Talking Comics with Tim: Sierra Hahn, Joëlle Jones
Troublemaker is a unique opportunity for Dark Horse, in which Janet Evanovich continues her best-selling Barnaby series (as first chronicled in the prose novels, Metro Girl and Motor Mouth) with her first graphic novel [co-written by Evanovich with her daughter, Alex]. Troublemaker is a two-part series–the first book comes out in July and the second book is due out in November. I recently email-interviewed the editor of the project, Sierra Hahn, as well as one of the series’ artist, Joëlle Jones. Dark Horse describes the book as follows: “Alex Barnaby and Sam Hooker are back together and fighting crime the only way they know how — by leaving a trail of chaos, panic, and disorder. Alex, an auto mechanic and spotter for racecar driver Sam Hooker, is drawn to trouble like a giant palmetto bug to a day-old taco. Unfortunately, she’s also drawn to Hooker in the same fashion. There’s no steering clear of trouble or Hooker when friends Rosa and Felicia call for help. A man has gone missing, and in order to find him Barnaby and Hooker will have to go deep into the underbelly of Miami and southern Florida, surviving Petro Voodoo, explosions, gift-wrapped body parts, a deadly swamp chase, and Hooker’s mom.” My thanks to Hahn and Jones for the interview and Dark Horse’s Jim Gibbons for his assistance.
Tim O’Shea: When did Dark Horse first approach Janet Evanovich about the possibility of a graphic novel–how much were you involved?
Sierra Hahn: I’ve been assisting on Buffy Season Eight going on three years now, and one day discovered that Janet Evanovich had done an incredibly thoughtful review of Season Eight for Time magazine. After that, Dark Horse reached out to her not only to say thanks, but to see if she had any interest in making comics herself. I wasn’t involved with the initial outreach to Janet, and came on board after a project was decided on.
O’Shea: Given Janet Evanovich’s long track record as a successfully published prose novelist, were you slightly nervous when you took on this editorial assignment?
Hahn: I was both nervous and excited to be working with Janet, and [her daughter/co-writer] Alex. Nervous because this is a very important project for both Janet and Dark Horse, and it’s largely my responsibility to make the process run smoothly and help make the series the best it can be. I was also very excited by the prospect of working with Janet. Her and Alex are extremely savvy and have an insightful grasp of the book industry and their loyal and enthusiastic fans.
O’Shea: Both Janet and her daughter Alex were comic book fans before embarking on this project, but was there still somewhat of a learning curve you had to guide them through in terms of the editing of a graphic novel (versus the prose editorial process they are accustomed to)?
Hahn: When I received the first draft of Troublemaker I was pleasantly surprised by how well Alex responded to the medium. She was very conscientious about the number of panels per page, where an action sequence should fall, how to maintain great page turns, and keep the energy and movement alive throughout. It was obvious to me that she’s a lover of comics, and had studied the nuances of comics storytelling.
O’Shea: Was it challenging to make sure Evanovich’s ear for dialogue and humor was maintained in Troublemaker? Comics require a certain element of economy with dialogue not found in prose novels, for example.
Hahn: Reading both Metro Girl and Motor Mouth—the previous novels from which Troublemaker is based—I really felt like the storytelling found in those prose books would translate well into comics. Janet’s stuff is very descriptive so it’s easy to visualize what’s happening to Alex Barnaby and Sam Hooker (the stars of the books), and against what kind of backdrop. Janet is also known for the snappy dialog, and the witty banter found in all of her prose books. If anything I’ve assured both Janet and Alex that they can put more dialog on the page if they want to.
O’Shea: How did you settle upon garnering Joëlle Jones for this project?
Hahn: When I found out that I’d be editing the Troublemaker books Joëlle was the first artist to spring to mind as the perfect fit. I never looked back. Her artwork has so much life and energy. She’s able to pack a lot of emotion and fluidity into her characters, and I knew she’d make this book absolutely gorgeous. And she’s done just that.
O’Shea: Given how the Evanovichs set the latest tale in the seedy underbelly of Miami, I was curious did you try to provide Jones with visual reference material? Were there certain visual elements that the Evanovichs requested for the authenticity of the book’s look?
Hahn: A lot of the scenes are based on real places in Miami and the surrounding areas, and a lot of photo reference was used to get the environment just right, and pay homage to some local Miami flavor. We brought in Ben Dewey as the background artist part way through the book, and he did a phenomenal job capturing the swamps, the fascinating (albeit creepy) Botanica shops, and the hoppin’ Miami night club scene. The colorist, Dan Jackson brought a lot of life and flavor to each page too, which only enhances the readers experience of that city (something that was really important to Janet and Alex).
O’Shea: How early in the story’s development did Jones draw Beans (the dog who steals many of the scenes he is in–in terms of comedy)–did she have his look down on the first try–or did it take some back-and forth discussions between you, her and the authors?
Hahn: Joëlle pretty much nailed the looks of Beans right away. I think she made a few tweaks—like bigger feet—along the way. And Alex was able to provide great photo reference of her own St. Bernard dog, Barney. Joëlle’s done a great job giving Beans his own personality in this series.
O’Shea: In looking at the advance preview, I was struck by how the colors made Jones art pop even more than usual–who did you get to color the book?
Hahn: I mentioned him earlier, but Dan Jackson is the colorist on this book. He had colored Joëlle’s work for a one shot Dr. Horrible comic that we did last year, and he had a great time doing it. It’s really clear through his coloring on this book that he’s having a blast coloring her work in Troublemaker too. He (along with Joëlle, Ben, and inker Andy Owens) have really brought this book to life. I’m certainly biased as the editor, but the artwork leaps off the page. It’s super fun to look at.
O’Shea: How exciting is to be editing a new series, with a built-in strong fan base like Evanovich has?
Hahn: It’s really exciting to be working on something that has a long-standing and devoted fan base. I’ve experienced loyal fans by assisting on both Buffy and Serenity, and I know what happens when you disappoint said fan base. It’s my hope that Janet’s fans will love this comic as much as they love Janet’s prose, and that her fans will venture to find more great comics to fill their bookshelves.
Beyond Janet’s fans though—I think comics readers who like great adventure stories, goofy humor, and great art will love this book too. This book isn’t only for Janet’s fans—it’s a book that everyone can enjoy.
O’Shea: Troublemaker is the latest installment in the Barnaby series, but the first graphic novel. How did you go about getting a feel for these established characters while still giving them your own flair?
Joëlle Jones: Janet and Alex, I think, were very clear about what they wanted visually for the characters—they have been working with them for a while now. My job was to give them a little more life and bring them to the page. It was a struggle at first, but I think I was able to satisfy them while still maintaining my style, albeit a little more cartoony than usual.
O’Shea: Am I right in thinking you had a lot of fun drawing Beans, was the drooling aspect something you came up with doing? When Beans waves his tail in Barnaby’s face–was that suggested to you or your own comedic moment?
Jones: I really loved drawing Beans. I have a dog myself and I am obsessed with him. I would spend all day following him around if I could. As far as the drooling, it wasn’t much of a stretch for a Saint Bernard to be a wet mess. I would love to take credit for the great comedic timing in the book, but that is all Evanovich. You can ask anyone who knows me and they can tell you that comedic or otherwise my timing is pretty much always off.
O’Shea: I have always appreciated your gift for subtle character nuances, which in the case of this book, leads to some great visual comedy. Scenes with Hooker’s mom come to mind immediately–given the intensity of her character, how much did you have to resist going broad with those comedy bits (though you skirt close to the broad reaction with some of your facial elements)?
Jones: Thanks. It was a bit of a struggle at first to go bigger without being obnoxious about it, but with gentle prodding from Sierra, I think she and I were able to find that balance. I don’t think that slapstick is really my forte, but this is my take on it.
O’Shea: How hard was it to capture the flavor of Miami in your exterior scenes?
Jones: With Ben Dewey’s help, easy! I did the backgrounds in the beginning of the book but with the schedule we had to bring Ben on board and he really brought the city to life and I am so grateful to have been able to work with him.
O’Shea: The Evanovichs are car fans, given how specific they are about one race scene in the book (“a Porsche GT3 RS versus a Nissan GT-R”), when you have to draw specific car models in a scene–is that easier or harder?
Jones: I really love the challenge of drawing specific things that I have not drawn before, it keeps me excited and on my toes. I am not sure how great the cars ended up looking in the end, but I tried my hardest to portray the enjoyment I got out of drawing them and hopefully that trumps any small mistakes I made along the way.
O’Shea: Do you feel like you had more creative freedom, given that you were dealing with first-time comic writers–or do you always enjoy a great deal of creative freedom?
Jones: The process of this book was very different than any other that I have worked on. I have the feeling that the Evanovichs had a very clear vision of what they wanted from the start, and it was hard to get what they saw in their heads onto the page. It was kinda rocky at first, but I am currently drawing the second book and things seemed to have gotten much smoother now that we have sort of learned how to work with each other.
O’Shea: How does one effectively execute a chase scene in a swamp, of all places?
Jones: I enjoyed drawing that part of the book. Fanboats are also something that I never thought I would have to draw, but the thing that made it easier to draw than a car chase scene is it is all on water, so you can fudge perspective a little more that you usually would.