There's a classic urban legend about a person going out, having a crazy night with a stranger and passing out… only to wake up in a bathtub filled with ice sporting a poorly sewn-up wound over an area that once held a vital organ. But, according to writer A.J. Lieberman, it's not just an urban legend, but part of a gigantic, illegal operation focused on stealing organs and selling them to the highest bidder.
His new comic "Harvest" debuts in August from Shadowline and Image Comics. The book, drawn by Colin Lorimer ("Dark Horse Presents"), follows the exploits of the Robin Hood-esque Dr. Ben Dane as he flips the script on his former bosses in the organ harvesting business and decides to steal back the organs he implanted. The dark, twisted tale finds him dealing with his drug addiction while also trying to do the right thing in his own way. CBR News spoke with Lieberman and Lorimer about teaming up, the dark world of illegal organ harvesting and how the idea took shape in their heads.
"I had always wanted to do a really sick and twisted book and this world has always fascinated me, so it seemed like a good fit. Especially for the revenge aspect of the story, which 'Harvest,' at its heart, is," Lieberman said. "Excuse the pun. I mean, here we have a ex-surgeon who is tracking down the rich and powerful who paid for illegal organs and taking those organs back. It gets pretty sick. The illegal organ harvesting black market is now a global business onto itself -- it's massive and highly illegal and ridiculously unregulated. But here's the thing: it makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year. If you were to suddenly make it legal, the combined worldwide profits would make it one of the most profitable businesses in the world. And that's why it never truly goes away or can be stamped out. It's just too profitable."
Lieberman went on to explain some of the history behind the illegal organ trafficking business and how our own laws helped the nefarious endeavor. Meanwhile, Lorimer did his own brand of research for the project.
"As with any project, and probably more so in a story that is as real-world as 'Harvest', you have to make sure that the props and environments are believable to an audience, otherwise they will just be taken out of the story," Lorimer told CBR News. "I certainly did do some research -- well, Google research. It was fun searching for the likes of 'worst car crash victims' and 'surgery nightmares' over a cup of coffee and a jam donut in the morning."
While doing research into the laws governing organ transplants might not seem that intense, the writer did find quite a few unsettling details out about the real world while trying to get a handle on his comic book world.
"I knew going into it that the world of illegal operations, traffickers and body brokers was a pretty screwed up, but in doing research I was amazed at just how screwed up," Lieberman said. "I mean, Turkish prisons turned organ factories where inmates 'donated' organs. Yakuza-run organ networks. It's pretty hard to get ahead of the curve when the reality is this screwed up. It was an absolutely fascinating world to research."
Lieberman tried to infuse his lead character, Dr. Ben Dane, with an equally fascinating background and worldview. "Ex-Dr. Ben is a pretty screwed up," Lieberman told CBR. "He's dealing with a sizable drug habit and rather large drinking problem, which, if you're a surgeon, are not good vices to have. And so after getting recruited into a rogue medical team and then being set up for a murder Ben starts to get his ass kicking mojo on with the help of a six year-old kid and shit kicking Yakuza enforcer."
Of course, the revelation of a child in the mix begs the question of how exactly a six year-old figures into such a dark story, not to mention the Yakuza member.
"Mariko is the Yakuza enforcer who we meet in issue #1 and becomes Ben's protector," Lieberman explained. "How she becomes his protector is something you'll have to wait to see, but it's their relationship that is really the heart of the book. Then we have Noah, the six year-old. I'm not really spoiling anything in saying that Noah is really the personification of Ben's subconscious. But both characters help keep Ben alive as he stumbles around trying to do something in this world that is larger than himself, something meaningful. And trust me when I say this, most of the time Ben fucks it all up."
Another player in Dr. Ben's twisted soap opera happens to be a woman known as Greer, who works for Ben's former boss, Jason Craven. The pair of them had a thing, but Greer's not going to let it get in the way of busting his head in for leaving the company.
"Greer is a cold-hearted bitch who happens to be a great surgeon, or rather ex-surgeon since Craven's team is made up of doctors who have lost their medical licenses," Lieberman said. "Greer's intro in the book might be one of the best I've written and Colin makes it pop with the art. And although Greer and Ben kinda sorta fall for each other I didn't want to do this clichéd thing where love is able to turn a dark heart pure. Greer wants Ben to stay and get rich and have lots of sex, but once Ben crosses the line and goes after Craven, Greer knows she enjoys the perks a six-figure income provides her way to much to follow Ben down his personal rabbit hole."
Speaking of Craven, Lieberman explained that readers would not have to wait long to find out about the man behind Ben's former operations.
"By #2 Ben finds himself in the epicenter of this illegal world which is run by an international businessman named Jason Craven," Lieberman said. "It's a pretty good world to be in until Ben realizes he's not the person he thought he was and Craven realizes he needs to get rid of Ben and sets him up for a murder. This then forces Ben down the path of his true calling: exacting revenge by going after Craven's rich and powerful client list by taking back all those organs Craven has placed inside them. Ben literally wants to ruin Craven one organ at a time."
When it came time to actually create the look of the characters, Lorimer and Lieberman took a look at some of the bigger actors around, using their looks as launchpads.
"Initially there was quite a bit of discussion and we would throw out various actor names to see who would fit the characters, which is always a good starting point," Lorimer said. "I had thought Ryan Gosling would be a good fit for the character Ben, having recently watched him in the movie 'Drive,' so I worked up a quick sketch and we both agreed pretty quickly on that one. Craven took a little longer and we went through quite a few iterations before we settled on the final design. Noah, the kid, went through a few versions also, but it was more about his expression. We needed to obviously keep that sense of childlike innocence, but there had to be something slightly unsettling and darker going on behind the eyes."
To capture the world of illegal surgery and organ stealing, Lieberman turned to Lorimer because his style fit so perfectly with the tale he wanted to tell, just as his previous collaborators did. "Colin's stuff is amazing, he's got this edge to his work that really amps up the grittiness of the story," Lieberman continued. "Plus his layouts really help create some visually stunning moments. The splash pages and covers are easily worth the price of admission by themselves, especially the covers which we did something really special with as all five are interlocked creating one huge poster type image."
For his part, Lorimer explained the book's gritty, realistic aesthetic was clearly influenced by the story itself.
"The story always dictates the style -- it's quite a dark tale so I tried to keep it quite muted in tone and in places dirtied up the art to give it a little added texture," Lorimer said. "In saying that, Andy and myself both decided early on that we didn't want to go too dark, otherwise, it may be a little too down-beat and overbearing for the reader. So I played around with the palette and color keyed some of the scenes trying to find places to lighten the mood."
In addition to putting a good deal of time into the pages and panels inside the comic, Lorimer and Lieberman also decided to use the five covers for the series to both sell the individual issues and also to show one gigantic image when all put together.
"I've wanted to do something like this for a long time," Lieberman said. "Colin was totally into it, though when we started we had no idea how much friggin' work it was going to take. And thankfully [Shadowline President] Jim [Valentino] was also game. As an artist just think about all that real estate. The hardest part was not only figuring out what the image was going to be but also how to make sure it could work as individual covers as well. It wouldn't work if it only looked good as one larger piece. It had to work as five separate issue covers and Colin totally slammed them. They look amazing and each one tells a little more of the story. People are going to dig them."
"We went through numerous concepts and ideas before we settled on the five-cover image," Lorimer said. "It wasn't so much a problem figuring out a cool spread, but we had to make sure that each individual cover could stand on its own merit as a cool cover image. It was a lot of work, but we are both very pleased with the result."
Lieberman also credited Valentino and Image for being the perfect place to bring yet another creator-owned property.
"I had a great experience working with Jim Valentino on 'Cowboy Ninja Viking' and 'Term Life' and I figured I'd go for the trifecta," Lieberman said. "Plus the success of both my other books proves you don't have to be at the big two to have wider success with creator-owned books."
"Harvest" by A.J. Lieberman and Colin Lorimer hits stands on August 1st from Image Comics and Shadowline.