Talking Comics with Tim: Jamie S. Rich
Back in late July/early August, Robot 6 was fortunate enough to feature independent comics industry veteran writer Jamie S. Rich guest-blogging with the group–partially in promotion of his and artist Joëlle Jones‘ You Have Killed Me, the 184-page hardboiled crime graphic novel released by Oni Press in mid-July. Rich, an established writer of prose and comics, recently ran circles (in a good way) around some questions I shot his way recently about his latest book. Enjoy, hopefully as much as I did.
Tim O’Shea: Back in 2006 in an interview with Tom Spurgeon you told him (about You Have Killed Me) “12 Reasons was going so well, I think we had only been working on it a couple of months, but I didn’t want to lose her to anyone else, so I asked her if she would work with me again and what she would want to do, I’d write her anything. She said she wanted to do hardboiled crime, and since I had the same passion for it she did, I jumped at it, even though it scared me because it was so different from what I’m known for. She’s challenging me in incredible ways I would never challenge myself.” Can you discuss what ways this story challenged you?
Jamie S. Rich: Well, most immediately, it required some real plotting. Relationship stories like what I had previously been known for don’t require as much careful planning, they have a natural flow, peaks and valleys that are tied to the rhythm of real life. It’s often unpredictable, less structured, and there is no definite resolution beyond whether or not these people stay together. In a crime story, you have something that happened, and the discovery of how it happened has to be detailed and lead to the revelation of the truth or the punishment of the criminal. You can’t just have a random stranger suddenly emerge and say, “Oh, yeah, this homeless drifter did it.” I mean, you could, but a lot of people would call you out for cheating, that’s not a good story. For You Have Killed Me, I had to concoct a trail for Antonio Mercer, the private detective, to folloq, and each step had to kick up new dirt and I had to keep all of that dirt ordered, even when false or a red herring. There are expectations of that kind of plot. Just as Chekhov said if there is a gun in the first act, it will go off in the third, if you need a gun to go off in the third, you might have to think about having it show up in the first. There is far less left to chance.
The other is just the notion that one must approach a thing he or she loves with a healthy respect. It’s hubris tempered with humility. I look at the tradition of great crime stories, and I have to think I can somehow be a part of that tradition, and yet, it wouldn’t suit me to denigrate it. To succeed at that bold bid to join the ranks, we had to rise to meet the quality of the pioneers who led the way. There are plenty of examples of mistagged so-called noir movies, for instance, that don’t do that. Last year there was this film called Dark Streets that was a lot of empty style, operating with just a surface notion of a jazz-age tale. Or you see these things come out, I can think of a couple of recent comic book examples but shouldn’t name any names, that are jokey about it. As a lifelong smartass, I can tell you for a fact that using ironic winks as the building blocks for your story is about the easiest thing you can do. It takes no skill, and it’s easy to get by doing it. It’s also very hard to be memorable, and that kind of material fades. We wanted to make a book that sticks around.
O’Shea: Do you have some dialogue lines just pop in your head and you store them to use down the road, or do lines like “You homicide cops, you have it lucky.” just pop up naturally in the creation of the story?
Rich: It’s a little bit of both. My brain is often working ahead of what is on the page, anticipating what is coming. I know, for instance, there is a line about lollipops that I wrote long before I got to the part in the story where it would fit. It came to me while I was thinking about other things and I had to write it down and file it away. Often, I either have a separate documents of random notes like that, or I might even have pages at the end of the manuscript where notes are laid out in a certain order, and when I reach them, I join those pages into the larger script. In fact, I have a leftover file from You Have Killed Me, the stuff that I never joined up with.
Other times it just comes from being in the scene. I feel a writer has to be willing to let things happen. Sometimes the worst lines are the ones I force, where I plug a hole where I know something snappy will do the trick. In the romance stuff, it actually comes when a character first meets his or her love, and trying to find something to describe that feeling. In Cut My Hair, it was something like how Mason wanted to jump in the air and bounce the moon off his head like a soccer ball. I remember that coming very easy, and some of the lines that came in later books landed with just as much ease, but sometimes it was a tough thing, trying to find something like the moon and the soccer ball, and it ends up like one of those millions of TV shows where the pilot is passed out and a person with no experience has to land the plane. I am the guy in the control tower trying to talk the line into existence, bring the metaphor in for a landing, step by step.
I don’t specifically recall writing Mercer’s line about homicide cops, but I think that’s just one that came with the scene. It’s late in the book, so by then I could really “hear” the voices of all the characters, and the writing had become like a conversation between them and me. Most of Spell Checkers is written that way. Like a good conversation in real life, one statement prompts a logical response.
O’Shea: Of the characters you wrote for this story, can you think of one or two characters who had a role that expanded beyond your original expectations when you first started building the tale?
Rich: The bartender was originally a one scene guy, then it became two, he was the natural person to give Kane a heads up that someone was looking for him and so he stuck around for that. Then he re-emerged again when I needed some kind of transition, and it felt right to have him both advocate a certain humanity on behalf of the crook, but also to ask Mercer to retain some of his own. It serves a very good purpose, I think, in that it shows Mercer making a tough choice. It also fit the emerging themes of family and the ties that bind, and Mercer’s hard reaction to the same.
The doctor is the only other one, even though like most of the side characters, he only gets one scene. That scene became more meaningful than I had anticipated, both for myself and Joëlle, whose reaction to it was what actually made me realize there was something deeper there. She said she took special care in how she designed his look, because for her that scene was rather tender. She viewed Doc as Mercer’s only real friend, he was lonely except for that. He might get along with Tynan, the head police detective, but it’s adversarial and Tynan expects something from it. Doc comes to Mercer to help him because he believes Mercer deserves some compassion.
O’Shea: In terms of the structure, you and Jones utilize chapters for the story. You rarely see that in graphic novels. What motivated this choice?
Rich: Honestly, it’s just the way I think. Just about everything I’ve done, be it prose or comics, has had chapters, including Love the Way You Love, which had the issues of the series but also chapters in each issue. I just think that using a chapter-based structures causes the authors to think more in terms of units and natural breaks in the story. It also gives the reader a moment to pause and adds impact to a scene. Like when a chapter ends with Mercer being knocked unconscious, it’s much nicer to then have a page of nothing after, and we pick up with him when he returns home, having come out of the blackout. It’s another tool we can use.
O’Shea: What is the advantage of writing a period piece–and on the flip side what are the challenges to writing a story in a different era and making sure you don’t slip in modern day elements by accident?
Rich: I suppose the advantage is you don’t have to worry about being current. You don’t have to fear your story becoming outdated really fast. If you think about movies from the 1980s and 1990s that dealt with emergent computer technology and virtual reality and the like, they look hokey now, we can’t imagine how anyone ever thought that tech would take such turns. Whereas at the time, they may have seemed cutting edge.
When it came to slang and things, I had to keep myself in check, had to consider what the characters were saying. I also had to consider certain social issues, some of which I decided to not get into, like Kane being black. I let that just be an unspoken part of the story, as this wasn’t the right place to examine it without derailing what was happening. Given Mercer’s background, though, as a child of immigrants and new money, I could see it being more important later. But even that we only hint at for Mercer in You Have Killed Me. A writer has to pick his battles and know what suits this outing, maybe let the reader fill in more. In some ways, I like the imposed structure of the time period, it makes me think in ways I might not otherwise, keeps me from falling back on my own tricks. One of the more disappointing scenes in Inglourious Basterds was the big preparation for the climax when Tarantino tosses in a David Bowie song, and it completely destroyed the mood he had otherwise created. He had been doing so well, he had gotten out of his box, and then he climbed right back in. Hell, I remember arguing with Chynna Clugston about her soundtrack choices for Blue Monday. She had a specific time frame in mind for the series, but then she’d toss in a Supergrass song that wasn’t even recorded when she was in high school, and we had a disagreement over whether or not she could do that. Granted, years later in Love the Way You Love I would steal the same idea of a sort of specific timeframe, since the book allegedly happens at the same time as Cut My Hair, and I ended up breaking that in much the same way she did. But we were also both dealing with the immediate past, whereas Basterds and You Have Killed Me were both much further back.
O’Shea: I agree with you regarding Inglorious Basterds, but the moment that first derailed the storytelling for me was the scene introducing Hugo Stiglitz–complete with 1970s logo. Did that scene bother you as well?
Rich: Hugo Stiglitz was another sequence that bugged me. I liked the sequence itself, but yes, the logo and the voiceover were too self-indulgent. Maybe if we had stories about all the other Basterds in a similar vein, then it could have worked, but it was like an idea he brings up and then drops. The second voiceover sequence was bad, as well, particularly since all the info had kind of been explained in the dialogue immediately prior.
O’Shea: Not every book you work on warrants an art exhibit of its own. How pleased were you when the Art Institute of Portland and Meltdown Comics both hosted an “Art of Joelle Jones” exhibit–and how did that come together?
Rich: Leslie Waara at the Art Institute was fan and she actually got in touch with me for it because they had an open show month and thought maybe it would be interesting to bring a different kind of art into the space. It was very flattering and really neat to see comic art showcased in that context. The Meltdown show came out of that. They saw the news about the gallery display and asked if they could get the show when it was done. Given that they are, of course, one of the best-known and respected stores in the country, and that the shop is in a primary market like Los Angeles, we jumped at the chance. I’m still sad that the arrangement time didn’t allow for me to go down there and be there for the opening night, but hopefully we’ll get a chance to visit the store some other time.
O’Shea: Speaking of the art, can you select a favorite page? (For me, it’s the page in chapter 6 when Mercer is looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, as he draws a bath for himself–and his image slowly disappears over three panels, while steam fills the room)
Rich: I like that page. In my head, I originally saw the next page as even better. Mercer wipes away the steam and in the reflection, the bathroom is the one that Julie disappeared from, and not his own. It was all kind of complicated, though, and when Joëlle thumbnailed it, she saw it wasn’t going to work and went for the full-page instead. She was right, it was overly ambitious and cluttered. Comics writers sometimes have to remember that just because they can see something in their head, it doesn’t mean it can be effectively communicated in a drawing.
For me it’s probably page 63, though. That’s the page of original art I kept from the book, it was the turning point page for me in the writing, and Joëlle captured it exactly like I imagined–sometimes what I see in my head can be effectively drawn, and sometimes I can even effectively communicate it. It’s the page where Mercer is looking at the race track and amidst the blur of the horses, he sees the woman he is looking for, the missing girl, only to have his gaze diverted when he hears the scream of someone discovering another dead body. It’s both a great looking page and an example of writer and artist being in sync.
O’Shea: I love the quirky elements you insert in a story-for instance how (and/or why) did you come up with your use of almonds for this story?
Rich: There wasn’t a lot of thought given to that, it shows up in the first couple of pages and is part of a sense memory of the woman that Mercer loved and that he is now being hired to find, though here the sister of that woman is wearing her older sibling’s perfume, which was meat to play with his head. I chose almonds because I both liked the smell and it’s also got deadly connotations, a similar scent being a signifier of cyanide. So, for the readers who pick up on that, it’s meant to make them think of the ex-lover as poison. If it didn’t have that connotation for a reader, that was fine, too. I couldn’t have Mercer make a point out of it, it would have been too obvious and maybe too self-aware for him, as well. I tried to approach the narration where he describes the smell as a stream-of-consciousness narration, just as it appears in the book. It’s like a long monologue, really, and each detail flows into the next and there are themes recalled, clues revisited, a parallel to the mystery itself. I largely thought to do that because it would help me avoid the narrative cliche, and I also thought it was something that you could only do in comics. You can’t write that kind of narration in prose, it would be too disjointed in this kind of story. Turns out you can do it in the movies, though. Matt Damon’s narration in The Informant! is quite similar, even coming around to enter reality when the monologue runs out.
O’Shea: Given our shared appreciation for film, would you say certain movies helped inform (not necessarily influence per se) the tale?
Rich: Most definitely. Again, it’s the nature of genre to look back at the foundation of said genre, to discern the tropes, etc. For me, the movies really influenced the rhythm of the writing as well as the visual thinking. I often suggested the light sources and how we might use shadows based on shot compositions from movies like Laura and Out of the Past and movies by Siodmak and Fritz Lang. At the same time, I thought about crime comics like Sin City and The Spirit and It Rhymes with Lust. I thought about Blacksad and Union Station by Parks and Barreto, The Damned by Bunn and Hurtt and Benkei in New York. Milligan’s Human Target is a favorite, particularly for the main character, and of course Sandman Mystery Theatre.
Joëlle was actually the one more schooled in detective fiction, in the prose side of things, and we talked a lot about the expectations of the style. She had specific things she felt were important, such as Mercer getting clocked all the time. Every other chapter or so, someone has to knock him out. That makes him punching that mouthy cop really cathartic. I love how she drew that. POW!
O’Shea: Any chance Jones and you may do another tale with Mercer?
Rich: We’d like to. It’s a matter of timing. I actually wrote a script in the months You Have Killed Me was being prepped and printed. I’ve been sitting on it, only Joëlle has it. It gets into some of those issues of class and race I mention above, gets into Mercer’s past, and it also establishes who may be the regular cast, including return players. But nothing is set in stone yet. If Joëlle reads it and decides she hates it…well, if we do another book and it’s nothing like what I just said, that’s likely what happened. Ideally, I would like to do a series of Mercer books, four or five, but it’s going to be at least a year before Joëlle even has time to consider it, so we’ll really just have to wait and see.
O’Shea: Is it too early to start teasing folks about your upcoming Oni project, Spell Checkers (which has you working with Jones and Nicolas Hitori de)?
Rich: No, the cat’s pretty much out of the bag on that. In fact, I’m actually writing the second volume of it right now. A good writer is always one step ahead of his artists, so I can’t let Nico finish volume 1 without a script for volume 2 waiting for him. We have mapped out three books with Oni, and the first will come out in April, likely debuting at the time of the Chicago Comic Book and Entertainment Expo, which we all have tentative plans to attend, including Nico flying over from France. We’re all really excited about the book. It’s a rude high school comedy with magic, about three teenage witches who quite literally rule their school. They are mean girls with actual power, even if no one actually knows that they are using magic. Kimmie, Cynthia, and Jesse are wild children with abilities that exceed their learned social behavior, who have been able to do whatever they wanted since elementary school, and so they know how to manipulate the system and have a good time. In the first book, however, someone challenges their rule by spreading dirty graffiti about them, and it may be part of a magical curse.
Joëlle is drawing flashbacks that will give us the back story to these girls, while Nico draws the here and now. He’s really talented, and though Joëlle and I came up with the central characters, he’s really a full partner. We didn’t want to go ahead with the book without her drawing it unless we found just the right person, and he is it.
His coming on board has given Joëlle the space to draw the Dr. Horrible one-shot from Dark Horse and do two issues of Madame Xanadu, which I believe are #19 and #20, January and February, so there will be lots of work from her leading up to Spell Checkers. I’m also in the planning stages with Mike Allred for a Madman special next year, featuring a new story by him and three short stories with talent we’re excited by doing their fresh takes on the character. I have already recruited two awesome people. That should be on its way in the summer or thereabouts.