Jai Nitz Wakes Up with "Dream Thief"

"What would you do if you woke up next to a dead body?"

This question provided the inception of "Dream Thief," Dark Horse Comics' gritty new creator-owned drama with a supernatural tinge by writer Jai Nitz ("Green Hornet") and artist Greg Smallwood The five issue miniseries debuts May 15 and follows the not-so-noble John Lincoln: a thief who finds himself a vessel for vengeful spirits after stealing an ancient mask from a museum.

Nitz describes "Dream Thief" as a career-defining project, and to that end he's pouring everything he has into the book. Nitz recruited artist Greg Smallwood himself and tapped his network of friends in the comic book industry to illustrate a series of variant covers for the book.

Comic Book Resources spoke with Nitz about the process of bringing "Dream Thief" to life, the inspirations behind the story, what to do when you wake up next to a dead body and the power of a mask.

Jai, what's the story you're telling in "Dream Thief?" Where did it come from?

Alex Ross' cover for #1

The story came from [the question], "What would you do if you woke up next to a dead body?" Maybe I'm not normal, but I played out this scenario many times in my head before I wrote the book -- before the character of John Lincoln ever existed. What would you do? Do you call the cops? Do you head for Mexico? Do you cover it up and hope that the Justice System screws the pooch on your case and you walk? The more I read about true crime cases, the last option seems shockingly viable.

What can you tell us about your protagonist, John Lincoln? He's obviously not the most stand-up guy if he steals artifacts from museums, but as he moves forward, what are his motivations?

Greg [Smallwood] and I talked a lot about the kind of story we wanted to tell with "Dream Thief" and what perspective we wanted it to come from. First of all, a story about murder becomes infinitely more interesting if the person accused (guilty or innocent) has a less-than-by-the-rules mindset. A story about a falsely accused hero has its place, but it's not the kind we wanted to tell. Second, we wanted our "hero" to start off as not much of a hero.  I think a movie like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is so enjoyable because George Clooney doesn't behave like a noble hero. That makes his transformation through the film all the more satisfying. Lincoln's motivation is to get by in life by doing as little as possible. That low-hanging-fruit mentality is kicked to the curb in issue #1.

After he steals this ancient Australian aboriginal mask Lincoln wakes up the next morning with clouded memories and a dead body next to him. He's killing killers, right? What does that moral ambiguity do for the story?

It's ambiguous in the book. John and his best friend Reggie are pretty high when they're at the museum, so it's unclear whether Lincoln steals the mask of if the mask steals Lincoln. We'll address that in the future. But yes, after that John kills killers. It just so happens that the first killer hits very close to home. I try to open a can of tough-question worms. What if someone you care very deeply for has done something deeply evil? I gravitate toward stories where there are no good guys or bad guys, just people. And I'm trying to bring that moral compass to "Dream Thief."

Who is the Dream Thief? Does that moniker refer to Lincoln, or whatever spirit or entity is channeled through the mask?

John Lincoln is a Dream Thief.  He's a person who is possessed by vengeful ghosts while he sleeps. There are a ton of questions that go with that statement.  Is he a Dream Thief because of the mask?  Was he born that way?  Did a witch curse him in the street like the Jon Hamm Sergio bit on "SNL?" Answers come as the book goes on.

Is this a superhero story? In what ways are you hoping to respond to or bounce off of that genre?

"Dream Thief" has a lot of superhero tropes: there's a mask/outfit, there are non-traditional superpowers, there is a need for a secret identity, and there are incredible circumstances. So I think a non-comics reader might easily classify it as a superhero book. But it's a pretty straightforward crime story, and I think comic book readers will pick up on that. They've seen it all before from the cape and cowl set. It's my hope that "Dream Thief" strikes a new chord.

I'm thinking about what that mask might represent -- there's a theme of the mask as an object of power that runs through comics, I think, from the Lone Ranger's eye-mask through, say, the most recent "Spider-Man" and "Batman" films, not to mention the original "The Mask" series. What inspired this object as the locus of Lincoln's power, and what research went into fleshing it out? Also, what are your thoughts around this idea of an object, like a mask, as a vessel or transmitter of power?

Like you said, the mask appears throughout human history, and specifically in the American heroic tradition. Pulp and radio heroes had masks, and that carried over into comics. And what's the line in "Princess Bride" about masks? "It's just they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future." While writing "Dream Thief," I never thought of the comparison to the original Dark Horse "The Mask." I guess it's inescapable now, but that's okay; it's a great comic made by great creators. And I'd love to have two "Dream Thief" movies made someday. But instead of a transmitter of power, John Lincoln's aboriginal mask is more like a bad penny. It keeps turning up in the damnedest places.

You mentioned an interest in true crime cases -- what draws you to those stories?

Bill James, the well-respected baseball statistician and writer, wrote a book called "Popular Crime" about how certain true crime stories grab the public's imagination. Bill lives here in Lawrence, KS and also went to the University of Kansas. I was always interested in various macabre cases of real human depravity, but I never thought about the reasons behind it. James really peels back the layer of the onion and comes to some interesting conclusions why some stories dominate the headlines (like the JonBenet Ramsey case) and others sink beneath the waves. "Dream Thief" will be more focused on the murder cases that no one hears about. Can you believe that? As a society we forget about murders. That's messed up, but it gets my blood pumping as a writer.

More personally, what does this book represent for you, in terms of your craft, and/or your career?

To be honest, it's a long time coming. I have been writing comics since 1999 and I've had tons of false starts and broken projects. And for every project that did get going, I had another setback or pothole derail my progress. I finally left my last day job in 2010 and became a full-time writer. Since then, my personal life has gone upside-down and I still had my standard comic-career pitfalls and gut punches. But I've never quit trying to get work and I've never quit trying to better myself as a writer. I also have to remind myself that many people would kill for the career I've had no matter how disappointing it looks from the driver's seat. So I have kept chugging along on projects I believed in, and "Dream Thief" was a big one. I've always thought it was a home run -- I just needed to find the right artist and publisher to make it work. It took years of hard work and spates of good and bad luck, but it's finally in the right home. I don't want to go in for hyperbole, but my whole career has been pretext for this book. Hit or flop, critical darling or panned tripe, this book is who I am as a writer.

You recruited Greg Smallwood to the book on your own. How did the relationship come about, and what drew you to working with Smallwood?

In 2009 Greg had a Zuda project (the old DC online-comics initiative) he'd created called "Villain." I saw a flier for it at Astrokitty Comics in Lawrence, Kansas (my hometown shop). It turns out Greg lived in Leavenworth, KS and drove to Lawrence for his comics. The shop owner said Greg was a good guy and his talent was obvious. So I looked him up online and emailed him that day to see about working on a project. Greg was excited, so we started working on our first attempt at "Dream Thief"; that was three years ago. Then, Greg got noticed by some other companies and did some tryout work for them that had a page rate. I told him to jump at the chance and we'd come back and do "Dream Thief" after he'd made a name for himself. Well, those other projects folded and didn't pay him a dime, so he came back a little jaded from the experience. Greg wanted to say, "Screw it" and just do the first issue of "Dream Thief" and see if anyone bit. We pitched it after he completed some stellar pages. Dark Horse came to the table and we signed contracts late last year. So our overnight success on this book took three years. In that time, Greg has moved to Lawrence and lives about a mile from me. We hang out all the time and have a great working relationship. Let me put it this way: when I got a divorce, Greg helped me move my stuff. That's a real friend.

Also, I should note, I met Greg a long time before his Zuda project. I guess Greg stopped by my table at Planet Comicon in Kansas City and showed me his portfolio in 2005. I don't remember this at all, but he does. He said I was very kind and encouraging about his art. Let that be a lesson to all writers: be nice to starting artists, they may end up being world-beating talents that you work with on your career-defining project.

Also, how did this stellar lineup of variant cover artists come about? What was that process of recruiting people to this cause like?

We have Alex Ross, Ryan Sook, Kevin Nowlan, Dan Brereton and Michael Golden. I got to know Alex by working at Dynamite. Besides liking my writing, Alex and I have become friends. He was game to do a cover for "Dream Thief" and his sketch for the cover went out with our pitch (which I think helped sell the book, or at least get publishers to take us seriously).

I've known Ryan for over a decade since we met at Comic-Con in San Diego. I've known Kevin even longer, and he is a fellow Kansan so I go out to his house often. I've known Dan for over a decade. He was the first person to ever know where my name came from when we met (it's from Jai the Jungle Boy on the old Tarzan TV show, Dan knew the name of the actor and everything). And I met Michael through doing cons over the years.

The process of recruiting them was frighteningly easy. "Will you do a cover for me? I'll pay you." "Yes." Don't get me wrong, they all did me a favor by agreeing, and I'm in their debt. Also, I would be happy as a clam with Greg doing the covers, but I think the added star-power of Ross, Sook, Nowlan, Brereton, and Golden will get extra eyeballs on our comic. It helps to have amazing friends.

How different is it working on your own title as opposed to working on an established property, such as your "Green Hornet" work? Is your process different, and do they offer different rewards or challenges?

The parameters are the same: 22 pages, write to the artist's strengths, entertain the reader. But the differences can be monumental. With "Green Hornet" I get the crutch that the reader already knows who the characters are and how they behave. But that crutch works against me, in that I can't repeat the stories or the emotional notes that previous writers have hit. If I do that, I'm cheating the reader out of his or her money, and that's not cool. I don't want to give people something they've read before. That carries over to a creator-owned book like "Dream Thief." I want to give readers a story they've never heard before. But also, there are challenges to telling people a new story. I have to lay a lot of groundwork while retaining clarity and entertaining the reader. 

James Ellroy spoke to my screenwriting class at KU. He told me that instead of writing what you know, you should write what you want to read, because what you know can be boring, but what you want to read is always exciting to you. You can't worry about writing for this group or that guy; you should write for an audience of one -- yourself.  If you write what you want to read, your audience will always be entertained. I don't know if that's myopic or the best advice I've ever received. The proof will be in "Dream Thief."

"Dream Thief" #1 debuts May 15.

Tags: alex ross, dark horse comics, ryan sook, dan brereton, jai nitz, greg smallwood, kevin nowlan, michael golden, dream thief

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