AJ Garney was the wheelman for the mob, but after turning straight it might not be that easy to keep his criminal past in the rearview mirror.
That's the pitch of the upcoming Image Comics' five-part series The Hard Place by writer (and Gaijin Studios alum) Doug Wagner and artist Nic Rummel.
Set in Detroit, The Hard Place takes the common metaphor of "Between a rock and a hard place" and puts it into motion with Russian crime lords, police, and... well, life.
Newsarama caught up with Wagner to talk about The Hard Place and what draws him into the crime genre and what led to him working with newcomer Rummel.
Newsarama: Doug, let's talk about your gravitation towards crime comic books. What is their appeal to you as a writer?
Doug Wagner: Well, here’s the funny thing. I didn’t know I liked writing crime comics until I wrote the first issue of The Ride back in 2004. I mean, I always knew I loved crime stories, but I’d never ventured in that direction before with my writing. Now, I’m in absolute love with them. I think what appeals to me the most is dealing with the hidden underbelly of society. Life, love, and revenge aren’t always black and white. Actually, it’s almost always darker shades of grey.
Being the hero of a crime story is usually just a matter of perspective. Look at stories like John Wick, L.A. Confidential, The Fast and The Furious franchise, almost all of the Marvel superhero TV shows. The main characters are typically walking a very thin line between being one of the “good guys” and an outright criminal. As a matter of fact, you could almost argue that if the story was presented from the other side of the coin, the good guys are the bad guys. I love playing in that headspace.
Nrama: Tell us a little bit about our hero, or anti-hero here, AJ. What's his story in The Hard Place?
Wagner: The Hard Place opens with AJ being released from prison. He used to be Detroit’s best getaway driver, but now he’s not sure he wants that life anymore. He’s not really sure about anything anymore. He’s struggling with who he’s been, who he is at this moment, and who he wants to be. In this series, the universe is going to force him to choose, and the ramifications of that will carry over to every single person he cares about.
Nrama: Did you do any heavy research about the Russian mob when starting The Hard Place so you could avoid clichés with these scenarios?
Wagner: I guess that depends on your definition of “heavy.” I’ve known writers that spent months or even years doing research for a book. For The Hard Place, I spent several weeks reading about the Russian mob, but mostly to get a feel for what types of characters run around in such a world. Nic Rummel, my incredible collaborating artist, did his fair share of research as well, but more from the visual side of things. I guess when I think about it that’s how things are supposed to work. The writer focuses on the characters, and the artist works his magic on the designs.
Nrama: Speaking of artist Nic here, how did the collaboration come out? He has a similar style to former Gaijin studio mate Brian Stelfeeze and Hoyt Silva.
Wagner: It’s funny you bring up Brian, because this is all his fault.
Back when Brian and I were in Gaijin Studios together, he knew I was always looking for uniquely talented artists. One day, he barges into my office - as he usually did - and slaps some art samples on my desk, “Yo, D. You wanna work with this guy.” Then he left as abruptly as he arrived. The sample pages were from Nic, and Brian was right. I did want to work with that guy. I called Nic up and we immediately hit it off. I gave him a choice of a few concepts for us to work on, and he picked The Hard Place.
Nrama: What is AJ's relationship to the big bad here, crime lord Maksim?
Wagner: AJ and Maksim’s son used to be best friends. AJ was the one and only driver Maksim’s son used on any and all jobs. Unfortunately for AJ, the son was killed in the heist gone wrong that sent AJ to prison. Maksim blames AJ, and now that AJ’s out of prison…well, Maksim wants payback.
Nrama: The Hard Place seems to say that AJ is stuck between a rock and this current situation or did it mean something else?
Wagner: You are correct. No subtlety here. AJ is about to embark on an adventure where just about everyone in the city of Detroit wants him dead. The bank robbers who’ve forced him into being their wheelman, Maksim and his Russian assassins, the entirety of the Detroit Police Department, all would like nothing more than for AJ to wind up dead.
Nrama: When he's finally released from prison, does anybody have AJ's back this go around?
Wagner: Absolutely. AJ has his father and his best friend Don on his side. Pops has always supported AJ, even when he probably shouldn’t have. Don has been one of AJ’s best friends since the second grade. However, Don became a police officer out of high school, so even though they’ve stayed friends, there’s always been the separate life paths between them. Don’s hoping that’s over. Pops and Don both love AJ and more importantly believe in him. But looking at the odds AJ is facing, I’m not sure it will make any difference.
Nrama: With the way the first issue ends, will AJ ever really be free?
Wagner: Well, that sounds like you’re trying to trick me into spoilers. [Laughs] Not gonna happen.