Nitz And Smallwood On The Fear-Driven Perfectionism Behind ‘Dream Thief: Escape’ [Interview + Preview]
In a year full of great comics, Dream Thief by Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood was one of 2013’s most compelling new books. After finding an aboriginal mask in a museum, John Lincoln discovers that while he sleeps, the dead possess his body in search of vengeance. A tricky and intense horror-crime hybrid, Dream Thief routinely played on readers presumptions, delivered waves of surprises, and featured one of the most impressive artistic debuts in recent memory. With the first collection from Dark Horse now on shelves, and the announcement of the follow-up Dream Thief: Escape, Nitz and Smallwood spoke with ComicsAlliance about dirtbags and panel structures, and provide an exclusive six-page preview of the upcoming sequel.
ComicsAlliance: Dream Thief had gone on a round of pitches a few years back with no takers. What was it about the concept that kept each of you hammering away at it? What changed between the first pitch and the one that landed at Dark Horse?
Jai Nitz: I became a better writer. I just read the original pitch pages for DT and they’re awful. There are a few moments, sure, but mostly it’s wretched. I have no idea what Greg saw in my writing skills. Seriously, we honed the pitch. We found the things that worked and we amped them up. It was a true collaboration. Greg pushed me to write better and shot holes in my BS. I encouraged him to try new stuff and take chances. And, time. When you have time to write and rewrite and examine and fine tune your work it gets better. That’s what happened with DT.
Greg Smallwood: Jai’s letting me off the hook. Truthfully, my art on that first pitch is fairly terrible. If I remember correctly, it was my first foray into completely digital comic book art and I was clumsily attempting this photo-realistic style that just looked like a bad fumetti. The story’s tone also evolved. Our original concept for the comic was a lot campier and would have played out like a pulpy adventure story. One of my earliest sketches of Dream Thief has him in a pair of swim trunks, holding a beach ball. While wearing the mask. By the second pitch, my art had improved significantly and Jai had zeroed in on the supernatural crime/noir vibe that our readers are familiar with. It’s still a fun comic but it has a lot more depth and mythology behind it than our initial pitch.
CA: There’s always the possibility of a Dream Thief Swimsuit Special, right? I think most comics these days are dominated by one element — either the writing is doing the driving, or the art overshadows the words. Dream Thief is one of the rare books that reads like a true 50/50 collaboration, where both elements are working in concert to tell the story. Why do you think the two of you work so well together? I mean, you’re even trying to share the blame.
JN: Dream Thief: The Money Grab is always a possibility. The main reason we have such a balance between art and writing is that we are good friends. We respect the hell out of each other and we click. But a lot of creators are friends, right? So why do we collaborate so well? I think we do because we’re afraid of letting down the reader, the retailer, the publisher, the other guy, and ourselves. Personality-wise, we are on the same page. We are afraid of being the weak link. Fear motivates us to not settle for a less-than-perfect comic book. That makes the back and forth of creating a comic effortless.
GS: We are definitely fear-driven perfectionists. I’d also credit our smooth collaboration to the fact that we have similar tastes and sensibilities. We can be going over the script and Jai will say something like, “This should feel like that scene in Midnight Run…” and I’ll know exactly what he’s talking about. Our creative voices are similar because we share the same influences and I think that’s why Dream Thief feels so cohesive.
CA: I’m really curious about your working process, because there are some very clever visuals and structural tricks throughout the series. In the first issue, the three times John Lincoln wakes up, the panel structure on those pages is exactly the same, and then mirrored a couple times in later issues, and the exclamation point/question mark appears several times, even as the form of the layout, or in splash pages. Where do those type of formal quirks come into the process, and are you working from a full script or something different?
GS: Jai and I are pretty big on using iconography and echoes to add depth to our stories. The interrobang was something that we both latched onto as a good symbol of John Lincoln’s experience throughout Dream Thief – surprise and confusion. Sometimes, Jai will be specific about a scene mirroring an earlier one and other times, I’ll just see an opportunity to make a visual call-back and run with it. Overall, it’s a really organic process where the two of us go back and forth with these ideas until we forget who came up with what. The starting point is always Jai’s full script but, like Pixar, we tear it down and build it back up a number of times before we get it right.
JN: I have a lecture I do in my class about Iconography. It’s about how to cram in as much information as possible into a single image. Greg is really on board for this, and he adds a lot of the flourishes you see in the art. Then when I see them I get excited and push for them in other places too. The key is showing some restraint and not going all for the spectacle. Solid storytelling is job one. The idea for the wake-up sequence was in the first full script. Then Greg drew it and it got a lot better. So now I type “wake-up sequence” in the script and let Greg do his thing. We’ll always hearken back to that bit for as long as we do the book. But like Greg said, we built the final product together. It wasn’t dictated by the script or the art, it was a combination.
CA: I’m going to pretend I always knew it was called an interrobang, even though I thought that was a group of Superman villains. John Lincoln is an interesting protagonist, and by that I mean totally unlikable. He’s selfish, he cheats on his girlfriend, and he calls people “brah.” He grows up a lot through the first series, but still does some pretty scummy stuff (he somehow becomes more likable and responsible by becoming a killer, actually). What is it about him that appeals to you as creators?
GS: Sleazebag John Lincoln was in the original pitch that Jai gave me. I love stories with noble heroes who always do the right thing but I’m equally fascinated by stories of flawed people who are forced to become heroes due to the extraordinary situation they find themselves in. The evolution of the character becomes part of the story. If John Lincoln had started out the series as a brave and kind hero, where would we go with him? By making him a douchebag at the beginning, we’ll be able to take readers on quite a character journey.
JN: My way-back-at-the-beginning pitch for Dream Thief had John as an entitled slacker asshole. I wanted to write a protagonist who wasn’t really a hero. He was our lens to view the story, but not likable. I think we all see ourselves as flawed and adding the extra layer of John being imperfect would bring something fresh to the book. You cannot believe how many readers/reviewers commented on the fact that he starts the first issue cheating on his girlfriend while no one has made a peep about him violently murdering people. But echoing Greg, that means it will be all the more satisfying if he turns his life around and becomes a hero.
CA: Yeah, I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but cheating on his girlfriend is far from the worst thing John Lincoln does. Not only does he murder the sh*t out of a bunch of people and get away with it, he puts a ghastly new spin on comics’ “dead girlfriend” theme in one of the most shocking pages I’ve ever read. Did either of you hesitate when it came to those moments? Did you worry you were taking it too far?
JN: We took it exactly as far as we wanted to go, on purpose. I knew there would be some criticism from reactionaries and dimwits that we told a story where the lead character’s girlfriend dies and how common that trope is. That’s why we did it the way we did. Yes, I think it’s shocking that John Lincoln kills his girlfriend on page 11 of the book (no spoiler alert needed, it’s kinda the jump of the story). But the more shocking thing, the thing we never say aloud is that John was living with a murderer and didn’t know it! He was dealing with the fallout of the most heinous of human crimes and he was made to look like a jerk because of it. He didn’t kill Claire because of some weak writing motivation; he killed her because he was possessed by the spirit of the man she falsely accused and murdered. Claire’s actions were horrible-but-mitigated and understandable from her POV, but monstrous from Cordero’s familly’s POV. So who is right? One of my core questions about this book was about how we perceive Justice (with a capital J).
GS: Our editors are good about letting us know if we’ve gone too far and if the issue has made it past them, I assume we’re handling the subject matter reasonably. In my mind, if the comic book community seems a little sensitive to a trope, that’s a good reason to use it. Anything that evokes an emotional response from the reader is valid. You just need to apply the trope in a way that inverts expectations.
CA: That splash page completely sucked me in. I already knew I liked it, but the audacity of that decision and the moral ambiguities it implied really knocked me out. And it happens on page 11 and doesn’t even get a spoiler alert. (I even read a little meta-commentary in that moment, but I might be way off; I tend to look for that.) What followed was one of the best — and best-reviewed — books of 2013. What do you have in mind for a follow-up?
JN: Jonathan Hickman was one of our earliest supporters. He liked the pitch and the pitch art, but he had a pointed question, “When does it get interesting?” I told him it gets interesting on page 11. He said, “Then you should pitch up through page 11.” I gave him a completed black and white galley copy at Morrisoncon and he gave it the big thumbs up. We ran the quote he gave us on the back of the trade paperback. The point is, I knew once people got to that part of the book they’d be hooked. If we can hook Hickman, we can hook anybody.
I’ve always said I had 60 issues of Dream Thief in me. Now, after talking to two of my major inspirations (John Layman and Matt Kindt) I’ve pared that down. The entire industry — readers, retailers, publishers — isn’t ready for a book that runs 60 issues. Any that do are outliers for sure and should be applauded for their tenacity. That said, I do have a distinct final act and ending planned for Dream Thief and I hope we get to tell it.
GS: Jai’s being a little tight-lipped. At the end of Dream Thief: Escape, World War Three breaks out and the United States is nuked by Russia. John Lincoln falls asleep in a fallout shelter and finds himself possessed by every American who died in the war. For the rest of the series, Dream Thief will travel across the post-apocalyptic wasteland in an effort to track down Putin and get revenge for America.
CA: Sounds like a natural progression to me! In the first volume, you two experimented with the language of sequential art and played with the form of comics. For Escape, do you feel any extra pressure to really kick out the jams and get more experimental; to deliver bigger surprises?
GS: I definitely feel that pressure but there are only so many tricks up my sleeve. We used a lot of that gimmicky stuff to grab people’s attention and now that we have it, we’re going to give readers the meat and potatoes of John’s story. Escape is really about him and his father. I think there is less room for the gimmicky stuff.
JN: We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver on form and substance after issue one. And it was exhausting. The process became un-fun and we both picked up on it. So we pulled back and focused on what we did best: writing and drawing. Then, when we saw an opportunity to add to the story, we’d take a chance. Now we’re focused on telling the best story we can tell and letting the gimmicks fall where they may. I think we’re both happier with the results.
Dream Thief Volume 1 is available in trade paperback digitally, in book stores, and finer comic shops everywhere. Dream Thief: Escape #1 is available from Dark Horse on June 25. Nitz, Smallwood, and Dark Horse have provided a six-page exclusive preview for ComicsAlliance.