David Hine: The Importance of an Open MindA comics interview article by: Steve Morris
David Hine is the writer for a number of comics for Marvel and DC, but more importantly has been trying out new and experimental creator-owned works for companies like Image. His most recent series was the critically-acclaimed Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, which he co-created with artist Shaky Kane. Currently writing The Darkness for Top Cow, he will also be writing a new series for Image later this year, called Storm Dogs. Drawn by Doug Braithwaite, Storm Dogs will have its feet in a number of different genres, although still remain totally a work of its own.
I sat down with David at this year’s Kapow Comic Convention, where the book was first announced, to talk Storm Dogs, Bulletproof Coffin, and the comic book industry as a whole.
Steve Morris for Comics Bulletin: What inspired you to start writing books for Image, like The Bulletproof Coffin or Storm Dogs?
David Hine: I think it’s the consequence of the frustrations of working on the corporately-owned characters. It’s great, I mean as comic book fans I suppose all of us dreamed of working on books like Spider-man or Batman, these big characters. It’s fun to do, but you’re very limited in what you can do with a corporately-owned character. It just seems such a limited viewpoint where you’ve got to spend your career just writing variations on characters; there’s only so many things you can do with characters like Batman. I just can’t imagine spending your entire life working on stuff that you don’t own and that you didn’t create. Even in writing, if you’re a novelist, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, here’s Harry Potter, do a new one.” I mean, there are some people who do that; people who write James Bond novels or whatever, but it’s a very weird thing to be doing. So I think everybody, sooner or later, gets to a point where they have all these ideas and they don’t want to create new characters for Marvel and DC, because you can’t control them unless you’re working for Icon or Vertigo.
The obvious thing to do is to take your best work and make sure you’ve got absolute freedom to develop it in a way you want, and that you own it. Because, I know a lot of people will say things like, “Ok, you signed a contract, you knew what you were going into,” and that’s true; when I do work for Marvel or DC I know what the contract is, I know what the situation is. But even so, you can’t account for everything.
CB: Just because it’s a legal contract doesn’t mean it’s not still exploitative.
Hine: I don’t like that idea, “Oh, because it’s legal, it’s ok.” It’s not ok, and I think everybody’s now starting to say “well, I’ve got a great idea, I’m not going to give it away or sell it cheap anymore”. I’m personally going to make sure that I keep all my rights, so if something does now break through and become a big hit then I’ll have control over it.
CB: From a creative viewpoint, I think a lot of people previously, when they were younger, they were reading X-Men, Spider-man and things like that. But the next few generations are going to grow up reading Watchmen or Invincible instead. If independent works become more powerful and recognizable, then the next generations of writers and artists will take their cue from that, instead of from mainstream work-for-hire books. We’ll see a more independently-minded view of the market.
Hine: Oh, let’s hope so, yeah. I mean that’s the interesting thing with a company like Image. I use Image specifically because I think they are the best independent company at the moment, and they really explore the diversity of the product. There’s all kind of genres, science fiction, crime, and even stuff that you can’t pitch in whole to one specific genre. It’s just like movies and novels; you don’t have to follow all those clichés, you can do something really original.
CB: Is that what gave you the freedom to think of trying out something in the science fiction genre for your new book, Storm Dogs?
Hine: Yeah, well Storm Dogs is, I mean I described it yesterday [at the release announcement] as Science Fiction Noir and it certainly combines elements of science fiction, of crime, and aspects of frontier western. It’s actually something that I’ve wanted to do for ages; I think I kind of pitched a version of it back in the '90s to 2000AD.
I’ve re-worked it a few times over the years and two years ago I really sat down with it. I wanted to do something which was kind of a commercial book, something that’s got a wide audience but the kind of commercial book that I would like to read. So all the elements that I like in comics, you know, different genres being mixed up, very solid characterization and I worked very hard on developing the culture.
CB: The wider society around the characters?
Hine: The society, the worldview. We aren’t going to spend like the whole first issue explaining every little detail
CB: How the economy works, and so on…!
Hine: We won’t be doing that, but we have worked out how we think it works. When Dougie [Braithwaite] came on to draw the series, he spent a lot of time agonizing over getting the costumes right, the animals right.
CB: What kind of style are you looking for in the costuming? Is it going to be people dressed in rags, or are they going to be very futuristic?
Hine: Well it's a real combination. On the planet where the action takes place, the people, they almost look medieval; they do wear rags, very rough style clothing, and it’s a real mix of things actually. There’s a little bit of western to it, and like I said, almost medieval. The technology is way into the future, but we had this idea that there is a ban on use of high technology, because it would corrupt the culture, the native culture on the planet. So it won’t actually be too technological in nature.
CB: So the planet will be a little… backwards, almost? I suppose a comparison could be something like the Amish community, who shun modern technology?
Hine: Well more like in the Amazonian rainforest, where there are native populations that have never encountered modern man and you can’t go and meet those because they refuse to engage with outside culture – and the rest of the world lets them keep to that. So when the main characters in Storm Dogs go to investigate the murders that have happened in this place, they have to hand in their modern tech and go back to their wits.
CB: How far into noir are you going to go?
Hine: Oh, it’s not going to look like film noir, not that kind. And it’s going to be more contemporary in attitude. In fact I think we probably have more female characters than male. So we do have a hard-boiled style sheriff; he’s kind of got that hard-looking, cynical, feel to him. But no, there’s a real mix in characters. I think we have, of the investigator team, 3 of the 4 of the team are female characters. I think that’s interesting.
CB: Was that a conscious choice to have so many female characters in that sort of setting? You don’t see it very often in sci-fi; you don’t see females.
Hine: No, they just felt right as female characters. At one point I was thinking, “Hell, I got so many female characters!” And then I thought, “Why not?” If I was writing something where there was loads of male characters, I wouldn’t be thinking, “Uh, too many male characters!” So, no, it was just the way it developed.
CB: So just to get the basics of the story correct in my head, it’s going to be an investigation into a series of murders happening in this remote area?
Hine: On a remote planet where basically the team are very sophisticated people, used to using technologies way, way beyond we can even imagine. And because of the strict regulations they have, governing the interactions with the native population, they have to keep to the laws of each planet they visit. So as soon as they land on that planet all their high tech is switched off, and they’re no longer connected to the future version of internet. They can still use like hand held computers and things, but even from our point of view it would be low tech. So it’s very retro, it’s like future technology but also very primitive.
It’s as if we were all cut off one day, and there’s no mobile phones or internet anymore. What would we do
CB: Is there a little bit of comparison to be made there, then? Will we see that connection between their reliance on technology, and our own, within the text?
Hine: I feel like that sometimes I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is switch on the computer. We do get so… we’re all wired into it now. Sometimes it gets quite oppressive and I feel like saying to myself “Just turn it off and go outside!”
CB: That’s when you go outside and then natural light hits you for the first time and suddenly you realize, hey, that there’s still a working world outside my house!
Is the story set out to be an ongoing work?
Hine: Hopefully. We’re in it for the long haul, because we’ve put so much work into developing the concept that we don’t want to just do 6 issues and that’s it. It will initially be a 6 issue arc, but we do have the long view on it; we do have a big story developing but obviously the first 6 issues will be a self-contained story with kind of a cliffhanger that will take over to the nest season.
--That’s how I’m thinking, in terms of seasons. Each arc will come to a point, like with most good TV where a season will end and you’ll feel that some of the plot lines have come to conclusion. But you’ll also have a lot more subplots and a lot of character development that you feel is still carrying over; you want to follow through and see where those things end up. The other thing is we’re really going for a European look to it; the pacing, the visuals. We’ve both been looking at a lot of French and Belgian comics.
CB: Anyone in particular?
Hine: Yeah, we’ve been looking at a book called Bouncer by François Boucq and Alejandro Jodorowsky. It captures that feel of the American West. Particularly the coloring style of it, which really captures each scene with its own mood.
CB: And I think that’s something you see with each issue of Bulletproof Coffin too
Hine: You actually can read the issues in any order, because they do work as standalone issues. That was one thing that I realized with the first series; if someone had missed the first issue, they were not going to pick up issue 2,3,4, but with this second series, you actually can pick up any issue you want; you don’t have to read all of them. If you do, though, you’ll get another experience, cause there are things that blend.
The challenge with the Bulletproof Coffin is that I want to be as experimental as possible in the storytelling, as you may have noticed. A lot of experimental work is dry and boring and overly intellectualized. I still want it to be entertaining; if I’m not entertained then I’ll just put a book down. I think you can be totally uncompromising in whatever storytelling techniques or visual techniques you’re using and still entertain. David Lynch does that for me. I watch his movies, which are completely mad, but I’m still being entertained at the same time.
I actually think you should not underestimate your reader because when we did cut up issue 4, we had literally 84 panels randomly printed in any order. And I think people could still read that and do really strange, complex things and re-structure the images that they’re looking at.
CB: When you were putting the issue together, did you so it with complete detachment or did you, once they were assembled, look at two of them and think “I… might just switch those two around actually”?
Hine: There was a temptation, because I realized that, for instance, some pages the color schemes weren’t necessarily perfect. You’d say, “Oh, if I switched those over it would balance nicer and there were certain panels which would have made perfect endings. But then I thought, “No, if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it properly.” So we actually did do that thing where we had all the panels cut out and we did just that; we sat around a table, in a pub, and had everyone at the table just shuffle them round and what we ended up with at the end, I put in my pocket, came home and numbered them exactly as they had ended up at the end of that drunken evening in the pub.
CB: That’s so fascinating.
Hine: I was very disciplined about that; there was no cheating in the order. And actually fascinating things happened there because I think we ended up with three mergers on the last page, you know or three deaths happening together. I thought that’s a strange, weird, synchronicity, that’s happening there. But I’ve talked to people who read it exactly as we asked them to; they just opened it at any page and moved backwards and forwards and I think we had a few people buy a spare copy to cut up alongside it, which is great to hear about.
CB: When you’re doing something like the Bulletproof Coffin, you did the first mini to great acclaim. Was it then difficult to manage the weight of expectations for the second?
Hine: Well the obvious temptation is to repeat yourself. One of the most popular things in the first series was those old comics that we’d been doing. We had The Shield of Justice and the All-Seeing Eye; Ramona, the Queen of the Stone Age. People loved those insert comics that we were putting in and I think the obvious thing to do is to do a lot more of that, or even to have…
CB: To just do an entire issue of that.
Hine: So the first thing I said to Shaky was that we should not go the easy route; we have to do something completely different.
I know it sounds self indulgent but I think the only way to really write or draw or create in any way is to do it for yourself and hope there’s enough other people out there who share your sensibilities. To try and find an audience or predict what an audience will like never works -- because it’s impossible. So we always do the comics that we want to read.
CB: And there has turned out to be a group of comic-readers who properly connect with the series, and interpret it the way they feel it works best.
Hine: We have had some of the most remarkable reviews. We’ve had cut up reviews, we’ve had a review which was in the form of 42 questions, there was one that actually ended up as a little short story really -- he created his own alternate persona, the guy who was experiencing Bulletproof Coffin, and written a piece of metafiction.
It’s a new kind of interaction with the readers. I think the most important thing about issue 4, the cut up issue, is that it’s interactive in a sense that you can’t just read it without contributing something yourself. Your interpretation becomes as much a part of the story as what we’re putting into it. You’re not just sitting there absorbing something, you’re actually having to contribute something, to participate in it. And I think, in the old days we wouldn’t have even known what people were thinking about it; we might have seen a few people at a convention but with the internet, yeah, it’s instant, we get all that feedback, and it’s really interesting to me.
It’s as soon as you get away from that corporate products – I know I keep coming back to that -- but the publishers traditionally already know what they want and creatively you’re never going to get the best results.
CB: Every story goes in a large circle of regression and development.
Hine: And there are so many publishers now that are saying, “What have you got? What are you going to bring to us that we’ve never seen before?” And they’re not pre-judging what they want. I think that is the open-mindedness of… in the case of Image, an individual like Eric Stephenson, you can’t overestimate the importance of someone who has a really open mind. He has not got a vision of what’s makes an Image comic… he just wants the creators to come to him with something that he’s never seen before.