Victor Riches is not likely a name you'd recognize – unless you happen to follow Arizona politics. Currently Chief of Staff in the State Senate, Riches as authored many speeches and articles for politicians, and is not a comic book writer. Or, at least, he wasn't one until now. The politico has teamed with veteran creators Steven Grant ("The Punisher: Circle of Blood," "Badlands") and Tom Mandrake ("The Spectre") for his first graphic novel, "The Safest Place," a gritty, globe-spanning politically charged thriller that follows the trials of Matthew Castle, a war photojournalist with a crucial goal: to feel – literally.
Matthew Castle is a character with what Steven Grant characterizes as quite a bit of emotional baggage. The co-writer told CBR News, "[Matthew] has mainly specialized in war footage from Afghanistan and places like that, though he works out of San Francisco. Mainly he wants to feel, literally. Most people don't know it, they just think he's naturally fearless, but he has a rare disease that keeps him from feeling pain. Which has its upside - you don't feel pain - but also its downside; pain is often an early warning system that tells you something is seriously wrong, like you've just been shot and you're bleeding to death. Due to incidents in his past, he's also disconnected emotionally, but he wants to feel, he wants to be normal. He wants to recapture the sense of security and belonging he had, briefly, as a child, before a lot of bad things happened."
Despite his obvious setbacks, circumstances conspire to put Matthew on a bloody trek from war-torn Afghanistan to the dangers of the Sudan, trying to locate a missing girl. "Along the way, he becomes entangled in an international plot that includes the vicious Sudanese slave trade and one of most psychotic killers you'd never want to meet," Victor Riches told CBR News. "Matthew's own sanity comes into question as he delves deeper and deeper into the psyches of the very cold-blooded killers who kidnapped the girl."
About his inspiration for the story, Riches explained, "It was really twofold. First, I wanted to tell a realistic action story that could include the very real, yet rarely mentioned, evils of the slave trade that still exists in parts of the Middle East.
"Second, as a longtime comic book fan, I thought it would be pretty interesting to explore the motivations behind the classic 'loner' character. The comic book world is full of great loner characters -- those who bury their emotions in pursuit of a single-minded objective. Yet their motivations are rarely explained as anything more than the pursuit of revenge or justice. I thought it would be cool to go deeper than that, and show a possible 'origin' for such characters."
Steven Grant became involved with "The Safest Way" by way of a mutual friend, and of course Riches himself was a fan of Grant's seminal work with The Punisher at Marvel Comics. Asked to help out, Grant collaborated with Riches on turning the story into a graphic novel.
"When I heard Steven Grant was involved I got interested right away," Tom Mandrake told CBR News. "Steven and I have worked together on only a few projects but they have been unique and challenging. We adapted 'Hamlet' for 'Classics Illustrated' and updated the old time radio show 'Pat Novak for Hire' for Moonstone. 'The Safest Place' is another new genre for us to explore, and I love to work in all comics genres. I guess the only one I haven't touched on would be romance comics."
Known for his highly expressive and sometimes fantastical artwork, Mandrake had to do a little extra work for "The Safest Place." "From the Sudan to San Francisco, 'The Safest Place' locales are primarily places I have never visited," said the artist. "Lots of Google image searches were involved. This is the second project I've done that takes place in San Francisco, the first being 'Pat Novak For Hire.' I'm told I do a good 'Frisco, and I'd like to get there sometime soon!"
Additionally, Mandrake took a new approach in creating his particularly dynamic artwork for the book. "Rather than work with complete pages I was drawing single panels on separate sheets of paper and assembling them in Photoshop later," explained the artist. "I was trying to force myself to work instinctively and create an edgy, frenetic feel."
"Really, for a comic book fan like me, it was a dream come true," Riches gushed. "Tom Mandrake and Steven Grant are two of the all-time greats in the field and to get to work with them on 'The Safest Place' was nothing short of an amazing experience for me. Steven forgets more story ideas in a day than most people come up with in a lifetime, and Tom's skills as an artist are second to none. These are the guys, after all, who literally defined such great characters as the Punisher and Spectre. Working with them has been extremely enjoyable and rewarding."
Only a part-time comics writer, Riches' day job brings a unique view to his fiction. "I've been working in politics for the past several years and am currently the Chief of Staff of the Arizona State Senate," Riches said. "I've written numerous speeches and articles for politicians, but my first love has always been writing fiction."
"I think anyone who enjoys suspenseful action stories will really love 'The Safest Place,' continued Riches. "Writers who I admire such as Geoff Johns, Joe R. Lansdale and Ed Brubaker have previewed the book and they all really enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to getting it out there to as wide of an audience as possible. I think anyone who gives it a chance will come away extremely satisfied."
"The book's an action thriller," said Grant, "so that audience is its natural market, but we also thought of it as a novel as much as we considered it 'graphic.' "It's not quite 'Bourne Identity' intensity action, but it's in that general realm, and I don't see why fans of thriller writers like David Morrell or Stephen Hunter wouldn't be right at home."
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