Interview: James Kelly, Writer of ‘Caligula Imperatore Insanum’


James Kelly (left)

Author James Kelly has been quite busy lately. With his new imprint, Olympian Comics, James Kelly is tackling the insanity that was the Emperor Caligula. caught up with artist Christie Shinn recently, but wanted to know more about the writing process of  as well. We caught up with James Kelly to find out more about what inspired him to tackle this period of history in comic book form.

FGN: Why Caligula?

James Kelly: It’s an obvious thing you have to ask, don’t you. Well for me, you know, I did see that infamous movie and I loved reading Robert Graves’ I, Claudius books, and watching the TV series. I got the impression, of you know, this is a madman; this is a really crazy person that somehow became Emperor. Now that story’s a good story, but then I watched this recent History Channel documentary, Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror. The way they presented Caligula, not as a literal madman, but someone who was very obsessed with power and very determined to humiliate the Senate, that was a very interesting portrayal. I started looking at the facts and looking at these figures and realized that this is a very interesting story. Not the story of a mad ruler, but the story of a person who grew up thinking every day could be his last, and at the same time, suddenly at the age of 24 becoming a ruler of one of the largest empires of history and being corrupted by it; it was such a fantastic story. And, really just to focus on the idea of Caligula is probably the pinnacle of the idea of power corrupting, and how we need to have checks and balances on power.  He was such a fascinating figure when you actually look past the stories that are meant to suggest obvious madness and see maybe not literally mad, but also not exactly right in the head.

FGN: What was your research process like when figuring out all the facts and figures?

James Kelly:  You know you to, I look at Suetonius and Cassius Dio of course, but I recently read a fantastic biography by Elois Wittenburg. And that goes into a lot. I mentioned already the History Channel documentary. Graves also is a good influence for just how to look at some of the facts he found. Graves, I know I, Claudius is not History history, but it’s a great interpretation and fictionalization to make history digestible. The big thing, I will note, is kind of getting a little ahead of myself, I do look at the facts, don’t get me wrong, but at a certain point this is ultimately a drama. This is fiction. This is Shakespearean history, what I like to describe it as. So sometimes we have to exaggerate the facts or kind of massage how certain things happened. I do look at the facts. I look at Suetonius. I do think he’s a fantastic historian, he does get kind of a bad rap sometimes but he’s the most fun to read of those ancient sources.

FGN: What makes Suetonius the most fun to read?

James Kelly: You know, it’s actually, of course he is not afraid to get a little scandal in, a little enjoyable sex scandal; a little kind of fun stuff like that to spice things up. I think ultimately it’s how he stylizes, , and why he gets a bad rap, is he’s not trying to tell what happened, he’s trying to say who these people were. He is a biographer and he uses rumors and anecdotes, little saying things that may or may not have been said, and he uses them to kind of create a figure; paint a picture of who they were. That’s why I think he’s the most enjoyable. His style and his writing is excellent. Although, that’s not to discount the other people. Tacitus has a very interesting voice.


FGN: Was there a favorite story about Caligula or Claudius you came across while going through the history that you were, or were unable to use in the book?

James Kelly: Well, we’re only about 1 chapter collection into the book. Give it time; I might come up with some other ones. Just to give you a kind of one of my favorite things Graves wrote in I, Claudius is, and I really hope I can use, maybe…maybe… I don’t want to exactly steal it from him, since he created it himself, but there’s a fantastic incident where Caligula has just dealt with being called a “bald headed madam” by one of the people he is executing. He goes to see his uncle Claudius and he’s just jealous that Claudius has a full head of hair. He orders them to cut off his head. On his feet Claudius says, “no no no, he said cut my hair not my head.” Then Caligula just goes with it and orders Claudius to be shaved along with everyone else in the palace to be bald, so he doesn’t feel self conscious that he’s losing his hair.

FGN: When you’re writing, is there a particular character that you really find yourself enjoying writing?

James Kelly: You know, honestly, it’s fun to write these really evil characters. Just like kind of explore that darkness and that kind of voice that I don’t have. So, it is enjoyable to write Caligula. My favorite in writing that real dark voice, and something I hope you and other fabulous readers will enjoy, is my voice for Tiberius. That was just very fun to write that dark sardonic voice he had towards the end. That’s one of that the things that surprised me really looking at Suetonius and some of Tacitus; the voice that Tiberius had towards the end of his days, he was just so miserable and self-loathing. He hated everyone and I wanted to capture that. Just this utter contempt for everything and everyone around him, but particular himself. That’s fun. Also, because I love Claudius, writing anything with Claudius is also incredibly fun.

FGN: Now why comic book form?

James Kelly: To get a little into it, at one point I was originally writing this as a play, but the play was getting too unwieldy and just too massive, and so I decided to try and convert that into a film script. But, I realized I’m not going to be able to make this movie. It’s never going to be seen by anyone but me in my head. I wanted to make it something real, and so I decided on the comic book form. I really love comic books. I think the comic book narrative medium is better to really kind of, you can have something be massive but have it be intimate. You don’t really have to worry about budget constraints really; I mean not, as much as a movie honestly. And you get to collaborate, and Christie [Shinn] is such a fabulous collaborator. She’s really just completely goes with me all the way on the ideas I have, and actually she encourages me to go further.

FGN: Were you working in comic book form before Caligula, or is this your first comic book?

James Kelly: Yes. I had worked on plenty of other comics. I just started my comic book company, Olympian comics. I’m working on several projects also. This is definitely one of the longest projects I’ve worked on so far.

FGN: Now, can you tell us about any of your other projects?

James Kelly: Well, I’m working with a fabulous French artist, Josh Templeton, on a fantasy series. Our main heroine is called Wolf of the Forrest. It’s a fantastic series that looks gorgeous and I can’t wait to show it to everyone. The other ones I’m working on, I’m working on a superhero series with Thomas Chase Whitney. It’s a superhero satire series called Bloodbath. It’s a super hero who is insane. It’s a great social satire on everything. And I’ve got to give it to my Spanish friend, Luis Chichón, who is working on my little comic called Grim and Gritty. It’s about cartoon characters that are suddenly taken seriously and in this dark adult world. It’s about this chain smoking alcoholic squirrel detective named Sid who’s investigating the murder of this very big cartoon. Those are some of the ones I’m working on and there are other projects in certain stages of development. And, of course, Caligula Imperatore Insanum with Christie with is such a fun project to work on.

FGN: Now, do you know how long you want your comic to run for Caligula Imperatore Insanum?

James Kelly: I don’t want to scare Christie off, but that’s one of the things that has been daunting. As I’m writing the project, I’ve realized it’s going to be a bit longer than I originally anticipated. At this stage I think it’s going to be 400 pages.

FGN: When you have spare time, which sounds like limited spare time, what do you read for fun?

James Kelly: Um, I read lots of comics obviously. I love the series Saga. Anything that Mark Miller writes is fun. I also like to read, I got into Chuck Palaniuk novels. I read the recent series of two books by him called Damned and Doomed. They were a lot of fun, if you like his real interesting voice. Also, I like to read some history books every now and then. I like to keep my plate open. I read anything if it’s good; that’s my criterium.

FGN: Where are our readers going to be able to purchase your comics?

James Kelly: Come down to Wondercon if you can, Christie will be selling copies and you can get a signed copy there. It’s going to be also available on Createspace; you can order the book there. And, we are looking into releasing it digitally. we’ll see how that goes. Fingers crossed on Comixology accepting it.


You can follow creator James Kelly on Twitter @SSVEGEROT4EVR   and Olympian Comics.





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