Alex De Campi has worked in a range of genres in her comics writing career, and with “Mayday” #1, coming this November from Image Comics, she returns to the spy genre where she first made a splash with “Smoke” over ten years ago.
Aided by the visual punch of Tony ParkerCBR: Alex and Tony, Codename: Felix is clearly an accomplished killer, but the culture clash he experiences in the first issue is more than he’s prepared for and makes him seem very young at the start of “Mayday” #1.
Alex De Campi: Absolutely, that’s the whole point. See, the spy genre is super-calcified. It’s all posh white men in suits killing for a Western government. The genre is so fossilised you don’t even have to re-imagine it radically. All we do is take our operative out of a suit, make him a bit younger, make him not working for a Western government… and then suddenly the genre feels super fresh and relevant again. Because it’s treading the line of “Is this guy a terrorist?”
And Felix’s confusion is real. There was very little information released in the Soviet Union about America. He doesn’t speak English perfectly. (Do you know how tiring and difficult it is to be somewhere where you don’t speak the language well?) And he’s in California. He is young, too. While the actual history of special tasks / active operations in the 1970s is little written about, these guys really were this young, and there were… I won’t say blunders, but people were winging it. The scene that best encapsulates Felix’s feeling of distance and being in a strange land isn’t actually until Issue #4, when there is fruit and emotion. (You come out of the Soviet Union in the early 1970s and walk into a California supermarket and end up in front of the displays of just… obscene amounts of oranges and bananas and pineapples… like, your brain can’t conceive of this abundance, all perfect, all without guards around it.)
Tony Parker: I like how it humanizes the character. A good-looking sociopath only carries a reader’s interest so far, where as a fish out of water is far more interesting of a read.
His partner, Codename: Rose, seems more worldly, which isn’t to say that she’s entirely responsible or serious about her work. How does she play off him?
De Campi: I think Americans tend to view Russians under the Soviets as all equally miserable and… that’s not true. (Some were more miserable than others.) (Some weren’t miserable at all.) Rose is nomenklatura, she comes from a privileged Moscow family with a relative in the Politburo. She went to elite schools, such as the Leningrad Institute for Foreign Languages. And she’s been working in the KGB Residenz in Hong Kong for several years. She has a level of language skill, travel, and sophistication that is way, way beyond Felix.
Rose is also my strong female character. She never fires a gun or throws a punch, though. Doesn’t smoke or swear, either. How can she be strong? I know, right? But that girl would survive nuclear war. Her strength is a specifically female cunning and passivity, her currency is her looks. Felix is my little thug, culturally narrow and isolated, poor at languages, but reliable to pull the trigger. Putting them together is fun, because they’re so opposite, but they need each other so badly to survive. Up until the moment they don’t.
Music plays a large role in this series, and in your afterword, you describe the series as partly about the evolution of rock music. How do you approach that in a silent medium, and how effectively can the different scenes reflect the music without the actual music?
De Campi: I write to an invisible rhythm in my own head, so there is always music in my work. It may just… not exist in real life. (I often write in silence, so it’s not a question of whatever is on my current Spotify playlist leaking into the book.) I’ve always been Little Miss Playlist, even back when a playlist was a Maxell 90 with a whiteout-encrusted label and songs taped off the radio. So to research music for a scene, whether diegetic or soundtrack, is extra fun. I’ve brought in some songs that I’ve known for years (“Peace Frog,” briefly redeemed from the scent of stale Meister Brau and snapbacks) and also dug into works that were new to me, such as Steve Reich’s early stuff and the first couple Alice Cooper albums. For me, it’s just, does the rhythm / content of this song fit the scene? It’s a gut instinct thing.
Parker: I read a wonderful quote from a modern storytelling master about how he approached storytelling like music. Treat the page like a song. Treat the panels and metapanel composition as a tempo, moving or holding the reader. I would try to keep the same thing going, especially with this book. I’d try to use not just the song, but the feel of the song in the sequence that a song is referenced in.
Did the Cold War setting become inescapable when the evolution of rock became one of the series’ major themes?
De Campi: The Cold War setting was first. There is so much to write about. So much. And then the music came because I didn’t want this to be your dad’s spy series (see notes above about bye, suits). I mean, it’s all dadrock now, but rather than expensive, delicate Hans Zimmer or Nino Rota scores I wanted to fuck shit up. Funkadelic! Iggy Pop! Zappa! This whole series is mad, bad and dangerous to know, and I wanted the music to reflect that. Also I do so much historical research about the events surrounding years in the Cold War, it was a natural codicil to think, “What was going on in the musical underground at the time?”
Tony, how did you get involved in this series? How much research goes into establishing the period?
Parker: I had met Alex at Phoenix Comicon, and we had started a dialogue about collaborating in the future. She had this idea, and I jumped at the chance to do this project together.
You really went wild on the drug trip sequence. Were there any particular psychedelic artists or sources that inspired those pages?
Parker: No one, and all of them. I tried to pull as much of a feel for that part of the story as I could from the script, and then use the graphic novel medium to the best that I could. I didn’t want to ape a specific style. I want the reader to make it about this specific sequence, not a potentially distracting reference to another work. Big shout out to Blond, who not only colors the series, but nails it at every part (especially the drug sequence).
Alex, you want “Mayday” to be a series or miniseries, correct. How far out do you have ideas for?
De Campi: Ahahaha. Um. *looks embarrassed* maybe about eight more minis? This is the only one set in the U.S. though. Next two are plotted out: Berlin Base in 1972, then a Bucharest -> Vienna night train in 1973. Like, the end of the whole Codename: Felix saga is really Able Archer in ’83, and then there’s an epilogue in ’85 during the Year of the Spy. There’s so much material. So much. Like, I could write an epic series just about CIA internal politics in the 1970s, from Angleton’s long shadow to Stansfield Turner’s thankfully short one. As for Europe, 1972 alone had the Munich Olympics massacre; Nixon visiting the USSR, and the arrest of the Baader-Meinhof Group. Then, oh my god, the Soviet-Afghan War. History is weird and exciting and terrifying, people. Especially when you read primary sources.
Is there an overarching story to Codename: Felix or are you more focused on exploring aspects of those historical moments?
De Campi: With further Codename: Felix stories, there are overarching character arcs / plots for all characters. Think of it a bit like Mad Men, but in the 1970s, and with spies. We both delve into topical issues / events, and continue watching our operatives grow up.
And Tony, you’re in this for the long haul?
Parker: We are in this together.
De Campi: Tony is with me until the end of the line on this, if he’ll have me and my difficult scripts 😀
Do either of you have any other projects in the works?
De Campi: I’m having a popular / in demand moment right now so yeah, I’m working on about 10 other things at once! Including two novels and a feature. There’s a bunch of comics stuff by me to be announced over the next six months; stay tuned. Meanwhile, keep buying “No Mercy,” my other Image book, as it enters its final arc!
Parker: Thanks for asking! Nothing that I can talk about you, but I look forward to sharing in the future.
“Mayday” #1 goes on sale from Image Comics in November.
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