For a number of months now our own Rich Johnston has been teasing his readers with news of a new series called "Smoke," written by Alex de Campi with art by Igor Kordey. The duo have been working on the series for a while now, but a publisher hadn't yet been found for the series. Well, that piece of the puzzle has been fitted and the first three-issue series of "Smoke" will see print in May of 2005 from IDW Publishing. CBR News caught up with de Campi and Kordey to get the full skinny on this series.
"'Smoke' is a thriller set in an alternate, dystopian London, about 10 years in the future," de Campi told CBR News. "Rupert Cain, an ex-special forces soldier, investigates the murder of his old commanding officer, Tim de Havilland, who was very much a father figure to him. The more Cain digs into the circumstances surrounding de Havilland's murder, the more he is forced to re-examine his own past, and realise that he didn't really know de Havilland at all. Plus, new uses for terrorism, how not to get back together with your ex-girlfriend, a monarch with an oral sex fixation, corrupt ministers, and unwise journalists. It's a hell of a ride."
De Campi said this futuristic London is run by a government that's morally and financially bankrupt and Cain works for these people. He works as an assassin in exchange for the guaranteed safety of his ex-girlfriend and her father. When the father is murdered anyway, Cain has to find the strength to pick up the pieces and look into what actually happened. All the while, the situation in London grows worse as a terrorist group kidnaps the visiting OPEC president, making rather peculiar demands for his ransom. It's a darkly comic, violent look at a futuristic London.
The pairing of de Campi and Kordey is the story of the enthusiastic rookie and hard working veteran. De Campi, based in London, is a relative newcomer to the industry who grew up on X-Men and rediscovered a love for comics with "2000 AD" and the early days of DC's Vertigo imprint. She's an aspiring screenwriter who's already written a number of short films and is currently working on a commissioned feature length film to begin production next year. Comics wise she's contributed to just a handful of anthologies, "Commercial Suicide" and "Variance." On the other hand there's Kordey, a veteran illustrator in both the American and European comics markets. The Croatian born artist now calls Canada home and has contributed to numerous Dark Horse books, then became widely known in the U.S. market for work on Marvel books like "New X-Men," "Cable" and "Soldier X" before a rather public falling out with the publisher.
This project got its start a little over a year ago and de Campi can tell you the exact moment the long journey "Smoke" would take to publication began.
"Around 10pm, at the London drink-up to celebrate the launch of Andy Diggle's 'Losers' series, in June '03," said de Campi. "I was sitting around with a girlfriend, who's quite a good comics artist, and we were a few beers into the evening. I started talking about how what I really wanted to do was a full-on action series, and so did she. So I wrote an early draft of 'Smoke' for her to illustrate. Nine months later, she hadn't even done character sketches. So I had to tell her that I was finding someone else to draw it. That was really hard to do, but the more I've become involved in comics the more I've realized that if an artist isn't delivering, it's best to sever the relationship early while you still can remain friends. I had showed the script to a few people and gotten a lot of support and encouragement, so one evening this past February, in the very same pub where I first had the idea for 'Smoke,' I was sitting next to Rich Johnston and bemoaning my lack of an artist. He joked that Igor was now available, having parted ways with Marvel, and as I have always liked Igor's style I said, 'he'll do!.' Rich gave me his email address and over the course of a very nerve-racking month, I finally got Igor to agree to draw it. He had lots of suggestions for the book and together we re-worked it to something a bit more intense than it originally was. I still have no idea why he's drawing my book instead of something with, y'know, a writer who anyone has actually heard of."
"The only thing I knew, after my experience with Marvel, was that I wanted to do something different than licensed characters, something to prove to myself and to my (especially old) fans that I hadn't lost it," Kordey continued. "I had two big challenges ahead, starting in March this year: first, to do a come-back in the European market - that was something I neglected for years; and second, to open a new page for myself in the American market, to get a chance to do something I really liked to do, something that would really make me proud for years to come, and of course, to be commercial at the same time.
"When I ran into Alex's script, I saw the potential this story could have in the long run. Meeting a young writer who shared the same enthusiasm and views as myself, not just in comics (especially manga), but literature and movies, that was a breath of fresh air. I got involved upgrading and polishing the existing basic story and it started to bloom and take new directions. The rest is history.
"What I like the most is this lady has one hell of a sense of humour. I haven't been this enthusiastic for years, and that's the best part of all this fuss. I'm extremely critical about concepts and scripts; I always think 'been there - done that,' and these days it is very hard to provoke tingles down my spine."
De Campi noted that "Smoke" has a large number of influences from a variety of media, many of which our readers should be familiar with.
"Everything from 'The Third Man,' 'Cool Hand Luke' and 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold' to 'Blade Runner,' Ranulph Fiennes' 'The Feather Men,' the uber-violent films of Miike Takashi, the westerns of Sergio Leone, and the novels of Raymond Chandler. If the book had a soundtrack, it would be Fugazi's 'Repeater' chopped and changed with Ennio Morricone's music for Leone's 'Man with no name' films.
"In terms of the pacing of the storytelling, it's far more indebted to manga and to European comics rather than American ones," continued de Campi. "Visually, we reference a lot of contemporary and avant-garde art in the covers, because Igor and I are big artgeeks."
While "Smoke" is currently set for three-issues, the story is a finite one and would ultimately encompass 18 chapters to tell in its entirety. De Campi says that she already has the entire series planned out, a necessity when you take into consideration how she likes to tell her stories.
"I like doing things like foreshadowing events that will happen four or five books down the line, or creating scenes where in one book they read a certain way, but with the additional insight of another book, read completely differently," said de Campi. "Of course, things can veer off in unexpected directions as one writes them. But the strategy is there, always waiting to be returned to. That's not to say we'll be able to do 18 issues. We're at the mercy of the market, and far better books than mine haven't been able to go the distance. It's a crapshoot."
"I would disagree with Alex on that last point," said Kordey. "Aside from being a comic artist, I'm a big comic collector, well, not a real one - I like to read them. What I've realized is that really good comics always become successful, sooner or later. Yes, many of them have small chances, especially indie stuff, trying to survive under the avalanche of pompous advertising and market monopoly pushed by big publishers and big distributors, but there are ways, like word of mouth and others. Really good stuff will always find its niche and survive."
De Campi has already completed the full scripts for issues one and two, with book three due to be completed by year's end. The writer has just been asked to write a British feature film, so she'll be tackling that before getting back to "Smoke." Kordey's hard at work on "Smoke" already, with the first twenty pages of book one completed as well as the first three covers.
"I'm still working a lot on the idea how to present this world," said Kordey. "There is an ongoing small struggle between me and Alex, about the general design of the book. She would like it to look more "Blade Runner-ish," instantly recognizable as the future; I take a more logical and practical look at things - when you look around, men's suits and shoes looks pretty much like they did 70 years ago, cars are still running on gasoline, after over 100 years. What's advancing and changing rapidly is weapons, communications and computer technology and science, but we can see that is not always used to improve people's way of living. What we are using in daily life in terms of technology, from cordless phones to snow boots, are always leftovers from the military - oriented inventions and devices. Then look at the architecture - especially in Europe, where people have this nice habit to preserve cultural heritage and tradition. And then, trying to predict and incorporate all the retro styles going around and around for years. It is an extremely hard task to create a world, especially if it is only few years in the future. All the sci-fi movies and books failed, more or less. Therefore (and Alex would disagree), I'd like to see our London more like a parallel world, with slight touches here and there, but we'll see. I like such challenges."
The series is deliberately designed to be 48 pages each, in part as a reaction to the current trend of 22-page comics told in a decompressed style, something de Campi hates.
"I pay $3 for a comic, it takes me 60 seconds to read, and nothing happens," said de Campi. "That's a lot of money for a 60 second hit. I mean, seriously, a coke habit would be cheaper. Almost all of what I read now are European comics (living in London, I get them cheap from Amazon.fr) and manga, because there is nothing out there in singles right now which captures my interest - aside from 'Sleeper,' and my LCS is crap at stocking Wildstorm titles so half the time it's sold out by the time I drag my lazy arse down there. I love sitting down to a good, action-packed, lengthy read. That's what we intend 'Smoke' to be. It's a really compressed thriller story.
"As we're dealing with a comic reading audience increasingly raised on and identifying with manga as the dominant sequential storytelling genre, I really believe we have to adjust the way we present stories to reflect that," continued de Campi. "And a publisher like IDW is more than happy to experiment and innovate. Do you know how many conversations I've had with the Big Two about wanting to do a B&W manga for them? Bookstore sales, action stories for girls, etc. They just can't think beyond the 22 pager. I mean, Marvel is getting there with 'Marvel Age' - Joe Quesada is right, this is by far the most important thing Marvel has done this year - except the colouring utterly goes to hell when reprinted on the cheap paper, and most of the books are only 88 pages so they look weeny next to the normal 150-page tankubon, but it's better than nowt. It would help if editors actually read the books (e.g. manga) that kids read today. Most don't."
"Plus, we wanted to make this format to be compatible with the world market - 46-48 pages is exactly the format of French hardcover albums," added Kordey. "If finished, after 3 years, this project would have almost 900 pages. That's something to think about if you want to break in to the Japanese market. Two episodes of 'Smoke' are ideal to put together as monthly, 96 page book in Italy. And so on and so forth. I'd like to imagine a big fat 900 page 'Smoke' collection in a bookstore, next to Stephen King or Tom Clancy's big fat books."
De Campi said that "Smoke" ended up at IDW Publishing after the creators were introduced by two British friends who also have projects set-up at the publisher, Rob Williams ("Cla$$war," as well as "Batman" and "Star Wars Tales") and Simon Fraser ("Nikolai Dante," "Hell House").
"The wonderful thing about the British comics scene is that everyone knows each other, and we see each other on a very regular basis," said de Campi. "Everyone is very supportive, and we all happily share editor contacts and so forth."
"IDW is about fresh, creative minds and creative freedom," added Kordey. "It means a chance to really go forward, if you think you have something new to say. What I like with IDW is they trust me, so they don't require supervising from the beginning, like to see layouts or finished pencils first, before final approval. They expect final product, and that's amazing and refreshing - that trust I won't screw up."
"Also, Igor had worked with Jeff Marriotte when he was at Wildstorm, and really respected him as an editor," continued de Campi. "I had a long chat with [IDW Editor-In-Chief] Chris Ryall at SDCC in late July, and we got on really well. Mid-August, Chris emails me and says it's on. I've found IDW a dream to work with. They are nimble, innovative, and their specialty in action/horror books fits 'Smoke' perfectly."
Getting back to the story, you might suspect that it's inspired by the current world wide political climate, which is partly true.
"The plot for the first arc of 'Smoke' dates from about August of 2003, so the world has come around to me, really," said De Campi. "I spent six years as an investment banker in emerging markets and have lived in Hong Kong, Manila, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. I've lived through currency crashes, oil strikes, state-sponsored corruption, IMF blundering, natural disasters and so forth. Plus, I was married to an army officer for three years. I've met all sorts of mercenaries and folks doing shady things involving the arms industry. And they always say, write about what you know. So I do."
Artistically, Kordey is challenged to bring a city with a well-known look in London to the comics page. Kordey's visited the city many times and works from memory as well as digital photos de Campi sends him. "A lot of London friends of mine have commented on how well Igor (who lives in Winnipeg) has captured the feel of, for example, Piccadilly Circus on Page 2 of the first issue," said de Campi.
"London, like every major city in the world, has a very specific personality and many books have been written with this personality, from Moorcock's 'Mother London,' Rutherford's 'London,' to Moore's 'From Hell' or Talbot's 'Heart of Empire.' There's no wonder - it's a magical city with huge energy and vitality. Wherever I'd go visit I'd always sense a millenniums worth of history lurking behind every corner, while at the same time I'd have the opportunity to see the best dressed girls or best new music around, or being mugged by football hooligans. What an experience for a history freak like me.
"One other challenge is the hard task to present my own, hopefully original vision of London. Aside from having a good impressions and memory of London, and having a quite extensive private reference library, I got a tremendous amount of help from Alex - she is taking this old unwritten rule about script-writer's obligation to provide the artist with reference."
As a creator-owned project, both creators have a lot more freedom with a project like "Smoke" than they would on a work-for-hire type book. Both de Campi and Kordey are taking this opportunity to challenge themselves and explore different sides of their artistic processes.
"'Smoke' is our laboratory," admitted de Campi. "In every book I'm pushing my ability to visually present a story. What I do may not be new to the comics world, but it's new to me. Igor encourages me in this, as it makes the book more enjoyable for him to draw. We also chuck around a lot of fine art references. The first splash page in Book 1 was basically described as, 'Hogarth's 'Gin Lane,' but with a mangy urban fox. Go!' In Book 1 we do a lot of interesting inter-cutting of scenes. Book 2 has an 18-panel silent double page spread I'm quite fond of. It's not a pointless, wanky splash; it advances several subplots quite significantly. Also, we're trying for a really cinematic feel to the action sequences - which I think we achieve, especially in the sequence which opens up Book 2. I think Book 2 is going to surprise a lot of people. It'll certainly be one of the most violent books on the shelf that month - maybe not what people expect from a female writer. One of the joys of being a comic writer is being able to sit around and contemplate what the proper sound effect is for a severed head hitting a train platform."
Kordey said that he's taken this opportunity to explore a number of different sides of his art in the fashions, architecture and graphic design he brings to the book and is exploring different ways of using his brush.
"I'm trying to be me again, to forget about styles, trends, schools (different ways of stylization or simplification) and just doing what I do and feel the best about it. I'm going back to the roots, coming full circle with regards to storytelling. In the beginning of my career, in the late seventies, I was a member of a very influential group of Yugoslavian young comic artists, called 'New Frame.' Experimenting and having fun was the call of the day, especially to find new ways of story telling. Thinking without borders, everything is possible. I continued that way for years. In early eighties I'd do 50 page comics with totally made-up language and lettering in the balloons , or a 20 page silent comic, or a comic made of splash pages only, or with 20 panels per page. So, emphasis was always on how to tell a story to be fresh, but clear to everybody and to have a natural pacing. Like time-flow, or accents on character's insight, body language, parallel cutting, and to maintain visual balance and good composition on each page. It's time to revisit and rebuild my own foundation, time to have real fun after a long time."
"As far as Igor's art is concerned, I couldn't be happier," added de Campi. "It's a totally different style from the heavy, expressionistic work he did on 'New X-Men.' This is delicate, lyrical - and his inks are things of beauty. I think it's going to completely blow people away. The book is also helped by being coloured by Len O'Grady, who has done a lot of work for '2000 AD.' Len is giving the book a very sophisticated, European flavour. A colourist can really make or break a book."