Monday, February 28, 2011

FYC replay: One Last Song

More from the archives.

For Your Consideration: One Last Song
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
One Last Song #1 (of 6)
Written by CJ Hurtt
Art by Shawn Richter
32 pages, b/w
$2.95 each
Brainscan Comics

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

It is 2046, and the intervening years have seen Americans’ civil liberties whittled away bit by bit. The Department of Homeland Security, having expanded its reach, is now firmly established as the foremost power in the land. Controlling all the major media outlets, no message gets out without Department of Homeland Security approval. Their use of fear to control the masses is so common that few people give it any thought in this near future, accepting the status quo as a necessary evil to retain one’s security.

This is a sterile world where the “reality” is created by those in power. Gentri-Mart “sells U.S. for less,” while The New American Times prints stories of the latest terrorist threats, two subtle ways of keeping the populace in line. It is also required that any performer, journalist, publisher, et al. must obtain a performance card or face internment in one of the terror aversion camps. And if someone gets out of line, the authorities deal with the issue in a manner most physical. Welcome to this brave new world.

Of course, pirate radio stations and underground newspapers fill the niche formerly occupied by independent new agencies while individuals across the land feel inclined to perform their own minor acts of rebellion. Amanda Casey is just such a person. A singer/songwriter, she performs love songs accompanied only by her guitar. On the surface, they seem like harmless tripe, but hidden within the stanzas are the harsh truths of this police state.

As the issue opens, Amanda is playing in a tiny coffee house, eliciting little more than marked indifference from the few patrons scattered about the cafĂ©. Once finished, she takes a seat with coffee in hand and is approached by someone who was obviously listening very closely. He comments on the lyrics as he also sits down at the table. She is immediately suspicious and inquires as to who he is. Flatly ignoring her question, the man continues to interrogate Amanda about the song and asks where he might be able to acquire a copy. On her guard, Amanda nimbly exits as her “fan” is distracted by an argument at the register. As she races through the back alleys, the mystery man calls his superiors, requesting clarification as to whether he should pursue the subject or not. Having done his job, alerting Amanda to the fact that DHS is watching her, the agent is told to return to base. Thus begins the cat and mouse game between a lone songwriter and the Department of Homeland Security. And although Amanda may believe they want her dead, that is actually the furthest thing from their minds.

One Last Song is from newcomers CJ Hurtt and Shawn Richter – though Richter has two graphic novels available from Frequency Press, this is Hurtt’s first comic credit. Dropping readers squarely in the middle of a not-too-distant future where the realities of today’s political turmoil have been extended to a drastic outcome, this is a topical book that extrapolates what could happen if the fear-mongering and lack of conviction prevalent in our governing bodies today is not dealt with.

Hurtt exhibits an understanding of the comics medium sometimes lost on new creators that makes this an exciting first issue. Holding to the “show, don’t tell” axiom, he introduces his audience to a number of different characters, giving little away while teasing readers with the bits of information he does toss them. This tactic – which could have easily backfired - not only gets readers interested and asking questions, but it also works to flesh out this future America for readers. Some people might argue that not enough was explained in this first issue, but I was pleased to find a creator confident enough that he would allow multiple layers of mystery to surround his story, and do it in a way that is entertaining and thoughtful enough that I want to pick up the next issue, which is the first duty of any storyteller.

The art from Richter is a fine complement to Hurtt’s narrative. Having to construct the future, Richter creates fully realized backgrounds for this tale, and with so many characters introduced, it’s important to have a capable artist who is able not only to create unique faces but also keep them consistent throughout the book. Richter is just such an artist, and his clean artwork and clear storytelling is a welcome addition to comic shelves.

One Last Song is a promising new series from Hurtt and Richter. They have created an interesting first chapter that sets up a plausible near-future society where American freedoms have been bartered away for security and complacency, while also posing more questions than it answers. They also smartly intersperse the narrative with pieces of DHS propaganda, a clever way to inject some of the history of this mid-twenty-first century society. Published by Brainscan comics, if you’re still unsure about the book, you can check out the first issue as a free download from Wowio here, or read it free over at Web Comics Nation. And once you’ve done that, go to your local comic shop and tell them you want to order the rest of the series.

An Interview with Shawn Richter and CJ Hurtt

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

Shawn Richter:
Well, the easy answer is, I'm an artist, but I also love telling stories (at parties, you can't get me to shut up!!) so comics was a natural fit. Add to that the fact that my dad thought giving me comics as a kid would get me into reading (and he was right) led to me being influenced by some of the greats early on. I remember reading Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge as a kid, as well as Curt Swan's Superman, John Buscema on Conan and Mike Zeck drawing Spider-Man.

CJ Hurtt: I enjoy the kind of freedom that comics give. You can do just about anything in comics. There is also a sort of addictive immediacy to the scripting process. You can make a lot happen story wise in a very short amount of time.

BECKETT: I know you and CJ came together on Warren Ellis’s Engine. What was it about his pitch that attracted you to this series?

I think it was the originality of it. I'd done political satire, but the politics in this are a bit more broad. Sort of like the politics in Star Wars, for example. It's mostly about freedom fighters and hidden messages and secret police states, and it's set in the future about 40 years, so that's fun too. You kind of get to come up with your own world - you try to extrapolate what life will be like in 2046. So, I'd done horror and crime and historical fantasy a little and I wanted something new and different. This idea really blew me away. We did up the pitch and showed it around and a few months later Brainscan said they'd take a shot on it. And here we are, about a third of the way done.

BECKETT: I was really impressed with the storytelling in this first issue. You were able to condense a lot of information into these pages, jumping in and out of scenes, while allowing the images to relay as much information as the words. Was this series developed jointly, or is there a distinct separation of powers?

I'll admit that CJ pretty much scripted the book as you see it, but he's a cool enough writer that he let me run with ideas if I got them - in fact I'll often even submit dialogue changes if I think it'll benefit the end result. And he's always very cool with it. For example, there was a bit of profanity in the script initially. Now, I'm not a prude or anything, but I'd just finished working on a number of adult projects and when I go to a convention, I'll dread having my books out there for kids to see, not because the stories aren't good, but because I'm concerned about the parents looking at it and getting upset at the language. So I mentioned it to CJ and he came back with - "Well let's put [censored] over it when we letter it" and I think it worked. It adds a whole new layer to the book and works within the context of the story.

Hurtt: Thank you! I was worried that I was going to take flak for not delving into each character's backstory before launching into the action. Personally, I hate info dumps in stories. I'd rather hit the ground running and introduce character developing events in a more natural way. I like stories where the audience is a fly on the wall rather than being someone who has more information than the protagonist.

The questions of "who are these people and why are they doing this?" definitely need to be addressed in any story, but I don't think they need to be answered right away. What I mean is that you can move quickly in a story and have it be interesting without front loading your first issue with biography.

Shawn did bring a lot to the writing end of this book. I tend to focus on plot, character, and dialog. He tends to focus on the strange little details. There's a sign out front of the store that one of the main characters manages that reads "We Sell U.S. For Less!” That's all Shawn. He also came up with the hover microphones for the book. Shawn's already mentioned the use of the censor bars, but that's a really good example of how this is really a co-created book.

BECKETT: How much input into the story have you had, and what are your thoughts – in general – on how best to approach this collaborative process?

Hmmm. I think it's different for everyone. The best approach for me is to follow the writer's lead, unless it doesn't make sense. The writer is the person who initiates the story. I get to do the rest – casting, wardrobe, set design, lighting, even staging to a great degree. If there's a call for a particular shot, I try to do it. If I can't make it look good, well, it's up to me to come up with some substitute that does look good... but I want the writer on board.

Yeah, sometimes wires get crossed, but I've been very fortunate to have worked with some great writers in my short career. Let's hope the trend continues!

BECKETT: I saw your art in a small press anthology a couple of years back and can really see how you have developed from then to now with this new book. What are some things that have helped you grow as an artist over these intervening years, and what advice would you give to prospective comic artists?

Oh man, just draw. Draw and draw and draw some more. Buy anatomy books and study those. Learn perspective. Go to life drawing classes. Go to cons and get reviewed. Get editors to do it too, I know they tell you not to do that until you think you're ready, but it's the best way to develop a thick skin. Just be polite as your work is being torn to pieces - you don't want to offend them - but they'll give you a good idea of what to fix in your pages. Hook up with starting out writers and finish the stories they write for you. The more writers you work with, the more you'll be able to tell who is good and who isn't - and you'll be able to start looking at scripts and seeing what's worth your time.

Self publish. These days it's easier than ever. Get your work printed at one of those “Print On Demand” printers and mail it out to every editor you can get an address for, and to reviewers as well. You'll eventually get feedback that'll tell you what needs work.

It's a long process. It's hard and you probably won't have a lot of time for friends or going out all the time, but if you really want to draw comics, it's the only way to do it. Just keep drawing them and don't quit.

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

I've got another couple pitches kicking around but nothing that's definite just yet. My main focus is going to be finishing One Last Song (#2 is being lettered as I type this) and promoting it, as well as the latest OGN I've drawn, called Against The Wall. We'll be approaching libraries with that this fall, so check it out there, or go to for more info on it.

Hurtt: I'm an editor for Dark Recesses Press and we're getting ready to launch our first print issue. We've been a paying fiction market for two years and are finally ready to cross over from the web to wood pulp. Check it out at .

I'm also working on a few other comics projects. Nothing really to announce now though.

Richter & Hurtt: One Last Song is available in your local comic store and issue #2 should be on the stands soon. We also just got onto wowio, so check out for info on how to get it there!

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