Writer Bryan Hill’s preparation for his racially charged new Vertigo series American Carnage, he interviewed white supremacists and researched the anger and hatred that can push people toward racist ideology.
Working with artist Leandro Fernandez, Hill has created a world where racism and politics intersect, but it’s not set in the stereotypical “red” states. Instead, American Carnage tells the story of FBI agents discovering and infiltrating an organized racist network within Los Angeles, within a “utopian” blue state.
Hill’s been working on The Wild Storm: Michael Cray for DC and had a stint on Detective Comics earlier this year. With American Carnage, he’s joining a handful of other new titles from Vertigo as the imprint tries to find its place within a DC line that has diversified into several other mature and innovative imprints.
American Carnage serves as a crime story within Vertigo’s line-up, but it echoes current political tensions and adopts a term that Donald Trump coined in his inaugural address.
Newsarama talked to Hill and Fernandez to find out more about American Carnage and what readers can expect next from the new Vertigo series.
Newsarama: Bryan, how does it feel to be part of Vertigo’s launch of new titles?
Bryan Hill: Well, it’s a lot of pressure, right? As a kid that grew up reading Vertigo books and being mystified by them — routinely, I would read things, whether it was Jason Aaron’s work on Scalped or obviously Neil Gaiman’s work and Brian Azzarello’s work on 100 Bullets, you know, so on and so forth — I was just awed by what they were able to do on the page.
And I think having that logo on the cover of your book is a statement that what lies within this book is supposed to be a harrowing, visceral, challenging experience. Right?
So my initial feeling, when I was approached by Mark Doyle, Andy Khouri, and Margarita Howell, my editors over at Vertigo, was fear! It’s very early in my big-two comics career, if you call it that, to be doing something like this.
I did share with them the research I had done for what became American Carnage. I didn’t know where that research was going to go.
But yeah, with the success of Border Town and Hex Wives and I’m sure the success of the other books that are part of this line — it’s certainly a great class to be in, and I just hope that I’m not the weakest link.
Nrama: So you did the research first, before you even knew you were doing the comic book. Can you explain that research and how it informed your pitch to Vertigo?
Hill: I was just doing interviews with white supremacists and doing my own personal research and kind of creating a world and characters.
I told the editors, hey, this doesn’t really have too much magical realism in it, but it’s a brutal, kind of true, unflinching crime narrative, if there’s room at the inn for that.
Nrama: It’s certainly a subject a lot of people have been talking about right now.
Hill: While I guess I appreciate the fact that the subject matter is relevant, I’m a little disturbed by how relevant it is these days.
Nrama: That description, “unflinching crime narrative,” fits this really well. Leo, how would you describe the tone you were trying to achieve in American Carnage?
Leandro Fernandez: As this is a realistic crime story, I wanted to support that realism by increasing the dramatic feeling on the page. As I always do in my work, I handle a lot of black in my art, and put an accent on the subtle sensations and tensions we could get from that, rather than adding a lot of details. My intention is to create the right mood for the readers. I prefer them to catch the feeling of the story.
Nrama: Were there any influences in particular to the mood you’re trying to create?
Fernandez: Well, we discussed Michael Mann’s movies and TV series before we started with this. We thought that could be a good visual reference to keep in mind that we all loved, especially the atmosphere from Miami Vice and Heat.
Hill: Normally this type of story would take place in the South or deep American Midwest or something. But I wanted to explore the Californian aspects of the supremacist movement, of crime, of politics, and kind of shake up the myth of the “utopian” blue state.
If you’re doing a crime story, and you’re doing it in California, especially in Los Angeles, I think it’s impossible to not have Michael Mann on the mind. Michael Mann is probably my favorite filmmaker because of the lyrical way he approaches the modern world. He kind of dresses up the modern world as a Western frontier.
So visually, Leo, I told him that I wanted to do some of those things to get that lyricism in there, to get that space in there. I wanted to take an almost Ansel Adams approach to California, to Los Angeles, and see what happens so this can read both as verisimilitude, but it can also read in a mythic way.
I think what Leo and Dean White, the colorist, have done is remarkable. And they’ve done a very good job of doing that — taking the familiar and making it almost epic in scope without using that verisimilitude.
Nrama: Let’s talk about the characters that are featured in the first issue. Richard and Sheila, the two protagonists who kick off the story, are the two characters trying to investigate an extensive, secret white supremacist network in L.A. Are these two characters the focus of the story you’re telling?
Hill: Yeah, their relationship is the core relationship of the book. It’s a handler-agent in the field relationship. It’s that classic narrative dynamic.
So Richard is the Brad Pitt to Sheila’s Robert Redford, if we’re going to use a Tony Scott Spy Game reference.
In more mythical terms, Richard is the Odysseus, who’s on his quest, and Sheila is the Athena that is leading him to it, right? Leading him through that quest.
So their relationship is pretty core in the book.
Sheila is really, in a lot of ways, based on my mother. My mother raised me by herself because my father died when I was very young. And so my mother was a warrior. She had to fight through all the things you have to fight through when you’re trying to raise a young black kid in St. Louis, Missouri, and keep him away from all the things that are trying to destroy him all the time.
I always wanted to do some tribute to her in a work, and this is the first time I could access that part of myself to put into a work.
She’s definitely a character that matters. I think in a lot of ways, she’s the firewall of ethics that we have in this work.
And then Richard, as the fellow in the field, he’s the one who’s on the frying pan. It’s heating up all around them, and she’s there to keep him standing enough and clear enough to accomplish this goal while he’s in that pit of vipers.
Nrama: Leo, that was probably a pretty tall order, drawing a character who serves as a tribute to the author’s mother. How would you describe the way you draw her?
Fernandez: Agent Curry is a strong and mature woman — very clever with a lot of pain and tension in her life, both emotional and physical. And she has a history with Richard from before. There is something there that will be explored, and that’s why she calls him when her partner gets killed.
I approached her look by trying to show all of those aspects, and how a real woman like that might look. Besides all of the things I’ve said, she’s sexy too.
Nrama: How has it been working together on this series?
Fernandez: It has been great. I have to recognize I wasn’t familiar with his work before, but I loved the project from the beginning. Once we started working, everything got better and better.
Many times, when I start a new project, I can say I like the idea, the plot, or the potential it has. But I can’t really say how I feel about it until I’m already working on it. Now I feel like I can say everything is turning out better than I expected. The story is great and it grows in complexity and drama as we move forward. It’s unpredictable! And Bryan is so professional, so talented… I feel honored to be working with him. I can’t wait to read what’s going to happen on the next issue, each time I finish one.
Hill: It’s been great working with Leo. He’s got a really strong desire to tell story. He’s not just a person that wants to just draw what you’ve indicated in the script; he wants to tell the story. And that’s great.
You know, he’ll come at me with some ideas that I think are fantastic, and usually what will happen is, he’ll have a visual idea that will make my words superfluous, so I’ll just get rid of some dialogue or get rid of a caption I was going to use because the art is doing most of the work.
Then when Dean comes in with the colors, it just really comes alive in a really powerful way, I think.
Everyone working on the book wants the book to be a quality experience because none of us wants this to seem like a shallow interpretation of stuff happening in the news. We don’t want to just be like, we want to take advantage of social fears in the book. We want this to be an enduring book, and something that has both a month-to-month quality, but also a literary, keep-it-on-your-shelf-and-pull-it-out-every-now-and-again quality too.
We’re all working very much in synch, and that’s really a credit to Mark Doyle and Andy Khouri for putting all of us together, because I didn’t know anyone going into this process, but they’re very good at being able to kind of read creators and know who people would work with well. And what they’ve been doing on the work is fantastic.
Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell readers about this series?
Hill: I would tell that, obviously up front, you’re going to get some startling ideology, you’re going to get some strong consequential violence, but beyond that, what you might not expect, will be the intimacy of the story and the emotion of the story and hopefully the dimension that this subject matter requires.
So my only goal is that the book be interesting at all times and surprising whenever possible.
Nrama: Leo, anything you want to tell readers?
Fernandez: This project is exactly what I wanted to be working on at this point in my career. After so many forwards and backwards in my career, I feel I’m in a moment where, at last, I’m on the exact project I want to be working on, not only for my style, but the story we are telling.
I grew up reading comic books of different topics, different genres, different character when I was a kid in Argentina. I liked getting a new book and not knowing what to expect, that there was always a surprise in every story. I loved that. And my goal is to give that feeling to the readers. I hope it works!