How do you get six million dollars out of a Cuban casino in the height of the cold war? Very carefully, as the three women of Alex de Campi and Victor Santos' Bad Girls will tell you.
Meet Ana (a mambo queen), Taffy (a jazz singer), and Carole (a gangster's moll) as they come together in a Cuban crime caper set on New Year's Eve 1958 - the same night Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country.
As this Simon & Schuster OGN nears its July 17 release, Newsarama spoke with de Campi and Santos about this rollicking crime noir.
Newsarama: Ocean's Eleven,Ocean's Eight... here its de Campi and Santos' Three. How'd you two come together for Bad Girls?
Victor Santos: Basically Alex came with a serious proposal, she got the publisher and they needed an artist. She sent me a finished draft script. I must confess I usually distrust when a writer sends me something so finished. [Laughs]
If we are talking about creator-owned stuff, I prefer to develop the story with the writer… But I had gone on holiday, with plenty of time for reading, so I read the script, chapter-to-chapter, and I felt under the spell of the characters.
Alex de Campi: I wrote Bad Girls several years ago, completely. I’m an odd one in comics, in that I don’t pitch and then write what lands. I work like a novelist: I write the books I want to write, and then work on finding a home for them. Bad Girls sat for a while without a reliable artist attached. Then when I saw Victor’s work it was like, “yes, this is absolutely it.” And I was lucky enough that he had space in his schedule, and liked the script. Projects are funny. Early in your career - heck, even now - you can get immensely frustrated when they fail to come together. But it’s always for a reason. The project is trying to tell you something, even when you don’t want to listen. And then when it finally does work out, it’s like, of course, it was meant to happen with these people, I just had to wait for them to come around.
Nrama: 1958 Cuba - that's a very tumultuous time. Why here, why then?
Santos: Alex will answer this better … but I can say after drawing crime stories placed in U.S.A. or Europe, the Cuban setting was refreshing. I love the history of the 1950s, the Cold War, that kind of stuff. But the point of view of the people living in Cuba is something you usually don´t see in English-speaking movies or novels. The normal people caught in the middle of this struggle between great foreign Powers.
De Campi: I don’t think I’ve ever told this story before, but the spark that inspired Bad Girls was a bit of Tim Sale art. I think it was OG Nick Fury with a woman or two in a pretty ball gown behind him. And I love Tim’s work, I really do. But I looked at his beautiful rendering of the woman and the pink 1950s ball gown she was wearing and just thought, do we have to have that guy blocking the view? Can we get rid of him and just make it about women in amazing gowns doing bad things? So, y’know, be the change you want to see...
I started looking at time periods to set this nascent heist book in, with an emphasis on the end of colonialism and periods where the dresses were A+. I spent a lot of time as an expatriate in the Far East and in Latin America so I have a sense of how both Americans and British people behave when living in another country. I looked at India during Partition, I looked at Hong Kong and Singapore during the war, I probably should have looked at Cairo during the war too (there are so many stories there)... and I eventually settled on the Cuban Revolution, simply because it involved the foreigners so little.
So, during this time which is so crucial and disruptive to Cubans, you have these expatriates living on top of them and... not really giving a shit. They don’t speak Spanish, they can always leave, and yet in the end they do get caught up in the fallout of the revolution. Cuba was also a society with a lot of class divisions at the time, so that was a challenge to bring out too, how almost removed from it the wealthy were too. Plus, while racism and colorism was and is a big thing, aspects of life in Cuba were more liberal than America at the time. Had Taffy been working on the Sunset Strip, she wouldn’t have been able to eat in the restaurants or gamble on the floor of the casino she was singing in. She can, in Cuba. Also, the more you dig into that time in Cuban history, the more fascinating it is. 90% of the events in Bad Girls actually happened. All the characters are fictitious, but the underlying, revolution-linked events they’re reacting to? All real.
Nrama: Carole, Taffy, Ana - what brings them together besides the money ... or is there anything but the money?
De Campi: Just the money. Ana is a single mom with a grudge against the government; Taffy is a jazz singer / emcee with a lot of gambling debts; and Carole feels emboldened to flee her abusive relationship now that she’s secretly in another relationship. They’re not friends, really. This isn’t a “coming together in crisis means we learn to overlook our differences” book. This is a “we still have significant differences and goals and that’s likely to break us apart at any moment” book. Well, I should amend that - Taffy and Ana are legitimately friends, and share a dressing room. Taffy helps look after Ana’s daughter Leonela when Ana is on stage.
Santos: I think Alex explains really well to the reader what motivates every character. I think they are simply searching for a better life (for them, for their kin or for their country) and sadly money is the way to get it. They have a common target but every character is different, maybe the measurement of this is how far they want to go, what line they will cross or what they will sacrifice. It´s a story of big decisions.
Nrama: What's stopping them from getting away with it? Put a face to who's chasing them for us.
Santos: Mostly men, big powerful big men who lived in Cuba pulling the strings and suddenly they see how their perfect ordered world is breaking down. They don´t react peacefully… The men of this story are different too, we have some mob thugs and bosses, and Carole´s boyfriend, the ruler of the Casino who is a real bastard (even the disgusting characters are funny to draw) or we have a good guy like Sugo, who only wants to help them, a man who acts only for pure love.
De Campi: Carole’s boyfriend “Diamond” Joe Rothman runs El Edén, one of the big Havana casinos, for the American mob. Joe is what in British army lingo you’d call a passed-over major. He’s never going to rise any further in the organization than he already has, and he’s not happy about that. He also may or may not have his hand in the till, and may or may not be about to be caught for it. He loves Carole, in his way, but also knocks her around. (And, as a survivor of an abusive relationship myself, it was really important for me to show their dynamic in a real way.) Joe’s fury, and desire to stop Carole and the girls, isn’t so much about the $6m of casino bribe money the girls take, it’s more about the fact that Carole’s leaving him for somebody else. But yeah, Carole slips up, and instead of getting away clean, the girls end up with the mob on their tail.
Nrama: Victor, you coming to this off of your work on Polar (which is in development as a movie). What do you like about the crime/action/noir genre?
Santos: I've loved crime stories since I read Red Harvest in college. Love the aesthetics of shadows and lights, and gunmen and glamour… They fit really well with the kind of art I want to develop. Polar went in that direction, a styling exercise of all this. And I hope the oncoming movie (its filming just finished) took a similar direction and will show an original story told in its own way.
But at the same time noir and crime are great ways to speak about morals, about good and evil and the grey spaces between, and I think that´s the reason I never feel tired of it, it´s a universal dilemma.
Also, in big markets like U.S.A. they love to give you a label, now I´m a crime artist so it´s fine, I feel comfortable with it and I find it a wonderful place to develop my storytelling obsessions.
Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals with this?
De Campi: I just want to tell a thrilling story about three very specific women during a dangerous time. There is actually a fourth woman in the story - Kitty, a young American wanna-be actress - who spends the book trying to find the New Year’s Eve party Marlon Brando is at. We see the revolution mainly through her extremely ignorant eyes, and that’s deliberate. The Cuban Revolution is absolutely not my story to tell, and the focus here is on the four women. Ana is Cuban, but her identity is not a plot point, if you know what I mean.
Nrama: And lastly - it's easier to travel to Cuba now more than recent decades. Any chance we'll see you to at a Cuban comic convention as part of this book?
De Campi: I would love to! I mean, Americans always travelled to Cuba, you just did this thing where you asked Cuban immigration not to stamp your passport, but stamp a sheet you could tuck into your passport. There was a way around it, and Immigration had those sheets ready for you. But I’ve never been to Cuba, and I’d love to go.
Santos: That would be great. And this time I would have the advantage of the language. [Laughs]