Wealthy gentleman by day, avenger by night and someone you wouldn’t want to make angry. Guess who?
If you guessed Batman, you’d be about 20 years too late.
The name is Blackshirt and in the self titled series based on the classic character, Moonstone Books and “JLA: Age of Wonder” scribe Adi Tantimedh are bringing back the hero with a new look in an Original Graphic Novel (OGN).
“‘Blackshirt’ is a revival of a pulp character created in the 1920s and lasted a few years as a radio series in the 1930s,” Tantimedh told CBR News. “It was about a veteran of the First World War who has become a famous author, but dresses up in black to be a gentleman thief at night, until a mysterious woman phones him up and threatens to turn him in unless he becomes her personal Robin Hood, righting the wrongs she assigns him.
“Moonstone Books invited me to choose from a bunch of long-defunct pulp properties they wanted to revive as comics, and after Justin Gray took ‘Mr. Keen, Finder of Missing Persons,’ I picked ‘Blackshirt’ because it held a lot of potential.”
A lot of current comic book fans may not be familiar with Blackshirt or his history, so Tantimedh was happy to provide a brief introduction to our hero. “Well, the original version was created to cash in on the ‘gentleman thief’ genre that became popular in the 1920s with E.F. Hornung’s ‘Raffles.’ In the continuity of the original series, Blackshirt eventually married the Mysterious Woman and they had a son who grew up and took over the Robin Hood role of Blackshirt.
“With the revival, I just started from scratch: Richard Jerrill is British (just like the original version), who used to be in the SAS, having fought in the first Gulf War and several hotspots in the 1990s. He has since left the service and become a best-selling novellist in the same vein as real-life former SAS men like Andy McNabb and Chris Ryan.
“Richard is living the high life in New York City, but has grown bored, so he dresses up in black and goes out at night to commit sophisticated break-ins just for the hell of it. The next thing he knows, a mysterious woman calls him on his cellphone and tells him she not only knows about his hobby has been, but she has copies of his old service files as well, including the classified missions he took part in. Unless he wants her to report him to the NYPD, or let certain governments an their death squads know about his past activities, he had better put his skills to better use and help out people in need.
“So she gives him the codename ‘Blackshirt’ and sends him out to expose murderers and rescue people in need, which is good for his conscience, but he resents being blackmailed, and sets out to find out who she is and why she’s doing all this. During the course of this, he finds himself falling in love with her.
“His hunt leads him to an Upper West Side socialite and her psychopathic Russian gangster boyfriend. What ensues is a very messed up love triangle that can only turn out very, very badly, just as you would expect from a noir story.”
With a series this old and with a lot of history, some might worry that Tantimedh risks alienating a fanbase with too many changes, but the writer points out, “Well, I think most of the fans of the original are dead.
“Seriously though, Moonstone gave me carte blanche to do anything I wanted with the idea, and I found the basic concept strong enough to retain and simply update. The original 1930s version will stay the way it is, in novels and the radio shows. This is the updated 21st Century version, which starts from scratch and has all the tech, ideas, politics and attitudes you’d expect from the current times.”
The notion of justice, or in this case vigilantism, is important to “Blackshirt,” an issue that Tantimedh will not skirt around. “Suffice to say, the type of justice that Blackshirt pursues at the behest of Vox is a lot more sophisticated than just finding a mugger and beating him up. They’re not superheroes or really vigilantes as secret soldiers. They’re playing a much deeper game, like exposing corporate corruption, helping entire social groups like AIDS sufferers in the Third World… it’s really social justice that Vox is especially interested in. They’re a lot more political, even if the story later turns into a war with a Russian gangster, but that’s exactly not for justice, but for largely personal reasons.”
Most readers of “Blackshirt” will probably know Tantimedh from his DC Comics “JLA: Age of Wonder” mini-series, but the writer is delivering a story far different from his JLA work. “Well, as fun as ‘Age of Wonder’ was to write, ‘Blackshirt’ is a noir story, and so is much more adult, where the characters are much darker, more messed up and nasty, since Noir is about imperfect people doing the wrong things due to desire (often sexual) and the tragedy that ensues. It gives me the scope to explore more extreme, adult, emotions than in ‘Age of Wonder’ pull out a lot more stops creatively.”
Another difference between “Blackshirt” and “JLA” is the amount of research involved. “Well, I certainly didn’t have to do as much research as I did for ‘JLA: Age of Wonder,’ where I had to learn all about technology and social changes in the Industrial Revolution. That was really about learning about how an entire world worked and how the people behaved in it. With ‘Blackshirt’ being set in the present, there were a lot of things we could already take for granted, so there wasn’t as much research required.
“I did read up on SAS training and procedures for certain details, but it was mainly to get into the mindset of those people rather than looking at the hardware they used. Research on ‘Blackshirt’ felt a lot more leisurely, since a lot of material was readily available out there due to the current British fascination with the SAS. It was certainly fun to read novels by former SAS men Andy McNabb and Chris Ryan, since that was stuff I was already looking at for the last few years. In a way, ‘Blackshirt’ was an opportunity for me to use material that I’d already been looking at on the side.
“But in the end, no matter how much research you do, you only use as much as the story needs. For both ‘Age of Wonder’ and ‘Blackshirt,’ I still have loads of leftover research material that didn’t make it into the stories. I generally file them away and see if I might use them for other stories later on. ”
“Blackshirt” is considered a “mature readers” series, but to many that means naked women and swearing, the former of which Tantimedh was loathe to include. “There’s certainly swearing, which was liberating to write for these characters, but I made a conscious decision not to show any tits. This doesn’t mean you don’t see flesh. But ‘mature’ to my mind isn’t just about showing nudity, it’s about showing certain adult relationships and sexual interactions that you don’t see in stories aimed at kids. I didn’t have to imply anything, like the idea of Wonder Woman as Luthor’s mistress. I could come out and have the characters say it.
“And let’s face it, tits can get very distracting from the story, especially when you have an artist as good at drawing them as Diego Olmos…”
Decompressed storytelling is what some call a “trend” in today’s comic book world, but Tantimedh is more interested in telling a cinematic story and saying as much as he can in the allotted pages. “The approach here is definitely cinematic. I wanted the reader to experience the same amount of plot density as they would in a feature-length movie, with the twists and turns you’d find in 90 minutes. Part of having 90 pages to tell a complete story is being able to vary the pace so that the story can be compressed or decompressed when it’s called for, which keeps you on your toes.”
It is important to note that “Blackshirt” was originally scheduled as a 3-issue mini-series, a format that wasn’t Tantimedh’s first choice, but when Moonstone changed the series into a single package, the writer was pleased. “I definitely prefer graphic novels for long-form stories, because the density makes for a much more satisfying read. Reading monthly serials can be frustrating, waiting for the next chapter, and to my mind, monthlies aren’t value-for-money these days. You’re shelling out 3 bucks for 22 pages of material that only takes about 2 minutes to read. For the same amount of money, you can buy a magazine like Vanity Fair and get a wealth of news, knowledge and research material that takes days to get through. With a trade collection or graphic novel, you have a larger amount of material and a longer, more satisfying story, as far as I’m concerned.”
Pure thriller fiction, without any superhero trappings, is rare to find in the comic book industry and Moonstone’s “Noir” line of comics is to many a sign of greater diversity entering the comic book market. “I think Moonstone is certainly making the effort,” contends Tantimedh. “Crime and thriller comics in America hit their peak in the heyday of EC Comics, before Wertham caused publishers to stop publishing them. Non-superhero books are fighting an uphill struggle in the direct market right now, because the market is closing ranks to emphasise superhero books. It’s a shame that books like ‘100 Bullets,’ ‘Human Target’ and ‘The Losers’ don’t sell as much as they should, because they’re among the more challenging titles in mainstream US comics now. And it’s an even bigger shame that more publishers aren’t running to Steven Grant to write thriller comics, because he’s one of the best writers of crime comics in the English language right now, and he’s not being asked to write what he’s best at.
“The US manga market is booming, but still in its infancy, catering mostly to younger readers and girls, whereas in Europe and Japan, crime comics are huge and so much a part of the cultural landscape with every other genre that it’s normal to have adult thriller comics on sale all the time. There are several Japanese thriller manga out there that are better and edgier than even the best thriller novels in the US now, and they’re still unknown in the English-speaking world.”
His name was mentioned before, Diego Olmos, and if you ever ask Tantimedh about his collaborator, it’ll be hard to get him to stop singing praises. “This is Diego Olmos’ first US comic book assignment, though he’s hardly a newbie in the comics industry. I’d known Diego’s agent David Macho for a couple of years, and David introduced us. Diego is one of the current new wave of young comics artists in Spain, and I was struck by the natural flow of his storytelling and his dynamic sense of design in the way he laid out pages. Once I got accustomed to his strengths and his narrative rhythms, I knew I could trust him and his sense of beauty. For instance, I never asked Diego to draw Richard Jerrill to look like George Clooney, nor did I ever specify how skimpy the women’s underwear should be, but am I going to object? Hell, no.
“Diego’s compositions and movement are brilliant, and I don’t think he’s hit his creative peak just yet. If he doesn’t get flooded with offers after ‘Blackshirt’ is published, there really is something wrong with the US comics industry.”
Tantimedh has a busy schedule for 2004, with both comic book and non-comic related projects, all of which he is happy to share with readers. “I’m in postproduction on a new short film that’s going to be broadcast on Italian television this summer with another one I made previously, and I’ve been approached by a publisher to write them a study of the current cycle of horror movies. On the comics front, I’m doing another project for Moonstone that’s going to a punk, two-fingers approach to superpowers. There’s the usual talking to other publishers about new projects, and new film projects to deal with.
“And if ‘Blackshirt’ sells well enough, there’s talk of more books, but only if Diego draws them. I wouldn’t write anymore if Diego isn’t available, because as far as I’m concerned, he’s the artist and co-creator of this new version.”