A thousand-piece puzzle without the frame: McCann talks Mind the Gap
On the surface it may not look like The Return of The Dapper Men, Hawkeye and Mockingbird, and Mind the Gap have much in common, beyond the fact that they are all written by Jim McCann. One’s a fairy tale, one’s a straight up superhero comic and the third McCann describes as a “thriller mystery” with some “preternatural” elements.
But McCann says they have more in common than you might think, or at least that I thought. Last week when I interviewed him about his new Image series, McCann drew parallels between Mind the Gap and those two previous projects, noting that he had plans for a big central mystery for his run on Hawkeye and Mockingbird that never came to pass.
“With Hawkeye and Mockingbird, unfortunately that series was cancelled, but I had a two-year plan for that, and it started to lay a couple of seeds early on,” McCann told me. “Brian Bendis picked up on one of them that occurred in the last issue of Hawkeye and Mockingbird, issue #6. There was a brief moment between Clint Barton and Jessica Drew that was supposed to set up a fling between the two of them. We had talked about that before, and when the series ended he was able to take it and run with it. So there are still some ideas out there that were able to live on. I like to plan things out no matter what the story is. I think it’s important to know your ending, and I think it’s fun to plant Easter eggs and seeds.”
In Mind the Gap, which Mccann is doing with with Morning Glories cover artist Rodin Esquejo and colorist Sonia Oback, the writer has developed a big central mystery around the main character. Elle Peterson is in a coma when the series begins after being attacked by an unknown assailant on a subway platform. “Within 30 minutes of the attack happening, you meet the majority of the characters and what they’re doing around the time of the attack,” McCann said. “But play close attention–there are clocks, or watches, or timepieces in every single panel with every single person, so you can see that time has passed. Some of these people may not really have alibis for the attack.”
McCann said he has developed relationship charts to keep track of how everyone is connected to Elle, to the attack and to each other, forming a puzzle the reader can start to put together.
“The tagline for this is ‘Everyone is a suspect. No one is innocent.’ That’s never been more true than in the case of this mystery,” he said. “The actions of character A can have ramifications on character D over here, and those characters may not even know each other. Because you have one person at the center of all this, you kind of get to see what happens when you hit that spider web, if she’s at the center, or if something hits the spider web over on one side, how does the ripple effect go?”
McCann said the structure of the story came to him almost immediately when he thought up the idea.
“I knew where I wanted to go with the three acts, the beginning, the middle and the end of the story,” he said. “Then it was a matter of, ‘OK, who is in this central character’s life? Who makes up her life and how do they play into this central mystery? Are they innocent, are they guilty or are they both? Do they become one or the other? Is there absolution, or does somebody make a choice that has long-lasting ramifications as we uncover this mystery?’ Because I know where things are going with it, it enables me to lay out subplots and lay out some clues here and there, to plant some red herrings. And sometimes there will be an answer right in front of your face, but you won’t know it until after a reveal, and you can go back and say, ‘Oh shit, that’s where this was’ or ‘That’s where this happened’ and for every answer given–and there will be answers given, you won’t have to wait until toward the end of everything to find out they’re all in purgatory like Lost –for every answer that’s given, two more questions will rise from it. And that happens on both sides, both with the people investigating in the waking or real world, and in Elle’s plain of existence, where she’s trying to uncover these memories.”
Those memories won’t necessarily come back to Elle in chronological order. “It’s kind of like when you put together a thousand-piece puzzle,” he said. “You always think, ‘Ok, build the frame first, then work in from there.’ We’re not going to have all the frame. You’re going to have some bits that will start to appear, but you’re not sure where they go, because we’re putting together a puzzle that didn’t have the picture of it on the box when we got it.”
A “Dapper” hero’s journey
McCann equated Elle’s quest to put together that puzzle to the hero’s journey another of his characters is currently in the middle of–Ayden, from his and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men graphic novel. “Over the course of three books, we’re going to follow his hero’s journey and what happens as a boy becomes a man, and how do events shape that man and choices that are made?” he said. “That also applies to Elle here. I guess I’m just really fascinated with personality and how people become who they are. A lot of times because I’m looking at someone and wonder, ‘What happened to you?’” he said jokingly.
Elle will have the chance to discover who she is over the course of the series–literally, as she has amnesia after the incident on the subway platform that leaves her in a coma. While her body sleeps in a hospital room surrounded by her family, she’s able to hear what they say and starts putting together the pieces. That “gap” between her mind and her body is where the title came from.
“The title itself comes from both the fact of the inciting incident happens on a subway platform with the mugging, but also the separation of Elle Peterson’s mind from her body,” he said. “There is a literal gap, a black void, keeping her from being able to get back into her body.”
That’s where the “preternatural” elements of the story will come into play. Preternatural phenomena, unlike the supernatural, are presumed to have rational explanations that are unknown or haven’t been proven yet. McCann said he has experienced two of these sorts of events in his life.
“You always hear about people being in a coma and being able to hear you,” McCann said. Just like Elle will hear what people say about her in her hospital room, McCann said he had a similar experience with his great aunt.
“I was there and taking care of her in her house as she passed away,” he said. “She wanted to pass away in her house. She slipped into a coma probably about six days before she passed away, and I could actually feel the body slightly reacting to me holding her hand up until about three days prior to her death. And then her body just started to give out … I believe that three days prior to that is when her spirit, or soul, or whatever you want to call it, had moved on, that she had left us. I really do believe prior to that she heard me reading to her. She was a very religious woman, so I’d say the rosary to her, and in my mind I was saying it with her because it felt like she was right there. That event really changed me, and if you talk to anyone who has been there for someone’s last breath, it is something that changes you at a deeper level. There was something about that I couldn’t shake, and it kind of worked its way into this story and how this story is crafted.”
McCann said he couldn’t talk about the second event just yet, as it could spoil the story. “Talk to me in about 12 or 15 issues,” he said. Even beyond these two personal experiences, McCann said he could see a lot of himself in Elle.
“The central mystery and a lot of what makes up Elle is a lot of me, putting myself into her shoes. With her being an amnesiac, she has the chance to do two things: one, she has the chance to rebuild herself from the ground up, because she’s a blank slate. Yeah, she’ll remember a lot of things, but she can also alter her way of thinking or learn new things as she is hearing and seeing the people who are by her bedside,” he said. “The other thing is that the vast majority of information she is given she is getting second hand. How much of our identity is formed by us actively, or by the way we hear other people perceiving us, or the way that we interact with other people and how that interaction can possibly change who you are? So it’s how much are you actually in control of your own identity and how much do you allow other people to shape your identity?”
A new Image
While Elle shapes her new identity in the book, McCann continues to build his, at least in terms of his comic career. Previously McCann worked for Marvel in a publicity role before going full time as a freelance writer. With projects at Marvel and Archaia under his belt, McCann is working with Image Comics for the first time on Mind the Gap.
The timing couldn’t be better, as Image is certainly a buzz-worthy place to be right now with new projects from the likes of Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughan, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Hickman and many other top creators either hitting stands or planned for the coming months.
“It’s absolutely surreal,” McCann said, about being at Image right now. “As all of these books launch, like Fatale, and Manhattan Projects, and Saga … and then the month after Saga was on the cover of Previews, Mind the Gap was on the cover. I was like, ‘Wait, this just came to my comic shop, right? This isn’t happening all over, is it?’ It’s because they really believe in the project, and they’ve been so supportive. It’s been fantastic working with them. I have had really good luck at all three places I’ve worked with–Marvel, Archaia and Image. I’ve had a great time and I’ve been really, really impressed because they have a really wide line, and they’ve got some really strong moneymakers for them that they could continue to put all their marketing efforts into, like Walking Dead. But I think that’s one of the reasons why they’re succeeding right now, is that they put a lot behind their launches. You can’t not be aware of what Image is doing these days.”
McCann said it’s a really exciting time in comics because fans are starting to follow creators; for instance, fans of Jason Aaron’s Wolverine are looking for other books he’s written, which leads them to Scalped.
“Who doesn’t want to play with the toys of the big two, but also, who doesn’t want to be able to tell their own stories and get them out there and share them with people? Fans are more open to it now, and they’re encouraging each other to go out on a limb and ‘Yeah, this book may not have capes and tights in it, but check this out, it’s a really cool story, and you’re going to get a whole story just in this one book,’” he said.
That doesn’t mean McCann isn’t thinking about “capes and tights.” When I asked him who would win between Dazzler and Hawkeye, two of his favorite Marvel characters, if they were to meet in the pages of Avengers vs. X-Men, he was quick to answer. “It would either end up in a draw with either both of them taking each other out, or I’d just make them fall in love with each other and then have a spin-off series where I get to write Hawkeye and Dazzler.”
You can ask McCann about Hawkeye and Dazzler’s upcoming love child, the next Dapper Men book (“It’s a little darker,” he said, saying it was his “Empire Strikes Back” and they’d have a release date soon) and Mind the Gap at C2E2 this weekend, where he’ll sell a 15-page full color limited edition Mind the Gap ashcan. Look for him at table M15 between Janet Lee and Skottie Young.