For writer Simon Oliver, his experience living in Honduras and his interest in the U.S./Mexico border became the ideal backdrop for his latest project, the Vertigo Crime book Noche Roja.
The original graphic novel, which comes out later this month, has already won rave reviews from mainstream book critics for its gripping, crime noir style. Featuring gritty, stylized artwork by Jason Latour, the book follows a hard-boiled private detective as he reluctantly investigates a series of brutal murders in a Mexican border town.
Born in the United Kingdom, Oliver came to the U.S. after living for years in Central America. Best-known to comic fans for his Vertigo series The Exterminators, Oliver brings his own experience and interests to Noche Roja, giving the story a brutally realistic view of life South of border
Noche Roja is the latest release by Vertigo Crime, the "sub-imprint" of the Vertigo line that was created in 2008. Described by Vertigo Executive Editor and VP Karen Berger as smart, edgy, sexy, crime noir fiction in graphic novel form, the imprint has published a wide variety of OGNs by some of the top creators in the industry.
Newsarama talked with Oliver to find out more about Noche Roja and its unusual setting, plus we took the opportunity to ask about the future of the Showtime adaptation of The Exterminators.
Newsarama: Simon, the murders in Noche Roja have an eerie similarity to stories we read about Mexican border towns. Yet as we discover when the story continue, there's a lot more going on here. How did you come up with the idea behind this story?
Simon Oliver: Quite a few years ago now, I started reading into the factory girl murders in Juarez, [Mexico,] and the effects that the [North American] Free Trade Agreement had on Mexico, and it kind of grew from that.
I kind of have a fascination with borders. No matter where you are in the world any point that two countries meet always ends up being the worst combination of both countries. There's no better example of that than the US/Mexico border right now.
Far from NAFTA helping this area, since I started on this project, it's only got worse.
Nrama: What's the basic outline of the crime that's at the center of the story?
Oliver: As I mentioned above, the Juarez factory girl murders were kind of a starting point. But I had to boil it down to be able to tell any kind of story. If I went for the scope, scale and sheer craziness of the real murders, there is no way anyone would believe it. Like most of what's happening down there, it defies explanation.In my story, I have abducted factory girls showing up mutilated and murdered on a patch wasteland, and in true noir tradition, an ex-cop, currently working in the North as a private detective, returns to Mexico to solve the murders.
Of course, nothing is as it seems, and the factory girl's case brings our detective's shadowy past back to haunt him.
The story is set in the 1990's, but I avoid too many time period references, and the cities are never named, just referred to as the north or south. If it was set today, it would probably be different, more drug-involved, as that seems to be the dominant story there now. Also, as a writer, I wanted to drop the story out of cell phone/Google range.
Nrama: Did you research the setting? I know you lived in Central America for a while. How was your own history and experience influential in the choice and development of the story's setting?
Oliver: I read. I read a lot.
Really, this is just one story in this setting. You could actually carve out an entire career just writing stories about the border.
I did happen to live in Honduras for three years in the 1990's, so I even though I live in Los Angeles now, I do feel some loose affinity towards what happens in the South.
Nrama: Why do you think this setting fits this type of crime story so well?
Oliver: Our Southern border is "Chinatown" to the power of 10.
Take just one example, Jorge Hank, who was the basis of one of the characters in Noche Roja. His father, a politician, who never made more than $200,000 a year, left him a fortune of $1.3 billion, claiming, “A politician who is poor is a poor politician.”
Jorge now owns half the city, keeps a private zoo in the middle of the racetrack. His collection includes white tigers, giraffes, elephants, even the whale that was in "Free Willy." He also has, by his own count, 18 children, by four different wives. This guy was mayor of Tijuana while I was researching the book, and during that time, journalists who dared write articles risked vanishing in the night. Larger than life, and his money and power puts him totally beyond the law.
Nrama: Who is the main character, Jack Cohen, as this story begins?
Oliver: Jack is a burnt out ex-cop, with a drinking problem, and a past that still haunts him. When we first meet him, he's been reduced to selling burglar alarms.
Nrama: How does Jack relate to the setting? And what can you tell us about what he'll face as the story continues?
Oliver: Jack's in no hurry to return to the South, but when a young female aid worker hires him to look into the disappearance of a factory girl, he agrees. But as we soon discover, he smelt a rat right from the start.
Nrama: This graphic novel is part of Vertigo's "Crime" imprint. Did you develop the story specifically for it? How did the "Vertigo Crime" label shape the style of the finished comic?
Oliver: I had been developing the story already when Jon, my editor at Vertigo asked me if I had anything suitable. Back then, it had some other directions in the story, but we soon made the decision to shape it into more of a hard-boiled noir story.
Nrama: How does Jason Latour's artwork shape the story and its style? What does he bring to the comic?
Oliver: He has a great sense of the location and brings the necessary dark tones into the story.
Nrama: Vertigo has promoted the story as being in the tradition of Chinatown and LA Confidential. You mentioned Chinatown as you described it. Is that the type of story we'll see in Noche Roja?
Oliver: Yeah, we wanted to do a very straight, hard-boiled story in the same noir tradition. If in some way we came close, that's okay by me.
Nrama: This is your first published OGN, isn't it? How was it different to write for an OGN instead of a continuing, serial-type comic?
Oliver: A self-contained story is always harder. My brain tends to spin in 300 directions at once, and I'm still learning to rein it in. But you have to for something like this.
Nrama: What do you think of the idea behind the Vertigo Crime OGNs? And what do you think bookstores offer for the future of comics?
Oliver: It's a great idea. To survive and grow, the comics business has to get comics into the hands of people who traditionally don't go to comic book stores.
Nrama: For fans of your The Exterminators comic, is there any update you can give us on the TV show that was being developed by Showtime?
Oliver: There was a script written, by Glen Morgan of X-Files fame, and it's great, only Showtime put it in turn-around, so like so many other projects it's currently in limbo.
Nrama: What else are you working on now that you can tell your fans about?
Oliver: Like always, I've got a few irons in the fire.
Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell readers about Noche Roja?
Oliver: If you like your crime straight-up, hard-boiled, with a dash of social commentary, it's the book for you.