INTERVIEW: Smoke with Alex & Igor
Interview Conducted by Jonathan Ellis
SMOKE Issue 1
SMOKE Issue 2
“In a futuristic London run by a government both morally and financially bankrupt, ex-soldier Rupert Cain works for the government as an assassin, in exchange for his girlfriend and her father being kept safe from harm. But when the father is murdered anyway, Cain has to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and cope with everything he walked away from three years ago.”
Described as a violent, blackly comic thriller, SMOKE is the forthcoming graphic novel series from IDW Publishing written by quickly rising star Alex De Campi, featuring the latest work for a North American audience by the highly talented artist Igor Kordey since leaving Marvel Comics and lovely colours by Len O’ Grady, a talented artist in his own right.
With the first volume not even in stores yet, SMOKE has gained an abundance of praise and is already being hailed as a success story. Alex de Campi continues to get new projects green lighted, fans get to see just how great an artist Igor can be when not having to draw four books in one month and it’s an original graphic novel series, in colour, at a distinguished and continuously growing publisher. With all these elements aligning we felt the need to get in and chat up Alex and Igor about the forthcoming SMOKE.
PopImage: Alex, as a relative newcomer you’re making a big splash simply by the artists you’re working with and friends within the field promoting the project. Straight out of the gate you begin with a series of Graphic Novels that, if all goes well, can last in serialization for years. Was this at all something you could actually plan for?
SMOKE Issue 1
Alex: Well, yes and no. How are you supposed to break in? What was my first project supposed to be? Is there a rulebook that I was supposed to get: How To Succeed In Comics? If so, it’s the second rulebook I’ve been shorted out on. I’m still waiting for How To Do Your Hair and Makeup Like A Proper Girl. Bloody postman.
So, left with no idea how to begin, I merely sat down at the laptop and began. I wrote a sci-fi story, and that’s coming out from Humanoids next year. I wrote SMOKE, and sent it to Igor on a whim. I loved his work on SOLDIER X and thought he’d be right for the script. He took a longer than usual look at it because he was surprised to see a female writer penning a quite violent action series. Have I had an extra advantage being a girl in a very male oriented business? Probably, but I’ve also had an editor laugh in my face at the ridiculous idea of a girlie writing for his company. Has my first series gotten a lot more attention than most peoples’ first series because I was daft enough to send it to a really well known artist, and he was daft enough to draw it? Well, yeah, of course. But it’s also been an object lesson in there being no rules in comics, except the rules you choose to obey. I think this has weirded some people out.
You should also remember that I came to full-time fiction writing fairly late – in my early 30s – and as a result of this my attitude to what I do is pretty uncompromising. In 2003, I was having an annus horribilis similar to the one Igor describes below, and I finally just said, that’s it, no more fucking about. I’m going to write. I don’t have a lot of time left. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow – and considering I’m one of these dreadful greenies who bicycles everywhere, that’s more likely than you think. I have a day job, so the rent gets paid. The writing I do because I love it. So no, I’m not going to waste time writing things people think I should write, for my “career”. And I’m not concerned with bagging scalps by working with certain publishers or on certain characters. I’m just going to write my stories, find people I like to illustrate them, and we’re all going to have some fun, and make a little magic.
Igor, Within minutes of news breaking of your departure from Marvel you were already receiving offers for new projects, including the comic adaptation of a prominent sci-fi series, so what ultimately lead you to choose SMOKE to be your next project?
Igor: Hum, it wasn’t minutes, but hours, though… Well, that event seemed to me as a touch of destiny. It was just speeding up my previous decision to turn the page and start something new. If I wasn’t fired, I’d quit. Being fired was better, because I came up as a victim in public eye, and had a chance to kick the ball back and provoke quite a fuss in comic-related media and wider. I had a feeling, months before that something big was going to happen, that exciting smell of change in the air, and whenever such changes occur in my life, I just start to follow my instincts and usually make a good choice for the future. If I wasn’t fired, Alex never would have approached me about SMOKE. The rumour started to go around immediately about me being available. As for other big publishers’ offers, I turned them all down. I was thinking: they are just other corporations, like Marvel. They might love me now, but whenever they’d consider it appropriate, they’d kick me out, same as Marvel did. There’s no loyalty in “big business’, bro… And, looking at a constantly shrinking market, no chance that they would let me do creator-owned projects. Everybody is holding firmly to their franchises, like drowning man to a straw…
SMOKE Issue 1
I’ll just mention a few things happening at the same time, to better describe the desperate situation I was in. I got fired at the end of February; at the beginning of March the rest of my family (my wife Andrea and my three daughters Rea, Vilena and Rita) moved to British Columbia, according to previous plan. My “friends” suddenly started to invent lots a weird reasons for not to see me or help me… my bank started to give me a hard time… so I broke my promise to support my family for a while. All my plans went down, and as a final nail in the coffin, my dad died a month later, exactly a year after my mom passed away. So I was left utterly alone and broken, emotionally and financially. So much about reaching the bottom. And then things started to happen – my European agent, Mr. Csaba Kopeczky, found me a new excellent gig in France, literally in about a week’s time – to work on 4 albums of Delcourt’s ARCANES serial; a gig impossible to find at that time of the year, when all the budgets for the upcoming projects have already been determined. At the same time my friend and book publisher in Croatia, Neven Anticevic, sent me some generous advances for book cover illustrations. I even managed to switch to a new bank, which gave me a big line of credit, the first time in my life. Things started to move up up up! So, when I got contacted about the SMOKE proposal in mid April, I saw it as a way to go - stepping on terra incognita, but with good gut feeling about doing the right thing.
In SMOKE we see a London that is both morally and financially bankrupt, what role then does the assassin play? Exactly what sort of targets is he assigned to?
Alex: The assassins help enemies of the state meet with unfortunate accidents. Who is an enemy of the state? Anyone. A whistleblower who starts questioning why defence contracts always go to certain companies, or an academic who protests at how his report was twisted to justify an invasion. A writer whose fiction skates a little too close to truth. A gangster who gets angry about the government’s cut of his takings being raised. Or even another politician within the government who starts losing his grip.
As for the government, what group do they represent? Are they a particular party that’s come to power, or is it more a factor of the world having changed then a specific shift of power?
SMOKE Issue 1
Alex: Are there really differences between the parties anymore, even now? The legacy of Clinton and Blair was to take their parties into the centre, to adopt policies previously thought of as “conservative”. The days of parties having definable “platforms” seem to be over. It seems to me that the only differences between political parties now are their stances on religious and moral issues. The rest? Well, let them know what you want to hear, and they’ll tell you. So the government in SMOKE is a government with very little opposition. It keeps people happy by spending money on them – panem et circenses - and silences any potential opposition or criticism in the nastiest, most final way possible. As long as the people have confidence in the Prime Minister, he remains in power. So, to borrow the words of Milan Kundera, it is our own unrealized possibilities.
Having both traveled to many places, how do you feel about crafting such a centralized location as London in SMOKE?
Igor: London is one of my favourite cities in the world – I used to live there for a while, in 1978, the era of punk. And visited again, 10 years later, when Maggie Thatcher’s harsh politics had taken over. There was new money pouring in from ex colonies, unemployment, riots in the streets. London is a city of constant collision between fresh winds and (sometimes absurd) tradition, whether we’re talking about architecture, music, fashion… Similar to Paris by all this turbulence and non-stop excitement. I finally got an opportunity to draw it and for me it’s a real challenge to correctly present that specific “spleen” I felt at the time. And well, lots of people, especially those living in London, have said that I did a good job…
Alex: Further issues of SMOKE won’t necessarily be in London. We already spend a fair bit of Issue 1 and 2 in the West Country. In the future, we have plans to go considerably farther a-field. I chose London as a setting for SMOKE because the UK is this “middle country” between the US and Europe, neither fully allied to one or to the other. Also, as Igor mentions, there’s this tremendous moral flexibility in the city, combined with an almost ridiculous sense of tradition. London is full of layers, and hidden places, that make it perfect for a noir series.
But don’t get me wrong – SMOKE isn’t one of these wanky books that’s about “the spirit of the city”. We’re not going to meet Britannia flashing her gams outside Camden tube. London is a stage set, and that’s it. It has lots of interesting buildings that I have fun blowing up.
SMOKE deals with a morally bankrupt London, Banksy is an inspiration for the covers and V FOR VENDETTA is going to film. Is there something particular driving the influence of these aspects to take shape at this time?
Igor: SMOKE is a mirror, it reflects Alex’s and my cultural, geopolitical, artistic, cinematographic, musical and life experience so far. We are not ashamed of our influences and in this statement called SMOKE. We want to share them with others, those mainly generational triggers. You’ll find myriads of details and hints, and you’ll have a blast just if you are willing to watch carefully.
Introduce us to some of the characters we’ll see in SMOKE. First there’s the main character Rupert Cain, an ex-special forces soldier who appears as though he may be Albino, his old commanding officer, Tim de Havilland, and a collection of supporting characters including a monarch with an oral sex fixation, corrupt ministers, and unwise journalists. But then, what else is new? Let’s start with Cain as his features don’t exactly make him the most conspicuous of assassins.
SMOKE Issue 1
Alex: Yeah, true. I should have stuck him in a mask, stovepipe hat and cloak. More seriously, the London in SMOKE is full of freaks, so Cain’s skin doesn’t stand out too much. And the sort of assassinations he does aren’t South Central-style drive-bys. They’re the kind where nobody realises it’s murder. One of the books I used for research was Ranulph Fiennes’ THE FEATHER MEN, a book about revenge killings between a father in the Yemen and the SAS squad who were unwittingly responsible for his son’s death. It’s chilling stuff. Making casts of the corner of your home shower stall to make an instrument where, if they bash you over the head with it, you’ll simply look like you died after a slip in the bath. All I have to say on Cain’s skin is that there’s a reason for it, which you find out later. Also, it is part of his psychological makeup, as someone who feels he doesn’t belong.
Igor: To explain them completely would mean to reveal the plot, and that’s something we don’t want to do before the time comes …For me the most intriguing fact about characters was that nothing is as it looks on the beginning. All of the main and supporting characters are undergoing a big metamorphosis throughout the story. Everything will be turned upside down, just as it goes in real life, when totally unstable geopolitical situation prevents you to plan your life and future with accuracy. That is the main one of the reasons why people feel so desperate and helpless these years, I’d say “years of intolerance”. I went through such a situation, when military aggression on Croatia at the beginning of 1990s turned my life upside down, and when the life I lived before, a sort of romantic and laid-back idyll, becomes impossible to obtain ever again.
That means, if you want to survive, that you’re not supposed to turn your head non-stop back in nostalgia, but to collect your wits, see the dark horizon ahead and go exactly toward it. That’s what is going to happen to our characters in SMOKE – in the darkest days of human civilisation, there was always spark of hope and different directions to take. After all we learned so far, the question is: Should we repeat mistakes of our forefathers on and on, and choose always the easiest, materially oriented option, or to finally take the less attractive, but the only possible option for survival on long terms, and I’m talking about next half a million years on this raped and exhausted planet… If you endure to stay with us, throughout all 18 potential books of SMOKE, you’ll find out about that option.
SMOKE is a kaleidoscope of characters and ideas but how do you envision the story at the heart of the series? A mystery? A romance?
Alex: It’s a noir thriller, mostly about the nature of truth. There is romance in it, but it’s real-life sort of romance, with people who say the wrong things and screw up and keep appearing at the wrong times in the other person’s life.
Igor: SMOKE is a rollercoaster of genre bending, and is a big fun to do in those terms. And I hope it will be a big fun for smart-open-minded-gifted-with-sense-of-humour-people. You’ll find everything except superheroes inside. By my firm opinion, the superhero genre is a dying genre, and what we are witnessing right now, big success of superhero movies, are just the last strong and aimless twitches of a dying corpse.
You’ve mentioned that the plan is for SMOKE to actually last 18 volumes, are the first three volumes its own arc or is the plan to have each book be its own complete story?
SMOKE Issue 1
Alex: The first three volumes are their own arc. Most questions are answered in the conclusion to book 3 – but a few more are posed. As for future volumes, some will be three-book arcs, some will be stand-alone stories. I’d quite like to do some of the backstory of this world in the style of WARLORD or BATTLE or one of the old UK anthologies, with short stories by fictitious authors like Kilgour Trout. And there’s an Ascot Races stand-alone story that I’ve been planning for some time.
What’s the appeal of military or authority based characters in your work, having been inspired by films like Léon The Professional, Blade Runner and having been married to a military officer, is there a continued attraction or are you leaning towards intentionally dislikeable anti-heroes?
Alex: Are you saying that any military-based character is intentionally dislikeable? Because if so, you’re on your own. I just can’t classify people like that.
I’m fascinated by military history. Fiction is about extremes of human experience, and there is nothing more extreme than two groups of people each, in the words of General Patton, “trying to convince the other poor bastard to die for his country”. The interest really dates back to 1992, when I lived in Hong Kong. A great friend who I met at that time is a military historian, and he started loaning me some of the many great war books available in Britain. I think military fiction and military comics have a slightly different place in British society than they do in American. Most British kids my age grew up on comics like WARLORD (the 1985 annual has a picture of Santa Claus with a submachine gun, it’s just so many levels of wrong I don’t know where to begin), BATTLE, and COMMANDO. One of the most popular book series here is George MacDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN, about an officer and a cad who ends up in pretty much every major conflict of the latter 1800s, from the Indian Mutiny and the US Civil War to the Crimean campaign, desperately trying to keep from getting shot.
And you can’t fail to be moved by nonfiction accounts like ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT, or Leo Marks’ war from behind the SOE code desks, BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE. Or even quasi-fictional accounts, like SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and CATCH-22. Also, my ex-husband owned just about every war film and cowboy film ever made. I’ve seen ALL of them. Maybe it’s simply Pavlovian conditioning, but I really like war films. I’m not saying war and killing is something to be celebrated. But it happens, and in the middle of all that horror and tragedy and stupid waste of life, you have people who do unimaginably brave things.
I am also, admittedly, all about the anti-hero. I’ll take Hamlet over Don Quixote every time. I’m much more interested in ordinary people with serious character flaws who become involved in extraordinary circumstances, than I am in the “heroic type”. I’ve never understood the appeal of Superman. He’s this paragon of virtue… why? Because he can? Sorry, not good enough for me.
As for Cain being an assassin, I was interested in the psychology of someone who killed for their country. Not accidentally, not in the heat of battle, but knowing when they got up in the morning that by evening they would end a life. I wanted to examine the sort of lies they had to tell themselves, and then what happens when they’re forced by circumstance back into a part of society where they can’t use those lies any more. Also, as I said earlier, fiction is also all about extremes.
I’m essentially writing a story about a character in a dead-end job who realises that not only are his employers lying to him (which he sort of expected), but that the people he loves are lying to him too. So yes, technically I could have made Cain a clerk at the Inland Revenue. But I think most people will be happier that I didn’t.
SMOKE Issue 2
Igor, as someone inspired by such films as Battleship Potemkin, what sort of influence does that play on your own sense of storytelling? You both actually share a bit of an allegory with director Sergei Eisenstein who was invited to California by Paramount Pictures to make a big Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, the films Eisenstein wanted to make didn’t interest the studio; and those that did, Eisenstein didn’t want to make.
Igor: True, I’m a big admirer of Einsenstein as a director who practically invented modern movie and comic language in cutting and storytelling. But I’d rather draw a parallel with a more current event, happening to my friend and the best director on this side of Rio Grande, Macedonian Milcho Manchevski (he currently lives in New York). A decade ago, he made a beautiful movie called BEFORE THE RAIN, which won, among a godzillion of awards, the best foreign-language movie award at Sundance festival back in ’96. (actually, you should check his site – www.manchevski.com.mk. Of course, he was invited to Hollywood to make a big budget movie with Hollywood money, and producers gave him so much crap, that he swore, after this devastating experience, never to make a movie again.
You can imagine my joy, when 2 years ago I ran into a DVD with the movie DUST, he made in 2002. This time he went a different direction – he gathered several independent European and American producers, who trusted him, and made what he wanted: a movie even better than BEFORE THE RAIN – a fresh, quirky, exciting, violent, wonderful homage to Peckinpah and Leone, the most influential directors to our generation (both Milcho and me are born at the end of the 1950s). Same as me, he took the “indie” way, probably earned less money, but remained a happy and sane human being, proud of his achievements.
What I want to say – there is always a way to do what you want. Yes, Hollywood’s and Marvels, as a part of the corporative system, always bring more money, but they annihilate your soul, erase what you really are, and make you “belong”. System forces you to think that money is most important, to shrink your vision into “biweekly” way of thinking, from paycheck to paycheck, to forget about distant misty mountains to claim and breeze of frisky wind to smell.
It’s been a while since a general audience has seen work, how do you feel you’ve evolved stylistically since then?
SMOKE Issue 2
Igor: For about two years I was spontaneously developing something I call "dry brush" technique. My old fans could've seen [the] beginning of that approach here and there in SOLDIER X and NEW X-MEN. For me that was the fastest and most accurate way to do human anatomy modeling, light and shadow play etc. without cross hatching, which takes too much time and it sometimes can look stiff. I'm a very fast artist, and "dry brush" is something which can flow smoothly from my hand, with any delays in drawing process. Plus, together with my love for sophisticated B-W graphic language, I'm a painter too. With my grey tones I want to show colours and light... and sometimes I just want to show off...
So, in "Smoke" you can see that technique in full swing, especially because I predicted [the] possibilities for this comic to be published in B-W by different publishers and different markets, so it looks very good even without colours.
Considering storytelling, I'm playing and exploring new and different possibilities much more than before.
That's because it's our, creator-owned project and I have full freedom to play and have fun. On the other hand, and that's part of the fun too, in SMOKE I'm playing with so called classical page compositions, like firm six panel grid, nine or even twelve panel grids. Which means, I'm locking myself into limitations purposefully, playing Houdini, and then trying to get out of those limitations, by solving problems different ways all the time. It is very hard not to repeat yourself, or not to do something Alex is calling "Kordey Stock", which means to sometimes draw face expressions or hand movements I used before in same situations - a path of less resistance.... And having fun in storytelling is tricky - you need to be disciplined about it and not to go over the edge, because rule No.1 for me is to be clear, readable, reliable; and rule No.2, to follow the script as accurate as possible - a rule which I don't follow only if I think I have a better idea to solve certain problems, and that happens quite often.
I'm just thinking about the fact that I'm doing this job professionally for 3 decades, and you know what, it never ceased to be great great fun. To rephrase a saying - comics are your oyster....
Aside from SMOKE you both have multiple projects in the works. Igor, you have Arcanes: Castle of Djinns and I know you had an interest in self-publishing a while back. While Alex is adapting Goethe’s FAUST which either proves you’re truly insane or you’ve got a really good angle in mind, as well as other projects in both comics and film. Could you tell us a little about what else you each have coming up?
SMOKE Issue 2
Igor: CASTLE OF DJINNS is just a second out of four ARCANES albums I mentioned before (I’m working on third one right now). In a moment of desperation, this project brought me again into the focus of European (read “French”) publishing industry again – a place where I used to belong 15 years ago. I developed a plan with my agent (again, considering ever shrinking American market), to make a big comeback in the European market and until the end of the year to work for 2 -3 of the biggest French publishers simultaneously. That would still leave me space and time to work on SMOKE. So far, my plan is going well.
Alex: Translation: he’s been turning work away, and one of the best-selling writers in France wants to do a project with him.
Igor: Talking about self- publishing, that goal looks more and more distant. The industry in America is not dead, “it just smells funny”, and I think it would be wise to wait for a while. SMOKE, and IDW as a publisher are satisfying my creative potentials and visions at this moment, and I just don’t feel right now like I want to go more into extremes.
Alex: …whereas I’m doing lots of self-publishing this year. Issue 3 of my and Kieron Gillen’s ‘zine COMMERCIAL SUICIDE comes out in May. I’ve also got a 120-page digest anthology coming out with five artists illustrating five different stories from an absurdist murder mystery at the end of the universe, to a magical realist love story in Hackney. Which, if you ask some people, is pretty much the arse end of the universe. The anthology is called DEFECTIVE COMICS, pending DC not suing me or anything. I may see if I can get a proper publisher to pick it up afterwards, as we’re only printing 130 copies for sale in the UK. And maybe if I do, I can get Igor to draw BLACK & BLUE, a 19-page short noir script that I wrote and he loves, and we haven’t found a home for yet.
My next properly-published work will be FAUST, from IDW in… November, I think. And yes, I probably am stark raving mad to try it. There’s no real “angle” to it, aside from modernizing the story and adapting it. Goethe’s original was a verse play first drafted in the 1770s. It’s one of those books that really isn’t an easy read, but is incredibly rewarding to those who persevere. It veers madly from social satire to horror to black comedy, and has some of the most wonderfully visual, lyric scenes in all of literature.
And it’s another anti-hero book. Faust makes a lot of very bad decisions, and has to cope with the fallout from them. But the thing about his decisions is… if you or I were in his position, we probably would have done the same. And the horror, as in all proper horror, comes from people being evil, not from supernatural forces. The devil is almost a bit of a bystander, as confused in his way as Faust is. Anyway: Love! Death! Horror! Magic! And all beautifully painted by the Croatian artist Seb Camagajevac.
SMOKE Issue 3
Then, as mentioned earlier, I have MESSIAH COMPLEX, a sci-fi epic that’s like LÉON THE PROFESSIONAL meets STAR WARS, coming out from Humanoides in France next summer. I don’t think it will be released in English, but I’ll have a pdf download of the dialogue on my site for anyone who wants to buy the French version. Again, we have a magnificent artist – Eduardo Ocaña, who is Spanish. Other than that, I have a couple more projects in development in Europe, and three more in development with West Coast publishers. And I’m prepping a screenplay for Cannes – a supernatural thriller for UK producers Chocolate Chilli Films. I’m doing OK. No complaints.
For more on SMOKE and it’s creators be sure to visit Alex de Campi.com, Kordey.ca, Len O’Grady.com and IDW Publishing.com.
Jonathan Ellis is Co-Editor in Chief of PopImage
Forum - Discuss this message at the PopImage forum.
E-Mail Us - Send us an e-mail commenting on this article.
Archive - Read past Industrial articles