Interview with Spenser Starke (Roots #1 by Spenser Starke and Ryan Richmond)

Spenser Starke is most widely known from his time spent editing in the twilight years of the well-loved, fan-favourite YouTube channel SourceFed. Ever since the channel's untimely demise in March 2017, Starke teamed up with fellow refugees Luis Gonzalez and Starline Hodge to create the inspirational, yet down-to-earth, podcast known as We Stayed Late.

Quickly building up a dedicated community, Spenser Starke now strikes out into uncharted territory, working with artist Ryan Richmond to mash together the majesty of the fantastical with the obscene allure of classic body horror.

Spenser Starke sat down and talked with us about his influences, the childhood nightmare that brought him all this way and the benefits behind being adaptive in your selected medium. 

You can find a pre-order link for Roots over on Spenser's site: Embryo Studios.

Panel Patter: What’s the story of Roots and where did it originate?

Spenser Starke: Roots follows the story of a young girl, Fable, who awakens growing from the ground, feet rooted into the earth, in a new world unlike anything she’s ever known. Cut off of her stalk and taken into civilization, she quickly finds herself in the middle of an ancient battle to save the people she loves on Earth.

The story actually comes from a nightmare I had as a child, where I would wake up, like our protagonist, surrounded by an entire field of bodies with my feet and back attached by roots to the ground below. That image stuck with me for years because of how evocative it was. 

I ended up writing the first iteration of this story in college as a screenplay. It was developed over the course of my four years there alongside my good friend, Christina Michaels, who helped me to further discover the world these characters inhabit. However, due to the massive budget the film would require, it made sense to shift the medium to a comic, because it would allow me to create the world exactly the way I saw it in my head.

Will our protagonist, Fable, gather a supporting cast or is the focus purely placed on her?

Starke: She finds a quick comrade in Edwin, her harvester, and will certainly pick up more of a supporting cast along the way, but the story will primarily revolve around her. Avoiding spoilers, for a very specific reason, she will become a key to the battle that is being waged in this world.

The first page of the issue unsettles you with its layout and repetition of panels throwing you off balance. How much of the layout of this page was dictated by you and how much was from the artist? How does that translate into the rest of the book?

Starke: Well, first off, my artist Ryan Richmond is absolutely incredible, so a LOT of the brilliant stuff happening in the panel layouts comes from him. 

Being his first comic, right out of the gate he started using the medium in a fascinating and unique way. The script itself had very little specific panel direction; it read a lot like a film script, which is unconventional for a comic book, but knowing Ryan’s creativity, I didn’t want him to feel constrained or controlled by the words there. 

The aesthetic of the book is already a combination of fantasy and horror. With the core concept revolving around plants emerging from human skin, how far do you intend to lean into the body horror aspect?

Starke: There is a sort of beauty in the horror of Roots, and that’s something we definitely embraced early on. The idea of a field of bodies all growing across the land like crops is both morbid and awe-inspiring to me, and I wanted to capture the fear and wonder of this new world through Fable’s eyes in this first issue. 

There is a bigger, more important story at play here that will unravel over the next few issues, and the comic will not specifically focus on body horror during that journey, but we certainly don’t plan to shy away from it, as it is a major part of the way this world functions.

What do you see in this book’s future? Is it a miniseries or an ongoing?

Starke: It’s definitely a limited series; Fable’s story has a beginning and an end. 

How many issues or volumes are between those two points is not set in stone yet, though.

What do you see as the overarching theme of the series?

Starke: We only see hints of it in this first issue, but selflessness, being brave in the face of adversity and sacrificing yourself to protect the people you care about the most will weave in and out of the series pretty consistently. 

Fable will have to make some hard decisions in the next few issues as she comes to terms with the world she is in.

You’ve described the book as a combination of Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland. Which aspects of both do you draw inspiration from?

Starke: Tolkien’s world-building is unparalleled, so as I started to craft the world for this story, I drew on a lot of what he did. I often felt like I just needed to get out of the way so that the world could create itself, and just do my best to capture it as it presented itself to me.

In doing this, I really tried to channel Tolkien’s attention to detail and his preciseness. I have pages and pages of notes, for example, focused on how the bodies in this world actually function, down to what we would call the subatomic level. 

As far as Wonderland is concerned, it's not quite apparent from this first issue, but this story gets more heady and meta as the story unravels. Alice’s experience in a place so far outside of the laws and rules of her own world definitely influenced the way I approached the narrative. I grew up with Alice in Wonderland, and sort of feel like my childhood fascination with the world itself probably takes some blame for the nightmare this story found its roots in.

Although you have previous experience in editing and directing, this is your first foray into writing comic books. What draws you to the medium?

Starke: I have been writing stories since the moment I was able to write at all, so narrative is my lifeblood. Comics have the ability to tell these stories in an incredibly visual way, so with a world of this scope and with the specificity of what I wanted to be able to create, it was the best medium for the job. I constantly ask myself what medium the stories I am writing are best suited for, and whichever they seem to lend themselves to, I explore. 

For example, I have a screenplay I wrote a few years ago that I absolutely love and that got shopped around for a while, but it was too expensive for anyone to pick up, so it just became the basis of a new card game called Planetborne that is coming out in September. 

I don’t like being constrained by the idea of mediums, so I’m willing to play with whatever feels like it fits the story best.

Who in the medium of comics inspires you?

Starke: My biggest heroes in the medium are without a doubt Brian K. Vaughan and Jeff Lemire. Not only are they brilliant writers and storytellers, but their books are so incredibly accessible. 

I always feel like they are in total control of the medium they are using, never fighting against it or trying to make it something it’s not; it feels so effortless.

Everyone has a story of the first comic book that got them addicted to the medium. What’s yours?

Starke: Lemire’s Descender series is what got me into the medium. I bought the first volume at an Image booth during a convention, and I was hooked. 

Vaughan’s Runaways, Rick Remender’s Black Science, and Giovanni Gualdoni & Gabriele Clima’s Ring of the Seven Worlds were also huge traction points for me along the way.

You can pre-order Spenser's comic Roots over on his website, Embryo Studios. It launches on Saturday 2nd September, alongside the aforementioned card game Planetborne at Long Beach Comic Con. If you're there, drop by and pick up a copy and pick Spenser's brain about this book; you won't regret it.