This week, Radical Publishing releases the final chapter in Rick Remender’s newest creator-owned crime epic, "The Last Days of American Crime." Centering around career criminal Graham Bricke, "Last Days" takes place in an America poised to eliminate crime by broadcasting a signal that makes it impossible for Americans to do anything illegal. At the same time, the government intends to issue plastic charge cards that replace paper currency. Unfortunately for the government, the news of the signal leaked, and all unsavory Americans are getting their dream crimes done with a full week to go before the broadcast. Now Graham, along with his two-man crew of weapons expert Kevin and computer hacker Shelby, must pull off the final great heist in the history of American crime: steal a station that charges the new currency cards and hack it to get unlimited funds in this brave new world of no crime. The final issue contains the crux of the heist, taking place the day before the broadcast goes live.
Remender’s "Last Days" may be wrapping this week, but it’s been a long time coming. According to the creator, the initial ideas for the series began about eight years ago. "It actually came to me around 2002," the writer told CBR News. "It was a little bit after 9/11 and everyone was still in a state of shock. There were a number of things that were alarming to me in regards to how much personal liberties we were willing to give up for the artificial sense of security that came with the government having a tighter hold on you, tapping your phone calls, all of these things that felt like Big Brother was no longer just an imaginary construct, but in fact was going to be a real world problem in America.
"I was sitting around one afternoon thinking about this stuff, I was watching a Fleischer Superman cartoon and some mad doctor had a mind control ray and I got to thinking, what if mind control was actually something the government had devised? What if they had figured out broadcasts that could neurally inhibit people from doing things? That’s pretty interesting because then the government could take that next logical step in controlling us for our own good, which is to make it impossible for us to do anything illegal."
As the writer continued his process, the seeds of "Last Days" began to take shape, both in terms of the world and the story. "I started writing down notes about this, just as an idea for something I was developing later on because I liked the idea of a government implementing a mind control device that was the natural next step of the Big Brother 1984 line of thought," he said. "I came up with a world where after 9/11, the attacks didn’t stop, but there were a number of successful dirty bomb attacks. It was a world a hair away from our own where all these things we were afraid would happen actually did happen and the government devised this mind control ray that they were going to implement and stop everybody from being able to do anything illegal.
"From there, I was initially going to write a story about a militia team that were going to go out and try to blow up some towers and it just didn’t really excite me," Remender continued. "I felt like I had a really high concept, a really great world stage and there were some things I wanted to say in that world, but that’s when the heist idea fell together. If this thing was announced, if the story broke and people discovered they had only a few more weeks to commit any crime, that’s a pretty interesting situation for a safecracker, for someone who’s there to get a score.
"The idea came to me in another line of thought where I had read some articles about how the governments would like to naturally transfer funds to electronic funds, so we all just have plastic cards that we use. Every transaction is trackable and every dollar can be taxed and everything is legitimate and above board. I came up with this idea where the government at the same time, the next logical step was to no longer honor paper currency, but to make this transition where everyone gets their own fiduciary debit card and all the money they make goes onto that card so that we no longer deal in paper money. That also opened up a pretty fun concept in that what these guys would actually be out to steal would be one of the machines that actually charges the cards. Basically, you have a box that could charge unlimited amounts of currency. It was basically not only do you have a two week window and the country’s going crazy the week of the crime, but if you succeed, you’ll have unlimited money for life."
The pitch finished, Remender began sending it out to different publishers. There was only one problem: nobody seemed interested. "As it fell together, I got really super excited about it," he recalled. "I think I finally put together the final draft of the initial pitch in 2003 and it went to every publisher. Vertigo turned it down, Top Cow turned it down, Dark Horse turned it down, and it blew my mind. I thought it was such a no-brainer. At the same time, I had sent out a number of other pitches, so 'Night Mary' was off the ground and 'Fear Agent' was off the ground and 'Strange Girl' and 'Sea of Red.' I was drawing a couple books for Dark Horse and Image and I just became so busy that it got shelved."
Then almost five years later, Remender was contacted by the then-fledgling Radical Publishing. "I guess 2007, 2008 when Radical was getting off the ground, they contacted me to see if there was anything I wanted to do. I sent the President/Publisher Barry Levine 'Last Days.' This is actually something I was going to develop for film because it didn’t seem like I could get anybody in the comic industry to understand the potential in it. He loved it right off, he loved the potential in the idea. He told me to just go crazy, he gave me a terrific budget."
The next step for Remender was to find an artist that would share his vision of what "Last Days" could potentially be. "I always art direct my creator-owned books. It’s something that I’ve done for twelve years now," Remender said. "I told Barry, 'If you’re okay with letting me art direct and put my own teams together, I can make this special,' and he did. A lot of time when you relinquish control and just let a creator do what a creator does, you get a really spectacular product. In terms of this, I went out and I got Greg Tocchini and told him that we were going to give him all the time he needed to make this the work of his life, and we did. We’ve been working on this thing for two or three years now and Greg’s had all the time anybody could possibly need to make every page a work of art and he has. The book is just spectacular looking. I took those three years to rewrite the heist over and over again to make sure there weren’t any holes in the story and hopefully put something together that will have longevity and stand the test of time. This is what I do for a living, this is my life’s work, so I take these creator-owned projects very seriously."
Now that the series is finally coming to fruition almost eight years after the initial seed of an idea was planted in Remender’s mind with a trade on the way, the creator couldn’t be happier – or more proud – of the work that’s been done on the book. "It feels terrific, especially since it’s so good," he said. "Not in an arrogant way, but in the way that we killed ourselves on this. Everytime Greg would turn in a new batch of pages, they were so f---ing spectacular, I had no choice but to make sure I spent as much time as I could possibly squeeze polishing the dialogue and rewriting it and cutting it. The real process to making a good comic book I think is editing yourself and editing yourself and editing yourself until you get to the point where you take something that used to be five sentences and you’ve boiled it down into four words, but those four words are the cream of what used to be those five sentences – they get across the exact same information, but they have concise, terse punch. That for me is the kind of crime I like, a James Elroy style in the writing approach. I did that for this. I didn’t want there to be one extra word anywhere in the 150 pages that Greg had drawn because he put so much in on the work, it’s concise and tight, and having had so much time to work on it as I had and putting so much work into it as we have, all of the very complex and difficult issues, such as explaining the world stage, dealing with the heist itself, the complexities of the heist – I’ve had so much time to rework those and rewritten them so many times that by the time we got to it, it’s smooth as silk and Greg nailed it."
In "Last Days of American Crime," the core of the book is the heist – stealing that charging box and heading for the hills – and Remender has all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed for his criminal masterwork. "The heist itself is so hard to make believable and smart and fast and stylish," he said. "That was the real payoff coming up here in issue #3. I’m so proud of it, it couldn’t be better. I definitely think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever had anything to do with."
"I obviously read a lot about how banks are set up and then I had to come up with a few things that are slightly futuristic," Remender said of crafting the heist. "We’re not dealing with a cash heist, this is a federal installation, this is a federal bank. They’ve got a large computer facility where they have charge boxes that are responsible for divvying out digital money. This is underground seven floors and I really had to think in terms of how they would actually handle these things if this is something that existed? From there, I just read what I could about how banks are set up and the basic vaults and the stages of security they would go to. The rest was a little bit of science fiction. They needed a laser cutter to get through and a laser cutter in the chaos before American crime was made impossible isn’t going to be an easy thing to get your hands on. There are a number of hurdles that need to be placed in front of them. Ultimately, the big hurdle is the clock. They’ve got to do this job the night of the American Peace Initiative, so they’ve got that ticking time bomb in the background the entire time."
After conceiving all the hurdles Graham and his team had to get through to finally pull off their master plan, Remender thought like a master criminal and planned every second of the hour and a half long heist. “In order to orchestrate all the different characters doing all the different things and to make it realistic and believable, I made a timeline,” he said. “The heist takes place over an hour and a half and everything that happens in Issues #1 and #2 happen for a reason. When you see how it plays into the heist, I think people will be really thrilled, because this thing has been written and re-written so many times before I even gave Greg one page to draw, I knew everything that happened by the end. You’ll see it – that first page of Issue #1 happens in Issue #3. Everything that happens in Issue #1 and #2 pays off in ways you didn’t expect in Issue #3. I took notebook card and I wrote every minute of where everyone was and I thought through what they were doing and how to make it work and everyone’s got clocks. I watched Mamet’s movie 'Heist,' which is a perfect heist film, just brilliant, really thought out and I thought about how he constructed his heist and the clever ways he got through metal detectors and stuff like that. I just did my very best to make it as tight and believable as possible. At this point, I’ve gone over it so many times in my head over the last year and a half, I don’t think there’s a hole in the heist as presented in the comic book."
Does this mean that Remender is leaving comics for a career in bank robbing? "That’s the plan, yeah!" he said, jokingly. "Comics are really great, but the money isn’t nearly as good as it is in bank robbing, so that’s kind of where I’m headed."
In terms of genre, Remender’s "Last Days" is different from most every other book that he’s done in the past. For the writer, however, genre doesn’t matter so much as style. "Genre is style," Remender says. "You could take 'Unforgiven' and make it a Sci-Fi story and still make it a good story. You can have Clint Eastwood instead of being a guy living at the edge of town, he could be a guy living on a colony. A lot of what we did in 'FrankenCastle' nobody picked up on was a [Sergio] Leone nod, in something like 'The Unforgiven' where Frank Castle is the loner who had his life destroyed living in the outskirts of Monster Metropolis and it wasn’t until people came and started killing their kids that Frank got up and got involved. That’s what’s funny. People have this concept that the genre changes things so drastically, but really it’s all window dressing. You could take any one great crime story and turn it into a great horror story. You substitute the motivation, you substitute the characters and from there, there is a certain tone that I’ve been falling into, I think there’s a certain theme in a lot of different books, but I think the one responsible decision I started making in 2005 or 2006 when things got really busy and hairy for me is that I would force myself to find time to preload the work. I don’t start anything until the outline is done and polished and done and polished and reworked and reworked and figured out. Because otherwise people are reading something that is irresponsible where they get to the fifth issue and they’re wasting their time.”
While Remender takes this responsibility incredibly seriously, that responsibility comes with challenges – and for Remender, that challenge came in the form of balance. "You think 150 pages is a lot, but it’s not," he said. "I had three main characters in this that I really wanted to flesh out all three of them and each issue picks another character to flesh out. I think in the first one we get to know Graham, in the second we really get to know Kevin and in the third we really get to know Shelby. You’ve got three characters who you want to get the readers familiar with to the point where they’re really invested in where things go. That’s sort of the priority and that can be difficult when you’re also trying to – I had a three act structure for this and I had a lot of things I had to get through plot-wise. You’re always in that place where you’re trying to balance your plot with your character development and make sure that you’re giving equal amounts of each. It’s a failing of some of my very early books where I learned that lesson. I did some things that were solely character but meandered a little bit plot wise. I did some things that were solely plot but the characters were just sort of people where you really didn’t get into their heads. I think that’s one of the benefit of having spent so many years now writing so many books that I’ve managed, I think, to finally get a nice balance in the last three or four years. I think I learned it with ‘Fear Agent’ more than anything and maybe ‘Strange Girl’ at the same time where I would balance out the high-adventure with plenty of moments that define the character – basically trying to find ways to define the character via their actions, not just the things they say or thing and at the same time keep those actions something fun to look at and fast paced.
"With 'American Crime,' I’m glad this book didn’t get picked up by the places it had been pitched to before with all the false starts it’s had over the last eight years because this book needed me to be a little more seasoned," he continued. "I feel like it’s benefited from where I am right now as a writer in regards to my ability to juggle all those things. I think that when people read the third issue and the thing is out in a collection and you can read it all in one go that it’ll stand as one of my best accomplishments. I’m incredibly proud of the work."
Fans of the book already know that "Last Days" is on the road for a transition to the big screen with "Avatar" star Sam Worthington on as producer and star – and it looks like things are proceeding well in that direction. "It’s going great. We’ve got some big things going on this week right now, hopefully we’ll have some more news soon," said Remender. "Sam Worthington will be starring in it as Kevin Cash. We have some huge, huge news and ideas for other actors including some news coming up hopefully for Graham and some big directing potential. It looks like it’s going to happen. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and jinx it, but when you’ve got someone of Sam Worthington’s clout starring and producing in the film, with the kind of people he’s drawing in and hopefully the strength of the source material, I think of all the things I’ve done, this thing has the very, very best chance of making it to the screen here in the next couple of years."
Even with the movie in the early stages of development and the trade paperback set to drop soon, Remender says that he is by no means done with the world he’s set up in “Last Days.” “I am planning more. The tricky thing is that the way that the broadcast works and some of the twists and turns in the third act, you have a world stage and you have world rules,” he said. “Once you read the first trade, you see how those rules work. The API broadcast is a ticking clock that everyone is going to be reacting to in the United States. People who have bad things they need to get out of their systems of revenge trips or whatever they need to take care of, they’re going to be out doing those things and people who are just regular family folk are going to be inside their houses with doors boarded up and a shotgun pointed at the window. In America, there’s 500 million potential stories for what’s happening the two weeks before American Crime is put to a halt. To that end, I’ve got a revenge story that I like quite a bit. I want the next volume to be quite a bit different from this one, I don’t want it to be career criminals on a heist. Without giving away too much, because we want to save it for the announcement, I think the next one I’m going to do is just the very simple concept of that same ticking clock but somebody’s out for revenge. I think it’s got a lot of potential for a lot of big fun, especially in a different city. It’ll be in New York and we’ll get to see the different stage. New York is much worse off than L.A. in terms of where they’re at as the API gets closer and closer, and I sort of hinted at that in this trade as I’ve been putting together notes for the next volume.”
Until then, fans will have to wait for their next fix in a world without American crime – but for Remender, this is the culmination of years of work and he’s incredibly happy with the result. "I’m super proud of it! It sounds self-aggrandizing to say, but to create something that’s as awesome as I think this book is, I think the joy comes from stepping up to the plate," he said. "Also seeing your progress as a creator, and I know this is true of Greg from our conversations. To be able to see that all the work you’ve had over the many, many years to refine yourself as a comic book creator come together on a project like this where all of the seasoning and all of the chops that you’ve earned come together in something that’s really, really strong."
"Last Days of American Crime" #3 ships to comic shops this week. CBR has even more preview pages here.