De Campi And Parker Issue a ‘Mayday’ Warning [Interview]
This November sees a whole lot of sex, drugs and violence kick in over at Image Comics, with the first issue of Mayday from the creative team of Alex de Campi, Tony Parker and Blond. The five-issue miniseries, set in the 1970s, sees two Russian agents sent to the U.S. with a mission to kill a Cold War defector and recover a list of Soviet assets.
Rose, a well-educated young woman with a plan in mind, is paired up with Felix, a brusque and brutal operative, in order to complete the mission --- but both partners have other plans in mind, and all hell is going to break out in America as a result.
The series plays into some of de Campi's familial history, with Parker and Blond joining to create a real, lived-in sense of time and location. This is a comic that feels like it's actually in the '70s, and features an urgency and paranoid tension from the first few pages onwards. Duly hooked, ComicsAlliance spoke to the creative team to find out more about what we can expect from Mayday #1 next month.
ComicsAlliance: Alex, you do comic pitches better than anyone else, so to start with, how do you describe the conceit of Mayday to people?
Alex de Campi: Ha. Oh gosh, I don't think I pitch better than other people. I'm terrible at high concept. I'm the queen of "here is a story that seems to be about a thing, but is actually about something else."
How I describe Mayday depends on who I'm talking to. If they look like a film geek, I say it's Terence Malick's Badlands, but the young couple are Soviet agents. Or I say it's a Bond film directed by Ken Russell and Michelangelo Antonioni in California. Then I tend to talk about how calcified the spy genre is, and how radical it is to do small but significant things like taking the spy out of the suit. If he doesn't have a posh accent and a suit, if he's not a First World white exceptionalism/power fantasy (the gadgets, the guns, the tailor)... he's kinda pretty close to being a terrorist.
Which brings to the idea of how long I can keep readers onside while flirting in the grey area between the two... and then if I make the spy not an American, but someone confused and frightened by America.... what then? What if we set it in the wide open, sunny, modernist spaces of California? Put our Communists somewhere (hippie) commune-adjacent? What if I have a strong female character that never fires a gun or throws a punch, but is strong in an extremely feminine way, negotiating power landscapes and alliances?
We're doing a lot of little things in the book which, we believe, make Mayday feel a lot fresher, exciting, and more visceral/uncomfortable than many other spy books.
And then I probably wave my hands around and talk about sonic landscapes and why the book has a playlist, because the underground music of '71 (Stooges, Sabbath, Cooper, etc) were what happened when you bolted anger on to psychedelia.
CA: Mayday is set as the Cold War enters the 1970s. I know you have some family history around that particular time and setting --- how did that inform you as you started putting Mayday together?
ADC: My parents worked for the CIA and NSA in the late '60s. Mom was based not at Langley, but Naval HQ in DC, and she and Dad (who was in the Navy but on loan to the NSA) used to court by seeing who could sneak further into whose high-security building. My father later ended up with a private-sector job that involved him spending a lot of time in Warsaw Pact countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember him getting his hand operated on in Moscow after a cat bite got badly infected on a trip... then he was commuting to Romania for several years. There's always been a sense in my family of the world outside the US being a pretty interesting place. And of course (partially due to my parents' attitude) I've spent half my life outside the US.
This means that a lot of my work is about either Americans abroad (such as No Mercy and the upcoming Bad Girls), or strangers in America, such as Mayday. I know what it's like to be somewhere where you don't really speak the language, talking with your hands and watching hard for social cues... feeling like you have a thick blanket of silence between you and others.
And then imagine coming from Soviet Russia, where even top officials thought American supermarkets were Potemkin villages put up just to impress them! Beyond a general cultural understanding, I then did what every good historian does: read a ton of primary sources/first-hand accounts. I'm still deep in my Cold War autobio reading. It's all fascinating. Real life beats fiction hollow every. damn. time.
CA: Tony, how did you first come onboard the project?
Tony Parker: Alex approached me about the book, and it sounded wonderful. She actually apologized for it being set in the early 1970's, as I was just there with This Damned Band, but it wasn't an issue for me. The story comes first, and this story fits perfectly where it is chronologically. I have been lucky to work with many writers that have a passion for their project, and Alex fits this absolutely. She has a definite vision, but is willing to let me play around inside that vision. I love that kind of give and take.
CA: What does your approach to the 1970s look like? What kind of research do you do in putting together a particular look for the characters and setting, and evoking a real period from time?
TP: I try to treat the 1970s as a gritty art house '70s in this book, in comparison to the doc/horror/comedy of This Damned Band. I did all new research for Mayday, even though it was only three years before TDB. I treat the look not as an idealized version of the era, but trying to make it as if the reader is teleported to that specific era.
I avoided modern movies of the era and stuck to news photography, documentaries, and stock photography for the look. This included what people would find attractive, or what they would try to emulate in fashion. I also made sure that most of what the reader looks at wasn't from 1971, but from years before that. Cars would be from 2-15 years before, and clothing and decorations would be a year or three old. I tried to make it look grounded and gritty, but without caricature.
CA: Was it your request for Blond to color you on the series? What do you feel their coloring brings out of your work?
TP: I put Blond's name in the mix because of our work with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Richard Starking's Elephantmen, and it had been a little while since we had worked together.
Both are amazing color artists, and both have the wonderful ability to make the final art pop so much more than what I had envisioned when initially drawing it. Both are color artists who use color to help tell the story, not just slap some colors and special effects on there. Even when I had moments when my initial impression was off, I would later realize that they right in their choices.
CA: Alex, you write far in advance with your scripts, which is why your books run to schedule. How precise are you as a writer? Do you have a clear vision for your pages from the start, or are you interested in seeing the artistic team deviate, experiment, surprise you?
ADC: I write ahead because of a dizzying fear of inadequacy --- that I'm going to screw things up somehow near the end, or that my pacing is off and the book is actually five issues rather than four. And because frankly there are very few things I want to write. I'm not the girl that can send five pitches and only write the one that lands. Better to just do the thing rather than waiting for someone to give me permission to do it.
I script fully, but my scripts always have a note on the front that says "feel free to amend/delete/change, etc". And I'm delighted when the artistic team deviate/experiment/surprise. Not every experiment works --- on both sides. I've re-scripted pages after realizing at pencil stage that I'd written some right old garbage. I certainly re-dialogue at the lettering stage frequently --- the note about the word "defector" in Russian on page 2 of Mayday #1 was added in the lettering stage. (And I letter my own books, which is a habit I adore.)
The artists I work with best --- such as Tony and Blond; and Carla [Speed McNeil] and Jenn [Manley Lee] on No Mercy --- we're able to have an ongoing grown-up conversation about the pages, where everybody listens and suggests changes and feels free to experiment. There's no ego in it; we all just want to tell the best story we can --- that's also why everyone's name is on the front in the same size font.
CA: A lot of people are going by the assumption this is a spy series, but from the sounds of things it’s at least equally a horror story in disguise. Is that fair to say?
TP: It's more suspense than horror. The greatest monsters aren't the demons in the dark, but the depths that humans will go to in order to win.
ADC: I think all my stories are horror stories in disguise, in some way. Partially that's because I acknowledge that what these people are going through is terrifying. Being shot at is terrifying. Being lost in the dark is terrifying. I write violence like Sam Peckinpah filmed it: not for your enjoyment, but to make you look into the depths of your soul. So maybe just making people have realistic reactions (rather than convenient ones) to events turns any genre tale into horror.
One of the things I'm also proudest of with my writing is I can write a quiet conversation that's as violent as a fistfight. The Coens have a way of writing scenes where, rather than the single end-of-scene turn that happens with most writers, they turn the scene again, a second time, in a totally unexpected direction. Even in the quiet scenes they do this. I do it too. Didn't learn it from them --- it was Edward Albee, blame him --- but it's a damn good trick.
CA: The book doesn’t paint espionage as a particularly polished, suave profession. Who are your two leads as the series starts, and what are they making of their lives?
ADC: Espionage wasn't polished at all. It was a hot mess of disastrous ops and painstaking guesswork at desks. Greg Rucka always says that the best filmed spy series was The Sandbaggers, and he's right. The more reading you do, the more you see how fly-by-night everything was. How many ridiculous mistakes were made.
TP: My initial designs were the standard Bond look, and thankfully Alex stomped them down quickly. Spying is about the results, not the look. This is wonderfully conveyed in the first issue. It, in some ways, starts off in the middle. This makes it far more natural and organic of an opening.
ADC: The series starts off with two young Soviet operatives sent to the US to kill a defector and retrieve the list of Soviet intelligence assets he took with him. One of them, Rose, is from a very privileged Moscow background: uncle in the Politburo, solidly part of Brezhnev's nomenklatura, all the best schools, Leningrad Institute of Languages and nice career as a case officer in science and tech espionage in Hong Kong. She speaks fluent English and maneuvers well through the world outside the USSR. But she doesn't have much experience with consequences. Her kind, actions don't have consequences.
Felix, the other, is a GRU (military intelligence) operative on loan to the KGB because he was in Eastern Russia at the time and they know he'll pull the trigger. He's a badly-educated street kid (Rose jokes at one point he can barely speak Russian, much less English). He was born in the ashes of Stalingrad. Felix is infinitely aware of consequences, and is confused and dazzled by America.
CA: The series pushes them together to stay alive, but promises that they have to ultimately betray one another to survive. What kind of dynamic does that drive out of the series, and from Rose and Felix themselves?
ADC: Failure isn't tolerated at the KGB. There must always be a scapegoat. So once our kids make their mistake, blame must be assigned. They can either both die, or one can survive. Rose is far more conscious of this than Felix is. This should be simple, because they didn't know each other beforehand and they have no loyalty to each other. But the danger they are in forges a sort of friendship between them... a friendship that might grow to more if they weren't wounded and on the run from the police/FBI.
Rose is never sure how much Felix knows of her plan to betray him. And yet... Felix is the one person in the book that treats her with any respect. This leaves her with a choice: throw her lot in with the violent, possibly drug-addicted GRU operative of no background and no status, but who seems like he will treat her well, or with the KGB case officer who will shelter her and maintain her privilege in a society with incredibly sharp delineations between the in crowd and everyone else... but who is likely abusive. How far will she go to keep the pieces of what she has? And how far will Felix go, in his rather feral way, to stay alive?
TP: It's a great metaphor for politics. Nearly everyone in this series has a healthy distrust for everyone else around them. Everyone has an agenda, and they're all focused on their own victory. How do you build trust, when trust can kill you? That's where the entertainment comes in.
CA: Together with No Mercy (heck, arguably with Archie Vs Predator too), Alex, you’re cornering a market on stories where people are stranded in the unknown, and improvising wildly. What is it that interests you in this as a way to drive stories?
ADC: Partly it comes from having been that person confronting the unknown. Partly it comes from a great admiration I have for a particular Japanese storytelling trope/structure that you see used to deadly effectiveness in books like Death Note and Attack on Titan --- where sure, there is a big bad/central conflict, but what the book is really about is the shifting sand under the characters' feet as they learn that the world doesn't operate quite along the rules they had assumed. It's exciting having characters in new situations where you get very few context clues as to their backgrounds, having to wing it to survive.
You're learning about them as they are learning about their world.
CA: There’s a mainstream cultural reluctance to see spies and agencies as being unpleasant, nasty, real people. Was that rose-tinted vision of American spycraft something you wanted to be able to puncture and explore with Mayday?
TP: It was a hard hurdle for me to jump in the beginning. The reality of the craft isn't a surprise for me, but doing the gritty realism in entertainment was a tough transition. Thankfully for the reader, we jump right in to the grit in issue one, so the reader can start off in the real world. I'm happy that it's not a Bond book, as this story wouldn't be near as fun for me to draw, and probably not as entertaining as this book will be for them.
ADC: I'm non-denominational in my spycraft skewering (the KGB get it too, and just wait until I get onto the Securitate). But you could write an entire ongoing series about the office politics at the CIA in the 1970s, from Angleton's long, paralysing shadow to Stansfield Turner's standing down Moscow Station in 1978. It's a miracle anyone at Langley in the Soviet Bloc Division (as was) got anything done at all.
It's not even that operatives and case officers are nasty people (many were seemingly quite nice; a few were off their rockers)... it's just that we have such a fixed view of the operative as a white man in a posh suit with an upper-class accent, and access to all sorts of toys. Like a scrubbed-up, state-sponsored Batman. This person did not exist; in fact never existed. Even the rather dapper British SOE operatives (Stanley Moss, Paddy Leigh Fermor, Freddy Yeo-Thomas) that Fleming used for inspiration for Bond didn't exactly wear suits behind enemy lines.
So in some ways all I'm doing, as Li'l Kim would say, is taking you back to the block. The fact that it ends up feeling quite radical and modern, well, that's just a nice side effect.
Mayday #1, by Alex de Campi, Tony Parker, and Blond is published by Image Comics on November 1, 2016.