April 14, 2014

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Interview with Jamie S. Rich and Megan Levens on Madame Frankenstein

 In both A Boy and A Girl and The Double Life of Miranda Turner, writer Jamie S. Rich really impressed me with his overall writing skills and ability to create female characters who are full blooded and compelling. When I heard that he was working on a new project, this time taking on the concept of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, setting it against the twilight of the Jazz Age and the start of the Great Depression, I was immediately excited.
Working from a concept by co-creator and project artist Megan Levens, the premise is what if you set the Frankenstein story when James Whale's movie was released. The results are amazing, both in terms of dynamic black and white visuals by Levens and the strong characterizations made by Rich, who works to create complex relationships among many poor decisions while echoing familiar themes from other writers--without feeling like he's copied anything.

I was so excited about this, I interviewed Jamie and Megan very early on about the project. Unfortunately, moving across the country put a monkey wrench in posting this sooner. However, make sure you get this one on your radar for its May 7th debut--you can still make the April order cutoff all day today, for those who buy print editions. What follows is a transcription of a Skype interview I did with Jamie and Megan, and if there are any errors, please attribute them to me and my rookie transcription skills.

Rob McMonigal: For those who are unfamiliar with your past work, tell readers a little about yourselves.

Jamie S Rich: I’ve been writing for a while now, primarily known for crime and romance. My most popular being the stuff I’ve done with Joelle Jones (You Have Killed Me, 12 Reasons Why I love Her, both from Oni Press). I’m consistently moving out, experimenting with different genres, like superheroes with It Girl and the Atomics (Image) and Double Life of Miranda Turner (Monkeybrain). I experimented first with horror in Spell Checkers Volume 2 (Oni Press), where flashbacks and even the main plot were about animating the dead.

Megan Levens: Jamie and I met at Savanah College of Art and Design a few years ago. Most of my work in the last few years is in advertising storyboards, such as the Progressive insurance storyboards. I’ve done a couple of different projects with Jamie, such as Ares and Aphrodite (upcoming for Oni Press), which was our first major collaboration. 

McMonigal: How would you describe Madame Frankenstein to a potential reader?

Levens: Sort of period glam horror. 

Rich: The initial concept phrased it as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bride of Frankenstein, or My Fair Lady for the Universal Monster series. The basic approach was something set in the 1930s that uses the time period and conventions of horror from the time period to make a moody, black and white, scary comic book, but with romance and pretty girls.

McMonigal: This is very different from most takes on the Frankenstein story. How did this story come together?

Levens: This concept existed way back in earliest forms years ago in my college sketchbooks. I had just drawn the monster, had the idea of a female Frankenstein Monster and the inventor who created her to make his perfect woman, and that was all I had for it, a few drawings of what she and her creator might look like. I never did anything with it. When Jamie approached me about doing horror, I dug it up again, pitched it to him, and he took it from there with this story.

Rich: When Megan presented it to me, she had basic concept and ending, but said, “I don’t know how to get from point A to point B,” and I immediately had some ideas, sending them to her the next day. I’ve had good luck with artists asking what they want to do next and running with it. We build it organically together, knowing her strengths, like adding 1930s burlesque because your artist draws pretty girls!
Megan: Once I threw the concepts at Jamie, he came up with names for a couple of the characters, some of the backstory, and it bounced back and forth, snowballing like that between us.

McMonigal: Talk a little bit about your creative process in making an issue of Madame Frankenstein. How do you collaborate together to make the comic?

Rich: We developed a good pattern while doing Ares and Aphrodite. For a while she was drawing while I was still finishing the writing, and on a daily basis said, “Here’s what I did today” and went from there, learning to look at each other’s stuff, give approval as we went. It was very collaborative, even though the story was partially in place by the time I asked Megan to come on board. With Madame Frankenstein we were able to start from the ground up. It was somewhat similar-we would contact each other when we had something substantial. I wrote as much of an outline as much as I could, while Megan was sketching characters until we got to a place where we were both happy with the core of what the book would become.

Levens: I got in habit of whenever I finished anything new I sent pictures to Jamie, since that might impact on future issues. It was a continuous stream of information.

Rich: When we’re in our zone, we do our thing and come back when it’s done. It’s not as day to day once the writing and drawing gets started.

McMonigal: The issues I’ve read so far read like a combination of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s distain for Jazz Age life, H.G. Wells’ expansion of current science to fictional points, and of course Mary Shelley’s own moralistic warnings. Is that the intentional blend for Madame Frankenstein?

Rich and Levens: Sounds fair.

Levens: I liked the visual of the Jazz Age, that’s why I leaned that way. It’s interesting how it’s evolved that Vincent is sort of outside of all that. He’s been shut out of that social scene he’s trying to get into, forcing him to work outside that culture and show them up.

Rich: Mary Shelley’s book was definitely an influence. I was surprised how much was in there, how much was different from James Whale’s version. I tried to maintain some of that idea that there’s got to be consequences if you cross this line and mess with life, and try to create life. Not so much Shelley’s “folly of man” but in this case it’s the folly of a man and his attempts to control womanhood and mold this person into something he expects her to be.

McMonigal: What made you set the story in the 1930s, instead of its Victorian origins or a modern re-telling?

Levens: It was as simple as being drawn to the ascetics of the time, and also since I had never really explored the details of that time period. It would be something new for me, a challenge for me to set it in that period and research the architecture, automobiles, and clothing-set the bar a little higher for myself. That aspect of the 1930s horror movies gave them such a glamorous, moody look that I loved and something I wanted to bring to the book.

Rich: I chose the year based on when the Frankenstein movie came out.
 
Levens: In earlier versions, we had talked about going to see the movie and being inspired by it.

McMonigal: What are the challenges involved in creating a period piece?

Rich: You have to remember certain things about the time. I was in the middle of writing when I recalled, “Hey, Prohibition might still be around” and I had to look it up. You also have to not fall into certain habits, like modern slang or behaviors. You have to know what was allowed and what was done. That was actually the big one, having to remember you can’t just have them sitting out, drinking at a bar. They drink a lot, but we had to stick in little references to how the booze got there or where they were at, that kind of thing. But it’s also the same when you are doing anything modern now. I was way deep into my novel “Bobby Pins and Mary Janes” before I remembered you weren’t allowed to smoke in bars in California anymore-or anywhere at this point. You always have to remember time and place in anything you do. 

Levens: On the art perspective, it’s really kind of similar. You have this shorthand for a lot background elements or small details in a scene you are used to drawing in a modern day scene: Furniture, a phone, or cocktail glass looks like this, you can go on autopilot. For this, I had my iPad at the ready to research everything. If I had a character holding a glass, I would research what 1930s glasswork would look like so it would be spot on. Even if I didn’t succeed, I always had that in mind. 

Rich: In terms of technology for modern writing, there’s so much that’s so convenient, everyone’s got a phone, there’s always access to news, so in a way when having a character who’s hiding out and trying to do things in secret a period piece is much easier to hide things. It’s easier to stay out of public eye and imagine he could do these things. It’s also easier to believe that everyone doesn’t know about things immediately.  When in issue 4 the monster makes a scene, it’s conceivable that no one ever hears about it.

Levens: Or that when people would describe it to someone else who wasn’t there, they’d think they’re crazy or embellishing it, whereas in modern times someone takes pictures and it’s all over the internet.

Rich:  Then immediately debunked as fake.

Levens: It would be on Snopes!  There was much more privacy and secrecy back then, which helps the believability of this story.

McMonigal: What made you decide to go with black and white instead of a color comic? 

Rich: I think we did broach the idea that we could do color, but everyone seemed on board with black and white, aesthetically, to fit that older model. I don’t think it was any more complicated than that.

Levens: When I did sample pages, I gave myself the change of inking it like it would be black and white so it would be darker, to play with textures a little more. We left that up to the publisher to decide what they wanted to do.

McMonigal: Gail’s look and the overall feel of the art made me think immediately of manga. There’s a focus on the characters, their interactions, and their clothing. Am I onto something or is that just my reading background showing?

Levens: I was definitely looking to push details and push the mood with the inking. I’ve been told my style is very feminine, which I thought would help given the monster is female. I read a lot of manga in high school, so it there’s that stamp on my style for sure. I wanted to do a horror book the way I would draw a horror book, I guess. My Twitter handle is based on an in-joke that I draw “Sad Megan Girls” and I wanted to draw a horror book starring a Sad Megan Girl. 

McMonigal:  I really liked the use of solid blacks for effect, especially in the scenes with Gail and anywhere that menace creeps into the narrative. Can you talk a bit about how you make shading choices and when they’re used? Does the comic’s black and white nature change your usage or not?

Levens: When you’re doing something that’s black and white, a lot of those choices are made to make certain elements pop.  If there’s a really dramatic scene and you want figures or sequence of panels to stand out, I put black behind them to make them pop. When doing color, you don’t have to think about that at ink level, you think about colors to create a mood. For black and white, it’s really about thinking about it as you are inking, rather than later on. I like the idea of the shadows creeping in to certain panels, whether not it’s realistic in the real world. 

McMonigal:  There are certain touches that hew closely to the movie version of the story. What are the advantages/disadvantages to taking readers down that road?

Levens: One element I think that was helpful was that we didn’t have to go into too much detail about how she’s created as far as the scientific aspect. If people see a Tesla coil and a slab and a stitched together corpse in a blanket, people are going to go, “Oh, they’re re-animating her.” We don’t have to explain it much beyond that, people are familiar with that scene and what that means. That was sort of a little bit of pressure taken off of us, I think.

Rich: I think that’s what genre tropes do for you. There’s a certain expectation of what people want to see if they are going to see a Frankenstein-type story. We’re feeding the expectation while at the same time, as Megan says, it allows us a certain short cut. But even within that, we tried to invent ways for some of it to make sense within our story. For instance, the fire is definitely a trope taken out of the original Frankenstein movie. But with her having died in a car wreck where she gets burned up, she remembers what fire is like, it’s her last memory, so that carries over for her. One downside: No one is named Frankenstein in the book! 

McMonigal:  In Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Doctor is from the idle rich. Here, class conflict drives the protagonist’s obsession. How does that change impact on the story of Frankenstein?

Rich: I think that makes him more sympathetic. Even though he’s not remotely a hero, there’s an element to Vincent’s struggle, so you do feel sorry for him every once in a while. Henry, his rich sort-of brother and rival, at one point in the script, I said to Megan, “I guess we have to feel sorry for even him at some point.” Every character has their moment where the reader can be empathetic and see where their problems come from. Seeing Vincent’s problems makes him less of a crazed mad scientist and more of a human being. It makes his story even more tragic. He’s a sad man and his punishment fits his crimes. We even had a challenge with Gail-in her former life she’s not very nice, but is still a victim in this story because of what is being done to her. We can never justify the actions Vincent takes towards her. How do we make sure that the reader roots for her to get out of this situation versus, “Oh man, she was kind of a bitch.”

Levens: I think in that particular instance it was about making Gail a very different character than Courtney. She becomes a different creature.

Rich: There’s a point in the finale I had to re-write because I overdid it. The monster is trying to fight back and she was being too harsh. It called us back too much to Courtney and I had to soften how she reacts to the doctor. 

Levens: That’s something Jamie did really well with all of the characters. There’s not really one truly good person in this story, but you can understand and at least relate to all of their motivations. Even if they’re not doing the right thing, you understand why they came to them.

McMonigal: What other comics projects do you have out there for readers who like Madame Frankenstein?

Rich: Ares and Aphrodite will follow in early 2015 from Oni Press. For myself, I am doing six chapters in Dark Horse Presents with Brent Schoonover called Integer City, four of which are already out.  The Double Life of Miranda Turner #3 was out in March from Monkeybrain and we are back on a regular schedule, that’s going on for the foreseeable future. In June, my  graphic novel with Dan Christensen called Archer Coe (also Oni Press), which is a weird crime comic, the installments of which are available online via Comixology. It’s sort of my David Lynch’s version of You Have Killed Me. Partially because I wanted to write a guy wearing a domino mask for the entire comic. In the next few months, people can’t get rid of me!

Levens: Ares and Aphrodite is gonna be my next project people can pick up. Hopefully a lot of new good things will come out of Madame Frankenstein for me.

McMonigal:  I sure hope so, because this comic looks amazing! Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, and I apologize it didn't go up sooner.

Madame Frankenstein debuts May 7th, 2014 from Image Comics, in print and digital. It's a seven issue series, and is highly recommended!