Comic-Con 2014: Jai Nitz & Greg Smallwood on ‘Dream Thief,’ ‘Moon Knight’ & More
Dream Thief, the supernatural crime thriller from writer Jai Nitz and artist Greg Smallwood, was one of my favorite books of last year, because it was a such a slick work of noir fiction that kept you guessing. It’s about a jerk named John Lincoln who finds himself in possession of an aboriginal mask with the mystical ability to channel the ghosts of the wrongly killed, who possess his body to enact his revenge, and so he keeps waking up in the middle of various crazy murder scenes and has to piece together what happened. It’s like Quantum Leap, but for murder.
The first five issues of the series are available in trade paperback form, and the next four-issue miniseries has just started, so you can get on board very easily. At San Diego Comic-Con, I sat down with Nitz and Smallwood, to talk about how they pulled off this super-cool series and learned the advantages of starting a book wherein the main character is a pretty huge douche (at first). Check it out, learn some things about Smallwood’s upcoming stint with Marvel’s Moon Knight alongside Brian Wood, and then check out Dream Thief.
Related: Dream Thief #4: Crikey, This Is Cool
Crave Online: Dream Thief has returned and I’m glad, although it’s only a four-issue series this time. Are there plans to make it ongoing or will it continue to be these short series?
Jai Nitz: We have a macro plan for the book. We have a defined arc. we have actually sat down and said ‘this happens, this happens, this happens, and then it ends.’ We have a little bit of wiggle room in a couple places, we discussed, because he wanted one thing to go one way, and I really had my heart set on this. He goes ‘oh, then we’ll have to change – no, we won’t have to change anything, we can still do that.’ Quick caveat, we are sitting in the same room for this. We live less than a mile from each other in Lawrence, Kansas. We’re truly collaborative. He’s allergic to the cats, so there’s a limited amount of time that we can sit on couch, so then we’ll sit on his couch or go to a bar.
Greg Smallwood: He’s literally come over and just laid out a whole issue together, he’s added the dialogue, and I want to add this scene here, then he’ll come up with dialogue for that. It’s very improvisational sometimes.
Nitz: There will be a part where here’s this line, and I don’t know if we need to say this now because you have it right there in the art, and there will be another line where I’ll be [affecting a voice that’s a cross between a Johnny Carson impression and Conan O’Brien’s nerd voice] ‘ahem, you forgot my magical word balloon right there that’s proving my genius!’ And he’ll be ‘oh, I didn’t think you wanted to put that in.” And I’m ‘put it in, please!’ It is truly collaborative in that way, where we have mapped this whole thing out. All of that said, the bottom line is still the bottom line. If the book isn’t making any money for Dark Horse, it will be limited in its appeal to continue to be published. No one is in business to lose money. Yes, this is art and we love art, but it is still show business, not show art. As long as the book remains profitable, it will keep coming out. When the book is not profitable, we can take a hiatus and come back. Right now, we’re both raising our profiles as best as possible. Greg is going over to Marvel to do Moon Knight, and I’ve got projects in the pipeline at Marvel and other places to where we can hopefully raise our profile so that if we come back in do more Dream Thief, it will be from ‘celebrated creators’ rather than when we started – literally, Greg’s first comic, no one knew who he was, and me not having a signature book. Dream Thief became our signature, so now we want to bring attention to it when we can.
Is there any thought about tying him into the Dark Horse superhero universe as another way to raise the profile?
Nitz: I would never be opposed to that. I am not the kind of person who’s like ‘well, if there are superheroes in his continuity then it doesn’t make sense at all!’ Who gives a shit?
Smallwood: Well, he doesn’t have to be John Lincoln Dream Thief. He could always be someone else. We are free to do anything with the idea that we have, but that’s never been talked about.
Nitz: I love the Dark Horse hero books, I love the people who work on them. Fred Van Lente’s a good friend, Freddie Williams is a very good friend from Kansas City, so he’s a guy we get to see a lot. Frank Barbieri’s a good friend. I love what they do, I admire what they do, but our book is completely 180 degrees from those books. Those are superheroic books and in ours, we have exteded scenes of guys talking in a kitchen. I hate that as a comic reader. I hate it when guys are talking in a kitchen for five pages, except everybody tells us ‘that was riveting.’ That’s the whole point.
If it’s a good conversation in the kitchen, you want to read it.
Nitz: Right, exactly, that’s the thing we aim for. We know what we’re doing as far as how we want to tell the story. So we’ll have a scene set in a prison, it will be there and have a very stark purpose. It’s not Oz. There’s not going to be a knife fight in the middle of the yard. That doesn’t happen. We know what we’re trying to do and we hope we’re doing it well enough that people pay attention. The reason I bring all that up is that I don’t want to read a superhero comic like that. I don’t want to read Captain Midnight like that. I want to watch the Captain Midnight guys do it very well the way they do it. I don’t want to try and mash two things together that don’t work. But if you said ‘hey, we’re going to cross it over with another title that does make sense’ – like if they did Ghost/Dream Thief? Hey, one’s a ghost, one’s possessed by ghosts. that does make sense, why don’t we try that? If that was something that came up organically between us and Dark Horse together – it doesn’t hurt that my editor does edit that book – then sure.
Smallwood: Dream Thief is malleable. You could throw him in an action story and he’ll be fine, but our stories do tend to focus more on character and relationships…
Nitz: And murder and betrayal. The stuff that’s important.
Smallwood: But it doesn’t have to be that.
Nitz: The other thing is that we are just like every creator in the industry. We don’t pigeonhole ourselves at all. We think we can tell a great romance story if someone tried it. I’d think we were doing a very good job. If someone said ‘hey, try comedy,’ I’d think we were doing a very good job. We’re going to try hard no matter what it is. So if it was something we knew we were trying to reach a broader audience with, that’s fine. We know we’re pretty deep in the weeds as to who our story caters to – it caters to US! It caters to two people! So anybody else who enjoys it, good for them. But raising the profile of the book that way, I’d be completely okay with that.
You mentioned earlier that this was Greg’s first comics work ever. How the hell did you get so slick and accomplished right out of the gate? The book just looks so damn good.
Smallwood: Well, thank you. I think a lot of people break in early and readers see them grow as an artist. I did not break in early, so I grew behind the scenes. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I was pretty lazy and didn’t want to finish anything.
I know that feeling so well.
Smallwood: I got better, but I didn’t have that discipline that could actually get me to the end of a comic. But I think it was just growing as an artist away from any kind of spotlight gave people the illusion that I was somehow –
Nitz: We’re both terrified perfectionists.
Smallwood: Yeah, I’m definitely a perfectionist. We’re fueled by that. Fear is our biggest fuel.
Nitz: I wish everybody could see that in us. We are the most insecure – like “they’re gonna hate it!”
Smallwood: We’ll go back and tweak a panel five times – a panel that someone is going to look at for three seconds and move on, but we just cannot let it go sometimes. They really have to pry the book out of our hands.
Nitz: They really do. The terrified perfectionist thing is also why he grew so much behind the scenes. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years. I’ve worked with a lot of artists where I gave them their first job working in comics, when we were doing something creator-owned, and that’s a very, very long, distinguished list of people. A lot of them have gone on and done better things, because one thing I can usually recognize in a new artist trying to break in is that they’re going to do it on their own whether I’m there or not, but me being there is the catalyst that pushes them to get it done. I say this without hyperbole, that Greg is the best artist I have ever worked with out of the gate, and is my favorite collaborator of all time. It’s not just that we’re good friends, but in him, I can see that he cares so much that it’s infectious to me. We actually had a conversation not that long ago about a dialogue bit in issue #4 where he was like “come on!” And I was ‘no, it’s done. I have to move on to the next thing. I can’t just monkey with that again.’ And he went “… yeah.” It’s getting him to see “no, we’re up 35 to nothing! We don’t need to score another touchdown. We just need to run the clock out now! The fans are going home. We won!’ Or ‘it’s zero to 35, putting a touchdown on the board doesn’t matter. Let’s just not get injured and move on!’
So if you were lazy before, how hard has it been to develop that discipline necessary to get things done?
Smallwood: It’s something I still struggle with. I like surfing the internet just as much as the next guy. A lot of it is that you’ll hit a block while you’re drawing, and when I do that, and that perfectionism takes over and I’m frustrated with my work, I tend to find something to procrastinate with. I’ll want to step away and I’ll be too frustrated to go back to it. Maybe laziness is the wrong word. Maybe it is my perfectionism that always blocked me from moving forward. That’s really what I’m fighting with, that desire to just keep on it and not let it go. Now, I’ve learned to do a page and move on, and I think that’s really what helped me. Just letting it go and saying ‘it’s not the best it can be, but that’s okay.’
Nitz: I know exactly what he’s talking about. He’s never lazy. I’m not lazy. But when you come to a block in a story and you don’t know what happens next – you’re the person who HAS to know what happens next. If you’re watching an episode of Game of Thrones and you don’t know what happens next, that’s good! They’re taking you somewhere with the story. But this is something where we’re the ones doing the taking, so if we don’t know what happens next, it’s very frustrating. I don’t consider it ‘writer’s block.’ I just consider it a creative story decision that you haven’t convinced yourself of, because man, when you’re convinced of something, you go. When he’s convinced that the panel is right, he draws it. He doesn’t go ‘today, I’m not going to draw.’ When you’ve got it right, you do it. It’s when you’re questioning yourself that you go ‘uhhhh, I’m going to go watch Star Trek IV.’ I called him one day,and we’d just talked about how we were behind, and I said ‘what are you doing?’ and he said ‘ohh… I’m watching Star Trek IV.’ What? Of all the movies you’d pick… and he’s like ‘well, we’re watching them in order.’ (laughter) You’ve already gone through three of them?!
Smallwood: It’s just easier than really pulling yourself to figure out that problem that you’re struggling with.
Sometimes if you focus too hard on something, you get into a recursive loop.
Smallwood: Yeah, but you do have to learn to go back to it. That’s the big thing. Yeah, watch Star Trek, but then go back to it and get it done. Don’t be paralyzed by this fear.
Nitz: Jason Aaron, who also lives in Kansas City and is a friend of ours, said that it took him a really long time to convince his wife that when he was just staring at a wall, he was working. That’s the thing. I have to convince everybody else and even kinda myself, that when I sit down and say ‘you know what I’m going to do right now?’ – and obviously, if you’ve seen the new Dream Thief, you’ll know why – ‘I’m going to watch the Michael Mann Miami Vice. I never saw it, I heard it was a turd, so I never watched it.’ It’s pretty good! So while I was watching it, I had to tell everybody in my life I was working. I’m not watching this movie because I want to watch a movie the way you want to watch a movie. I’m taking notes. I’m breaking stuff down and looking to this guy I admire and seeing what he did where and why. Then my girlfriend’s like ‘so now what?’ Well, I want to watch the special features because I want to know more about that.’ That is part of our job, distracting yourself from your own problem and then some of the Rubik’s Cube pieces start twisting into place.
Smallwood: You soak everything up that you can and then you just don’t think about it, and then your mind sort of solves the problem for you. You don’t have to sit there and consciously think about the problem.
Now, with John Lincoln, I was impressed right away that the story was really intriguing, but at the same time, your main character is such a huge douche right away.
Nitz: Super-conscious decision.
How much of a risk did that feel like with your first issue of your new book?
Smallwood: I didn’t think it was that much of a risk. I didn’t realize that people were going to be so repulsed by the character.
Nitz: Here’s the worst part. A lot of things in the book were just things that ‘I was thinking that when you talked, but I have the couth to hold that in,’ but that’s what my mental response was. And other stuff he does were friends of mine that I’m like ‘that was what THAT guy would have said.’ One thing we talked about in the original pitch stuff was that we all have a friend like John Lincoln. He’s a little too entitled. He gets laid all the time and he’s a guy that we all hate for it, because we are good guys and we see this asshole friend of ours who gets every pretty girl, who skates through life in a way that we are struggling with, and we just hate this guy. But we all know him. We all know that guy. So I’d love to see the world from that guy’s perspective. I’d love to write what it’s like for a guy who’s like ‘he wouldn’t even give me ten bucks!’ He shouldn’t give you ten dollars! You’re going to waste it!’ If everybody did the right thing all the time, it would be a boring story. I like talking about characters who don’t do exactly what I would do, because, of course, what I would do is always the right thing.
Nitz: So we talked a lot about the kind of guy he was, because I wanted to try something a little different, but Greg summed it up very well when he said ‘it’s not as satisfying if he’s a guy that we root for to begin with and he’s always right and he wins in the end. It’s only satisfying if he changes – if he changes from a douche to a guy that we find ourselves rooting for.’ And I’m like ‘well, that’s an extraordinarily astute story note, Greg, so I’ll say that that was my idea for us to do it.’ My motivation was I wanted to see the world from that guy’s eyes. I wanted to see the world through a guy that I think has it easy, because I resent him so deeply. Greg’s like ‘that’s a more satisfying story, Jai.’ So I’m like ‘oh, well, you’re thinking about story and I’m thinking about how much I hate another human being.’ That’s kind of our relationship.
So you’ve got it all planned out to the end. Do you know how long it’s going to be, or do you have room to expand the story?
Nitz: There’s wiggle room.
Smallwood: We can add more to it, but I don’t know if we could take anything away from it.
Nitz: We can’t take anything away from it. I originally said I wanted to do 60 issues, because to me, when we came up in comics as fans, the great runs were 60 issues. Transmetropolitan is 60 issues, Y The Last Man is 60 issues, Preacher was 66 issues, and Chew is going to be 60 issues, and Scalped was 60 issues. These greater, more adult things like what we’re doing ran 60 issues, so that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to emulate them. Then John Layman, who’s a very good friend of mine, the editor who gave me my very first job who does Chew, said ‘don’t do 60 issues.’ He’s like ‘if I knew then what I know now, I would not do 60 issues.’ He explained the economics of it, and also the creative economics of it – what you put in versus the return you get. Then Matt Kindt, who does Mind MGMT here at Dark Horse and is also a good friend of ours, said ‘oh, no, no, don’t do that. You’ll burn out on it so hard, and then you find yourself doing stories you didn’t really want to do because you’ve said 60 issues and put a flag on it. Tell the story and then get out.’ Now, after we’ve remapped it, I’d say it’s about 36. That’s still three years of monthly comics – and the way we do it, that’s like twelve years. It will still be a hefty tome at the end when all is said and done. If it’s less than that, if it’s more than that, eh. If we have to take a break for a while, if we have to come back to it, okay. He can’t draw Moon Knight and Dream Thief.
I have to ask about Moon Knight. I was a little worried that Warren Ellis was leaving, but if you’re coming on, I’m still there. You’re working with Brian Wood, and I’m a massive Massive fan. How’s that collaboration going?
Nitz: Two Dark Horse guys jumping on the book.
Smallwood: Jordie Bellaire is still staying on to color. I got to see some of her coloring already. It’s absolutely beautiful. I’m really thrilled with what she’s doing. I feel like we make a good team. We’re definitely not ignoring what Warren and Declan Shalvey did before. We’re just building on top of that and telling the stories in our style, but it’s still got that one-and-done storytelling style. I’ve only done the first issue, but I feel good about it.
With the amount of white space you work with in Dream Thief, it seems like exactly the right fit with Moon Knight.
Smallwood: Yeah, yeah. When Nick Lowe contacted me about it, I didn’t know exactly what he had in mind when he said he had work for me at Marvel, but when he told me Moon Knight, I was absolutely thrilled. I don’t think he could have picked a better book for me.
Nitz: I think if he’d have said ‘it’s the Inhumans,’ he’d have gone ‘eeehhh…’
Smallwood: I would have taken the work, getting to work with Nick and Brian. If it was the same creative team, same editor, I would have done it, but getting to work on Moon Knight was pretty thrilling. What Declan and Jordie started allows for a lot of visual storytelling tricks that you can use with Moon Knight and that negative space that he’s got. I’m very excited by the possibilities.
Are there any troubles meeting the Marvel deadlines at all, given the discipline issues?
Smallwood: (laughs) Yeah, I’ll definitely need to work a little bit harder at meeting that monthly deadline.
Nitz: But he’s got a colorist now, so he’s not doing the pencils AND the colors and the letters.
Smallwood: We’re definitely not in sweating mode here, but yeah. I’m definitely feeling good about my prospects of eventually getting into that monthly grind. I don’t think it’ll be a problem at all.
Nitz: For all the work he has to do with Dream Thief, the line art, the pencil and ink, the colors and the letters – it’s like having to babysit three kids and a dog. Now he only has to babysit two kids, so it should be easier for him since these things are taken away, but I know him, and he’s just going to say ‘now I REALLY have to worry about the line art.’
Smallwood: I certainly felt a lot of pressure taking over. That book is just so critically acclaimed, people just absolutely love it. I didn’t want to drop the ball. I’ve always that you really need to wow people with that first issue. Every first issue that I do, I put as much effort into it as I can. I really try to make it sing, so that way I get them hooked and then they’re with me for the long haul.
Nitz: And then he can really get lazy.
Smallwood: Then I can slack off on all of the other issues, yeah! (laughs)
So what do you have coming down the pipeline to raise your profile like that, Jai?
Nitz: Right now, I can’t talk about any of them. So I’m not raising my profile at all! (laughs) The main stuff I’ve got going on right now is almost all Dark Horse stuff. Dream Thief is still coming out, Toshiro, my last original graphic novel, came out last June. I’m still very much pimping that because it’s an OGN, it’s evergreen, it’s not going anywhere. That’s the stuff I’m taking around – I’m doing, like, six conventions in the next nine weeks or something like that, and those are the things I’m taking with you. The business of comics is ‘what’s next, what’s next, what’s next,’ and for me, I’m like ‘this is it. I can give it to you NOW. Take it.’ I really still want to stump on the quality of stuff I’m doing at Dark Horse. I’m behind those books 100 percent, so that when my next thing comes out, I’m like ‘okay, remember how much I cared about that last book? I care about this book EVEN MORE!’ Rather that than contribute to the cycle of ‘next, next, next!’