JESSE KEPPLER: I’ve been doing pretty good, Jimmy. Comics-wise I think I’m doing great and I’m starting to get into a rhythm with Renzo and my writing. I am not a fan of winter, so staying busy helps me get through these months faster.
CBY: When you’re not writing ROBO, “A cyberpunk saga set during end-stage capitalism,” what is it you do?
JK: I’ve worked in technology for more than 20 years, doing programming, administration, and architecture. Last year, I started a job doing cybersecurity, which is something that’s always interested me but still presents a lot of challenges and learning to keep me engaged. My background definitely shows up in my work because I will get creative ideas when working on actual work problems and jot them down to be included in the comic.
CBY: You included the Making of ROBO as a Kickstarter reward, and what a treasure trove that is about you and this comic. But for anyone that hasn’t read that yet, what is your origin story as a comics creator, and have comics always been a part of your life? You’ve said that it’s only recently, in the past year or so, that you started creating comics (again), so what made you want to write comics now?
JK: My comics origin? I was bitten by a radioactive spinner rack at a cafe in upstate NY. My first comic books were an impulse purchase while visiting my uncle (who later introduced me to Akira and Aeon Flux…I should thank him for that). They were Robotech Saga and Justice Machine from Comico Comics, an old independent publisher. I also loved comic strips from the newspaper and would try to make my own. Eventually, this developed into a full-blown comics habit and I got heavily into X-Men.
My mother is an artist and I would ask her to draw characters for me all the time. But she was usually too busy to do all of my requests, so I would draw for myself. This eventually lead to creating my own characters as well and that ultimately became Robo around when I was 10. Really, I just wanted to draw robots fighting, but I had some rough frameworks of a story.
My best friend was also very into comic books and a better artist than I was, so in the early '90s, we teamed up to make a more professional and purposeful Robo comic. At that time, I had some connections to a small press/indie comics group through a pen pal in Florida. He offered me some space in his zine for pages of Robo, which sadly never ended up getting published. And unfortunately, that was where it ended due to finances and diverting my attention to other hobbies.
I continued writing and I’ve started and never finished a few novels. I had a blog for many years before that was popular where I would put up little bits of fiction. I even knew a colorist for Top Cow in 1997 who tried futilely to tell me that I could, in fact, pitch to a comic company if I put in the right amount of work. I wanted to do my own stories and I didn’t realize how the process worked.
Flash forward a couple decades and we’re stuck in the pandemic and I was unemployed. I just realized one day that I could make a comic book and I didn’t have to wait for permission or an invitation to do so. That realization somehow had never struck me before so I took it as my mission to get me out of the boredom of isolation.
I’d started with Robo and the ideas about his story from my childhood but an adult perspective on the world and my interests in cyberpunk, science fiction, politics, and our inner lives had given me a story that was a little more mature. I quickly realized that my own drawing skills would not live up to what I was hoping for. I found online communities and I set out to hire an artist.
It’s been an incredibly fulfilling and also humbling experience to wade into a completely different sphere of the world. I love learning and growing and developing these new skills and it’s given me an avocation to pair with my day job during this challenging time in my own and everyone’s lives.
CBY: When you look back on the version of ROBO from 1991, what do you think about your relationship to comics and storytelling at that time? Is there anything you’d want to go back and tell 13-year-old Jesse about your life now or about making comics?
JK: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned, which I may not have been able to process back then, is that iterations on your creative process can really make it great. I never used to write drafts of anything, just go straight to done. As a writer, I’ve come a long way on that and I think the things I write now are much more cohesive as a result.
The first draft of Robo #1 was a mess of paragraphs with no structure or direction, just an outline of ideas. I might have tried to collaborate with Phil [Appley] on that if I hadn’t stumbled on Jim Zub’s videos about comic book scripts or other resources similar to that.
But this extends outside of writing as well, putting actual work in past the fun ideas stage improved my creative process as well as the presentation of the comic. I love making comics but it is also work sometimes. I think if I could have grasped that as a younger person I would have released more of my ideas sooner.
CBY: I think that's an important lesson and sometimes a tough one to learn. Technology, and how the citizens of NeuChicago use technology, is a big part of this comic. Do you have a tech background and have you researched future technology to get ideas for where certain technologies, like brain implants, may be headed?
JK: I’ve already discussed my work with technology and how that plays a part. However, a lot of what I write in terms of future technology is more science fiction or allegory for current events. I think the ideas themselves are neat and I try my hardest to make them believable, but the brain implants from Sunburst are primarily meant to remind us about the problems of gig work in America mixed with some ideas about cloud computing (my focus in my day job).
Of course, as I write this I found out that Elon Musk is working on a new company called Neuralink which wants to make brain implants a reality. If you’ve read my comic you can guess that this makes me very nervous.
I’m sure it’s not inspired by my comic, but the old saying about life imitating art becomes chilling when you’re writing cautionary tales. Humanity will invent amazing things to solve our problems and that does bring me hope. Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of exploitative uses of technology in my life as well. Things like drone warfare, facial recognition databases, social media data mining, and productivity tracking in warehouses and delivery jobs.
As Robo progresses, I hope to weave in stories about the other side of technology, where people co-opt technologies to improve their lives. The kinds of things that we see out of the Right to Repair movement, or the farmers who modify their equipment with firmware patches on tractors. I work almost exclusively with open source software in my job and those stories and movements give me a lot of hope.
CBY: Do you have a favorite piece of future tech from any movie/tv show/comic/book that you wish was available today?
JK: I love to travel, so future technologies I want to see would be related to that. Teleporters would be amazing if I could get over the idea that the machine has to kill you and reform a new version of you with your memories. The Prestige ruined teleportation for me, basically. So I think something like the Holodeck from Star Trek or an immersive virtual world like The Matrix (without the slavery aspect) tend to pique my interest.
I geek out super hard on simulated universes or any fiction that hints at or directly shows that our world itself might be a simulated universe. Is that cheating the question if I say this is available today and we just haven’t discovered it?
CBY: No, I sometimes think it's entirely possible this is all a simulation. Some days that theory makes the most sense. As much as this is a story about corporations replacing governments and the continued exploitation of the poor/non-citizens in the name of profit, it’s a character driven story about Charles Centon, the man in the Robo suit. What qualities do you think make a compelling hero?
JK: As I think about writing the end of this first story arc (in Robo #6), this is probably my biggest fear as a writer. Charles is the viewpoint character and he is a naïve idealist. The readers should hopefully see the world a little more clearly than him, but I hope that they also still root for him. The redeeming thing about Charles is that he does actually care about the people around him, even if the society he lives in has tried to abandon that part of our humanity.
One of my goals for worldbuilding is to portray that most people grew up in a world without the moral compass of caring for others that we received in our upbringings. Charles struggles with the loss of life that happened during Hurricane Edwin but everyone around him considers his actions to be a triumph. When Robo puts profits over people, they see that as the right thing to do. That mindset unsettles him deep down, even though on the surface he realizes that’s what everyone thinks was the right call.
I am hoping to have the readers side with Charles while not hammering that point too blatantly. Because as a real person, the world around us does affect our views and it is very difficult to maintain our own identity in the face of so much opposition. Charles wants to be a hero and he really does want to save people and make their lives better. I want to show how difficult that can be. I want to show that even when you’re right, it’s not an easy task to DO what’s right.
CBY: I believe I saw you mention recently that one of your goals is to table at a convention. Has that happened yet or is it still in the works? What are you hoping to get out of the comic convention experience?
JK: That is my big goal for 2022, yes. I have not done it yet but I’ve been scoping out the possibilities for smaller conventions that I could attend and exhibit at. I think it’s a really important experience for comic book creators to meet potential fans who don’t already know me. I think it will help me grow an audience but I also think it will help me get some feedback.
The current Robo audience are friends and family as well as other indie creators. I’m trying to branch out to find more science fiction and comic book fans. I think hearing from those people and seeing what they like will help me improve as a writer in ways that I have not been able to practice yet and that is a really exciting proposition.
Also, I like talking to people and meeting them. I feel like I could come away with some new friends just as I normally hope for as a convention attendee.
CBY: Philip Appley is the artist you collaborated with for issues #1 and #2 and Renzo Podesta has come in for issues #3 and #4. What have you learned about collaboration in making comics professionally over the past 4 issues and do you have a favorite page/panel from any issue?
JK: Collaboration really makes things better. Having someone to bounce ideas off of is nice for me and I always love when a page or panel comes back far different and far better than I had originally imagined. Phil and Renzo have both introduced me to media and political inspirations that I’ve tried to work into Robo as well.
My favorite page with Phil is Robo #2, Page 10. It felt like a triumph in so many ways. It’s a page turn moment, it has an emotional impact, it has a callback panel, and when I look at it I can HEAR what’s happening in the art.
I will restrict my favorite page with Renzo to books that have come out, so it’s Robo #3, page 15. I have a full color print of this page as a KS reward and I have it framed in my office here as well as the original art for myself. When I wrote the page I had an idea of the reveal but Renzo’s artwork uplifted it to an incredible degree. It is so much better than what I had in my head in the scale and horror of it all. I look at the last panel over and over and just marvel at how much feeling there is in that alone.
Favorite panels though! Robo #1, Page 15, Panel 3 is my favorite panel with Phil far and away. It’s such a badass moment to me with such a simple composition. It reminds me of Alien 3. You can see it in the pinned tweet on my twitter.
With Renzo, this is a really hard call. Robo #3, Page 18, Panel 2 is an awesome David and Goliath moment that shows Shujaa’s courage and I used it as a sticker for my badge at this year’s DragonCon. But I also loved Robo #3, Page 8, Panel 1 when I was lettering the comic. I did a lot of custom bubbles and effects for that panel to sell the action. And then in Robo #4, Page 14, Panel 3 I am just totally in love with this tiny drawing of Robo firing his rockets.
I guess what I’ve learned is that you hire your artists for a reason. Trust them. Let them do what they do best and they will make your story all the better for it.
CBY: Are there any comic creators working today whose work inspires/influences you?
JK: I’m inspired by so many comic book creators. Brian K Vaughan is my favorite writer currently working and I’m inspired by his mastery of emotional moments and pacing. I can’t even say I try to emulate him because he’s so far above me in the craft, it’s like I’m drawing with crayons compared to him.
I’m hugely inspired by Alan Moore and his intricacy of stories, drawing from other fiction, and his use of the medium of comic books. He’s one of the true masters and it makes me very sad how much the comics industry has hurt him.
I got to meet Chris Claremont this year and I froze up being star struck. It’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. Claremont inspires me with the volume and longevity of his work. I love that his characters are so endeared to the audience and that they still have flaws and troubles while still being aspirational. I love the diversity and respect he gives to their backgrounds and their decisions.
In Indie comics, I want to shout out Dave Cook and Clark Bint from Killtopia. Notice me, sempai. They are both doing awesome with a beautiful and beloved cyberpunk comic and I hope I can meet them at a convention and become friends with them.
Ray Griffith and Jake Cohen of Astounding Tales are my bastions. They listen to me complain about frustrations and they give me ideas and support. Ray was my first friend in the indie comics scene and he does wonders for our community by bringing people together and keeping such a positive attitude and true love for the medium. I’m too cynical for that and I’m glad Ray is there to balance me out.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
JK: This is a stressful question. I’m glad you didn’t say that it could only be three books, just three that I was sure to include.
Watchmen. I think it’s a love letter to the comic book medium. I think it changed comic books in its time and possibly forever. The story shocked me and made me look to add more complexity to my own work. Dave Gibbons showed incredible mastery of the 9 panel format, lettering, and detail. Moore added so much richness up and down the world and the story. It’s my favorite and I don’t think it’s a tough call.
Fantastic Four #1. Classic silver age comic that changed the industry forever. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are famous even outside of comics. The start of the Marvel Universe and a pretty valuable book to boot. I actually have not read this in many years so I’m including it mainly for its significance and creators.
Cerebus: High Society. Cerebus is one of the most successful independent comic book series ever created. It’s a self published black and white comic that lasted 300 issues and introduced the industry to trade paperbacks. High Society is the transition point between a spoof comic to the narrative of the series and the first few trades of the series are a really amazing story. I would put this in the museum to honor independent creators and people who have a mission and stick to it. I would also keep Cerebus there as a touchstone to the conversation about how this work can drive you crazy.
CBY: Any other projects CBY readers should check out?
JK: Robo is my only book right now, so let me encourage you to check out some friends of mine mentioned above. Astounding Tales by Jake Cohen and Ray Griffith. Killtopia by Dave Cook and Clark Bint. Also Mecha-Ton by Wells Thompson, Dalton Shannon, and Fernando Pinto is crowdfunding now as well.
Finally, check out Renzo’s vast library of other work. You can find him on Instagram @renzo_podesta and he puts out his own comic through Patreon patreon.com/renzopodesta
CBY: Where can you be found online?
JK: I’m on Twitter often @moosecatcomics . I’m on Instagram less often by the same name. You can also check out www.moosecatcomics.com and you can find my Kickstarters and where to buy previous issues of Robo through my LinkTree: https://linktr.ee/moosecatcomics
CBY: Thank you so much, Jesse!