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COMMENTARY TRACK: Jay Faerber on “Near Death”

by  in Comic News Comment
COMMENTARY TRACK: Jay Faerber on “Near Death”

Jay Faerber is no stranger to creator-owned comics. While he’s certainly written his share of books like “The Titans” and “New Warriors” for DC and Marvel and boasts a staff writing credit on The CW’s “Ringer” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Faerber is best known by his fans for “Noble Causes,” “Dynamo 5” and the current ongoing “Near Death,” all of which he publishes through Image Comics.

Featuring art by Simone Guglielmini, “Near Death” stars Markham, an assassin whose brush with death in the first issue leads him to turn over a new leaf. With a new mission to help people instead of killing them, Markham has to deal with not only with a brand new moral code, but also with a host of former employers and co-workers who don’t take kindly to his new lease on life.

“Near Death” not only offers Faerber the opportunity to put his own spin on the hard-boiled crime subgenre, but also allows him to experiment with fast paced, one-and-done episodic storytelling that tells a larger story. With four issues of “Near Death” out on stands and a fifth on the way in January, CBR News spoke with Faerber about everything from naming his star to challenges of writing about protecting the life of a child-molester and more in our latest COMMENTARY TRACK.

CBR News: Markham explains a lot of assassin know-how in his mental dialog — where did that all come from? Personal experience?

Jay Faerber: Ha! Sadly, no. Part of being a writer is just putting yourself in the shoes of your characters and figuring out how they think.

The color palette tends to stick to just a few colors per page or panel, was that something you envisioned or something Simone Guglielmini brought to the table?

The colors are handled by Ron Riley. Simone and I told him we wanted a simple, more muted look to the book, and he ran with it. The actual color choices are all Ron. I’ve worked with him for years, going all the way back to “Noble Causes.” He’s really flexing a different set of muscles — to great effect — with this book.

Markham gets to Hell really quickly in the first issue. Was there ever a worry that the story moved too fast, or did you think there was enough base knowledge of the genre to keep the flow moving along at a fast pace?

I always try to start a story as late as possible. With this book, especially, I wanted to trim all the fat. So many books are so decompressed these days that I don’t think it’s possible to move too fast. Plus, I intend to flesh out Markham’s background through occasional flashbacks, the first of which happens in issue #3.

You reveal pretty early on that Markham hasn’t killed just bad guys, but women, children and the elderly. Was there ever a concern that he might not seem redeemable to the audience?

No, the whole point of the book is to watch Markham as he tries to make amends. If he’d only killed bad guys, he wouldn’t have a whole lot to amend for. That’s too “safe” a choice for me. I wanted him to be a full-on, hired assassin. He kills people for money, no questions asked. I think starting him out in such a stark place makes it more interesting as we watch him try to change his ways.

Can you talk about who Markham works for? He obviously takes his assignments from Max, but there’s also mention of a Mr. Novak — is it too soon to talk about him?

Well, Markham didn’t have one sole employer. He did a lot of work for the mysterious Mr. Novak via Novak’s middle man, Max, but he also took jobs from other people. For the foreseeable future, Mr. Novak is an off-panel presence, but I’m sure we’ll meet him at some point. He certainly isn’t going to be happy when he learns that Markham has switched sides.

Let’s talk process for a minute. Finding the perfect name for a lead character can be a difficult chore. Did you go through a lot of potential names or did “Markham” just pop out immediately?

I went through a few other possibilities for the character’s name over the years, but ultimately it wasn’t that hard to settle on Markham. I knew I wanted a character with no first name as a nod to genre characters like Spencer [of the Robert B. Parker novels and “Spencer For Hire” TV series], but that was my only real self-imposed guideline. Sometimes it takes me forever to name a character, but in this case I settled on Markham fairly painlessly.

In the second issue, Donnie raises a very good question: how is Markham going to go through with his new mission of helping folks without killing any more people?

I can’t really answer that question, because that’s one of the core questions the series itself explores. In issue #5, Markham talks with a priest to try to find out if it’s ever okay to take a life and they have an interesting discussion about it. Because in his heart — at least for now — Markham still sees nothing wrong with killing. The only downside for him is going to Hell. But he wouldn’t actually feel remorse. So this question is one he’ll explore as he evolves — or as we think he evolves.

Was there an element of challenging yourself by making Markham’s client in the second issue a sex offender?

It was both a challenge to myself, and a statement to the audience that Markham doesn’t view the world the way we do. A sex offender was targeted for death, and Markham was going to help him. Period. It didn’t matter what the guy did.

And I wanted to see if I could pull that off, and pose an interesting dilemma for Markham and the audience.

Watching Markham’s morality progress over the course of the issues is interesting as he becomes more creative in dealing with his problems. Was exploring that one of the goals with the book?

Yes, it certainly was.

There’s a really interesting dynamic between Markham and Cahill in the third issue. They’re both on the outs with the organizations they worked for at this point. Will we see more of them together in future issues?

We’ll see Cahill again, for sure. Maybe not as much as you’d think, but you’ll understand that answer once you read issue #5.

Fair enough! We’re getting more and more information about Markham’s relationship with Sutton. How would you describe it? It seems strained at the best by the fourth issue.

Basically, Sutton was content to be Markham’s friend when he was a hired assassin and never really talked about his work. This allowed her to believe that he only killed “bad” people — you know, the “good” kind of killer. But now that Markham’s had this epiphany — for lack of a better word — and he’s started talking more openly about his past and his situation, it’s become harder for Sutton to live in the kind of denial she was used to. So, her first instinct was to just shut him out. As we saw at the end of issue #4, she decided she owed him a conversation, but it looks like they may never get to have it.

So far, each issue has felt like it’s own mini-detective or crime novel. Do you have a list of scenarios you want to tackle, or do they come to you as you sit down to plot an issue?

I have a few ideas kicking around that I hope to get to, but most of the time when I sit down to write an issue, I’m going in cold — I have no idea what the “case of the month” is going to be about. One of the ideas I want to get to one of these days is delving into Markham’s backstory and learning how he became a killer. Did he have a mentor? Where’d he learn to fight and shoot? Was he in the military or something? That’s all stuff I’d like to explore, in the context of a present day adventure. But that’s the kind of story that begs to be two or three parts, and I still want the book to exist largely as stand-alone issues. So I’m waiting a bit before tackling that one.

For a few issues, the threat of Markham’s former employers and fellow assassins was pushed to the back burner. Was that by design so the events in #4 would come as more of a surprise?

Yeah — again, in keeping with the done-in-one approach to the series, I didn’t want to lean into the subplots too much. I wanted to leave them lingering in the background until things came to a head. Markham’s former employers will continue to be a force to be reckoned with, but they certainly won’t be present in every issue. I don’t want the series to be absorbed by its own mythology. I still want it to be accessible to new people, every month.

The series includes a letters column, something that is becoming more and more rare in comics. How important is it for you to keep in some kind of contact with your readers?

I think letters pages are cool, but honestly, they’re tough to pull off, because so few people write in. And I don’t blame them. Why write into a letters page when you can just shoot me an email or chat with me on the Image message board or Twitter? They’re kind of a throwback to older comics and are only kept around as a kind of novelty, I’m sad to say. We’re not able to do them every single month, since not enough people write in. But when we get enough letters, I love to do it.

“Near Death” #5, written by Jay Faerber and drawn by Simone Guglielmini, hits stores January 18.

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