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There are a few writers that I always look forward to interviewing, because they always surprise me. Jamie S. Rich is on that list. This week, while we discuss the second volume in Spell Checkers, Sons of A Preacher Man, his Oni Press collaboration with artists Nicolas Hitori De and Joëlle Jones, we also delve into the history of Rich’s cameos in comics (among other topics). In this latest Spell Checkers installment, the ladies of Spell Checkers (Jesse, Cynthia and Kimmie) have to deal with the murder of the student body president, the battle to find a new one and at the center of all the action: two brothers, who are new to the school. We also discuss the plans for the third volume in the series. Once you finish the interview, be sure to learn more about the project via Steve Sunu’s CBR interview with the whole Spell Checkers creative team, plus you can enjoy CBR’s 18-page preview of the book.
Tim O’Shea: How much stronger is the collective creative rapport between the three creators on this second volume?
Jamie S. Rich: Very strong. The first book is always a learning experience, not just in how we work together and what we need from each other, but in this case, it was also seeing how the material meshed, how Joëlle’s work jibed with Nico’s. Since I had a clearer notion of how they complemented one another, this time around I took a different approach to the flashbacks and made them almost their own story, letting Joëlle take the material darker by having it more about the new male characters that show up in this volume rather than just about the girls. I think it actually made the reading experience more cohesive, the two pieces meld in a more natural way.
Joëlle started closer to the end of production, so even though she had less to do, it became a race to see who would finish first, her or Nico. They can be pretty competitive. It was a close call. She kind of won, but nothing is every clear-cut in our universe!
O’Shea: How much of it was a compliment to your writing that Hitori de moved from Paris to Portland to work on this series?
Rich: He visited for the release of volume 1, we debuted the book at Stumptown two years ago, and he fit right in with Portland probably more than I ever did. His tousled hair, those hipster band T-shirts, smoking Lucky Strikes–he’s Portland indie rock all the way. So, the decision was really based on his desire to work within the same atmosphere that the book was written, to see how that would inform the comic as a whole. Also, we are hoping to move a little faster on the third book. The second one took about 18 months from printing volume 1 to printing volume 2, and we’re racing the clock to see if we can be back on shelves even sooner. Nico has already found a new work ethic, and he’s been impressed and surprised by the comics artists who live in Portland. I guess in Europe it’s more common for everyone to knock off in the evening, grab beers, maybe go back to work after. We tend to stay indoors and keep our heads down, and then go out for special events. I know he’s gone to life drawing sessions at Periscope Studios, and the release of Habibi has been a big deal here because Craig Thompson lives in town, so he got here at a good time.
O’Shea: Given that the core idea for this series had its start in a Joëlle Jones bar sketch, are you going to start paying Jones’ bar tab to foster more stories?
Rich: I can’t afford Joëlle’s bar tab. Is there a Costco pub or something? I need to start buying in bulk.
O’Shea: What prompted you to go more in a horror-tinged direction in this second volume?
Rich: When I had first pitched the book, I had a very complete outline for volume 1, and my representation at the time had suggested that I make a plan for the second and third comics to beef up its salability. I literally threw two ideas into an e-mail right off the top of my head, and those are the stories that stuck. The pitch for the second one was, “Twin boys come to school, one good and one bad, and Jesse gets involved with the bad one and Cynthia runs for class president against the good, and we discover they have hidden secrets.” That was all I had to go on.
So, when I sat down and started drawing up the new outline, I had to decide what those secrets were. It had to have something to do with magic, obviously, but what kind of magic? I thought about what was popular in teen-oriented genre fiction right now, stuff like Twilight, and basically made a list of what they were using and crossed those things off my list of what I could use. I considered doing a parody of the teen vampire trend, but I’d have had to dive in whole hog and read the books and stuff, and I just wasn’t interested in torturing myself. Instead, I looked at what was still available to me, and out of the available concept, what I chose–what the boys are really involved in–that dictated how the story flowed.
The opening sequence was the very first thing I wrote, and I loved the idea of starting with some very dark imagery–of a priest digging in a graveyard–and beginning the book with a totally straight face, only to push in and topple everything over within two pages. Right there, I had found my balance. Wicked horror skewered with wicked humor. And again, I used having two artists to my advantage. While Nico gets to draw some gruesome stuff in the final act of the story, Joëlle’s work could be straight out of an actual scary monster comic. In a way, I wanted to provide a larger platform to show the industry what all three of us are capable of, and also expand the idea of what the Spell Checkers series could be about. Anything goes!
O’Shea: As much as the book is horror, it’s also partially parody. How do you strike a balance between the two?
Rich: The plot I think really dictated that. I already had the separation between the two parts of the story, and essentially, they had to converge at one point. So, as benign as the “present” may have begun, it had to escalate to a point to where it and the past intersected, and when they did, the present had to be as gross as the stuff going on in the past, and the jokes had to be that much more outrageous. It was a lot of building up momentum.
The great thing about skewering genre, too, is that there are templates already existing. Parody is taking what is familiar and tweaking it for laughs. So, the whole teen romance thing, the misunderstood bad boy, the battle for class president–these are things we all know and love, and the fact that there are expectations and structures already in place, it makes it a case where having limitations actually is an asset. I have to color within the lines, as it were, but I can color with any shade that fits.
O’Shea: There’s a cameo by a teenage you and others in the book, as noted here . Is that your first book cameo?
Rich: For this series, I think. I might be in the party in volume 1, I don’t remember. But it’s not my first ever in any comic book, not by a long shot. If I remember correctly, my actual first cameo was in an issue of Grendel Tales when Edvin Biukovic made me a soldier. I was an assistant editor on the series and Eddy was late and it was the first time I learned that artists often suck up to their editors by drawing cameos of them. We are vain creatures, we fall for it every time. I still get at least one person at every comic book convention who brings up how much they loved the superdeformed version of me Chynna Clugston-Flores stuck in the margins of Blue Monday. And I am a full member of the supporting cast in Andi Watson’s Love Fights.
The cameo in Spell Checkers was actually called out in the script, I suggested Nico draw us all in there, and then he expanded it to include other friends and colleagues. I like to think of those Easter Eggs for the readers, and also to make it fun for us working on it. I avoided asking for anything similar in the book I am doing with Natalie Nourigat, though, because it would just end up being a bunch of characters from High School Musical.
O’Shea: What were some of the highlights from the recent signing at Bridge City Comics?
Rich: It was really just a nice little party for us and our friends. Ron Chan, Cat Farris, Patric Reynolds, and Emi Lenox all stopped by, as did a bunch of our other pals. Michael Ring runs a great store and has good people working for him, so it was a pleasure just sitting and hanging out. I bought a really hilarious looking stuffed Thor toy for Joëlle’s year-old pug, and then Joëlle made us go see Dream House and we haven’t forgiven her yet.
O’Shea: What are the future plans for Spell Checkers?
Rich: Volume 3 is subtitled Careless Whisper and it is set at prom. I looked at the first three books as basically a school-year-in-the-life. Sons of a Preacher Man begins at the end of the winter break, so that means volume 1 is the fall and volume 3 is then end of the year. I doubt I will be that strict about it in the future, but I thought about these first three in terms of, well, maybe these will be all we get to do, or maybe we’ll run out of steam and all move on, so this initial commitment should be something that feels like a complete narrative. The events at prom end up tying into things that happened in the first book and also in the second, the consequences of what the Spell Checkers have done will come knocking. It’s structured so that over the night, we see what happens to each of them individually, and then all the stories converge for the big finish. I’m pretty excited by it. In the script, I instruct Nico to look at both Tex Avery cartoons and Godzilla movies as reference for the climax!
That said, I don’t see us running out of steam any time soon. I have an idea for a fourth graphic novel and I am itching to write it. I also have an eventual end for the whole series that I think is pretty damn hysterical, but I have no immediate plans to implement it. Nico and I want to really build a Spell Checkers library. Like Asterix but cuter and bitchier.
O’Shea: Finally what else is on the creative horizon for you?
Rich: I guess there is a joke around the Oni office that I own 2012. I have a futuristic romance with Natalie Nourigat that is nearing completion, and a weird crime book with Dan Christensen that will follow shortly after. He and I are already talking about turning that into a recurring series with the same character, too. Spell Checkers vol. 3 is in production, and Joëlle and I are mapping out various things with Oni, including a whole new project that is based on a concept she came up with. That girl is a genius, I tell you.
The most immediate material folks can expect from me, though, is the Madman 20th Anniversary Monster! hardcover coming from Image Comics in December. It’s a huge book, 264 pages, about the size of that Wednesday Comics hardcover. I’m helping Mike Allred put it together. In addition to every pin-up ever done of Mike Allred’s characters by another artist, the Monster! features 20 new one-page strips by a bunch of awesome comics folks, a new story by Mike, and a framing sequence I wrote, Jim Valentino pencilled, and Mike inked. I’m also hatching other plans with the Allred for material to follow that.
I’ve also got some short stories in the works. Christopher Mitten and I are contributing to the second Unite and Take Over anthology by SpazDog comics, a collection of shorts based on Smiths songs. And I just turned in my first story for a particular major publisher and I assume they will announce it soon.
O’Shea: Your reading pile is always fun to sample. What are you reading these days?
Rich: I really dug the Who is Jake Ellis? series from Image, so folks should look for that collection. Tonci Zonjic is awesome. Oni is putting out second volumes of Black Metal and Super Pro K.O., and everyone should buy those.
My friend Megan Levens’ webcomic Somewhere in Between is really getting deep into the story now, and she totally blew my mind this morning with her use of instant message windows as comic book panels, a really innovative approach to modern technology being portrayed in a comic. Look at the October 7th strip to see what I mean.
I’ve also seen Joëlle’s pages for the House of Night series for Dark Horse that starts in November, and they are sensational. People are really going to sit up and take notice. First issue is $1. Preorder now!