Ed Burns & Jimmy Palmiotti talk "Dock Walloper"

Earlier this month, the first issue of Virign Comics' Dock Walloper hit stands. The series is an Irish-American gangster epic set against the backdrop of prohibition era New York City, and follows the rise and fall of John Smith, an outsider who has grown up in an orphanage. He grows to become quite the street tough, and eventually rises through the ranks to challenge his mentor, Mad Dog Madden (loosely based on real-life Irish-American gangster Owney Madden) for conrol of his crime syndicate. When he gets a taste of the boss' life - the money, power and women - Smith decides he wants it all.

Also, he has an enormous, deformed right hand.

The project is the brainchild of actor/writer/director Ed Burns (The Brothers McMullen, Saving Private Ryan), who's joined on the book by co-writer Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Siju Thomas. CBR News sat down with Burns and Palmiotti to talk about why Burns decided to make Dock Walloper his first foray into comics, and what the series has in store for readers.

Dock Walloper sounds like quite the cautionary tale.

Ed Burns: I guess it's a cautionary tale. It's an underdog story, and it's kind of a buddy flick. It's got a lot of those elements in it. And it's a fun, fun ride.

The one thing that's been the most fun for me, being a bit of New York history buff, was being able to recreate a lot of the New York landmarks that have disappeared, whether it's the old Penn Station, the Third Avenue L, the West Side docks, back when New York was a massive shipping port. So those have been fun things to watch come to life on the pages of this book.

What was the genesis of Dock Walloper?

EB: It started months ago. I had an idea for an epic story of Irish-American gangsters set against prohibition, and I kind of wanted to base it around Owney Madden, who started as a young thug on the west side and then rose to the top of the Irish crime syndicate, and then was later ousted by the Italians and retired, I think somewhere down in Kansas City. And in just sort of mapping out what I thought the story was going to be, it was a massive and very expensive film, so I just kind of put the idea of it on the shelf.

Years later, my agent told me about what [Virgin Comics chief creative officer] Gotham [Chopra] was doing with Virgin Comics, and set up a meeting with them. And when I sat down with Gotham, they wanted to know if I had anything I thought might be right for a comic book because they've started doing these comic books with filmmakers. So I pitched them my loose story of kind of an Owney Madden type of character, and they loved it.

The films that turned me on to this idea initially were Sin City and then 300; what you are now able to do with green screens and computer graphics. I tried to make the first draft of the outline pretty historically accurate, and after I sat down with the guys at Virgin, they were the first to suggest, You know, it's a comic book, and we know you want to make this into a film eventually. Just have more fun with this thing, don't worry about the historical accuracy of it. And that really freed me up, and then once Jimmy was brought on board, Jimmy even further pushed me in that direction, because as much as I read comic books as a kid, I really haven't read them as an adult, so I needed someone to kind of almost take the handcuffs off of me and say, It doesn't matter how big it is or how outlandish it is, have fun with this thing. And that's how certain things like John Smith's deformed, massive hand came about and things like that.

Jimmy, how did you become involved?

Jimmy Palmiotti: Well, it's all about John Smith's massive hand. No, I'm kidding. Actually, Virgin called me up and said that they had a project that they thought my appeal to my sensibilities, and I said, Well, what is it? And they told me what it was about, and then they told me Ed was doing it, and being a fan of his films -- his writing and his directing, I mean, Ed's a pretty groundbreaking guy -- right away I was just like, I'm totally interested. And I got to go in to the city, and we sat down with Ed and the Virgin crew, we went over the story, and I was sold on it.

I write a lot of superhero stuff and Westerns like Jonah Hex and stuff, and the natural thing to do are things you don't normally do. And for me the cool thing was getting to work with Ed because, again, in this life, you try to learn as much as you can and meet interesting people, and it was an opportunity for me to work with a filmmaker, and I have a love of film. If I thought I couldn't bring anything to the project, I probably wouldn't have done it, but I felt that once I was involved, between me and Ed, we can actually come up with something that's pretty cool -- and again, that hasn't been in the comic market almost at all. I can't even remember anything like this. And it's just a fun project, at the end of the day.

EB: Also, you know, when Jimmy and I first met, that first time up at the Virgin offices, within a few minutes, there was a shorthand that we had, I think, given that we both grew up in New York in the outer burrows, relatively the same generation. We fell into an easy collaboration. I've never co-written anything with anybody, other than my brother, I should say, and Jimmy would suggest something, and initially I thought I would have immediately kind of resisted any changes or input, but it really felt like we were so on the same page that at no point did I feel that way. There was an easy back and forth.

JP: I have to agree, because I was talking to somebody else about it, and I was saying about Ed, you know, He's very easy-going, he actually listens to the suggestions, and then I see the brain working, 'Would that work, or would it not work?' I have actually worked with people where it's like, No, no, what I said and that's it. And it's really not a collaboration after that. And as Ed said, we both kind of grew up in the boroughs around New York, there's a lot of the same sensibility. We both understand what it is to take a beating and give one. In a way it's like, writing the book is kind of fun because it's the Italians vs. the Irish, it's a lot of stuff that's kind of fun to write because it's Ed and myself, and again there's a connection that I think comes through on the page. The first issue sets everything up, but I have to say, the second issue really kicks into gear, I mean I've just seen the art on the second one married with the lettering and I'm blown away how much it just even goes further, and it's more fun.

Since you likened it to a buddy flick, what can you tell us about Smith's buddy Bootsy?

JP: Well, Bootsy and John have been friends since they were children. They're both from an orphanage, and they have this unspoken language between them. They're both very streetwise, but where John Smith is very direct about what he says, he doesn't mince words, he kind of gets to the point, Bootsy's kind of like the guy that when he's nervous, he talks even more. He's one of those guys, the more they talk, the less you hear. But at the same time, they're both extremely loyal to each other, and they're fun together.

As a reader, we're trying to set up that when these two guys are together, you want to watch them all the time, because you never know what's going to happen with them. And we set that up in the first issue with them with the machine guns in the back of the truck. It's sort of the friendship that goes beyond words, and then as we introduce other characters around them like Mad Dog Madden and Mugsy and Gentleman Jack and all the other gangsters, we get to flesh out these characters even more, because they're put in situations that are bigger than them. And it is a story again about how these two dreamers who one day start pursuing the dream and they don't stop, and that's always a great story to watch and listen to.

So, what is the deal with John Smith's enlarged hand?

JP: On a lot of levels, the hand is a metaphor for some things. Also, and this is where Ed needs to give himself more credit, it's a cool thing visually. When he came up with the character, he was thinking, visually, this guy, besides his look and everything, will stand out because of the hand. And we use it as a menacing thing, or it's the thing that saves his life, and at the same time he has scenes with Cora where I make sure the artist is making Cora's hand look tiny and delicate in his hand, which is just a metaphor for his personality: He can be tough, he can be bigger than life, and at the same time delicate.

And again it is a comic book, and we do deal with visuals, and it's kind of really cool visual. It's something that hasn't been done, which is always something I enjoy. That said, the story isn't about a giant hand. There is no origin to the giant hand, it's sort of like saying, You've got one foot bigger than the other, what's the origin? Well, that's just the way it is.

EB: The first conversation with the Virgin guys, they were like, What can we add to these characters to create a hyper-reality? Not superhuman strength, but maybe a little gift that they have. There's that great scene in On the Waterfront where Eva Marie Saint's father asks her to look at his two arms, and one arm is longer because he's been swinging that hook on the dock for so long. I never came up with the explanation of why the hand might be bigger, we kind of fabricated something later on, but that's kind of how it was born, a slight homage to On the Waterfront there.

Ed, has it been different writing a comic book? Have you noticed differences between the mediums, in the way you approach it?

EB: The biggest difference is, my screenplays, my films; they're character pieces, and it's all dialogue-driven, every part of the story is born out of the dialogue. The interesting thing with this piece is Jimmy is writing the dialogue. I'm writing the outlines and the structure, and to not have to drive a story or move your plot forward by what the characters say, and instead getting to play with action and set pieces, has really opened me up as a writer. I've been saying in these interviews, in a weird way, I've fallen in love with storytelling again. It's like a brand new set of muscles I'm getting to use that I didn't even know I had. So a very different type of experience for me.

JP: And the thing is, when writing comics, you're thinking in panels, and how much space you have on the page, and that someone is actually going to physically turn the page and then the reveal of something. So I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm trying to act as a director with the action on it, so it's as close as I can get to storyboarding the actual story. In a way, other than the soundtrack and some moving parts, the book really feels like a film. When you're reading comics, you're getting the atmosphere and the mood, and your imagination fills in the rest. When you go see a movie, you're taken for that ride, there's music that cues you in when emotions should rise and fall, and as Ed said, it's very dialogue driven, so what people say becomes very important. And in the comic, although that is important as well, it's a visual medium, you can actually flip back and forth between the art and the words, and take a lot more time absorbing a scene than in a film, where it moves along at the pace that the filmmaker wants. So the mediums become a little different.

How is the Writers Guild of America strike affecting you guys?

EB: The only thing for me is, while this is going on, I'm trying to get another film made that I'm going to direct, and of course two weeks don't go by when you don't want to fiddle with your script and make changes and make it better. There's no doing that. And it's tough on everybody in the business right now. It's tough to get movies made, it's tough for all of my friends who work below the line. It's tough for my brother who writes for a show out in Los Angeles. I think everybody thought maybe this thing would go about three weeks and we'd get it done before the new year, but that doesn't look like that's going to happen now.

JP: Obviously, I'm not in the union, even though I've done TV work through Canada and stuff, but I've seen it in all my friends. Everyone's sort of like on a plane circling the airport, waiting to land. They're all waiting, it just doesn't happen. But everybody's got to stay true to what they want, because I think it's fair what they're asking for, and there's going to be casualties of war. And I agree with Ed, I don't think anything's going to happen until the new year. Every time I read about it, it seems like the talks have fallen apart more.

How did artist Siju Thomas get involved, and what do you think his work has brought to the book?

EB: I think Virgin has a bunch of artists that they work with in India, and they immediately thought that Siju was the right guy for this. Jimmy and I didn't discover until later on that Siju was a big fan of the gangster flicks of the '30s and '40s. Even though I scanned a number of photographs for what New York looked like at the time, and what the wardrobe looked like, and Jimmy sent in a bunch of photographs of cars and guns and things like that, Siju was already very familiar with the time period and the look, and even told us recently he was excited to do something that was a little more noir-esque. So we kind of lucked out. They had this secret weapon, and he's absolutely the right guy for this book.

JP: Oh, yeah. You can tell he has an animation background, because the movement and the flow of the story is wonderful. And he's one of those artists, like I said, I think the second issue is twice as good as the first, and I have a funny feeling the third's even going to blow the second one away. And it's such a pleasure to work with somebody like him. Ed and I are sending up research photos, but Siju's really doing his own research. Everybody involved wants to make the product better. We got very lucky with him, Virgin did the right thing.

Ed, do you think you'd like to do more work in comics?

EB: Without a doubt. I've spoken to the Virgin guys, I have three new ideas, but the one that I'm most excited about is a prequel to the Dock Walloper if this all goes well. So probably sometime in the new year, I'll pitch them on my take.

JP: You know, Ed's films are all about relationships. I think there should just be a book about relationships, but of course in post apocalyptic Earth, as the moon's going to crash into the planet. It's like boyfriend-girlfriend, girlfriend-boyfriend-lover, and everything, but at the same time the moon is crashing towards Earth. That's what you can do in comics, there's no budget, that's the freedom we have there.

And plus, can I mention this Ed, Ed's got the first film right now on iTunes, Purple Violets.

EB: We're the first to release a film for digital download exclusively.

JP: That's pretty cool, pretty groundbreaking stuff. I'm proud of Ed, can you tell?

EB: I'm going to hire this guy to do my PR. What do you think, Jimmy, we have to have a conversation after this.

JP: Well, you know, it's easy to do PR when you believe in something.

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