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Master World Building Cartoonist Simon Roy on 'Refugium'

We chat with the cartoonist about his latest trip to Altamira, the sci-fi terraformed world of Griz Grobus.

Simon Roy Refugium Kickstarter

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Simon Roy about Refugium.


Some worlds are impossible to tear away from once created. Cartoonist Simon Roy can't escape Altamira. He previously explored this deadly strange planet in Habitat and Griz Grobus (both soon available from Image Comics as Griz Grobus hits stores June 5th). Now, he's back, expanding the terraformed world with Refugium, his obsession forcing him to drill deeper into its environment. He's even recruited a bevy of other artists to help illustrate the guidebook within, a thick tome explaining the creatures that once inhabited Altamira and may again soon.

Refugium follows the Scribe, desperate to live an adventurous life. She puts in with a group of loggers living on the fringes. Men are being eaten by a monster, and the Scribe has attached herself to the Trapper, a hearty gentleman who has seen it all and killed it all. Together, they'll uncover a horrific reality and an even more grim possible future.

We chat with Simon Roy about the gnarly world he's crafted and why he can't put it down. We discuss the Soviet comedies that inspire his stories and the personal origins of his environmental message. We also talk about all the rad critters populating these pages. No one designs a universe quite like Simon Roy.

As of this writing, Refugium has one week left on its Kickstarter campaign. The book is already completed (we've read it); it just needs your help to make it a physical reality. CLICK HERE to explore Refugium and get your copy.


Simon Roy, His Favorite Soviet Comedites, and Refugium

Brad: With Griz Grobus and Refugium, you have created this massive universe and it feels like it's still expanding. Why tinker around in this particular world? Why create this world and not spin it off into a bunch of different worlds?

Simon Roy: I think just because I keep having ideas for this one. Previously, I've spun off into other stuff as I've thought of it. But especially after working on Griz Grobus, the setting of this kind of post-collapse of a galactic empire, corners of a sleepy universe sort of setting, there just kept on being little things that I'd be thinking about that would work and play out into new story ideas.

Brad: What's the itch that this world scratches for you?

Simon Roy: It hits a lot of stuff simultaneously. I hit on little historical tidbits that I'm thinking about. Aesthetically, there's a lot of room for me. I can go crazy and I can also go more restrained. I don't know, post-Soviet vibes. Or actually not quite post-Soviet, but I'm a big fan of Soviet movies from the '60s and '70s and some from the '80s. And some of the tonal stuff from those movies really speaks to me. And the visual and aesthetic vibes there. So it's a space where I can kind of poke around into that stuff and then occasionally go crazy and draw a giant alien as well.

Brad: I've read interviews with you where you've talked about your influences regarding the Soviet comedies as well as Tintin and Asterix. I can kind of see the Tintin and Asterix, but I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to Soviet comedies. Can you enlighten me? What is it about Soviet comedies that then leaks into something Refugium?

Simon Roy: I don't know. They can be both naturalistic and silly when they're good. They can also be as trashy as any other bad comedy when you come across them. But lots of them have a particular almost sweetness to them, which is kind of nice in comedies because they're comedies for the working class, for the people. There's one I like a lot called Devchata or The Girls, which is basically a romantic comedy, but instead of being set in New York or something, or a classic western setting for this sort of thing, it all takes place in a logging camp in Siberia.

It's just about young people trying to find love. So, like Matthew McConaughey or Kate Hudson. Like classic kind of tropes get snuck in there or emerge, but it all takes place in a very different setting. So a logging camp or a mountain republic in the Caucasus Mountains or that kind of thing. They often have some good slapstick. I like trying to get a little hint into that in there too.

Brad: There's definitely some slapstick in Refugium and there's sweetness. There's surprising sweetness, especially revolving a character named Betty that I won't spoil.

Simon Roy: Poor Betty. Poor Betty.

Simon Roy Explains His Refugium Design Sense

Brad: Oof, yeah, poor Betty. When reading Refugium with these characters that are at this logging camp, being beset on all sides by this dangerous native creature, you have the sense of family, but you get the sense of bumblingness, too. This is a disaster of their own making or of the culture's own making. I'm guessing you can find a lot of that in the Soviet comedies.

Simon Roy: Yeah. Bumbling around escalating accidental problems. There are two really good movies starring a character called Shurik, and he's just a blonde-haired, cute college student. And there's one where he goes to the North Caucasus, or not North Caucasus, somewhere in the Caucasus. Maybe Armenia, maybe Azerbaijan, maybe Georgia. We don't know. And he goes there to collect folklore. I guess the Soviet stereotype at the time is that Georgians always love to make toasts and love to force you to drink tremendous amounts of wine. People are constantly holding toasts of his arrival, getting him incredibly drunk, and then he gets into trouble from there. So, lots of stuff like that.

Brad: I mean, that's not necessarily a one for one for your scribe character, but there's a little bit of that with the scribe.

Simon Roy: Definitely. I like the idea of Refugium starts with her waking up hung over on a riverboat, having while drunk talked her way on to a potentially dangerous adventure the night before. So yeah, similar vibes.

Brad: And for me, as a fan of your work, I first discovered you through Prophet and some of the delights of Prophet is just the tremendous design sense that you have. You're not only digging into a character design, but technology design and biological design. And then now with this book, you're really getting lost in the weeds with the biology and the flora and the fauna of this universe. What made you go off in that direction?

Simon Roy: A huge part of it was I had some ideas for what to do for the aliens, but I partnered with a friend of mine, Jordan K. Walker who lives in Oregon. I first interacted with him on Deviant Art 15 years ago, I think when I was in college. He was in high school and he was drawing weird obscure aliens. So, for this, I had an idea for the story, but I didn't quite know how the alien biome was going to look. So I started to talk with Jordan and we started to spitball. He basically went really hogwild and established a lot of the stuff that would end up going into Refugium, which I don't know.

It was very exciting to keep getting stuff back from him and seeing like, "Oh wow, incredible. You made a weird mountain goat with a radula for a mouth, etc, etc." And then, actually, once he had finished doing a bunch of that stuff, we got to the other stages of the story, including a huge guidebook section, which is filled with art from all sorts of people.

Once I started to solicit other artists to submit designs to the book,. And I'm like, "Well, I got to design a bunch of aliens too." And then also having seen all the stuff that Jordan was doing, I was like, "Maybe we'll throw in one final story in the book where it takes place inside the alien biome fully." So we rounded it out with the last chapter, which is called "Gods of Jurado," where it's people living in a city where the native life has fully taken over.

Brad: And that's a little similar to your last book, Griz Grobus. You have the story within the story. And this one you have the guidebook within the story, and then you have the final chapter that you're talking about right here. Reading it once and then in preparation for this interview this morning, going back and looking at the structure of this book, I was impressed with how or when you need to execute the moments where we're going into the guidebook. Could you talk a little bit about, "Okay, this is how I decided when we returned to the guidebook."

Simon Roy: I like reading other comics that dip into prose and little info dumps. It's something that I think about a lot, and I feel like waiting for the right chapter break is key. Refugium is definitely trying to pick the right resting spots between scenes to sandwich in a little bit of stuff and not try and overload too much. At certain points, once the adventure officially begins, there's a big chunk of guidebook to prep you to get your mind going. And then as we go forward, most of the guidebook sections are much shorter until the end.

Simon Roy, Refugium, and its Earthly Origins

Brad: Even though you're slowing down to read, it almost feels like you're hitting fast forward to get to the end. It speeds the story up somehow.

Simon Roy: I'm glad to hear that. It's good to hear that it's working.

Brad: You have so many characters, and it's a hefty book, but it's not Tolstoy - to pick a random Russian writer. You have to be very economic in building these relationships, especially amongst the the log cabin folk. Can you talk about populating that cabin and then being able to communicate as much about them as quickly as you can?

Simon Roy: We didn't have that much time to do it. Some of the loggers only have one or two lines too. As long as I could have the voices of the core characters and try and be consistent with including most of the loggers in most of the scenes. I don't know. It was an interesting balance. I know this is a small admission, but I think there's a couple loose loggers. There's some that might show up in one panel or two panels, but most of the loggers are consistent. But there might be a couple of mysterious ghost loggers that only have one or two panels.

Brad: They're like your cannon fodder.

Simon Roy: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So there's a little bit of wiggle room.

Brad: Yeah, I'm looking at these campfire sequences at the end and it's like, "Can I track all of those campers?" Maybe not.

Simon Roy: Yeah, exactly. All the guys meet at the end. At a certain point, I was like, "Okay. Well, we've got the big guy with the tanker helmet. We've got the guy with the mullet and the mustache and the army hat." It's also a project too where most of the loggers... I don't even know the names.

Brad: I feel that with this story of your terraformed planet, you're really telling a climate change story. These loggers are coming in and they're deforesting this section of the planet that their ancestors populated because that's how we got breathable air here. But as they raze this area, the original native wildlife comes back. Can you talk a little bit about the environmental message of this story?

Simon Roy: I think a lot. Growing up and living in the Pacific Northwest. This is the history of the region here in America and Canada, where I'm from. It's defined by logging and it still is. When I go up into the Central Vancouver Island to go camping around Lake Couchiching or something, finding a specific little secretive hiding spots out there in the forest is sometimes difficult as the years go.

I go with my girlfriend, who's an avid camper. She has spots in mind, but the landscape is always changing because the giant logging corporations are constantly clear-cutting whole mountains. So finding your way on the logging roads in the back country becomes quite different because your landmarks will suddenly be gone. Also, growing up around here, when you go on a hike in a third-growth logging forest, there'll be all these gigantic rotting stumps that are now becoming nurse stumps to new trees.

You can see the notches cut out of the side of the stumps where the guys would put a board in to stand on when they were working in a team to saw the whole thing down. So part of this was just kind of, I don't know, almost like getting in touch with British Columbia Northwest history. In this case, where it's both reflecting on modern environmental destruction but also taking the internal world seriously too.

If you're living in a created biome and then you start to get a little bit too footloose and fancy free with harvesting stuff, what happens to that artificial balance you've created?



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