Perceived harm: William Harms discusses 'Abel'

[Abel]Living in the vast expanse that is America you might get the impression from the news that all the bad, ugly crime happens in the major cities, while middle America is an oasis of sorts, the perfect place to raise a family and live out your golden years. William Harms, the man behind the story in "Abel," will show you that's not an entirely accurate description of life in the States.

William Harms may not be a name you're very familiar with. He started writing comics in the mid-1990s for a variety of publishers, including Caliber and Marvel. Around the time of "Abel's" original release by Slave Labor Graphics (explained further below), Harms found himself sucked in by the DotCom boom and essentially dropped out of the comics industry. Currently a senior editor for PC Gamer, Harms has returned to the industry he loves and plans to stick around for a while.

In the graphic novel "Abel," recently re-released by AiT/PlanetLar, Harms takes a look at life in America in the 1940s, specifically the evil that exists in a small town and how it affects a young boy named John.

"'Abel' is set during World War II in the small town of Friend, Nebraska," Harms told CBR News. "The main character is a boy named John who is constantly bullied and threatened by his older brother Philip. During the course of the story John becomes friends with a Chinese man named Mar, who is a servant for Friend's wealthiest resident. The townspeople don't trust Mar because he is Asian; it doesn't matter that the Chinese and Japanese were also at war. All that matters is that Mar looks like the enemy.

[Page 1]"The turning point in 'Abel' is when John watches his brother brutally murder a young woman. How the characters react to that act of violence sets the stage for the story's conclusion."

"Abel" found its start early in Harms life, during an assignment while he attended University.

"An assignment in one of the fiction classes I took in college required us to write a scene packed with emotion, so I wrote the opening scene of 'Abel,' where Philip kills the dog and then threatens to kill his brother. From that point I expanded it into a short story, which has been published a couple times, and I originally planned on writing the story as a novel.

"I was intrigued, though, by the idea of writing a 'literate' comic book, something that was influenced more by John Steinbeck than Stan Lee. That's why I ultimately decided to develop the story as a comic book."

The setting of "Abel" is one that Harms is intimately familiar with, as the agricultural state of Nebraska is where the writer spent his formative years.

"I grew up in Nebraska and a lot of the themes that resonate throughout 'Abel' - poverty, economic uncertainty, the value of hard work - were very present when I was growing up, especially during the farm crisis of the 1980's. I constantly heard stories about how hard the Depression and war years were, how people had to go to great lengths to survive, and as a result I've always been interested in exploring the people that lived in those times.

[Page 2]"And since 'Abel' deals with racism, the time period also let me create a believable setting for what happens during the course of the story. That's not to say that something like what happens in Abel couldn't happen today, because it could, but I think the time period adds a level of realism that would be absent from a modern setting.

"Abel" deals with some very dark themes and it's through the exploration of those events that the true character of each member of the story comes out. Harms doesn't shy away from the controversial and found real world events that helped form the story.

"I've always had an interest in history, particularly the events that people try to forget about and hide away," explained Harms. "One such event was the lynching of Will Brown in Omaha in 1919. It was truly a horrific event and there are pictures of the mob posing behind Brown's beaten and burned body. 'Abel' wasn't directly inspired by that event, but it was definitely something that was in the back of my mind while I was writing the story.

Originally "Abel" was published by Slave Labor Graphics and was meant to be a five-issue series. Then that was to be cut down to three issues. In the end, due to the many delays, SLG decided to release it as an original graphic novel. Out of print for some time now, AiT/PlanetLar's Larry Young took up the call to bring this book back into circulation. The new edition differs from the original in that it's printed in sepiatone, shades of brown, versus the original black and white. "That was Larry's idea. In part, it helps separate the new AiT/Planet Lar edition from the old SLG version, but it also imbues the book with an earthy, gritty feeling that works really well with the story. It's a very clever way of adding some depth to the story's world without going to a full color treatment."

[Page 3]The art for "Abel" is provided by Mark Bloodworth, who you'll learn later in this interview will collaborate with Harms on another book. "The original artist for 'Abel' took a job elsewhere, and in my search for a replacement I called Joe Pruett (who edited 'Negative Burn' at the time) and he gave me the names of four or five artists who had done work for Caliber. One of those artists was Mark and we hit it off right away. He's a great collaborator."

For those that enjoyed what they read in "Abel" they'll be happy to hear that a thematic sequel to the book has already begun to be sketched out, but it's still a ways off before seeing publication. "It'll have an entirely new set of characters and will be set in the modern age. The story will be centered around the meat packing plants in Nebraska and deal with the tensions between the white residents and the people who have been brought up from Mexico to work in the plants. One of the biggest issues in the Midwest is immigration, legal or illegal, and that's something that I really want to explore, along with the ways in which large agribusinesses exploit workers.

"The difficulty lies in making sure the story doesn't simply retread 'Abel's' plot points, which is why I'm really taking my time. I hope to start writing it in a few months." Next up for Harms is "Conspiracy Killer," a 120+ page original graphic novel coming later this year from AiT/Planet Lar with "Abel" artist Mark Bloodworth.

"On the surface ['Conspiracy Killer'] is about an FBI agent trying to put his life back together and he happens to hear some things that he shouldn't have, but there's a lot more to it than that," explained Harms. "What do we want out of life? When do we let life's disappointments overwhelm us to the point that those disappointments define who we are as a person? I think those are some interesting angles to pursue and it's all set against a backdrop of secret governments and assassins.

[Page 4]"The FBI agent's name is Paul Dailey and at the time of the story he's doing drug enforcement. At one point in his career he was considered a 'rising star,' but now he's pretty much burned out. He's got some personal issues that boil to the surface during the course of the story and those issues really define the story's path and outcome.

"Dailey and his partner are doing audio surveillance on some suspected drug dealers and Dailey picks up a fragment of a broken signal where two men are talking about assassinating an unnamed U.S. Senator. That initial fragment doesn't contain a lot of information, but it's the catalyst that gets things rolling; especially when the two men that Dailey heard find out that someone was listening to them."

From that point forward the story and action really heat up.

"There will be a lot of action in The Conspiracy Killer - gun fights, buildings blowing up, etc. - but at its core it's a psychological thriller. It's a study of Dailey's character and how he responds to the escalating circumstances."

After suffering a lay off like so many did in the DotBomb era that followed the Internet boom, something good came out of that lack of a job: an opportunity to watch reruns of a show that highlighted the strange and bizarre, narrated by one Leonard Nimoy. "I was laid off for over a year from my dotcom job and during that time I watched 'In Search Of' religiously," revealed Harms. "One of the episodes dealt with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it made me think: What if one person was responsible for all of the assassinations that have taken place over the last 30-40 years? Who or what would be behind such an operation? The story took off from that initial idea."

Thematically "Conspiracy Theory" is dramatically different when compared to "Abel," a decision Harms made to keep fans guessing as to what his next move will be.

[Page 5]"It was a conscious decision to branch out into some other areas with my next couple projects. 'Abel' is an extremely dark story and Larry thought it was important that I make an effort to not get pigeon-holed as the 'bleak writer.' And I think that's a smart move.

"And that's the great thing about comics, especially original graphic novels. In novels, writers tend to get trapped within the genre that gave them success and they're pretty much stuck there. With OGNs, there's a lot more freedom to jump around, to try different things, and to build a large and diverse body of work."

Following "Conspiracy Killer" will be another OGN called "Dead or Alive," wherein Harms tackles the horror genre. "It's set in the 1880's and is about two brothers who rob a stage and then accidentally unleash an Indian curse that turns an entire town in ravenous zombies. (Unlike the zombies in the Romero movies, these zombies talk, use tools, run, etc.) Lots of mayhem, zombie killing, etc."

"Their names are Paul and John Smith and they're in their early 20's. The story takes place in Arizona, but the brothers are actually from Nebraska. Their father lost the family farm and then committed suicide, so with nothing to lose Paul and John have come west to find their fortune.

"The initial conflict in the story is between Paul and John. John believes in the virtue of hard work whereas Paul thinks that they should take the easy route; to that end, he convinces John to rob a stage. John immediately regrets participating in that action and he and his brother pretty much have a falling out because of it. Unfortunately, John can't completely break from Paul because there are hordes of zombies chasing them."

Last year saw the horror comic "30 Days of Night" take everyone by surprise, becoming one of the most sought after and critically praised books of the year. Horror comics have been under-represented for years in comics and Harms feels the time is ripe for the genre to take off and to distance itself from the horror style set by the now dissolved Chaos! Comics.

"I've been working on 'Dead or Alive,' in one form or another, for about five years now," said Harms. "I think there is a lot of potential for horror comics, as long as the stories are compelling and literate. I really hope we've moved past the point where a book featuring a half-naked woman slicing people's heads off is classified as 'horror.'"

At this point in time "Dead or Alive" finds itself without an artist and Harms is actively looking for artists to submit their work. While he'd love to work with an established artist ("And if anyone is interested, please contact me," says Harms), he's interested in talking with anyone with a dark and gritty artistic style. "The world of 'Dead or Alive' is full of mud walls and grime and filth and the art needs to convey that," said Harms. Artists interested in talking further with Harms should contact him at mail@williamharms.com.

"Abel" can be ordered by your favorite comics retailer from AiT/PlanetLar.

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