Earlier this summer, CBR News spoke with actor and director Eriq La Salle, best known for his work on "ER," about his teaming with 12-Gauge Comics on a new three issue miniseries "25 to Life." We discussed the crime comic that teams an FBI unit with racist militia leader serving a life sentence in order to hunt down a serial killer.
Now, with the series' first issue in stores today, we've spoken with the rest of the creative team about the title's origins, story and more. Keven Gardner is the publisher of 12-Gauge Comics, and has worked with Jason Pearson, Brian Stelfreeze, Trace Atkins, Rosario Dawson and many other creators on a wide range of titles. "25 to Life" scripter Doug Wagner has written numerous comics throughout his career, including 12-Gauge's "The Ride," and is working on one of the upcoming "Red" prequels for Wildstorm and a "World of Warcraft" graphic novel. Artist Tony Shasteen is best known for his work on "The Talisman," based on the Stephen King and Peter Straub novel, and 12-Gauge's "The O.C.T." Series colorist JD Mettler has worked extensively with Tony Harris, including coloring the just-finished "Ex Machina" in addition to comics like "Justice League: Generation Lost," "H-E-R-O" and "The Talisman" where he worked with Shasteen.
CBR News: Just to start, how did you connect with Eriq La Salle and where did this "25 to Life" come from?
Keven Gardner: Eriq has a production company called Humble Journey Films and had contacted 12-Gauge about one of our properties. Through that conversation, he told us about "25 to Life," which was an idea he was developing and wanted to see if we would be interested in doing it as a comic book. He sent his script over and I really responded to it. The concept was just unique and it works in a kind of "48 Hours" meets "Silence of the Lambs," which is a really cool dynamic for a story. It was a really cool process, because we went to Doug with the idea and he responded to it. Tony was our first choice, and he jumped on board. JD was able to come in and color. A great, really cool creative team from the top down. It's been a really nice project for us to put together.
Doug, you don't write many comics, so what is was it about this particular project that interested you?
Doug Wagner: Keven gave me a call. Any chance you get to work with somebody like Eriq La Salle, [you take]. I read the script and it was great. I was like, "Yeah, I can definitely adapt this." There's the huge challenge of adapting something from screen to comics because on TV you can write as much dialogue as you want. To take an hour long show and try to put it in three issues was pretty challenging, but Eriq and Tony worked with me pretty closely and we made it work. That's what brought me on. Having Tony on it, too, up front and working with someone who was in the studio with me was a huge bonus as well.
So, "25 to Life" was an hour-long television pilot script that Eriq had written.
Wagner: He actually had written two pilots. One for cable and one for network TV. He liked parts of both of them, so he wanted me to grab pieces of both and integrate them into one story. So it was an hour long pilot for each.
That's interesting, because reading the comic, it clearly wouldn't work as a network show.
Wagner: Oh no. Not anymore. [Laughs]
I would imagine that combining the the two scripts really gave you the chance to make the story your own.
Wagner: The one [Eriq] gave me in the beginning was the network version and it wasn't anywhere near as dark. It was kind of bland. I was worried about it in the beginning, and he said, "You didn't put any cool scenes from the cable one in." I was like, "You didn't supply me with the cable one!" So he finally gave me that one and I was like, "This has some cool scenes that I can work with." Luckily he had people getting blown up and killed in that one. [Laughs]
Tony, JD - how did you guys get brought on board "25 to Life?"
Tony Shasteen: This has kind of been in the works for a while now, and it was worked around everybody's schedule. I was coming off of "O.C.T.," the book I did with 12-Gauge and Rosario Dawson. I was looking for something different and this being a crime drama and being dark appealed to me. Plus, it's Keven and Doug. They're friends of mine and I've always enjoyed working with them, so I jumped at it.
JD Mettler: That was it mainly for me, too. I've known Tony for a long time and we've been trying to work together forever. It's only really been in the last year or so that we've gotten the opportunity to. I've known Keven and Doug for a while, too. We tried to work together a few years ago, but it fell through. This was just a great time to do it. Coincidentally, when Tony had first started [illustrating the series], he actually used me as the model for Pratt, the bad guy. [It's kind of] fun that I'm getting to color Tony and myself as this neo-Nazi freak in this story. [Laughs]
I was taking it just for the artwork and the chance to get to work with Tony. I got the scripts and read them, all three in a row, because as soon as I was done with one I had to read two and then I had to finish it. The pacing and the story was really great.
You two also worked together on the last few issues of "The Talisman" comic adaptation which was published through Del Rey, correct?
Shasteen: Yeah JD jumped onboard for number five.
Mettler: Right at the end, before they cancelled it, I got to do a couple issues. This was a way to continue working together. Tony had already finished penciling "25 to Life" at that point, so I got to basically rolled right into coloring that and basically keep working with him.
Tony, the stuff people know you for is "The Talisman" and "O.C.T.," which are definitely fantasy stories, but still remain somewhat grounded and realistic. Were you actively looking to do something else, something like this?
Shasteen: I love those types of movies and TV shows and books. That's the kind of story that I'm drawn to, generally, outside of comics as well. For me, if it's a good story that I know I'm going to enjoy doing, that's what I'm drawn to. I don't have to do superhero stuff. I don't have to do reality-based stuff. It just has to be a good, well-written story and I have to be into it. That's all it takes. I'm easy.
The color palette and the art play a big role in the storytelling of "25 to Life," with the opening scene brightly lit and set during the day, then getting dark and shadowy from there. It really sets the tone for the book.
Wagner: It was definitely intentional to start mid-day in bright blue skies and a warmly lit bank. Then after the explosion, basically the entire story goes to Hell and it never really slows down until issue three. It definitely gets darker and grittier from there on out to hopefully make people feel icky about the story, because it's definitely creepy.
Shasteen: That's one of the things that appealed to me, too, with drawing the book. I was able to do essentially whatever style I wanted to. I didn't want to do super-realistic. This is a lot more graphic than some of the other books that I did, but it is such a fast paced book, it didn't need to be bogged down with so much detail. The story dictated this style for the coloring and the pencils and inks.
The first issue is definitely a dark story and there are enough hints that it won't get any better. There are cheap, easy ways to make it clear things are bad, but you avoid them pretty handily. What's the key to setting the tone?
Wagner: Storywise, I think it's how you set it up. Obviously in the beginning, the whole bank scene sets it up. It's quirky and odd, because right up front we're not giving you a lot of dialogue. We're not going to tell you what's going to happen. Tony did a great job in the first couple of pages. You're like, "Is this cop robbing a bank?" It starts off a little odd and usual, then when he blows up, it's just this, "Holy cow, this isn't going to be a normal 'Hey, he gets thrown in jail' type of story." It's going to be different and it's going to get darker as it goes along. I mean Santana, the main character, is dark. We open up and he's sitting in an electric chair. [Laughs] Then they go and get JD and throw him in the story.
Mettler: Pratt. Not me.
Wagner: I'm sorry. They get Pratt and throw him in the story. This ex-militia racist. You've got so many overtones in there, with racism and somebody doing what appears to be hate crimes. You throw all that in there in the first issue and there's no doubt that it's going to be dark. There's no other way you can go with it.
Shasteen: From an artistic standpoint, just because a story is dark and there is a lot of violence, it doesn't mean you have to show a lot of gore. Not that I'm against gore; I'm cool with it. He blows up, but you don't have to show all the bits and pieces. It's just one of the ways to approach it. If you go too far, it turns into more of a horror book and not the police procedural/crime book that it is. There's a line that you have to walk. I mean it's still an R book, I guess. Is it an R book?
Wagner: I would say PG-13.
Gardner: When Eriq was telling me about the story, something that was reflected really well in the way the book was executed was, he wanted it to be provocative. Controversial and provocative are two of things he mentioned that he was thinking about. That's a lot different from just going for shock value. I think that's the easy way out. It's harder to really generate true emotion as opposed to shock.
What specific challenges were involved in translating scripts that were intended for television to comics? The book has a great momentum and doesn't feel like it loses anything in translation.
Wagner: Obviously, the challenge there was how you fit [everything] in. You have to look at it as a three act play. You've got to ask, where are the breaks? Where am I going to leave it where people will want to come back for more? The momentum, I won't lie, that was tough. I mean, in a script, you have scenes that take five minutes, but I've got two pages. You've got to really pay attention to your page turns and stuff and go, "Well, this should be three pages, but I've got to figure out how to squeeze it into two."
I would imagine there's a lot of material that had to be cut for space considerations alone.
Wagner: Unfortunately, you just have to choose and pick what scenes you think are going to work and what's important to the story. When Eriq first saw the scripts, the thing that took him aback was the [cuts I made to the] dialogue. I was like, dude, for a comic we have a lot of dialogue. Tony had to struggle with pages that have a lot of dialogue for comics, and he pulled it off beautifully. Eriq was like, "Couldn't we put this line back in?" I'm like, "Dude - that's three sentences. [Laughs] We can't put that back in, it's too much!" So, yeah, there were a lot of challenges in it, but Eriq was really professional and easy to work with.
When we're first introduced to our protagonist Sanatana, sitting in electric chair - even more than the bombing, I think that really sets the tone for the rest of "25 to Life".
Wagner: There's a fine line between the criminal and the cop. That's something a lot of people have said over the years. Law enforcement guys that are really dedicated, really motivated, they could have gone a little bit differently in life and they could have been criminals. You've got a guy Santana who's walking this line. He's actually working with criminals to catch criminals ,and he's got a lot going on which, hopefully, we'll revisit in another series down the road. The electric chair thing reflects that, because he's probably one step removed from being a mastermind criminal.
"25 to Life" #1 is on sale now.