Crime fiction and comic books share some of the same genealogy. Think back to the days of pulp magazines when detective, horror, sci-fi and cowboy stories all intermingled, printed on cheap paper imported into the United States… with whiskey bottles shoved between the rolls. While today’s comics all feature unlikely superheroes in iron suits, with mutant powers and Spandex pyjamas, now and again a good old pulpy noir comes along. Dead Man’s Party is an entirely independent new comic by artist Scott Barnett and writer Jeff Marsick. It’s won praises from Duane Swierczynski, and frankly it gets ours too because its premise is amazing. A hitman takes out a contract on himself because he thinks he’s dying, but with six of the world’s best assassins after him, he changes his mind! We asked its two creators to join us.
What made you guys decide to create a noir comic – for decades and decades most comics have focused on super powers, aliens and gods?
Scott Barnett: We each have a ton of ideas in different genres, but this concept jumped out at us first. We’ve known each other for years and had been discussing potential collaborations for a while.
Jeff Marsick: Deciding to go noir instead of capes and cowls basically boiled down to the brass nuts of the concept: A man of questionable morality is forced into a situation where his life gets turned upside-down. That, to us, played much better in a real-world setting than it did in a science fiction one.
Dead Man’s Party has an electric premise, with the hitman Ghost. How did you dream it up?
SB: The whole thing started one night while I was watching TV, about two years ago. I came up with an idea about a hitman who puts a contract out on himself and wrote myself some notes to discuss with Jeff. I emailed him about it and received a very interesting response the next day.
JM: Yeah, I just about fell out of my chair when I got the email because I’ve had Dead Man’s Party – title and all – in my head, literally, for around 16 years. It all goes back to Oingo Boingo’s song and the movie that runs in my head every time I listen to the lyrics. I’ve had designs for it as a novel, as a screenplay, as a TV pilot – basically, everything short of a Broadway musical.
In terms of crime novels, which writers or books have inspired you guys the most?
SB: I went through a period where I was reading a lot of true crime books on all facets of the justice system, as research for an unrelated project. Eventually, I discovered fiction writer Ridley Pearson, who wrote several cop novels based on crimes he’d read about in the news.
JM: Man, the list is long. The classics, of course: Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Spillane, Macdonald. The contemporaries: Nesbo, Rankin, Mosley, Unsworth, Faust.
JM: Oh, of course. And when it comes to noir in comics there are the masters: Brubaker, Rucka, Bendis, Lapham.
SB: Yeah, those guys really blazed the trail for modern noir comics, not only making the genre more visible to the general comic-buying community, but showing through books like Torso and Criminal that noir can stand alongside the likes of Batman and the X-Men in terms of great comicbook storytelling.
Scott, tell us a bit about the artwork – the sketched and shaded look is quite unconventional…
SB: Well, I was trained as a traditional illustrator/painter and my art style has always been about achieving a certain level of photorealism, so I’ve applied that to my comic book work, as well. When we started working on Dead Man’s Party, we decided on black and white artwork instead of colour because it would be quicker to paint, less expensive to print and it fit the genre of our story very well. As for the medium I use, most people mistake my work for watercolours or ink wash, but I actually ‘paint’ the panels in black and gray magic markers. I draw up my pages in pencil, ‘paint’ them and scan them onto the computer, where I can retouch and add special effects using Photoshop.
What have been the biggest challenges getting your own comic launched?
JM: There are a few. Self-publishing is always a challenge because nobody knows who you are and not everyone wants to take a gamble on an indie book. Doing a book in black and white, no matter how good it looks, is still a black and white book, swimming in an ocean of brightly coloured books.
Noir is character driven, not constant fisticuffs and big double-page battles. So you have to be willing to invest in the character, not so much be entertained by the action.
SB: Another huge challenge is that it’s just the two of us doing everything. Where a comic book from a publisher is created by a team of people – writer, artists, letterer, editor – Jeff and I are the team.
JM: And creating the book is the easy step in the whole process. Then there’s the marketing.
SB: Exactly. We have to maintain the website, the Facebook page, promote with social media, format our books for digital outlets, contact retail shops to carry the series, set up and make convention appearances and book signings… The advantage, however, is the complete creative freedom to do whatever we think will make the best story possible. And that is extremely rewarding.
Do you have plans to release this as a graphic novel, and what plans are there for any future crime/noir comics from you guys?
SB: Right now, we’re just focusing on finishing the series, which should happen within the first half of 2013. We figure by the time we do that, the readers will have told us whether or not to collect it in a single volume.
JM: Yeah, it’s stressful right now. There’s been so much great word-of-mouth and praise from fans that we just want to make sure that this series ends on a note as high or even higher than we started. It would be awful to put out three solid issues only to finish with something that has a sad trombone wah-wah-waaaah-ing in the background.
SB: I think that’s our mantra: Don’t Let The Readers Down.
JM: It’s on a sticky note on top of my monitor and the first thing I look at before I start writing.