There's a saying that you "fight fire with fire," but what if the firefighter is a firestarter?
As Vertigo continues to roll out its new titles this fall, readers are getting to sample original stories in a wide variety of genres and styles. One of the more unique titles is Slash & Burn, a new series that combines forensic whodunit with psychological thriller. The fire-centered story focuses on a female firefighter named Rosheen who's not just fighting blazes and investigating fires — she's still struggling against an addiction to arson that dates from her youth.
The book teams Si Spencer with penciler Max Dunbar and veteran inker Ande Parks. As the book is slated to begin in early November, Newsarama talked to the three creators to find out more.
Newsarama: Si, what's the basic premise of this story? You know, the elevator pitch?
Si Spencer: Aha! Now, you see, I know what that is ‘cause I’ve been writing in Americanese for the last year – an elevator’s like a lift, right?
Nrama: Oh dear, yes. The "lift pitch!"
Spencer: It’s pretty straightforward actually: "Teenage pyromaniac turned adult firefighter."
Nrama: OK, but let's talk about that pyromanic-turned-firefighter. How would you describe Rosheen? And how does her history with fire influence her now, as she's doing the job of firefighter?
Spencer: She's complex, strong, conflicted, vulnerable. Without giving too many spoilers, fire has completely shaped her childhood, leaving her addicted to arson. All addiction is about control, and for Rosheen the ultimate control of her particular jones is to constantly physically do battle with it and win. That’s what she tells herself anyway — but addicts lie, and the main person they lie to is themselves.
Nrama: Are there any adversaries working against her in this? Any villainous folks?
Spencer: Don’t be expecting super-villains or elemental fire-spirits – this isn’t that book. Rosheen has allies and adversaries just like everybody else, but like any addict her greatest enemy lies within – Rosheen’s adversary is the gasoline in her blood, the flint in her heart, the napalm in her gut and the sparkplugs flashing electricity in her brain.
Nrama: Si, how did you come up with the idea for this? Do you have an interest in firefighting or background with it?
Spencer: The initial pitch came from bouncing ideas around with Vertigo editor Shelly Bond. We have a history together, where she throws titles or loose high concepts at me and leaves them to smolder away in my brain until something fits. Bodies was a title she gave me six months before I dreamed up a pitch that I realized would fit.
I have friends who are firefighters but to me the overall attraction was looking for a story that fitted a detective narrative but in a non-cop related dramatic precinct. I’m a huge fan of the criminally-overlooked show Homicide: Life on the Streets, and I always loved the stories with Kellerman, the arson investigator. Fire is incredible stuff forensically, like some flawed but fundamental ancient magic – it’s shaped by chaos theory and coincidence, it treats every different thing it caresses in a different way depending on a thousand tiny differentials.
And fire is beautiful and primal and nurturing and destroying and oh so very very pretty and alluring.
Nrama: Let's talk about the role of fire in the visuals of this book. Max, when you heard about this comic and its focus on fire, what was your thought process as you started to figure out the look? And how did you arrive at the way it looks?
Max Dunbar: Whenever I start a new comic project, I like to make reference and inspiration sheets with all the types of things I'll need to draw. For Slash & Burn, that meant a lot of pictures of houses burning down, which is sort of sad, and a bit of a downer. I'm also constantly hunting for pictures of technical reference for firefighter turnout gear and trucks.
I also knew that this comic was going to be darker and more serious than anything I had done before, so when I started putting pencil to paper, I made it a little less cartoony than my previous work, while still trying to make all the characters expressive and full of life and emotion.
Nrama: Can you describe how you're approaching the element of fire, since it plays a central role?
Dunbar: Fire plays an increasingly strong role as the comic goes on from issue to issue, and manifests in a lot of different ways, some more unusual than others. I want to make sure the line work for the fire is as fluid and full of energy as I can make it, but a big part of it is leaving it open enough for our colorist Nick Filardi to really work his magic with the colors. A big part of the danger, beauty, and menace of the fire comes from his work and the palettes he chooses.
Nrama: What's been the biggest challenge of drawing this series?
Dunbar: Actually a really big challenge is drawing the town itself. A lot of Blucher is supposed to be very straightforwardly functional. A plain, no-frills, mid-sized Midwestern town. Not particularly affluent, but also not a crime-ridden slum. There isn't a lot of imposing, or impressive architecture to catch the eye, which presents a pretty interesting problem if you don't want it to look too simple or boring. However, as the story continues there is an underlying eeriness about Blucher that comes across in Si's writing that I hope we are able to convey.
Nrama: How did you arrive at the look of the main character, Rosheen?
Dunbar: I think the first thing I did, I think even before I was given the job, was work with Si and my editors Molly and Jamie on what Rosheen would look like. Ultimately, Slash & Burn is a character piece before anything else, and Si provided a couple of really great, descriptive paragraphs about her to get me started.
While there were a couple notes about her physical appearance, like her blonde hair and her athleticism, a lot of what Si wrote was about her personality, and the way she carries herself in the world. I think the creative and editorial team was completely in sync when it came to what Rosheen was all about. I think one of the only notes Molly gave me was that she had to have a few more pounds of muscle on her, and rightfully so. Rosheen has to carry people out of burning buildings.
Nrama: What tools do you use to arrive at the look of your art for this book?
Dunbar: The primary thing I draw with is my trusty lead holder and some H leads, which make a nice line, but also don't smudge too much. Beyond that, a few rulers, a few ellipse templates and a little mirror to make stupid faces into when I want to draw a tricky expression.
Nrama: Ande, you've worked on a lot of projects over the years. How would you describe what you're seeing of Slash & Burn, and what makes this story and art unique?
Andy Parks: It's one of the most layered, richest books I've ever worked on. The scripts are really textural, with flashbacks that slowly reveal the nature of the main arc. The art reflects that, as well. Simply put, Slash & Burn is a grown-up book, and everyone involved knows it can be something special. You can feel all of us trying to up our game to fulfill the series' potential. So far, I think it's working.
Nrama: How would you describe the overall artistic approach?
Parks: Max is a great fit for this book. His work features a lot of interesting contrasts: fine detail played against bold blacks and whites, totally convincing character acting served with charm. Nick and I are following suit.
Nrama: What about your inking? Anything specific or unique you're trying for this comic to arrive at the final product?
Parks: Max is a big departure from the artist I'm most associated with — Phil Hester. Phil and I were known for bold, graphic work. Max is more of a textural, detailed guy.
Fortunately, I had some experience inking a similar artist before I semi-retired from inking about six years ago — Tony Moore. Max reminds me of Tony a lot. Both are extremely talented, and both share a crucial skill… they're so damn observant. As I ink Slash & Burn, I'm constantly amazed at the little real-world touches Max includes. Stuff that is absolutely correct, but that would not have occurred to me. I think Max and I make a really good team. I think the work shows a great balance between the two approaches: rich, observant detail and bold graphics.
Nrama: Si, to finish up, I wanted to ask about how you said something earlier about this book being a "detective narrative." Is that how you'd describe it?
Spencer: On a basic, superficial level it’s a series of forensic murder mysteries being solved by an intelligent, witty, flawed but wonderful woman within a much larger over-riding story about political intrigue, personal tragedy and childhood trauma. But that’s what it is, not what it’s about. What it’s about is the nature of addiction, any addiction – the internal conflict to do the right thing instead of the easy and weak thing, the lies we tell others, but most importantly the lies we tell ourselves.
So on one level it sits firmly in the genre of forensic whodunit, but hopefully it fits far more closely into the world of the psychological thriller.