Magic meets mystery in the all-new Image limited series Chin Music by Steve Niles and Tony Harris. Launched last month, Chin Music follows a wayward warlock named Shaw who is on the run from sinister forces with his prize powers blocked and himself stranded in 1920s Chicago. Not intent to just blend into the background, Shaw is caught up in the mix of Prohibition-era politics when he finds himself under the watch of famed government agent Eliot Ness. If that wasn’t enough, Shaw is left with the smoking gun that kills Al Capone before history intended, sounding a warning for those sinister forces out to get him.
The pairing of Tony Harris and Steve Niles in Chin Music is surprising but captivating collaboration. After working for years at Marvel and DC on a mixture of high-profile superhero projects and his own book Ex Machina with Brian K. Vaughn, Harris is trading that in to go fully creator-owned with the co-creator of 30 Days Of Night Steve Niles by his side. Harris’ penchant for startling, swirling graphics blends well with Niles’ horror-minded storytelling, giving us a melding of various genres that blends together like a melting pot of comics fans’ most favorite genres.
With the second issue of Chin Music set to hit stands on June 5, we talked with both Niles and Harris about this unconventional story that blends crime noir with time travel, magic and horror in the famed Prohibition era in the United States.
Newsarama: Tony, Steve, the main character, Shaw, seems like a very powerful man – powerful, that is, until he’s stripped of all his magical powers. What kind of man was he with those powers – and what’s left now that they’re stripped away?
Tony Harris: Well, they haven’t been,”stripped away” as much as confiscated by those equally as powerful as He (at the behest of something larger), hidden from Shaw, then his memory of what and who he was, completely erased. He was, in his purest form, more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Now, he’s a desperate thing. He knows he has power and is capable of greater things, but has to stumble through it all, half asleep, half awake- having to decipher visions and dreams to relearn all the magic and spells that were simply “[art” of him previously.
Steve Niles: The source of Shaw's original power is one of the big mysteries of the first arc of Chin Music. I can't say exactly where he got his powers but I can say that he has now lost the ability to summon them at will. Now he is one of us and can conjure but only with great effort. Now, just to light a fire from his fingertips he has to remember an incantation roughly the size and length of a thousand copies of the yellow pages.
Nrama: Tony, for this book you’re giving Shaw a very distinctive look. Can you tell us about developing that, and why it’s important for you to make your characters so individual and unique?
Harris: You have to make your main character recognizable. He or she will fade into the background otherwise. It always helps if you can find that “visual hook”. Stuff that works, visually in full light, silhouette, night or day. But the groovy visual hooks, is what I am ALL about. A lot of times, the design of a character can drive the story. That is especially true with Chin music. Shaw’s tattoos are an Integral part of our story. I can’t tell you why, But there you are! These tattoos are not actually on his skin. They are burned and scratched into his bones. Like scrimshaw. That’s where his name comes from: Shaw. They are a “projection” of his curse onto his skin. A badge of shame, just not in his eyes! Just a reminder of what he was, and what he could be again.
Nrama: Who is Shaw on the run from – and who stripped his powers? Are they one and the same?
Harris: You can’t believe for one moment that I am even going to consider answering that question/questions…? Can you? [laughs]
Niles: They are one and the same but I can't reveal who they are. That's the whole 4 and 5th issue! They are supernatural and they are something familiar, but not at all what you've come to expect.
Nrama: In addition to noir, horror and gumshoe elements of this, you also have time travel with Shaw being deposited in Prohibition-era Chicago. How’d he end up in Chicago?
Niles: We're doing a lot of time and dimension jumping in this one. These beings who are chasing Shaw are not locked into any one time period. They can jump as they please. If Shaw ever recovers his full power, he will too.
Nrama: This isn’t some anonymous Chicago you’re putting Shaw in – he’s rubbing elbows and crossing the path of major historical figures here like Al Capone and Eliot Ness. In the solicits it mentions that Shaw might do some things that aren’t in our history books – so how are you dealing with time travel here?
Niles: Same rules apply here, history is set in stone. If Shaw breaks it or bends it, he has to fix it.
Nrama: Although set in historical Chicago Tony, I read that you aren’t going to be weighed down by trying to be too exact with the detail. Can you tell us how you’re doing your version of Chicago during these times?
Harris: Not true. I’m a slave to history. I love the period, and architecture is a passion for me, all the way back to Deco, Opal City. What we intend here is to show a side of Prohibition Chicago, in a light you haven’t seen. Because this is a work of fiction, and I’m not a slave to photo reference, I can take certain liberties that allow Steve and I to “own” this universe completely. It allows us to include the weird and wonderful as a set dressing to our even weirder story. BUT! Having a solid anchor in what the real Chicago looked like then, in the 20’s, will make it feel really snug.
Nrama: In the past you’ve been known to use photo reference, most notably in Ex Machina, but I read you’ve put that down for both this and your Whistling Skull series. Delving into real historical places and real historical people, what’s it like to have a freer hand in developing the art for this?
Harris: Liberating. I’m not bound by convention. Regardless of what folk might think, I am not, and never have been a “slave” to photo reference. I have always allowed the project on my desk to dictate to me what the visual feel needs to be. And I listen to those projects because they all have a voice. Ex Machina, could, and would NOT have worked in a more freehand, cartoony style. It was all about politics and Inter-personal relationships. How those relationships affected decision making and policy. So It felt right to me to “cast” the book. Each character with a face. One that you could recognize no matter what the scene, or circumstance.
Starman? That was a mixed bag. A little or a lot. Me finding my creative voice as a young man. Then, Doctor Strange, Obergeist, JSA: The Liberty File, JSA: The Unholy Three , Lazarus 5, covers for Legion, Legends of the Dark Knight and countless covers and Illustrations. But all the while, I am searching and listening to my creative voice to tell me how a cover, or a series needs to look. I’m no slave to convention or template. I live to serve the medium. Examine my Body of work, and I think you’ll find that to be absolute fact. My exploration, Artistically has never been about photos, or my camera. Nor a live model, Poser, action figures or props. Just a means to serve an end. What ever I can do to facilitate the story, and make it as clear, fun and memorable as possible. I want to make a LASTING contribution to comics. I am not satisfied with being the 300th Dude to draw Batman for 3 or 6 or 25 issues ( which is awesome) I did that. I want to create something, some-THINGS. Stuff that Lasts. I think now that I’ve paid my dues, worked in the trenches and made a name for myself, I’m ready to move forward with my own Ideas ,properties, and stand or fall on my own effort. MY work.
Nrama: Some of the best stories feature characters not on their best day, but trying to claw out of their worst. And that seems to be just what Shaw’s doing – as a author, what makes this kind of story so interesting to you?
Harris: Exactly that: Conceiving of the most horrendous situation and conditions imaginable, restraining yourself within the boundaries of the world you’ve created, then Dropping a “Guy” right into the middle of it, at the worst possible time and try and figure a way out. You know, basically painting yourself into a corner-and trying to get the hell outta’ the room, without any of your readers seeing your foot or handprints on the fresh paint. Also, I like the flaws in people and in Characters that I create. It makes them more believable. You can sympathize so much more easily with them, even if they’re a villain. There are no stories to tell about someone or thing that is all powerful or untouchable. What’s to tell. That’s a bore. Plus the big one here, for me? I’m a sucker for period stuff. Especially from the turn of the century till around ’55 or so in the States. I’m just a nut for it.
Niles: I love the idea of the gunfighter with a broken hand and that's what Shaw comes from. The true measure of a person is how they face and fight diversity. Will they rise or fall further? I like stories about human weakness and trying to improve oneself and Shaw is kind of the ultimate broken man. He got that way because he helps people. I've found in life the selfish tend to do really well while those who help others tend to live with a lot of pain. I wanted to explore that.
Nrama: I read that Chin Music started out as two separate projects from each of you, that was melded into one. Can you tell us how that worked, and if you’ve ever had a situation like that before?
Niles:I did a whole mess of pitches for one of the Corporate Two. After an editor stole one of the pitches without hiring me to even write it, I decided no more pitches to them until they get rid of this current crop of editors. So I looked at these pitches and realized we didn't need these characters to tell the story. In fact it worked even better without. I'm glad I decided to focus on creator-owned.
Harris: Well, Steve and I had been talking about working together for some time, but we just couldn’t find a suitable vehicle. It was quite frustrating really, because we were such big fans of each other’s body of work - and, we knew there was something of a creative spark there. We simply couldn’t see the forest for trees, as it were. Then Steve sent me a very small pitch. It was the title: CHIN MUSIC, and the opening scene, complete, panel by panel. It was stunning. I also had a project I was developing (as I always do) but there were bits and pieces that didn’t quite fit with the overall theme of what I wanted to do. Then it occurred to me that there were binding elements in both, that made it a perfect fit. This almost NEVER happens when collaborating because the root of ither property might be too divergent from the other, thereby rendering a proper marriage impossible. Basically, you don’t want to sacrifice key elements of your plot, or his, to “shoehorn” them into one “Universe”. But in this rare case, it was perfect. We both saw it immediately and the ideas just sprang forth, almost fully realized. And No, this has never happened to me prior. We wrote most of the first issue in a Bar in Seattle, in ONE night.