Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best of the web. Today, we’re going to California for a “neon noir” full of secrets, danger and lots of hot pink.
In San Hannibal (www.jdmakescomics.com), private eye Ira Avery is tasked with finding out what happened to missing journalist Savannah Loy. But the city of San Hannibal is not a place that gives up its secrets easily, and Avery’s going to find himself in over his head.Rendered in a distinct black, white and pink style, San Hannibal is a five-chapter adventure filled with atmosphere and quirky twists. We talked to creators Dan Schkade and JD Smith about what led them to San Hannibal, and what’s going down in the city…
Newsarama: Guys, how did you come up with San Hannibal?
Dan Schkade: I’d been thinking about doing my own take on the hero pulps for a while – I’m talking the Shadow, the Spider, the Avenger, the “creepy gangsters who fight gangsters” books. I was also keen on doing an update of Philip Marlowe, putting that hard-boiled philosopher shamus personae in the modern world.
The two are harder to reconcile than I originally thought. Most of what I came up with boiled down to the Marlowe character being one of the Shadow’s agents, or something equally hackneyed and obvious.
David Bowie and Momus were looming large in my iTunes at that point, and I started to think about (a) heroes, how the pulps were really about bottom-feeders in a broken world who scraped together these tiny moments of goodness and truth, and (b) spooky powers in the dark that shape your world while you’re sleeping.
So the idea took the form of Avery, our Philip Marlowe, as our POV character into the secret conspiratorial world of the Shadow.
JD Smith: For me on the artist side it was just a whole bunch of visual and musical influences that I wanted to cram together. My last comic was a bright and sunny superhero comic that'd run for 30 issues, so I was starving to do something darker and odder. Combine that with an unexpected affinity for eighties synth and garish colors and you get whatever this thing is.Nrama: How did you guys come together on the project?
Schkade: A couple years back, JD asked me if I had anything on the burner I’d want to do with him as a full-length graphic novel. At that point I just had some stray head-matter floating around, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.
I sequestered myself in this dank little corner of Santa Cruz for a weekend, and by the end of it I’d hammered out the main characters and a rudimentary plot. Then we spent a year on designs.
Nrama: What was the origin of the black/white/hot pink color scheme?
Schkade: It was originally meant to be full color. You can actually find a six-page hunk of it at various places online. JD came up with the single-tone look later on. People say it’s not what they’d think of for a crime story, but it made total sense to me when I first saw it. We plan to change to color every chapter -- a hundred- plus pages of neon pink might be a health hazard.
Smith: I was ready to settle for black and white, but I got inspired by a combination of Darwyn Cooke's tones on Parker: the Hunter, some Alex Toth graytones, and the movie Drive to go for the hot pink. The best part about it is that I can color four to five pages in a sitting.
Nrama: What's your collaborative process like in writing and illustrating the strip?Schkade: I wrote out full scripts, which JD took a pass on and then I did a second pass on and so on. It’s like musical chairs. What you’re seeing on jdmakescomics.com are his final edits. I created the story, the world, and the characters, while the character designs, pencils, inks, tones, and letters are all him.
Smith: Writing wise it's been interesting...I won't bore you with the exact details, but there was a bit of a back-and-forth going. A "you write a draft, I write a draft,” kind of thing. Dan scripted the first few issues, which I revised, and then I scripted the last few which he revised.
Nrama: The story is projected to run for five chapters – how long will each chapter go?
Schkade: Each chapter is roughly one standard comic book issue long, so they’re all between 20 and 24 pages.
Nrama: How thoroughly did you design the city of San Hannibal? By that, I'm curious if you have a road map of sorts for the city, along with a sense of its longer history.
Smith: Ah, I wish. Dan certainly developed a bit of a past for things, since the structure of the mystery required it, but I only designed the city insofar as finding the tone I wanted to get across.
I draw the city on the fly and as the composition/scene requires, but I try to come back to the same few aesthetic touchstones to make it feel as consistent as possible – Tokyo-style wires, gig posters, power boxes and giant billboards. That kind of thing.
It's really a Gotham City-style caricature of a city, so I haven't been too picky about its layout.
Schkade: You know, in earlier drafts of the story, it was just this nameless neon noir city. Los Angeles crossed with Seattle and Chicago. I started writing in the script for San Hannibal to be drawn on manhole covers and mailing addresses just for fun, and eventually that became the title. So the city’s geography and history are pretty loose
And that’s by design. Pulp characters live in spectral soundstage cities where neighborhoods and shipyards generate themselves when they’re needed, and San Han definitely has that dream geography about it.
If you’ve ever heard a story about a stool pigeon getting chained to an engine block and thrown in the bay or a man and another man’s wife who made a secret plan to kill her husband, that’s San Hannibal’s history. Which works in this context, but if I make a habit of it on other projects you’ll begin to suspect I’m just a lazy writer.Nrama: What have been the biggest advantages/challenges in doing the story as a webcomic vs. a hard-copy story?
Smith: The instant gratification is good. Instead of only being able to pull back the curtain after each chapter I'm able to get feedback on a page-by-page basis. We plan to do a print edition when all is said and done, so hopefully we can get the advantages of both.
Schkade: We spent a year pitching it to be a hard-copy comic. The advantage of the web is… well, it can more easily exist. The biggest challenge is probably trying to achieve that sense of legitimacy print comics start out with but webcomics have to fight for. But it’s early days yet.
Nrama: For that matter, what's the biggest challenge in telling a mystery story, particularly in a serialized format like this?
Schkade: For me, it’s controlling the flow of information to the detective, by which I mean moderating the pace at which Avery solves the case. He could wrap this up in eight pages if I wrote it that way. Instead, it’s five issues.
So not only did I need to come up with a mystery that’d take upwards of a hundred pages for a reasonably proficient gumshoe to unravel, I had to pace his obstacles and discoveries so he doesn't become Bill Nye the Private Eye teaching you how the crime happened. There has to be that tension.
Nrama: What's coming up in the story?Schkade: It gets weirder. At the end of this first chapter, Avery becomes vaguely aware of the machinations moving into place around him. It’s said that to solve a crime you need to first solve the society it happened in -- if he wants to find Savannah Loy, he needs to solve San Hannibal. And he doesn’t have half a clue what he’s getting into.
We’ll start to see a lot more direct analogues to the pulp tradition, someone which you might not expect. I dug deep for some of this.
Smith: Murder, drugs, crazy old women in rabbit masks. A lot of masks.
Nrama: Why do you feel crime comics have become so influential over the last 20 years with such creators as Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, etc. coming from that genre?
Schkade: Well, crime stories are really detective stories. We all have things we don’t understand about our lives, from as small as “why didn’t he text me back” to as big as, like, “why didn’t my dad ever say he loved me,” or “why is the bank taking my house.’
I think detective stories, at their most basic, are about finding out why a bad thing happened. Usually, they’re also about keeping the bad thing from happening anymore. That’s comforting. We’d all like a detective to come solve our lives.
They’re also just fun because it’s an adventure that could be happening right next door. I mean, I live in the same city as Dex Parios. We go to the same bar.Smith: It's not exactly like superhero comics, but I believe there's a kinship between the genres that makes crossing from one to the other easy for both writers and fans. The hero of a crime story is more flawed as a general rule than your typical superhero, but he or she is still a hero in a place that doesn't always want one.
Replace your supervillains and your death rays with pimps and revolvers, and you're most of the way there.
Nrama: What are some of your other favorite P.I./noir/crime stories, in any medium?
Schkade: I love Justified. Easily the closest thing to a Raymond Chandler novel on television, and it really sells the idea of cops and robbers as arbitrary parts of the same criminal continuum. Great music, too.
On the comics side, I really like Sandman Mystery Theatre and Alias. Fell is terrific too, for the same reasons as Justified. I better stop now, “cause I can feel more names coming.
Smith: Anything by Raymond Chandler. Dan introduced me, and he's been a great influence on the book. I loved the mix of warped psychology, historical fiction, and standard detective fiction elements in James Ellroy's work, particularly The Black Dahlia.
Breaking Bad, Brick, and Drive were all great in terms of TV and film. I keep being told I should watch The Wire, so I should probably get around to that. Oh, and I really enjoyed Rockstar Games' L.A. Noire, even though it ripped from Ellroy shamelessly.
Nrama: Something I've been asking everyone in this series -- what new opportunities do you feel have been afforded creators by such delivery systems as the iPad and smartphones, and what do you feel that both individual creators and larger companies can do to better take advantage of these opportunities?Smith: Make the digital copies cost less than the print, for one. I know I'd be buying digital all over the place if the prices weren't so insane, and I'd imagine that's the same thing holding a lot of people back. It's the main reason I'm still a trade paperback reader.
Schkade: As a creator though it's very interesting. The landscape is always changing, and that makes me look forward to what's coming.
The biggest thing comics have going for them is that people just plain like reading them. Some people don’t enjoy novels because small print gives them a headache and some people don’t enjoy movies because of the time investment, but just about everyone enjoys the interface of reading a comic, even if it’s just Calvin and Hobbes or a political cartoon or something.
In a weird way, we’re kind of back where we started -- iPads and smartphones are the new newspapers. We just need to find our Yellow Kid.
The outlet is there. The conventional wisdom is that digital comics are going to become ads for the collected editions, like the Garfield collections everyone has in their bathroom, but there’s bound to be a more direct way to make this work. So I guess I’m not really answering your question, just spinning my wheels. comiXology and the rest are making some great strides, I just don’t think we’ve found that third heat yet.
Nrama: What are some of your favorite comics and creators, online and off?
Schkade: Matt Fraction heads the list. Funny, brilliant guy and an amazing idea man. The next big thing he does on his own is really going to knock everybody’s socks off. I love Batton Lash – you want to talk about making the move to digital, he’s a guy to ask. I’m pretty sure Warren Ellis has a direct deposit set up from my bank account to his.
I learned to write by monkeying Denny O’Neil. And Nicola Scott has snuck up on me and became my favorite DC artist. As for titles, I’m loving Waid’s Daredevil, Alpha Flag, Three Word Phrase, Invincible Iron Man, and of course Girls With Slingshots.
Smith: I try to follow everything that Grant Morrison does. If Frank Quitely is attached, even better. Alex Toth's compositions and mastery of craft are one of the main things that make me want to get better than I am right now. Paolo Rivera, Darwyn Cooke, John Romita Sr, and Jamie Hewlett are all people I wish I could be/steal the abilities of at various times.
All I'm reading currently is Death Note and the new Animal Man.
Nrama: What's next for both of you?
Schkade: On August 15th, Jesse Snavlin, Anastasia Kraus Marston and I are launching The Committee Building (dot com), a webcomic collective that’ll host our brainy superhero satire comic Stop And Go and the new and improved Private Files of the Fowl. San Hannibal will be available there as well, plus other cool things.Smith: I wish I knew! The goal for jdmakescomics.com is for it to house any projects I do that are creator owned, so I hope to get something I've both written and drawn up on there postSan Hannibal. I also have a few pitches bouncing around that could go either way. I know Dan is busy with some stuff as an artist that should blow people away.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Schkade: Only thing I’d like to bring up is how incredibly supportive the online comics world is. It couldn’t be more different than print comics. There’s still cutthroating and turf wars, because people are people and if people were universally awesome then we wouldn’t have crime stories, but by and large it’s a huge web of creative individuals ready and willing to help each other out.
There’s a pretty high burnout rate among new webcomics, but if you hang in there and pay your dues, this community looks after you. And I find that pretty cool.
Walk the mean streets of San Hannibal at www.jdmakescomics.com.
Next: Former Zuda winner Canaan Grall introduces us to a melodramatic moppet in the acclaimed Max Overacts! Then, it’s a trip back in time with the Hominids, followed by interviews with Deliah Dirk’s Tony Cliff, Dylan Meconis, and many more as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues!