Back in the ye olde days of the prohibition, when people thought a great way to take people's minds off the devastation of World War I would be to prohibit the sales of alcohol, people took to smuggling spirits.
Spirits being another (and mildly inexplicable) term for the liquor that has fueled many an article...er...I mean...let's just move on, eh?
And while the premier comic from brand new publisher Ambrosia Publishing is, indeed, set in the rollicking good times of the prohibition era and is called Smuggling Spirits, well, it's not the lack of alcohol that's causing problems.
It's the other, decidedly less pleasant things that most people have on their minds in this horror comic - nasty things that lurk in the shadows and are very, very fond of people who don't know enough to stay off the streets.
Of course, all that terror and mayhem is enough to drive even a law abiding sort to drinking, which is very good news indeed for the protagonists of the series, bootlegger Al Stone, whose rather unique psychological condition gives him a huge leg up on his competition, and the young ward who's gotten wrapped up in the operation.
We sat down to talk with artist Mike Henderson and writer Ben Fisher about the comic which debuts this Spring, their work and, oddly, chimpanzees.
CBR News: Guys, what kind of comics did you read growing up?
Ben Fisher: As a kid, it was all super hero fare (assuming I can use that word without incurring a lawsuit). Primarily Marvel, especially Claremont's X-Men, but I was also a huge fan of Giffen's Justice League. Later on, like so many others, I stumbled upon Watchmen, Sin City and Sandman and everything kind of changed for me. The doctors say it was puberty, but I'm pretty sure it was an Alan Moore spell.
Mike Henderson: I think the first comic I ever read was actually a compilation volume of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's Superman comics from the '30s on up through the Curt Swan era. Somewhere in there I got my first taste of Batman and started towards the darker side of comics. Through middle school, high school and eventually Joe Kubert's School, I started picking up everything from Sandman to Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Sin City and Akira.
MH: I've been drawing ever since I could hold an instrument that would make a mark on a flat surface, anything from restaurant placemats when I was four up to the Bristol boards I use now. It wasn't really until late in high school that I thought, "Oh, shit! Maybe I could do this for a living!" I guess at the time it was either that or the military. I'll admit that I hung up the pencils and brushes a few times over the past six years or so, but I'm here to stay now!
CBR: How did you guys end up working together?
BF: Viper Comics was hosting a talent competition for a back-up feature to its Dummy's Guide to Danger series (a great read, by the way). I put out feelers through the Internet tubes for interested artists, and received a few pages from Mike. It was immediately obvious that his style was perfect for the story, and we started collaborating soon afterward. We were lucky enough to have our entry selected by the fine folks at Viper, and have been working together ever since.
CBR: Tell us a bit about your background - what else have you guys done in comics?
BF: I'm a relative newcomer to the comic book industry. Previously, my experience has been with screenplays and short fiction, but I'm finding that the sequential art medium is immensely more satisfying. Other than the story with Viper, Mike and I have been published in the Dark Horrors anthology by Arcana Studios and we have a couple other projects in the works that can hopefully be announced soon.
MH: Professionally speaking, you're looking at it. Smuggling Spirits is my first real work in the business; I try not to count our earlier "contest" work. As proud as I am of what we've done so far, this is my start.
CBR: On that note, how about the two of you tell us a bit about Smuggling Spirits.
MH: Smuggling Spirits is one of those things that I read three pages of script and thought we could make something really original, really fun and maybe even really successful. Each page I reread, I still get amazed at just how good this guy is. But it's a constantly evolving world for me, the way I see it and the way it comes out on the page keep changing as I move along. But I guess that's how it is with any project.
BF: I had been toying with the concept for Smuggling Spirits for a while. I was interested in the idea of a character who was essentially the opposite of that kid in The Sixth Sense. In other words, a protagonist who is the only character who can't see dead people. Except in this case, instead of dead people, we have a world populated by all kinds of nasty creatures that appeared under very mysterious circumstances shortly after World War I. Everyone knows about them (and knows to be terrified of them) except for this one guy, who has no idea they exist.
Now, obviously, one's first thought is that the premise has a lot of comedic potential. And that person would be right. And, if that person is me, also very good looking. But it seemed a better use of the concept -- and certainly a more challenging use -- to write the story as a very dark drama: a moral play about our natural instinct to only see the world the way we want to see it. Of course, for the reader just looking for guns, violence and freakish monsters, we've got quite a bit of that, too.
CBR: What are some of the influences on Smuggling Spirits?
MH: I'd be lying, and everyone who knows me would call me on it, if I said Frank Miller's work on Dark Knight Returns and the Sin City novels didn't have a huge impact on my stuff. I think every artist, when they start out at least, are bogged down with influences and you sort of have to be, just to figure out who you are as an artist. Compositionally though, a lot of ideas I get come from greats like Frank Frazetta, Katsuhiro Otomo and Frank Cho.
BF: As far as the writing goes, that's a tough question. I left the world of comics for a long time after college and by the time I came back to them, I had already found my voice. There are a lot of insanely talented writers working today whom I respect immensely, but most of them weren't writing anything that I was reading in my formative years. I try to read everything I can from a long list of talented writers working today, including Miller, Bendis, Ellis, Morrison, Hernandez, Kirkman and Niles.
CBR: Is there going to be more stuff in the Smuggling Spirits world? It looks like a pretty interesting setting.
BF: We'd love to tell more stories in the Smuggling Spirits world. There's a lot of territory left to explore, I think. Of course, I'd have to convince Mike to work with me on this type of project again. Which might be a concern, considering most of our conversations went something like:
Me - ... and the next panel has a giant bat, but with a crocodile head! Ooh! And crab claws!
Mike - But I already finished that panel. Your script just says Al is drinking a beer.
Me - Never mind my script! Are you going to let The Man hold you back or are you going to draw a giant croc-o-bat jumping out of a glass of Bud Light?
Mike - The Man? But it's your scrip -- wait, it's in his beer? That's moronic. And I thought you said it was giant.
Me - Of course it's giant! It has to be big enough to eat an orangutan!
Mike - There aren't any orangutans in the panel, either. Just Al.
Me - Yeah. About that. I was thinking maybe instead of Al being a bootlegger with serious psychological issues, he'd be a big orange monkey. Is that a problem? What page are you on, anyway?
CBR: What brought you guys to Ambrosia Publishing?
MH: Comics isn't exactly one of those industries you go to school for, graduate with a degree and apply for low-level position in. The trick, which for the longest time eluded me like a chimp in motor oil, is to find people who are as interested in making great comics as you are. You have to be on the same page, be driven, and willing to see it through. I did a lot of checking into different publishers, and Ben and I had (and continue to have) our fingers in a few cookie jars here and there and eventually hooked up with the guys from Ambrosia. They've been awesome to work with and I'm really looking forward to seeing this thing through with them.
BF: Did he just say "chimp in motor oil?"
CBR: Yes he did. So, aside from motor oil chimping, what else have you got coming up in the future?
BF: We are currently working on a supernatural / sci-fi mini-series for Arcana Studios that is going to be a lot of fun. We are also in the early stages of another mini-series with a much more comedic tone for a different publisher. I'm not at liberty to discuss that one the moment, but we are very excited about it.
Right now, however, our primary focus is making sure Smuggling Spirits is the best product we can create. This project is a wonderful opportunity (and we cannot thank Ambrosia enough for their support thus far), and I can't wait to hear readers' reactions to it. Mike is turning out some absolutely stunning pages, and I think people are going to really dig what he's done. My only regret is that he'll soon be signing an exclusive contract for piles of cash, and I'll be left alone to pursue a career writing muppet porn. Which, coincidentally, will almost certainly involve chimps in motor oil.
CBR: I said aside from the chimps. Oh well. Thanks for talking to us guys, and good luck with Smuggling Spirits.
For more on Ambrosia Publishing's plans, see our earlier profile of the publisher.