What happens when you send a letter to a wrong address without slapping a return label on the envelope? It winds up in the dead letter office, a place in every post office that holds old mail without a home. That concept of the lost and abandoned intrigued “High Crimes” and “Ghost” writer Christopher Sebela to the point where he named his new BOOM! Studios ongoing series drawn by Chris Visions after it.
“Dead Letters” stars Sam Whistler, an amnesiac who wakes up in a hotel room he doesn’t recognize wearing hospital scrubs. As if that weren’t bad enough, his arms are bandaged, some very angry people are banging down his door and the threats to his person might be preternatural.
With next to nothing to go on, Max does his best to avoid his pursuers, figure out what’s going on with him and understand why the city he’s in looks so familiar — but can’t quite be placed. “Dead Letters” blends the worlds of noir and the supernatural in a story about remembering who you really are and what that means when everything you know is gone.
CBR News talked exclusively to Sebela about “Dead Letters,” the influence of mail on his new book, how various noir conventions play into his stories and why Visions is the best artist for the job.
CBR News: Dead letters are ones that can’t be delivered to a person because the address is bad and there’s no return address. How does that play into the story?
Christopher Sebela: I have to apologize for being extra elusive in my answers, but we kind of want the first issue to unfold naturally for everyone and not spoiler anything, which makes answering questions like this tough. But “Dead Letters” is very much a hardboiled crime book with influences like Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes and David Goodis. We wanted a title that sort of evoked that old-time slang and had a bit of menace to it, and, as you’ll see, the dead letters metaphor begins to make sense at the end of issue one.
A guy waking up in a hotel room without his memory is a classic trope. How did the idea to mixx that with supernatural elements come about?
I’m a sucker for amnesia fiction, stories of a person waking up not knowing anything about themselves and having to piece together who they used to be. The supernatural is all about coming face to real-or-imagined-face with something beyond yourself, something you cannot hope to even begin to comprehend. So the two seemed to get along nicely. And it’s not just a cheap trick. It’s part of the larger narrative we’re trying to tell. So hopefully as Sam learns more about himself and we learn more about him, the secret behind why he can’t remember anything becomes a bigger role.
One of the tough parts of amnesia stories is conveying character elements for a person who doesn’t actually know how they act. How did you deal with that in “Dead Letters?”
That’s the most compelling part to me, is how much of you is formed by what you remember about yourself on a daily basis and how much of it is who you actually are deep down to your soul? I think there’s a lot of conflicts between head and heart and the idea of amnesia, of wiping the board clean. That gives us a lot of room to build Sam from the feet up and see who he is when he doesn’t know anything about himself. In writing it and Chris drawing it, I feel like I’m finding out who he was and why he’s wound up in this place right along with everyone else. Which is some pretentious ass stuff to say, but when you get that feeling, I think the stories become even better.
What can you tell us about the people who want to talk to Sam, the ones banging on his motel room at the beginning of the book?
Sam’s woken up in the middle of a powder keg, basically, in a city where no one is in control, gangs have taken over and they’re all picking at one another for weak points, to keep from sharing anything. Sam shows up on their radar and they’re always looking for new, talented blood to add to the ranks. Exactly why they want him is a whole other story.
Noir stories often include cities or places that become characters in their own right. What can you tell us about this book’s location?
When I pitched the book, the city was the biggest character in my head. I started cataloguing it, making crude maps in my notebook. There’s a lot about the city that makes it the most important element of the story, so many different factions and facets to it that to say anything more specific would be to wreck the fun. I can’t even say what city it is. That is how top secret all this is.
But for Sam, it’s a nightmare town. He sort of recognizes it, but doesn’t. He’s being chased through it, forced to find his way and every time he turns a corner, he’s thrown off the rails again. I think the city is the one character I understand best, but every time I sit down to write about it, it keeps growing in terms of history and architecture and with Chris Visions drawing it, it’s gonna be a special place.
Noir stories like these usually have a femme fatale slinking around somewhere. Does Sam have one in his life and what role does she play in the story?
Sam has a couple of femme fatales to deal with, just to keep things interesting for him.Â Though they don’t hew to the traditional idea of a femme fatale, they’re just as alluring and dangerous, but significantly better armed. They have their own agendas and Sam is, like most noir protagonists, using them as much as they’re using him.
We know “Dead Letters” is an ongoing, but do you have a set number of issues in mind?
I’m still writing it, so I can’t say with any real specifics exactly how long it’s going to be, but it does have an ending and I know what it is, so we’re just doing our best to try and get there on the road that makes the most sense and have the best scenery along the way. The story of this first arc opens up the world and the stakes for Sam, so there’s a lot to explore beyond our initial arc, seeing just how big the stakes really are for him and everyone around him.
To hype the series, BOOM! is releasing teaser images from the book all over the place. How did that idea come about?
That was all BOOM! It was a riff off one of the concepts we introduce in the first issue, a thing I’m still not sure where I came up with or how, but once I gave them the script and Chris Visions started working on drawing it, they zeroed in on it. I do a lot of my own press for “High Crimes” and it’s not easy trying to find a hook that’s visually compelling, gives enough of a hint at the content, but still leaves a lot to the imagination, so all credit to them for coming up with something I never would have.
How did you team up with Chris Visions for “Dead Letters?” What made him the right artist for this book?
Chris and I were introduced by BOOM! and as soon as I saw his sequential stuff, I didn’t have to think twice. It was a perfect fit from the word go. Chris’ stuff is so inspiring, his imagination is huge and his choices come totally out of left field sometimes but they’re so much better than what I had in mind when I wrote it.
As for what makes Chris such a good fit for this book, we share an affinity for a lot of the mood and time we’re establishing in “Dead Letters,” so much so that all I have to do is send him an image of clothing and he turns it into something totally new but completely fitting. I could gush for hours about how amazing Chris is, this book wouldn’t be what it is without him as my partner on it.
You’ve published comics at Monkeybrain and Dark Horse. What made BOOM! the right place for “Dead Letters?”
BOOM! has been doing a lot of interesting creator-owned books for the last year like “Six-Gun Gorilla” and “Suicide Risk” that really got my antennae up. They’re putting out books that don’t exist anywhere else and I wanted to be a part of that. Plus, editorially, working with people like Bryce Carlson, Eric Harburn and Chris Rosa has totally upped my game. They call me on my weak spots and let me figure it out, or they seed an idea that only makes sense three weeks later. So I feel like the whole team is really humming in sync, which always makes the long process of putting a book together way more fun than it should be.
To see how much fun Christopher Sebela and Chris Visions are having with “Dead Letters,” check out the first issue from BOOM! Studios in April.