A 'Call' to Arms: Bruce Jones discusses 'The Precinct'

Thu, May 2nd, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"The Call" cover art by David Finch.
Click to enlarge.
In one of the biggest initiatives in Marvel's recent history, the company is launching a number of mini-series this June under the name of "The Call" and each will focus on the real world heroes of the world. From firefighters to police officers to EMTs, each of these miniseries will focus on their own set of characters, though there will be a relationship between each of the series as time progresses. One of these miniseries, "The Call: The Precinct," will focus on the heroism of police officers and series writer Bruce Jones, best known for his exciting work on "The Incredible Hulk," took some time out of his day to speak exclusively with CBR.

While Jones has received critical praise for his "Spider-Man: Tangled Web" and "Incredible Hulk" stories, both of which were character intensive pieces of writing, it probably surprises some people to see him involved with "The Call." "I received a call from Ralph Machio at Marvel who is editing the series," explains Jones. "Originally Chuck Austin was going to write all the characters, including the independent introductory titles, but his workload just became overwhelming. Working with Chuck was part of the attraction for me, plus the chance to try writing working class real world protagonists linked with a superhero world, which I thought would be a challenge."

But one shouldn't jump to the conclusion that Jones decided to work on this series simply because of the challenge: while that was an influencing factor, the truth is that Jones really believes in the message of all "The Call" series. "The inspiration [behind 'The Call'] was that average Joes (and Jills) with physically oriented occupations can be as exciting to read about in their unique way as people with super powers," reveals Jones. "Certainly firemen and cops and EMS workers are no less heroic than say Spider-Man, perhaps more so because they don't have super abilities to fall back on. Their lives really are on the line, sometimes on a daily basis. The operant word here is: respect. Followed closely by the realization: just what the hell would we do without them? Even in superhero comics, the existence of real civil servants has never been denied-it's high time we gave them their due. My series, 'The Precinct,' impacts on 'The Brotherhood' and 'The Wagon' in the same way they impact on it; the three are inextricably linked, both in real life, but particularly in the form the plot takes in the series."

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Page 1. Unfinished pencil artwork by Tom Mandrake.
Click to enlarge.
However, as Jones contends, the focus on real life heroes in a super-powered world is not the only thing that makes this series such a distinct creative endeavor. "What we're talking about here is something unique in the annals of comics: three miniseries that begin as disparate storylines, eventually dovetail, and finally merge at the end of their various runs into a single entity: 'The Call,'" exclaims Jones. "It's the story of firehouse unit, a patrol cop unit, and an ambulance unit all working within the city of New York. We are introduced to each in little slice of life episodes set entirely apart from each other. But!-- the appearance of a single linking character causes these units to cross paths both physically and emotionally. As each series progresses, the mystery deepens, driving our protagonists-- albeit unwittingly--toward the same denouement. This births 'The Call,' which stars one character each from these separate factions."

Even with all this genuine passion for "The Call" project as a whole, fans of "The Incredible Hulk" have come to expect conspiracy filled, intricate and character driven superhero-related stories and it has led some to wonder why Jones was recruited for this project. While some may want to say that Marvel is trying to cash in on the rising popularity of Jones, the noted scribe believes that it is his writing style that earned him this high profile job. "Well, I think both Chuck [Austen] and I were chosen at least partly because our styles (whatever that means) do have a perhaps grittier edge than some in the field, though I do think there is an increasing trend toward realism in the comic format," says Jones. "There's also been a conscious effort to involve the series with movie and TV projects and Chuck and I have worked in those arenas; our 'styles' are 'layman friendly' shall we say, and our pace and story arcs tend toward a visual style akin to those other mediums. We have also been past fans of the other's work, so that helped smooth the way. This has been a complicated series to orchestrate. Two different writers have to compliment each other, protect the spine of the overall story and bring something individualistic to the table at the same time-lot of coconuts to juggle-- so it helps enormously when the participants have a built-in respect for each other from the get-go. Every project has it own perspective. I try not to think that much about style-just do my best to write honestly. That's tough enough."

With a project this large, it would be reasonable to wonder how much latitude Jones was provided by Marvel and how much of his own personal style he was able to integrate into the project. Echoing the sentiments of many creators at Marvel these days, Jones says that he was given a fair set of "rules" for the writing and allowed to spread his creative wings as he saw fit. "Bill Jemas spawned the idea for 'The Call' and has maintained a hands-on, kind of Disneyesque roll from he beginning," admits Jones. "Thank God, because the project needed a strong team leader with solid convictions. But after the initial talks and game plan was established, once Chuck and I knew what are characters did for a living and the general beats of the story arc, it was left pretty much to us to fill in the idiosyncrasies and breathe life into the various protagonists. In so many ways this has been a learning process for all of us, and I think the usual level of posturing may have been kept to a minimum out of sheer terror; everyone was just so damn glad to have anyone else there for a shoulder to lean on. And the whole group has been just great. Really, it's been a very pleasant project to work on-challenging as hell mind you, often confusing and sometimes even frustrating, but always because of the complexities of what we're trying to accomplish, never the minds behind the creative team. Everyone's holding the other guy's hand, watching his back, which may be why it seems to be working so well-it's not unlike the kind of teamwork the characters in the story experience on a daily basis."

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For those who were wondering about the art for "The Precinct", Dave Finch will illustrate the covers while veteran Tom Mandrake will provide the interior art. Surprisingly, Jones isn't quite sure what the project will look like but also says that he expects that fans will be treated to a visual feast when the miniseries ships. "This has been such a monumental study in coordination, logistics and unexplored territory that in fact I have not yet seen Tom Mandrake's work on my section of the series. But I've heard a lot of excited squeals over the telephone every time a new page comes into the Marvel offices so I know it's very hot stuff. No one is chafing at the bit to see the visual side of 'The Precinct' more than me!"

It is no secret that Marvel Comics has been assaulted with criticism from the online community, which starkly contrasts the continually rising sales on most Marvel Comics, and "The Call" is no different. But Jones rejects any claims that this project is some calculated attempt to "cash-in" on the events of September 11th and believes that people who see it that way may need to a paradigm shift. "Well, if 'ploy' means taking a timely event from the news that the whole world is interested in and fashioning elements of it into stories that can hopefully work to educate and inspire as well as entertain, then I think you've described what good fiction has been doing for the past several thousand years," responds Jones empathically. "All of life is fodder for the creative arts. And the arts can only reach the people through commerce. In this country, that follows the rules of capitalism. If that describes the term 'ploy' I think it's one all Americans can rejoice in. If I sound defensive, it's because I don't get the opportunity to do stories about real life characters and crises that often in this medium and I think it's an important opportunity."

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One particular aspect about "The Precinct" that may have some worried is the question of authenticity and whether or not Jones can bring a "realistic" feel to the mini-series. "Well, I was already writing a series of novels under the Bruce Elliot nom-deplume about working cops when this project began," explains Jones. "I lived in and around the New York area for more than eight years so I was at home with the territory, the unique East Coast slant on the world. Fundamentally though, people are people. It's nice to be able to nail local dialects and it makes you look clever if you can name streets and the nuances between boroughs, but in the end that's just tap dancing. What counts is capturing that sense of being there, of it happening right now, and that's always a bitch whether you're writing about Brooklyn or a moon landing. I researched the hell out of it, and I rode with a police unit during my National Guard days and know what it's like to be shot at. But hey, let's face it, I can't hope to walk in these guy's shoes. These people are heroes, often every goddamn day of their lives. All I can really do is interpret. I'm a writer, not a hero. I think what I do can be important…but what they do is profound. Every professional I've talked to has been very high, very encouraging about the project."

Solicitations for "The Precinct" allude to some kind of supernatural or super-powered aspects rearing their heads in the story, but Jones is quick to assuage any fears that this mini-series will turn into a spandex-clad romp. "I can't really say too much about the interaction of the protagonists without giving away plot," says Jones. "There is a thread of mystery running through all three books that rubs shoulders with the outré, but very little if any of what you might call traditional superhero trappings. Chuck and I have deliberately kept the fantasy, superhero elements in deep background out of respect for both the heroic efforts of real civil servants, and the down to earth feel of these prequels. I'm writing 'The Precinct' as though its an ongoing book about working cops dealing with realistic situations-which hopefully it will be if the numbers justify continuing the series on a separate but parallel path with 'The Call.' We're making a conscious effort not to compromise the hard edge grittiness of these people's lives and the kind of sacrifices they make as a matter of course. We want their kids and their grandkids to read these books and be proud of their heritage."

As Jones has implied, he'd love to see "The Precinct" become a regular monthly series and believes that the series does offer the unique experience that many comic book fans are searching for currently. "Nothing would make me happier than to see 'The Precinct' and both of the other titles in the series continue as ongoing books of their own. Ultimately that's up to the public. People have been grousing for years that the field is limited to formulaic stories and Spandex-driven material aimed at an elite clientele, with little or no alternatives. I think our series offers another kind of playing field that's at least as exciting and rewarding as that of traditional themes."

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According to Jones, "The Precinct" is a book that should appeal to a broad audience and hopes that it will help convince some people of the potential that the medium has for mature storytelling. "I honestly think the stories and characters will appeal to virtually everybody, every age, all walks of life. If there's a hurdle to clear, it's perhaps the stigma that the comic format sometimes suffers with certain portions of the public sector. It did, in fact, begin as a children's medium. But we've distanced ourselves so far from those humble beginnings and movies and other forums have increasingly turned to comics-or graphic story if you prefer-as a source of inspiration. We are-for better or worse-a visual society. But here's the thing-- comics combine pictures AND words! Often the latter is far more important than the former. In that respect we're closer to literature than any of the other visual art forms. Ya gotta READ this stuff! Now how can that be a bad thing? I would never have become a novelist without comics. The best ones should be used as teaching tools in public education. The great ones should be held in the same high esteem as the novel. Maybe this series, and projects like it, will help."

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