Perspectives On A Crime: Tom King And Mitch Gerads On ‘The Sheriff Of Babylon’
Tom King might have the most impressive résumé in comics. Long before he became one of the breakout stars of superhero comics with books like Grayson and Omega Men, he specialized in counter-terrorism, including working for the CIA in Iraq. Now, he's drawing on those experiences for The Sheriff of Babylon, a new ongoing series from Vertigo with artist and co-creator Mitch Gerads.
To find out more, I spoke to King and Gerads about the origins of the project, their approach to research, and the three characters taking center stage in their crime story.
ComicsAlliance: Tom, the stuff that you've done at DC so far has all been rooted in espionage. It's obviously way over the top in Grayson, but even Omega Men is based around ideas of insurgency and governments coming in and taking over places. What was it like to move that back into something that had a more realistic grounding?
Tom King: Man, I feel like you're looking behind the curtain. I wanted to look like the most diverse writer in comics! Spy genre, space genre, crime genre, and then you realize that it's all actually the same thing.
All three of those works come from the same place and the same experience; this one is definitely the most personal and close to the bone, moving into me writing about my actual experiences overseas, but I see it completely. In Grayson, it's fun, it's super-exciting, but at the end it's about a gray world and how we cope with that, and Omega Men has that same issue, and that might be a background in Sheriff, too.
CA: You worked for the CIA in Iraq.
TK: Yeah, and I should clarify that a lot of people served a lot longer than I did. I was only there for about seven to nine months, so I don't want there to be confusion that I did six tours, like some people.
CA: What was it like to turn those experiences into comics? Were there channels that you had to go through to make sure you could write about it?
TK: Yeah. It's the first comic I'm writing where every issue is submitted to the publication review board of the CIA. There's nothing in it that's secret, and it's a crime comic that takes place in Iraq at the time that I was there. It's not about why I was there, doing counter-terrorism work. But it touches on issues that I saw and the world I saw doing that job. I'm horribly respectful and grateful to the CIA, and I don't want to get anywhere near the line of those secrets that they entrusted me with. Everything has gone through the board.
CA: Tom, you're drawing on personal experience for the background of that story, but Mitch, what did you do for research? Were there conversations between you to nail down those details?
Mitch Gerads: For me, I'm the only member of my family who wasn't in the military, so I grew up with this huge respect for, and this huge interest in telling these kinds of stories. It's cool, dealing with special operations and CIA stuff, but as far as this book, Tom and I talked a little bit at the start, and I knew a little bit of his background at the start. It's a huge respect issue for me, so I researched everything from the start. I definitely spend more time researching a panel than drawing it.
It's a respect thing, but it's also this weird process of my art, where the most random things that you wouldn't care to look up are the things I look up. The stupidest thing I can think of is that in #1, there's a house with a phone, and I spent half an hour researching phones in Iraq, as though they're any different. [Laughs] It's this weird tic I have, everything in the book is something that's from Baghdad.
CA: The book has a really interesting color pallette, too. It's dominated by these browns and tans, and then shifts into reds and greens for flashbacks, or when it goes to other times and locations.
MG: Colors are my favorite part of my process. It's where I think the art becomes real, it becomes atmospheric. It's a mix of looking up all the photos and research and seeing how the cameras caught the light during different times of the day.
I did another military comic where I've had so much great feedback from soldiers. One time, I sat down with a marine who was overseas, and he told me how much he appreciated the colors. He had PTSD from his time in Iraq and other places, and for different moments from that time, he remembers the colors. He remembers things being green, or yellow. That's what I wanted to give to the readers, if there's a scene in that city, it has the same feel, something that you remember.
TK: That's my favorite part, too.
CA: In your first issue, you have three distinct acts, and each one is focused on a different character and punctuated by a very specific kind of page. Can you talk a little bit about those characters?
TK: Sure. The book has three main characters, and they're very specific individuals to me in terms of how they interact, but they also represent different perspectives. We start with Christopher, an American contractor and former police officer who's training Iraqi police. He doesn't work for the government, he's one of the people that we hired to go over there and put the country back together.
Then there's Sofia, who's basically the daughter of a Sunni warlord who was raised in the States because her family was killed by Saddam Hussein. She's coming back to the country, sort of as a conqueror, one of the outsiders who was very influential on US policy. She's come back to Iraq, and she's a woman in a very male-dominated society.
The final character, Nassir, who's a Shi'a, who was a cop from Baghdad. The Shi'a were quite repressed and discriminated against, so as you might imagine, he had to make a lot of compromises to rise as far as he did. He's a cop looking at it all, a Clint Eastwood-esque figure. He represents someone who never had to leave, and had to go through the entire Saddam regime, and is now looking at the country after the American invasion wondering what's next.
Those are the three perspectives. At the beginning, something happens, a murder that brings them all together. And then everything goes wrong.
CA: That tends to happen in crime stories --- both the murders and the things going wrong.
TK: Well, the next issue's a Squirrel Girl crossover, so we'll get that in. [Laughs]
CA: The decision to punctuate the introduction for each of those characters with a shooting was something that I thought was very interesting. There aren't sound effects in the comic, there's dialogue and captions, but the only times we get sounds are in these empty black panels gridded out with the action and just the word "BANG" in white. I know that you've used the grid in Omega Men with Barnaby Bagenda, so was that something the two of you came together on?
TK: If people know me, I'm a format nerd. I like to play around with symmetry. You'll also notice that there are three scenes that involve a table with all three characters. I think that's what comics does best, is that you set up these patterns and then destroy them, and that's symbolic of how the characters are both similar and dissimilar.
And honestly, I stole that from Brian K. Vaughan. In Y The Last Man; he opens up with those black panels with white writing, and I love that effect. I think that's probably the best first issue ever written, so I was like, "How can I incorporate that into the comic?" It came through in doing the "Bang Bang" effect.
MG: I think what's pretty cool too is that each issue kind of has its own unique hook going on. Each issue gets a different presentation with the same story.
CA: What can we expect from future issues? Will there be a single overarching mystery throughout the series?
TK: Well, besides the Squirrel Girl thing, these first eight issues are the first "season," that will wrap up with a complete story, and we'll continue after that. I've never written at all, in all the time that I've been a professional writer, about my experience in the war and the seven years I spent in counter-terrorist work, so I wanted to really get at the heart of that and try to say something interesting without becoming didactic and political, like you read in the paper every day. I wanted to say something artistically, and the way Mitch has drawn and colored it and the way Vertigo is editing it, I think we get to something new and interesting about the war. I hope that's what comes across.