Jamie S. Rich Knows Why “You Have Killed Me”

Mon, July 6th, 2009 at 11:31am PDT

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer
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You Have Killed Me
"You Have Killed Me" graphic novel on sale July 15

Jamie S. Rich was an editor at Dark Horse and Oni Press for years before writing full-time, publishing four novels including “Cut My Hair” and “The Everlasting.” Rich has also written the comics “Love the Way You Love” and “12 Reasons Why I Love Her,” in addition to contributing short comics to many anthologies.

Rich’s latest book is “You Have Killed Me,” a graphic novel from Oni with artist Joëlle Jones, with whom he collaborated with on “12 Reasons Why I Love You.” The book is a take on the detective fiction and Hollywood crime films of the 1930s and 1940s, and stars a private detective called Antonio Mercer who’s chosen his seedy vocation in spite of the fact he comes from old money. When Mercer’s ex-fiancé goes missing only a week before she’s meant to marry a new man, her sister asks our hero for his help to find the missing bride.

“You Have Killed Me’ comes out this month at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and Rich took the time to talk with CBR News about the book and why writing a mystery wasn’t as much of a departure as it might seem.

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CBR: Where did the idea for “You Have Killed Me” come from?

JAMIE S. RICH: Joëlle began the process by saying she wanted to do this type of story, and then it became my challenge to figure out what I wanted to do with it. I began with the characters and then worked my way out. I decided what type of hero I wanted, how fatal to make the femmes, etc. The locked room scenario was my germ of the case: a girl goes missing from a bathroom with only one door and no windows, where did she go? It's almost like a zen riddle. "If a debutante has no one to stare at her, will she just disappear?" In a way, writing it was like being the detective himself. I'd wind up the characters and watch them go, see where each individual took me.

Pages from "You Have Killed Me"

Are you a fan of mysteries?

Not as much in the kind that lays all the clues out and makes it paramount that you try to piece it together, not in the Agatha Christie sense. I more like the hardboiled school, stories that are more about crime and the evil that men do. Hitchcock called it the MacGuffin, that engine of the story that becomes what everyone seeks, and that ultimately is pointless. It doesn't matter what the object is. The perfect example of this is “The Maltese Falcon,” the treasure is worthless at the end. Or Kubrick's “The Killing,” with the money blowing away. The prize for the viewer is that there is no prize for the schnooks they have watched chase it. It's as much about style and personalities as it is plot points.

The rough outline of the story, the private eye with a hard exterior, rich family who needs help, the cozy relationship between the wealthy and those they feel are beneath them but rely on -- these elements are pretty common in mysteries. What’s the challenge of embracing the elements of a genre but still telling your own story and putting your own mark on it?

In a way, it's kind of freeing to not have to worry about the plot so much, to realize that people know these tropes, and so they are actually secondary to what surrounds them. Matt Wagner is a bit of an expert at that. He wrote “Sandman Mystery Theatre,” a high-point of the genre in comics that I can only hope to aspire to. He told me not to fret over the plot, just pick one and focus instead on your characters, on the setting, on how you write it, because that's where it will be yours. I stuck to that, and once I had Mercer and once I had an idea of how he would narrate the book, the race was on from there. I only had to worry about the plot when I had to make sure all the different elements were there. Like they say on “The Wire,” all the pieces matter, and I had to be careful that what clues did exist, what connectors kept the narrative on track, were in the proper place.

Why a period piece?

I don't think we ever considered anything but a period piece. That was basically the idea. These stories were best back then. When the black-and-white values were supposed to be more intact, then the graying that occurs in these stories has more impact. Also, less technology. No CSI crap. No cell phones. No security cameras. It's more of an existential wasteland, man alone with his wits.

Pages from "You Have Killed Me"

Plus, from a visual standpoint, you have the clothes, you have the cars, it's just so much cooler looking. I'd rather see a thug in a suit and a fedora than one wearing a Blazers jersey and a backwards baseball cap.

You’re well known for the musical influences and the use of soundtracks to punctuate your comics and your novels, but here the influence was more cinematic.

Absolutely. Joëlle was an ace researcher when it came to finding the right visual details, but I always thought of it as taking place in Hollywood -- and not the real Hollywood, but the all-encompassing town we saw in movies. I'm in love with film noir, the real film noir, in black-and-white, pre-“Kiss Me Deadly.” This was my chance to play with those toys. It was never an homage, never ironic, and we never had any hubris about doing better than those that came before--we just hoped to do it right, to fit in.

In terms of the music stuff, I'd like to think I was slightly ahead of the curve in realizing that this thing that was defining me was maybe turning into a bit of a crutch, and that it was also going to be something that could box me in. Before writing my last published novel, “Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?”, I had made a decision to mainly keep music out of that book, to start only using the references when it made sense and not as an automatic. Horizon is really more about the literary influence, so that plays a larger role, much like how the cinematic influence comes to play in “You Have Killed Me.” As a writer, I am always setting challenges for myself, because it's so easy to be stale and repetitious.

Having said that, there is jazz in the background and the music is discussed in the narration. Are you a big jazz fan? Any other musical influences on the book or on the character of Mercer?

I am a cursory jazz fan. I can't speak about it with any major authority. I am not really sure why I even decided to make one of the characters a jazz trumpet player. I think I just wanted to have a cool nightclub background. Plus, I really liked how Joëlle had drawn some background musicians in the story she did with Sarah Grace McCandless in “Sexy Chix.” We ended up playing on both sides of the tracks in the sense that we had the jazz club as this high-falutin' place, and then as the story progressed, the hunt for the girl leads Mercer to an out-of-the-way gambling saloon. It was like we went from “Black Angel” with Dan Duryea to “Roadhouse” with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde. From the rich facade all the way to the poor reality. I also liked a lot of the French crime films of the '50s and '60s, stuff with Jean Gabin and Le samourai with Alain Delon, and they had great nightclub scenes.

Pages from "You Have Killed Me"

The first book you did with Joëlle Jones, “12 Reasons Why I Love Her,” was written for someone else before she came onto the project, so obviously “You Have Killed Me” was a very different experience. How much did her ideas and suggestions influence the book and the direction of it?

Quite a bit. The story started with her, obviously, and she also told me things she was interested in drawing. The horse race is the most obvious example. I talked to her throughout the writing process, told her what I had come up with and my half-formed ideas, and she would ask questions and make suggestions and these would deepen my own understanding. Eventually, though, probably about 2/3 of the way through, she asked me to stop telling her. I had several options for how it might end, though I was always leaning for the way it actually ended up turning out, but she didn't want to be told, she wanted to read it all at once.

What do you enjoy about working with Jones?

Well, her skill is tremendous and she's got incredible story instincts. She knows how to frame things, knows what information is essential. She has a spectacular sense of design, so she can really put together a page and within that page also create some amazing compositions. There is a lot of emotion in her work, both in how the characters look and behave, but she also lets it extend to the background. There is a point in “You Have Killed Me” where one of the bad guys is standing in a doorway, and there is a fire burning in the fireplace behind him, and the way she draws it, it's like the whole place is on fire. It's like his anger manifested.

I was reading other books of yours to prepare for this and while my first reaction was that you writing a mystery seemed like a departure, and in some ways it’s a good fit. You tend to write male protagonists who are wounded or broken in some way, cover it up usually unsuccessfully, and have a code of conduct that tends to be anachronistic and often inconvenient.

Pages from "You Have Killed Me"

Exactly. That was how I figured out that I could do “You Have Killed Me,” because at first, I had the same reaction as you. "Me? Doing that?! Unpossible!" But when it comes down to it, my worldview was pretty much cemented when I was 17 and took a film and literature class at the community college at nights, and there I saw “The Maltese Falcon” for probably the second or third time but read the book for the first time, and I learned about how Sam Spade was an existential hero with a sense of honor and personal responsibility that defined him. It was like a light going on. It was how I always saw the world, it's just the first time someone explained it to me.

Looking back at the other books, at Mason in “Cut My Hair” or Lance in “The Everlasting,” my protagonists are all struggling to stick to their guns in a world that is always trying to break them and regularly offers them disappointment. The girls they pursue are their MacGuffins, and whether they end up with them or not doesn't matter as much as how they conduct themselves does.

When you think about that, it's not that different from your average comic book superhero either. What do you do when life hands you an exceptional situation? If you're Peter Parker and you try to use your powers for personal gain, it goes against who you really are, it causes damage, and he spends the rest of his costumed career dealing with those consequences.

It all ties into that question about the music, as well. I had been scratching certain itches with other books, but I was running to the risk of turning myself into a one-dimensional writer. My hope is that people will see “You Have Killed Me” as a natural fit, just like you say, but also look at it and realize that I am actually capable of more than I might have gotten credit for, that I am growing as an artist and have more to show.

You and Joëlle Jones also have a short story in the upcoming anthology “Portland Noir.” Tell us about that project.

Pages from "You Have Killed Me"

It's about an indie comic book guy searching for a lost dog, hoping that the reward will pay for a trade paperback collection of his self-published autobio series, and he discovers that "lost" is a term best applied loosely to this particular pooch. Joëlle and I live close to one another, so we just used our neighborhood for the story. We had to use real locations, that was a caveat of the project, and it only occurred to me just now, but the coffee shop in the story is actually the place Joëlle and I had our first meeting. I looked over her portfolio and sent her home with the “12 Reasons” script. I was convinced she was the girl for the job, I just hoped she'd think the script was good. And voila!

I've known the book's editor, Kevin Sampsell, for a number of years. We worked on some of the same local arts publications back in the 1990s, and he set up my reading for “Cut My Hair” at Powell's Books. I think I am one of a couple of comic book people he reached out to, because he knew that the way Portland was so comic book-centric, he had to represent that side of us somehow--that's the point of the book, to capture the flavor of the city through crime stories. I snatched at the opportunity immediately, and sort of ran with the idea that if it was going to be a comic book story about crime, it should be one starring cartoonists.

You and Jones also have another book you’re working on for Oni. What can you tell us about it?

We created a series called “Spell Checkers” based on a sketch of three girls she had drawn that we both really liked. It's a high school comedy about three witches who use their magical powers to rule the school and all the trouble they get into. It's rude and a little raunchy and quite a bit of fun. Nicolas Hitori de, a French artist, is drawing the bulk of the book, but Joëlle is drawing the flashbacks showing the girls as children and developing their magic skills. It think it's scheduled for next spring. Nico is deep into the drawing as we speak, and I am not sure, we may be debuting the cover at Comic Con.

Pages from "You Have Killed Me"

Again, here is another case where a new facet of my talent is emerging. I was the last person to think I could do comedy, but I loved it, it was so much fun. Once again, it all comes back to characters. Kimmie, Cynthia, and Jesse crack me up.

What else are you working on right now?

I've got a variety of things written and am just trying to sort out what is going to happen to them. I've started to clam up about specifics because I realized that people remember these things, and it can be a long time between "I am doing this" and "It's on a track to be published," and there are certain things that have kind of dogged me in that regard. I get a little tired of having to sigh and say, "No, nothing yet." “You Have Killed Me” took two years, and sometimes it felt like we were never going to make it; whereas at one point, “Spell Checkers” was a book I didn't think I'd ever write, I had kind of laughed it off as a lark, and then it got on the fastest track of anything I've done. So, you never know.

I've got some prose projects, and some comics projects, and I'm working on them all but not sure what will surface first. I have a lot of completed work, I've got a whole story written that Mike Holmes is going to draw, I have a couple of things for Joëlle, I've got a prose YA novel spinning out of “Love the Way You Love” --to name a few things. Though I may go quiet every once in a while, you can rest assured that I won't stay quiet for long.

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TAGS:  jamie s. rich, joelle jones, oni press, you have killed me

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