The A-Team In Toe Shoes: Jen Van Meter And Rick Burchett On The Post-War Ballet Of ‘Prima’
Every once in a while, you come across a premise for a story that has so many great hooks that you want to start reading it before you even finish the sentence where it's announced. Prima, announced this week at the Image Expo as the next project from Jen Van Meter and Rick Burchett, is one of those comics: The story of a ballet company that was secretly a resistance cell during World War II, and uses their skills as thieves after the war.
To find out more, I spoke to Van Meter and Burchett about Prima's roots in mid-century illustration, the collision of wartime resistance and high fashion, and the troubles of building an entire cast of characters who all have one big lie to tell to each other and the audience.
ComicsAlliance: You mentioned in the announcement that Prima started out as a heist story before evolving into to something bigger. Can you take me through that process?
Jen Van Meter: A few years back, Rick and I were sitting next to each other at Emerald City ComiCon, giving people their Lady Sabre books that they'd gotten from the Kickstarter -- Lady Sabre being the comic that Rick does with Greg [Rucka], my husband. So we had a lot of time sitting at the show where we got to visit, which was very rare for us. We've known each other for 15 years, and we don't actually get to hang out that much, but we were sitting there talking about comics and artistic style and the kinds of stories you can tell in a comic. I do not actually remember what started it, but I asked Rick, "Could you use mid-century illustration style to do sequential art? To do a comic?"
He was working on a commission, and about 15 minutes later, he handed the commission off to someone, and then he starts handing me little pen drawings, going "You mean like this? You mean like this? You mean like this?" It started being like passing notes in class, talking about the kind of story that would be suited to that kind of art, and what I said to him was, "What about something like a heist story?"
I had this idea about a ballerina who's a thief, and we got really excited about it, and started talking about it. Before too long, we had a big idea, and then it just kept getting bigger. Is that a fair assessment, Rick?
Rick Burchett: Yeah, I think so. It has morphed into a couple of different things along the way. It was funny, because Jen said, "Have you ever thought about doing a book in a mid-century advertising, fashion illustration style?" and I said, "Yes!" And I don't know which one of us was more surprised -- me for being asked that, or her for me saying that yes, I had!
JVM: [Laughs] I remember the look on your face, like something really weird had just happened.
RB: So it evolved quickly, and grew on its own. And really, most of the heavy lifting came from Jen. I just stood back and let her go.
JVM: That's a very nice way of saying that he just watched me dig a very deep hole. We had this idea, ballerina and cat burglar, and all these beautiful drawings that Rick was making for me, and then I started doing research, and hit on the French Resistance, and resistance movements throughout Europe in the '30s. It got much richer and really interesting, but also really huge, really fast. We went from "one ballerina equals one thief" to the problem that I have in everything I write, which is that I can't write solo characters. I have to write families and groups and communities, it seems to be the only thing I know how to do. So it went from "ballerina and thief, and nobody knows who she is" to "oh, no, the entire company's in on it," which means the entire company's part of the cast now.
RB: Yeah, I need to speak to you about that!
JVM: Rick said, "So I have to take a whole bunch of people who are trained to look exactly alike and make them differentiated on the page?" and I said, "Yes, until we don't want them to be!"
RB: And they don't wear costumes? They don't wear spandex? They don't look like weightlifters? Wait a minute!
JVM: But when I started reading all this research, I began hitting all of these moments in between the two wars in Europe, when the resistance to the spread of fascism is manifesting really heavily in the arts community. I was seeing, like "Wait, this group of people, and this group of people -- they all know what to be scared of, so they're all banding together to do stuff?" And this is really happening! And at that moment, I didn't want to leave anyone out, so the premise started to get bigger and bigger, and that was when we decided we needed an editor, and we went and found Jeanine Schaefer.
CA: Whenever I read a period piece, I'm always trying to figure out why the creators chose to set their story at that specific time, but with this book, based on what you've said, it seems like there's a lot there leading to it from every angle, starting with the idea of telling the story through '50s advertising-style illustrations. Did it ever change from that starting point?
RB: When she approached me with the idea, the thought of using that art style as a basis for telling a story has always bounced around in my head. I've always thought that you'd have to lean more towards the design element of storytelling. Could you do that and sustain a story that's easily accessible to the reader? Could you design your pages, and partially tell your story, not directly, but kind of obtusely? Can you use design to tell a story? Can you pull that off? It's something that I've always wanted to try, and this opportunity presented itself.
And when you've used that as the basis for your art, it's just natural that you want to set it in the time period where that art was predominant, because it works better that way. If you take that whole kind of elegant fashion illustration, magazine illustration style of the '50s and you put it in the 1980s, or the '70s, or any other time, it just doesn't work as well. That's not to say that it can't work, but it doesn't work as well.
JVM: I think there's a factor of the art being native to the period that seems really natural for both of us. At first, when we were first talking about a ballerina heist story, it was very easy to take the kind of art we were talking about and think "oh, so it's kind of a romantic comedy feel, sort of Audrey Hepburn-ish," and it all seemed to make sense. But when I really started looking at the period, and the history, and what's going on beneath the surface of a lot of the tropes that I love?
We talked about To Catch a Thief a lot, and how we both adore that movie. When I started reading about resistance movements, and what those communities had been through during the war and were going through after the war, some of the realities of it seem so profoundly relevant now. There were communities of folks who had spent six, seven, eight, nine years risking their lives moving refugees from one country to another. There were communities of folks who had been, historically, not getting along well, banding together to resist this incursion of a really profound threat to everyone. Then, one of the things I hit on was book after book after book about the way that the arts community cannot ignore its role in the politics of the moment, whether that means artists who are brought in by the fascists as propagandists, or artists who are resisting, either physically or in the context of their art, the incursion of fascism.
I feel like all of those questions are still really relevant. I can't listen to the news, with people talking about "do we want these refugees or not," and not think "wow, this is exactly the conversation that was happening in 1934, 1937, 1939." The realities of those conversations make everything seem really current to me. In as much as I want us to be writing a fun book, I feel like the politics behind it are really nearby.
CA: Did you find that difficult to balance? You have these very funny moments that are right at home in a heist comedy that move right into very intense scenes about what's really going on behind the scenes.
JVM: I feel like when we really hit on what this book is, and what we really wanted to do, those were, in some ways, the easiest scenes. The harder ones are when it's all light, or all serious. One of the things that's been really fun, and probably really impossible for Rick, is that I think just about every named character in the book has at least one big lie about who they really are and what they're really up to, and juggling that - making sure that I say in the script "Right now, she's being Diva Sophia for public view" and "Right now, she knows she won't be seen by anyone who doesn't know her secret," because they're constantly moving from privacy to backstage with no privacy to onstage with a lot of privacy, there are all these weird shifts. Making sure that I know so that I'm telling Rick who can hear what, and who's wearing what mask, can be really tricky, but I love having it. Sophia in particular, when she's moving back and forth between Public Sophia and Private Sophia is really fun.
CA: That comes up early in the book, the idea that everything they're doing is all about lies. That's something you see in stories about spycraft or espionage, but I'm not sure you often see it applied to art - probably because artists do not generally like to see themselves as liars.
JVM: And yet, what are we all doing for a living, except making stuff up?
RB: I've always maintained that comics is a magic trick. It's a piece of sleight of hand. We're trying to convince readers that these ink lines on a piece of paper are real people, and they think, and they act, and they feel, and they're sad and they're happy, but they're always just ink lines on a piece of paper. When you pull that off, when you can really make that sleight of hand work and you get a readership that actually cares about what happens to these characters...
An example: Greg and I did a story one time, where we put one of the characters through just some horrible things, and a fan letter came in that said he was outraged at what we had done to this character, so much so that he was never going to read anything that Greg or I ever did again. And the only thing I could think of was "We did it! We pulled it off!" We lost a customer, but we pulled it off. The nature of comics is that it's legerdemain. It's sleight of hand. It's attempting to make something exist that doesn't.
CA: In terms of art style, Rick, what you're doing in Prima is a big departure from what we've seen you doing in the past, but you also said it was something you were very eager to do.
RB: I have a very short attention span. Practically everything I do is done in a slightly different art style. My work on Blackhawk doesn't look like my work on Black Hood doesn't look like my work on Batman Adventures doesn't look like my work on Lady Sabre, and so on. There are minute shifts, usually in the rendering part of it.
I knew going into this that I would have to do the color myself, because it would take me longer to explain to a colorist what I wanted than for me to do it myself. A lot of it is, like I said before, design oriented, and I need the freedom to just put slabs of color in there with no holding line around it, and model shapes with just a darker shade of the base color, and things like that. I wanted to see if I could tell a story and bend the form a little bit, as far as linear storytelling. How much can I get away with and still maintain some sort of coherent story?
To be honest, I just barely scratched the surface at this point. I think what I've done in this first issue is maybe laid the groundwork, but I think it can be taken a lot further than it has.
CA: What did you look to for inspiration on the technique? I'm fascinated by commercial art in general, especially all those weird ads for hot dogs and freezers that you see from the '50s.
RB: It was a great decade for advertising art and illustration. It's so rich, and the stylistic differences are just all over the map. It's a lot of fun when you get into it and you start studying it. Fortunately for me, I was alive then, so I remember this stuff firsthand. This is just me going back and digging into my childhood.
A lot of the fashion illustration would just be an ink wash with a real heavy ink line around it, both black and white and color, and yet you'd have very, very painterly illustration in magazines all over the place. You'd have guys like Al Parker and a real young Bob Peak going in and painting these wonderfully modeled figures against this stark white background. They'd show you part of a couch, and it would just fade out, there'd be nothing there but the background. They'd give you vignettes of scenes, and characters would just be floating, and yet, the characters themselves would be rendered very realistically.
It was a time when a lot of people were taking chances, because they were trying to get your attention. Color advertising became a lot more predominant. It was a time of great experimentation in the arts, music and dance and everything, and there was a lot more freedom, especially in advertising, as to what was accepted and not accepted stylistically. You had everything from very delicately painted figures to very flat-looking cartoon characters that were designed like the UPA Cartoon Studios, like Mr. Magoo, with really heavy, thick holding lines around them. You had drawings where you'd just have two eyes on the side of a nose. It was all over the place.
They were trying to emulate the cubist fine art that was going on at the time in traditional illustration. They were trying to combine those two things, so there was just so much to draw from. You can find reference for that all over the Internet, so easily that it's not even funny anymore. I'm glad I'm doing this now, and not back when I was doing Blackhawk and there was no Internet, and I had to find everything in the library.
JVM: You see it on the album covers, too, that we sent back and forth to each other.
RB: Oh, yeah. You get to know these artists. Gene Deitch, who was one of the animators for UPA, did a couple of newspaper strips, and did a lot of illustration for Downbeat magazine, stuff like that. These guys, they were doing some crazy stuff, and it was just totally accepted.
CA: What can we expect to see as the series goes on? In the first series, we do see a heist, but it happens largely off-panel.
JVM: In that first issue, many of our complications for this first arc are going to be set up. The company has come to New York, thinking that it's going to be easy. They used to be spies, but now the war's over, except that all of those people who worked in the Resistance, all of those people who were part of the underground, don't necessarily have a lot of documentation to support their claims of citizenship or patriotism, or any of the things that they might need to demonstrate to get help from any kind of authority when they're in trouble. One of our jokes is that our ballet company is like Edward Woodward in The Equalizer is a ballerina, and there's 15 of him. Greg calls it "The A-Team in toe shoes," because the idea is that they've decided they're going to keep working, and they're going to keep working, and they're going to keep working largely for people that they know from the old days, who need their help in various ways.
And then there's a murder.
Then, there's going to be an issue of trying to protect all of these identities and covers and keep everyone safe, and the only way that you can do that in a room full of liars is to find out who really did it, so all of the sudden you're an accidental detective. You've got nosy reporters hanging around, and at a certain point, I don't think it's quite a soap opera, but it takes on a soap operatic movement, because there are a lot of different plots happening that have to move fluidly around each other.
But this first arc is largely about the fall in New York, in something like a 1946, and trying not to have everything come unglued right away for the characters. And then, we've got a second arc planned about trying to figure out who the impostor is who's essentially going around pretending to be Sophia and stealing things that she never wanted to take. That's the movement of it.
Ideally, there are some really great reveals as we go. That sepia-toned flashback section at the beginning of #1 continues through this first arc at least, and sets up some stuff about how these girls came to be in this company, what life was like for them before the war was over, when Sophia and Paulina joined the company. We've enjoyed those bits and talking about them so much that at one point, Rick and I were like "oh, we could just scrap the whole thing and do a war story!" That's not what we set out to do, so that's not what we're doing, but there might be some more of that.
In any case, what we can expect from coming issues is trying to figure out who did a murder, and trying to keep the wrong people from finding out the wrong truths about the wrong people, and hopefully some romance and some hijinx, and a whole lot of really gorgeous clothes, because Rick draws the most beautiful, beautiful costuming.
RB: It's a lot of fun!
JVM: And we have reporters with moxie.
RB: I really love doing period pieces. I notice a lot of people who do period pieces in comics, they think if they put the cars on the streets, their job is done. Period cars, that's all you have to do. I really like delving into it a lot, to know not just what they wore, but how they dressed. Most people don't know that back during that period, everybody wore hats. Men wore hats, women wore hats, everybody. Not only that, but any time women went out, they wore little white gloves, always. It was a period when, when people went to the movies, they got dressed up. The men wore suits and ties, that's just the way things were done.
Playing with that, there's a juxtaposition during that period. Post-war, men's suits were very boxy, padded shoulders, that whole thing. And yet, women's clothing became very sleek and streamlined, and then they'd have these gigantic hats. The top of the dress, the bodice would be very form-fitting and the bottom would bell out, a huge skirt.
JVM: And I love that Rick is thinking about how it looked, and the design stuff, and I'm like "oh, and there's that great essay I read about Coco Chanel talking about designing for women who had been starving for ten years because all of Europe was under rations." Coco Chanel at one point gave an interview about having to redesign clothes because all of the sudden, women were so much thinner than they had been. When they had money to spend again, everyone was skinny, and it wasn't a fashion thing, it was because they'd all been underfed during the war. I hit that point and thought "oh, this is so bizarre," because it's this thing that we look at and see as so gorgeous, and it's right next to a dismalness that's affecting everyone's desire for beautiful stuff and color illustrations and glamour again. It's been so damn bleak, so 1946 hits, and you have money to spend, and you can get things in color again! It's so exciting!
That's one of the things that I love about that moment. Nobody's forgotten deprivation. Nobody's forgotten depriving oneself for a cause, but everyone is also like "oh, things are good now, and we want everything to feel good and look good." It's an interesting moment, because I don't feel like after the depression, Americans got very long with that, because you went from the depression straight into the war. There wasn't as much of a moment of getting to recoup.
That shape you were talking about, the big bell skirts and the snug bodices, that was exactly the illustration next to Chanel in this interview I read for research. She had some very interesting things to say about the politics of fashion, let me tell you.
RB: It's a very rich time in our history. I think a lot of people look back on the '50s as being kind of drab, and it was America trying to be perfect, two cars in every garage and all that stuff, but there was a lot going on. From the standpoint of a comic book artist who's been around the block a few times, this is an opportunity you don't hardly ever get, to recreate a world.
I can't fall back on any of the comic book tropes. I have a cast of women who are slender, but who have legs like a draft horse. The men aren't built like weightlifters, they're built like gymnasts. You cannot fall back on the old tried-and-true superhero figures. I have a company of, I don't know how many women, and they all have to look different. They can't just have different hair colors or hairstyles. And while that's a challenge, it's also really exciting to see if you can pull that off, to create that many disparate people, characters that are easily recognizable to the reader.
Prima #1 will be available this fall from Image Comics.