To celebrate the publication of HELL & GONE by Duane Swierczynski, Duane has collaborated with SWEETS author/illustrator Kody Chamberlain on an original Charlie Hardie comic. Click here to view the comic. If you are on an iPhone or iPad, you should view it through this link. Duane sat down with Kody recently to talk about what he’s working on.
DS: Did the idea for SWEETS start with Katrina, or had the idea been bouncing around your head in other forms?
KC: I was working on the core mystery in SWEETS almost two years before Katrina hit and I had about 80% of a rough first draft complete. The major story turns were there along with the setting and most of the main characters, but I hit a few roadblocks with the story and it just wasn’t working. Around that time, freelance work starting coming in so I put my script on the shelf for a while and illustrated books with Steve Niles, Keith Giffen, Josh Fialkov, and a few others. I learned a lot by working with so many good writers along the way and I spent many nights and weekends reading professional comic and film scripts, grinding through various books on scriptwriting, and brainstorming new concepts. I was determined to learn as much as I could before giving my script another pass.
When Katrina hit New Orleans and Mississippi, I remember seeing a news report a few hours before the storm and a reporter asked about a high-profile murder investigation that was in progress. The police spokesman said they were hard at work on the investigation, but he was clearly spin doctoring and I remember thinking how tough it must have been to try to get any actual police work done during the chaos of hurricane preparation and the logistics of a major evacuation. That press conference rolled around in my head for a while and I kept coming back to it and thinking about the family of that murder victim and their desire for justice.
Two weeks after Katrina, my area was hit by Hurricane Rita. Major portions of neighboring Cameron Parish had flooding as high or higher than New Orleans, and several costal towns were wiped off the map completely. Thankfully, my neighborhood didn’t flood, we mostly got high winds, rain, and power outages. I’m no stranger to hurricanes, I’ve been through a half dozen major storms in my lifetime, but for Rita, I was having to deal with the stress of several strict comic book deadlines and doing my absolute best to wrap up an issue before the storm. I did my best, but I still blew the deadline.
After the cleanup, the story pieces for SWEETS started to snap into place and I understood how a murder investigation preceding a devastating hurricane would be a nightmare scenario for a dedicated homicide detective. If there was ever an opportunity to get away with murder in New Orleans, what better time than the days before Katrina? Both Katrina and Rita were still fresh in my mind, and my personal experiences started to inform my fictional story. I couldn’t help but wonder how many killers, robbers, and rapists got off because of the chaos, the evacuation, and the mountains of evidence that got destroyed. That storm was a ticking time bomb for any detective trying to solve a murder, and for a killer, it was the perfect cover.
One concept that truly interested me is knowing the readers would be fully aware of the outcome of Katrina in New Orleans. They’ll bring in their own emotions and memories as they watch my detective try to battle this mystery with no knowledge of what the consequences would be for the city. He’s on the Titanic and has no clue the ship is going down. But we do.
With all that in mind, I dusted off my script and shifted my setting to just a few days before Katrina, and I hammered away at the keys until the script was done.
DS: The subtitle is, “A New Orleans Crime Story.” Could you imagine setting SWEETS anywhere else? What is it about N.O. that fires your imagination?
KC: New Orleans is the perfect town for noir-inspired stories. Sure, it’s sexy and nostalgic, but it has an undeniable dark side that’s always on display. The city has an intimate relationship with war, murder, corruption, brutal weather, oppression, depression, civil rights battles, poverty, and just about every human struggle known to man. Through it all, the city pulls itself together and fights to the finish with grit and style unlike anywhere else in the world.
The culture and humanity of South Louisiana is particularly interesting because it’s infused with strong elements of magic and superstition. Voodoo continues to thrive, street psychics are treated as close personal advisors, traiteurs are called in to heal, and folklore is passed down to every new generation including my favorite, the Rougarou monster that wanders the swamps of South Louisiana. The music, food, and holidays also hold genuine mystique for the people in South Louisiana. I’ve also found South Louisiana and New Orleans are often misrepresented in comics because so many writers don’t understand or bother to research the reality from the Hollywood stereotypes. The comic reader is asked to believe every day in New Orleans is Mardi Gras and everything happens on Bourbon Street. They’re asked to associate Cajun culture with New Orleans instead of accurately associating it with Creole culture or the cultural blending of the French, Spanish, Haitian, etc. When people meet me, they’re surprised to learn that Cajuns don’t have a southern drawl.
With all that in mind, I feel South Louisiana is ripe for plucking good crime fiction, and even more ripe for comics in general. But really, I’m so in love with South Louisiana I have a very hard time trying to write a story set anywhere else.
DS: Your hero, Dectective Curt Delatte, is my favorite kind of character — damaged almost to the point of no return… yet, he does return. And keeps on doing his job. What do you think draws us to these kinds of characters?
KC: We love to root for the underdog because we believe we ARE the underdog in our own lives. Good underdogs pull is in and create empathy, and that helps us relate to the journey. Delatte is a damaged man living in a damaged city, in some ways, his journey mirrors the city’s journey. We all like to think we could make that journey if we were in the same situation, and a flawed, conflicted character makes it all the more relatable.
DS: What really amazes me about SWEETS is that you’re playing all of the instruments in the band — writing, art, design, even fundraising (through Kickstarter). And I read that you outlined pretty much everything down to the last detail. Did that leave room for any happy accidents or surprises along the way? Either at the script stage, or as you were working on finished pages?
KC: I always outline on index cards and I pin them to my giant cork wall. As a visual person, I prefer to see everything as I work, and I’ve always had trouble working with a word processor for outlines. If I see it, I understand it. When I place a story card on that wall, the card describe the “what” but never the “how”. As an example, I’ll write this on a notecard: “Delatte visits the psychiatrists and finds a way to get the patient’s real name.” I’m never sure how he goes about doing it, that happens in the script stage. The “what” happens in the outline, the “how” happens in the script. I don’t remember who offered that advice, but I’m certain I read it in one of the many scriptwriting books I’ve gone through in recent years. It works for me so I stick with it. That method allows me to control the flow of the story and the structure, but it leave plenty of room for innovation and happy accidents at the keyboard. Oddly enough, I draw my comics the exact same way. When I pencil a page, only the core structure of the figure is there. It’s rough and blocky with only basic indications of form. All the detail, shadows, and form happens when I ink the page.
DS: What’s next for you?
KC: I’m currently working on three different scripts: a crime story, a horror story, and an adventure story. I’m also working with MTV Comics with my good friend Josh Fialkov to relaunch PUNKS: THE COMIC, a dada-inspired comedy about four guys in one apartment. The entire comic is done using traditional photo collage created with a photocopier, X-Acto blade, and a glue stick. We hope to have that up before the end of the year.
Duane Swierczynski is the author of several acclaimed crime thrillers, including Severance Package (Minotaur, 2008), which has been optioned by Lionsgate Films. A regular contributor for Marvel Comics, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children. Learn more at www.secretdead.blogspot.com.
Kody Chamberlain is an American writer and artist born in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Carreer highlights include 30 Days of Night: Bloodsucker Tales for IDW Publishing, newuniversal:1959 for Marvel Comics, Beowulf for HarperCollins, and Punks: The Comic with co-creator Joshua Fialkov which in 2007, Warren Ellis called “one of the singles of the year.” Chamberlain is also the creator of The Foundation, a high concept tale preemptively optioned by Paramount Pictures for film development. Chamberlain is currently living in Lafayette, Louisiana, with his wife Kristie, two cats and a blind dog. Learn more at Kody Chamberlain.com and follow Kody on Twitter @kodychamberlain.