You’ve heard it before: “This book isn’t like anything else out there.”
Well, this time it’s true.
Archaia’s Return of the Dapper Men, which comes out this week, is one of the year’s most unique graphic novels – something that doesn’t look or read like any other comic you’ve seen this year…or maybe ever. This “steampunk fairy tale,” set in a world of frozen time and extraordinary characters, has already earned such buzz as “a modern classic” from reviews, and even gotten fashion icon Tim Gunn from Project Runway to pen the introduction.
So who are the Dapper Men? To find out, we talked to writer Jim McCann (Hawkeye and Mockingbird) and artist Janet Lee (http://www.j-k-lee.com/), for a three-part interview that takes you deep into the world of the Dapper Men and their friends. McCann and Lee’s enthusiasm for their work is infectious – and they were more than happy to talk about the origins of the story, Lee’s incredibly elaborate art style, and much, much more...Part One
Newsarama: Jim, how did this come to be at Archaia?
Jim McCann: We’ve both known different people at Archaia for a while, though various means. At San Diego Comic-Con last year, at that point Janet and I had discussed the basic book a lot – we had the designs down, we had the basic structure of the story.I brought some printouts with me, and I was planning on going around and talking to some different publishing houses, and Archaia was near the Marvel booth – they were on the shortlist anyway. It was Sunday, my voice was shot because I was still running the panels at Marvel, and…they did something they had never done, which was say, “Yes, we want it” on the spot.
I called Janet and asked, “Do you want to shop this anywhere else?” We had taken a look at their catalog and the diversity of their titles, and their production quality, and it was phenomenal. I think after the initial shock wore off, we said, “Go with it.”
Knowing the number of people there that we did, we had a lot of trust in them. And it’s been a great partnership with them all the way – their passion for the book rivals our own, honestly.
Lee: I agree. I’m a research girl at heart, so I’m a big fan of making sure the project matches the publisher, and Archaia was at the top of a very short list. In the back of my mind, I thought Jim would get some interest, but we would be doing the whole thing before someone actually took it, so to get it picked up right away…
McCann: There wasn’t a single page drawn or fully written. This was literally picked up on faith on us, and that was flattering and humbling all the same time.
Nrama: What was the process of working with Archaia like? Did they make any suggestions about the book?
Lee: They made a few suggestions. They looked over everything pretty carefully, but I think it’s a testament to the power of Jim’s script that they allowed us a lot of autonomy. We had a schedule where everything had to be produced at a particular time, but it’s really been a lot of artistic freedom.
McCann: They told Janet – because her art style is very unique and different in the way that she does things – that they wanted to make sure that she kept doing her style. They wanted that style, that look, the decoupage feel.
With the script, they’ve been amazing. I’ve been like, “Wait, are you sure you don’t want me to change the whole third act?” There were only one or two things that really needed clarification, and I was really thankful for that – they mentioned, for example, that one of our characters needed an emotional through line in the second act of the book, and when they pointed that out, I saw it and was like, “Oh my God! I can’t believe I missed that.”
Lee: It added so much to the entire story.
McCann: It’s been very crazy and wild to write this story. It’s very different from how I approach any other book that I’m doing with Marvel, because with them, you’ve got characters that’ve been defined by a multitude of writers before you.
You’ve got continuity, you’ve got history you can draw upon…but here, we’re building history, and a world around these characters.They gave us a lot of freedom – several characters don’t talk at all! But there’s also the importance of having an editor, an extra set of eyes, because sometimes too much freedom can be a bad thing.
So we had a great editor, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that our significant others have been there for us the whole time. Between Archaia and our closest loved ones, we were definitely kept on track. (laughs)
Nrama: How much room for interpretation for Janet is there in your script, or have you tweaked the story based on how she does the pages?
McCann: A bit of both. For example, the page where the kids are underground -- I knew that it needed to be something larger than life, something that my words couldn’t even begin to describe. So I gave Janet a jumping-off point, and she took it from there.
Or another of our characters, Fabre, he really wants to fly, to be as close to the sky as possible. So where he lives is a house upon a house upon a house, with various things built in, like part of a zeppelin. What Janet turned in was just brilliant – it would make Dr. Seuss say, “Wish I thought of that!”
Other parts of the script had more information on how the page could be laid out, as a means of guidance. The first act, I would say, was very open for Janet to interpret the script artistically, while the second act is more sequential.
Lee: This is my first sequential work – everything else I did has been in galleries. So I think Jim really did a wonderful job of walking the line between giving me very specific instructions where I needed them, and giving me freedom to reinterpret the script.
I’d read comics for years, but this was the first time I really sat down and made some myself! So I’m glad he was able to sit down and help, because I really needed it.
McCann: There were times when I would say, “Janet, this is your page! Draw whatever you want to draw, this is what needs to happen!” I would say things like, “Here’s what the imagery is,” and she’d come back with this work of art…well, all the pages are works of art! But she’d have this gallery piece that would just fit perfectly in the book and work as a gorgeous stand-alone piece.
It makes reading the book such an experience. You turn the page, you have no idea what you’re going to get.
Nrama: Janet, we have a video from C2E2 (Lucas – embed or link to this?), but it’s hard to fully explain how elaborate your process is to someone who hasn’t seen the actual pages or the “making-of” material in the book. Could you explain your process to us, and why you decided to go with it for this book?
Lee: Well, first and foremost, I went with it because it’s what I’ve been doing for a while, and it’s what Archaia wanted when they looked at the images Jim had brought them. But at the end of the day, I had never made a comic book page before, so I had no idea – “Is this done? Is this not done?” So I just did what I knew how to do.
Another person with more experience would have probably told me, “You can’t do it that way, and it’s too much work!” (laughs) But I didn’t know any better, and it’s what I do, and honestly, at the end of the day, I love the texture the process gets. I love all the elements you can bring in that you can’t with other methods.What I basically do is I will take a hard surface – I really prefer something like pine board, because it’s flat, but there’s knots and texture beneath it – and from there I’ll build a page. I’ll take a Bristol board, and draw out a page, and then I’ll ink it and color it and then cut out little elements in it.
It might be a simple element, like the main figures on the page itself, or it might be something where I take layers and layers and layers, building them up. And then I’ll construct the page on the board, gluing the elements down against the painted surface, and building the panels. And that’s it in a nutshell! (laughs)
McCann: What I love is – Janet goes down, she buys the wood, and then she cuts the wood down to the trim size. So at the end of all this, when you have the decoupage and then the layer on top to seal it, you have this texture and all these layers on this wood. It’s art that’s ready to hang.
Lee: I have it all over the living room right now. (laughs)
Nrama: When you see these pages in person, you can really see the texture and the almost three-dimensional quality you get from the woodcarving and layers. But how does translate to a flat, printed page?
Lee: It actually does pretty well. I’ve been making and selling prints of original artwork for a couple of years now, and the people at Archaia who are sending them to the printer are really taking pains to make sure they retain their dimensionality. There’s a shadow that comes in with the scans, and you get that three-dimensional experience on the printed page.
McCann: There’s a texture to it, and there is the layering. Jeremy Brody, who the graphic artist for the colors, and Scott Newman, the production manager at Archaia, have worked together to make sure that’s not lost.
It’s so much more effort than would go into the production of a typical comic book. That’s another thing about Archaia – they want to make sure that people are getting as close to the actual representation as possible without having to buy a 500-pound book made of wood! (laughs)
Lee: The production value was a big part of why we wanted to work with them.
McCann: Oh yeah. We’ve got Todd Klein designing the cover and the interior design work, the credits, the pinups…just amazing people. Everyone we talked to about doing something said yes! Tim Gunn, who’s writing the intro…I couldn’t believe he said yes!
The amount of love and respect that people are having for this within the creative community has been overwhelming, quite frankly. When we’re at a comic convention and Janet is working on the artwork, people who come up go “Ahhh!”, fans and industry people alike. They’ll stop and take a look at it and talk about how much it inspires and moves them.
It’s been a very interesting journey, and I’m really interested in what people think of the whole package. We wanted to go for something with a classic, timeless feel, that would look good on your shelf and make you feel like you’re reading something unlike any other graphic novel.
Next: Will there be more returns of the Dapper Men?