Unbound | Dirk Tiede on Paradigm Shift

Dirk Tiede’s Paradigm Shift lives up to its name: What starts as a buddy-cop story evolves, in the course of the first act, into a dark tale of werewolves and angst. What remains constant is the relationship between the main characters, Kate and Mike, who stay loyal to one another despite the many twists Tiede puts them through.

Tiede recently wrapped up the first act with volume 3 of the print edition, so it seemed like a good time to check in and ask some questions.

Brigid: What was your initial inspiration for Paradigm Shift?

Dirk: It wasn't so much a single point of inspiration, but a rolling series of them ranging from superheroes, role-playing games, cop shows, '80s action movies, horror novels, and eventually, anime and manga, too. The characters originally came from a tabletop superhero role-playing game I played at a time when I was reading X-Men and The New Mutants and watched way too much Law & Order. And while I was also a big fan of Stephen King's earlier works like Carrie and Firestarter, I also ate up films like Robocop and Lethal Weapon. Later on I discovered works like Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and Masamune Shirow's Appleseed, which played a big role in rekindling my interest in drawing comics. I was really into The X-Files when I finally started writing Paradigm Shift, but I also took more than a few cues from movies like Running Scared (the one from the '80's with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines) for the action/comedy elements.

However, it wasn't until I moved to Chicago that I was finally motivated to pick up the pencil and draw the comic. There was something about living in a real, breathing city that suddenly got me excited about doing it. Bringing in real places was the thing that made telling the story much more compelling than just another experiment in genre remixing.

Strange as it sounds, I should also mention that aside from American Werewolf in London, werewolf films didn't have much influence on the story until well after I was already posting Paradigm Shift on the web. While I've found a few gems, my opinion remains that most of them are dreadful.

All that said, like any good creator I'm constantly letting new books, films, comics, and other media inspire ways to make my stories more complex and compelling, and it's an ever-changing list. I also am still a big fan of police procedurals, though these days my tastes range more towards shows like The Wire.

Brigid: What about the characters—were they based on people you know, or were they riffs on standard archetypes?

Dirk: A little of both, of course. Just as most characters are little pieces of the their authors, Kate and Mike embody different parts of my own personality; the deliberate, calculating left brain and intuitive, creative right brain intentionally echoing the Apollo vs. Dionysus dichotomy of intellect opposing emotion. Of course, this falls perfectly in line with cool-headed vs. fiery-tempered buddy cop stereotypes, too. The male/female pairing was also a conscious nod as well, though that's definitely a more common trope these days.

Though, while using archetypes allowed for quick introductions, the idea was to stretch beyond them as the story progressed. Instead of just following a formula, I could let the situations expose new wrinkles on the characters. I also brought in elements from people around them to me. Dialogue was often gleaned from real conversations. Mike's martial arts training and zen outlook borrow much from a couple of friends, and Kate's grumpy side has roots in the real world as well.

Brigid: It seems like in the beginning, you use a lot of cop-show tropes—the wisecracks, people out on a walk finding the body, the chewing out by the superior, etc. Then later on the story turns in a different way. Were you consciously adopting that structure, and how did it help you (or constrain you) as you wrote?

Dirk: Yes. That was deliberate. The premise from the beginning was to shift genres mid-stream, so I wanted to use recognizable story elements to set up expectations, and then knock them down.

That said, considering the long timeframe it took to write and draw the series, my tastes and expectations also changed through the course of writing the story. What started out to be more of an action-comedy took on a much more serious tone towards the end.

Brigid: How did you plan out the story? Did you know from the beginning how it would end, and how you would get there, or are you improvising as you go?

Dirk: I originally wrote the entire plot out—first in outlined notes, and then in prose form. However, when it came to scripting, I would write it in fits and starts, often letting new inspiration shape the details of each scene. Because of this, there are elements in the story that play a much bigger role in the final pages than appeared in the original draft. For instance, the scene in Part Two where Kate and Mike interview the homeless witness Frederick was written after sharing dinner with a homeless man who told me his own story, but never appeared in the original outline.

I should also mention that I don't do everything entirely alone. I have a friend who plays editor for me, who's been looking over my scribbling ever since I handed her the original outline at a coffee shop in the fall of 1998. I bounce story ideas off her, and send her my scripts, and she sends back suggestions and dialogue changes. We go back and forth, and the story is much stronger for it. She likes to keep a low profile online, though I give her due credit in the books.

Brigid: More so than most comics, Paradigm Shift really has a sense of place—you set the different scenes in specific neighborhoods, and you include carefully rendered buildings and cityscapes in your backgrounds. Yet halfway through the comic, you moved to Massachusetts. Has that changed the comic’s sense of place?

Dirk: More so for the upcoming story line. I did some planning before we moved in 2008 to make sure I had all the reference material I needed in order to complete Part Three. At this point I have thousands of Chicago photos in my library, but it doesn't hurt that I make it back there a few times a year for conventions since we left. I always bring my camera and snap more pictures when I'm visiting.

However, the new story line finds Kate and Mike on the road, and while some scenes will still take place in Chicago, I'll be working in new locations. While I'm not strictly limiting myself to specific places I've been, I am trying to include regions for which I have at least some familiarity. I also plan to do some research on my travels to and from conventions this spring and summer, so I can continue to pay attention to the details of my settings.

Brigid: Also, you use a lot of unusual panels and devices, like the scene where Kate and Mike are chasing a bad guy, and Mike takes the stairs and Kate takes the elevator, and you use a stairstep pattern for the panels, with the elevator numbers counting off the floors. Which comes first in a scene like that—do you decide to draw the scene, then fit it into the story, or do you start with the scene and work toward the composition?

Dirk: While the story always comes first, I don't always know how exactly I am going to depict a scene when I first write it. It depends. The trick with the stair-step panels vs. elevator numbers was just a spur of the moment inspiration that occurred to me one day while riding one up to my job on the 20th floor in downtown Chicago at the time. Whereas I had always planned to do away with the distinct panel order and borders in the nightmare sequences, though I didn't know exactly how until I was drawing the final layouts.

Regardless, I always make sure my panel compositions somehow reflect what is going on in the story. For example, I tend to make the action scenes' panels more energetic and angular, and overlap them to give a sense that all these chaotic events are happening all at once, and the panels themselves almost appear to fall down the page as a result.

Brigid: To what extent are you thinking about the eventual print edition as you work on the comic? Do you deliberately structure the story so each part will fit neatly into a single volume, for instance?

Dirk: The plan from the start was always to release the story in book form, and I wrote each part with that in mind. That said, I didn't let specific page counts dictate how long each book went.

The first three books Part One: Equilibrium, Part Two: Agitation, and Part Three: Emergence make up what I call ACT I, which I initially intended to be a single book. However, after taking three years to just complete Equilibrium, I decided to release it in pieces.

I did alter Part Three's story somewhat to allow for a more thematically complete end to ACT I. Admittedly, it's still pretty open-ended, but it's a vast improvement over the blatant cliff-hanger called for in the original outline.

Now that I have the first three volumes complete, I will probably opt for the original plan when I run out of copies of the current books, and reprint them as an ACT I omnibus.

Brigid: What sort of changes do you make to the comic when you go to the print edition?

Dirk: It's varied from book to book. Part One: Equilibrium saw the most changes before its first edition, because it was my first foray into the professional comics world. I made substantial changes to the artwork in the first 20 pages of the story, including redrawing several panels, and completely re-doing the graytones on several pages. I also did touchups and updated the lettering throughout the book.

Part Two saw some touchups to artwork and dialogue, but nothing on the same scale as the first book. Part Three mostly just saw minor touchups, but I did re-kern all the lettering. It was probably more work than I really needed to do, but I'm a completionist. Once I started it, I had to finish.

Then there's the footnotes. I compile those once the artwork is complete.

Brigid: Do you go back and put those changes into the webcomic, or does it remain as an earlier version?

Dirk: Up until I launched my new website, only the most glaring ones. The archives at Webcomicsnation.com and ModernTales.com have the updated version of Part One: Equilibrium, but Parts Two and Three remain the same as when I first posted them.

However, my new website (www.paradigmshiftmanga.com) has updated versions of the artwork to all three books—as well as footnotes!

Brigid: The ending of volume 3 was more like a beginning! You still have a lot of questions to answer and situations to resolve. (Like, are there still man-made werewolves wandering at large in Chicago and elsewhere?) How do these three volumes fit into the story as a whole?

Dirk: While I altered ACT I's story line so it would be complete enough that it could stand on its own should I get run over by that proverbial bus, it was always intended to be the setup for the larger story. If this had been a superhero book, it would have been Kate's origin story, if you will.

ACT I ends with the first true—dare I say it?—"paradigm shift" as Kate and Mike discover the true nature of their investigations, and there's distinct change in genres as ACT II begins. Where ACT I is a cop story, ACT II will be a fugitive story.

Rest assured there is more on the way! I'll be starting up ACT II later this spring or early summer on my new website, starting with Part Four. And, assuming that I complete ACT II on schedule in a few years, there will also be an ACT III down the road.

Sebastian Shaw Krakoa
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