In a pulpy alternate universe, a great inventor named Doctor Grordbort is selling ray guns and rockets to colonize the solar system. We went to New Zealand and interviewed the artist who created Grordbort's world.
Greg Broadmore, pictured below with one of his creations, is an artist and concept designer at Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop. A few days ago, I visited him in the unassuming warehouses outside Wellington, New Zealand where Weta is located. With a new Grordbort comic book on the way, along with web shorts about to launch in a few weeks, Broadmore was excited to talk about the strange, anachronistic world he's created in between designing some of the coolest effects in modern scifi film.
While he was creating the dinosaurs for King Kong ("I love dinosaurs," Broadmore enthuses) and the weaponry for forthcoming scifi flick District 9, he painted a series of retro-futuristic ray guns in his spare time. Fantastically detailed, covered in copper coils and radio antennae, the guns had names like "infinity beam projector" and "man melter." On a lark, Broadmore showed some of them to Weta Workshop Effects Supervisor Richard Taylor, who immediately saw them as a line of collectibles.
Working with model-makers like Dave Tremont and Paul Wickham in the Weta shop, Broadmore produced a series of now much-sought-after model ray guns – some life-sized and some in miniature. "They're weathered," he said of the guns. "They're supposed to be antiques that have survived from another era when Grordbort was selling them."
But then something strange happened. The guns began to take on lives of their own in Broadmore's imagination. "I started to fill in the back story of the world where these guns came from," he explained. "And it started with advertising. I wanted to explore the social world of Grordbort via the ads he created for his guns." The result was the first graphic novel about Doctor Grordbort's world, Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatory Dingus Directory, released last year from Dark Horse. It's a kind of demented Sears Catalog from an alternate early-twentieth century, gorgeously illustrated, and full of ads for the guns, robots, rockets, and electrical servants a colonial conquerer like his anti-hero Cockswain uses.
The collection ends with a short tale about Cockswain, an adventurer whom Broadmore says is "like Homer Simpson – he's not aspirational. He's an object of ridicule. He's the great white hunter, the white male superhero who can conquer the world. It's a love/hate thing. He represents everything awesome about being a man, and everything that's retarded as well." When Cockswain goes to Venus, for instance, it's just to kill the local wildlife. "He has a very human-centric view of the universe," Broadmore laughed. "He's a classic colonizer." When Cockswain meets a native Venusian, he refuses to call him by his real name and gives him an insulting nickname. Broadmore added, "Venus for Cockswain is what Africa was for the English" in the classic pulp era.
"I wanted to satirize pulp fiction that spans the era from the 1890s to the 1940s," he said. "People call this steampunk, but that's not what it is. Nothing is steam-powered here. It's all radio and atomics." It's not that Broadmore is splitting hairs – as long as people like his work, he doesn't care what they call it. But he doesn't consider himself to be in a steampunk tradition. "I just call it retro scifi," he said.
So what's next for Doctor Grordbort? The new graphic novel, he explained, will be "an adventure annual, basically propaganda aimed at children in Grordbort's world." And Weta has just relaunched its website, partly in preparation for releasing a series of mini animations set in the Grordbort universe.
Right now, Broadmore is working full time on the Grordbort world, and he couldn't be more thrilled about that. But that doesn't prevent him from dreaming of other, weirder projects that mash history up with the future. "I really want to do a series showing New Zealand sort of reclaimed by nature, and in among the jungle foliage, you'd see dinosaurs wandering around next to old World War I equipment that's rusting away. And maybe I'd put some Atari computers in there too. All of those seem like ancient things to me that sort of belong together." Dinosaurs, tanks, and Ataris in the New Zealand jungle? Sign me up for one of those paintings, please.
To find out more about Doctor Grordbort, or to get one of his ray guns, visit the Grordbort website.