When the lights go out, unsavory characters have a tendency to roam freely, a fact of life explored in “Netherworld,” written by Rob Levin and Bryan Edward Hill with art by Tony Shasteen. In the new series, private detective Ray finds himself on the trail of a woman named Madeline after two separate groups approach him about finding her. The April-shipping series from Heroes And Villains Entertainment and Top Cow follows Ray on his quest to find Madeline while he copes with his own demons, all while he searches a world of darkness for a woman he’s never met.
Following in the long tradition of damaged private detectives, “Netherworld” mixes those elements together with a variety of horror tropes, from psychological torment to gory explosions. CBR News spoke with Levin and Hill about how they became involved with the project, which comics and books influenced their characterization of Ray and how, at the end of the day, regardless of all the other elements, the story is truly about one man and his personal struggles.
CBR News: Let’s start by discussing the basic idea for “Netherworld.” Was this something one of you brought to the other or did it stem from conversations or creative jam sessions?
Rob Levin: The guys at Heroes and Villains — Dick Hillenbrand, Markus Goerg and Mikhail Nayfeld — brought it to us. They’re an interesting outfit: in addition to being really great guys with some rhyming skills, they’re managers and producers and creators, so they really cover the whole transmedia side of things, even though I hate using that word. They know how to position things in such a way that it’s not just some small idea. When they create, it’s really about world-building and setting apart their creations from the familiar.
They had an idea for this grimy world inhabited by these really messed up people, and at the heart of it all was this damsel in distress story. The damsel, Madeline, has to be protected by Ray, a broken shell of a human being who can’t even remember how he got to this point. That’s the kind of stuff I’m drawn to. It’s clean in terms of narrative, the world is interesting and it’s all anchored by actual characters. You know, the way a story should be.
The book’s plot deals with a private eye trying to find a girl named Madeline, who two different parties are also determined to find. Can you tell us why they’re so interested in her and why Ray takes the job?
Levin: I can tell you that Madeline’s important. Really important. Some definitely bad people are looking for her, and some maybe not quite good people are looking for her. Ray’s actually approached by both sides to find her and bring her to them. And he says no. He’s got his own problems. But he’s not without a heart. So while he says no, he can’t just let things slide and leave this poor girl to get caught in the middle of whatever is about to go down if he doesn’t step in. And that’s really where our story takes off.
What kind of horror or supernatural elements can be found in “Netherworld?”
Bryan Edward Hill: It’s really a mix of classic horror and modern horror. Each perspective has its own merits, and “Netherworld” is a place where both sensibilities are present. So there’s some gothic horror, some modern psychological terror, some gore elements you’d see in a mid-eighties John Carpenter flick. Comic readers are the smartest, most genre-aware fans out there, so we’re lucky to be able to combine these influences and have our readers enjoy the resulting smash up.
We’re also lucky to have Tony and [colorist] J.D. [Mettler] on art duty. They can keep up with us easily, so Rob and I are free to put all our influences in the world.
If you look closely, you’ll see an homage to “The Omen III: The Final Conflict.” If you find it, add me on Twitter, tell me what scene it is and I’ll send you a signed copy of the book.
Aside from the world he inhabits, what sets Ray apart from other fictional PIs?
Levin: This might sound weird, but it’s us. Bryan and me, I mean. Ray’s really built in the tradition of these noir heroes we’ve seen or read about hundreds of times. That archetype is where he began, but it’s not necessarily all there is to him. We keep peeling back the layers of Ray’s proverbial onion and we’ll get to know more and more about him throughout the series. All people really need to know right now is that Ray is a weapon. Point him at a target, and he will do damage.
I’m really drawn to characters who can take a beating and keep going. There’s a long tradition of hard-boiled heroes, dating back (at least) to [Dashiell] Hammett’s “Continental Op,” of these guys who are put through the wringer and just keep going because they have to close the case/save the girl/get revenge/etc. More recent examples in comics are Daredevil and Holden Carver from “Sleeper.” What [Ed] Brubaker and [Sean] Phillips did with Holden was brilliant, because they actually integrated his taking a beating into his powers and his emotional state. I’m in awe of that book. To make a long story short, that’s one of the things I love most about Ray. He’s not going to have it easy. He’s this big strong dude, and the obstacles in his way are going to be bigger and stronger and they are going to kick his teeth in at every opportunity. Somehow, he’ll find a way to persevere.
The story is set in a world without sun, so it’s obvious that this is important to the story on some level, but how important is it, ultimately? Is the sunless setting meant to enhance the mood, or is there more to it than that?
Levin: Stories told entirely at night seem to be a recurring motif for me. I set “The Darkness: Shadows and Flame” in perpetual night, and then “Netherworld” is, as you said, without sun. There’s a very specific reason for that here, and we’ll get into that. When HVE came to us with the idea, they didn’t just want the story to happen anywhere. There’s a reason this isn’t New York or Chicago — let’s face it, it could never be LA Too much sun. This book happens where it happens because it’s integral to the story. That’s often overlooked because so much of our entertainment is driven by people on the coasts, so we just assume most stories either take place in Hollywood or Manhattan, or that they’re in “Middle America.” I used to write stories that took place in Atlanta because that’s where I grew up, but not because it was important. Setting couldn’t have been more bland or less consequential.
Setting is often something that defines both the rules of a story and its characters, and we’re really trying to foreground that with “Netherworld.” There’s this messed up travelogue of sorts as Ray and Madeline’s journey unfolds. Just like I mentioned about Ray being deeper than his influences, this world is not exactly what it seems. It’s not just “Sin City” meets “Bladerunner,” though there’s some influence from both. And even our vision of the city is added to by what Tony brings to the table. It’s easy for us to say, “It looks like X or Y,” but he has to make it real and unique with a pencil and ink. Remember, it’s called “Netherworld,” not “Ray Punches Stuff.” But there’s plenty of that, too.
Hill: Night is where the magic and terror happens, yeah? There’s something dreamlike about enforcing control of the day/night cycle and having an endless night. You see it in gaming all the time. Rob and I wanted the book to feel like one, long night. Like a fever dream that starts as an action story and morphs into a fable.
How do you work together when writing? Does one of you take a stab at the script and then the other edits, or do you work alongside each other, page to page?
Hill: We generally keep the process pretty organic. Whoever has the creative momentum usually kicks it off and carries it until fatigue sets in and then the trade off goes down. We each have things we like to write. I particularly enjoy writing moments where people get shot in the neck or throat. So when one of those appears, it’s usually my desk.
Levin: That’s a damn lie. Everyone likes writing people who get neck-stabbed or face-shot. I’m just good at sharing, so I tell Bryan, “Hey man, I’m stuck here. Feels like something kind of violent should happen, but I don’t know what.” Sometimes you have to set your teammate up for the alley-oop.
Bryan’s in St. Louis and I’m in LA, so we haven’t actually had the opportunity to tackle anything in the same room. He’s promised many people (and the Internet) that he’s moving out here, so we may try that in the future. We email pretty much daily, and we usually hop on the phone for a longer call every week or so. There’s a lot of talking and planning that happens before either of us writes word one of a script. By the time one of us takes the ball to run with it, most of the work has already been done, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning details to make sure it’s the best possible version of a script.
Much of the time we’ll do a screenplay style draft to get the story out on paper and let the action breathe as much as it needs to. The comic format, both because you don’t have the benefit of motion and because publisher’s dictate specific page counts you can’t stray from, can be a bit limiting. Going screenplay style allows us to just vomit everything out on the page and then select the essential from that. That’s really what comics are — the essential, iconic scenes and elements within a story. Economy is really key. That being said, sometimes we jump straight into a comic draft. “Whatever works” seems to be the motto. Well, that and a lot of passing back-and-forth and me being jealous of Bryan’s skills.
Readers can enter Levin and Hill’s “Netherworld” on April 13