Interview With Jamie Rich (You Have Killed Me)
(An edited version of this interview with Jamie Rich was previously published at Publishers Weekly Comics Week. We discussed some things I didn’t have room to cover there, so the following is longer and in question-and-answer format.)
Jamie Rich’s most recent graphic novel is You Have Killed Me. Here, we discussed how the noir genre is a departure from his previous romance stories, his influences, how the graphic novel fits in with other detective tales yet could only have been done as a comic, his working relationship with Joelle Jones, and what they’re doing next.
You’re best known, in comics, for writing modern romances. How does You Have Killed Me relate to that genre? Or were you trying to get away from it?
To be honest, I was thinking it was starting to be time to get away from some of the romance stuff and start to show my ability to do other things, but it wasn’t a hard mandate or anything. Part of that was Joelle’s suggestion, she wanted to do a crime book, but she’s also very perceptive and saw that in some ways I was getting boxed in. There’s been a natural evolution in my work, it’s been getting darker, so there was, I think, a natural move here. Romantic issues are still central to the case Antonio Mercer undertakes in You Have Killed Me, so it’s not so radical a shift, but I think there is a little bit of my journey as a writer wrapped up in the idea that a private detective is often a noble man whose eyes are growing more jaded. It was an aspect of the genre Raymond Chandler was a pioneer in, and he set the way for the kind of man who takes this job. And for me, as my themes grow darker, I think it serves the material to have an outlet of this kind.
How is this book something only the two of you together could do?
Creative chemistry is just so important. There are just certain things that happen when two particular people get together to make art. You know, like I’m Martin Scorsese and Joelle is Robert De Niro. Or maybe I’m Paul McCartney and she’s John Lennon–or would that be the other way around? It’s hard to say what exactly happens, but it has to do with point of view, the philosophies we share and the ways we differ, and how those things intersect to make something unique. It’s also that level of respect for and excitement about the other person’s work. I know people think I am being facetious or self-deprecating when I say these things, but it’s true. I adore Joelle’s drawing, and I want to write to meet her level of craft. It’s not a competition, but it definitely is a mutual challenge.
There’s a strong film noir flavor. Were there any particular movies that influenced you?
I like all the Bogart ones, particularly with Bogart and Bacall–so, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage. There is a little bit of Laura in there, and I actually was watching a lot of Gene Tierney movies when the story was percolating. Night and the City, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Leave Her to Heaven, Whirlpool. I also really like the French post-noir movies like Rififi, Touchez pas au grisbi, and Le Samourai immediately spring to mind.
I know one of the movies I gave Joelle to watch was Out of the Past, that’s a real favorite, and she really liked the look of Robert Mitchum. I think a little of him ended up in Mercer. It’s ironic, though, that my background for this genre is more the film side of things, and for her, she was more schooled in the literature. You’d think it would be the other way around, the writer would have read the books and the artist was the movie buff, but no dice.
What does the detective character type tell a reader today?
I think the thing about a private eye of the hardboiled variety is that they are the guys who are always looking, always wanting to see more, and often to their detriment. They draw a line in the sand and say, “This is as far as I will let the tide come in.” It’s like that speech at the end of No Country for Old Men, when the two sheriffs are talking, and one of them calls it “the dismal tide.” They know they are losing, they know people are their own worst enemies, but someone has to say enough. It’s that classic end to The Maltese Falcon. I may love you, but you did a thing you never should have done, and I have to make sure you pay for that.
Men like Mercer are always going to be the same regardless of the era, because there will always be a tendency for others to turn a blind eye. We hear a lot of talk about people not taking personal responsibility anymore, and the primary function of a gumshoe in a story like You Have Killed Me is to make sure those who did wrong accept the consequences of their actions.
You’ve worked with Joelle before. How was your work together different this time?
Well, for one, we started You Have Killed Me from her suggestion that we do this kind of story, and as I was writing, I was always talking to her, telling her what I was doing, getting feedback. There was a lot more give and take. There was also a lot more trust, I knew what she was capable of, and I could leave things open for her to play with. At the same time, she was more confident and understood that she could say, “This isn’t working, so I am going to take it in another direction.” We have a pretty conflict-free relationship. We very rarely get frustrated with one another, and it’s never anything a little drink and a little karaoke can’t solve.
How did you start working together?
It’s a very Portland story. This town is too small, too many comic book people, we can’t avoid one another. David Mack had seen Joelle’s work at one of the local comic book shows, and he made Joelle show it to Diana Schutz at Dark Horse, and that lead to Joelle drawing the story in the Sexy Chix anthology that my good friend Sarah Grace McCandless wrote. I was in the market for a 12 Reasons Why I Love Her artist at that point, and so Diana put me in touch with Joelle. As it turned out, we only live two blocks apart on the same street. I was working at the neighborhood video store at the time, and had signed her up for her account there, but we had no idea that either was in comics. A friend of mine had even seen her drawing in a coffee shop and told her she should get in touch with me. It was like this grand conspiracy of fate. She and I met, and we sat and looked at her work and talked for maybe twenty minutes, and then spent the rest of the day goofing off. It was like kismet for screw-ups.
You and Joelle are currently working on another project, Spell Checkers, correct? Can you tell me about it?
It started with a sketch. She had a drawing of three girls, and they all had different styles, one was drinking, one was smoking, and she said, “We should do something with them. I like them.” Then she promptly forgot until I showed up with the script for the first chapter. It’s essentially a rude high school comedy about a trio of scary gals who have magical powers and rule the school through dastardly spells. It’s been wickedly fun to write. Joelle is doing the covers and flashback sequences, while a French artist named Nicolas Hitori de is drawing the body of the book. It’s going to be an original graphic novel from Oni next year. We’re all having a lot of fun with it, and I’ve got two more volumes mapped out. We hope to make a series out of it.
Spell Checkers is what I like to call a shower idea. I get these vivid ideas when I am in the shower, I don’t know why. I think it’s some curse, like I am doomed to have my best ideas at times I can’t write them down. When I’m exercising, too. A lot of You Have Killed Me arrived as inspiration on the exercise bike. For Spell Checkers, it was like the day after we had that conversation about the sketch that I was in the shower and saw the first three pages in full detail, and those are still the first three pages of the book. Same thing happened in You Have Killed Me, there is a scene at a horse race where Mercer thinks he has seen something, and the page where that happens, I had an image appear in my brain — which is not that different to what happens to Mercer on that page, when you think about it. It’s an important moment, a turning point in the story and definitely a turning point during the writing, where the book started to really come alive. Usually I thumbnail visions of those kind, I sketch them out, as it’s the fastest way to get them out of my head and stop thinking about them. I did it with Spell Checkers, I did it with the first page of “The Jailhouse Swing,” our story in Popgun volume 3. I never show those thumbnails to Joelle, the most I’ll do is try to type up how I see it, explain the layout, and it amazes me, but every time it’s one of those scenes, what she draws is exactly what I saw. It’s uncanny.
What do you like best about working with her? What do you think she likes best about working with you?
We probably both appreciate each other’s willingness to stare at strangers and say mean things about them. It’s quite a skill.
No, I’m kidding. Kind of.
I like working with her just because I know that, as a writer, there is nothing she can’t give me. In particular, she is so good at character work, at the acting and all that entails, the body language and the facial expressions, I know that whatever emotion I need, she can do. I think with You Have Killed Me, people will also see how good she is at action and environments, as well.
As for me, gosh, I don’t know. I would assume she likes my work ethic and my ability to keep things organized, as well as my openness to try different things and to give her freedom to roam. I’m not a “do it my way” kind of writer. In fact, by the time it’s drawn, I’ve forgotten the specifics of what is in the script, so when I see the art, it’s practically brand new. There is no, “But I asked for a pink giraffe, and this is purple.” Someone has asked me if I have found the thing she can’t draw yet, and I said no. I found some things she won’t draw, but that’s different, and it’s usually things where she says I’m insane for even expecting it, complicated layouts or pretentious concepts and the like.
Why do you keep making graphic novels? What draws you to the format?
Part of it is the collaboration, part of it is that’s just the way I see whatever story as being. I don’t want to say comics are more simplistic, but there is an element of short hand to them, of working within a confined space and thinking more in terms of frozen moments, of images, rather than the much more broad requirements of prose. It provides a different kind of satisfaction for me, a different experience. It’s less solitary, has a bunch more toys, and it often feels more like I am building something, like real hammer and nails building, rather than the more self-involved birthing process of a prose novel. And don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it’s easier to do comics, it’s not about easy or hard. I actually think the single cartoonist, a guy like Craig Thompson, and a novelist have a lot more in common in terms of process, and definite that “the loneliness of the long distance runner” aspect of doing it all by yourself.
How do you decide which story becomes a comic and which a novel? Is it purely based on the content, or do market concerns also become a factor?
That is one of those questions that I have never found an adequate answer for, at least not one that makes sense to anyone else, because in terms of process, I never really have to think about it. Once I have an idea for something — and it happens a lot less than people might think, I’m not an idea guy with piles of untouched brilliance — I pretty much always know right away what it is. There is never a sense of weighing this or weighing that, and I don’t think I could transform a comic idea into a novel or vice versa. I recently tried it, I have been tinkering with a Young Adult novel that is a sequel to Love the Way You Love, and it took a lot of mental work on my part, a lot of wrapping my head around the material in a different way and having to try to understand it for a different format.
I couldn’t do You Have Killed Me the same way in prose. The narration, for instance, wouldn’t work. The free-form philosophizing would have to be interrupted for descriptions of what is happening, and so it would never be separate. In a comic, I can have the words work on one level and let the pictures do something else. Or the playing with light and darkness, the whole visual design of the climax, that’s something a comic book can do that a novel never can. It’s something I need a Joelle Jones for, because a Jamie Rich won’t be enough. Then again, a Jamie Rich is always simultaneously too much and never enough. I am maddening!
How have recent changes in the comic industry affected your feelings toward or work in the format?
Unfortunately, I think it means a lot less opportunity to work in any serialized format. I enjoyed doing Love the Way You Love in chunks, of thinking of it as an ongoing serial, and I think that’s going to be harder and harder to do on this side of the Diamond pie chart. That’s about the only thing I can see as being that different, and the writing has been on that wall for many years. I think there is a lot more noise about supposed change than there is real change. When it’s all said and done, as long as some of us are crazy enough to want to do comics, there will be comics of some kind.
What else do you have coming up?
Not a lot. I am a slower, more methodical worker, so I tend to focus on something until it’s done. Spell Checkers is the only thing that is scheduled, and Joelle and I have a couple of other things we’d like to do. She’s got a variety of other projects to complete in the meantime, though, she’s very much in demand. As I write this, our story for Madman Atomic Comics #16 is going to be out in a couple of weeks, and we did a short comics story in Portland Noir, a crime anthology that Akashic Books published. It’s part of a series of books featuring crime stories in specific cities, and I think we’re only the second comics work to appear in one of the volumes.
I’ve got a project in the works with Mike Holmes, another crime/romance hybrid, actually, and in addition to the Love the Way You Love novel I mentioned, I also have a new, stand-alone novel completely finished and in search of a venue, and another one halfway done. So, I’ve been busy.