Over the past few years, Jamie S. Rich has built up quite the library of original graphic novels with his name on them, teaming up with artists like Joelle Jones, Natalie Nourigat, Marc Ellerby, Nicolas Hitori De and others. Later this year he'll add another book to the shelf, as he partners with Dan Christensen for Archer Coe, The Mind's Arrow. The 148-page black-and-white graphic novel is due out in June from Oni Press.
The story involves a stage hypnotist with real psychic powers, mysterious women, secrets, murder, serial killers and talking cats. Rich and Christensen were kind enough to chat with me for our fifth anniversary about the project.
JK Parkin: How did the two of you meet and come to work together on Archer Coe?
Jamie S. Rich: Dan apparently was well known in certain circles for pestering people to look at his art, one of whom was James Lucas Jones at Oni Press. Archer Coe, The Mind's Arrow had begun life as a webcomic idea I was tossing around, and at the time, I was paying for web hosting through James. I was inquiring with him about whether or not I had enough virtual space to launch such a thing, and he was more intrigued by the concept than he was interested in letting me head off and do it on my own. He introduced me to Dan as a way to bribe me to make sure Oni Press became the home for the project.
Dan Christensen: I’d pitched several projects to Oni Press over the years, but for one reason or another, none of them were ever picked up. We remained on good terms, though, and at one point, James Lucas Jones asked me if I’d be interested in drawing a story written by someone else. I was kind of reluctant at first, because I’d never worked with a writer before, but as soon as I started reading the script for Archer Coe, I was hooked. As much as it pains me to say something nice about Jamie, I have to admit that he’s an amazing writer, and he has a very thorough understanding of the noir genre. Archer Coe is a fabulous story, and I wanted to be a part of it from page one. I drew a couple of sample pages from the script, Jamie and Oni Press gave them the thumbs-up, and we were off and running.
Rich: In truth, we got along pretty quickly. It might help that he’s an ex-pat in France, and we’ve yet to meet face to face or even talk on the phone, because that might ruin it. I’d call it a double-negative: two old and crotchety guys, the cantankerousness cancels itself out.
What's the premise of the book?
Rich: I am not sure any longer what came first, the chicken or the egg, but the general idea was to kind of warp the private detective genre I had tackled with You Have Killed Me and maybe open it up a bit. With that book, Joëlle Jones and I had wanted to do something very traditional, and I began thinking about how folks like the Coen Bros. make films taking conventional material and refashioning it to fit their own sensibilities. Something like The Man Who Wasn't There, that turns old film noir tropes on their heads.
The idea was that Archer Coe was a stage hypnotist, but one with actual psychic powers. In a way, he's hiding in plain sight. People think it's a put-on, but at the same time, he is the best at what he does, because he really enters your mind and can root around in there. Hypnotism is a mind meld. It even allows him to talk to animals, because it unlocks language. Plus, any excuse to have talking cats, you know?
For the first story, I immediately wanted to challenge the concept and look at possible consequences and side effects. So, Archer is hired by a rich husband to try to solve why his wife is "frigid," but once he is inside the woman's mind, other secrets become apparent. At the same time, there is a serial killer who is using some kind of physical trickery to murder his victims. They call him "the Zipper" because he stabs his hand directly into your chest and pulverizes your heart, leaving a clean opening, in and out, you could put a zipper on it. The police think maybe Archer is this guy and is moonlighting as a homicidal maniac. Archer’s not sure. Maybe he is.
Christensen: [nods in agreement]
What kind of research did you guys put into the story, given the subject matter (hypnotism) and the pulp world it's set in?
Rich: Having the hypnotism be more of a, for lack of a better term, mutant power than a psychiatric discipline or a performance art, the actualities of "true" hypnotism were kind of right out the window. Part of Archer's approach is to expose the misconceptions about his vocation. He doesn't make people think they’re chickens. In fact, the one time we see him employing his craft on stage, he's curing someone of their addiction to cigarettes. So, that appealed to the lazy part of me, I didn't have to research anything!
It also adds a little hubris to Archer's character. There's a cockiness to how he acts, thinking he's the only one who knows how to do this kind of thing. But that's silly, someone taught him how to do it, and if one man can learn it, why not another? This will bite him on the ass time and again.
As far as the pulp or noir tradition, years of reading and watching means that stuff is basically in my blood. Lately, I’ve been devouring Matt Wagner’s Shadow and Zorro comics for Dynamite, which doesn’t hurt.
Christensen: Like Jamie, I’m a huge fan of noir and pulp stories, so we were on the same page from the get-go. Since the story and characters were already so well-defined and fleshed out by the time I came on board, the only research I needed to do was visual. I read several books about old-time stage performers and escape artists like Harry Houdini, and gathered photo reference of shady cabarets and stage magicians. Jamie was also a big help in that department. He sent along photo reference of cats and cabarets to work from, and he recommended several different movies for me to watch, in order to capture the atmosphere he was looking to create in the book.
What are some of the inspirations for Archer Coe, both story-wise and visually?
Rich: Dan and I had a similar love of old movies, and so we immediately started to trade. He put me on the trail of Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady from 1944, and I suggested he take a look at 1947's Nightmare Alley with Tyrone Power.
The Archer Coe mask, which you rarely see him without, was also chosen very much to recall characters like Eisner's The Spirit, and I know both Dan and I are big fans of Matt Wagner's Grendel, so the black-and-white approach owes a lot to Hunter Rose. Likewise, I kept referencing Kane by Paul Grist, as well as Paul's unique visual storytelling. And, of course, the more famous tuxedoed comic book magicians, like Mandrake and Zatanna.
Christensen: Jamie and I have similar taste in comics and old movies, like Matt Wagner’s Grendel, Paul Grist’s Kane, Siodmak’s The Killers, and Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, so when he’d describe different characters or scenes to me, all he had to do was throw out references to movies we’d both seen, or comics we’d both read. It made things really easy. Watching Nightmare Alley also had a huge impact on the way I drew Archer, the overall character design, and the scenes in the nightclub.
Is this a "done-in-one" story, or do you have ideas for further volumes?
Rich: This will definitely be a series, with at least three books. I've written the second volume, and drawing it is just getting under way. It's getting weirder and more visually complex now that I am writing specifically for Dan. I'm kind of a jerk, I can see my poor artists drawing such incredible things, and so I often make them. "You can draw a legion of dead people as well as a herd of cats, right? No biggie!"
This first volume is subtitled The Thousand Natural Shocks; the next will be The Way to Dusty Death. I have notes for a third, but no subtitle yet. I'll likely start writing that once Dan is a certain way into Vol. 2. I like to be finished with the next story by the time the artist is done with the previous installment. I don't like anyone having to wait for me.
With each book, we'll expand the knowledge we have of Archer and also the map we are seeing of his special world.
Christensen: There are definitely a lot more Archer Coe stories on the way. I’m committed to drawing as many Archer Coe books as Jamie sees fit to write.
What else are you guys working on?
Rich: I just wrapped the fifth issue of The Double Life of Miranda Turner last night. The third is due sometime this month, via Monkeybrain and comiXology. It's the superhero comic I am doing with George Kambadais, about a girl who didn't know her sister was a crimefigther named the Cat until her ghost showed up one day asking Miranda for help to solve her murder. George and I are very committed to that series and have a couple of story arcs outlined; we've got lots of Miranda stories to tell.
I'm also almost done writing a seven-issue series that I co-created with Megan Levens, and that will be coming from Image Comics this summer. It's actually our second book together; she's currently coloring a romance graphic novel we did for Oni Press while she draws this. The miniseries is more horror-oriented, a period piece. Both things should be announced pretty soon.
As for after that, I'm developing stuff with Nicolas Hitori de, who I worked with on Spell Checkers, and Joe Bowen, the artist of the webcomic Model Student. Chynna Clugston Flores and I are also talking about doing more together, so who knows? I’d still like to do a regular ol’ webcomic one of these days.
Christensen: Last summer I wrote and drew a 21-page espionage story called Run, which appeared in Vol. 5 of David Lloyd’s Aces Weekly digital comics magazine, and I’m currently working on a graphic novel called Riposte for French publisher Scutella éditions. As the title suggests, it’s a revenge story about a fencing master with a shady past who has been framed for murder. It’s scheduled for release in 2015.
Evileye Books, the folks who published Cullen Bunn’s excellent YA/horror novel Crooked Hills, will be publishing another project of mine, Paranormal. It’s about an ex-con with superhuman abilities, forced to track down a former accomplice who has made off with a briefcase full of cocaine belonging to the city’s most dangerous drug lord. The first three-part story arc was originally published here in France a few years ago, and the first 46-page volume should be out in early 2014, with other stories to follow.
I also have an idea for an espionage series, but it’s still in the very early stages of development, and I need to finish Archer Coe Vol.2 before I can begin working on it seriously.