In Prohibition Era New York City, if you wanted to be somebody, it came down to staking your claim, creating your own empire, defining your turf. This, of course, is much easier said than done when your biggest rivals happen to be blood-sucking vampires and your only ally a crashed alien smuggler from across the galaxy.
The five-issue miniseries “Turf” by writer Jonathan Ross and artist Tommy Lee Edwards came to readers through Image Comics last year and takes place in 1929 during the days of Prohibition where gangsters ruled more than just the streets. However, things got complicated when a coven of vampires decided that merely staying in the shadows living off smuggled blood just wasn’t enough anymore and they made a play to overthrow the gangs of New York — a task easily accomplished thanks to their superior strength and near invulnerability.
As the supernatural gang war raged, young reporter Susie Randall hoped to cover the story of the century but instead became a prisoner of the vampires. She ended up rescuing the dethroned leader of the vampires Gregori, ousted from power by his brother Stefan, and the two must now find a way to stop Stefan in succeeding in turning New York into a vampire feeding ground. Meanwhile, gang boss Eddie Falco — on the run after an ambush by the vampires that cost him his friends and his eye — found an ally in the unlikely form of the intergalactic smuggler Squeed.
With the penultimate issue of “Turf” hitting stores on February 23, Edwards and Ross spoke with CBR News about the genesis of the series, the reality of the often romanticized 1920s and how many more pieces of himself Eddie might lose before it’s all over.
CBR News: Looking at “Turf,” we’ve got so many elements at play: we’ve got gangs in New York, vampires and even aliens. What made you want to include so many things from so many different genres? Was there ever a concern of there being too many pieces to the puzzle?
Tommy Lee Edwards: “Turf” started with Jonathan’s idea of gangsters smuggling blood during prohibition. Also, he always thought it would be cool to see a mob movie with Bogart or Cagney where they met Lugosi’s Dracula or monsters played by actors like Karloff.Â We later added the alien sci-fi element when we figured out where to take our story’s theme and character arcs. I don’t think either of us were too concerned with having too many puzzle pieces, because Jonathan and I wanted to do something unique that challenged the reader. And it’s not just some kind of genre mash-up for no reason. It’s a really fun and special story that has a timeless quality to it.
Jonathan Ross: I’m not quite sure. I think the gangster and vampire thing together seemed too easy a mix. One of the things I love most about comics — always have — is that unlike film or TV, they are not bound by budget. So you want to send your characters to space — just imagine it and you are there. Initially, the alien story arc was pretty different. I started with much more of a Red Harvest kind of story — with some gangsters siding with vampires and then the other gangsters looking desperately around for allies until these shadowy figures emerge. The aliens were going to have been on earth for a looong time, trapped, but never really showing their hand. The change to the story as you see it now made sense because we get to see how Eddie meets and bonds with Squeed. But it’s fun to remember what it was going to be like. There was also going to be a Romeo and Juliet storyline between the vampire brothers and a half human, half alien princess.
What is it about the late 1920s that appeals to you and fits with the story you guys are telling thematically?
Edwards: Visually, I’ve always been attracted to noir film and art. The pulp stories of the ’20s and 30s, the clothes and cars and crime and all of it. It’s a relatively rare genre and time period for modern American comic books, which really excited me. As a kid, I fell in love with modern and classic films of the genre, and they helped solidify what I wanted to do for a living. Stuff like “The Lodger” and “Touch of Evil” gave me a taste of how to visually tell a crime story.Â Two of my favorite movies in high school were “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Untouchables.”
Ross: The 1920’s was a given because the very first thought I had was that of gangsters begin chased by vampires out of New York in old cars, using tommy guns to try and keep the blood-suckers at bay. But then historically it gave me the idea that the old ways — and this was evident in much of Europe from the 1920’s onwards — were being eroded or destroyed or just having to change drastically. After the Great War, communication, travel and weaponry all improved drastically. Remote spots were easier to get to, traditional warfare on foot and on horse was superceded by tanks and then airplanes. So the need for a group whose weaponry and methods were in the past, whose advantages lay in the old world — to try for a decisive victory before their enemies outstripped them — added another angle that pre-disposed me to select the 1920’s. Finally, it has given me a neat idea for a sequel series, which would take place 13 years later — just as America enters the Second World War.
When it comes to the designs, what do you like best about drawing this time period? Did you do a lot of research to get the correct imagery and clothing for the period?
Edwards: Laying out a comic story is my favorite part, figuring out the storytelling and page design. Research is usually my second favorite part.Â Ironically, those two aspects of my work are also the most difficult. But yeah, “Turf” has been the most research heavy and time consuming project I’ve ever done. In order to accurately draw 1929 New York, I visited the locations I want to use in the city and spent time in museums and libraries.Â I’ve also got loads of books, obviously, and pull tons of research from movies and documentaries and the internet. Oh, and clothing catalogues of the time help a lot with the costumes.
Ross: Tommy and I talked about other series ideas, but I was so pleased he plumped for this. Noone currently working in comics does this kind of period better I think!
A lot of people look at the ’20s as this great time. The rip-roaring ’20s. You guys really show the grime and grit and danger of the time. Was this a conscious choice, to show the parallel of what we imagine the past to be and to what it was like in reality? Do you think adding the vampires and aliens offsets that direct commentary?
Edwards: “Turf’s” story is about a crazy “melting pot” of characters driven by the choices they have to make. New York at this time was one of the most exciting and dangerous melting pots on the planet. Â Prohibition helped put the gangs in charge, and perpetuated the ongoing turf war. Where better to set our story about a conflicted mobster, an ambitious reporter, a stranded gun-running alien and an ancient Vampire family on the cusp of extinction?
Ross: I read quite a lot of newspapers of the time as research. What struck me was the lawlessness, and the matter-of fact way reporters dealt with it back then. They didn’t appear to sensationalize or indulge in panic-mongering as much as they do today, partly because they didn’t have to. Life was shorter and more brutal for many, and the crime reflected that.
Looking at the story as a whole, where did your inspiration come from? Even when it comes to the characters — how they act, how they look — were any of them inspired by something in particular?
Edwards: Jonathan and I inspire each other all the time by throwing ideas back and forth. We speak the same language and are influenced by a lot of the same music, paintings and movies and stuff. I’ve personally drawn inspiration from some of the movies I mentioned before, illustration and graphic design from the ’20s, music of the period, and (as usual) a lot of Ennio Morricone. Jonathan and I listen to so much of Morricone’s music, that we’ve actually joked about dedicating the “Turf” hardcover to him. As far as the characters go, I tend to “cast” many of them based on people I know. It helps me with their acting and in keeping them consistent and distinctive.
Ross: I just thought up a bunch of people and wanted to see how they reacted. I remember reading a great Stan Lee interview once in which he talked about the characters in the FF. They were so fully formed for him and Kirby that all they had to do was say, “What If…” What if they were on a gangster planet? What if they had a nanny who turned out to be a witch? And so on. They knew how the characters would react. This maybe wasn’t as easy as that because we had five issues to set everyone up, and the storyline. But in my head, I kind of know them all pretty well, and tried to give them fairly specific vocabularies and idiomatic quirks to help me keep them different.Â
Between gang members like Eddie, reporter Susie, the vampires and the aliens, which your favorite to write/draw and why?
Edwards: Maybe it’s the crazy high drama, or maybe it’s the way I can let the evil really fly in such an uninhibited way — but I’m ashamed to say that evil copper Pete O’Leary is my favorite character to draw. Jonathan has created such an awful man who has made this choice to be the most evil character in our story. I really enjoy drawing his ugly face and body language and taking his actions to the limit without crossing into bad taste.
Ross: I like writing them all. Eddie is fun because I got to flesh out his life more, with a hint at his backstory with Ms Breedlove. I don’t really talk to Tommy much about the way they look. I think I gave him pretty specific guidelines for the brothers, but he nailed them right away. Mostly I leave the look of it to him and he leaves the writing to me, and we are both happy. We talk about the layout more, but again, Tommy has such a natural gift for storytelling, I rarely butt in. Maybe twice or three times in the whole run have I suggested changes.
Eddie. Poor Eddie. Are you enjoying just slowly taking the body parts off this guy? How many more pieces can readers expect Eddie to lose?
Edwards: I actually laughed out-loud when I read the script to “Turf” #4, where he loses a hand. At this point, I think even Eddie would laugh if he wasn’t so annoyed. He loses one more piece of himself in the finale, but he’s also the character who’s grown more than most. In a way, he’s gaining more humanity by losing more of his old self.
Ross: In one draft, I had him lose another part in the final book, but it began to remind me of the Knight in Monty Python. I thought it would seem too over the top and comic — so I dropped it. But I like the idea of him being superficially handsome at first, good on the outside, then becoming a better person o the inside while he became actually quite grotesque. That isn’t what you see now really, but I am very happy with it.
Looking at what’s come already, we’re three issues in with issue #4 on its way. What has been your favorite moment so far?
Edwards: Yeah, issue four finally hits the stands this week. This series has been just kicking my ass, and has taken so much more time and work than we anticipated. So right now, I think my favorite part is the light I’m seeing at the end of the tunnel.Â But when all said and done, I think my favorite part about “Turf” is that I feel like these characters really exist. People have read “Turf” and have gotten sucked in, and had to take a minute to adjust back to reality when finished. So I’m not sure about a specific “moment”, but I really like being proud of “Turf.” I like that we give the reader their money’s worth. Â I like that Jonathan and I have crafted the kind of comic I’ve always wanted to read.
Ross: My favorite pages so far are the ones in book four where Eddie and Ms. Breedlove talk about their past and possible future, and the double page spread where Susie calls her mom. But Book Five has some super stuff in that I am so looking forward to.
Before we close out and touch on what’s still to come, I wanted to talk about O’Leary. That is a creepy, creepy, evil dude. He’s going to get what’s coming to him, right?
Edwards: Yes.Â Poor guy.
Ross: Tommy wanted him to win I think. I am getting worried about Tommy. All that time alone, drawing Â in the woods…
What can readers expect to see in the upcoming issue and what can you tease about the finale?
Edwards: “Turf” #4 is the best issue so far, and lets the reader in on a few more secrets. The Dragonmir brothers face off and alliances are formed and broken. More aliens, more action, more really wonderful, character-driven dialogue. All of the various characters and storylines have converged, leading us into the crazy, epic thirty-five page final issue. With each previous chapter having a rather dense twenty-six pages of story, our little five issue series is actually a pretty huge seven issue monster. I’m drawing issue five right now, and am so into it. John Workman is lettering away. We changed our minds about who lives and dies a couple times, but we always knew the ending. At the last minute, Jonathan had an idea that gives such a dramatic weight to the finale. Yes, it added yet another few pages, but we want “Turf” to be the best it can be. We care so much about this thing, it’s kinda funny. Sad too, really, when the book has been shipping late due to the amount of work this thing takes. I’m really grateful to all the retailers and readers out there who have stuck with “Turf” and make me feel like the blood sweat and tears are worth it.
Ross: It’s interesting because the script Tommy is working to now came afterÂ the “final” draft I sent. But we sent it out to a bunch of friends in both comics and the film world and many expressed some regret in who we killed off. So I slept on it and then came up with, I think, a much more interesting resolution that we like and will hopefully score with the readers. It was like test-screening a movie early and getting notes to help you shape it. I had to swallow my ego a bit and accept that just because you started something, doesn’t mean you are the only person who should decide how it finishes! Tommy preferred the second ending, so we decided to go with it. Maybe we’ll put the changed ending in script form into the collection when it comes out this summer.Â