"If Nick Barrow can stay alive for 21 days, he'll die happy."
That's how writer A.J. Lieberman describes the premise of "Term Life," his new original graphic novel published through Image Comics and illustrated by Nick Thornborrow, a man with no relation to the book's similarly named main character.
"Term Life" focuses on Nick Barrow, a man who specializes in planning heists and tricks and selling them off to the highest bidder. But when one of Nick's planned heists goes horribly wrong, everyone involved wants him dead - that includes mob bosses, contract killers and even the most corrupt cops that local law enforcement has to offer. With so many targets on his back, Nick knows that he's running out of time.
To that end, he enacts a plan to take out a life insurance policy on himself made payable to his estranged daughter, Cate. Solid on paper, Nick's plan has a fairly sizable hole: the policy doesn't take effect for 21 days, and he knows he'll be lucky if he survives for 21 hours. Combine that with the fact that he now has to meet his adolescent daughter for the very first time while saving her from the very people trying to kill him, it's pretty safe to say that Nick Barrow has seen better weeks.
CBR News reached out to Lieberman to find out more about "Term Life," the themes he's exploring through this high octane crime thriller and much more - but reading the interview is only half of the fun! Courtesy of Lieberman, Thornborrow and Image Comics, CBR is proud to present an exclusive first look at all 34 pages from the first chapter of "Term Life" for your viewing pleasure!
CBR News: Let's take it from the top, A.J. The premise for "Term Life" - taking out a life insurance policy and having to survive 21 days to see it through - is intriguing, to say the least. How did you develop the idea for the book?
A.J. Lieberman: I knew I wanted to write an OGN, and after I hit upon the life insurance angle and the ticking clock of having to stay alive for 21 days while waiting for the policy to go into effect, I knew I had something very compelling. It was just a matter of developing a story that took the best advantage of those conceits, and it seemed natural that it would be some kind of crime story.
Nick Barrow is the focus of the graphic novel. Can you describe him for us? Who is this guy and, perhaps more importantly, who does he become as "Term Life" pushes on?
I always thought Nick was a lot like Deckard in "Blade Runner." He keeps getting beat to shit, but somehow, for some reason, manages to always get back up. As he forges ahead, he’s just continually punished.
I guess Nick could be called an anti-hero, but at this point, and with countless examples - "The Sopranos," "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," "Sons of Anarchy," "The Godfather," insert name here - you could probably argue that the “anti-hero” has become such a mainstay that he’s basically just a hero. I’m looking at you Hannibal Lecter! The days of black-and-white, good guys versus bad guys is long gone, and I guess what makes the anti-hero so appealing is that they can get away with doing questionable things and still not lose the reader’s approval.
As far as Nick’s "journey," he’s a guy who is determined, once he gets a chance, to be a good father at least once, even if it kills him. Which, it very well might.
Let's talk about that - Nick's daughter, Cate, is also a central focus of the OGN. What can you tell us about her? Who is she when it comes to her everyday life, and who is she when she comes into contact with her father in this explosive way?
Yeah, for sure, Cate is the co-lead in this book. Before I started writing I knew if the relationship between Nick and Cate didn’t work, the book wouldn’t work. If you don’t buy into it, it doesn’t matter how cool the story or art is. But I think we pulled off.
Cate is what was once called a latchkey kid: mostly on her own, fucked up home life, responsible for pretty much raising herself, but she has this tomboy-ish confidence that immediately comes through. It’s this confidence that allows her to not only hold her own when Nick first shows up, but to dosey doe around him leaving him completely caught off guard - especially since Nick is this guy she’s only heard horror stories about.
On top of that, she’s 13, so she’s a nightmare to deal with anyway. Nick is totally lost at first; Cate has his head spinning.
Clearly, these two don't have the easiest relationship with one another. How would you describe their dynamic?
Ali-Frazier comes to mind. Leno-Conan. That kid whose parents stuffed him in that weather balloon. Yeah, it’s not good. Rather, it’s non-existent. And then from there it goes from not good to really shitty really fast.
Parental conflict remains one of the great themes of not just literature, but as you pointed out, life in general. As a creator, what do you find rewarding about playing with this dynamic between parent and child? What did you want to say about the topic through "Term Life" as a story and through Nick and Cate as characters?
We find out pretty fast that Nick wants to be a father, but to do it on his own terms, from afar, without getting involved emotionally. He’s prepared to sit in a motel room, wait out the 21 days and then let whatever happens happen without ever approaching Cate. So when he’s forced into grabbing her, he’s totally unprepared. But really, all of "Term Life" is filled with these parental relationships and conflicts: Viktor and Misha, Keenan and Matty Miller in a way, and Nick and Cate.
If "Term Life" is about a father and his daughter at its core, then it's surrounded by a whole heaping lot of crime thriller goodness. Can you talk about the world of "Term Life," the genre it inhabits and the fun you're having within the borders of crime fiction?
I think, like some other genres, crime fiction has a kind of universality: good guys versus bad guys plays anywhere, even if the good guys are not all that good. It’s like cop shows: think "The Shield." When "NYPD Blue" first started, Andy Sipowicz was a bigot and a misogynist, and yet we loved him. Crime fiction is in that same arena where it’s okay to root for a guy who’s not always a saint. And by having our protagonist be a guy who runs in society’s shadows, we get entry into a whole world we’d otherwise not be exposed to. It also lends itself to complex characters and intricate plotting, and I love writing both those things.
I'm sure you're already aware that your main character's name, Nick Barrow, is dangerously close to the book's artist, Nick Thornborrow...
It is so friggin’ weird! I had been working on "Term Life" way, way, way before I ever heard of Nick the artist. And the sad thing about it? Once we started working together, we got in so deep so fast that it didn’t even occur to us until we were like 80% done - which doesn’t say a lot about our powers of observation, and indicates that we were downing waaaaay too many Red Bulls!
Well, what can you say about Nick the artist and his work on this story? What made him the right guy to bring "Term Life" to life?
I’ve said it before, but if you buy your comics to just look at the artwork and never even bother reading word one, "Term Life" will blow you away. The art is that good.
Fair enough! For you, what makes the OGN the proper format for a story like this, as opposed to something more serialized like a miniseries?
I guess the biggest difference is that when you’re writing an ongoing series, you’re plotting each issue to build up to a cliffhanger every 22 to 24 pages. With a series, you have the potential to tell a much larger story - think "The Walking Dead" and "Y: The Last Man." Of course, on the other hand, you have to wait a month every time you finish a new issue, or the series might get cancelled. It’s like the difference between a two hour move and a TV series that last 22 hours per season: you can get a lot more nuanced in a TV series than a movie, but you have to wait. An OGN gives the reader a beginning, middle and end all at once, which I love.
In addition, the length allows me the room to tell the story I want to tell with scenes that would end up getting cut in a series due to page count. Plus, I didn’t want to write "Term Life" and have to manufacture a series of cliffhangers every month. I just wanted to tell the whole story. And since "Term Life" is self-contained, there’s a satisfaction when you get to the end and everything has been tied up. There’s no waiting a month to see how X or Y gets resolved. Or, with "Cowboy Ninja Viking," a month and half.
Quick aside, because you brought it up, you've got "Cowboy Ninja Viking" over at Image. Can you give us a status update on where the book stands?
I think issue #10 just hit, which brings the second arc to a very controversial ending and will make everything in the first nine issues seem tame. Then [series artist Riley Rossmo] and I are taking a hiatus to recharge and figure out the broader story for our crew of triplets. But on the up side, the second trade will be out very soon…
Back to "Term Life," do you see the possibility for future stories set within the universe established in the OGN, or is this a one-off in your mind?
That’s a great question. In an odd way, I do see the potential for a second story, but using some of the characters from "Term Life" in a unique way. Nick and I have talked about this, albeit briefly.
For readers who might be on the fence about "Term Life," push them over. Why should fans pick up the OGN when it hits stands, and what are they getting in this book that they won't get anywhere else?
Well, first, they should not wait till it hits the stands - they should pre-order it right now! Page 178 - 179 in this month’s Previews. This isn’t like a series that can build its readership over the first few issues; it’s a one-and-done, so we need all the support up front.
I could say that you're getting great story and fantastic art here, but you get those things in other books as well. In the end, I think "Term Life" tells this really cool story but does it in a very unique way. We wanted to do something that took the reader up to the very last page, and I think we succeeded. In fact, you know the ending before the book ends - you just don’t know how Nick and Cate pulled it off.
Well, if that's not enough to push readers over the fence, I know there's one last thing you wanted to talk about...
The advanced reviews and comments for "Term Life" have blown us away, and it got us thinking about what else we could do. And so we want to take a moment here to pimp a CBR exclusive! You guys are posting the entire first chapter of "Term Life." That’s 34 pages, and there are only four chapters, so we just gave a quarter of the book away - for free. And by free I mean, well, free! Which might seem counter intuitive, but we’re confident that if people read and see this book, they’re gonna be hooked. It’s that simple.
So, really the only other thing to say from this end would be: enjoy it… and let us know what you think!
"Term Life," an original graphic novel written by A.J. Lieberman and illustrated by Nick Thornborrow, goes on sale on January 12, 2011.