We’re delighted to announce this month’s publication of Deadbeats, an original graphic novel written by Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer, and illustrated by INJ Culbard. Editor Dan Lockwood recently convened a meeting with the creators find out more about this Jazz Age tale of tentacles, trumpets and the undead.
When did the idea for Deadbeats first arise? Is this something you’ve been planning for a long time?
Fifer: It’s a story we’ve wanted to tell for a long time, although we didn’t necessarily plan it as a graphic novel until the last couple of years.
Lackey: The second draft of the script I have is dated November 2003, so it was sometime before then that we had the idea. Chad and I wrote it as a screenplay and were using it as our showpiece to try and get writing gigs in Los Angeles.
Fifer: We didn’t even think about production concerns, we just wrote what we wanted. Lots of execs liked it – those meetings were actually kind of fun – but the consensus was that it couldn’t get made because it was horror-comedy, because it was a period piece, because the lead was black and that’s hard to sell overseas. All of this was probably code for “who the hell are you guys, anyway?”
Lackey: We got great feedback from it, but nothing ever materialised. Since Fifer and I are big comic fans, we thought it might make a great graphic novel.
Fifer: And now that we’ve seen the end result, we agree with ourselves.
Give us a quick summary of the book and its themes.
Lackey: Set in 1924 midwest America, three jazz musicians on the run from the mob end up taking a gig in a small town for a funeral, which turns out to be a black magic ritual to resurrect the dead. It goes wrong when the horn player decides to do some improvisation with the music. All hell breaks loose.
As much as it’s a horror-comedy action story, it’s really all about friendship. Sticking with people and helping them be the best people they can be. It’s a bit corny, but I like corny.
What was the writing process on the book?
Lackey: Usually we sit down and talk about the idea, work out some basic beats to the story and where it’s going to go. Then do a rough treatment that we both work through together. I usually do the first draft of the script and Fifer does the second. And from there it’s just notes. Since we live so far away from each other now (I live in Yorkshire), we just pass stuff back and forth.
Fifer: I have to say, though – Deadbeats is probably the most collaborative thing we’ve done. Chris and I have worked together on a lot of projects, and depending on what it is, one of us will have a greater percentage of work to do, and therefore more influence on the end product. Throughout the development of Deadbeats, I really felt like we shared in all of the construction – it was really, really fun.
Who are your writing influences?
Lackey: HP Lovecraft is obviously a huge influence, since Chad and I have been hosting the HPL Literary Podcast for the last 3 years. But I have to say 1930s comedies had a huge influence on Deadbeats, as well as Chad’s and my adventures playing the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. For us, horror was fun most of the time.
Fifer: It’s funny that we’re so associated with Lovecraft, because personally I prefer very clean writing – lots of space on the page, simple prose, not a lot of artifice. I love Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading Patricia Highsmith and think she’s about as good as it gets as a fiction writer. For dialogue, I love David Mamet, and about anything he has to say on writing in general I listen to. In fact, years ago I casually read a foreword to his published screenplay House of Games in which Mamet summarized the theories of Sergei Eisenstein, the director, and I revisit that foreword every time I write for the visual – film or comics.
But if I dropped any more names here we’d be in the phonebook. The truth is that this story is mostly informed by movies – Evil Dead, Some Like It Hot, Indiana Jones.
How did Ian come to be involved in the project? Was there anything in particular that drew you to him?
Lackey: His eyes. They just pull you in. But it was also his adaptation of HPL’s At the Mountains of Madness. We had no idea he was a listener, but when we did an open call for artists, he answered. It was a match made in heaven. He’s an amazing guy to work with and an incredible artist. He’s become a great friend to me out here in the UK.
Culbard: I’d been listening to Chris and Chad’s podcast while I was working and it really was (till I was on it) one of my favorite shows. It is again now I’m not on it. I kept checking their site for updates and that’s where they put a call out for artists, so I emailed them and they said yes.
Fifer: Ian’s style is simple and clean, but so expressive. And I love the way he puts together sequences in his books. He’s the perfect artist for the story and I’m overjoyed he agreed to do it.
As Chris mentioned earlier, Deadbeats is a mixture of horror, comedy and action. Did these tonal shifts make your role more difficult, Ian?
Culbard: I’m such a fan of the inspiration for this book, it wasn’t really very difficult to figure out how to do it, to be honest. I’ve done other books where there isn’t much action and it’s all down to subtle performances - Deadbeats is the complete opposite of that. I did find myself using silhouettes for the first time – never really done that before – and that gave it a different vibe to what I normally do, giving it a very different sense of energy and making the colours pop.
I really love old movies and it just felt like an old movie to me. Like those ‘Abbott and Costello Meet…’ movies, or a Billy Wilder movie. Chris and Chad capture that feel really well.
You mentioned that Deadbeats started out as a screenplay. Was it challenging to repurpose your story for the comic medium?
Lackey: Moving from film to comics wasn’t that hard, but harder than I thought it would be. There is a rhythm to comics that is very different to a film. You’re writing for a page, but you’re also writing to have that page turned. Once that idea clicked, things really fell into place.
Culbard: At the time, Chris and Chad hadn’t written anything for comics, so I adapted the first twenty pages from their film script really as an exercise to show them: “Look, this is already a comic book and here’s why” – because of its structure. This had to work as a comic book, not as a film, and that’s been the key thing throughout the process for me. I did a very rough breakdown of how the rest of the script could play out as a miniseries or, as it turned out, a graphic novel. Since then they have actually written for comics (both have written for The Lovecraft Anthology Vol 2) and so they picked up the ball up and ran with it after that, rather brilliantly making everything that would have played to camera play to the turning of the page.
Fifer: Seeing how Ian adapted the beginning of our script really helped me understand how an artist would approach the material. It was also an amazing chance to go back to the screenplay and just erase anything unnecessary. When you’re trying to get through tons of action in 5-panel pages, a lot of stuff just has to go, but it only makes things better!
Have you been to the real Riverside, Illinois?
Fifer: You know, it’s possible I’ve driven through the real Riverside – I think it’s close to Chicago – but our Riverside is really a fictionalized, warped version of the area on the Mississippi where Chris and I grew up.
I’m sure the freakish weirdos of Riverside thank you from the bottom of their strange hearts. Was there much research involved in the writing process, or was this a pure flight of imagination?
In terms of research, we were careful to stay true to the period, but weren’t trying to write a chronicle of the 1920s. The era fades in importance as the craziness of the story unfolds.
The first 60 copies of Deadbeats that exist anywhere will be available at Thought Bubble this coming weekend (17th-18th November), so don’t miss out! Messrs Lackey and Culbard will be on hand to sign and sketch your copies. Check our signing schedule here for details of their availability.