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Next month (August 3 to be exact) marks the release of writer Philip Gelatt and artist Tyler Crook‘s original graphic novel (published by Oni Press), Petrograd. To mark the upcoming release, Crook was kind enough to do an email interview with me. You might also recognize Crook’s name and work, given the fact he started his high profile role as Dark Horse’s B.P.R.D. artist this month. We discuss both projects. But before the interview begins, here’s Oni’s description of Petrograd: “During the height of the first World War, a reluctant British spy stationed in the heart of the Russian empire is handed the most difficult assignment of his career: orchestrate the death of the mad monk, the Tsarina’s most trusted adviser and the surrogate ruler of the nation. From the slums of the working class into the opulent houses of the super rich, he’ll have to negotiate dangerous ties with the secret police, navigate the halls of power, and come to terms with own revolutionary leanings, all while simply trying to survive.” Once you’ve read the interview, be sure to also visit CBR’s Petrograd preview.
Tim O’Shea: Were you interested in Russian history at all before tackling Petrograd? Once you got involved with the project, how much research did you have to do, on a variety of subjects, including the British Secret Service?
Tyler Crook: I was only interested in Russian history a little bit before this project. But mostly I’ve been interested in Russian Literature. Mostly Gogol and Dostoyevsky. Reading that stuff requires a little bit of history knowledge but I only ever figured out enough to get by. Phil Gelatt, the writer, did most of the heavy lifting when it came to doing the research. I read a couple books about the Soviet Revolution and scoured my local libraries for book with photos of Russia during the time period. I tried to use Google sparingly. The hardest part was finding photos of regular people doing regular things.
O’Shea: With Petrograd, a self-described “tense, edge-of-your seat spy thriller”, what is the key to properly pacing the work’s tension visually?
Crook: The basic idea with this story was to slowly build the tension leading up to the assassination. Everyone knows that we are going to try kill Rasputin so it won’t be a surprise. But we can make it exciting to watch. On a sort of technical level, I relied on panel shapes a lot. I worked out certain points in the story where I would introduce visual elements like slightly tilting panel borders – Stuff that the reader will hopefully feel rather than see. Then when you hit the assassination scene everything goes completely off the rails and every page is full bleed and panel borders are all crazy. On a less technical, but more important level, I tried to really focus on the acting of my characters. I tried to get your characters to emote enough that the reader can see that stuff is changing and getting harder for them. Hope fully the will feel the tension build just by looking at peoples faces.
O’Shea: In what ways did working with writer Phil Gelatt appeal to you?
Crook: Working with Phil was awesome. I feel like it was a true collaboration. He got me involved really early on in the script writing process. There was lots of back and forth and bouncing around of ideas.
O’Shea: Did you color your own art in Petrograd?
Crook: Yes I did. We did a couple different tests on how to handle the toning the book. It was originally going to be just black and white but as I was getting close to finishing, I started doing some tests and I hit on a way to do a watercolor wash that we could overlay as a second color. So that’s what we did.
O’Shea: What were some of the scenes that proved the most ambitious to execute?
Crook: Probably the assassination scene. I guess the challenge with that was trying to keep the action going, making it exciting, but to also give the reader the chance to feel that they are witnessing something horrible.
O’Shea: Did you become more or less nervous about your upcoming B.P.R.D. assignment, after learning that Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and editor Scott Allie were all unanimously behind making you the new artist to take over after Guy Davis?
Crook: Jeez, I don’t know. The whole thing came together so fast that I didn’t have time to get too nervous until I was neck deep in deadlines. These guys have put a lot of faith in me. I think the thing that scared me the most was when Scott mentioned something about how he was working with John Severin who was making comics before my dad was born. In contrast, my first comic comes out this July. That’s pretty humbling.
O’Shea: Your art style is very different than Guy Davis’ approach, and yet have you braced yourself for the critics that will try to compare you two. Are you planning on avoiding reading reviews of your initial work on B.P.R.D.?
Crook: I’ll probably read some of the reviews. I think it’s natural for people to to want to compare my work to Guy’s work. And I think that there is a lot of similarities with our stuff but there are also a lot of differences. So hopefully people will approach my stuff with an open mind and take it for what it’s worth.
O’Shea: When garnering the B.P.R.D. assignment, were there certain characters that initially drew you into taking the assignment? Also, now that you’ve been drawing the B.P.R.D. cast for a period of time, has your affection and for certain characters shifted to different characters?
Crook: The B.P.R.D. characters are awesome. All of them. Liz Sherman is probably my favorite character but they are all really great. lately I’ve been really enjoying Kate Corrigan. With all the talk about wanting well written female characters, I think people often forget how good John Arcudi and Mike Mignola are at writing female characters. I think their characters are so natural and real feeling that you often don’t even notice that they aren’t falling into the same lame cliches that other comic book characters are.
O’Shea: As a creator new to the B.P.R.D., from an (until recently) outsiders’ perspective, what is it about the B.P.R.D. series that appeals to so many consumers?
Crook: For me the attraction has always been the characters. The monsters are awesome and the whole world going to hell is awesome. But the thing that keeps me coming back for more is the characters. I want to see how they are going to deal with these changes and to see what it does to them. I feel like I can connect to the B.P.R.D. team on an emotional level that I can’t with other super hero teams. Also there are consequences in the Mignolaverse. When they save the world it always seems to cost them dearly.