Warren Pleece on "Life Sucks" and "Incognegro"

With two very different books out this spring, British artist Warren Pleece is further making inroads into mainstream American comics. Having previously teamed with Grant Morrison on "The Invisibles" and contributed to "Hellblazer," Pleece now adds credits on the recently released "Incognegro" and the upcoming "Life Sucks."

"Incognegro," published by Vertigo and written by Mat Johnson (Hellblazer: Papa Midnite), tells the story of a black man with skin light enough to pose as white who reports on lynchings in the American south in the early 19th century. Pleece's stark black and white illustrations further emphasize the book's racial overtones and lend a gritty edge to the noir elements of the story.

"Life Sucks," released April 29 and by First Second, is a much lighter fare, telling the story of Dave, a young man recently turned into a vampire. Writers Jessica Abel ("La Perdida") and Gabe Soria de-romanticize the vampire genre by sticking the mostly apathetic Dave in the night shift in a Los Angeles convenience store. Pleece's idiosyncratic style gives "Life Sucks" a modern, realistic feel while combining the necessary B-movie vampire elements.

In the midst of many in-progress projects, Warren Pleece found the time to speak with CBR News about "Incognegro" and "Life Sucks," as well as the other work he's presently tackling.

How did you get attached to these projects? What about the scripts drew your interest?

["Laika" creator] Nick Abadzis is a friend of mine and also of Jessica [Abel]. He was in New York and knew that Jessica, Gabe [Soria] and Mark Siegel at First Second were looking for a suitable artist for "Life Sucks" and he suggested me. Things went on from there.

I really liked Jessica and Gabe's debunked take on the old vampire thing, the fact that they're all working in these crappy jobs with crappy lives. Also, setting it in LA, somewhere you never think of as not being sunny and warm, set against a backdrop of strip malls and wide featureless freeways. I also like '30s screwball comedies, and it's not often you get to work on a book that combines that with vampires, teens and kitchen sink drama.

Another factor was Mark Siegel's enthusiasm at First Second to produce some really good books with really good artists and writers from around the world. It was all kind of new and starting off, and I liked that and was pretty keen to be part of it.

I was approached by [Vertigo editor] Jon Vankin to draw "Incognegro" while I was nearing the end of "Life Sucks" and couldn't believe my luck. Here was a really great story that seemed to tick all my boxes. Not only was the subject matter really interesting to me, but I felt like I'd already been immersed in that period of America's past. My wife, Sue, is a lecturer of American literature and popular culture of the '20s and '30s. As well as all of that, I'd get to draw loads of moody characters in suits and fedoras.

When did you draw these books?

I started "Life Sucks" in the late spring of 2005 and didn't finish till the early months of 2007. It was a long haul, further complicated by the fact that I'd started "Incognegro" at the end of 2006. Sometimes, as a freelancer, you just can't turn work down, especially when they're both great projects to work on. "Incognegro" was wrapped up by August, 2007. I'd got a bit faster by then.

With "Life Sucks," what kind of feel were you trying to imbue in the book? Were there any influences of previous works about vampires, or did you try to steer clear of those references?

First thoughts were to reacquaint myself with loads of cheesy Hammer flicks and Gabe, being an expert on practically everything like that, had some good suggestions, but often I make do with the bare minimum of reference or scan over something just to get things started. For "Life Sucks," it was important to convey the mundane backdrop of Dave's life, so, rather than watch and rip-off loads of vampire-related stories, it was more important to get LA right in all its parking lot glory.

While it features vampires, "Life Sucks" is much more a story of everyday life. Was it a challenge at all to keep the story visually interesting during some of its slower moments?

That was probably the hardest thing to do sometimes. After drawing countless shelves in the Last Stop stacked with cigarettes, cereal etc., I vowed to draw my next project in a desert. Also, there's a lot of dialogue when it's all about the dialogue, but that's the challenge sometimes; getting character subtleties across in those scenes is just as rewarding and important as great big splash pages and it pays off with the end result.

"Incognegro" is obviously a much different sort of book. What was your approach to that project, and how did that differ from "Life Sucks"?

I really wanted to draw "Incognegro" when I read Mat Johnson's script for many reasons, but mostly because it was an excellent, edgy story tackling a difficult but really interesting subject from a period in American history I'm really into. And, I've always loved film noir. So, I probably approached it like that, a film. Before I started, I researched a lot of documentary photo archives which helped me set the scene. Once I start a project I don't usually keep going back to the reference unless it's something very specific. It's already in my head.

Apart from superficial differences, like getting the period detail right, cars, suits and dresses, my approach was pretty much the same as "Life Sucks;" a good steeping in the subject matter and background and then boosh, on with the show.

One of the most noticeable aspects about your art in "Incognegro" is the lack of halftones or grays. Was the use of only black and white and high contrasts a decision made to emphasize the racial aspect of the story?

When I started drawing "Incognegro," the idea was to have another artist do a halftone wash. This had been done on some other Vertigo books and worked really well. It wasn't till I was well into the book that I found out they were going to leave the artwork as it was, which I was glad of really. Whether that was a deliberate decision I don't know, but I guess you could interpret it that way. It's how I usually like to draw.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I'm currently drawing a story for Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor," which is a nice privilege. I'm also hoping to get my old magazine Velocity collected as a book and finally get my finger out and sort out a Web site for both of my fans. Apart from that, I've been writing some new stuff myself and with my brother Gary.

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