After years of doing various works for publishers big and small as an artist, Louisiana native Kody Chamberlain is cutting his teeth on the writing side of things for his debut Image Comics work. Sweets, which debuted this past week, is a five-issue series following New Orleans police detective Curt Delatte on the trail of serial killer just days before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. The detective is in no condition to work – in addition to worrying about the impending storm, he just recently buried his only daughter. But duty calls, and Delatte picks up the slack to find the killer before someone else is killed – by the killer or the coming storm.
Chamberlain is a familiar face in comics, having illustrated series such as 30 Days of Night: Bloodsucker Tales, newuniversal: 1959, Tag, the cult favorite Punks and the recent series Luke McBain. Although he’s created the plot for two series in the past, he’s left the actual scripting up to others until now. With 6 years of comics work under his belt, Sweets is a defining moment for this entrepreneurial artist as he comes into his own.
Newsarama: What can you tell us about the killing spree that sets off this series, Kody?
Kody Chamberlain: Murder in New Orleans isn't unusual, but after a single clue ties this series of murders together, we learn that one of the victims happens to be a friend of the Mayor. That pushes the Lieutenant in charge to scrape up as much manpower as possible to get this thing solved, that includes Detective Curt Delatte. He's been on personal leave after the sudden death of his daughter and he's in bad shape. In fact, he probably shouldn't be working at all but the pressure is on from the brass so he's got to put on his game face and jump in with both feet.
Nrama: Det. Curt Delatte is at the center of all this, whether he likes it or not. He’s still reeling from his daughter dying in a hit-and-run. Can you tell us about where Curt Delatte's head is right now, and why he wants to pick back up the badge when smarter men might head for higher ground?
Chamberlain: Curt's identity is completely tied to what he does for a living and it defines him as a man, but now he's beginning to understand the consequences of that. He's pushed his family away and the job is all he's got left. That's not healthy and it's all starting to come apart. Our story picks up a few weeks after his daughter's death, so Curt's been away from the job and he's been reflecting on all this. Now there's a major storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico and Curt realizes that the evidence and the witnesses for this case are at risk. There's also the real possibility that his city will be washed away in the storm. He's dealing with a lot of stress here, and it's coming at him from all directions. I think that makes an interesting entry point for a detective story.
Nrama: Is Curt doing this alone, or does he have another cops riding with?
Chamberlain: Curt's partner and best friend is Detective Jeff Matthews. Curt and Jeff work well together and they've earned a solid reputation for breaking major cases. It's been a lot of fun writing these guys. I wish I had more than 22 pages per issue because these guys seem to write their own dialogue, my job seems to be editing out what doesn't belong in the story.
Nrama: Where'd the title Sweets come from, and what does it mean to the story?
Chamberlain: I made a conscious effort to work in a lot of what I love about south Louisiana into this story, squeezing in background details as often as I can. Pecan Pralines are a traditional Louisiana candy we've always made at home from scratch, and at some point they found their way into the story and became tied to a plot point. I decided to show the recipe in the first few pages of the comic during one of the character introductions and that's when I started playing with the idea in the title and it just sort of stuck. I think it's an interesting juxtaposition, something sweet against the dark and gritty storyline. There's also a playfulness in the dialogue and some quirky characters. I wanted to make sure the title reflected that. No one wants to read a story that's all doom and gloom.
There's a lighter side to the story and I wanted to imply in the title.
Nrama: How did the idea for Sweets come about?
Chamberlain: Some of the ideas were jotted into my note books years ago but there was no real structure or direction. These pieces rolled around in my head and connected with each other to form more complete scenes, so I started jotting them down on index cards. I took all these cards and pinned them up to my giant cork wall and that's when I really saw the story for the first time. I started moving cards around, removing things that didn't work, and filling in the missing pieces. It’s an amazing feeling when the story takes shape on that wall. After a few months of work, I had the bulk of it figured out.
Nrama: As a Louisiana native, you know the landscape of the low country better than almost anyone in comics. And after Katrina we've seen many people tell tales of the area, both fiction and non-fiction. What do you think of how the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has given the area a bittersweet gift of now being a popular place to set stories?
Chamberlain: What's interesting is I was already passing around the first draft of my script before Katrina hit, it was actually in 2003 around the time of Comic-Con in San Diego, and just before I started working with Steve Niles on 30 Days of Night. My script wasn't very good at the time, there was just something missing. It didn't have the drama and the tension I needed it to have and it didn't feel real or important enough. I didn't want to risk putting out a bad comic, so I put the script away to focus on drawing and I would take it out now and then to try and tweak it. I'm in Lafayette, Louisiana, about two hours west of New Orleans, and when Katrina hit New Orleans and Mississippi, we had about two weeks before we were hit by Hurricane Rita, so it was a very quick one-two punch. Rita was the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. It didn't get the media attention Katrina got, so many people may be unaware it ever happened. Parts of Cameron Parish were completely washed out to sea by a 12 foot storm surge leaving nothing behind. My wife's office was in Vermilion Parish at the time of the storm and it was under 6 or 7 feet of water. Thankfully our home is in Lafayette Parish, north of Cameron and Vermilion, so we only got some flooding, downed trees, and power outages.
But with that kind of chaos from Rita, Katrina wasn't something we were focused on. But there's no doubt Katrina and Rita were a tough blow for everyone in the gulf coast. Getting two hurricanes at once was a real kick in the balls.
Once we got back on our feet, I started thinking about Sweets again and it was pretty obvious I had to address the storm somehow. You can't really ignore it if you're setting your story in New Orleans. Everyone sees the aftermath of a hurricane and that's probably the obvious place to set a story, but I've lived through several major hurricanes already and I know that an approaching storm that fills the entire Gulf of Mexico makes for a highly stressful situation. You're facing a ticking time bomb and every decision you make is important. The concept of using that 'ticking time bomb' in context with my murder mystery was the puzzle piece I was missing and it snapped into place instantly. But the readers have the advantage here, the approaching devastation gives them a bit of insight the characters don't have. The characters don't know what's coming, but the readers do. I hope to use that to my advantage.
As for Katrina inspiring people to set more stories in New Orleans, I think that's great. New Orleans is a fantastic town, and South Louisiana in general is rich with an amazing blend of cultures, food, music, art, dialect, etc. Unfortunately there's an unhealthy dose of cliché that finds its way into these stories, false concepts of New Orleans and South Louisiana that have somehow become 'common knowledge' with writers. Apparently we all talk with a twang, and everyone is a Cajun, even if your ancestors weren't kicked out of Canada. We laugh it off because it's all seems unintentionally comical, but it'd be great if writers did a better job understanding the people they're writing about. I thought David Simon and Eric Overmyer did a great job with Tremé. That's a small slice of Louisiana, but they understood the differences between Cajun, French, and Creole, and most of his Cajuns were visiting musicians from Acadiana.
There were a million little cultural things they got right like eating red beans on Monday and the fact that music is more than just entertainment, it's ingrained culturally in a way you won't find anywhere else in the world.
Nrama: A couple months back you did a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for this book, which is a common thing in recent months but you were one of the first to do it for a print book. Can you tell us about that experience, and what you've done with the money raised with the donations?
Chamberlain: I learned about Kickstarter early on because I'm a fan of tech junkie Jason Calacanis' and he had mentioned it a few times on his podcast or webcast, can't remember which, but I poked around on the site and I was impressed with some of the early projects seeking funding. Some quality projects were being pitched right from the start, so I bookmarked the site with the idea that I might use it when Sweets was ready to go. I contacted a few people that had used Kickstarter or a similar service to pick their brains about what worked and what didn't work, and that helped pave the way for my own Kickstarter project. Unlike many comic projects currently on Kickstarter, I didn't need to generate funds to 'publish' the book. I was already set up with Image Comics to publish. But there is no page rate or income with Image Comics, the profits (if any) are on the back end if the book sells well enough to generate profits. So I used Kickstarter to help cover promotional costs. It's helped pay for things like advertising, convention costs, banners, posters, preview books, printing, shipping, etc. Having done Punks in the past as a creator owned comic with Joshua Fialkov, I knew I needed more than just press releases to get the word out. The Kickstarter funds have been a huge help already and with Comic-Con sneaking up on me, I'm very glad I did it.
Nrama: Although this is billed as the first comic you've written yourself, I remember you plotting some other stories - like the underrated series The Foundation from Boom! a couple years ago. Can you tell us what brought you to this point to write your own comics?
Chamberlain: I've been writing longer than I've been drawing, actually. I just didn't think the quality of my writing was good enough so I focused on drawing while I worked my ass off to increase my skills as a writer. I've been sending stuff around to a few friends that work as professional writers in comics, films, and novels to get critiques and advice. I've also learned a lot by working with talented writers like Steve Niles, Joshua Fialkov, Keith Giffen, Stefan Petrucha, Jonathan Hickman, and David Tischman. I enjoy the learning process and I hope to keep writing more of my own comics, but I also enjoy collaborating with writers, so I imagine I'll be doing a lot of both in coming years.
Nrama: I've seen you jump back and forth between very different styles --- if someone put Punks next to Luke McBain they wouldn't know it's the same artist if you name wasn't on it. Can you tell us about your diversity of style and what goes into deciding what the project you have on your table at the time will look like?
Chamberlain: When I started drawing in high school and my early years of college, I had more influences than I could comprehend but I didn’t have any particular direction figured out. I didn't read comics as a kid, but I did have a few Mad Magazines laying around, so my earliest drawings were mostly just copies of guys like Sergio Aragonés and Mort Drucker. I quickly got interested in Frank Frazetta, M.C. Escher, Robert McGinnis, and many of the artists I studied in college like Rubens, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Bernini. I wasn't able to do that kind of work, but I was inspired by it. It made me want to keep learning and I was only drawing because I enjoyed drawing, I hadn’t even considered it as a career yet. At the time, I was still thinking I might go into engineering or music. So my earliest sketchbooks have strange little cartoons, life drawings, portraits, invention ideas, and even some caricatures of teachers. It’s all poorly drawn, but looking back, I can see that I never really had a natural style the way some artists do. I was doing semi-realistic portraits and Mad Magazine-type cartoons all on the same page.
I eventually got my degree in graphic design and advertising, and that required me to be very diverse as a visual artist. I had all sorts of clients and that required lots of different styles. Form follows function.
So for me, style has always been more of a conscious decision than a natural way of doing things. The style is chosen based on what the story requires. But honestly, I do enjoy the rougher, grittier styles more than the rest. Punks and Luke McBain both have a grittier look about them, although I am able to work in slicker superhero-type styles. Seeing the hand of the artist has always been more interesting to me than something perfect and polished, so I tend to shy away from that.
I typically start a project by reading scripts our outlines and I try to get a feel for what 'look' might work with the kind of story being told. For Luke McBain, David Tischman mentioned he was inspired by some of the exploitation films from the 70's, films like Billy Jack and Walking Tall, so I tapped into that and tried to pull ideas from it and incorporate it into the artwork. Punks was inspired by the punk rock flyers that were cut, stapled, glued, and photocopied. They were reproduced over and over from older flyers, degrading a little more each time. For Sweets, there's a certain look New Orleans has when you study the city. The constant humidity, flooding, and pounding winds have taken their on the city and that's left a unique visual impression. The home slump in their foundations, boards are blown away and replaced, or warped over time, wrought iron balconies are bent and hammered back into shape, many layers of paint crack and peel, and the colors are faded and dull. That's the look that inspired the art in Sweets.