James Vance has been working in comics for years, but he’s best known for one project, “Kings in Disguise.” When the book was published in the 1980s, it won Eisner and Harvey Awards, earning a reputation as one of the great graphic novels and it remains so today. The story of Fred Bloch, a boy who hits the road in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression and gets caught up in the labor movement, hobos and the Ford Hunger March in Dearborn, it’s a model of what the graphic novel can be and a great work of historical fiction.
Over the course of his career, Vance has worked as an editor and written a long list of comics ranging from “Aliens” and “The Crow” to “Predator” and “Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight.” Vance also wrote “Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero-The Newmatic Man” in the ’90s, an experience he’s written about at length on his blog. Vance has also recently scripted the conclusion to “Omaha the Cat Dancer,” the cult favorite series orginally written by his wife, the late Kate Worley, with the final volume of the series set for release by NBM this summer.
On March 20, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. is releasing “On the Ropes.” The sequel to “Kings,” the book is set in 1937 at a WPA circus traveling through Illinois. Fred Bloch is now apprenticed to an escape artist and the book is a moving portrait of a time and a place. Bloch is surrounded by men haunted by their pasts and this book shows that he will likely grow up to be similarly troubled. CBR News spoke with Vance about preparing to a sequel to a book originally released two decades ago.
CBR News: In the recent edition of “Kings in Disguise” you wrote about how the book started as a prequel to a play you had written titled “On the Ropes.” Is this graphic novel an adaptation of that play or is it something else?
James Vance: It’s sort of the great-nephew of that play. It’s changed enough that I don’t think I’d call it a straight adaptation, but in the very simplest terms it’s the same story. It’s the rough outline of the original play used as a framework for something that’s a lot more ambitious than I could’ve fit into a conventional drama for the stage. There are snatches of dialogue here and there that are over 30 years old, but there’s a lot more material that’s completely new to the graphic novel. And even the scenes that basically survived are altered in a number of ways to make them fit into that larger framework.
Obviously the stage is a very different form from the comic page but I’m curious what was involved in translating the story to a new medium or did you have to completely rethink the story and how to tell it?
Of course, when you’re writing for comics you have to think in terms of close-ups and page turns, but whether your cast members are flesh-and-blood or ink lines on a page, ultimately it’s still all writing for actors. Allen Saunders, who wrote for syndicated strips for decades, called his memoir “Playwright for Paper Actors,” and that’s a pretty good description. “Ropes” was never the kind of play that was restricted to a single setting in the first place — the original moved from one location to another from beginning to end — so there wasn’t any question of how to open it up. And even if you’re writing one of those old-fashioned plays that all take place in the same room, you have to know what your characters are doing when they’re out in the world, their lives before they got here, and what they’ll do when they leave. So they were never characters who were particularly stage-bound anyway. And they’ve always been so vivid to me that moving them onto the larger canvas was pretty natural. If I’d been a better writer way back then and had unlimited resources and running time, it’s likely that the play would have been a lot like the graphic novel.
“Kings in Disguise” is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. So I have to ask, more than two decades later what compelled you to create a sequel?
I’d thought of doing it back when “Kings” first came out in the ’80s, and over the years the thought would come back to me whenever a new foreign edition would show up. But the number one reason is Kate Worley. When we first met, “Kings in Disguise” was still being serialized and, of course, Kate was writing “Omaha the Cat Dancer.” For those who don’t know, Kate and I got married and we were together the last 10 years of her life. And during those years, I’d occasionally find myself making snarky comments about my past work and Kate would always step up and tell me to get over myself. I can remember her snatching a copy of “Kings” off the shelf, waving it under my nose and telling me just how good she thought it was. Shortly after she died, I was approached about that new reprint of “Kings,” and the question of a sequel came up. And I knew that the time had come to do it. Kate would have put up with nothing less.
How much research was required to create a project like this and how much effort in both “On the Ropes” and “Kings” was made to directly tie into real world events?
In both cases, there were historical events that certain scenes had to be built around, and — especially in “Ropes” — I found myself constantly adjusting where the characters were on the calendar to make it all flow naturally. The obvious historical set pieces were researched with as many reference sources as I could find, including oral histories and newspapers of the day, and they’re described as accurately as possible. But there was research involved on almost every page: finding period slang that didn’t call attention to itself, maps and general info about the various locations, a working knowledge of what else was going on in the world, a feeling for how day-to-day life was lived. And that’s just the writing. Dan, of course, had to draw things in every panel that the script didn’t specifically call for — hairstyles, clothing, cars, buildings, background details. And like the language and the historical references, all the visuals have to seem lived-in and natural, quietly accurate without waving a red flag for people to notice how much research you’ve done. And don’t forget, there are flashbacks to earlier years that took just as much research. We both had to know a lot more about the subject than we ever put on the page.
Talk a little if you would about working with artist Dan Burr. What do you enjoy about working with and what makes him a good collaborator for you?
Dan is a collaborator’s dream. He can draw damn near anything, and everything that comes out of his brush feels like the absolute truth. And the guy can read my mind. He always gets the nuance. No matter what I ask him to do, what he gives me is always exactly what I need and often so many times better than I’d envisioned. He understands subtext, knows how to suggest the emotional underpinnings of a scene, and he does it with subtlety. What he does is more important than pyrotechnics or tricky layouts or any gimmicks that will be dated in a few years — he tells the story in universal terms, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. What just knocks me out is how he can draw people thinking, really thinking, not just glowering or looking constipated like you see in so many comics. There are passages in “Ropes” where I just turn things over to him for a page or two, no words at all, and they’re gorgeous.
I should also mention Dan’s wife Deborah, who did a lot of the toning in “On the Ropes.” She made a huge contribution to the texture and atmosphere of those pages, and it’s such a good-looking book because of their joint effort.
Talk a little about how the two of you worked on this book and how it differed from the way that you worked on “Kings in Disguise?”
In all the years we’ve worked together, Dan and I have only met face-to-face twice. We live about 800 miles from each other, so our contact on “On the Ropes” has been a handful of phone calls and endless e-mails. That’s still light-years away from the way we did “Kings.” Back then, I wrote the scripts on an electric typewriter and snail-mailed them to our editor Dave Schreiner at Kitchen Sink Press. Dave would go over the pages, and the understanding was that he’d call me if he had a problem with anything, though he never actually asked for any changes. Then Dave would mail the pages on to Dan. In the meantime, I was going through history books and old newspapers on microfilm and snail-mailing xeroxes of reference to Dan. It all seems like “The Flintstones” when I look back on it.
For “Ropes,” I e-mailed the script pages directly to Dan as soon as they were done, and I was able to send him links to online reference, often before the corresponding script pages were written: here’s a period logo, here are some signs you might see on the wall of a diner, here are the photos taken at this historical event. Of course, I’ve worked this way for years on other projects, but comparing it to the way we did “Kings” really brought the difference home — especially when it came to revisions. I remember sending revised pages to Dave Schreiner and getting an astonished reaction, like no one had ever done a second draft before. Instant communication made it possible for the script of “Ropes” to evolve and develop all through the process — “Here’s a new scene we need to insert between these pages,” that kind of thing — and I think it made a huge improvement in terms of the final product.
And Dan was able to send me batches of pages from time to time for my reaction, which made it possible to refine things even further. When we were doing “Kings,” I never saw the art until the story was published. With “On the Ropes,” I was able to spot places where I’d led Dan astray and discuss solutions. We kicked the final scene in the circus tent back and forth for literally months before we were both comfortable with it, a luxury we never would have had on the first book.
In the Preface to the recent edition of “Kings in Disguise,” you mentioned that you started to write a sequel to the play “On the Ropes” years ago but abandoned it to write what became “Kings in Disguise.” Have you given any thoughts to continuing telling the story of Fred?
I’ve had a general idea of his life story for years. He’s like Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, a witness to history who’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Except, of course, where Corto just shrugs, lights another cigarette and shoots his way out, Fred’s lucky to escape with his life and most of his body parts. In “On the Ropes” we see the toll that some of his decisions have taken on him, decisions that were made with the best of intentions, and he makes other choices in the course of the story that are sure to haunt him in years to come. So, yes, there’s definitely more to his story. But I suspect that if Dan and I ever decide to tell it, we’d better not wait another quarter of a century to do it.
The 1930s is a time period that’s very much forgotten and these are events that tend to be ignored. I’m curious why you think that’s the case. Particularly in light of recent years and our economic troubles and the mass unemployment, there hasn’t been much looking back to what we could learn both as individuals and collectively from the experiences of the Great Depression.
I’m not sure “forgotten” is the word. I’d say it’s more of a tension between those who are trying to expand and refine the solutions of that time, and those who are trying to undo them. Because the Depression was 80 years ago, it’s easier for people who didn’t live through those times to discount the answers that were found back then. Opponents of the support systems created during the New Deal tend to gloss over the fact that their icon Ronald Reagan himself always spoke highly of FDR’s solutions, because he’d seen the misery of those times first-hand.
That said, I have to point out that when we started the book, the full effect of the economic collapse hadn’t been felt yet, the war on unions hadn’t begun, the Occupy movement hadn’t started. There was a point later on when Dan and I were talking, and he laughed and said that we’d gone from being a period piece to being timely. But that’s what happens when you’re dealing with history; sometimes you don’t realize that what you consider to be the past hasn’t ended yet, and you’re a part of it, too.
You’ve worked on a number of other comics projects over the years, but later this year there’s going to be a collection of the final story concluding “Omaha the Cat Dancer.” Could you tell us a little about the book and what you and Reed Waller hoped to do with this final volume.
When it became clear that Kate wasn’t going to make it, she asked me if I’d finish the script for her. Fortunately, she left a pretty extensive outline and drafts of scenes that would take place here and there throughout the story. So my main job was to follow her lead, sound as much like Kate as possible and do my best not to let her down. Reed couldn’t have been more supportive, and when I wasn’t being a nervous wreck about taking it on in the first place, it was a joy receiving those new pages in his wonderful inimitable style. We’re billing it as “by Reed Waller and Kate Worley with James Vance,” which is the only way I can think of it. It’s still Reed and Kate’s baby, and I’m just acting as a channel to help her wrap up the story she told for such a large part of her life. To me, that final volume will be published in her honor, and I hope all the readers who love “Omaha” will think it’s a worthy conclusion to the story they’ve been following all these years.
“On the Ropes” by James Vance and Dan Burr is on sale March 20.