Talking Comics with Tim | Kody Chamberlain
Later this month will see the release of Sweets 4, the second to last in the five-issue Image Comics miniseries written and illustrated by Kody Chamberlain. As Chamblerlain explained in a May 2010 interview with CBR: “Sweets is about a New Orleans homicide detective named Curt Delatte. He’s hunting a psychotic spree killer who’s terrorizing the city days before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. This detective just buried his only daughter and he’s on the verge of divorce. He’s in bad shape. Everyone with a badge is trying to catch this killer and put an end to the slaughter, but the bodies just keep piling up. Curt has to pull himself together and join the hunt. He’s got no choice. It won’t be long until his city and his evidence get washed away - a true ticking time bomb scenario.” My thanks to Chamberlain for this new email interview where we delve into his approach to storytelling, color and character development as well as two of the best convention moments he’s ever had.
Tim O’Shea: You been working on this script for years, can you single out a phase of the script development where you felt like you got the story where you wanted it to be?
Kody Chamberlain: The time spent on the script was mostly a result of being a full-time artist. Creating artwork for comics is extremely time-consuming, especially since I usually ink and color my own work. So that means I have to steal time here and there for my writing and that slows down the process. I didn’t mean to imply I’ve been writing the script nonstop all this time, I’m not a full time writer, so that can’t happen. Writing Sweets was a slow process for me because I wanted it to be a solid script before I picked up my pencil, and that takes longer when you’re a full-time artist. But from the start, I committed to nailing down a solid script before drawing anything, and that’s taken a while.
There are a few specific moments in the script where it felt like things clicked. One scene in particular comes to mind—the scene in the first issue where Jeff is talking with Lieutenant Palmer. The dialogue was very tough to write and I did a million rewrites on that, but as I was lettering the finished art, it seemed to work. The characters felt real in that moment. There’s also a scene in issue four between Curt Delatte and Lieutenant Palmer that works well on paper. I’m thumbnailing that scene now and it’s starting to come alive. I think that scene is one of the best in the series. I hope it holds up once it’s put together.
O’Shea: Cooking pops up frequently in the story–what motivated you to use that as a framing aspect in some of the scenes?
Chamberlain: As readers found out in issue two, the pralines found at each of the crime scenes are what inspired the media to nickname the killer “Sweets,” so I thought it would be fun to tie that recipe into the overall storyline. I toyed around with various titles for the story, but eventually I settled on Sweets because I liked the juxtaposition of the title against the hard and gritty storyline. A few people have actually emailed me to let me know they actually tried the recipe and loved it. The guys at Multiversity actually did it as a cooking show and put the video online.
I once heard Francis Ford Coppola say that he liked to include a recipe in each of his films so in the event that the viewer hated the movie, they’d get something out of it. I can’t argue with that logic.
O’Shea: At the end of the first issue, there’s a shot of your studio where all the pages of the issue are tacked to the wall, along with a few covers. When you do this, is it an effort to see area that you might want to tweak–or why are the pages on the wall?
Chamberlain: This is something I started doing as a graphic designer right out of college. I’d do a few dozen versions of a logo for a client and I’d pin them all up. Having everything in view makes it easier to see the big picture and get your head around what’s important. Every morning when I’d walk in, I’d see these designs and I could quickly spot things that need to be adjusted, or I’d get a spark of an idea that could be applied to one version but not another. Overtime, the project was improved by having everything in view at all times. Out of sight, out of mind. So keeping them in view forces me to stay focused on the work.
Pinning up the comic pages works in a similar way. It helps me spot consistency problems with how the characters are dressed, background details, etc. and it also helps me track my progress and timeline. I usually pin up all the pencils and make little notes about what needs to be tweaked before I do the inks. So I’ll pull them down and do revisions as needed and do the same thing for the inks. If I have time, I pin up the colored and lettered pages as well.
O’Shea: Can you discus your thought process on the color schemes of the pages. It’s most noticeable (the color shift) when you switch to flashback scenes. In fact, am I mistaken in thinking you used a different art style in the flashbacks as well?
Chamberlain: Color can be used in a lot of ways. Most often, color is used to ’separate’ things on the page. Put a dark orange shirt in front of a light blue sky, and that shirt will jump off the page. But color can also become a distraction. It can pull attention away from the things that are important and draw too much focus to too many things. The reason black and white comics work so well is because of the clarity. Black and white can ’unify’ shapes in the same way full color can ‘separate’ those shapes. For a brief time I actually considered doing Sweets in black and white because I wanted that unity and that clarity. But there were some things I wanted to do stylistically that needed a bit of color to work properly, so I compromised and decided to go with a very limited color palette. There are three style/color shifts in the comic, each one represents a slightly different point of view. There are times where that overlaps, but for the most part, the style changes represent a shift in focus from one character to another. The cartoon style in blue and green is also drawn in a completely different lineart style because it represents a different time period. The other two styles exist in the same time. It’s not meant to be a literal representation of time and point of view, just one of those things I do to add a layer to the concept.
O’Shea: In terms of developing the two lead detectives in the story, which of the two did you develop first? Who proved the most challenging to write of all the characters–why?
Chamberlain: One of the early story ideas that came to me was the scene at the mausoleum in the first issue. It was mostly a dialogue exchange that ended up on one of those index cards I pin to my cork wall. It’s changed a lot since then, but I think that’s where the characters were born, so in a way, they were created at the same time from that one scene idea. The two detectives are always fun to write, they’re connected in a way I can’t quite explain. They also happen to be the most challenging to write. These guys are detectives, and I’m not. The goal is to bring them to life in an interesting way and avoid the CSI-style clichés. I prefer watching true crime shows on cable, it’s a great place to see how cops work, hear how they talk, and see how they break down a crime scene. It’s also interesting how often a big break in a case comes from outside their area of focus and how they react to that. A good detective has a highly tuned sense of what’s important and what isn’t, but that can change in the blink of an eye as the facts come in. It’s truly fascinating. I also have a few actual detective friends and I’m constantly picking their brains by throwing out situations and asking them what they’d do if this happened, or if that happened. It’s really a lot of fun to mix that stuff into fiction.
O’Shea: I liked the whole discussion of ties in the first issue, did you make that up from out of nowhere–or did you once have someone tell you a similar story?
Chamberlain: That’s something I made up. That particular scene was about power. The Mayor has Lieutenant Palmer by the balls and is applying pressure. I thought the concept of power could be clearly represented by the quality of their neckties and how the Mayor chooses to apply that power. In my mind, Lieutenant Palmer would notice the difference between his ties and the Mayor’s ties, and he might use that in a conversation to make his point. It’s all about superiority. But Jeff has his own motivation, he’s there fighting to save Curt’s job, so there’s a second power struggle going on in that scene. Lieutenant Palmer continues the necktie metaphor at the end of the scene to tie it all together. People seem to like the dialogue there, so I feel like it worked the way I wanted it to work. You never really know because I rationalize it in my mind, but I’m never 100% sure it’s going to work for the reader. I just go with what feels right on the page.
O’Shea: In watching the video tour of your studio you show a picture of a fountain where you sometimes go to do sketches. Why is that site so conducive to sketching?
Chamberlain: It’s funny you’d ask about that because it’s been very hot lately and I haven’t been to the fountain in months. But this week was nice and cool so I did end up there to do some thumbnails yesterday. It’s a great place to sketch because it’s one of the few places downtown that has comfortable outdoor benches. There are a few other spots I like, but they’re not very comfortable and that makes sketching a lot less fun. But the fountain is nice because the sound is very soothing, and it’s only about a hundred yards from my studio door. There’s also an outdoor stage right beside it, there’s live music every Friday, so it’s become a bit of a focus point for the downtown area. Lafayette is a small town and everyone knows everyone in the downtown area, so it’s a great place to bump into friends and hang out a bit while I work. I do work alone in my studio most of the time, so it’s always nice to see other humans.
O’Shea: Not everyone’s books get praised by the likes of Bill Sienkiewicz & Jim Starlin, how long a buzz did you ride from compliments like that?
Chamberlain: I was ecstatic when I got those quotes, but the story of how that happened is also interesting. About five or six years ago, I was seated next to Sienkiewicz in Artists Alley at a Wizard con and he’s always super busy signing books and doing commissions. So I’d break away now and then and I’d bring him coffee, water, or whatever he wanted to drink. We hung out a bit after the show and we started talking talking shop. He was answering every question I threw at him and I was really inspired by his willingness to share his knowledge. I learned so much that night and when I got back to my hotel I couldn’t sleep so I just sketched most of the night. Since then, we’ve connected a few more times at conventions and he’s always been very gracious, and we share upcoming artwork via email now and then.
I attended the Boston Comic-Con this past year and we were seated near each other once again, so I handed off one of my printed ashcans to him. It was the entire first issue of Sweets, and I think I had the script for the second issue in there as well. It wasn’t colored yet, but it was lettered, so it was readable. Jim Starlin happened to be sitting on the opposite side of Sienkiewicz, so I offered an ashcan to him as well. The next morning I had to staple together more of those ashcans so I got to the convention early. Starlin walks over to my table about two hours before the convention opened and he complimented the book and told me he really enjoyed reading it. I thanked him for taking the time, and then he asked if I was interested in talking about the comic with him. That blew my mind. OF COURSE I want to talk about my comic with Jim Starlin, so he sat at my table and he went over the comic and the script for about an hour. I
listened and soaked it all in. He pointed out the things that worked and the things that didn’t work, and offered some advice on different aspects of what I was doing. Keep in mind, I’d never met him before that weekend. He had no reason to do what he did. He did it because he loves comics and he wanted to help.
Those two experiences are easily two of the best con moments I’ve ever had. After the show that day, I put my tail between my legs and asked both men if they’d mind giving me a blurb. It’s always hard to promote a creator-owned comic, and I knew that would help in a big way. They both jumped on the opportunity and sent me quotes right away. It’s such a thrilling experience to have two legendary creators step in and give me their time. I’ll always be grateful and I think that’s something we should all do a little more often.
O’Shea: In documenting your creative process through your blog did you end up learning more about your own creative approach through the discussion and feedback you received?
Chamberlain: Absolutely. When I was in college I taught a high school drumline a few hours a day, and I learned more than I could have imagined. Sharing the details of a particular technique or a concept forces you to analyze that concept deeper than you normally would. Knowing something and then explaining what you know involves a higher level of understanding overall. You’re forced to consider it from different angles. That was one of the reasons I wanted to keep the blog, I wanted to have a journal, but I also wanted to challenge myself to understand the process a little better and go out of my comfort zone once again.