Tuesday, February 15, 2011

FYC replay: 13 Steps

Another one from the archives:


The 411:
Thirteen Steps
created by Phil Hester
Written by Phil Hester & Chuck Satterlee
Art by Kevin Mellon
136 pages
b/w with gray tones, $15.99
Desperado Publishing

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

What if you were a werewolf in a reality where that wasn’t all that out of the ordinary? And what if you didn’t like what you were? How would you handle that? You could benefit from attending a support group for supernatural beings. That’s exactly what Justin Ullrich does in the new series from Desperado Publishing, Thirteen Steps.

For generations, Justin’s family has been cursed with the blood of the werewolf. Every month, when the cycle of the moon burns toward its apex, Justin needs to be locked behind a reinforced steel door so that he won’t get out and harm anyone. But the best laid plans often go awry and this door doesn’t always hold. When the Wolf is upon him, Justin can’t help what he does, can’t help who he is. It’s not that he loses all sense of humanity when he turns. It’s that within the wolf state he no longer cares about the morality thrust upon him by society.

When the wolf isn’t in control though, Justin’s life is relatively normal. He runs the family’s roller skating rink. Every Sunday he goes to church with his mother. Father Frank, the minister, is not only a good friend of the family, but he also coached Justin in little league. Watching Justin grow and continue to improve as a baseball player has been a personal joy for Father Frank, and he gets as excited about Justin’s achievements on the local semi-pro team as Justin’s mother does. It’s such a passion for Father Frank that he always neglects Justin’s time in the Confessional, preferring to talk hardball.

It is this life that Justin longs to have. He doesn’t wish to be a werewolf or to have a succubus as a girlfriend, which is why he recently broke up with Erin. Justin wants what everyone wants, to be accepted and to live his life with as little fanfare as possible. It’s a small dream but one that seems to reside on the far side of some invisible chasm.

Surprisingly, it is Erin, dropping back into Justin’s life in the hope of rekindling the lust they once felt, that directs him to the support group. Unlike Justin, Erin embraces who she is, relishing the fact that she isn’t some mundane human. It is difficult for her to understand why Justin finds his “animal nature” to be such a burden. But despite her disdain for Justin’s feelings on this subject, she implores him to go to the meeting. Maybe there he can find the solace he craves so much. But things won’t be easy.

Personally, I feel that Phil Hester is one of the most underrated writers in comics. His work always manages to entertain, and more often than not makes one think. Thirteen Steps, co-written with Chuck Satterlee, is no exception. The creative team smartly chooses not to sensationalize the existence of supernatural beings within this world. By treating it so matter-of-factly, they are able to draw in readers who might get turned off by something more fantastical. Grounding the story in this way also makes the characters more believable. They aren’t the over-the-top creatures found in pulp magazines but real people with genuine fears and dreams. The fact that Justin wants to find a way to break this curse, or at least deal with it in a manner resulting in less bloodshed, illustrates that perfectly. It’s a brilliant move on the part of the creators, and one that pays dividends with the emotional heart of this story.

A book about supernatural creatures seeking help through an analogue of AA could have been played for jokes quite easily, but thankfully Hester and Satterlee chose not to go that route. A lot of thought has been put into this story, as evidenced by the opening scene where Justin, in wolf form, chases down an overnight delivery man. Within his internal monologue, the audience learns about the nature of the werewolf – that it isn’t so much the fact that the beast sublimates the host’s humanity but that, with the beast in ascendance, the human side no longer cares about its ethical obligations. Little bits like this and the conversation Justin has with his ex-girlfriend Erin, who happens to be a succubus, help to elevate this book above the traditional supernatural tale.

On art for this series is Kevin Mellon, with whom I was previously unacquainted, and he turns in a superb job. Mellon’s storytelling is clear and precise and his ability to express emotion through the characters’ faces is skillfully subtle. Utilizing a standard grid layout – though one he manipulates to great effect – Mellon only deviates from this when the story calls for it. Whether it is a scene where Justin is attacked by a militant werewolf group, or one where he chases down a couple of hunters in his guise as a werewolf, Mellon has a powerful storytelling sense that allows him to design a comic page for the most effective impact. Also, by showcasing this aspect of his artistry sparingly, it allows those pages to stand out and accentuate the storytelling in a manner often lacking in a lot of mainstream comics.

Thirteen Steps was the first offering from Desperado Publishing after amicably parting ways with Image comics. It is a fine introduction to the quality and entertainment provided by Joe Pruett’s company, and I would heartily recommend you check it out.

An Interview with Kevin Mellon

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

um, control. That’s the easy answer. I get too bored writing prose fiction, I don't have the patience to work on a single image for an illustration or painting for months on end, and I’m way too into myself to make movies where you have to rely heavily on other people to bring your vision about. So comics it is.

Plus, I grew up reading them, and they were the perfect bridge between the novels I was reading and the movies I was watching. Growing up, everything is about imagination. You need just enough information to spark it, but not too much that you can't add your own spin to it in your head. Comics fits into that so neatly, because of its reliance on the reader to fill in the gaps between the panels and to read between the lines of what a character is thinking/saying/doing. Plus, it's a medium that plays on the mind’s ability to see a page as a whole thing, but consciously choose to ignore it. The reader forces themselves not to spoil the story and I think that's something that is fun and unique to comics alone.

Plus, the standard answer of "big budget action and drama made with no budget.” As much as we've advanced with movie making, it's still infinitely cheaper for me to draw a werewolf than it is to cgi one, or dress a live human up as one.

That and it's fun. A whole lot of fun.

THE PULSE: Much of the story in 13 Steps is told with a traditional comic grid, but there are a few pages where you open up the design of the page, such as Issue 1 page 24, or page 22 of the second issue. Was this in the script or were you able to design the page yourself?

that page element was not in the script (I believe it just asked for a skating montage), and that's actually one of my favourite pages from issue 1. Phil usually does all the page design and layouts on the books that he writes that he doesn't draw, and that's good for a lot of people, and it works very well. I asked to do my own layouts because unlike a lot of artists I’ve met, that's where all the creativity and fun and joy of making a comic book page lies. Determining the look, pace, camera placement on a page is the thing that I get to have the most fun and really show who I am and what I think on the page.

I don't always work on a specific panel grid, but for the kind of book that 13 Steps is, I figured out pretty early on that I could work from a 4, 5, or 6 panel widescreen (across the page) panel grid and then split those in half as needed. So that's what I’ve been working from on 13 Steps. The page that you mention was me consciously trying to break that monotony to show a moment of someone letting go for a minute. Hope it worked.

I tend to do more "widescreen" style layouts, because those are the kind of shots that I see in my head. I’d love to chalk it up to being influenced by people like Bryan Hitch, but I started doing it before I was into his work (i.e. before he did Authority). Seeing him do it well is what made me continue to do it and to work on developing my visual vocabulary for doing such a thing.

THE PULSE: Along those same lines, how much input with the story did you have?

other than changing a few panels worth of pacing here and there, none. (I have a tendency to draw more panels than less, and often in the script they'll ask for a splash or a panel that takes up most of the page and my sensibilities don't really lay in splashes or huge panels so I’ll break them up into more panels/actions. a good example is issue 1 page 14 where the succubus Erin is talking to Justin in his bedroom. I believe the script only asked for 4 panels, one of which being a really big one for her to deliver her monologue to Justin. I like character moments where you can really play with the beat of how people speak and I like to take the time to figure out the different facial moments I can take a character through while they are speaking. So I broke it up into the extra panels, which I think conveys her frustration with him much better than just one static shot with a lot of words in it).

THE PULSE: The gray-wash look adds a lot to the feel of the story. Are you responsible for this aspect of the artwork as well, and how is that achieved?

I am, and thank you. It’s just Photoshop. For consistency and mostly time, I set up a rule of working only from 3 grey tones (25%, 50% and 75%) plus the white and black that are on the page already. Most of the issues are one or two tones, and then a third will be dropped in here and there when further clarification or depth is needed in a panel/page.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

my book with Dennis Hopeless, Gearhead, just wrapped up with issue 4. We’re working on putting the trade together for that. I assume that will be out later this year/early next year. That also has been optioned for film by a company called Darius Films.

Also, with Dennis Hopeless, we're working on a book called Cupid. It’s about love as a corporation. It follows kali, a new recruit into cupid's "army" of corporate saboteurs. I’m awful at selling concepts, but trust me, it's good. Think Dead Like Me crossed with Veronica Mars, only with love. We’re talking to a publisher about it now, and we should be announcing it soon.

I believe I’m also supposed to do a couple issues on Phil’s book 'Golly!'.


Steeven R. Orr said...

It's been a while since I read this, but I remember really enjoying it.

Chris Beckett said...

Yeah, Steeven. This was a really fun, smart book. And I loved Kevin Mellon's art. I'm looking forward to his new book, coming from AiT/PlanetLar later this year, if I remember correctly.

mellon said...

Thanks for re-posting this, Chris. The book I mention as being called "Cupid" is the AiT/PlanetLar book you're talking about. It's now going to be called "Lovestruck."

As far as I've been told, June is when it should hit.

Thanks again.