Newsarama Note: Due to a crash in the polls, Top Cow has extended voting for an additional week! So check out this interview with the creative team behind 7 Days From Hell, go read the issues, and head to TopCow.com to vote!
What would you do for a second chance at life? Would you kill for it?
Writers Rob Levin & Bryan Edward Hill are taking the classic conceit of a deal with the devil a new and deadly spin on it in the recently released one-shot 7 Days From Hell. This comic book puts an ex-government assassin named John Bishop in the employ of repentant demon whose looking for a way back into heaven’s good graces. To do that, this demon has tasked Bishop with eliminating the world’s most heinous criminals – the untouchables by normal societies. He’s got seven days for each job, and if he doesn’t do it in time his “Get Out of Hell Free” card goes bye-bye.
7 Days From Hell is the fifth and final entrant in this year’s Pilot Season contest from Top Cow, and polls are open now through December 8th for readers to choose a winner. To level the playing field, Top Cow gave Newsarama readers all five issues for free online.
Newsarama: So guys, can you tell us more about John Bishop and the life he had leading up to this deal with a demon in 7 Days From Hell?
Bryan Edward Hill: The simple answer is that John Bishop is ex special forces that went into freelance murder after he suffered a military disgrace. John was a hitman that tried to balance a personal life with being a freelance killer and eventually those two worlds met, and his wife, Sarah Bishop, was killed by a bullet meant for him. Sarah was John’s lighthouse, and when he lost her, he lost his way back to shore and remained adrift as a professional killer, bearing the guilt of her loss.
That’s the simple-safe answer, but you want the truth?
“John” is based on a few people I’ve known, people that have committed murder, some incarcerated, some not. I met with a convicted contract killer at Riker’s Island some years ago, researching another project, and he told me something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that the first time he killed someone, he expected God to find him and punish him. That night he thought the ground was going to open up underneath him and the devil would be waiting.
But eventually he just went to sleep. The next morning his pit bull still loved him. The cute girl at McDonald’s sold him a biscuit and coffee. He told me that’s when he realized God had either died or he never existed at all. That’s when he stopped giving a shit about right and wrong and pulling the trigger turned easy.
I wanted to tell a story about a man who believed that, and then discovered that God wasn’t dead, Hell is real, and there’s a place waiting for him there.
Rob Levin: John's a guy who made mistakes. Those mistakes set him on a path that would, quite literally, lead him straight to hell. What I like most about him is that he never repents. This book might be about redemption, but it's not about a guy who's sorry for what he's done. He might have been sorry once about some of his decisions, but except for his wife, Sarah, he doesn't know the meaning of the word anymore. And it's not because he doesn't care about things — he absolutely does or he would have ended up dead years ago — it's just that he's broken. I think he's broken as a man and as a man who's forced to live in a world without the woman he loves.
Nrama: And Bishop’s benefactor is a demon who goes by the name Mandy. I dated a girl in elementary school named Mandy, so she can’t be that bad, can she?
Hill: Mandy’s a demon in the classic sense. She was once an angel that fought on the losing side at the beginning of creation, but now she’s changed her mind. She wants back into Heaven, so she’s using John to hunt down our global bastards and prove that she can still be righteous...in her own violent and sociopathic way. Like most beautiful women she has a flexible moral compass.
That’s a joke. I don’t want angry emails, ladies.
I used to work at Playboy magazine while they still had a New York City office. It was mostly run by women. Christie Hefner (Hugh’s daughter) was in charge and she hired some of the most beautiful, cunning, brilliant and creative women I’ve ever met. I was used to women that pretended to not know they were beautiful. They were polite. They didn’t want to offend.
The women at Playboy didn’t give a shit about that. They were ambitious, aware of the raw power that beauty holds in society, and unapologetic about wielding it. They saw how utterly pitiful I was and took me under their collective wings. I learned a lot from them. Now I have a flexible moral compass too.
With Mandy, I wanted to create a character that typified that perspective. Pure confidence. Sexuality as a weapon. The ambition to change the mind of God. I didn’t want the standard demon of comics and film, fangs and drooling and red-eyes. There’s been plenty of that before I showed up in comics and I’m sure there will be plenty after I’m gone.
I’m less interested in demon as monster and more interested in demon as seducer. That’s where Mandy started in my mind.
Levin: All credit to Bryan here. When he brought the idea to me — yes, 7 Days From Hell the concept is all Bryan, the jerk — Mandy was already there on paper. I never asked him, "So when does she sprout horns and spit fire?" That's not the kind of story we wanted to tell. I think as soon as that happens, Mandy becomes a type, or worse yet, a cliché. The second that happens, people are bound to put the book down, and we're likely to stop caring about writing it. We both wanted to work with and explore characters. As this story continues, you'll learn why John isn't every hitman you've seen before, and Mandy isn't the demon you were probably expecting from the solicit text. I mean, she giggles...
Nrama: How does the structure between heaven and hell and demons and angels work in this book?
Hill: In the Christian myth, angels and demons are the same thing. You know that saying, you’re a revolutionary if you win, but you’re a terrorist if you lose? Well, angels are called “demons” because they tried to take over heaven and failed. They got Hell.
In our story, free will exists on all sides. Not just with us. With demons and angels too. Lucifer is like any charismatic leader that leads his followers to utter destruction in the name of his ambitions. Most demons still tow the party line. A select few miss the light and peace of heaven, and Mandy is one of them, but there’s no clear path from Hell to heaven so she’s hoping to make some noise and get God to pay attention. Daddy, let me come back home. I promise I’ll be good this time. See all the things I’ve done?
In our story, God is always watching. In the real world, I’m not so sure.
Levin: In our story, you really have one character in John who just doesn't want to spend an eternity in pain. On the other hand, you have Mandy who doesn't really talk about what it's like for her to be in hell. Clearly, all she wants is to go home. That concept of home, its comfort and familiarity, is really what drives her and provides the engine for the story. John never says he wants to get to heaven. He just doesn't want to go back to hell.
In terms of how the actual traveling between domains works, that's something for future issues. I don't think it's nearly as interesting as the moral and ethical implications of Mandy's tasks for John and what that means for both of their futures.
Nrama: You said their targets are ‘our global bastards’, but can you tell us more about these marked men?
Hill: The people with the power to avoid justice. Sometimes it could be an international arms dealer. Sometimes it could be a Senator that molests his children. I’ve seen my fair share of evil sons of bitches get away with truly awful things. Any cop will tell you (if they’re honest) that most murders go unsolved. Most mass murderers have political protection, the money to escape the rules we all have to live by.
I wanted to create a world where we explored the truth of human evil. I wanted the ability to create villains based on the very real kinds of sociopaths that live free in our world. Look at Darfur. North Korea. Serbia. Look up the white slavery rings running from Russia to the U.S., or the pedophile rings running into East Asia and so on...there’s no shortage of bastards out there.
A lot of writers in comics tell stories about good and evil without any personal experience with either. There’s a lot of charismatic bullshit out there that’s fine as a diversion, and it probably helps get these comic book movies made, but it’s promoting mediocrity and it’s taking the power out of the medium.
For the record, Mr. Jason Aaron is excluded from the above statement. That man is one of the most honest comic writers working.
On my end, I wouldn’t write about emotions I didn’t understand first-hand. That would make me a liar. The Pilot Season issue is a one-shot so we had to skip a stone across the subject matter, but if Rob and I were lucky enough to tell a longer 7 Days From Hell tale, then be assured that we’re going to explore human evil in its many dimensions, in an unflinching way.
Levin: Bryan pretty much covered it, but I'll add that we're not about the demons in the traditional Hollywood sense becoming the marks in this book. We've talked at length about horror and what makes things scary, and that conversation always leads to what is evil and what is a real monster. Is a drunk who kills while driving and keeps on drinking and driving not worse than Freddy or Jason? Random killings are scarier than serial killers with a pattern and an M.O. Not that this book is horror per se, but the bad guys will be the worst of what humanity has to offer. It has to feel real and immediate in order to elicit some kind of honest emotion from a reader. This book is very much set in a version of the real world, and that's one of the things that drew me to it when Bryan came up with the idea.
Nrama: Why seven days and not, say – 10?
Hill: 7 is one of the mystical numbers in global tradition. It tracks back through more than just Christian culture. If a number has power, in a metaphysical sense, 7 certainly makes a great case.
Levin: We've all had a week from hell. John gets a one week break from hell in which he has to go through, figuratively, hell in order to buy another respite. A day is always a cool clock to put on a story, but it's more of a whiz-bang-pow thing. With a week, John gets put through his paces. He comes out the other side worn down. And then the clock starts again. This man has no weekends. He has no vacation. He has a week at a time to try not to spend eternity burning.
Nrama: With John Bishop being a mercenary in his first life, doing it again can’t be too bad. Does Bishop want to do this?
Hill: Being a mercenary is getting paid to do what you’ve been trained to do. That’s much more pleasant than being a slave to a demon in order to keep yourself out of the flames of Hell. Combine that with the bullet that’s still in John’s head, the constant pain reminding him that death still has him in a grip. What Mandy offers John isn’t just a reprieve from Hell, it’s a chance to see his dead wife again. To know her touch again. To hear her say his name. John might not love Mandy’s bargain, but he still loves his wife so at this point he’s willing to see where this leads.
But Mandy’s control over John ends the moment John thinks he can see Sarah without her.
Levin: It's really all about choice. John didn't follow orders in his last gig, he took them on as he saw fit. He could walk away for any number of reasons — the money wasn't right, the danger was too high, he disagreed with it morally. Now he has no choice. What Mandy says goes, or it's back to the pit. What happens when Mandy gives him a job he doesn't agree with? Is he willing to kill someone he doesn't think deserves it to save his own ass? The kid that killed him had the opportunity because John has a code. He has things he believes in, which means he has some moral compass left. I think in theory John would do anything to see his wife again — and we all use that expression, "I'd do anything" — but when you're faced with a very real situation and it crosses a line for you... Things aren't always so easy. So no, I don't think John wants to be doing this. After Sarah died, there was probably a part of him that wanted to put down the guns and stop the violence, but he didn't know how. I'd imagine he's very tired at this point.
Nrama: I’ve never worked for a demon, but if I did I would assume it might come with some extra benefits. Does Bishop get any perks of the job in terms of power or resources?
Hill: Mandy puts him in the same city with each target. If he completes his task, she transports him to the next target. Sometimes she offers intelligence on his task, sometimes she’s absent from the beginning to the end. The weaponry, the investigation, the execution, all that John has to do himself.
The rules of heaven and hell prevent Mandy from being able to affect the living, directly. Like any demon or angel she can try to influence our feelings, our thoughts. She needs John to make the righteous kills because she can’t.
John can speak to Mandy and she’s existed since the beginning of our world so her wisdom is near-infinite, but he also knows that trusting her would be foolish.
The biggest benefit of working for Mandy is the freedom to commit acts of vengeance without worrying about the criminal repercussions. Mandy doesn’t keep John above the law, she keeps him beyond it.
Levin: He also gets healthcare, but it doesn't cover dental or vision.
Nrama: The economy’s really hitting everyone, then. Where does an idea such as 7 Days From Hell? Have you two signed a deal with a demon to write a new comic every 7 days?
Hill: Originally, I was going to write this as a series of novels. Compact, violent, sexy stories in the tradition of Ian Fleming, H.P. Lovecraft and Jim Thompson. Rob convinced me to team up with him and bring it to Top Cow’s Pilot Season, and good thing he did because that man Rob Levin knows how to put a comic book together. You heard it right here.
Filip Sablik at Top Cow got us the damn right artist in Phil Noto. I’ve been in love with his work since Beautiful Killer, and he really blessed us in our Pilot Season issue. His work floors me from pencils to colors. He can get more done with one panel than I can with ten pages of words.
And since I have the bully pulpit, let me say this about Top Cow: I don’t know what Rob’s experience is like, but as a black writer in comics I feared having to spend my comics career pitching Blade or Black Panther or Luke Cage. (I guess for D.C. it’s Black Lightning or something). Not that I have anything against those characters, but a lot of comic companies put you in a cultural box, especially the big two. Oh, when we do that Black Captain America thing again, we’ll call you...We’re thinking of having Superman go to New Orleans for a Katrina anniversary issue and you’d be great for that...
I told Top Cow that I don’t want to work with them if they’re just gonna call me up when Sara Pezzini fights mystical evil rappers, and they told me that they don’t think like that, and to their credit Filip Sablik and Matt Hawkins have followed through.
7 Days From Hell isn’t an “urban book”, and Top Cow never looked surprised that it wasn’t. Real writers just want to write good stories, not push their cultural agendas, and Top Cow understands that. It’s not just lip service. It’s action. That’s how I got here.
Of course my next project at Top Cow is a Darkness miniseries where Jackie goes to Africa.
Levin: Bryan did it. He came up with the idea, I made some minor suggestion and he was all, "That's awesome dude, want to write it with me?" Before he had a chance to reconsider what he had just said I was shaking his hand and telling people it was my book. But honestly, from top to bottom, 7 Days From Hell is the kind of awesome that Bryan Edward Hill (a man so awesome he needs three names to contain it all) puts out into the world.
I say this in just about every interview, but Bryan isn't just my co-conspirator or a really close friend. He's also one of my favorite writers. The fact that he's — Bryan, cover your ears for a second — dumb enough to want to work with me... Hehehe. I'd like to think I brought something to the project, but between him, Noto and Mr. Bryan Stelfreeze on covers, I'm just happy I didn't get in the way.
Nrama: This is the first time both of you have participated as creators in the Pilot Season contest, but you Rob have been on the editorial side of it for years. What’s it like for each of you to be in this contest?
Levin: It's cool. When we first launched Pilot Season, internally we knew it was going to be awesome. When we opened it up in its second year to original concepts, we were floored at the kind of material we were getting. And it allowed us to take some chances we might not have normally. Twilight Guardian is fairly low concept, which means it's tough to market. But when the voting took place, it came out a winner along with one of my favorite Top Cow books ever.
Genius was a book I wanted to do from the moment I sat down with Marc Bernardin in New York and he gave me the short pitch. Problem was... It was an "urban book," and traditionally they're very hard to sell, especially at a company like Top Cow where they didn't have any real initiative or track record with something like that (remember Butcher Knight?). Add to that the fact that our lead was a black female, and we had double trouble. I spent weeks researching similar titles, trying to find out if we could partner with an ad sponsor, and exploring other avenues to find out how I could get the book a greenlight. Ultimately, Pilot Season was the answer. I told Marc and Adam Freeman that they just needed to make the book the hottest thing out that month if they wanted to do more. Lo and behold, Genius won and has a series on the way.
We had some nibbles on our book outside of Top Cow, and while the book may have gotten a longer initial commitment elsewhere, we knew that Filip and Phil Smith and Matt and Marc Silvestri would support our vision and hook us up with an amazing artist. Then they got Noto and Stelfreeze and I passed out for a few months. If 7 Days From Hell only gets a single issue, we put something excellent together that is, at this point, the highlight of my writing career. And if it continues, we'll get that same support from Top Cow and that'll keep pushing us to make sure each successive issue is the best thing we've ever done.
Bryan will probably tell you that he's just happy to have the book out there and that people are digging it. I'm also grateful for every fan the book has, and for anyone who put their money on the counter and checked it out, but... I'm competitive as hell (no pun intended). Whether it's my writing, dodgeball or going for a run (thanks to Nike+ I can race myself), I want to win. I don't think most things come naturally to me, but I really have an intense drive to be the best. And even if I never get there, I'm going to do everything in my power to get as close as possible. Because Bryan's talented at so many things — writing, music, photography, speechifying — I think it's easier for him to be humble. Me... I just want to crush the competition.
Also, come on... PHIL. NOTO.
Hill: Since I’ve never been in another comic book contest, I can’t compare it to anything. I do think it’s cool that readers get to vote on the stories they want to see more of, and there are some good stories in this year’s pack, created by some great artists and writers. It’s humbling to be on a list with those guys.
Please check out 7 Days From Hell and the other entries, and vote for the one you like the most. If it’s ours, you have my gratitude in advance.Will 7 Days from Hell get your vote?