Always Stretch Before a Run


So this is… September, 'round about? We’d been designing and ruminating and eating our creative spinach all Summer. Though our webcomic workloads meant actual production wouldn’t start ‘till December, the time had come for the project to bear something resembling fruit. 

Thus: a test page, something to prove (to our respective readerships and prospective publishers, not to mention ourselves) this thing had veins in its teeth. This scene doesn't actually appear in the story, serving more as an excuse to bring out some of the main characters and let them talk at each other. It’s certainly a first effort, with all the 20/20 hindsight that entails, but it was also the small step and giant leap we needed to reaffirm our confidence in this thing called AVERY.


 Shackled to a scanner meant for mere mortals instead of comic book artists, JD draws his pages in two parts — observe the break in the equator of the page — and assembles them on the computer. Clever son. Bet he could break out of prison, if it came down to it.

JD colored this one himself, setting a paradigm for the book’s actual colorist to follow later on. Neon Noir, JD calls it. A matte Joel Schumacher, like. The grey brown orange palette of gritty, realistic crime fiction is for suckers — we want our book to leave after-images in your retinas after you set it down, like luminescent fingerprints. 

(click to enlarge)

And scene. 

Taking a drive around the block like this did loads for our understanding of how the book was going to work, page-to-page. Kinks to work out, sure, but I couldn't have asked for a finer zero to start from

That said, the work we've churned out since leaves this page hacking in the course brown dust. 


Blueprints for a Bastard City


This was my first drawing of Avery. Bottom right. He had come from an early idea of Dan's after the first few notes were sent and we knew what kind of book we were doing. He looked a bit too young, I thought. Like a kid playing detective. The hat was silly. Try again.

Shortly after the concept phase I found some kind of genius rambling from Dan about how we would reinvent the pulps in my yahoo inbox. It lined up pretty well with the opening blog entries. I figured he had that part basically covered, even though I wasn't quite sure how at the time, and I knew I'd have do something different with the visuals for the rest to matter. I didn't want to fall into the nostalgic rut of tracing frames out of the Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep like so many before me, and I didn't want to hit the modern grit of newer crime comics like 100 Bullets or Criminal. To be honest, from the standpoint of somebody who'd have to draw over a hundred pages of it, the idea of those routes bored me.

I can draw the "normal" things well enough, in my own estimation, but I see normal every day. I like super heroes for their hyper reality. Skyscrapers that go onto forever and shadows that swallow everything but the whites of your eyes. Gotham is red hot hell on pavement and Metropolis is as close to utopia as you're liable to get, minus the giant robots. But, this wasn't a superhero comic. I'd have to close off my need to make things bigger and slicker and weirder.

Then I remembered...why? Why confine excitement to the super heroes? Out of some need for an indie maturity? Hell, Frank Miller had already done it in Sin City. This wasn't the same thing, but the seed of the idea was there. My co-conspirator in comicking had had a similar thought, and we ran with it -- started swinging pictures and music by eachother. Punk Rock, Daft Punk and Blade Runner. Neon. A radioactive bastard city. It was enough to make everything feel new. Enough to feel like the things Dan was talking about in that e-mail.


Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver.

Dan sent me a couple photos to throw into the potpourri of our main character. I threw in some Al Pacino for flavor. Our detective would be short and tough. There would be no silly hat. He was outside stereotypical noir detective designs, and thus good enough for this thing of ours.

Once that was passed, I recalled that David Bowie would be in it. The early outline said he would be called by another name, but I knew that for all intents and purposes that that was who I'd be drawing. There was some early reference for his agents, but it didn't fit the kind of comic that features the thin white duke. An early version is up with the first picture, but he turned into something like this.

Music should be a stronger streak in the visuals of his team, I thought, and things were punked up for it. The girl shaved her head and got mascara slashes under her eyes. "A knowing grin" becomes a smile that stretches like rictus. H, the boy, is now 6'7" and handsome like an alien. He likes sweater vests and polishing his shoes. After those two the look was set and new designs and twists of the script came-a-coming...

And the proto-sketch, just to have it here.

That's probably enough for now, isn't it? I'm not much of a blogger. I draw comics, and another page of one of them is awaiting inking.


The Third Heat


I was out to renew the pulps, not recreate. The story needed and anchor, see, a stationary point of reference around which to warp pre-conceived notions. One of two ways this could go: either we’d enter this dark and secret world by invitation or we’d discover it ourselves, like detectives do. I kicked around the idea of following a new agent as she – it would have to be a she – was initiated into the faux Shadow’s hidden order, but that’s a tired premise. It’d only end up like MIB, anyhow, child of the nineties that I am.

So the latter, then. We’d be detectives.

Sitting again at the idea desk, eating peanuts off a paper napkin. Heroes on the iTunes – Bowie in Berlin, Gale Ann Dorsey on guitar. Bowie again. On my bookshelf, The Long Goodbye, the longest and best of the Philip Marlowe novels by Raymond Chandler— the great human writer, who happened to be American. Philip Marlowe, jaded LA private eye: on paper a poor man’s Sam Spade, but Chandler’s not interested in writing crime stories. He doesn’t revel in the mechanics of crime the same way Hammett does, or Gibson, or Dent. Chandler’s Marlowe (which sounds like “Chandler is Marlowe” when you say it out loud) is a man who’s smarter than the world he lives in, but too short on ambition and too long on heart to make much of it. He’s a small-time operator in a big bruised burg where nobody’s clean and nobody’s evil, living between joyless relationships and playing chess alone. I think perhaps Marlowe was supposed to live in the world of the Shadow and Doc Savage, where the bad guys are jet black evil and can – and must – be destroyed, but there was some cosmic mistake and instead he was born into a world where hell is other people and justice has a pause in between syllables. He keeps working, Marlowe, trudging through, always hoping in his cynical, armored way for those moments, those rarest of moments, when— through wit and grit and brains and luck— he can wring a silver stream of sense out of the soiled dishrag of life. The parlor scene. The guilty party revealed. The better guys, if not the good ones, sort of kind of win.

And then the moment passes and the world goes back to the way it’s always been, and Marlowe goes back to the job. Keeping his head down. Waiting, without knowing it. Working for that day that comes and passes and will yet come again.

Peanuts, the Long Goodbye, and we can be heroes, just for one day.

Private eye fiction is existentialist, but not nihilistic. The universe may be indifferent and the problems of a crack whore and a dead gangster and a beat-up shamus might not amount to a hill of anything in this crazy hunk of dirt-crusted rock falling through empty radioactive space, but right’s right and wrong’s not and in a vacuum of meaning we must create our own, and by that we are judged. This is the writing of Raymond Chandler, stripped down and maybe fudged a bit to suit my purposes. The beauty in a gasoline bubble.

And so it all came together around the unifying element of the great human detective. All the hard-boiled standards— The Shadow, The Spider, Black Mask Detective, Spicy Detective… and David Bowie, rock and roll, punk rock, brit rock, prog rock, the Red Rock and the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, and women. All of this, ready to be cut down and ground up and stamped into something new, like the pulp that is its namesake.

Not every day you figure out how to regenerate an entire literary movement, is it?

Named for the first girl I ever had a crush on, AVERY took form. 

Here end my meditations on the birth and purpose of this project. Following posts will be looser thoughts and status updates as the project swells to completion, along with looks at the various mechanisms JD and I both are learning as we create our first long-form graphic novel.

"Graphic novel." Feh. We'll have to think of something better. 

Watch this space. This ought to be fun. It might even be intelligible. 


The Shadow is my Santa Klaus


It was late at night when I got the email -- JD’s, I mean, and it was actually a deviantArt note -- asking me if I had a project with legs. I didn’t have time for a proper reply. The midnight movie started in an hour, see, and God forbid I bother to memorize the bus schedule.

Imagine me, that night at the bus stop: a six-foot scarecrow in a snappy blazer, scribbling down ideas in a tiny yellow notepad under the flickering streetlight, snickering, chuckling, buzzing like a high tension cable with sheer electric excitement. Some other schlub was waiting there too, huddled on the far side of the bench. I could feel him freaking out. I could not have been paid to care. I had a chance to make something meaningful with my top-draft artist, and the night was pregnant with possibility.

Something with frontier bounty hunters. Something with aliens and spies. A pair of Harleys roared by the stop -- something with motorcycles, I scratched onto the paper. The bus was rolling up. Legible handwriting and riding a vehicle on the streets of Santa Cruz do not a feasible combination make, so I cranked out one last stray bit of headmatter for the road:

The Shadow’s agents.

Not an idea by any means. Not a new idea, anyhow -- Walter Gibson called dibs on that one back in 1935. But it’s a good one; a secret web of men and women just like you or I, each of them devoted body and soul to a cackling criminal mastermind whose dark machinations brought doom to evil men. It’s an idea that means a lot to me, for various reasons that merit their own post. And it got me thinking of what the Shadow and his vigilante mafia would look like in 2011… didn’t hold water, of course. The updated homage joint is half a comic at best, Supreme Power be damned.

The next day I’m sitting at my desk with youtube and This Isn’t Happiness™ sharing the screen when I come across this

which for some reason transforms into this

on it’s way from my eyes to my brain. Somewhere in the bowels of my mind I remember this grainy photo that's supposed to be the enigmatic writer B. Traven -- the Shadow had an office under the name B. Jonas -- and before I know it this gonzo writer pirate radio vigilante has taken shape and name in my mind, and he sits there and sneers at me as an entire world grows up around him. Lamont Cranston reborn, let iCrime beware. And it’s almost enough. It's almost enough! But it’s still just a fresh coat of paint. It needed Jack Donaghy’s third heat.

The Third Heat. Not a horrible title for something, that.

Next time: The Third Heat. 


The Legend of JD Smith


There’s plenty of perfectly lovely ordinary people in this world. So if you’re extraordinary, your company isn't doing them any great charity.

My collaborator, one Joshua Dillon Smith of the Pacific Northwest, is that rarest of animals -- the self-motivating aspiring comic book creator. (Savage tribes of graphic novelists have hunted his kind near to extinction, believing they could absorb a young creator’s talent by grinding his/her teeth and fingerbones into a fine powder and then snorting it through a rolled-up page from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.)

I ran some numbers. I’ll cite my sources first:

*August, 2006 -- not yet fifteen years old, JD posts the first page of his online comic, Acrobat.

*January, 2011 -- JD finishes inking the twenty-ninth issue of Acrobat.

*An average issue of Acrobat is twenty-two pages long, plus a cover and usually some kind of pinup.

So, my numbers:

JD Smith has produced, at minimum, 640 complete comic pages over the past four years. That’s an average of seven full-length comic books every year, scripts and all.

In high school.

But it’s that Carnegie Hall joint again. It’s Discipline, all three nails-on-the-chalkboard syllables of it. It’s a constant drive to be better. And think of that phrase, the way English works: be better. To become better, to have “better” be that which you are, to encapsulate it utterly. It’s a leap of faith, in a sense. JD is forever trying -- and invariably succeeding -- to improve himself in this bold way. And that’s him all over; Total commitment. Take inspiration from this man, whatever you do in the world. His work ethic is a blueprint that can be applied to any task and taskmaster.

Calling him an “aspiring” comic creator is really just a formality at this point. He’s a triple threat and his time is at hand. Watch for him, follow him, say you knew him when, for he will be one of the architects of the future. The second coming of Kirby. The Kwisatz Haderach of a new age of comics.

When he asked if I wanted to work together, what else could I say?

I mean, he’s a fellow extraordinary.

Next time: The Shadow is my Santa Klaus