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AICN COMICS Q&@: Humphrey Lee talks with AJ Lieberman about his new crime fiction graphic novel TERM LIFE!!!

Published at: Nov. 1, 2010, 9:47 a.m. CST

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AICN COMICS: Q&@ is our new semi-weekly interview column where some of your favorite @$$Holes interview comic bookdom’s biggest, brightest, newest, and oldest stars. Enjoy this latest in-depth interview filled with @$$y goodness and be sure to look for more AICN COMICS as we gaze into the future of comics every week with AICN COMICS: SPINNER RACK PREVIEWS every Monday and then join the rest of your favorite @$$Holes for their opinions on the weekly pull every Wednesday with AICN COMICS REVIEWS!


Q’s by Humphrey Lee!

@’s by TERM LIFE’s AJ Lieberman!

Hello there ,AICN Faithful. This is Humphrey Lee here to bring you, well, something I’ve never really done in the half decade he has been bringing content to this part of the site. Following is a Q&A/pimp session with the writer of COWBOY NINJA VIKING for Image, AJ Lieberman, whose first Original Graphic Novel TERM LIFE is upcoming, also through Image Comics. The catch is, it’s upcoming in a couple months, as in it actually was just solicited in the latest issue of PREVIEWS for November. As a man who appreciates buzz and the idea of getting it going, I was more than glad to help get this advance look up. So, here’s a nice, solid block of text and images designed to whet your appetites and see maybe if this book is something that you all would enjoy. Enjoy…
Humphrey Lee: Starting off with a cheap and easy one, why don’t you give everyone the quick pitch on just what TERM LIFE is all about?

AJL: If Nick Barrow can stay alive for 21 days he’ll die happy.
At its core that’s what TERM LIFE is about. After a heist he planned goes seriously South everyone involved wants Nick dead: mob bosses, dirty cops, contract killers. So, performing the last act of a desperate man, Nick takes out a life insurance policy on himself payable to his estranged daughter. The problem? The policy doesn’t take effect for 21 days. That’s 21 days he’s got to stay alive. And as bad as that is, it doesn’t come close to the wrath of a 15-year-old girl meeting her dad for the first time as he’s forced to keep them both alive. Twenty-one days? Nick knows if they do everything right and God himself did him a favor, they’ll be lucky to be alive for twenty-one hours.

HL: Why a crime fiction tale for this, I believe your first OGN? Is there something about the genre that is appealing to you, or at least familiar feeling? The most I’m familiar with your stuff would be your GOTHAM KNIGHTS “Hush” run and COWBOY NINJA VIKING, each with their own smackings of the genre as far as capering goes, so I’m assuming the latter.

AJL: I like the OGN as a form. It allows you to tell a self-contained story but gives you enough room to tell it without being rushed. I knew going in that I wanted to write something crime related. What it allows you in terms of characters, situations, plot twists, it’s a very rich world. You get to do things that other genres don’t lend themselves to. GOTHAM KNIGHTS I guess had a small dose of crime fiction but there are restrictions on what you can and can’t do with those core DC characters.
CNV on the other hand is just so different I’m not sure how to categorize it. Maybe international espionage thriller with a large dose of insanity. When I came up with the idea I knew it would afford me the chance to go from action to drama to comedy. I describe Duncan as having the skill set of Jason Bourne and the mental health of “A Beautiful Mind”’s John Nash, only minus the hot wife. But not related in any real way to crime fiction.

HL: Talking about that genre, is there any particular works that inspired the characters and plot threads and elements of this story? We’ll get to this more in a second, but there are “this is how it happened” interludes used to play and/or flesh out areas of the story that already happened that feel very JACKIE BROWN to me. Was there anything that inspired you to play with this device?

AJL: Elmore Leonard, obviously, is at the top of the mountain with this type of story, and while I guess the Jackie Brown thing is not so far off, nothing directly influenced TERM LIFE. Maybe more so “21 Grams” or “City of God” for pacing and plotting. “City of God” is phenomenal. I just wanted to try and approach the story from a new angle. Non-linearly. Early CNV has some of that. Once I started on the “flash forward” concept, where you see the scene play out several times but with additional information each new time, and from a different P.O.V., it just seemed to really work well for the story. I’ve always enjoyed books that take you right up until the last moment to reveal how it pulled off whatever it was trying to pull off. In TERM LIFE you know how it’s going to end before it actually ends; you just don’t know how Nick managed to pull it off. In fact, you know the ending of the book very early on, you just don’t have enough information at that point to know it.

HL: And speaking of this device, how did that play out in the creative process? Did the story sort of move forward as you wanted to and then you decided it could use an interlude beat, or was it all planned out before hand?

AJL: Please, a story rarely plays out the way I want it to. I wish! When I started to map TERM LIFE out I wrote what was supposed to be the opening scene and then cut to something else which I slugged as Four Days Earlier and then almost immediately realized that was a little… not hack, because I did that with CNV, but just “man that (as a device) in this type of story has been done a million times before.” So I thought what if that second scene was 4 Days From Now. And that got me thinking about telling the story in a kind of flash forward. Where you see something happen and not until pages later, in some cases a lot of pages later, do you find out the full context of that original scene. This is why I have all those title panels for each new scene.
Having said that I’m not sure I’d do it again because keeping everything straight was ridiculous. I’d call up Nick (Thornborrow) and say, “Remember, pages 16, 22 and 33 are all connected so we need to see some of this in 16, some in 22 and a little more in 33.” We thumbnailed the whole book and we still didn’t catch all the problems the first go around. Moreover, if I rewrote some dialogue on one page I had to follow the trail across 3 or 4 pages to make sure the dialogue on those other pages all got changed which made Brandon (our letterer) very, very cranky.

HL: Going to some of the trappings of the CF genre, it seems almost immediately the idea is to go as hard-boiled as you can. But, in the case of TERM LIFE, you settled more on an everyman in your lead, Nick. He doesn’t really get his hands dirty if he doesn’t have to, he’s kind of the two-time loser in that people are after him and now his kid that he’s not really had any sort of relationship with. So why did you go with this kind of character?

AJL: There’s a ton of good hard-boiled CF out there. Darwyn Cooke’s THE HUNTER/THE OUTFIT is a great retelling of the Parker novels. And TERM LIFE is not a true hard-boiled story but then again it was never supposed to be. But as you said, Nick doesn’t want to get his hands dirty if he doesn’t have to (literally, since he plans the heists but doesn’t participate in them and metaphorically, since he wants to give Cate some security but do it from a distance where he doesn’t have to deal with her emotionally).
But the great thing about this genre is that sooner or later the hero has to get his hands dirty. It’s all about the hero doing the very thing he’s been avoiding for most of the story. I told Nick (the artist)* that Nick (the hero)* was the type of guy who could take care of himself but more than likely would still get his ass kicked. I thought of Nick like Deckard from BLADERUNNER. Forever getting his ass kicked but refusing to go down.
*(Yes, both artist and hero have eerily similar names even though I named hero Nick years before I ever knew artist Nick. To make things easier, privately I took to calling Nick the artist Herb).

HL: How much work was it to find the balance in the book, especially since it was so character-centric? Not that I’ve ever written one before, but I would figure in a normal crime fiction piece one just has to build the crime part, pace it out, and insert some random badassery, an occasional character bit, and any twists one sees fit. In TERM LIFE you have to do a couple better by playing up a relationship that has never really existed and give it a past and a present. What had to happen to pull this all off in 120+ pages?

AJL: Well first, you can never, ever have enough badassery. Second, you just gave me the title for our TERM LIFE sequel. But yes, I knew that TERM LIFE would rise or fall on Nick and Cate’s relationship. If that didn’t work, the book wouldn’t work. You had to buy into that and you had to like Cate. And you also had to like Nick. And you had to buy into how they reacted toward each other after not being in touch for 10+ years. Anything I thought was too sentimental I cut. Nick at times is ruthless in his honesty towards Cate. And it breaks her heart. And yet we still had to get to a place where Nick is able to win her over. In the end, TERM LIFE is about parental/child relationships. Viktor and Misha. Keenan and Matty Miller. Nick and Cate.

HL: More on the creational aspects of the book, why did you decide to go OGN for the format with this project? Given the pacing and fleshing out of it, it works in the format really well, of course, but it seems like it could have easily been a five or six issue mini-series. Any particular reason this struck your fancy to try instead?

AJL: For one, I didn’t want to have to manufacture a set of cliffhangers every 22 pages. I just wanted to write the story. Also, and maybe more practically, once I went with the non-linear approach, there was no way you could wait a month between issues to pick the story back up. It’d be too confusing. You need to have a story like this all at once.

HL: As far as putting this thing together goes, where did you draw artist Nick Thornborrow from? I really dug the atmosphere his soft pencils and the more washed out tones brought to the book, but I’m pretty confident I’ve never seen his stuff before. Where did you find the man and what was it about his material that convinced you he was the man for the job?

AJL: I found Nick through Darren Rawlings a mutual friend/artist who worked with Nick on project called THE ANTHOLOGY PROJECT. In fact, I’m doing my next book, a children’s book for Scholastic, with Darren. But yes, Nick’s art totally makes TERM LIFE work. Nick did a few sample pages for me (I think pages 2 and 7) and I knew immediately it was a match. This being Nick’s first real foray into comics, I don’t think he knew how screwed up this story was going to make his life. Nick works at BioWare. And to his credit, he busted his ass to get TERM LIFE done on time.

HL: If there is one thing you think you took out of this project experience professionally and/or creatively, what would that be?

AJL: It would be this: We fucking did it. We set a goal for ourselves and we did it. There are so many things that can get in the way of a big project like this, professionally and personally. I was fortunate enough to find two guys, Nick and letterer Brandon Destefano, who were willing to put in a shit load of work because they believed in the project. And speaking of letters, Brandon’s stuff is awesome. You would assume that in book like this the letters are pretty straight forward but Brandon has a great eye for placement and his knack for using bits of color (red here, yellow there) make certain scenes pop in unexpected ways.

HL: Okay, last chance, why should interested parties add this to their pull for the month? And no sob stories about needing medicine for your seven infant children or a prosthetic for your three legged dog.

AJL: TERM LIFE is a puzzle. A bloody, violent puzzle. I’d say if you’re into Brubaker or Cooke or Lapham this will more than float your boat. If, on the other hand, you buy your comics for the stunning art and never read a word, well then, you’re in luck--TERM LIFE will scratch that itch too.

HL: And there you have it, folks. I’d like to thank AJ for considering us in this; it’s always nice to work with people on projects of their own. As I mentioned before, TERM LIFE is “available now” in that you can pre-order it from the latest PREVIEWS with your LCS. You can find it on pages 178 and 179 of the November issue, complete with a couple non-digital images to give you something more to savor. Thanks again to AJ, and I’ll have a review of TERM LIFE up to follow this in our normal Wednesday review column. Thanks for reading. Cheers…

Humphrey Lee has been an avid comic book reader going on fifteen years now and a contributor to Ain't It Cool comics for quite a few as well. In fact, reading comics is about all he does in his free time and where all the money from his day job wages goes to - funding his comic book habit so he can talk about them to you, our loyal readers (lucky you). He's a bit of a social networking whore, so you can find him all over the Interwebs on sites like Twitter, The MySpaces, Facebookand a Blogger Account where he also mostly talks about comics with his free time because he hasn't the slightest semblance of a life. Sad but true, and he gladly encourages you to add, read, and comment as you will.

Editing, compiling, imaging, coding, logos & cat-wrangling by Ambush Bug Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G


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