Apr 302012
 

One of the best single issues of a comic book I read last year was Dead Man’s Party #1, a fast-moving, lean and mean hit man thriller that contained some truly crazy surprises. A few months ago, I had the chance to meet the creators: Jeff Marsick and Scott Barnett. I’ll admit it. I was nervous. Part of me expected to be shot in the head by one of them, while the other spread out some nice plastic sheeting on the floor behind me to catch the splatter. Instead, we talked about life, death, comics, mistaken identities… and of course, grisly murder.

DS: Okay, Jeff and Scott. Let’s say you’re both hitmen. I offer each of you a contract to take out the other. Who would take home the paycheck, and who’d be pushing up daisies?

Scott: Jeff’s definitely bringing home the bacon here. He’s the one with military experience; I imagine he knows about seven different ways to kill me with his eyelid, if he wanted.

Jeff: Yeah, it’d be bad news for Scott and I’d be on the next flight to Vegas.  I was an expert marksman with a pistol and rifle in the military and have a fascination with explosives and poisons, so I’ve got an array of options for Scott’s disposal.  Then again, I do tend to sleep pretty hard so Scott could probably Columbian necktie me while I’m dreaming about winning an Eisner for DEAD MAN’S PARTY.  

I hate when I’m asked this question, but that’s not going to stop me from asking you guys. What, if anything, inspired DEAD MAN’S PARTY? Or are you two just sick, dark bastards?

Scott: That’s actually two separate questions, right?

Jeff: I don’t know, that second part sounds a little rhetorical. It’s like Duane already KNOWS.

Scott: The answer to that part is yes. Yes, we are.

Jeff: So there.

Scott: {laughs} Jeff and I have known each other for years and have spoken often about collaborating on something, but until DEAD MAN’S PARTY, nothing quite stuck. Then one day about a year ago, he e-mailed me and once more suggested a collaboration, quite coincidentally, ONE day after I came up with an idea about a hitman who puts a hit on himself.

Jeff: Scott pitches that and I about hit the floor because I’ve had the SAME idea in my head for, oh, fifteen years or so! It all started as a movie that rolls in my head whenever the titular Oingo Boingo song plays.  Can’t explain it, it just happens. This ever gets made into a movie, that song is SO going to be in the soundtrack.

Scott:Jeff added the concept for the ‘party’ as a tradition in the assassin community. Then we mashed our disparate ideas together and came up with this series.

Jeff: We both dig spies, hitmen and cloak and dagger movies and TV shows, so all of that helped shaped our story.

Jeff, how much do you discuss with Scott before you write a script? Do you just ignore him until you have the story just the way you like it? And Scott, what’s the process like from your end? Ever read one of Jeff’s pages and think: “Uh, no. No fucking way”?

Scott: Ooh, ooh- can I answer both parts?

Jeff: What, did you miss the part where he said “JEFF, how much do you discuss…”?

Scott: No, I heard it. I just wanted to comment–

Jeff: It’s not all about you, y’know.

Scott: Wait. It’s not?

Jeff: Anyway…I try—for obvious reasons—to keep all discussion with Scott to an absolute minimum, ignoring him until I can send him a final draft of the script, with the cover page emblazoned: “ALL WORDS WRITTEN HEREIN ARE CONSIDERED CAST IN STONE.  DEVIATE EVEN SO MUCH AS BY A COMMA AND YOU WILL BE REPLACED.” Nah, I’m kidding.

Scott: Jeff’s very clever- he actually does both. He confers with me at great length, making me feel like an integral part of the process… and then ignores me and rewrites it, anyway!

Jeff: Guilty as charged. What happens is we’ve got a working outline of beats that we’ve both contributed to and that we think would look awesome. But when I write it, what seemed like a four-page scene is actually only two, or some scene we both thought would just BOOM! off the page but actually kind of sits there under a trombone so sad you can practically hear “wah wah waaaaah” in the background and it needs to be axed. So I have to modify the script on the fly.

Scott: Yeah, I have more than once looked at a finished script and said, “Hmm, that’s not exactly what we talked about… Damn, that’s pretty cool… Okay, let’s do that…”

Jeff: See? I won’t steer us wrong. Much. In all honesty, I actually take pride being the kind of writer that doesn’t grab a concept with both hands and throttle it, enslaving the artist to my own vision.  I made sure Scott knew up front (and I remind him sometimes when I feel I might be writing TOO overbearing) that look, this is how the movie plays in MY head.  I’m a slave to the DVD in MY grey matter.  Just because I write a page with five panels doesn’t mean that’s gospel.  Maybe you can do it in four or three. Just as long as the gist of the scene plays out and the dialogue fits, knock yourself out. And in truth, probably 95% of the time I change dialogue or modify the script to adapt to Scott’s artwork. All skirt-blowing aside, I think this is the best sequential storytelling I’ve ever seen him do.

Scott: Thanks, man.

Jeff: De nada.

Scott: Well, as for my end of the process- I read over Jeff’s script and lay it out as if I’m creating a movie with still images, but I also design it to push the reader’s eye in the direction I want, using the conventions of the comic book medium, such as panel layouts, dialogue and sound effects. Once I’m satisfied with the flow, I take photo reference to work from, usually of myself, since I know what I’m looking for, in terms of poses. It’s a combination of photos my wife takes of me based on my art direction and photos I take myself (out of context, these are some of the goofiest photos anyone has ever taken, so if Jeff ever hacks my computer, I’m in a lot of trouble). Then, I draw the pages, ‘paint’ them in marker and do a little retouching in Photoshop. Crime noir, served up cold.

Jeff: Ooh, I like that. “Crime noir, served up cold.” Put that on the website.

Clearly you guys are fans of hitman movies and novels, because you subvert the tropes so brilliantly. Share some of your favorites.

Jeff: Favorite hitmen?  Good grief, where do I start?  There are real-life killers like Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, Chuckie “The Typewriter” Nicoletti, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka Carlos the Jackal) and Mossad operatives.  In literature there’s Lawrence Block’s Keller, Barry Eisler’s John Rain, the fantastic “Day of the Jackal” from Frederick Forsyth, Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.  In movies you’ve got Javier Bardem’s Chigurh, Matt Damon’s Bourne and Tom Cruise’s Vincent from “Collateral”.  Oh, and I’ll even drop some old school on you:  Henry Silva as Billy Score in the Burt Reynolds movie, “Sharky’s Machine” AND stuntman Dar Robinson (who, incidentally, set a world record for a stunt in “Sharky’s Machine”) as albino hitman Moke in another Burt Reynolds movie, “Stick”.  But I think above and beyond them all, my favorite hitman has to be Jean Reno’s Leon, from “The Professional”.  

Scott: He said share SOME of your favorites. Not every one of them.

Jeff: That was a small list. I can go on, y’know.

Scott: Oh, I know. And on and on and on. Now me, I’m less of a hitman fan and more of a general crime fan. For movies, I give the nod to the Bourne trilogy, though. Cool stuff. As for novels, I went through a period where I was reading a lot of non-fiction crime stuff as research for an unrelated series I’d like to do someday. Books that covered pretty much every facet of the criminal justice system, from FBI profilers and real murder cases to SWAT teams and evidence collection (CSI). As for fiction, would I be kissing too much ass to say I just finished your Hell & Gone and loved it?

Jeff: Is there such a thing as kissing too much ass?

Scott: I hope not.

Jeff: Y’know, I’ve read every Duane Swierczynski book that’s out there—

Scott: Hey, you’ve got a little brown on your nose.

Jeff: Quiet, you. Like I said, I’ve read all his books and I can only draw one conclusion: this guy’s got issues, man. I love it.

Scott: And he calls us sick and dark?

Jeff: I know, right?

Do you have a specific number of issues in mind for DEAD MAN’S PARTY? Or is this a story that could keep on going, piling up more dead bodies with every issue?

Jeff: This is actually a funny question.  The first outline was four issues. I checked, double-checked, even triple-checked the math.  Yep.  Four issues.  Scott okayed it and the first issue hits the New York Comic Convention proudly proclaiming “#1 of 4″.  Convention ends, I sit down ready to start scripting issue two, look at the outline, start plotting out and come up with FIVE issues now.  I even start from the END and work BACKWARDS.  Yep.  Five issues now.  

Scott: Yeah, it really needs that fifth issue to really do justice to what we have planned.

Jeff:In my defense, Your Honor, I present Exhibit A:  ”The Punisher” mini-series from Marvel in 1986.  Issue one said it was four issues, but it ended up being five.

Scott: However, since we’ve started, we’ve developed at least four other story ideas that all take place in this little world.

Jeff: I think it would be cool to create a sort of “Dead Man’s Tales” kind of universe that runs for about fifty issues or so. As long as we can keep doing original and unique stories and don’t turn ourselves into masters of cliche, we’ve got room to run.

Scott: I’m in!

BONUS QUESTION for Scott: Have you forgiven me for inscribing your book to “Steve,” instead of “Scott”? Are you afraid that your alter ego will come to life, a la Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF?

Scott: A little backstory here- Duane graciously reviewed DEAD MAN’S PARTY #1 before it went to print, so when we found out he was at New York Comic Con, I stopped by the Mulholland booth to introduce myself (we hadn’t yet met in person). Duane signed a copy of Hell & Gone for me; just as I returned to the DEAD MAN’S PARTY booth to show it to Jeff, I read what he wrote, “To STEVE- Congrats on Dead Man’s Party! -Duane Swierczynski”. Sonuvabitch! And here I’ve been so careful spelling HIS surname correctly!

Jeff: Which ain’t easy.

Scott: Exactly. Sowhen I last saw him, I busted his stones about it, and now I think I’ve traumatized him. {Laughs} I’ll say this, though- Duane has now given me this alter ego, which I can blame any poor behavior on. Wasn’t me; it was Steve. I know, isn’t that guy an ass?

Stay tuned tomorrow for an excerpt of Dead Man’s Party.