Have you ever looked at the world outside and thought something didn’t look right? Not something you could put your finger on, but something intangible but solid in your mind. In a new up coming series from Top Cow teased last week, we see just how wrong things can be. For there’s our world... then there’s Netherworld.
Netherworld follows a former NYPD detective named Ray Parker who uses his skills as a P.I. in a world where the sun never rises – a world that looks like our own but has a lingering strangeness you see out of the corner of your eye. Far from the crime-fighter he was as a cop, now Parker skirts the shadows picking up investigative jobs for money just to eek by. But when he’s called out by multiple sources to track down a teenage girl with no real reason why, Ray’s hit the streets to find her and also find out why she’s so important.
Netherworld was birthed from the minds at Heroes & Villains Entertainment, a Hollywood production company who partnered with Top Cow last year on the series Tracker. In this new venture, Top Cow passed along the initial concept of Netherworld to writing duo Rob Levin & Bryan Edward Hill (Broken Trinity: Pandora’s Box, 7 Days From Hell) to flesh out for its comics debut. Illustrated by Tony Shasteen, Netherworld #1 is set to debut in April with the first issue already in the can.
Newsarama: So guys, what can you tell us about Netherworld?
Bryan Edward Hill: Without giving too much awayNetherworld is a modern action fable about a not so good man who’s enlisted to save a city, specifically protect a self-destructive woman from herself and the forces trying to kill her. It’s a basic story told with (hopefully) some moral complexity and a fair amount of style from the great work of Tony Shasteen on pencils and inks and JD Mettler on colors.
It’s violent. Visceral. Reminiscent of the comic-book fever dreams I grew up reading from guys like Bernie Wrightson.
Rob Levin: It should appeal to anyone who digs noir and pulp, but viewed through a modern lens and with a fairly sizable twist. It’s really a blend of a number of things we dig, all boiled down to something really tight and action-driven. It’s the kind of stuff we like doing.
Nrama: Taking us on the tour of Netherworld’s world is Ray Parker – former NYPD detective and now a P.I. What’s his story?
Hill: On the surface, he’s a tough guy who breaks things much better than he fixes them. Under that surface he’s a man with a strong moral compass who lives in the gray area between crime and law.
Levin: Rarely do we write stories about people who have it all together. Even in something like Broken Trinity: Pandora’s Box, we didn’t want Glorianna Silver to be the kind of character/stereotype you often find. She’s an attractive woman, billionaire industrialist and just happens to possess a mystical Artifact that allows her to turn into a dragon. Basically, she has all these things that make her great, but we tried to approach her not from what she has, but from what she didn’t have and what she was seeking. We wrote her as struggling to find her own identity and the approval of her father figure, not as the woman who had it all.
Ray’s the same kind of guy, only we got to build him from the ground up. Instead of giving him cool things, we took those things away and then made him keep going. It’s always the measure of a great character if they can still shine when you’ve taken everything away from them. Ray’s got problems - haunted past, substance abuse, anger and violence issues - but that’s the reason we’re writing him. Its fun to see what happens when a guy like that gets tossed into something that’s really out of his depth.
Nrama: And what’s so special about Madeline that Parker’s been approached by numerous people in finding her?
Hill: Can’t reveal the whole truth of that, but she’s the focal point for a very ancient war going on in this metropolis. She doesn’t know what she is, or why she’s important, but as the story unfolds she, like Ray, has to accept and bear the weight of who and what she is.
Levin: She’s really important to this world, and very important to Ray, only neither of them knows it when our story starts. She’ll start out the story very much as a damsel in distress, but her journey will make her anything but. We’re being intentionally vague here...
Nrama: I’ll let you off then, but tell me this -- It seems something’s not right about the city Netherworld is set in – can you tell us about it?
Hill: I grew up in the Midwest, so I’ve always been fascinated by cities because I hadn’t really been to a major one until I went to college (NYU). The first thing I did when I got to the city was go on a helicopter ride at night. Cost me a couple hundred bucks, and in college dollars that was serious money, but it was worth it. The place looked just like Blade Runner. Amazing thing to do, if you get the chance.
Anyway, when I saw the city at that height, all those burning lights, I saw how easy it was for humanity to get eclipsed what it created. I wanted to get that feeling into Netherworld, into the feeling of the city. Tony’s done a great job of evoking that.
And yeah, there’s a greater reason why there’s something amiss in the city, but I can’t reveal that here.
Levin: I forgot the question. I can’t believe I’ve never taken a helicopter ride through LA or NYC. What a fantastically simple idea that never occurred to me until right now. Another reason why I keep Bryan around.
There’s a lot of world-building behind the scenes, but that really all needs to play out before we can talk about it. This story is a journey of discovery - both outward and inward - so we’d like to keep the reader on a level playing field with Ray and Madeline from the outset.
Nrama: In the notes I received for this, it mentions a guy named Cyrus Kane. He sounds like a bad guy, but is he?
Hill: Well, he is named “Kane”, and anyone who’s ever read a comic book can tell you that people named “Kane” tend to be no good. Even when they’re videogame heroes, they’re still shitheads, LOL.
So yeah, our Kane continues the trend. He’s the strongest figure in the underworld, the one who wants Madeline because she threatens his power in the city. The real question for any character named “Kane” is...are you a cool one or a corny one?
Rob and I are doing the best we can to make sure he’s not a corny one.
Levin: Yes. He’s a bad dude. When you see the other bad dudes we have working for the main bad dude, you’re going to say, “That bad dude is one seriously bad dude, dude.”
This concept was dreamt up by Heroes & Villains before giving it to Top Cow and you guys to flesh it out. What was the potential that you saw on this story, and led you to signing up to do it?
Hill: These days I’m really busy, working and traveling, so I’m saying no to most things that cross my desk because I just don’t have the time. When Netherworld came to me I had my “no” pre-loaded. Rob doesn’t need me to tell a story, so that was going to be that, you know? Rob talked me to about how cool the Heroes & Villains (HVE) guys were to work with, and he’s right, they’re great guys.
They were (and still are) so excited about the concept that it’s hard not to want to be involved when there’s so much energy around something.
Netherworld isn’t an established franchise, so there is some room to make real choices in terms of world and character. That made it interesting. HVE did have a lot of things already fleshed out, so what you’re really seeing is something that’s part Rob and myself, part HVE, blessed by the excellent work of Tony Shasteen and JD Mettler.
Levin: I first met Mikhail Nayfeld (one of the three partners in HVE along with Markus Goerg and Dick Hillenbrand) about a year before they struck a deal to do books with Top Cow.
Nrama: That was when you were an editor at Top Cow, right?
Levin: Yes. Matt Hawkins and I sat down with him to hear what they had in store and we both left the lunch excited. I was involved editorially in the very early stages of Tracker and I’ve kept in touch with them since I made the jump to full-time writing.
We’d run into each other here and there and go drinking at conventions, and we really built up a great rapport. There’s a sense of shorthand there that is pretty rare in collaborations at such an early stage. When they started talking to me about some upcoming ideas they were prepping, I lobbied to get Bryan and I on board. So far, they’ve been really supportive of what we’ve brought in, and they’ve given us a great framework from which to work. These guys really do their homework when they create something. Normally I use the term “creator” with giant air quotes around it, but not here. HVE not only come at you with all the information you need, not to mention answers to all your questions, but they’re also very involved from start to finish.
They pitched us a noir thing with a twist, so I was pretty much on board from the elevator pitch.
Nrama: You mentioned how big a part artist Tony Shasteen has been in making this all come together. Rob, I know you’re an editor and have scouted out artists on numerous occasions, so how do you two as writers get to know an artist – such as Tony – and figure out how to tailor the script to best take advantage of their talents?
Hill: I’ve been aware of Tony’s work since Occult Crimes Task Force, a cool book he did with writer David Atchison. David’s a friend of mine, so he told me how great Tony was to work with, and obviously I could look at his work.
What I admired most about Tony’s work on OCT was the humanity in the characters he drew. They felt like real people. For me it wasn’t a task of tailoring as much as it was taking advantage of Tony’s ability to create people with pencils and inks that felt like flesh and blood.
RL: If I could boil down the alchemy of how to find the right artist, either from a pool of established talent or from the obscurity pile, I’d probably be rich. Hiring an artist is really like casting for a movie. Sometimes Charles Grodin and Dustin Hoffman get cast in the same role. Maybe they can both pull it off, but you end up with very different results.
There are plenty of artists who can do X or Y, but we needed someone who could pull off a specific blend of character, world and noir flavor. Tony really fit that bill, especially in terms of making the characters sing. Not only does he have incredible skill as an illustrator, but he’s really upped his comics game the last few years in his time with the Gaijin Studios crew. You can see the changes in his work on The Talisman (also with our awesome colorist, JD) and he’s only gotten better since then.
The biggest challenge when working with an artist for the first time is figuring out how they’ll interpret your scripts, and when you can let them off the leash. We’re more than an issue into the series so far, and we haven’t been let down by Tony yet.Will you enter the Netherworld?