Interview: Sean O’Neill on ‘Rocket Robinson’
Today we have another guest post by comics journalist Alex Dueben.
Sean O’Neill is a Chicago-based writer and illustrator, and this year Dark Horse is publishing two graphic novels that he wrote and drew. The “Rocket” Robinson books are adventure stories whose 12-year-old titular protagonist travels to Egypt and Paris, navigates tombs, uncovers hidden treasure, puzzles through cyphers. Rocket Robinson and the Pharaoh’s Fortune was released in June, and the second book, Rocket Robinson and the Secret of the Saint, will be out in the fall. O’Neill answered a few questions via e-mail from his home in Chicago about the series.
Who is “Rocket” Robinson?
Rocket Robinson is a 12-year-old boy who travels the world with his father, who is an American diplomat. He’s accompanied by his pet monkey, Screech, and, in Book 1, he meets Nuri, a 12-year-old girl, who becomes his best friend and partner in his adventures. Rocket, Nuri, and Screech manage to stumble into a variety of mysterious adventures, usually surrounding legendary treasure. Rocket doesn’t have any super powers or magical skills. He and Nuri have to rely on their wits and their bravery to figure out the mysteries and foil the villains. They also learn to rely on each other and work together. And they have a monkey sidekick, which definitely helps!
I started with a very simple idea: I wanted to create an adventure comic series for young readers that would be the type of thing that I would have wanted to read when I was 9 years old. The only specific ideas I had at the beginning were that the heroes would be ordinary children with no magical powers, the adventures would have something to do with history, and they would have an animal sidekick.
Were you always interested in ancient Egypt?
I’ve always loved history, and I’m particularly interested in ancient societies that still have a lot of mystery surrounding them. Ancient Egypt was the perfect topic for the fist book because, although it’s been thoroughly studied, there is still much about Ancient Egypt that isn’t fully known or understood. That element of mystery provides a great opening for storytelling and speculation.
Why did you decide to set the book in 1933?
There were a few reasons. I wanted it to harken back to a classical period of storytelling but still feel contemporary. I also wanted the characters to be frozen in time, so that no matter how many books I do in the series, they always can be the same age, and time won’t pass around them. Because the treasures they discover are from the distant past, I thought it would be fun to set the books in the recent past, to make the world of the books feel slightly exotic to readers.
How much research goes into studying Egyptology and the city of Cairo and how important do you find that research to making the book?
The research for the book is incredibly important. When I started working on the first book, I had only the vaguest notion of what the story would be about. Once I started researching the history of the Pyramids, so many possibilities emerged for the plot and characters that I had several directions in which to take the story. And when I was creating the artwork, I hoped to construct a really deep and compelling portrait of Cairo so readers would feel that they were really entering the world of the story. I created a reference file five inches thick of photos and images of Cairo and Egyptian tombs to work from.
One key scene in the book is Rocket and Nuri solving a cypher. Without giving anything away, do you want to say a little about what you did and what was involved?
This was a really fun part of the process for me. I didn’t know much about cryptography when I started the book, so I had to learn a fair amount about how it works. I’ll try not to spoil anything for readers, but what they deal with in the book is a very simple substitution cipher, which is a pretty basic system that a lot of cryptography is based on. The whole secret message that appears in the book is actually a fully encrypted substitution cipher, and anyone that wants to take the time can actually go through and solve the whole thing.
Sure. In Book 2, Rocket, Nuri, and Screech are in Paris. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, but the story starts with an art heist in which a relative of Nuri’s is implicated in the theft, which draws Rocket and Nuri into the story. Needless to say, there’s more going on than just a stolen painting. There is, once again, a legendary, historical treasure at the heart of the story, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.
Do you have plans for more Rocket Robinson?
As I said, the plan has always been to continue the series indefinitely with Rocket, Nuri, and Screech traveling the world and having a different adventure each time in a different location. I’m doing research right now for a possible future adventure, but I can’t really reveal any specific details. But I hope to continue the series as long as I can. There are so many amazing cultures around the world with incredible histories, that I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas!
About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor, a newspaper reporter, and assistant to the mayor of a small city. In addition to editing GC4K, she is a regular columnist for SLJ, a contributing editor at ICv2, an editor at Smash Pages, and a writer for Publishers Weekly. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
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