Interview in Black: Donnie Lee Discusses Black Opus

Black Opus Vol. 1 can be viewed online as a PageFlip for free. This comic was originally published by Caliber Press as Caliber Present: Sepulcher Opus.

As Dog Star Comics releases its first digital comic book, Black Opus Vol. 1, we caught up with the writer Donnie Lee to discuss the comic book and other important things like beer.

Dog Star Comics: I understand that you had many different inspirations for the stories in Black Opus. Would you go into detail?

Donnie Lee: The truth is that I really wanted to be a rock n’ roll singer, but I wasn’t blessed with a singing voice or any musical ability at all. The next best outlet for me was writing without the music. Really, Black Opus is my attempt at making a Black Sabbath record. If you read it carefully, you can hear Tony Iommi riffing. (laughs) As for the inspiration, it’s running amuck… “Prince of the Universe” was inspired by the death of Freddie Mercury with some other things mixed in. Freddie was the first rock star who passed away that really affected me. More recently, the passing of Ronnie James Dio affected me in a similar way. So, “Prince of the Universe” is my small tribute to Freddie Mercury told within the confines of the Black Opus project. “The Kiss”, was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”, as you could imagine. Except my version is the antithesis of Klimt’s. Where Klimt’s is a warm embrace, mine is a repulsive pushback. The kiss of death if you will. “The Flying Boy” is really inspired by feelings of isolation that we all sometimes feel. Originally, the story was my attempt at a children’s book. I reworked it a bit as a conclusion to Black Opus. I think it stands as a counter point to the other stories. Where the other stories are very dark and scary, “The Flying Boy” is a bit softer.

DSC: How old where you when Black Opus was created?

DL: I believe all the written parts of Black Opus were finished when I was 22 years old. My first serious romantic relationship had ended which engendered a lot of the emotions in me that you find in Black Opus. It was easy to feed off that and write scenes and characters that removed me from my own despair. I felt much better after spending hours at the computer writing this stuff. It was an emotional release for me and I think it will be to the readers.

DSC: It’s been some time since the original comic hit the comic book shops. In your own opinion, how does it stand up to the test of time?

DL: That’s an interesting question. For a long time, I never thought about these stories. I moved on. I think as a creator of anything, you have to do that. Now, I’m not emotionally attached to the work. Well, at least not as much as I was when Rob [R. E. Brown], Howard [Howard Daniels] and I first created the comic book. I think some of it is a bit clunky, but over all I think it is a well thought out execution of subject matter that is dark and a bit taboo. Black Opus isn’t necessarily accessible to the average comic book reader. I’m cool with that. I wasn’t interested in writing a mainstream comic at that time. You have to remember; this was originally published by Caliber Press who were known to run counter to mainstream comics or at least drifted in the undercurrent. Gary Reed at Caliber had a unique and important vision. As you know, some very important things came out of Caliber such as The Crow. I’m happy that I was able to participate in that. Ultimately, I’m proud of Black Opus and I think it still stands as some well-crafted and maybe even inspired comic work. It does show some immaturity of me as a writer. I’m ok with that. You have to “go” to “grow”.

DSC: What do you hope to accomplish with re-releasing Black Opus?

DL: From a writer’s standpoint, I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish when the last page was lettered. The only reason, I can see in allowing Dog Star Comics to reissue Black Opus is to reach more readers. I’m hoping that a few others can feel the pain of the artist in “The Kiss” and feel better about themselves. I’m hoping that someone reads “The Flying Boy” and appreciates children a little more. I’m hoping that someone reads “Prince of the Universe” and appreciates the enigma of Freddie Mercury and others like him.

DSC: I understand that Black Opus had to be restored for re-release. Do you care to share any details about that?

DL: The digital restoration was a lot of work, I can tell you that. Fortunately, Scott Flowers handled most of the hard work. What made the restoration difficult is that the original art was lost. So the restoration was done form the comic book that was printed on less than perfect news print. Essentially, hours were spent on each page in Photoshop making the black black and the white white. I’m pleased with how it turned out. I think readers will appreciate the time spent on the restoration because they won’t even notice. The digital version might even look better than the original comic. Other than bringing out the black and white aspect, most of the design that Rob did on the original book was left intact. There is some extra text and a slightly different cover design because of the logo change. If you didn’t know, Black Opus was originally published as Caliber Present: Sepulcher Opus.

DSC: I understand that you made a discovery after the restoration… Do you mind telling us what happened?

DL: Yeah, funny you mention that. After hours and hours were spent restoring from faded newsprint, I found a pristine photocopy of the original art on ultra-bright paper. If I had found this earlier, it might have saved days’ worth of time. I know Scott wanted to give me a smack when I told him.

DSC: Why did you change the name from Sepulcher Opus?

DL: Let’s face it, not everyone understands Latin. Originally I thought that most people in our western word would understand the word “sepulcher” because The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is understood as the tomb of Jesus Christ. I was misguided, but Black Opus sounds scarier.

DSC: Do you have any other stories in you that you would like to see published.

DL: I do have a couple of other things in mind for Dog Star Comics once everything starts rolling. I’ve had a vampire story swimming around in my head for a long time. Dog Star Comics may be the outlet for that story. I envision it as a fully painted graphic novel. The main characters are female so there would be a lot of opportunity for some beautiful panels. I think fans of comics are eager to read a sexy, scary comic that will transport them away from the watered down vampire stuff we’ve seen in movies lately. I have some other weird stuff floating around too. I’m not afraid of trying new stuff so we’ll see what happens.

DSC: What about the artists? Do you mind telling us a little about your relationship with R. E. Brown and Howard Daniels?

DL: You know, Black Opus was originally a huge thrill for me to work on. It was a learning experience and a realization of a dream. But, I don’t want to understate the importance of the artists on these stories. Black Opus was very much a collaborative work. Some of the scenes and visuals were very difficult to pull off. Rob worked with me until we got them. A lot of times his ideas were better than mine. Originally, Caliber Press signed Rob and me to do the book, but Rob broke his arm and Howard was nice enough to pick up the slack so we could go to press. Without question, these two guys are among my favorite people in the world and I’m among their biggest fans. I would love to work with these guys again, however, Howard died a few years back. I wished I had pushed another project with him. I miss him. As for Rob, never say never, but I think working on one project with me was enough for him. I think the types of stories that we want to tell are at odds. Frankly, that’s why I think Black Opus came off so well.

DSC: Who are some of the writers that influenced you?

DL: Probably the first writer that I noticed was Mark Twain. As I read Huckleberry Finn, I thought to myself, this is really good. Within a few years, I think I had read every major work by Twain. I was and still am interested in the classics. I had almost rather read a Greek tragedy than a modern paper back. I’ve read comics since I was a little kid, but I think the first time I took comics seriously was when I read Dark Knight. It suddenly dawned on me that comics could be more than simple morality tales wrapped in an adventure story. Then I moved on to discover Alan Moore, J. M. DeMatteis and a slew of other great comic writers that I was suddenly finding on the shelves of the comic book shop. As a comic book writer, I’d say I’m most influenced by DeMatteis. I could rattle off a hundred titles, but just to name a few that really spoke to me, Blood: a tale, Moonshadow and Kraven’s Last Hunt. I’m of the opinion that DeMatteis is the high water mark of comic book writers.

DSC: Any particular artist you would like to work with in the future?

DL: Not really. The thing about comic book art for me is that there are plenty of really good comic artists out there. I think it’s very important to tell the story and be able to convey complex ideas in panels. Some are very good at it and some aren’t. One of the things that makes Rob’s art in Black Opus so interesting, is that he was able to convey complex ideas symbolically. That sort of thing appeals to me most — at least more than style. Ted McKeever is another artist like that. On the surface, his style seems very haphazard, but if you read the story, he’s got a lot going on. To answer your question: I don’t have any particular artist in mind that I would like to work with, but I’d love to work with an artist that can milk every bit of sustenance out of my script.

DSC: What is your philosophy on story telling?

DL: That’s a heavy question, dude. First things first, you have to have a story — story with a beginning, middle, and end. Then, you have to have some interesting characters that deliver or push that story. Especially, in comic books, you have to have some cool imagery to work with. To take it a step further, I think you must try to say something that supersedes the basic story otherwise it will soon be forgotten. Why do you think Shakespeare is still read and performed today? It’s certainly not because we like a good murder story. Shakespeare’s stories speak to us on a very human level and I think comic books can do the same thing.

DSC: I know that the official name is Black Opus Vol. 1. Do you think that you will ever do a Vol. 2?

DL: When the comic was originally completed, it was never dreamed as being more than the one comic book. Recently, I’ve thought that it might be interesting to do more. It’s interesting to me to present these little stories that would probably be really cool rock songs as comic story. I think it’s something different for sure. We’ll see. If the opportunity is there, it could happen.

DSC: One finale question. What’s your favorite beer?

DL: I don’t rely on any particular brand for my enjoyment. And believe me, I really enjoy beer. I tend to like my beer the same way I like my comics with a lot of flavor, complexity, and body. I’m drinking a lot of pale ales and porters lately. I like to experiment and try something new as often as I can. It’s not uncommon for me to take a beer run across the state just for a new flavor or an old favorite. A word of advice: Never drink and write.