"Postcards" Part 3: Robert Tinnell's "Midnight Caller"

Jason Rodriguez here, editor of "Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened," a graphic anthology coming June 26 th from Villard Books featuring 16 stories of war, terror, salvation and action inspired by used postcards.

Day three of our takeover of CBR. Friday we spoke with Ande Parks about Holmes Falkenstein, $10,000, and Capitol Hill. Today we're with Robert Tinnell, who collaborated with Brendon and Brian Fraim on "The Midnight Caller: Holiday in Hades," a throwback to the golden-age of comics that we all love. Robert was one of the first people to help me with this project. He didn't even know who I was, but he agreed to chat with me for an hour-or-so about publishing graphic novels. His experience, especially with the amazing "Feast of the Seven Fishes," helped give me that push I needed early on. He brought the Fraim Brothers along with him and their artwork was nothing short of inspiring.

They collaborated on a postcard that was stamped, but never mailed. Addressed to a Mrs. George Albright of Perkasia, Pennsylvania, it reads:

"Hello Annie -

Did you know who you waved to this morning?


Jason: I think of all the creators, you had the loosest card. It was the type of card that you could literally do anything with and I was really hoping you'd turn in something very unique to the book. As it turns out, your story is the closest we got to a superhero story - you didn't disappoint. Was it the first idea that came to you? Was it difficult to make that leap from a real postcard with real people to a crime-fighting masked avenger?

Robert: I'm glad you're acknowledging it! When I got that card I was so stumped. There's nothing more paralyzing to me as a writer than no boundaries - and this card had almost none. A portion of the final story - pre-masked avenger - hit me almost immediately and I can't really tell you why without giving away an important plot twist. The decision to go with a costumed crime-fighter was born of something else, however. I love to study comics - the history of comics. I'm fascinated by the way they've evolved. And I got to thinking - what if I tried to write a comic that employed the sort of storytelling one would find back in the thirties? Not allow myself to use any of the cinematic techniques I usually employ, right? Which was tough. But I'm glad I did it. At the very least it gave me some boundaries. As far as making the jump from the real postcard to a flight of fantasy - that wasn't so bad because, again, it also gave me some boundaries and visual opportunities and partially-cured my creative paralysis.

Jason: I have an early email from you, dated May 24th, 2006, in which you said, "As to the artist - I'd really like this to feel like a Bob Kane or even early Eisner - just something evocative of the era."

I don't know if I made this comment to you or to James, but after reading your script, I realized that this would only work with the art style you were thinking of. You, essentially, wrote a 1930s comic story. Exposition-filled, explosive shots -- you packed a 22-page comic into 8 pages -- I even asked you if you wanted a ninth page. Early on, I was a little afraid that people wouldn't "get it," but as I started seeing the character sketches and the pages -- my fears were alleviated.

Were you stressing a bit as well, or were you confident that it would come together the way it did?

Robert: Oh, I was stressing. Trying to capture the storytelling of the '30s and '40s in any meaningful fashion raises a lot of issues. My biggest fear was - yeah, you want to do some incredibly compressed storytelling in a style that passed out of the norm a long, long time ago. Will readers even care?

One of my biggest worries was trying to write period. This story is not in my usual voice. I actually forced myself to do a few things I would never normally do. In fact, there's one sentence that drove me nuts, but I knew back in the day it would have been phrased as such. And then when it came to his powers I played that a little loose -- as though you could tell the concepts behind him were vague and somewhat evolving and we were stumbling into one of his early adventures -- not quite at the very beginning, but definitely when the character was developing. Because as any student of the Golden Age knows, that's what happened. Superman couldn't fly at one point, right, so I'm deliberately introducing minor inconsistencies with the character. Whether that's bad or good I'll leave to the reader to decide, but it was fun to experiment.

One thing was certain, I had to have the right illustrator or the demands I was putting on the piece were going to bury it. However, as soon as I thought up the story I thought of the Fraim brothers. They don't do Kane or Eisner -- they do Fraim -- which was perfect for the story because they have such a signature style - something else I wanted for the piece. You know, the way you look at certain Golden Age comics and you know who the artist is immediately. Of course, they'll tell you their style is more rooted in the Silver Age -- and it is -- but it's also classic comic art. The other thing I knew for sure was that they'd be incredibly meticulous in their research and I wasn't disappointed. There's a Model "T" in the story that is so phenomenally rendered -- oh, and one of those huge wood cook stoves in another panel - and they're just flawless. More than anything, I knew they'd really bring home a masked crime-fighter in the classic sense -- and they did.

Jason: They also pulled off some wonderful dynamic panels. My absolute favorite is the one were the Midnight Caller is hijacking our mystery man, Rodney. There's so much energy and movement in that shot, you don't get that enough these days. You kind of loose that electricity when you have these highly rendered and highly realistic shots.

Robert: They make every panel count, I think. There's one I loved -- when you see the Midnight Caller reacting to the effects of his "power" -- and they added this really graphic zig-zags into the panel - as if to charge it with electricity. It's just wonderful stuff. All the more so because their pencils and inks are so very tight.

Jason: Anyway, let's get on the name a bit - The Midnight Caller. Where did that come from?

Robert: As a kid it struck me while watching "True Grit" -- Kim Darby uses the phrase. Anyway, I don't know what made it pop into my head. Just seems like something somewhat archaic from that period -- definitely not the name of a modern or post-modern hero where you have to get all terse and edgy like Venom. I should try my hand at that maybe - develop characters like Placebo! or Gravitas! Sorry. Work shopping on your time...

Robert's going to go make up some more characters now, and we'll be back tomorrow with our final two "Postcards" profiles, starting with Matt Kindt, the illustrator behind Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's "The History of a Marriage," as well as the book's cover artist and designer. If you still haven't had your "Postcards" fix, feel free to check out the Postcards' blog. I stop by several times a week, talk up the creators, share some Postcards, and share some artwork - whatever floats my boat.

PS - I'll respond to your letter this week.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.

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