FREE COMIC BOOK DAY brought a bold new title to the attention of the Bettie Page Blog. Gavin Hignight, a talented Los Angeles-based writer offered a taste of his debut 192 page graphic novel, MOTOR CITY. The story focuses on a gang of 50's toughs in an even tougher spot -- their city has been overrun with the supernatural undead!
Gavin was kind enough to share the secret origins of this rockin' project.
Although you've done journalism about fan communities and worked in the related field of animation, this is your first comic. What brought you to the medium?
I think I am lucky to be part of the generation of creators who get to be both fans and creators. It seemed for a long time, a fanboy couldn’t cross over. The people in the industry were dependent on fanboys (and their dollars) for the success of their projects but also separated themselves from the fan culture and the reality that they themselves were once that small kid sitting in a movie theater or in front of TV, dreaming. The fact that I am both a fan and a creator has been why I have been able to writer in different aspects of entertainment but still keep my finger on the pulse.
As for my journey into comics… I didn’t move out to Hollywood to become a comic creator by any means. Did I read comics? Yes. Was I fan of comics? Yes, but I didn’t push hard to get my ideas into that format. I experimented on a project with a friend right out of high school but it never went anywhere. Here in Hollywood, I spent many hours of my life writing and making short films that never went anywhere. I never had the resources to compete in that visual medium. But my writing was level with the competition. The nice thing about writing is that you don’t have to have money to do it. You have to craft your vision and you have to spend time on it, but it’s not like a film where you are depending on other people or a budget. So I focused on writing and that led me to work on the 2003 Fox Kids animated series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While working on that show I thought about Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, and what their humble beginning was like and where they came from and I was very inspired. A black and white indie comic that was an example of their unique vision. Almost instantly I knew what was next for me. MOTOR CITY was a comic concept from the beginning. I can’t explain how it came to me, like many things I just get a small strand of a character, scene or concept in my mind and, with time, more and more pieces or strands pop up and get put together. So yeah, MOTOR CITY was always meant to be a comic, and it was always meant to be somewhere between an American superhero or horror comic and a Japanese manga. Motor City has always been a mash up of some of my favorite things, in content like hotrods, monsters and greaser culture, but also in a structure, like the style of the art, or the flow of the story.
It was a flex of my creative muscles for sure. I had to teach myself a comic panel script format. There is no standard for this, like a screenplay, etc. I just looked at some samples of the masters like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis and adapted my own panel script style from there. And I have to say, writing comics has made me a much better writer when it comes to TV or Film. In a comic you have little space to convey what you need to with words, so you are often forced to get to the point with the dialog. Something my films lacked. I’m going back to my screenplays now and cutting the hell out of them. After writing a full graphic novel I realized I can say the same thing with one sentence that I did with a paragraph, and the one sentence is often more effective and real feeling.
How did you come to decide on a graphic novel/Original English Language Manga instead of a monthly?
MOTOR CITY was originally written and planned as a monthly. The original story arc was 12 chapters long (12 months, 12 issues a year, etc…) but we realized very quickly that, as independent publishers, we were throwing our money away with single “floppy” issues. Financially, it just made more sense to skip the single issues and go straight to the collection or graphic novel. It was more cost efficient for printing, which has a direct effect on the price of the final product. Would a consumer want to spend 3 bucks on 16 or 25 page book or twelve bucks on 192 page book which is a complete story arc and something they can add to their library?
The size of the book was influenced by manga for sure. As mentioned, we always wanted a book that was post-manga. Not an American attempt at Manga, or an American book with anime inspired art, but a hybrid.
How did you come to collaborate with the book's artist, Jettila Lewis?
Jetti-monster! A friend of mine is an art teacher at a high school, here in the LA area, and one day he mentioned to me that he had a student who was so damned talented, he wasn’t sure what he was gonna be able to teach her, and that she had a strong interest in manga and anime. I said, “Introduce me!”
As Jetti worked her way through high school, she drew a couple sample projects for me, and some art for a website I was working on, and we just kept in touch about stuff. We were like-minded about music and culture, etc… About the time I got the idea for MOTOR CITY and started writing the scripts, she was just out of high school and ready to commit to a more long term project. I showed her what I had and she was on board with the concept, so we teamed up.
What were the challenges to getting it published and how can people get a copy?
MOTOR CITY has always been my baby. I’ve always had a very distinct idea of how it should look, what the vibe should be, and how it should play out. I wanted complete control of it, so the only way to retain that control was to put the book out myself. I don’t have problems being a writer for hire. I actually enjoy working on other people’s projects, and I’ve learned tons from the people who told me how to write their way. But I needed to express myself and create a world and property that was mine. Another issue is rights. I wanted to retain ownership of Lexi and the 133rd. In case MOTOR CITY ever makes the leap to another medium, I wanted to make sure my voice was included with it.
It has been an insane challenge to put the book out but it’s been well worth it. I created Rebel Sidekick Studios to do so. And I’m glad to say MOTOR CITY is just the first book we will be putting out. If you would have told me even a few years ago, that I’d be moving into publishing I wouldn’t of believed it. We have two more MOTOR CITY books planned, a follow up and a side story -- and we’re looking at projects that are completely different from MOTOR CITY. Eventually we’re even looking at putting books out from other writers. But it is a challenge for me. I am in my element when I am creating, that is what makes me happy. I want to worry about robots and ninjas, does the story work, is the monster cool, would this character do this or that? Now I am also worrying about all the business aspects, marketing, distribution, payment, shipping, storage, etc… I don’t mind it, and I’m surprised to find I’m good at it, but I’d rather be writing about monsters…
The best way for your readers to get MOTOR CITY? Easy. They can find the book on Amazon.com, or they can buy it from the store on our official website. If they want to buy the book in a more old school manner they can check a their local area comic store our Distributor Haven Distribution is working hard to get it into comic stores and indie book stores.
Judging from your picture, it appears you're a greaser in real life. Could you explain what aspects of Retro/Kustom Kulture appeal to you?
This stuff is just in my blood. It just is. I’ve always identified with counter-culture. Whether it be the greasers of the 50s and 60s, the long hairs of the late 60s and 70s, the punks and wavers of the 70s 80s, everybody who was socially just on the outside, those are my people, and those are the people who’s stories I am interested in. I grew up in Denver and there is a strong rockabilly scene, that had some influence. And I was exposed to bands like Social Distortion, and singers like Tom Waits, and books by people like William S. Burroughs in my formative years. All of it left an imprint and set me on a course to find more.
I have lots of music, for the rockabilly genre lately I’ve been really into Blazing Hailey and Mr. Badwrench, but I should say that you could just as easily find me listening to Skinny Puppy or Death Cab for Cutie. Oh — speaking of music, how freaking awesome is Hazel Atkins…
As for tattoos, I do have some and of course I need even more! I have tattoos on my chest that were based off of Bruce Davidson's “Life with a Brooklyn Gang”, which I recommend to everyone to find -- great photos of a 1950s Brooklyn gang. I also have a pinup tattoo of Death, the comic from Neil Gaiman. And Jetti is drawing up a pinup for me from MOTOR CITY, which will soon be on the arm.
Why do you think the 50's hold such a fascination for you, and could you speculate as to why it is still seen as so vibrant and important to the rest of us in the retro community?
I’m not sure why the past has such a strong hold on me. Maybe I had good times then in a former life… I don’t really know. Maybe if I lived back then, I’d be fascinated with the 1920s… who knows… I am really interested in the late 50s leading into the 60s. That is actually when Motor City is set. So much turmoil, and change. Early 50s seems like a stereotype sometimes, but the late 50s and early 60s have so much conflicted energy and strangeness that interested me.
What influences found their way into the book? Certainly, I felt a little of THE WILD ONES and BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. Any truth to that, and any stuff I'm missing?
MOTOR CITY was influenced by movies like The Outsiders, and Rumblefish. There is a panel in MOTOR CITY that is taken right out of The Outsiders, a little tribute if you will. It was also important to me to write a comic that was scary-fun. Like the kind of stuff I dug as a teenager. I wrote it for the 14 year old in all of us. Shows or movies like Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, Twilight Zone, that kind of scary. Not the torture-genre that people watch now in horror, I wanted a book that was more fun than that, The Monster Squad, Lost Boys, The Warriors, all of this informed MOTOR CITY.
The genre mash-up has been popular in comics (certainly when Marvel zombifies their entire universe...), but your work felt very unique, as it took this notion of a 50's style greaser street gang very seriously. The respect for the characters and the reverence for the 50's tone (not just the clothes, but in how the characters behaved felt like a period melodrama, like BLACKBOARD) grounded the story, making the monster stuff feel fresh. The "pretty boy" characters and mystical switchblade also seemed like a nod to manga, which isn't so far afield, since certainly both rockabilly and horror are very popular in Japan (and both are among those strange American exports that we keep re-importing from them!). How did you decide to veer away from the nod/wink serio-comic tone that is typical for these retro/horror mash-ups (Max Allan Collins' Johnny Dynamite comes to mind as an example)?
Thanks for taking notice that I took it seriously! That is so important to me it’s important to any film, comic, or story, and something I think that is forgotten way too often by people who are creating. I think things can be fun, and scary, and out of this world, but you have to respect the story, and the characters, and you have to have continuity in the world you create. I took the world of MOTOR CITY very seriously. Of course Lexi, the lead character, has different problems than you or me, fighting ghouls and monsters, but we need to be able to relate to him, he needs to be grounded on some level even if what he’s dealing with isn’t. And this stuff is my life (retro lifestyle, classic monster culture, etc.). I take it seriously, so I hope that is reflected in the book.
As for the Japanese and American rockabilly culture and this book? First of all, I have to say I love Japanese rockabilly culture. I love that they are carrying the culture on. Heck, I’ve met gearheads from Australia and Germany and England that are cool as hell, too! I love that it keeps going and has different faces all over the world. I hope to get MOTOR CITY in front of the Japanese rockabilly scene, as you can assume they are already accustomed to reading graphic novels or manga, and they will probably flip. But… alas… one continent at a time. The US today! Tomorrow the world!!
Comic fandom is a pretty insular world. What do you feel your book has to offer someone who has not picked up a piece of graphic fiction in a long damn time, if ever... especially if that person is down with the retro/kustom lifestyle?
When we started out with MOTOR CITY there was never a comic book hero that was a poor greaser. I like that we filled that gap. For people who are into rockabilly or classic monster culture, I feel like we’ve given them the book they’ve never seen or had the chance to enjoy. I am all about breaking stereotypes, I love creating something that makes people do a double-take or catches them off guard. I am surprised how many non-comic book kind of people have picked up this book and come back telling me how much they liked it and were surprised they liked it. But that is my job as a creator right? People get spoiled and or jaded by the super hero genre, these super human people in a normal world doing crazy things, MOTOR CITY is a book about normal characters doing their best in a world that is extraordinary. I like that. I like that the normal guys can be heroes too.
Certainly there's some pin-up girl iconography in the book. Was Bettie Page an inspiration in any way, shape or form?
I love Bettie Page! How could you not, right? There are the people who love Marilynn Monroe, and there are people who love Bettie Page. I’m one of the guys who likes that dark haired raven, always have been. I love her old clown dancing films, and the pin-ups and the photos -- she’s always done it for me.
We wanted to do something different for the chapter breaks in the book, and Jetti draws the hottest manga-influenced pin-ups, so we decided to include her pin-ups in the book that way. Not only influenced by Bettie Page, but also artists like Vargas. The pin-ups are also the female characters from the comic itself, one of the sexy vampire girls from volume one, and we also included Sam, who will be a major character in volume two, -- she gives Lexi all kinds of trouble. When designing Sam’s character, we looked at a combination of Bettie Page and Lana Lane from Smallville. Sam has become kind of the icon for MOTOR CITY and with good reason -- who doesn’t want to look at a sexy pin-up? Girls, guys, everybody can appreciate them!
Thanks for giving the Bettie Page Blog a sneak peek into the world of the 133rd!
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us about the comic! We’ll be doing more and more events with Motor City, so everyone feel free to check out our website and add us to your friends on Myspace to stay in touch.