Who better to catch a villain but a person who has some darkness of his own?
In the upcoming graphic novel Black of Heart, Detective Drake Harper is hot on the trail of a serial killer while also dealing with some skeletons in his own closet. Set in 1940s New York City, Black of Heart uses black & white storytelling with a splash of color a la Sin City and early Casanova to give a new take on the noir vibe.
As the final hours for the book’s now-successful Kickstarter get underway, Newsarama spoke with writer Chris Charlton about his and artist David Hollenbach’s book, which is due out in September.
Newsarama: Chris, what is Black of Heart about?
Chris Charlton: Black of Heart is the story of a detective whose personal life is in shambles, and the killer he’s trying desperately to stop. Opposite reflections of each other in some ways. I would describe it as a noir horror/thriller with some great twists and turns. Sin City meets Silence of the Lambs is a great elevator pitch for the story. One of my favorite aspects of the series is that is starts in black and white with splashes of primary colors and evolves into a larger palette as the story unfolds, building up to the big, full color finale. Subconsciously, the color itself is like a character in the book building tension and I think it’s a very unique feature when layered over David’s mixed media art style. There are a lot of big set pieces, and the book has a very sweeping, cinematic feel to it.
Nrama: And just who is Detective Drake Harper?
Charlton: Drake is a man living in the shadow of his father, who was also a cop that was injured in the line of duty. While chasing a crook over a high rooftop, Drake's father came up short jumping a ledge, holding on briefly before ultimately falling and ending up confined to a wheelchair. Part of the reason his life is falling to pieces is his drive to follow in his father's footsteps, seeking his approval, which ultimately he never received and it's haunted him his entire life. His marriage is a wreck, he's an alcoholic, and thanks to the killer terrorizing New York City, a workaholic as well. He focuses and obsesses over the case and it just starts to break him. With each big piece taken away from him, we flashback to his father hanging onto that ledge - slowly losing his grip. It serves as a very powerful image and really helps to wrap the reader in Drake's drama until he can't hold on anymore.
Nrama: And what about the murderer, the Vulture? How much is known about him, and why is he/she hard to capture?
Charlton: Beyond the fact that he abducts women who are alone, tortures them over an extended period of time, removes one eye and dumps them in an alley, the police and Drake know very little about the killer. The press dubbed him "The Vulture" due to the condition of the body when the victims are found. They say he picks them apart. The key here is that the crimes and abductions are so random, they become impossible to trace without an eye witness.
Nrama: This is set in the late 1940s, New York City. Can you tell us how the setting and time period effect the story?
Charlton: The city and the time period are essential to the authentic feel of the story. Combine those elements with David's artwork and you have something really special that grabs you and pulls you in with these characters. As a big history buff, I was also looking for ways to tie in reality and some actual history with the fiction of Black of Heart. A great example of that is the car chase scene in Chapter Two that leads to an explosion in the Holland Tunnel (which runs under the Hudson River), that happened in May of 1949. Things like that are really exciting to me and fun to play with. The rules are very different versus writing something in a more modern setting and I think it lends a great edge and the perfect backdrop for a gritty noir story.
Nrama: How different were criminal investigations in 1949 compared to now?
Charlton: This was a time when forensics and CSI were basically nonexistent. It was nearly impossible to trace someone without an eye witness or a clear motive during that period. Thinking about killers like David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), even in the 70's, the random nature of his crimes made the case unworkable. In fact, the circumstances of his arrest were a bit of a fluke and I had to do my research to see what exactly I had to work with in that post-war era. The more I learned about the history, the more respect I had for where we are today and that's one of the things I love about writing. Digging in and learning as much as I can about whatever subject I'm focused on.
Nrama: The Kickstarter just reached its funding goal, but people always wonder what the money actually pays for given some disappointments there in the past. What is the $8,000 paying for?
Charlton: The bulk is for printing and shipping the Black of Heart hardcover, but we’ll use it to produce some of the other items we’ve offered as well; shirts, mugs, bottle stoppers, vases and prints. The hardcover contains the original 5 issues of Black of Heart slightly remastered as well as a brand new 7-page epilogue, a pinup gallery featuring all new never-before-seen artwork, and the previously mentioned foreword written by Mark Kidwell (creator of the Image Comics series ’68). All of this adds up to a 180-page package printed in full-color.
Nrama: This was previously published in single issues, so the story is already written and done – and the Kickstarter just reached its funding. What are you working on next, then?
Charlton: I just finished up a 12 issue arc of an off-beat super hero story called Binary Gray. David Hollenbach, the artist for Black of Heart, did all of the cover art for that series and there are some cool "making-of" extras of David's process in the trades (which are available as a reward on our Kickstarter). I have a short with artist Gavin Smith in the 10th Anniversary Special for '68, from Image that I'm very excited about. We did some very cool stuff there structurally and I'm anxious to see the response from readers.
The author of '68, Mark Kidwell, actually wrote the foreword for the Black of Heart hardcover and it was great to be able to play in his world for a bit. Unfortunately, I can't divulge too much about the new series I'm writing, but hopefully that will change soon!
Nrama: Since you just passed your $8,000 goal, what are the stretch goals you’re going for?
Charlton: Our first stretch goal is to add some fanciness to the cover design, which we all love. It was designed with spot varnishes and foil stamping in mind and if we can reach $9000, it’s on. If we are fortunate enough to go beyond that, we’re going to release smaller incremental stretch goals. At $10,000, we’ll include bookmarks and we’ll add small ones on-the-fly as needed.
Nrama: Speaking of David, how did you two connect to do Black of Heart in the first place?
Charlton: I saw David's work in an anthology book called Fragment through our mutual friend Matt Dicke, and just fell in love with his style. We started working on Binary Gray, as I mentioned before and it just came together so well that I knew I wanted to continue working with him. After that we did a five page sequential story in an anthology book called Sleepless and I was just blown away. When I came up with the premise of Black of Heart, I knew he'd be a great fit and really bring the edge and creepy factor I was going for to the story, but I also knew it was the largest sequential project he'd tackled so I wasn't sure if he'd be on board.
Luckily, after discussing the story, he really liked it and understood what I was going for and we made it happen. It's his unique art style that has really helped Black of Heart generate a lot of excitement and given it a life of its own. Each panel is really a work of art.
Nrama: With the Kickstarter successful, the next step begins in getting it printed – and you’ve partnered with Narrier to help in fulfillment and also sell it outside Kickstarter channels. How are they helping, exactly?
Charlton: For the last few years, I've been self-publishing passion projects through Assailant Comics, including Black of Heart. As I've started to branch out a bit, my desire to write more and worry less about the business side of the industry left me with a bit of a gap and Narrier has stepped up in a big way to help fill that gap with Black of Heart. They're releasing the hardcover collected edition and they have a reach (in terms of conventions and audience) that extends far beyond mine, which was a perfect fit.
I know their Co-Owner, Eric Adams and how great he is with business and marketing. I trust him with all of this and I'm excited to see them run with it. Essentially, they're putting the book together, distributing it both physically and digitally and working that end of it while I focus on creating. It's a win-win and it's been a great experience working with Narrier on this project.
Nrama: Now that Black of Heart is done, what do you now see as the themes in what you and David have done?
Charlton: Beyond the noir and horror aspects to Black of Heart, ultimately you have a story about a man who is crumbling emotionally at a time when it wasn't really socially acceptable for men to show that side of themselves. As I mentioned before, wading in the background of all of this is his relationship with his father. How that formed who he is, his realizations surrounding that and maybe even a reluctance to accept it. I think we all examine the relationships we have with our parents at one point or another and it's a very sensitive subject to focus in on. Particularly, (in the example of Drake), when so many other things in your life are falling apart. A lot of this book is about dealing with the fear of loss and the decisions we make based on that fear. One thing I can tell you is that I don't think the book would have been as successful if was strictly a police procedural set in 1949. There are layers upon layers that drive this home and I'm sincerely proud of the work that we've done here.