comics accounts for some of it, too. The problem is you need new readers to make up for the attrition that occurs over time. You lose readers and retailers, no matter what you publish. New readers are very important to every sustained publishing effort. To be honest, Strangers in Paradise lost readers over time. Nobody remembers that now, but that was the impetus for stopping. I didn’t want to be around for so long that Strangers in Paradise became like Blondie — a comic work everybody’s heard of and nobody reads anymore. No offense to Chic Young.
DR: Do you get many readers contacting you to say they dearly miss Strangers in Paradise and want to see it come back in some manner? And for that matter, have you ever given any thought to revisiting those characters in any way?
TM: SiP fans are forever. They have kept close tabs on me and encouraged me to bring the girls back in anything new. But, they don’t want any of the hard-earned happiness messed up. I know exactly what they mean by that. You can’t bring out a sequel and blow apart everything they worked for in the first book. We all invested a lot of time and feelings into that roller coaster. So I do think about new stories, what to do with them as a couple. And I began writing a prose story about it. I hope to put a finished Strangers in Paradise novel out someday. Maybe in 2015.
DR: The paperback edition of your Strangers in Paradise Omnibus was just released back in the fall. I know that the hardbound edition came out in 2009, but that had a limited print run. From your vantage point, how has the reaction been to the softcover release four years later?
TM: Wonderful, actually. The hardcover came and went so fast that way too many people were cut out of the loop. We heard from them every year until I could finally get the softcover in print, and this time we went with a big print run. I hope to have that book available for another year or two before it sells out. I don’t want any reader left behind!
DR: There have been a variety of ways for readers to get their SiP fix over the years: the various trades, the Collected Strangers in Paradise editions, the Treasury Edition, the pocket book editions, and of course the original comic books. In addition to collecting everything in one nice package, what advantages does the Omnibus have over the previous versions?
TM: I wanted the Omnibus to be my final perfect edition, so I went through the entire series page-by-page and fixed all my art/writing errors, fixed a few art things that bothered me, rescanned the old pages to hi-res and assembled the story in chronological order. It reads different from the previous published material, i.e., correctly. It was my chance to finally edit the book and publish a smart version. You know, when you publish a story one chapter at a time, you lose the advantage of big-picture story editing. You can’t retrofit something before print. The omnibus is, finally, my edit. Nothing is taken out. It’s just fixed.
DR: You’ve already mentioned your feelings about ending that long-running series and letting go of the adventures of Katchoo and Francine. What was your experience like revisiting Strangers in Paradise, going back to edit and compile everything for the omnibus edition?
TM: It was like getting the band back together. After some time passes you lose connections to things, even your own work, but once I focused on it again, I was back in that place. Just like a band that played together for years, then skipped years, then got back together. The synchronicity returns. It’s like going back to Neverland and the magic is still there. So, I’d say it was a great feeling.
DR: You obviously have incredible emotional ties to the SiP gang. Are those same kind of links being forged with Rachel Rising, or does the longevity of that earlier series stand out as a unique experience?
TM: Comparing the two goes deeper than the books. It’s comparing my life then and now, so it’s the classic young and raw versus older and wiser. The challenges are different, there are trade-offs and the balance of weakness and strengths has changed. There’s a lot to be said for youth and creativity, but standing on years of experience to look at higher goals is the best reward.
DR: That’s an interesting way to put it. So do you see your comics as a gauge of yourself personally, maybe a loose form of journaling? Not in the sense that your comics are autobiographical, but that you’ve embedded in them states of mind?
TM: In a broad sense, I suppose that has some truth. My work is a product of my life experience to that point. Life happens to me like light to a prism. Move it down a line, and what comes out changes. Maybe that’s why we’re here — we’re just a light show for God.
DR: We’re already up to issue #24 and about two and a half years into Rachel Rising. You’ve introduced a variety of plot components and character complications. If you were to have your way and not have to worry about pesky things such as sales figures, how long would you like to sustain this series?
TM: For as long as I have the inspiration. That’s where all the stories come from. When that dries up, it’s time to go and look for something new to devour.
DR: What about other considerations? How much does readership, fan response, and sales figure into your determination to go forward with the series?
TM: Well, it matters because I do this to support my family. So it has to meet the criteria of a man responsible for the support and well-being of family members. That’s just the facts of life. And because I can only make one comic series at a time, that series has to do well or it will have to stop. I have no choice.
DR: Every now and again you work for other publishers, even the big two, and on titles such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Birds of Prey, Fables, Strange Tales, and most notably Runaways. Tell me a little about the factors that go into your decision to do this contractual work.
TM: I’ve enjoyed working on other comics. It gave me a break from my own gravity-bending vortex. It’s fun to draw something fresh and crawl into scenes written by another. From a career position, I hoped working on popular books would attract new readers to my own. To some degree, I think that worked, but fan loyalty is to the characters more than the creator du jour. Runaways is exceptional in that the fans were just as loyal to Brian K. Vaughn as the book. Assuming that book from him after Joss Whedon was like being the third husband: there’s some love there, but the kids will never trust you. The whole year I worked on it I never heard a fan response. It wasn’t until another year or two passed that people began to mention it favorably. By then I’d moved on. That’s the funny thing about publishing, the out of sync timing of the production period and the popularity period. Like movie making, I guess.
DR: I assume with your creator-owned work, the response is much more immediate. How much does fan response play into and even determine your story creation, if at all?
TM: Positive fan reactions are rewarding and encouraging of course. But you can’t write for that because it is a moving target. Readers are happiest when you surprise them. Writing for them puts you one step behind them. For instance, a pop fiction novelist who puts out 2-3 books a year often works on a predictable formula. If you like his world, you may enjoy the formula, up to a point. But eventually the entertainment value is gone. So I try to stay ahead of the reader, which is tricky because my readers are intelligent. I may not be able to surprise them with the elements of a story, but I can surprise them with what my characters say and do about it. If I can keep that going, I have a better chance of attracting, and keeping, readers.
DR: How would you characterize your relationship with your fan base…or perhaps your fan bases, since those who gravitate toward Strangers in Paradise may be very different from those who are currently following Rachel Rising, or those who like Runaways?
TM: It’s hard to say without projecting what I think or what I want the relationship to be. But honestly, I think it’s good. My readers are very kind with their praise and support. I try to be open and available. And I’m usually mindful of how lucky I am to have readers, so I treat them with respect. I don’t have any sense of divided readership among my different series, only the awareness of new readers trickling in from word of mouth.
DR: I’ve noticed that with your two most recent series, Echo and Rachel Rising, you include no letters pages, whereas you had them at times in Strangers in Paradise. Is this lack of a letters page due to your views of the creator-fan relationship, or is it merely the result of practicality and production constraints?
TM: I would have a letter column in the books if I could, but I never get letters any more. It’s that simple. Even email from a fan is rare. I’ve heard the other creators say the same. The best you’ll get these days is a nod in a tweet, or maybe a paragraph in somebody’s blog, but I can’t reprint those.
DR: This is interesting, given the history of fandom and the significance of letter pages. Why do you think the letters — hard copy, email, or otherwise — have dried up?
TM: It’s a generation thing. Kids today don’t write letters of any kind.
DR: Coming back to your most recent work: I have to say that I’ve been floored by the wrap-up of the latest narrative arc of Rachel Rising. The sudden appearance of the Witches of Manson, the return of Lilith and the reaction of Zoe…it seems to me that your series is just getting darker and creepier as it progresses. Are you finding yourself hitting a real stride with Rachel Rising? Are you getting into it as many of your readers are? I’ve spoken with so many people who love this series, but I’m curious to know how the creator himself is immersed in his own narrative.
TM: It felt to me like we are just now getting “the band” together. I finally have the cast assembled and playing off each other. I really felt it in issue 24, wrapping up the Lilith story. It does feel a bit like being a roll. It encourages me to write new stories and play with this new cast that works so well together. I wonder if this is what it’s like to be an actor in a good play, and that feeling of success and camaraderie they feel as a team, and everything clicks to make those magic performances. When this happens, I feel like the director of that cast. I love them, I develop empathy for them, I marvel at the details of their performance, and I feel responsible for them. And, everyday, I’m somehow able to pick it back up where I left off. It’s a magical feeling.
DR: That’s an interesting analogy with the stage. Do you indeed see yourself as director, orchestrating or arranging the actions of figures who, while obviously born of your imagination, have perhaps taken on a life of their own?
TM: Yes, it’s very much that way. And you need it to be that way, otherwise the writing lacks life. If the writer isn’t feeling it, neither will the reader.
DR: Without asking you to give anything away, what kind of “orchestrations”may you have in mind for Rachel Rising and its ever-evolving storyline?
TM: All I can say is Rachel is looking for her murderer and discovers a nasty underground society within Manson.
DR: I don’t think you can go wrong with nasty underground societies, especially when they’re linked to creepy small towns. But do you have any ideas percolating outside of Rachel Rising, perhaps thoughts of a new series you’d like to begin, or even a vague wish list of storylines or genres you might like to try your hand at?
TM: I want to put out a few more Strangers in Paradise stories before I’m done. And I have another new series outlined and ready to go when the time is right. It’s more of a fantasy story, a little more geared towards younger readers. But I’d also like to do a story about sex because I know I could do a good job with that.
DR: Okay, there’s a lot packed into that response. First let me ask, how can we expect to see the Strangers in Paradise comics? Will these be in one-shots, miniseries, or some other format?
TM: I’m working now on a one-shot comic, and I’m wondering if I might not make it a quarterly thing. But that would depend on the fans’response to it. I am considering several SiP ideas, but it’s bad karma to discuss them before they exist. But I can say that Strangers In Paradise will return in August with a story featuring the entire cast as six year olds. Twenty-four page comic, full color. It’s really cute and meant to be a fun read as the gang do their thing, but with that kid slant to it.
DR: What about the fantasy story you mentioned? Would this be an ongoing series, as you’ve done with your previous creator-owned titles? And if you do this, would this be the first time you’ve written specifically with a younger audience in mind?
TM: Yes, it is more all-ages than my previous work. I have the story outlined with a definite story arc and end, like it was with Echo. Of course, that could also just be the set up for the ongoing series to follow. That’s always possible in my mind if something catches on with the public. If not, I would move on.
DR: I have to ask about that “sex story” you mentioned earlier. Anything you can tell me about that idea?
TM: No. Just a desire to write a story that plays to my strengths as a creator. I am aware that I could write and draw a great story about sex. I think I should before I get too old.
DR: Fair enough. And this makes perfect sense to me. Not only are you known for writing female characters, really fleshing out the complexities of their identities, but also for your abilities at rendering anatomy and form…regardless of gender.
TM: Yes, I could nail that. No pun intended. (Smile)
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