"A mysterious killer is on the loose in the surreal city of COSMOPOLIS and only one man can stop him! But as panic spreads, that man — part-time nightclub singer, sometime private eye and full time philosopher, FRANK SARTRE — has other things on his mind!"
This week we take a look at the creation of The Ballad of Frank Sartre by James Peaty (writer) and James Reekie (artist).
First we have James Peaty answering some questions about the book itself, and then James Reekie will pick up with a look at how he goes about bringing Cosmopolis and its inhabitants to life.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the background to the story and what it’s all about?
A: Ooh, the unanswerable question! Very briefly, the story is sort of part-thriller, part-character drama with dashes of sci-fi, horror and gender bending thrown in for good measure! Oh, and talking apes. We all like a good talking ape!
Q: So, how did the book come about and why did you want to write something like this?
A: That’s almost the classic ‘where do you get your ideas from’ question.
Of course, if you read ‘Frank Sartre’ you will actually (sort of) discover the answer to that question…but I digress!
I’ve had the title and the basic conceit of the story/main character for about 10 years, but I first started seriously playing with the story and thinking about getting it published in 2002. It nearly happened a couple of times along the way – once in 2003 and then again in 2007 – but for a whole bunch of reasons it never came to pass. Thinking that this particular ship would never sail, I gave up hope of it ever happening.
Then, in mid-2009, I was introduced to the folks from Insomnia by my friend Ferg Handley and I started up a correspondence with Nic Wilkinson. Pretty soon I pitched them the book and to my surprise they said ‘yes’ pretty much straightaway. I think I started writing the script in August and then we signed up James (Reekie, the artist) in about October. Since James came aboard it’s been full steam ahead, which after ten years of it just simmering away, is a very good thing!
As to why write this book; well I think when you’ve been working, as I have for the past 5 years, on company owned characters for publishers like DC Comics, Marvel, Dark Horse, Panini etc you get pretty jaded with the whole rigmarole of writing within a very narrow set of parameters. The urge to write this story is, to a large degree, fuelled by the desire to just stretch a different set of writing muscles and see how far you can push yourself as a creator while still telling a compelling and exciting story in the bargain.
Q: At this early stage, and without too many spoilers, what can you tell us about the main characters and the world/settings of the story?
A: You know what, this far in advance I don’t want to say very much about the story.
As for the lead character of Frank Sartre, well…let’s just say he’s a rather troubled guy, with a fair few of ghosts in his past and skeletons in his closet.
The support characters I’d like to keep a secret for now, but what I will say is that the story is set in a rather odd and surreal city known as Cosmopolis and that amongst its population you will find a sky-cab driver called Silas, a rather cantankerous loan shark called Jingles and a psychopathic killer known as ‘The Stain’.
Q: Insomnia readers are out there on the wilder edges, and they like to be challenged. What is it that you are hoping to do with this story that will be different?
A:Not try and write a comic that aches to be a movie!
Being serious though, I just want to write a story that people will find compelling and maybe gets them to think a bit along the way. I’ll leave the bold statements of intent to others.
Q:Can you tell us a bit about some of your influences and inspirations?
In all honesty, just intelligent creators and good material. It’s less a case of who inspired this book and more a case of who continually inspires me. In that regard, the usual suspects would be: Alan Moore, Dan Clowes, Grant Morrison, Dennis Potter, Russell T Davies, David Chase, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Philip Roth, James Ellroy, Howard Chaykin, Paul Pope…and many more!
Hmmm…why are there no women on that list?
Q: Music plays a large role in the story can you tell us some more about that?
A: Well, I’m a big fan of movies like ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’, ‘Shoot the Piano Player’, ‘Broadway Danny Rose’, ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ where ‘sadly-out-of- their-depth’ musicians or entertainers get embroiled in some sort of bonkers crime plot, so the early kernel for this story was no doubt inspired by those kinds of movies.
Beyond that, I just like music! And more specifically, in comics terms, I like the way musical notes and musical performance plays out on a double page spread in a comic book. It’s like the comic page becomes a stage. Sounds silly, I know, but I think it links theatre and comics together in a very interesting way.
Frank being a musician was the first idea I had for the book, so all the other stuff just sort of built from there really. If he’s a singer we need to see him sing. What does he sing? Well, we can’t afford to buy song rights so lets just write our own and tie them into the overall tone and mood of the story. And so it goes…
Funnily enough, this has sort of taken on a life of its own and we’ve been talking about recording some of the songs from the story and using them to promote the book further down the line. Not sure how we’ll find the time, but it’ll be fun to do.
‘The 400 Blows’ will live again!
And now over to the main with the pictures, all the way from Athens, Mr James Reekie
Frank's world and the city is based on an early 1960's future version of Manhattan, complete with anthropomorphic animals, flying cars and huge billboards reaching far into the sky.
Before starting the project I spent a lot of time gathering reference imagery. James uses a lot of film references in the script to give artwork direction and whenever we discuss ideas we always end up talking about favourite scenes that we want to use for inspiration for composition or colour. I looked through film posters and stills for inspirational shots creating mood boards to show the James and Nic what I was intending to do.
Of course, creating Frank was the main challenge. James' scripts paints a clear picture of him and so I just sketched away. I based him on various leading men, not all '60's, there's some Moore, Newman, Don Draper and, of course, Sinatra in him. A bit of a mongrel!
After submitting these sketches James suggested we tone the quiff down for "current" Frank as he appears at various stages of his life in the book and so we need some visual clues to link him to a specific time period.
I'm designing the book in spreads, a hangover from working extensively as a Graphic Designer. You view a book in spreads, not pages and the artwork on one side affects the other in mood, style and pacing. For the early spreads of "Frank" I wanted to throw the reader into this bright, shiny world, full of lights, reflections and sounds bouncing off every surface.
The technology in the book is designed on a "flat screens with chrome" concept. The simple elegant line of 1960's futurism applied to mobile phones. "Looks like an iphone..." you say? Well, look, there's no plastic interchangeable covers in this world! You'd know these things were in your pocket for sure...
Now a little bit about my process:
I reference everything directly as much as possible, searching through books and the internet for great suits, cars and skyscrapers. As mentioned before I work in spreads and 100% digitally using a combination of Manga Studio and Photoshop for the art and Illustrator for the letters.
The spread I'm using to show my process is a scene of Frank performing with his current band "The Paranoids" from chapter one.
I thumbnail out the page using a 10mm "pencil". This technique comes from blowing up my tiny thumbnails to work up roughs, allowing me to keep the exact proportions. Why redraw when you can trace?
When I'm happy with the design I then go in and do a detailed rough of all the panels.
I then set the bubbles and letters in Illustrator (text removed for this example) and send off to James and Nic for comment. They're kind and gentle. Mostly!
For the final artwork I tighten up what I need to with some more pencilling.
And then apply the ink. I'm trying to give a 60's pulp feel to the linework too.
When I colour, I hate books that have a "paint by numbers approach", assigning a colour to each clothing item and diligently colouring up each shape. It's so emotionless. Colour is a emotive story telling devise, and I like to wash over a spread with a limited palette, concentrating on tone and definition, only adding specks of colour to draw the eye to important events or items.
With this spread it's a single scene set over just these two pages and I wanted to isolate it, encapsulating the event with a colour break from the red and orange of the street scenes. The club is called "The Exterminating Angel" and I had set the colour for it on the previous spread with a neon blue sign.
I washed over the spread with a single cyan hit.
I then add gradients, isolating areas and painting with the airbrush. It's a quick and free approach that really sets off the line work. Oh, and I do it all on one layer. This file only has 3 layers, I added a "reflection" layer above the ink line for the lights.
...and that's it! Simples.
Oh, we spoil you, don' t we?
What the hell, it's nearly Christmas!