You’ve heard it before: “This book isn’t like anything else out there.”
Well, this time it’s true.
Archaia’s Return of the Dapper Men, which comes out this week, is one of the year’s most unique graphic novels – something that doesn’t look or read like any other comic you’ve seen this year…or maybe ever. This “steampunk fairy tale,” set in a world of frozen time and extraordinary characters, has already earned such buzz as “a modern classic” from reviews, and even gotten fashion icon Tim Gunn from Project Runway to pen the introduction.
So who are the Dapper Men? To find out, we talked to writer Jim McCann (Hawkeye and Mockingbird) and artist Janet Lee (http://www.j-k-lee.com/), for a three-part interview that takes you deep into the world of the Dapper Men and their friends. McCann and Lee’s enthusiasm for their work is infectious – and they were more than happy to talk about the origins of the story, Lee’s incredibly elaborate art style, and much, much more...
Newsarama: Jim, to clarify – there was not a previous book called “The Dapper Men.”
Jim McCann: No! (laughs) The title was something we went around and around on – do we go ahead and say this is “The Dapper Chronicles, Book One?” But honestly, the return of the Dapper Men is the most important part of this story, their return to this world.And while this might be confusing to the readers, it’s also confusing to the characters within the story, because they themselves didn’t know about the existence of the Dapper Men, and they shouldn’t have. And that all ties in with the book itself.
Janet Lee: And I think it was purposeful, to an extent, because it’s the return that gives the book a sense of history, because they were there before.
Nrama: So what’s the basic story, in your own words?
McCann: Well, it’s a fairy tale at heart, in the sense of classic fairy tales like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and all the things that inspired us growing up like Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, in that you can read things into it that work on two different levels, one that kids will get, and one that adults will get. And that’s why it’s “all-ages” – it’s for adults, and for kids.
The story is of a land where time has stopped. Everything has stayed at the same time for as long as anyone can remember. There are no adults, just kids, and no one has ever told the kids to go to bed, so they haven’t grown up.
The kids have started to retreat underground, and become part of the earth, which is mostly made up of gears. So they’ve become a bit more steampunk-y and wild, like wild children. And then there are also robots and machines in this world, and they have taken up residence aboveground, and are starting to look more and more human, using clock faces to try to appear more human and organic.
Basically, this is a world that has stagnated – not just in time, but in what it was supposed to do, and supposed to be. And there are two people – a robot girl and a young boy – that are friends, Ayden and Zoe. And they both feel something is off, but they can’t quite put their fingers on it.
And suddenly, everyone hears a sound that no one in this world can remember hearing before, which is a tick, and a tock, and a tick. And as time goes from 3:14 to 3:15, everyone looks up, and they see these 314 identical Dapper Men rain down from the sky, and then they set off in all different directions to set the world right.Our two main characters meet up with one of the Dapper Men, the only one who seems to talk or really have any expression or anything, and he’s a very enigmatic character, one of my favorites to write –
Lee: And draw.
McCann: -- And he leads the kids through the rest of the day, from 3:15 until time to go to bed. And it really taps into that feeling of anxiety that kids have about growing up, about bedtime, about change, and also that sense that adults have about “What am I doing here? What am I supposed to be doing?” You know, that feeling you get that your life has gone stagnant and you’ve forgotten why you’re here.
Lee: What intrigued me most about the story when Jim sent me his initial thoughts about it was that it dealt with really universal, classic themes that are often dealt with in adult literature, but are almost more fun when they’re in kids’ literature – the sense of destiny, of being able to affect change, maybe being confused about what direction you’re supposed to be going in life, and finding your path and direction and taking responsibility for it – and also that sense of future that fairy tale and kids’ books do so well.
McCann: There’s definitely a sense that things have changed, and a sense of beautification as well, because this is such a polarized world between the human children and the robot machines. While they’re in stagnation, it’s caused this deep rift, this divide within the world over time – or lack of time, anyway.
So there’s this need to bring things back together. It has very timeless themes, but when we talk to people, they say, “Oh, it’s very similar to this!” or “That’s very timely, because of…” and ascribe it to different political climates or what have you.
Lee: They’re universal themes, themes that are important to a lot of people. I think our elevator pitch to one person was “Dark City with children.”
Nrama: It sounds like kind of a Terry Gilliam story –
Lee: Oh, he’d be great!
McCann: Anyone who can capture the two different sides of this story – there is a dark side to it, but I feel the dark side taps into that inherent feeling of fear and uncertainty that change can bring about. It’s not overtly menacing – we have antagonists who post a threat, and it’s a dangerous one, but the greatest threat is ourselves.
The other thing is that with Janet’s art and our omniscient narrator, as well as our Dapper Man that’s with Ayden and Zoe known only as “41,” there’s still a lot of whimsy there. The Terry Gilliam reference is not a bad comparison.For example, when we see where the kids live, in the script, I wrote, “Just imagine if you started building a pillow fort and a tree house, and no one ever told you to stop, and they merged into this giant structure that the kids live and build and play in all the time.”
And Janet takes all these elements – the world is both organic and mechanical, and she blends that so well that it really does feel like you’re transported to a different place when you see the art and all the different robot types she’s built. And everyone has a unique flair with their dress and costuming and body language.
I have to admit – I get thrilled whenever I see new pages, the way you feel when you see stills from Star Wars and saw the group of bounty hunters. You have no idea who they are, but they look so frickin’ cool!
Lee: The book has, in a way, a cast of thousands. You don’t hear from all of them, but they’re all there! I mean, you have this entire society that’s below ground that’s never grown up, and you have this other society above ground where the robots have adapted.
Jim’s script has been so much fun. There’s one character that’s changing clothes all the time, and that’s been a blast to draw – he’s always got new hats, new clothes, this place where he lives, and it’s so much fun to get to come up with that.
Nrama: How did you crazy kids come together on this book?
Lee: I’ve been doing gallery shows in Nashville for a while, and Jim and I have known each other for about 15 years – in fact, he used to live down the street from me. And then he moved to New York, and we stayed good friends.
And a couple of years ago, he came down for Christmas, and came over to visit. I had just closed down a gallery show that I had done, and one of the pieces I had done was this six-foot-tall homage to Magritte, which was a bunch of men in striped suits and green bowler hats falling from the sky over Parisian rooftops. It was a lot of fun.Jim was really drawn to it – it was a big favorite piece, it was just huge. We looked around a bit, and there were other pieces he liked, including one with a robot girl. I do Christmas ornaments every year for local galleries, and that year I had done a bunch of steampunk scenes, and one was a boy in a military jacket, who wound up becoming one of our protagonists.
Jim took a couple of the pieces home with him, and a couple of months later, I got an email at work, and it had the first lines, the opening sequence for Return of the Dapper Men. And I fell in love – it made me think of Neil Gaiman, it made me think of J.M. Barrie, and I’m just a sucker for nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
A lot of the art I’ve done features homages to classic children’s stories. Many of my favorite artists are children’s book illustrators, and after reading Jim’s story, I wanted to be associated with it.
Good thing he asked me, otherwise I would have gone and hunted him down to get him to let me do it instead! The story had its basis in those art pieces, and it continued to be very collaborative all the way through.
Nrama: Jim, a “chicken or the egg” question – was this an idea you’d had in your head prior to seeing Janet’s art, or did it inspire the initial premise?
McCann: I had just transitioned to part-time at Marvel, and it was only a matter of time before I transitioned into full-time writing. And one of the pieces of advice that I had been given by a number of people was to do something in addition to the work at Marvel – to go out and do a creator-owned book, and make it something I could never do at one of the big publishers.
After the normal thoughts of “What do I do? Do I do a noir book?”…I thought of Janet’s work. I’ve been a longtime fan of her work – in fact, one of her first pieces was of my house in Nashville.
I took the robot girl picture and the Christmas ornament home with me, and I had taken pictures of the six-foot Magritte-inspired painting and…they went together in my head, somehow. I remember Janet was like, “What…?”
Lee: It made total sense when you said it! I had never put anything together myself, of course, but it was fabulous.
McCann: I realized in that moment that what I wanted to do, what I couldn’t do with anyone else, what I didn’t want to do with anyone else but Janet, was a fairy tale. And I knew that she and I were both huge fans of the genre, and of children’s literature.I wanted to do something that could be enjoyed by everyone. I write a spy superhero book, and I have a lot of friends who have kids, and they’re always asking me, “Are there any comics that my kids could read?” And I’d go…”Uh, there’s Marvel Adventures...”
When we started talking about the story, I asked the question, “Why have these Dapper Men returned? What’s brought them back?” So the idea is that time has stopped, and that gave me this “Aha!” moment of the clockwork universe, the world-machine that has to be wound up, makes the Earth start moving, but when we step away, it could grind to a halt.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in the book itself, which fortunately Janet really, really liked the idea of too. (laughs). What you said about a “chicken and the egg” thing – that’s in the book. Did the kids make the robots, or were the robots there first? Nobody knows, because this day that we open up on has been the only day for as long as anyone can remember.
There are a lot of different themes and elements, so I went back and read the original texts of Peter Pan and Through the Looking Glass, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a lot of the turn-of-the-century fairy tales, and a lot of the Grimm’s fairy tales as well. And there are a lot of adult themes, of a lot of more complex themes, happening within those texts vs. what we see in the cartoon versions today.
Lee: Honestly, I think we were just writing for ourselves. (laughs) This is just the type of story that I like to read.
McCann: We’re also very inspired by Jim Henson and Tim Burton, and what would happen if you mashed those two minds together, those two approaches to a world. And then it just kind of went from there.
One of the things about the art inspiring the story – Janet was up here in New York in the early phases of planning this doing character sketches, and I looked over to see this one little girl who had a very specific facial expression. And suddenly I knew that was our human antagonist. I knew her whole story, I knew everything about her, just from that one headshot.
And the same thing happened with our robot antagonist. I knew his name was Fabre, and what role he would serve and what his ultimate goal was, but as soon as I saw his drawing, I knew who he was. And he took on this new aspect, which Janet loves, which is his flair for the dramatic and being a clotheshorse.
So it’s been fun, you know? And that’s what I hope what people get when they read it – that sense of being transported to another place, and having fun with it. I hope people take away a sense of what we’re presenting here, which is a sense of what it is to change, and to have a destiny and to grow up a little bit.
But just knowing that we’ve created this world that hasn’t existed until this book comes out is really kind of exciting. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react to a gallery artist and a guy who’s written superhero books doing something completely different from anything I or anyone else has ever done!
Next at Newsarama: How Return of the Dapper Men was made.