With Crown & Anchor: Book Two: Castaway of Demons headed to Kickstarter on October 12th, Alaire and Toben Racicot ventured inside the Yeti Cave with Jimmy Gaspero to discuss their influences, process, working relationship, other comics projects, and too many other fun and exciting topics to list here.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Hello, Alaire and Toben, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave. It’s been a difficult 18 months or so now during the pandemic, how have the two of you been doing?
ALAIRE RACICOT: Jimmmmyyyyyyy! Thanks for having us! I like the Yeti Cave. It’s cozy, there’s blankets, and there’s free cheese in here! At least… I think that’s cheese. Smells like cheese. Speaking of things having the appearance of cheese, I’ve been trying to get into better shape – so far, I am still a circle because I love snacks too much.
TOBEN RACICOT: It’s a pleasure to chat, Jimmy. I’ve been fantastic. I’m exercising again, so that’s great. I’ve recently gotten back into audiobooks and am working through Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. It’s really hard for me to get into reading fiction and audiobooks allow me to take in the story while I work out, do dishes, or ride the bus! Happy times.
CBY: For anyone not familiar with you or your work, your website has a very fun “About Us” section that I encourage everyone to check out, but I wanted to know how the two of you met and your comics origin story. Were you comic book readers since you were kids or did you come to it later? Do you have similar tastes in the comics you like to read?
TR: I’ll let Alaire tell the story of how I chased her across campus and instead talk about how I came to read comics. It started with Archie comics as a child, manga as a teen and then Marvel as a young adult. Nowadays it’s mostly all Image, still manga from time to time. My favorite is Eyeshield 21, and earlier this year I finished all of Fullmetal Alchemist – incredible. We have mostly similar tastes in comics. Mostly because Alaire forces me to read what she likes and I do the same to her.
AR: I’ll let Toben tell the story of how he chased me across campus when we first met, and instead talk about how I loved to read chapter books and comics as a kid. Any time we went to the grocery store, I’d read Playstation Magazine, Nintendo Power, and Shounen Jump. Video games and manga got me through much of my childhood. I remember falling in love with Hikaru No Go and Naruto’s art, even though I never really read them outside of Shounen Jump. Of course, I grew up playing Spyro, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and a whole shwack of games. I absolutely made my own comics and characters up until high school, when I thought I was gonna go work for Square Enix and started using real sketchbooks instead of lined notebooks to draw. I’d use white out to paint symbols on the covers of them, and I’d cycle through colors. I had my own thang.
I grew up reading manga like King of Bandits Jing, Death Note, Eyeshield 21, Claymore, and Fullmetal Alchemist. I dipped into a lot of series during my Barnes & Noble trips with my dad, but could never afford a ton of them, so I never really finished or collected any particular series to completion other than the ones I own now. Toben makes me read his dumb Image comics like East of West and then I end up loving them.
CBY: I read all of East of West myself recently and very much enjoyed it. What do the two of you do when not making comics?
AR: Playing with and reading to our son most of the day, video games, going outside for walks and parks, trying new things of the foody variety, freaking out about all the toys we can buy for our kid and trying really hard not to, being Toben’s guinea pig when it comes to new recipes… and when I’m not working on comics? I’m working on other comics.
TR: Cook, bake, exercise, school, video games, daydream about D&D, daydream about doughnuts, clean the house. I’ve recently overcome my fear of deep-frying, so I think up recipes and what I can deep fry. We’ve eaten a lot of fried chicken the last few months. One of the reasons we joined the gym. Speaking of gyms, replaying Pokemon SoulSilver, Shield, and Alpha Sapphire.
"I want to tell stories that make you stop in awe every once in a while, and make you genuinely love the characters, and also break your heart a little. If a story can make you feel something in your heart somehow, get some solid laughs out, it’s a good one!" – Alaire Racicot
CBY: There is nothing I love more in this world (except my children) than fried chicken. Going off your special abilities from your website, Alaire, what is the best craft quesadilla you make?
AR: It all started with me not having BBQ sauce to make quesadillas with. Going through my parent’s fridge, I tried to conjure some ingredients that would equate to BBQ sauce. Know what I picked? Teriyaki sauce, brown sugar, and sriracha. That absolutely does not even come close to BBQ sauce. And y’know what, that mixture tasted incredible. It fed my roommates, won me friends, it got me a husband, and someday it’ll bring world peace.
TR: It was that quesadilla recipe that won me over. When in university, we would have Friday date night, which most often consisted of those quesadillas. And then Saturday I’d go to her place to do laundry, play Final Fantasy IX, and then we’d end up eating those quesadillas.
CBY: Toben, your special ability is drafting song parodies. I’ve been a big Weird Al fan since I was 9 and bought “Even Worse” in 1988. Are you a Weird Al fan and, if so, what’s your favorite Weird Al parody song? Do you have a favorite all-time parody song by any artist or group?
AR: I bet he’s gonna say ‘Trapped in the Drive-Thru.’ That one basically sums up our relationship.
TR: ‘Trapped in the Drive-Thru’ is amazing and I wish it was the song that we danced to at our wedding because it does indeed sum up our relationship. We did a cross country drive and listened to that and ‘Albuquerque’ over and over! I wouldn’t say I’m a Weird Al fan, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to him of my own volition. But I appreciate his genius. I do like ‘Another One Rides the Bus,’ which is such an original Weird Al. That’s what I’d recommend to everyone, I think it’s so clever.
CBY: For both of you, what are the types of stories you want to tell and why do you believe the medium of comic books is the right format to tell those stories?
AR: I want to tell stories that are really pretty and really cool. So I guess, pretty cool stories. I was so spoiled with Final Fantasy, and so I wanted to someday capture my own version somehow, if not through video games, then through drawing. I honestly thought I had given up comics for good until I met Toben that fateful evening when he chased me across campus. (But he already told you that story, right? Okay, I’ll move on then.) After I started drawing comics again, everything just clicked even better than before, and I really ended up enjoying drawing comics for realsies. I want to tell stories that make you stop in awe every once in a while, and make you genuinely love the characters, and also break your heart a little. If a story can make you feel something in your heart somehow, get some solid laughs out, it’s a good one!
Comics are great because they bridge the gap between stillness and animation. It’s cinema on paper. It’s storyboarding. You have those emotional frames and compositions. You have those dramatic expositions. You see so many details between the lines; when you see the page, your brain can imagine the entire scene and attitudes of the characters and the before and after actions whilst looking at the current action in progress, if that makes any sense. It’s a fascinating thing. I feel comics are my best way to communicate and explore the beauty that I want in my stories, so that’s where I’m going to weigh anchor.
TR: That’s the hardest question you’ve asked. I love comics because of how much control it gives me over pacing and the reader interacting with scenes. The fact that I can organize a story where turning the page actually matters is awesome. In Transmute, there’s a short story where I write about how my high school band wrote music. In it, Alaire depicts how I view creation, lining up Tetris blocks into lines. I’m very focused on structure, The Hero’s Journey, and I really like genre-mashing. Pilgrim’s Dirge starts very sci-fi, but will soon collide into the fantasy realm, Crown & Anchor straddles the line between the two, and Emulator is very sci-fi while also being very grounded in reality and drama. Overall, if a story keeps me awake at night, or doesn’t leave me alone, I take it as a good sign and develop it.
CBY: I can’t think of many comic book creators that are married and have worked together on projects. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 other couples. Are you able to draw a distinction between your personal lives and working lives or is it all lumped together? How would you describe your professional, working relationship?
AR: There is no distinction. I would describe our working relationship as gladiatorial combat – stinky with a lot of shouting.
TR: We’re creative people. We like narratives. We like interactive experiences. Even when we want to take a break, we just keep working because we can’t really stop. As for our professional relationship, I wouldn’t go as far as gladiatorial combat. Like all my collaborators, I understand that all the effort I could ever do will not equate to their greatness. I give Alaire the script and get out of the way. Once in a while make a note about a layout or a panel composition. But I dislike giving notes because I dislike getting notes. If I didn’t trust my artists to do their best, I wouldn’t have chosen them, especially Alaire. I just sit in awe as the pages roll in and then cover up all their hard work with my lettering.
CBY: Alaire, as an artist, if you have a story you want to tell, how do you select writers to work with you; and, Toben, what criteria do you use to find an artist to collaborate with if Alaire is unavailable?
AR: If I have a story to tell, I tell Toben to write it for me. But right now, I’ve got lots of Crown & Anchor to draw before that happens! I’ve never called on a writer before, otherwise.
TR: Style and storytelling above all. The artists I found for Emulator, Emiliana Pinna, and Pilgrim’s Dirge, Matteo Leoni, immediately caught my eye for two reasons. Emiliana is a great character artist. The body language she conveys is exactly what I needed for the family drama in Emulator. And Matteo is a rockstar who draws amazing mechs, aliens, which is exactly what’s called for in Pilgrim’s Dirge. There are a lot of artists I want to work with, it’s hard being patient when making comics. I mean, Alaire has 4-5 other stories of mine on hold to draw after Crown & Anchor. Some are hinted at in Transmute. Others, most actually, came during the pandemic. I made a goal to write every day in 2020 and wrote 1469 pages of comics. So there’s a lot to get to. I haven’t been so diligent this year, but there is a 22-issue story I’m still outlining. We’ll get there.
CBY: Toben, you recently successfully kickstarted Pilgrim’s Dirge #1. You wrote and lettered it. It’s essentially the story of a man trying to get back to his family and this is a man that has made mistakes and is maybe past the point he believes he can ever atone for those mistakes. It’s also about the burdens of responsibility and, perhaps, destiny. Was this a story you were working on for a while, and how much of this story was influenced, if at all, by being a parent yourself?
TR: So much of Pilgrim’s Dirge is running away from responsibility and guilt. What better way to avoid blame than to not be around anyone who can cast blame at you? Sources of responsibility have been common in my life, but nothing hits so hard as having another human being relying on you to keep them alive. I think some of that definitely came into the scripts while, as a new father, I prepared the scripts for Matteo. The first issue is set on a frozen Earth which is a physical representation of the isolation that Orin feels due to his past mistakes. His world is cold and lonely because that’s how he feels inside. It’s what he feels he deserves for what happened. His journey is one of healing and finding the strength to forgive yourself, which is always the hardest step. I like to say that in Pilgrim’s Dirge, Orin needs to learn something about Orin.
CBY: Toben, what’s your writing process like if you had to describe it? Do you outline your stories first, do you listen to anything while you write, or do you need to be holed up in a bunker somewhere? Have you ever had to deal with “writer’s block” and, if so, how do you manage it?
TR: Great question. I’m a huge advocate of outlining and pre-writing. I take a piece of lined paper and write 1-24 down the side. Each line is a page and I break down each page and issue. Lately, especially with Crown & Anchor and another longer story I’m working on, I moved to Google Sheets and use each cell to break down a page, although I still did the page thing for Crown & Anchor. Having all that thought out, I take it and script the pages. Most of the dialogue is placeholder, and I update that when I get the art back and am lettering. Much of Emulator dialogue changed after seeing Emiliana’s art. 95% of the inner monologues changed after getting Matteo’s art back. And mostly I add in jokes after getting Alaire’s art back. She’ll send the page. I’ll letter it, put in a joke, send it back, and if she laughs I know I did a good job. If she doesn’t, I’ll try again.
"Pilgrim’s Dirge starts very sci-fi, but will soon collide into the fantasy realm, Crown & Anchor straddles the line between the two, and Emulator is very sci-fi while also being very grounded in reality and drama. Overall, if a story keeps me awake at night, or doesn’t leave me alone, I take it as a good sign and develop it." – Toben Racicot
CBY: Alaire, is there “art block” as well that you have ever had to contend with? If so, what do you do to get through that?
AR: First, I complain a lot. Then I feel better! Nah, I used to draw all the time in my sketchbook, constantly creating new things, but after having a kid and having so much comic work to do, I just can’t really do that anymore, and I feel like I’m not as creative as I used to be. The ideas don’t flow so much in a sketchbook anymore. But then I remember I funnel all my energy into comics. So comics are actually the root of my art block. Seriously though, it really helps to just take care of myself. Drink water, intake protein, take breaks or naps or all of the above. My brain then has some time to recoup and problem-solve a lot better when it comes to creating after that.
TR: Most often I end up buying her a box of chicken nuggets and then we watch baking shows.
CBY: Alaire, for a project like Pilgrim’s Dirge, where you may not be listed on the credit’s page, are you involved with the development of the story or running the Kickstarter, or do you each have your own totally separate projects that you work on?
AR: I’m in the shadows giving Toben opinions and ideas that he immediately says are not very good, and then he does his own thing anyway. Sometimes I trick him into thinking my ideas are good though. Sucker.
TR: She’s involved in everything because she’s the first person I pitch all my ideas to. She and I built the Pilgrim’s Dirge universe. A lot of what the world is came from conversations we had years ago. When I worked on the credit page we went back and forth on aesthetics. She’s a great critic who offers meaningful critiques and my comic work wouldn’t be the same without her <3.
CBY: Let’s talk about Crown & Anchor. I read Book One: Legends No More. First, wow! Second, double wow!! There is so much jammed into this story about mythology, Christianity, found family, morality, overcoming one’s past, finding something worth fighting for, and it’s funny. What is the origin for Crown & Anchor? How did you develop this?
TR: A lot of ingredients went into the smoothie that is Crown & Anchor. Designing a world with a polytheistic religion is the first thing that interested me. I read The Odyssey in university and we discussed what makes an “epic” and one of the pieces is invoking the goddess, which is why Mact is praying in the opening pages. Outside of literature, a major influence is actually Fire Emblem. Telling a story that progresses with “boss battles” was interesting. That’s where the idea of the Pirate Lords came from. That also helped establish the character tropes as the party fills out more in later books and we put together our “fellowship.” Because I played so many video games, I understand narrative more through video game structures than literature.
Development was in two parts. One version that was awful. I think Alaire did around 10 pages. Then I scrapped it and restructured the narrative to be more dense to really give the reader substance – it’s one of the reasons we release the book in trades rather than single issues. As I became more comfortable with structure, The Hero’s Journey, I could see where the characters were headed and I have all 40 issues written. I also designed a D&D campaign that takes place after the events of Crown & Anchor. Understanding future Aventus, the setting, helped me world-build better and even go back in time, which you’ll see more in Book Two.