Jai Nitz Brings a DREAM THIEF to Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics has shown a renewed fervor for superheroics in 2013, with titles like Black Beetle and The Answer gaining critical and sales success. In May, though, they move away from pulp and action and into the dark ambiguity of Dream Thief.

From writer Jai Nitz and artist Greg Smallwood, plus what Nitz calls a "Murderer's Row" of cover artists, Dream Thief takes the power fantasy of most superhero stories and explores more of the "curse" than the "gift" of it all.

To announce the series, Nitz brought along some exclusive interior art and gave us details about what makes this series unique. 


Newsarama: The Dream Thief premise sounds like this isn't going to exactly be a happy-go-lucky "Yay, I got powers, let's do some super heroics!" kind of story. What makes darkness appealing in a super powered set?

Jai Nitz: Dream Thief started with the question, “What would you do if you woke up next to a dead body and didn’t know what happened or how you got there?” Would you call the cops? Would you run? Would you try to cover it up? What are the circumstances? In America we trust our justice system to provide Justice (with a capital J) and we want the system to be infallible. Everyone wants cosmic unfailing justice… until you’re the one on trial. Then you want evidence stricken from the record and legal loopholes. You want to get away with it via fancy lawyer tricks and smokescreens.

Dream Thief is a book about a guy becoming an instrument of cosmic justice that often runs counter to the American justice system. If you got to pick a superpower you’d pick “flight” or “invisibility”; you wouldn’t pick “to kill murderers in my sleep.” So that darkness makes for an interesting journey.

Nrama: There are dead bodies mentioned in the solicitation, but it doesn't specify whether those are good or bad guys being killed – can you clarify? Is the protagonist a hero here?

Dream Thief #1

Alex Ross Cover

Nitz: I can tell you only bad guys die, but good and bad are in the eye of the beholder. For example, let’s say your brother got drunk and was involved in a vehicular fatality. The courts rule (after some fancy lawyering) the accident wasn’t his fault, and he gets probation for driving drunk. Is that justice? Is he a bad guy? Then what if a superhero killed your brother as revenge for cosmic injustice? Not as cut-and-dried as a purse snatcher getting caught by Green Lantern, is it? So is Dream Thief a hero? I guess it depends on who you ask.

Nrama: Why Dark Horse for this series? They seem to have a renewed focus on superheroes but this is also a very different style story, and you've worked with Image before…

Nitz: I’ve wanted to work at Dark Horse for years. Anyone who knows me knows my love for Hellboy and Mike Mignola. I’ve always admired Mike Richardson and Scott Allie, and our editors Patrick Thorpe and Everett Patterson are sharp. When Greg and I pitched Dream Thief we thought Dark Horse was a long shot at best, but we pitched them anyway because they had a track record of publishing some of our favorite books. And a lot of my trusted peers are doing books at Dark Horse: Dennis Hopeless and Mike Norton (we did Blue Beetle together!), Matt Kindt, Tim Seeley, Francesco Francavilla, Victor Gischler… the list of goes on and on. Dark Horse is the best publisher for this book.

That said, I love Image. I’d work there again in a heartbeat. I plan on pitching several projects to Eric Stephenson in the near future. Right now Dark Horse is home, but I’ll always have a fondness for Image.


Nrama: Tell us a bit more about John Lincoln. What kind of person is he before he finds this mask, and how will that influence the spirits possessing him?

Nitz: John Lincoln is a self-absorbed jerk. If you met him in a bar you’d say, “Man, that guy was a dick.” You know that friend you have who is off-putting to almost everybody, but girls like him for some reason?

That’s John Lincoln.

He’s a slacker who has coasted through life but thinks he’s entitled to the stuff he sees on TV and the internet. He’s never had a real job and no one who knows him well expects much of him. If you hadn’t been friends with him since second grade, you probably wouldn’t be friends with him. That’s the point. He’s not the likeable sympathetic character, but he’s empathetic. We see ourselves (or one of our friends) in John Lincoln. So if that guy we all knew suddenly became a driven crusader, we’d all think it was a change for the best.

Until we found out he was murdering bad guys while he was asleep.


Nrama: Looking through Greg Smallwood's blog, he seems to have a bit of a Samnee-esque style to him. How'd you get connected with him, and what made him right for Dream Thief?

Nitz: That’s high praise. I discovered Greg’s work at Astrokitty Comics in Lawrence, KS. Greg was a graphic artist from Leavenworth who came to Lawrence for his comics. He tried a Zuda project called “Villain” and I saw his ad asking for web-views on the shop’s bulletin board. I recognized his talent immediately and emailed him from out of the blue. He was savvy (or stupid) enough to respond and agree that we should work on something together. I pitched him a bunch of ideas and he responded to Dream Thief, so we worked it up as a pitch.

I can’t say enough great things about Greg. Since we met he’s moved to Lawrence, less than a mile from my place. So we hang out all the time and work closely together. I respect his myriad of talents (he’s penciling, inking, coloring, lettering, and designing Dream Thief) and try to play to them. He’s doing the work of a decade-plus pro on his first comic and it’s instantly apparent to everyone who sees his Dream Thief pages. If he isn’t up for the Russ Manning award at the 2014 Eisners I’ll eat my hat. I’ll also eat Chris Samnee’s hat.

Nrama: The solicitation text specifically mentions the mask as Aboriginal. What kind of research did you have to do for the book, and how steeped in specific mythologies is it?


Nitz: One personal flaw I’ve always boofed was to do too much research into the minutiae of a subject and try to cram it all in to a 22-page comic to show everyone how smart I am. That makes for bad storytelling. So one thing I tried to do with the Aboriginal research on Dream Thief was hit the high points that were germane to our story, and then move on. I didn’t want to get personally bogged down in details that will only please anal-retentive scholars. Job one is to entertain.

Also, one of my earliest partners in comics-crime was Australian artist Nicola Scott. Through her, Andrew Constant, Doug Holgate, and Tom Taylor I’ve learned which aspects of the Australian lore in the book are widely accepted and which parts are rubbish. I want to entertain. And I want my Aussie friends not to roll their eyes. In that order.

Nrama: There have been other only-powered-when-asleep characters in the past. Did you take inspiration from any of them, or is the tangentially shared concept the only similarity to those that have come before?


Nitz: Are you asking if I’ve read every issue of Bob Budiansky and Bret Blevins’s Sleepwalker? Maybe I have. Have I seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari multiple times? Perhaps. (laughs) The idea of what happens to us when we dream is as old as mankind. I wanted to delve into that ancient question of what happens to us and put my twist on it. Plus I get to tap into crime, justice, mythology, paranoia, fear, redemption, and enlightenment. I get to cover all the topics I want and Greg makes me look good. It’s a win-win.

Nrama: You've worked recently on work-for-hire titles like Green Hornet and done work for Marvel and DC. Do you prefer creator-owned work? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each for you?


Nitz: I’ve been working with Joe Rybandt, my Dynamite editor, for a long while now. We’ve done dozens of issues together and have a shorthand worked out that gives me a pretty wide berth. So switching from that to creator-owned at Dark Horse was seamless.

I like creator-owned best because I can do whatever I want, but I still like having Patrick and Everett around to keep me on point. Only good things can come from having talented people with you behind the scenes. Even my Marvel and DC work I had great editors like Steve Wacker and Nachie Marsham. So I’ve been pretty blessed with my work-for-hire versus creator-owned.

I like both for different reasons, but Dream Thief is the book I really want to do. Mignola always says you should creator-own your dream job. That way, if it’s a hit, you get to do your dream job forever. I look at books like Hellboy and Chew and Saga and nod. I want Dream Thief to be like those.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to tease about The Dream Thief?

Nitz: In addition to Greg Smallwood’s fantastic interiors, we have a murderer’s row of cover artists on Dream Thief. Alex Ross, Ryan Sook, Kevin Nowlan, Dan Brereton, and Michael Golden are lined up so far. And then we have ah-mazing pin ups from artists like Jenny Frison and RM Guera. I’m well aware that I’m the weakest link in this entire endeavor. As long as I don’t screw it up, I think we have a winner.

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