Writer Jamie S. Rich has made its mark in comics --- now he’s turning to a life of crime.
Rich came up as an editor, both at Dark Horse and later Oni Press, before transitioning to a full-time writer. His work, both in comics and prose, portray a word deep of emotion, poise, music and action . But in his latest work, the graphic novel You Have Killed Me, Rich trades in his usual bag of tricks for the classic crime noir vibe. Working with long-time collaborator Joelle Jones, Rich delves into the world of a private eye named Antonio Mercer who is pulled back into his past when his ex-girlfriend is found missing and he’s been hired by her sister to get to the truth. When he’s confronted by a past relationship he’s been trying to leave behind forever and the fact that she now has ties to an organized crime family, it doesn’t look good for anyone.
You Have Killed Me is scheduled for release on July 15th, and we talked with Rich by email for more.
Newsarama: You’re riding on an elevator and someone asks you what this book is about. You have a limited time to explain it, so be quick Jamie – what’s You Have Killed Me about?
Jamie S. Rich : A week before her wedding, a debutante disappears from a locked room. It has no windows and no second door, and there are no clues. In desperation, her little sister hires the girl's former fiancé, a rich kid turned private detective, hoping he will have some insight into the big sister's behavior. Faced with no leads, he begins to dig through her life, beginning with the groom-to-be and working out from there. In so doing, he uncovers her dirty secrets and is forced to face a past he has tried to erase.
NRAMA: It seems like a past he can never shake. How would you describe the character of Antonio Mercer?
JSR: He’s a man trying to right some kind of wrong in himself. Having grown up in a moneyed family, something has turned him off from that pampered lifestyle. In addition to being inspired by classic private eyes, he’s also inspired by Mercutio and other Shakespearian fools and pranksters, the wry commentators who see more than others and are all the more tragic for it. They can’t avoid shedding light on the truth regardless of the hurt it brings them. In that sense, I also realized that a lot of these old characters, like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, they are really like Bugs Bunny, the way they are constantly pushing against the norm, refusing to give in, and while doing it, winding up all the other people around them. They wear disguises, play characters, and say provocative things to see how people react.
page 4I think it was Joëlle who pointed out to me that there was a hardness to Mercer that may just be a cover for the warm-hearted person that lies underneath. There is a flashback in the book that surprised her, where you see him as a more timid young man, and when she pointed that out, I actually began to tailor the writing to reflect that. Someone in the comic even asks him what happened to him, what was causing this change. For me, it maybe is the central question of a private detective character: how does someone who cares for the world and maintaining a common good deal with the fact that the world will constantly disappoint him. Mercer is in for a lot of disappointment in You Have Killed Me. People are not who he thought they were.
NRAMA: Speaking of those people, how about Antonio’s relationship with Julie, her sister and her family?
JSR: The Roman family is a bunch of snobs. They think Mercer is slumming, and they cling to an old social system. Men like him from a family like his aren’t supposed to get their hands dirty. This is particularly prevalent in the parents, the girls are different. Jennie, the little sister, is more open, she’s the one who goes to Mercer to hire him. And what Mercer learns about Julie puts proof to the lie that is their lives.
NRAMA: This book clearly falls into the crime noir genre – what’s it like stepping into such a genre with all its style and signature features?
page 5JSR: It was a surprisingly snug fit, actually. I had so much fun writing it, and in recent weeks, when we were proofing the book and I was getting to see the lettering with the gorgeous art for the first time, I was giddy. Joëlle is so awesome, and just seeing that we managed to create a story that has so many things we both love, it was a blast.
That said, it was a scary prospect at first, because I am such a big fan of film noir. I am a traditionalist, actually, and am one of those guys that will lecture you on proper use of the term, who insists the noir school is a very specific time period of black-and-white film, and anything after is not true noir and merely homage. I also hate the term being appropriated for other media, such as comics, or as a marketing gimmick. Don’t get me started on Marvel Noir. Oy!
Part of getting my head around the book, though, was the characters. Hardboiled private eyes, both in film and literature, are often described as the last chivalrous men, honorable knights who exist in the wrong time. Anyone who knows my work will know that the main characters from my novels and also in the comic book series Love The Way You Love are not just named for knights--Tristan, Lancelot, Percival--but also said to be distant descendents of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte D’Arthur. So, this notion of chivalry, of these existential heroes who stand by a code that they believe in regardless of whether it’s out of date, this is something that is very much of me. In a character sense, going from Lance in The Everlasting to Antonio Mercer in You Have Killed Me is really a very small journey. I’d like to think they’d even be friends!
NRAMA: The noir genre is not without its clichés, and with it the danger of veering into a derivative or corny book. Having read the book I can definitely say you avoided that pitfall – but writing it, was any of that a concern to you?
page 6JSR: Absolutely. Plot-wise, there are only so many variations on a crime, so you really have to think about the details that would make your own take on it unique. For one, that comes down to characters. After that, it’s style. For me, the entry point that really made it work and stoked my self-confidence was figuring out how I would handle the narration. That’s where you can become the most cliché, the most derivative, and really, just fall into parody. So, when I decided to make the narration less expositional and more philosophical, it changed the game for me. It made the character of Mercer more clear, but it also gave the book a unique flavor.
I actually realized when reading the final product that you could actually take the narration out of the book, string it together, and it would be one monologue. Piece by piece, it runs from one scene to the other as if coming out of a single brainstorm. I don’t remember writing it that way, but I guess I was thinking more coherently, more linear, than I realized.
Plus, you know, the way Joëlle draws it, I could write any old nonsense, everyone would still want to stare at it. Sometimes I feel like the make-up on the naturally beautiful girl. Sure, it might be expertly applied, but she’s so pretty without it. I might as well be trying to tie ribbons on the ocean.
NRAMA: If I remember correctly, the idea for this book was originally prompted by Joelle talking about wanting to do a noir book. Is that right? And if so, can you tell us how it developed?
page 7JSR: That’s totally true. I had rather smartly predicted that once 12 Reasons Why I Love Her was published, she would be in high demand, and so I was proactive and decided to tie her up in advance. I told her that she could name her poison, and I would write it. She said she had always loved hardboiled fiction and that she wanted to do that kind of story. I gulped a little, wondering what I had gotten myself into.
Once I had the basic idea, though, the essential slug you asked for in your “elevator question,” we started to build from there. I regularly bounced my ideas off of Joëlle, and she gave me suggestions and added in ideas. I wrote it mainly by putting one foot in front of the other, panel by panel, page by page. I had a handful of endings, and we just waited until we saw the pieces come together and point the way.
NRAMA: Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the title of this inspired by a Morrissey Song? I find many of your works have their inspiration taken from song titles and lyrics. What prompts you to do this?
JSR: I think part of it comes from a tendency to think cinematically. It’s like picking a music cue for a scene. I also hate bland titles. It irks me when someone is lazy with a title, so if I hear a good turn of phrase, I file it away. F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway took titles from old poems, classic literature, the Bible. That’s how you get a title like This Side of Paradise and The Sun Also Rises, rather than something uninspiring like Obsessed or Fighting, just to name a couple of current movies (I could name some comics, but that would get me in trouble). Nick Hornby does it, too, to give a modern example; so does Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis, from time to time. And so does Brian Azzarello, who has pretty good taste in music. You know, how does Stephenie Meyer have a best-seller right now called The Host? Did no one tell her about the Korean monster movie from a couple of years back? I am shocked sometimes. Don’t people Google a title they come up with? Go to Amazon or IMDB to see if someone else has used it? That’s how I lost the first title I had for the book, there was a movie with the same title in the last decade.
You Have Killed Me became the title in one of those “well, duh!” epiphanies. I was actually walking home from Joëlle’s house and was listening to it on headphones, and it just made sense. I could see the ad for it. “He wanted to tell her he loved her, but all he could say was... You Have Killed Me.”
NRAMA: Since we’re talking about music … What music inspired this book?
page 19JSR: I keep getting asked that, and it’s funny, because despite the clear reference in the title, there really isn’t a set soundtrack for You Have Killed Me, despite my regular habit of making compilations for myself. I know I listened to some Charlie Parker and the Miles Davis’ score to Elevator to the Gallows once or twice through writing it, but really, I didn’t have anything set down to be my work accompaniment. I probably listened to the Morrissey album Ringleader of the Tormenters, which has “You Have Killed Me,” quite a bit. Nothing really stands out, though.
If I had to pick one song for Mercer, I’d say it’s Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire.” It’s a code to live by. I do, he does. I want it on my tombstone.
NRAMA: Before, we go I have to ask about the future. Joelle has been one of your chief collaborators as of recent, with several books and short stories. Why do you think the collaboration works so well – and what do you have planned in the future?
JSR: We are very like-minded creatively, and we also have some conflicting influences and interests that inform our choices. It’s that combination of having enough to agree on to keep at it and enough to disagree on to keep it interesting. We challenge each other, and we always want to impress the other person. She has great taste, and I don’t write a word anymore without hoping she’ll think it’s a good one. It also probably helps that we live practically next door to each other and can spend time together and really get each other excited about what we’re doing.
In the next couple of months, we have two more short stories on the way. We did a comic book story for the otherwise prose crime anthology, Portland Noir, published by Akashic Books. We also did half of Madman Atomic Comics #15, we were invited by Mike Allred to do a story, which is a rare honor. It’s the tale of the biggest Atomics groupie and what she goes through when her idol becomes a zombie robot.
Other than that, I wrote a script for her a while ago that is a stand-alone thing, an adult relationship book, that I hope we can do someday, and she’s also involved in my next prose novel, providing some material for it. Oni is publishing a book we created early next year, a book called Spell Checkers that I wrote based on some characters of hers, and though Nicolas Hitori de is going to draw the bulk of the book, Joëlle is doing flashbacks, kind of like how Jen Van Meter’s Hopeless Savages was put together.
And more Antonio Mercer if they’ll let us.