Cooking "Sweets" With Kody Chamberlain

Kody Chamberlain has a sweet tooth for crime as the writer and illustrator of "Sweets," a new five-issue miniseries from Image Comics debuting in July. Set in New Orleans in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, "Sweets" paints a dark portrait of a down-and-out detective seeking to bring a killer to justice before his city and evidence are washed away by the impending storm. CBR News spoke with Chamberlain to learn more.

"'Sweets' is about a New Orleans homicide detective named Curt Delatte," Chamberlain told CBR. "He's hunting a psychotic spree killer who's terrorizing the city days before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. This detective just buried his only daughter and he's on the verge of divorce. He's in bad shape. Everyone with a badge is trying to catch this killer and put an end to the slaughter, but the bodies just keep piling up. Curt has to pull himself together and join the hunt. He's got no choice. It won't be long until his city and his evidence get washed away - a true ticking time bomb scenario."

As "Sweets" begins, Detective Delatte is on personal leave, in mourning over the death of his daughter in a hit-and-run accident. "He's mostly failed as a father and a husband; police work is the only thing he's ever been good at," said Chamberlain. "But now, he's sitting on the sideline watching this killer terrorize his city. He's a great detective, possibly the best the city's ever seen, but he's got a dark path ahead of him and plenty of personal demons to overcome."

"Sweets" breaks away from the traditional murder mystery in the sense that the spree killer at the story's center isn't a totally unknown factor - readers will see this killer's actions firsthand very early on. "There are several ways to tell this type of story," explained Chamberlain. "Often times the writer will choose to tell the tale from the point of view of the detective, and that works great because the reader and the protagonist uncover the mystery together. This particular story called for something different. It requires a peek behind the curtain of what this killer is doing and why he's doing it. We don't spend a lot of time with the killer, but we do get glimpses of what he's up to in each of the five issues. I've had some fun playing with style variations based on point of view and manipulating information as the mystery unfolds."

Joining Curt for the investigation is his partner and best friend, Detective Jeff Matthews. "They work well together and they have a solid reputation for breaking cases," said the creator. "Jeff is the yin to Curt's yang. It's been a lot of fun writing these characters. They come alive and take control of every scene I've written. I love when that happens."

Additional characters include lead investigator Lieutenant E. C. Palmer - "He has a unique perspective on what's happening around him," Chamberlain teased - as well as "a crooked ex-cop, a Jackson Square palm reader, a hooker and a homeless guy named Maurice Culpepper. Some of the characters hinted at in the first issue end up playing a bigger role later in the story."

Chamberlain said that it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the idea for "Sweets" first came to him, describing the writing process as very organic. "I scribbled the basic idea for the story in one of my notebooks and it sat there for a few years, unused," he said of the story's origin. "Chunks of that story, character ideas, scenes and bits of dialogue rolled around in my head for a while until I start putting stuff down on index cards to figure out the structure. I envy those writers that can punch a raw story into a keyboard, but that just doesn't work for me. I have a giant cork wall ten feet wide in my studio and I pin everything up. Writing is a visual process for me, so I pour my brain out on this cork wall so I can keep everything in view. After a while, I'm able to identify and expand the things that belong and remove the things that don't belong. Once I have my structure worked out, those index cards get broken down into issues and that's when I sit down to write the script. I do know that the tie in with Katrina happened later in the process after I had the general timeline worked out, but the whole thing just evolved over time as the pieces came together."

As for how New Orleans became the setting of "Sweets," Chamberlain, a Louisiana native, explained: "Deep down, I probably enjoy writing about New Orleans because I'm inspired by the city and I understand it. I don't need to search tourist photos on Flickr; I can stand on the corner of St. Charles Street and draw the streetcars, I can visit the cemetery and film it from various angles and study it to get the details right. I can walk where my characters walk. I know the culture, the food and the slang. I often see New Orleans drawn as a generic city with nothing but a Bourbon Street sign in the foreground to imply the setting - I knew I could do it better. I wanted to bring the city to life as it's never been done in a comic before. It really is a beautiful city and I wanted to pay tribute to that and give it some life on the pages.

"But New Orleans also has a darker side," he continued. "Up until Katrina hit, the murder rate in New Orleans was the highest per capita city homicide rate in the country with over seven times the national average. I think the murder rate has since come back now that the population is returning to normal. New Orleans is highly seductive, but it's also very dangerous. It's got an edge to it that stays sharp. Like it or not, that edge works well with these types of stories."

Even the book's title is inspired by Chamberlain's experience growing up in Louisiana. "Pecan pralines are a traditional south Louisiana candy I grew up enjoying," he said. "It's sold in a lot of touristy parts of Louisiana, but my family's always made it at home from scratch. Since this candy ties into the story at several different points, I thought it'd be fun to include the actual recipe in the first two page of the comic as I introduce one of the main characters. The title 'Sweets' also seemed like a nice juxtaposition of something fun and sweet against the hard-hitting storyline of a crime drama. I also remember hearing Francis Ford Coppola say he liked to include a recipe in his films, just in case they flopped. That way, at least whoever saw it would learn how to make spaghetti sauce. Who can argue with that logic?"

Readers will get their first taste for "Sweets" in the pages of "Chew" #11, written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, a longtime friend of Chamberlain's and a fellow resident of Lafayette, Louisiana. "Our studios are in the same office building - he's right across the hall - so I get to see all the 'Chew' pages as they pass across my scanner," he said. "I think having a studio-like environment has been a boost of inspiration for both of us. It's certainly been helpful to have another pair of eyes to solve problems and offer some insight when a problem comes up. When it came time to launch 'Sweets,' Rob offered to give 'Chew' readers an early taste. I just hope they can stomach it! The preview in 'Chew' is the cover for issue #1 and four story pages. It picks up exactly where the four-page Previews solicitation drops off, so with both in hand, readers get a peek at eight finished pages."

Although Chamberlain is enjoying the process of creating "Sweets," the writer-artist said that he has no current plans to continue the story past the upcoming miniseries. "Some of the main characters could probably spin off into new stories, but there are no plans just yet," he said. "'Sweets' really does have a solid ending, so any new story ideas would have to have new origins. But I have been outlining a new project that I hope to do next. I don't really want to say much about it just yet since everything is still open to change, even the title, but this next project will likely follow the format of 'Hellboy,' 'Criminal' or 'Sin City.' Each story is finite and delivered in chunks of five or six issues. Every story will exist in the same world, but they may not use the same characters. 'Sweets' is such a big workload, I've mostly just been throwing these new ideas into a hat until I can find time to really turn my focus to it. But it's a high concept idea with tons of potential. I'm itching to start throwing things up on that cork wall."

For now, Chamberlain is on a steady diet of "Sweets," and he hopes that new readers will make room on their plates as well. "I know comics can be expensive, especially when there are so many great titles. I buy lots of comics and sometimes Wednesdays can really sting. That's why my book is priced at $2.99 and not $3.99," he said. "Trust me, that extra dollar per book would help me a whole bunch, but I need readers to take a chance on this title and I hope the lower price point helps that happen. Experienced writers tell us that we shouldn't try and second guess what the market wants to read, we should just write a good story and the market will take care of itself. If it's any good, it will find an audience. I hope that's true. I'm working hard on a book I believe in and I'm having a blast."

"Sweets" #1, written and illustrated by Kody Chamberlain, hits comic book stores on July 14, 2010. Fans can keep track of Chamberlain's progress at his frequently updated production blog.

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