Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Q&A with San Hannibal creators Dan Schkade, Jesse Snavlin and PJ Perez

This week I got to throw some questions at the people responsible for San Hannibal! They gave me some amazing insight into this story. Read on to hear from Dan Schkade, Jesse Snavlin and PJ Perez. 

The Frog Queen: How did you come up with the plot for San Hannibal and how did you begin to develop the personality of Private Investigator Avery?

DAN: San Hannibal is meant to be a love/hate letter to the early 20th century Pulps. I love the lingo and the mystery and the weird optimism that permeates the genre, but oh there is so much to hate. Even the best of it is just riddled with cavities. A lot of hay is made over historical context and shifting levels of social awareness and such and such qualifications, but none of that makes all the blatant misogyny and wild, wild racism any less vile. It's not about political correctness; it's about this us-and-them strain of might makes right that takes the beautiful concept of the lone flatfoot out to uncover the truth and turns it ugly. It's infected everything that came after it, which, not for nothing, is basically the whole of American comics books.

So instead of Philip Marlowe, we have Ira Avery, the non-violent private eye. He does not carry a gun, never throws a punch, and quit smoking years ago. What he does, for a modest fee, is find people who've gone missing. I wanted to create in him this purely observational detective, whose only interests are solving the case, staying alive, and paying his bills -- in that order. He's actually sort of an unpleasant person, because he's always taking things apart in his mind. You'll be talking to him and he's just looking past you, adding you up. It's what makes him mean, lonely, and, hey, a great detective. That seemed like a very 21st century kind of being to throw into a churning vat of 20th century tropes and homages. Hope you survive the experience, right?

JESSE: Dan has neglected to mention that he's always eating in exchange for the cigarettes. One thing you notice in the pulps is that the men don't eat; they never, ever eat. Certainly they don't eat something so incredibly messy and simple. Almost no one ever eats, they never use the restroom, they never really do much of any human and tangible and mundane task. Avery's seen in every issue doing at minimum one of these things.

The Frog Queen: How do you feel about the reception received by the first release?

DAN: Indescribably flattered. We're a pack of nobodies and there were copies of our book on the shelves at Mile High Comics and Forbidden Planet. So thrilling. And not just for selfish reasons, either. It's thrilling to see so many people try -- and like! -- a fresh, locally-grown book like this. It's totally the dream.

JESSE: I had a friend text me after he read it, an industry friend, saying it's the best first issue he's read in so very long, and I almost cried from joy. I'm really, really proud of Dan.
...but really, the work is phenomenal. Why wouldn't it be successful? the climate in comics right now is ripe for the super tinies to go out there and say "hey world we've got good stuff." Bendis, someone who's mentored both Dan and I in our growing as writers and comickers, said, "if you want to be in comics, you just gotta go make a comic," and insisted that a "good story, well told" would be all you needed. I really believe that. Not in the false-hood, "if you work hard you'll be rich" sort of way, I mean, right there I just admitted a bit of industry privilege... we've been making friends, and that helps... but, it's still really hard to do even with friends, and that's the strength of the series. 

On a personal note, I was really simultaneously scared and elated every time my name showed up in a review. The first issues lettering is weak as fuck, mostly because I've taught myself lettering over the past 2 years and sort of got thrown in on a last minute deadline to do this stuff, and was waiting for peeps to say, "man, is she incompetent." well, I think most people don't realize I'm a lady but now they do, maybe. Anyway, they have not said she is incompetent yet! Letterers mostly hope you never mention them because that means they did a good job...

The Frog Queen : Are there any plans to release a trade after the series is finished?

DAN: Yeah! We're already doing some preliminary design work for it. It'll be coming out through Pop! Goes The Icon as well, which I'm pleased about. Their trades are very rugged, and they look great on a shelf. We're looking at a 2015 release for that, I believe, unless PGTI publisher Pj Perez sees this on its way back over to you and corrects me.

PJ: Ha! We definitely would love to see San Hannibal do well enough to warrant a trade collection. The nature of the story lends itself to a proper graphic novel treatment, and that is most certainly our goal.

The Frog Queen: Traven gave me flashbacks of V for Vandetta although, I get the impression he is a character to be feared. What can you tell me about this character without giving too much of the story away?

DAN: Traven is actually the first element of the story I thought up. Like Avery, he's a direct analogue for a major pulp character, with a 21st century update. I'm totally giving myself too much credit, but I feel like there's a cool moment of 'oh, THAT'S who that's supposed to be,' so I won't say too much else about it until folks get a chance to see for themselves. But you're right on both accounts; I can see the V connection, since both characters draw from the same place. And good, bad, or other, if he doesn't scare you a little by the end of the series, I need to get better at my job.

The Frog Queen: Why neon-noir? Can you explain this genre description?

DAN: It started as just a neat alliterative catch phrase, but I've come to love it. "Neo-noir" so often is this desaturated morally ambiguous dragfest, while I wanted to do something what packed that same energy I felt when I was reading those old pulps. Original San Han artist JD Faith came up with the neon secondary tones, and we've just ran with it with the other issues. It's exciting, it's buzzing, it's bright enough so you can see it in afterimages after your eyes are closed. Neon Noir! It's stuck, and I'm pretty okay with that.

The Frog Queen: How did you choose the color tones for issues? Is there any significance in the choice of blue for issue 2?

DAN: What began as a reticence to do a hundred and ten pages all in neon pink has evolved into a cool color progression. I'll let Jess talk more about it, but I think it's really exciting. San Hannibal looks different from what's next to, above, and across from it on the new issue shelves.

JESSE: THIS ANSWER IS GOING TO BE VERY LONG. I'm a nobody who never gets asked about her process, and when I told Ibrahim Moustafa (who's doing our third issue cover, that Eisner-nominated super-nice badass) about the color choices he seemed to like it, so you know. Maybe you will too.
Well! When San Han was picked up by Pop!, we approached JD to return for the following issues, but he had to go and be all Just Another Sheep and Virgil and stuff. PFT. (I kid, I kid.) I do the colors and lettering for all of our other work at TCB, as well as the hefty share of the writing and editorial direction, so it was a natural transition to just have me sort of step into the role. The thing is, I didn't really buy JD's use of pink as much as everyone else did... no no no don't take this as a criticism, but whenever you pick up a project in the middle you have to make it your own and think through the decisions people have made before you and understand the project as if you started it yourself, and to be honest, I was always lurking in the background helping get this thing off the ground. It's what happens when you meet somebody while they're in their publishing masters and you're a writer, I guess? (ha!) It was only natural that I ended up being a bit bullheaded and poking Dan about what he was doing with this stuff.

The pink was really, really cool, but it was hypothetically supposed to be the whole damn thing, so far as I was told. That's not only overwhelming, it's MEANINGLESS. Pulp is a lot of fluffernutter but it's definitely a deliberate activity: everything from the type of hat a detective wears to the strange it's never not night lighting in a film are orchestrated to provide mood, tone, message, theme. When the choice of pink came about, and this became a neon-noir, then it also became a message of it never being *real.* Pure CMYK is a digital creation, you realize. Pure pink, pure cyan, pure yellow. These don't exist in nature: not the way we digitally recreate it. Even with physical paints you can't actually create those colors. You can get damn close, but our eyes and the nature of natural imperfection are always going to eff that vision up.
If things aren't real then things aren't real, and I think the job of a colorist is to always provide a grounding point, a signal that this is a complete identity. If you're not telling a story with your color you're really just hitting up a coloring book. I've gone out of my way to seek tutelage, even (painting color wheels and other basics) to get to a point where color becomes part of my intellectual understanding, and so why would I settle, and let alone, why should anyone in the digital age when color is so easy to control and actualize, settle for something that lacks deliberateness?

I went to CMYK because of my background as a designer, and because JD did pick basically the "M" of a CMYK setting. As Avery travels through the story, there is an increasingly dire and paranormal bend to what is actually objective reality. It's a sex trafficking story at heart (sorry, spoilers, kind of) and this awful reality is going on around us all the time. Literally all the time. You have known at least one woman who has ended up being trafficked or has a family member who has been trafficked if you live in our home state of Oregon, and the youngest sex trafficking victim in Oregon they've found was 9 years old. Most sex trafficking victims die by 24. And this is a heinously common and easily witnessed thing, and it's ignored, and in fact somewhat encouraged by the rampant depictions of sex workers as happy, satisfied people on the whole and/or demonized sexualized monsters. (I want to be clear that sex workers are fine in choosing their professions, but that we encourage a lack of understanding of the demons of sex trafficking when we only focus on sex workers and their absolutely valid choice of profession as such or as "sluts and criminals." without a middle ground of contextualization, the sex traffickers get to go free.) Case in point on contextualization, and the willingness to condemn Johns to some extent, as the truth is sex trafficking and all its ills can be stemmed by policing Johns, as we see in Sweden (going off the rails, okay, back to contextualization...): The only pop culture thing in any point recently to talk at all about Johns and the complex legalization/sex trafficking conundrum in our country with any sort of understanding and compassion—outside of "Paying For It" which though complex and multifaceted is a diary of a John and if there's anything that contributes more to sex trafficking than rape culture it's Johns—is Bates Motel, of all ironies, and the audience was damn well BLOWN OUT THEIR GOARD to realize that was what reality could be and is. And they still thought it exaggerated, when it was entirely underplayed.

The fact that this story deals so much with actual reality encompassed in a fictional color, in a fictional genre, in a fictional, distanced, exaggerated way made me want to start peeling back the facade of this brightly pop-colored sugar-world as Avery gets closer and closer to our real destruction, our real devouring of young women and girls in this ultimately sex-shaming, sex-abusing, and sex-dominated culture. The series begins to become more and more populated by color until objectivity is reached, where, you'll see in issue 5, the color indicates where your truth and your lies lie. To me, since the series itself centers so much on discussing the ignored truths of our world as well as the accepted, excused truths of this beloved (and reviving) genre, I wanted to deliberately work towards highlighting that gross misconception of reality, that willingness to find the easiest and least true explanation, and the absolute bravery of Avery to step into truth without any of the natural trappings of our typical heroes.

And really, the bravest characters aren't Avery at all, but Savannah Loy and Diane Thrax, but that's all another day and not really my world to talk about.

Anyway, as for the individual issues, the second issue focuses intensely on isolation and coldness; there's a character named Swimmer, and he opens the issue, water, deep and underground; the moon and the mystery, so C. The third is about gold and money and glitz and the eery fakeness of a brightly shining spotlight, so yellow, naturally. The fourth is about history and depth and shades of meaning, so your K belongs there. And the fifth... well, it's when it all comes together.

I hope this didn't come off as pompous or too exaggerated or too self-important. I have just been thinking about this a lot-lot-lot. And also think that this work is really quite phenomenal, and personally, I am not surprised at how well it's taken off. When a genre is being revived and it mostly relies on old racist and sexist tropes in a new and modern and changing world... I wouldn't expect any other way but for those who need it to go and find the truth.

San Hannibal #2 is available for $2.99, and can be pre-ordered now with Diamond code APR141326. To find a comic store near you, call 1-800-COMIC-BOOK or visit comicshoplocator.com.