Joe Harris is probably best known for his work as the screenwriter for the films "Darkness Falls" and "The Tripper," but he's also a comics writer who has worked for Marvel and DC and is currently contributing to Dark Horse's revival of "Creepy."
Steve Rolston is a name familiar to most comic fans from his work on numerous projects, including "Queen and Country," "Mek," "The Escapists" and his most recent book from Minx, "Emiko Superstar." Rolston also wrote and illustrated the graphic novel "One Bad Day," published by Oni Press.
The two have teamed up for a new miniseries from Oni Press which is debuting this week. "Ghost Projekt" is the story of a US weapons inspector and a Russian detective who become embroiled in a break-in at an abandoned laboratory that quickly spirals into something else entirely. Harris and Rolston will both be at the Emerald City Comic Con this weekend to promote the supernatural thriller, and on their way, the pair took some time speak with CBR about the book and its origins.
CBR News: We know that "Ghost Projekt" deals with the supernatural, mixed with a healthy dose of international intrigue, but can you give us a bit more detail about the story?
Joe Harris: It's a supernatural thriller and a good old fashioned revenge ghost story that takes place in the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Soviets experimented with all sorts of WMD's and Russia and its satellite states are literally littered with abandoned test sites and laboratories. The United States knew that the Soviets were conducting all sorts of research into potential weapons. We were doing a lot of this too. In the wake of the 9-11 attacks, the U.S. Defense Department ramped up efforts to help the Russian government catalogue and contain loose materials sitting in these decayed sites.
"Ghost Projekt" concerns Will Haley, who is America's finest weapons inspector. He's called in with his partner to investigate a break-in at this crumbling abandoned facility in Siberia. While conducting this investigation he crosses paths with a Russian detective or operativnik named Anya Romanova, who is investigating a string of murders linked to super secret research and weapons development that went on at this particular site. They don't know much about the work that was conducted here, but they know that operations went on under the project named "Dosvidanya," which is Russian for "goodbye," and ever since the break-in, people that were attached to this project are turning up dead.
Operativnik Romanova suspects one of the project heads of using whatever weapons materials were stolen from this lab to take out his fellow scientists and administrators in the hopes of covering his tracks and avoiding any potential prosecution. What's really going on is a lot more complicated than that. Something has been released from this lab, but it's something that's a lot more dangerous than any sort of bio or chem weapon that Will is used to cataloging, and Constantine, the director of this project whom Anya suspects in all these murders, is responsible for a lot more than anything she suspects This investigation that these two characters conduct leads down this sort of a rabbit hole. They were experimenting with the supernatural. They were experimenting with weaponizing ghosts, and this is what it has spawned.
Joe, you've written comics before but you're probably more famous for your film work, writing "Darkness Falls" and "The Tripper" among other projects. Why is "Ghost Projekt" a comic rather than a screenplay?
JH: I could have easily written this as a spec script or tried to pitch this to see if somebody would buy it. When the idea first came to me, when my first movie came out, I was thinking about what I wanted to get out there and do next. I was a comic writer before I wrote horror films. I wrote a bunch of books at Marvel back before I started working as a screenwriter, and I worked for other publishers as well. Once I made that transition to working in Hollywood, it began to become a little tedious. You get caught up in this race where you have a movie that comes out and you fit wherever it is you fit on the totem pole and that affects whether or not people want to work with you, whether or not they want to attach you to a particular project to go pitch to studios or whether or not you're a viable candidate to write this project or that project as opposed to another writer who might be a little hotter this week.
I found myself getting lost while doing this, to be honest. And I missed doing comics. I had never done creator owned comics. and it was something I wished I had. Steve, when did we start talking about "Ghost Projekt" - 2002 or 2003?
Steve Rolston: It was August 2003
JH: We talked about this at one point, but then other things took me away. It really wasn't a priority. But like I said, I missed comics and this was a concept that I was very fond of. I wanted to get back into making comics and this was just something that we really needed to do, and I'm glad we finally got to do it.
Steve, how did you guys meet and how did you start talking about this project seven years ago?
SR: We met on someone's message board, but I can't remember whose.
JH: It was probably the old Warren Ellis board.
SR: I'm not even sure how we started talking, but we just had common interests . One time he messaged me on instant messenger, asking what I was up to and mentioned this and sent me the pitch. Right away, I knew it was going to be a good project cause the premise was solid. Based on the pitch he worked up, I knew there would be some really awesome visuals that would make it fun for the reader and the artist. I can't remember if I was busy right away, or if I got busy after that.
I really liked the project. I was greedy and wanted to be involved, because I knew it was going to be a good story. Even though it took us years for us to both get our schedules clear at the same time, I'm glad Joe waited for me and it worked out. I think I've been able to capture a good tone for it. Stylewise, it does harken back to "Queen and Country" in terms of detail and tone, more so than my cartoonier work.
What adds to the suspense and the tone of "Ghost Projekt" is the groundedness of the story. Even though there are fantastic elements in it, was approaching the story the way you did a project like "Queen and Country" key for you?
SR: I think so. I definitely try to make things as plausible and authentic as possible. I tend to work logically, because I don't want the reader to feel it's not believable. The more they believe, the more they're drawn into it, and it really does have that tension and atmopshere you need for a story like that
JH: On my end, I think setting it in some place that grows out of this actual real world potential crisis lends a little bit of believability to it. Especially when you consider there are so many things that took place in the former Soviet Union where I think the truth is stranger than fiction. You can go and check out all sorts of weird stuff that got left behind after the Cold War that is really not that far afield from the fantastical stuff in "Ghost Projekt." Just basing it there and trying to treat that stuff realistically, makes it seem like the more fantastical stuff is possible.
How much research is involved in a project like this?
JH: It's funny. There's not that much available out there in terms of who these guys actually are that go in and do these sorts of things. What I was able to research was the actual program that was put in place by our Department of Defense to go out and help countries like Russia and the former Soviet Republics clean up these sites. There was a lot of research, a lot of googling, a lot of Wikipedia, a lot of watching and reading a lot of books. You want to give it some semblance of truth so it feels like its ripped from the headlines, but I also found myself going back to some of my favorite genre fiction that was set in the Soviet Union, and that was, for me, as much a reference as anything. Brad Anderson, a couple years ago, directed a fantastic thriller set in Siberia that I showed Steve called "Transsiberian." Brian Lumley's Necroscope novels, a lot of which took place in the former Soviet Union and dealt with the west and particularly Britain engaged in this esp/psi-war with the Soviets.
How did the book end up at Oni?
JH: They have a relationship with Steve, so he was definitely the conduit to get the project there. I actually sat down with James Lucas Jones, the editor in chief, and pitched him the project as well as another project and he really responded to both. It's been a really great partnership so far. They're really high on the book, and Steve gets to present his work in color and it looks fantastic. Oni's really branching out and putting out more color product, and "Ghost Projekt" looks phenomenal. What else is there to really say about Oni?
SR: They're good people.
JH: They're good folks.
SR: Obviously, I've been working with them for a while. I did "Queen and Country" with them ten years ago, and have done a few other books since then, so we've built up a good trust. They let me work on stuff I want to work on. They don't get in my way too much. They treat me well. And I like seeing them succeed because they were willing to put out books that maybe not everyone else is willing to put out.
Has working in color changed your usual work habits or how you approach the project?
SR: A little bit. I have a pretty flat, simple style and not all colorists know what to do with that because there's no other rendering to work off of, so when they try to add too much rendering to it, it just looks wrong. I knew that Dean [Trippe] would be a good choice because he has a pretty simple style as well. He's not putting in lots of gradients or an overuse of tone and highlights, so I knew it would work pretty well on top of mine. Also, I thought his palate would be really good for this project as well. He's proven to be doing some good work on it.
[Oni's] trying to ramp up their use of color in more books, and they thought that this would be a good book [to publish in color]. The very first drawing I ever did for this project was of this ghostly warrior, and that was done in black and white, so I used some zipatone to add to a gritty creepy misty vibe. I intended to do something like that in the comic book, but of course once we switched to color, that's one of the things that I changed. I'm not using any zipatones and [I'm] leaving any texture stuff like that to the colorist. There are some things I'm doing differently because we're doing it in color as opposed to black and white. There's also other cool things, like I could work more easily with overlays. Gusts of wind throughout to accentuate the coldness and that works into the story as well in some parts and I'm able to do those on a separate layer, send them to Dean and he can put them in over the colored artwork and it works out quite well.
Why is this a miniseries as opposed to a graphic novel?
JH: We had planned it as a miniseries. I like cliffhangers and thinking in parts or acts. If Oni said, "We love this, but we want to do it as a stand-alone OGN," we would have listened, but I'm really happy that we get to do it as a miniseries. I love the episodic nature of it. I love waiting until the next issue come out. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I'm really a fan of the serial. As a creator, I'm open to whatever works best given the marketplace, given the different elements involved. This is just the way ball bounced on this one.
Steve, having worked both ways, do you have a preference in terms of format?
SR: It depends on the project. I think certain projects work better in one format or the other. This project could have worked as an OGN, but it works well serialized and structurally the story worked well in chapters so it fit naturally as a miniseries. I think just from a financial aspect, it was a better choice to go as a miniseries just cause it's a fair bit of an investment to put out a full color OGN. I'm not sure if Oni feels the same way, but it makes me feel safer. That extra chance for exposure. To have those extra weeks on the new release shelf to drum up interest.
Joe, you mentioned that you have another book in the works at Oni. I don't know how much you want to talk about it.
JH: We're working on it now. It's called "The Hashishian," and I describe as Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar meet Bourne Identity. It's a stoner action adventure story about these two Brooklyn friends who end up ripping off the wrong pot dealer and they end up getting embroiled in this conspiracy involving this ancient order of assassins that dates back to the time of the crusades. There was this radical sect who would ply initiates with hashish and then send them off to commit political killings. These two Brooklyn guys end up crossing paths with this organization that still exists, when one these particular assassins comes to America to try and kil the President. This stoner duo ends up smack dab in the middle of it when they come into possession of this magical bag of weed that belongs to these people, and they know all this terrible stuff that's about to happen. They want to be good citizens and go to the authorities and tell them what's up, only they're too stoned to be taken seriously. They end up trying to thwart this plot against the United States on their own, and, hopefully, hilarity ensues. I love stoner buddy movies and I feel like that market is woefully under-served by the comic book industry.
Who's the artist on the book?
JH: Trevor McCarthy. A long time ago, he was at DC and did a bunch of Batman books. He's been out of the industry for a while, working on storyboards and commercial art, and this is his re-entry into the comic industry. He's doing phenomenal stuff that he's really excited about. This particular project is going to be a color OGN. I'm excited for it. It's a bit of a departure compared to "Ghost Projekt."
Steve, you haven't done a whole lot of comics in recent years, either. There was "Emiko Superstar" for Minx, and before that "The Escapists" for Dark Horse. What have you been up to the past few years, and will there be more comics in the future?
SR: I hope so. I did "Emiko [Superstar]," which came out about a year and a half ago. Since then, I've been working on "Ghost Projekt" and balancing that with some freelance stuff like video games and animation, none of which is ever going to see the light of day, unfortunately. I'm strictly on "Ghost Projekt" now, so I can get this project finished. I'm hoping that I can keep my focus on comic books from here on out, because that's what I prefer to do. I don't know what the next project will be yet, but I'm definitely going to try to get more comics out there.
Are you going to write more as well? Those of us who are fans of your graphic novel "One Bad Day" would love to see something else that's entirely your creation.
SR: I have many, many ideas, a few that I'm seriously building up proposals for. It's hard to find the time to work on those pitches when I'm busy drawing all these shots of Red Square and destruction in Moscow. I've got a few pitches of my own I'm trying to build up to write and draw myself. I do want to get back into the writing. I haven't written a project since "One Bad Day," but it's also hard to focus on my writing when I get a chance to work with great writers like Joe or Mariko or the other people I've worked with. Sometimes you feel like you're stuck between two good places.