Michelle Lehmann, a/k/a Mirz, is a mom, author and digital artist who lives in a suburb of Chicago. A secretary by day, she spends her nights wiping runny noses, pushing pixels, and trying to save the world — all of which she does while consuming ungodly amounts of coffee. Inspired by a love of the short stories of Ray Bradbury, her writing career (if one would call it that) has been planted firmly in the speculative genre, with works mainly in science-fiction, fantasy, and goofy smiley stories. Since her dreams of becoming a superhero never took flight, she did the next best thing and created the fiction serial, Relativity, which can read at Blacktorrent.us. She recently had her first works formerly published in the profits-for-charity anthology, Cat Tails: A Collection of Littpurrature. Her other works, which she assures no animals were harmed during the creation of, can be found on various sites around the web, including deviantart.com, mirz.us, and bitmapworld.com.
James Lehmann, a/k/a Ravenswd started crafting stories as soon as he was able to hold a pen, but never finished anything until he acquired his Apple II computer — leading to a love of writing literature and computer code. A freelance computer programmer by profession, he is mostly a stay-at-home dad who gets a ton of inspiration from his kids and TV Tropes. He has a particular love of science-fiction and most of his works have been in that genre. Creating the character of Ravenswood Cadavre (because the name sounded cool), he never imagined it would lead him on a speculative writing journey that would span over 20 years and result in the superhero serial, Relativity, which he produces with his wife. He is also a connoisseur of webcomics, even co-creating one of his own with the emoticon strip, Bitmapworld. His works have appeared in several small publications you probably have never heard of, including The Torch and The Fiction Primer. Most of his writing and digital works can be found on Blacktorrent.us and deviantArt.com.
Interview with Relativity’s Creators
Raquel Thorne: I know that both you and Michelle had some of your characters developed before you even met. Which characters did you each already have, and how were you using them?
James Lehmann: Michelle had created Sara Wolff/Dark Flame, as well as a slew of villains which she pitted her against in original short stories. She then incorporated her into Batman fan-fiction and role-playing.
I had created Ravenswood Cadavre, whom I pictured as the stereotypical private eye. I didn’t have any really big plans for him. He was an alcoholic, he solved mysteries… That’s pretty much it. I don’t know if I would have ever actually done anything with him if I hadn’t met Michelle.
RT: Who is your favorite classic superhero? Villain? How have they inspired you?
JL: One of our biggest inspirations for the series was the movie “The Mystery Men” — which is kind of ironic because Team Torrent really isn’t much like them. Unlike most superhero movies at the time, Mystery Men had more of a “real world” setting. The characters didn’t have fancy gadgets, they had shovels and forks and whatever else they could get their hands on. So, like the Mystery Men, our heroes don’t have a Batmobile, they drive regular cars. They have ordinary nine-to-five jobs, like working in a coffee shop.
Another inspiration was “Watchmen,” for similar reasons. We’ve had quite a few people compare Relativity to Watchmen, which is very cool, as it’s one of my all-time favorite superhero stories.
As for villains, the Joker. We don’t have any “Joker-like” characters in Relativity. We couldn’t. He’s too unique and iconic.
RT: Michelle, you were more than just the original co-writer and co-creator, you also did the very first art. It’s quite different from the work you have commissioned for Relativity, so can you tell us a little about them, how they helped define the series, and share your favorite pieces?
Michelle Lehmann: My first Relativity art was a series of sketches I created in order to work out the costume designs of the heroes. My traditional drawing style is very cartoony, so I didn’t think they were good enough to actually show anyone. My real strength is in pixel-art, so once I had the designs hammered out, I decided to create “digital-doll” versions of the characters. Since these dolls were the only pictures available, they were the references I provided to artists during those early days. Many people feel that the depictions by Francisco Etchart are the “official” looks of the cast; his vision came from those very dolls. I remember the first time I saw the Relativity “poster” (which is now the cover for Lost & Found), I was blown away. Fetch managed to keep the overall look of the dolls, yet expand and make them something more. It still amazes me.
My first Relativity pixel was what I call a “mirror” doll — it shows the two sides of Sara Wolff. My favorite doll from that early period, however, is Martin Bling. To this day, that doll fits my mental image of the character far better than any other art. Another favorite, which I created after my pixelling skills had developed a bit more, was a version of the “sassy hooker” Bab Stone. I love how it turned out, and again, this single image is most how I imagine the character to look (and as a bit of trivia, her look was heavily inspired by the hooker in John Carpenter’s “Vampires”).
RT: How have your characters developed since you’ve begun working with different artists? Has this changed your view, or helped to clarify how you viewed, any of your characters?
ML: For the most part, I provide my artists with references and clear descriptions of what I imagine the players too look like. So, the majority of the characters you see are similar to my mental image. Though, admittedly, there have been a few that were either sketchy, or I found the artist’s interpretation to be a better than my internal vision. Michael Bruce is probably the best example of that. Even though he is in his early 30s at the start of the series, I imagined him looking much younger. It was only after the portrait by Threshthesky that my mental image changed, painting him as more of a mature, CEO type. I now envision Michael as a cross between the two, mature, but with a boyish quality about him. Nevertheless, my new vision was totally influenced by that art.
The most dramatic example, however, is the character of Phanthro. This is a villain I created 20+ years ago, yet I never had a clear mental image of him. The initial interpretation, by artist Smoludozerka, was awesome. ThreshtheSky followed it up with a “real-life” version that just sealed it. It was amazing to have lived with this character for so long and finally have a picture I could look at and say, “oh my gosh, that’s him!”
JL: Peeking in here. Art did directly affect a few other things, but in more of an accidental fashion. Such as Carnie Kid. Originally, we envisioned that he would have a normal height and body build. When we commissioned a full-body picture of him, the artist drew him kind of short and dumpy. Even though that wasn’t how we imagined him, we liked it and it tied-in to other things we were planning for the character, so we ran with it. There have been a few other similar instances.
RT: You’ve also started to receive fan art for the series, can you share a couple of your favorite pieces?
ML: Gah, I have gotten so many wonderful gifts, but if I have to pick something decidedly fan-art in nature, I guess I will narrow it down to these two…
I adore this piece of Dark Flame created by Russian artists, Kris-and-Jen. They are big fans of Sara, and I think it shows in this picture. It’s a pin-up, but what I love about it is that it manages to be sexy, yet still capture Sara’s innocent side. I adore the way they incorporated the flames into her hair.
RT: How has technology influenced the series?
JL: Michelle’s vision for the series has always been a multimedia immersion. Relativity was never meant to be just stories, but also art and music and any other art forms we could obtain. Bringing this idea to fruition would not have been possible with traditional books.
In a broader sense, the internet has opened up the world of Indie publishing. There was a revolution years ago when comic artists realized they didn’t have to have their work published traditionally. Webcomics became the hot thing and are still going strong. That’s what’s happening now in literary publishing. You see so many artists forging out on their own, some even starting their own small Indie presses. Even if Relativity had been a book-only series, there is no way we could have done this 20 years ago.
RT: As I was preparing this issue, I was struck not just by how many artists and actors are included in the project, but their locations.
ML: I have often said that one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with Relativity has been working with so many talented artists, particularly with those abroad. I think I have worked with more non-USA artists than state-side ones. Here’s a map that features the artists mentioned and showcased in this special article — it’s just a sampling of the demographics of the Relativity “team.”
RT: What has it been like working on such a quintessentially North American universe with so many international contributors?
ML: Tons of fun. However, there have been a lot of challenges. Sometimes it’s a language barrier. I’ve learned to phrase things differently when talking to non-English speaking artists, as many use Google translate to help them understand what I’m saying and it’s notorious for butchering translations. However, there are other pitfalls, too, such as culture confusion, and even fashion design! For example, I didn’t realize that the cut of business suits is different in other countries. I ordered a few commissions from various artists, and was frustrated as I felt they were drawing the clothing wrong. Eventually, I discovered that the artists were doing it correctly according to their own countries’ standards. So, I now try to be very specific about those type of details and provide visuals when possible.
On the flip side, I have learned a lot about other cultures I would not normally have. I have made friends with many of the artists and we chat on a personal level, apart from business. I’ve ended up incorporating many International elements into the series as a result.
RT: Although we aren’t featuring any cross-overs in this issue, due to space constraints and possible spoilers, I’m fascinated that there are Relativity stories outside of the cannon. What’s it been like working with other authors and their OCs (original characters)? What’s your favorite non-cannon moment and non-cannon artwork?
ML: Warning, this answer may be lengthy, but I like having the opportunity to talk about some of my other projects.
I have been lucky to have worked on formal collaborations, where I actually co-write with another author. I have also worked on several cross-overs where I was the sole writer, but I used characters who belonged to other creators (with permission, of course).
My favorite collaboration is an alternate-universe story, “When Worlds Collide“, which was written with author Alicia Cooper. It allowed me to write Sara/Dark Flame in a high fantasy setting, which was tons of fun. Not to mention, I adore the characters in the story. On the flip-side, I am currently writing a collaboration with artist Sarah/Gnewi, where her elf characters have a romp in Gale City. A much different type of fantasy, but I’m so excited about it; I can’t wait for it to be done as it’s a great story. I must say collaborating on these projects has helped me grow so much as a writer. Working outside your comfort-zone can be challenging, but it’s quite rewarding. I look forward to future collaborations.
As for cross-overs, I have two favorites: One is a prize for artist Piccolaria/Cristina Leone. She created the winning piece for a Relativity cross-over contest, and my prize to her was a story based off that image. I can never do anything small, so I ended up writing a multi-chapter story which I adore. My second favorite is one I am currently working on, a story featuring the characters of Know-Kname/Robert Casanova. Captain Sunshine and Emo Girl are such a great duo and it’s a very funny humor piece. Sadly, I’ve struggle with writer’s block on the cross-over, but have every intention of finishing it, even if it takes me another few months.
Non-canon art? Even though Sara was created to be her own superhero in her own universe, I did end up using her in a lot of fan-fiction, most of which was in the Batman/DC universe. As a homage to those days, I wrote a story “Storm Clouds Over Gotham“, where the current incarnation of Sara ends up in Gotham City. I commissioned artist AlphaLunatic to do the cover-art. Seeing the finished piece brought back so many awesome memories, and was a nice “full-circle” (and perhaps final closure) to the original Dark Flame.
RT: Lost & Found is just the tip of the iceberg. Can you explain briefly what the ultimate vision for Relativity is?
JL: That’s a difficult question. Aside from the multimedia aspect I mentioned above, the ultimate vision is to tell a long and complex story. Even though it’s in a literary format, we view the series like episodic television. Aside from the first book, each episode is a short-story and is somewhat self-contained. There are long-range story arcs that carry throughout, but it’s not necessary to read all of the issues or start at the beginning to enjoy the stories. Our goal is to write through the end of the story, which we estimate will be about 17 books. While that may sound daunting, the books are rather short, as we specifically cut them at certain points where we feel it will be best for the storytelling. Length-wise, if you put them end to end, you’d probably have about 6 or 7 traditionally-sized novels.
If you want to know our dream for Relativity, it would be to gain a huge following, and perhaps make some money through donations and/or merchandising. If we were shooting for the stars, I would love to see the series become a comicbook or television show — or in my wildest dreams, an anime. That’s a pipe dream, though, so I don’t hold out too much hope for it.
RT: What question can you not wait to answer, and at which point in the series will it be answered?
ML: What really happened between Michael, Tony and Andy? That is the question most of my fans tell me they want to know, and that makes me happy because it’s the core of Relativity. Everything that happens, all the way to the last moments of the series, stem from ripples caused by the rift that split them apart. It was the first thing I developed in the story, and it’s the central element that will tie everything together. As to when it gets answered, that would be a bit of a spoiler. ;) But I will say that you won’t have to wait until too long. Sometime in Cycle Two.
On a personal level, (and as corny as it sounds) there is one question *I* would like personally answered. I cannot wait for the audience to read the final scene and find out what they thought of the series as a whole. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I’m going to have to wait quite a while for that answer.
RT: If you were marooned on a desert island with one of your characters, who would it be and why?
JL: Michael. He’d build a raft out of tree bark and seaweed and have us out of there in no time.
ML: Yule. Why? Because chances are, I’d be so enthralled listening to his stories and getting to know him, I probably wouldn’t want to be rescued.