Behind The Masque: An Interview With Ray Roche

One of the books that really stuck out to me this year was Masque, both from a visual and story point of view. I had discussed the book with Ray Roche at a con earlier in the year and the story behind the book intrigued me and I always had it in my mind to talk about it on here. I finally got round to reaching out for an official interview and here it is.

The cover and the art style is very unique and really adds to the story you are telling. Can you tell us a little bit about the process?

Well, the cover came into being very early on, when the comic script was actually still a movie script, and it was designed to be menacing, like European vigilante style movie posters from the early 2000’s. I took reference shots of my daughter in several poses and from her victim’s POV, but lying on the ground as she delivers the coup de grace epitomized the character for me. I used it as a visual aid when writing the first draft. One of the themes in the book is distortion. From a distance the cover looks like a photograph but up close it’s less clear. It was designed to be dramatic and mysterious. It’s unclear whether this character is the hero or antihero but she’s definitely in control.

We took hundreds of shots in an abandoned office space. My son did all the image manipulation on the book. We sat together with the script and used the character’s emotional state to decide how much focus she had in each scene, moment to moment.  The images were corrected in Photoshop; the hero is a human lie detector so we blurred faces to show she can read micro-expressions, though the effect is exaggerated for the reader. I think the greyness and light/dark effect of photography works amazingly well for this character’s point of view. It makes the reader believe in the immersive experience. Traditional art would have reminded the reader that they are looking at this world, not in it. I think traditional art has a warmth to it that photography does not. We all look at a comic book panel and see that the artist has made something. Photography, by its nature, makes us feel it’s a documentary. But…

Photoshoots are Hell. Everything goes wrong. Action has to be shoot from several angles. Continuity is torture. Everything takes all day. It is actually must easier to hand an artist a script. They make all the design choices. Art can be altered but photos have to be retaken.

We chatted about the book before and you said that you tried traditional art but that didn’t really work for the book. Can you go into why?

One of the most important decisions a writer can make is matching their script to the right artist. That artist’s vision and connection to the material is paramount to translating the black and white flow of words into the visual medium of comics. Unfortunately, I offered the script to two different people and, completely separately to each other, they came up with the same concept. The hero was depicted as a small Dora the Explorer character in a blocky black landscape with a huge lurking presence in the darkness all around her. When I asked how they saw the character, both said the monster represented the girl’s disability, something she had overcome by the end of the story. I saw the character as not thinking she had a disability: This world view was completely normal to her. I know it’s cliched, but perception is reality. I think that I would have eventually found an artist but when we had the refence shots (560 of them, I think) it looked so much like a storyboard that it just made sense to shape them into a book. And, honestly, I have just met and am working with an artist who might have captured the world of Masque. Bad timing but that’s what happens.

Can you tell us a little bit about the character’s world view?

Originally, the story centred around a girl who was badly abused and now has decided enough is enough.  She has developed martial skills. She will not stand by and watch wrongdoing. All evil people wear the same face to her. With her altered perception she is killing her abuser over and over again as perhaps a cathartic act? When we came to shoot the pictures, since my daughter was playing the hero and I was the bad guy it felt uncomfortable, so I adapted the story slightly and then needed a reason why these men all looked alike.

Masque sees the world through her own unique lens. She sees untruths rather than lies in the people around her. As social animals we all tell little white lies to grease our daily interactions with others, making the relationships work. Masque has no time for that, doesn’t even consider it. She is self-aware to the point of not looking at her own reflection because she cannot face herself, literally. What would we see in our own reflection that could scare us so much? I think this makes her a fascinating character. She is striped away by her life experiences, has decided that she will censor not only her view of the world but the world’s view of her. I see her as having no control as a child, adrift in OUR world, lost until just like the rest of humanity, she could make sense of life and people.

All of the men she meets in the story are stereotypes. The first man tries to fob her off because “she’s just a girl” and pays the price. Another thinks that he’s in control because he has a gun. And so on. Masque meets these with a directness, a focus that is almost robotic. In her world evil is recognizable and action is immediate.

You said a lot of research went into it. How was that and did it change your story?

We happened upon a documentary on TV about a Russian girl who was reputed to be a human lie detector. She was tested and her results weren’t conclusive but were obviously more than guesswork. An FBI expert put forward the theory that she read micro-expressions on a level beyond most people and they measured her blink rate which was one third of normal. With that focus she was more aware of minute data and could tell more often than not when someone was lying. That intrigued me. It led me to studies in cognition, feedback, and lots of cases where people showed they were simply more focused than the majority.

I read as much as I could on cognitive perception and honestly, most of it went over my head, but some things drew me. Synaesthesia has become popular in pop culture especially on TV and Film where it can be shown as a dramatic special effect, usually as coloured words or numbers floating in mid-air. I showed the finished layout to an expert who thought it was a good representation of the condition (it can never be replicated unless you have a James Cameron budget for fx) but the captions and speech bubbles were wrong. Masque has a paragraph in her head but only says the most important part, and in a succinct way. So, clipped sentences for her and so the other characters are shown as though she is hearing them speak in her cadence and tone. Everything in the art, photography, and the comic rulebook is informed by her condition.

Because Masque sees the world in flares and shades of grey, the story had to move from an outside setting with spooky spindly trees to an indoor location where we could control the amount of light and the direction it was coming from. This caused a lot of heated debate during the shoot. We had to fudge the action a little, so in some scenes she doubles back on herself, just to get the proper sunlight on the walls and floor.

One thing I should mention: There’s an awful lot of anecdotal and Chinese whisper data online, none of which I used, though I do take some artistic licence during her interaction with the Damocles agent at the end. Before my research I called on my own experiences with social anxiety and non-conformity to write a skeleton draft. This lacked humour and any complexity. As a child, and right into my early 40’s, I was withdrawn, completely unable to make connections with people. I still wander about in confusion when around others. There’s a running commentary in my head: What is this person really saying? Why are they talking about this subject? Didn’t we say all this last time we met? I would rather look at people than talk to them. Masque, after the first draft and research, moved from my perspective to hers. She has a sense of humour, can navigate situations and is not averse to losing her temper without worrying about consequences.

Can you give us a hint about what we might see in future issues?

Sure, but no spoilers. Damocles are recruiting other marginalised people with special talents for their war with the alien Queen. Someone might be going undercover in a facility to help one or two escape. The Damocles agent reveals more of their history and why they are resorting to these measures. Why the governments are not getting involved, etc. We find out more about the cloning technique and our heroes might meet the Queen.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat about this project. It was a labour of love for me and a gigantic bonding experience with my kids.

You follow Ray Roche on Twitter at https://twitter.com/esper211