DC has announced at its Retailer Roadshow in Seattle a new summer mystery mini-series from Vertigo with four detectives, four time periods, four dead bodies — and four artists.
Set in London, the new eight-issue comic Bodies begins in July and follows a centuries-spanning murder mystery — set in 1890, 1940, 2014 and 2050.
Written by Si Spencer (Hellblazer: City of Demons, The Vinyl Underground), each issue of the comic is divided into six-page chapters, each drawn by one of four artists: Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Meghan Hetrick and Tula Lotay.
Newsarama talked to Spencer to find out more about the summer mystery series and how he came up with the idea to follow a murder mystery over four time periods.
Newsarama: Si, how would you explain the premise behind "Bodies?"
Si Spencer: The initial pitch was, "four time periods, four detectives, four murders – same M.O, same location, same victim…. someone’s being murdered — forever" ….and that pretty much covers it. Four detectives are each investigating a brutal and inexplicable murder, each believing it has something to do with a larger case they’re already engaged in. They’re all wrong – it’s far bigger than that.
Nrama: What inspired the idea behind the story?
Spencer: Some writers out there are going to hate me for this, but I literally woke up with that pitch-line in my head. I wrote it down, emailed it to Shelly Bond at Vertigo and she flipped.
Then came the tricky bit when she asked me to explain how it worked and I realized I had absolutely no idea. I literally had to construct an entire narrative dynamic, occult system and series of worlds to place the story based simply on that pitch. It’s the exact opposite of the normal creative process.
At the risk of sounding like I’m treading well-worn, hackneyed ground (or coming across as a raving nutbag), I’d been researching chaos magic and quantum theory around that time and working on one sigil in particular. I realized that that very basic shape I’d been working with was a key to how the narrative shape and the temporal mechanics would work – my guess is that a handful of themes, characters and stories had been glooping around subconsciously in my synapses waiting for that shape to cling to and suddenly out they popped.
Once that shape and those ideas gelled together I realized that this was the essence of a story I’ve been wanting to tell for years; something intensely personal but exciting and accessible to an audience.
Nrama: Did you have to research the setting and the time periods we'll see?
Spencer: The key elements of the story take place in the East End of London in 1890, 1940, 2014 and 2050, and each are affected by the contemporary events of their time.
Like most horror writers, I know a lot about Jack the Ripper and my "in" to that story was realizing that there must have been a period after the "last murder" where everyone was still expecting the next. They weren’t a series of "unsolved mysteries" then; they were still an ongoing case and that sense of a character being unaware of a legacy of history that a modern audience already knew backwards inspired the shape and ideas for the whole piece. It’s not a Ripper story though. Quite the opposite. Enough of those already.
And 1940 seemed an obvious choice; again most of the research is already done – it’s hardwired into the British DNA if you’re over a certain age, but I’d also already read a lot about the truth behind the "London Blitz Spirit," a feeding ground for criminals, gangs and bent coppers who could literally get away with murder on a nightly basis and not even have to work hard to dispose of a body. What’s not to love there, right?
For 2014, I’ve spent a lot of time researching and fighting against various right-wing racist groups, not so much as a writer but more as a decent human being determined to stop that kind of very un-English filth messing up the country I love – apparently I’m already on some kind of right-wing nutjob hitlist, so Bodies seemed to be a perfect platform to mock and expose their fallacies and stupidity and more importantly, gave me the broad thematic concept for the whole book.
To be honest, the hardest to research was 2050.
Nrama: I can see why!
Spencer: Sci-fi isn’t really my comfort zone and I knew if I engaged in trying to create any imagined technological future, your average nine year old geek would see right through me, so I opted for a post-apocalypse dystopia.
I read up a lot on lost cities, especially the Chernobyl forbidden zone and how nature reclaims the planet and that seemed a great visual hook. I can’t really talk about the nature of the apocalypse itself because that’s the central mystery of that thread, but I’m hoping it’s a new and interesting take that isn’t too far beyond the realms of credibility.
Nrama: Since there are several detectives involved in the mystery of this series, what can you share about the main characters we'll see in the story?
Spencer: The key thing about all of them is that they’re all outsiders for various different reasons, relevant to their time periods and the overall theme of the book. With one exception, they’ve all experienced prejudice, but none of them are quite self-aware enough to realize how that experience has prejudiced their own opinions to the detriment of the enquiry they’re working on.
Other than that, I can’t tell you much without spoilers other than the basic thumbnail sketches – Edmond Hillinghead is a buttoned down Conan Doyle fan trying to bring science to a police force that essentially exists to protect the rich; Charles Whiteman is a Polish émigré, career-criminal who fled the Nazis and signed up with the London police; Shahara Hassan is a fast-tracked female Muslim detective in the London Mets and Maplewood is an amnesiac cop trying to police the few survivors of an apocalypse while struggling to remember who she is at any given moment.
Beyond that I can’t be much more specific, other than to say there’s sex, murder, magic, betrayal, terrorism, torture, madness and comedy. All the stuff of your average quiet night in.
Nrama: What brought about the idea of utilizing different artists in each issue for different "chapters?" Was it to give a different feeling to the four time periods?
Spencer: Yeah, I very quickly realized in the initial sketching out of the plot that running four different protagonists with first person narratives in four different eras all working their own stories while forming part of a much larger puzzle was going to be a structural nightmare that could easily run out of control.
I’m a writer who likes rules and impositions – to me rules inspire creativity, not crush it. So I set myself a basic template – six pages per issue per character. In essence, each issue is four self-contained mini-episodes with a beginning, middle and a cliffhanger, but ordered in such a way in each issue that as each detective uncovers a small piece of their own puzzle, the reader also gets a complete over-riding 24-page story arc of the bigger story with its own beginning, middle and cliffhanger.
If you want to try and understand the overall shape of the story, there are clues all over the book.
Having established that template, it seemed logical that 1890’s London would look different to 2050 London, that the mood you need to set for a Blitz-ravaged city is totally different to a present day capital and so on. If it was film, you’d use a different Director of Photography for each, so why not use a different artist?
Then we realized we’d never really seen a book done that way before and that sold it for us.
So just to clarify – there are only four artists on the whole run of the book, each drawing their own specific time period and character, six pages each per issue.
Nrama: How has it been working with the artists? Can you tell us anything about the vibe/style they're utilizing?
Spencer: Working with four fragile artistic egos instead of just the one? It’s been a joy!
I’m kidding; the team has been amazing because to a great extent this is a real ‘check your ego at the door’ kind of project. There’s usually a much more fluid exchange of ideas between a single artist and a writer on a book that allows for a lot of leeway for an artist to improvise, but the nature of the narrative of ‘Bodies’ means that certain images, motifs, locations etc. have to be exactly right and mesh across the four stories. I’ve had to be far more dictatorial than I would normally be on a book but everyone has been totally on board with the idea that their work is part of a larger whole and contributed as a real team player….
And individually, they’re all great artists.??On the upside, the format means that each artist only has to contribute six pages per month and only forty-eight for the whole book, which means that in terms of availability we’ve been pretty much free to pick our golden wish-list and I think the results have turned out pretty damned astonishing…
Because, y’know, they’re all great artists.
As a reader, the format means there’s an instant visual shorthand to take you from one time period to the next and each era has its own distinctive period feel that encapsulates the tropes we associate with each. Dean Ormston’s Victorian work is very atmospheric horror penny-dreadful, Phil Winslade has conjured some astonishing 1940’s film noir tones, Meghan Hetricks’s clean precision has the feel of present day CCTV or rolling news while Tula Lotay’s work has a dream-like surrealist mystery that perfectly represents the character’s confused state….
And did I mention, they’re all great artists?
Nrama: I think we got that part. So to finish up, is there anything else you want to share about Bodies?
Spencer: Hmmmm. So much has gone into this book both personally and technically that I could talk about it for hours, but I guess the main thing people should know is that while we’ve taken all kinds of risks in terms of narrative and content, it’s always been to further the story; to find a new but accessible way to write detective fiction.
Hopefully, it’s dark, funny, scary, sexy, political, exciting and spiritual; there’s a personal message in there but way above that we’ve aimed to produce a top-notch original occult detective story the like of which you’ve never seen before.
And did I mention that I have great artists, so it looks gorgeous too? So you know… people should buy it. A lot.