Cold cases are a sad part of the criminal justice system, but for those connected to those crimes the loss never grows old -- sometimes it festers.
In an upcoming graphic novel titled The Rattler, writer Jason McNamara and artist Greg Hinkle follow a man named Stephen Thorn who lost his fiancee in an unsolved murder and took on a career similiar to America's Most Wanted's John Walsh, becoming a very public victim's rights advocate. But when new clues begin emerging about the mysterious murderer, Thorn is pulled down a path that leave even his closest friends and supporters questioning what he's become.
Newsarama spoke with McNamara and Hinkle about The Rattler leading up to its March 23 debut, discussing the true story that inspired this thriller, how the duo used Kickstarter to get in the door at Image, and the artist's unique coloring scheme for this graphic novel.
Nrama: Jason, what is The Rattler about?
Jason McNamara: Ten years ago, Stephen Thorn watched helplessly as Catherine, the love of his life, was kidnapped, never to be seen again. In the time since, has reinvented himself as a passionate and bitter victim’s rights advocate. But when Stephen receives a message that may, or not, be from Catherine, he embarks on a grisly journey to be reunited with his lost love.
Being huge horror fans Greg and I attempted to recreate the tonal esthetics of films from the 70/80’s era. If John Carpenter ever adapted America’s Most Wanted, I think it would look like The Rattler. So, while it’s obviously a horror thriller in premise, it’s also a story about relationships and how they define us.
Nrama: Greg, you do the tones and the red coloring on this, which ramp up as the story unfolds. How'd you settle upon doing that?
Greg Hinkle: A happy accident, I'm afraid! We planned on a black and white book from the start. There's a harshness that black and white can bring to a story, and we thought it fit. I was having trouble one day with one of the first bloody scenes. Gray blood just doesn't have the right "umph", you know? I tried the brightest red I could find, out of frustration probably, and it wasn't terrible. I finished the rest of the page, floated it past Jason, and we ran with it.
Nrama: And what were the events of Stephen's fiancée Catherine's kidnapping in the first place? Was there any supernatural nature to it then?
McNamara: I won’t declare anything in The Rattler supernatural, but it’s also far from natural. Without spoiling anything, I will say that Stephen’s anguish has taken him to a very dark place and with that, there is a discovery. With that new, ill-gotten information, Stephen is able to begin unraveling the mystery that has destroyed his life.
Nrama: And what does the title, 'The Rattler,' refer to? Who or what is the Rattler?
McNamara: “The Rattler” refers to the death rattle, a sound that can emerge from the throat as one dies. Stephen is able to receive clues to Catherine’s whereabouts from the mouths of the recently dead, which inspired the title. Who or what ‘The Rattler” is probably depends on your interpretation of the book. But we don’t, in story, refer to any character as a ‘Rattler.’
Nrama: In reading this, I was surprised that the lead character Stephen isn't in fact the greatest of guys, at least before this tragedy. Why'd you want to center a story on such a flawed character?
McNamara: For a story like this, I think it’s important to question the motives of your protagonist. You shouldn’t entirely trust Stephen, and hopefully that adds to the suspense because you are never sure you know what he is going to do next. Some of his actions are reprehensible, but, to his rationale, they are in the service of righting a terrible wrong. Traditional protagonists inspire us to become greater than we are. Stephen is the flip-side to that, he is the character we should be afraid of becoming. ‘
Nrama: Greg, what was it like drawing a lead character who isn't that much a great person?
Hinkle: Oh, it was great. No one is perfect, and I think most people can relate to feeling helpless. I know I've wanted to give in to darker impulses, if only for a moment of relief. Who knows how I'd turn out if I was run through a wringer like Stephen Thorn. I think that's why I enjoyed him as a character. He's not perfect, but he can be relatable.
Nrama: In the end notes you reveal how this was inspired by real events in your life. Can you tell us about those?
McNamara: A few years back, I went on a road trip with my friend, Stephenie. We had a broken gas gauge and broke down in a very rural area where there were no houses or nearby lights. Because it was pitch black, we rolled the car off the road and waited for another car to pass. After an hour, a truck finally came along and we flagged it down. The driver, a guy in his mid-forties, offered to tow our car, and us, to a gas station, a few miles away.
Before we could do that, we had to get our car out of the ditch first. The guy helping us, we never thought to ask his name, happened to be travelling with some very thick rope (as you do). He tied his back bumper to our Ranchero’s front and asked that Stephenie steer our car out of the ditch while I got behind it and helped push while he towed it forward.
Well, we got our car out of the ditch, but he continued driving away without me, taking Stephenie, with him. I gave chase but knew I would never catch up. Stephenie honked and swerved but he didn’t stop. She eventually pulled the emergency brake, which snapped the rope holding them together. Stephenie jumped out of the car and we both took cover on the side of the road behind some trees. The driver stopped, got out of his truck and looked around for a minute before getting back in and driving away.
At the time, we were spooked but grateful to have gotten away… as time went on my mind kept returning to that night and wondering what would have happened if he had had a chain in his truck instead of a rope. That’s where The Rattler starts.
Nrama: Greg, are you pulling from or feeling any specific events in your life while drawing this story?
Hinkle: I spent all my formative years in a small agricultural town, partying in the middle of fields, and driving down long, dark highways. Hopefully, all those summer nights sitting in truck beds in the middle of bell-pepper fields, telling spooky stories, weren't in vain.
Nrama: For this you're working with Airboy’s Greg Hinkle - how did the two of you hook up for this project?
Hinkle: I'd known Jason for a little while, after meeting at the Isotope Comic Book Lounge in San Francisco. We'd meet up with friends and talk comics and we would share convention tables as part of a writer's group, selling mini comics and self-published things. He wrote a short story for a self-published horror anthology project I did which reminded me how much fun comics could be. When he started talking about working on a longer story together, I was sold.
McNamara: We had a very collaborative relationship on The Rattler; everything was up for grabs as we went through the script. Greg’s greatest talent is creating a story world that feels contextual and immersive. When I look at his pages, in a way, I can hear them as well as see them, if that makes sense.
Nrama: How did doing the Kickstarter before working with Image help the project -- besides the money, of course?
McNamara: I always think it’s better to show a publisher what you’ve done as opposed to telling them what you’d like to do. By running a successful Kickstarter, we demonstrated an understanding of production, marketing and execution. Production-wise, the difference between creating a book for Kickstarter and Image are not dissimilar. You have to be self-motivated and be able to manage your projects from beginning to end.
Kickstarter helped us create an awareness for The Rattler and establish a demand; we didn’t overprint beyond what our backers ordered, which meant as soon as the campaign was over, we were completely sold out. Both word of mouth and glowing reviews had helped create a continuing demand; that was when we started thinking about finding a permanent home for the project. With Greg kicking ass on Airboy, we were able to put the book in front of Image.
Hinkle: It was definitely a big help to have the book completed before thinking about publication. We never set out to over print our Kickstarter, so we only printed enough to fulfill rewards and cover any shipping problems. We've had some interest in the book since, but haven't been able to point them anywhere. We don't have any extras! So when the chance came to take it to Image and make it available again, we were thrilled. The Rattler represents a lot of hard work, and we're both just happy that we'll get to show it to more people.