Ray C. Tate recently got the chance to sit down and chat with the creative team behind Ape Entertainment’s hit title, The Black Coat. In this installment of our 2 Part interview series, Ray sits down with writer/co-creator, Ben Lichius.
For Ray’s interview with artist, Dean Kotz, click here.
Ray C. Tate: I’m speaking with the co-creator of Black Coat, an independently run comic book from Ape Entertainment. Welcome, Ben Lichius.
Ben Lichius: Thanks, Ray.
RT: Okay. So, I take it you’re the man responsible for the overall design of Black Coat.
BL: Guilty. I got the character stuck in my head about 10 years ago and finally got the ball rolling to get him onto a page back in 2004-2005. A 4-issue mini and a couple of one-shots later — and here we are.
RT: The Black Coat is a very resonant character, operating during an unusual time. Was he always going to be fighting the Red Coats in Colonial America, or were there different permutations before you actually decided to publish him?
BL: Part of the original idea — the spark for the idea really — was the concept of a masked colonist swashbuckling with Red Coats. So yeah, the “Spy vs. the British” theme has always been present. It wasn’t until later, that (writer and friend) Adam Cogan and I decided it would work well to introduce some more supernatural elements as well.
RT: And what did Francesco Francavilla bring to the table? Anything else besides the jaw-dropping artwork?
BL: You’d be amazed how far that goes! He really is an amazing artist. He did a lot to help establish the mood and presence of the characters and places. That’s every artist’s job, but Francesco’s got a great eye for detail as well which really sells the story you’re trying to tell.
One challenge that comes with doing period comics is that you have to make the world seem believable to the reader or it all just falls apart. I think Francesco went above and beyond for Black Coat.
RT: I agree with that. Every once in awhile you find an artist, and you’re like, where the hell has he been hiding?
BL: In this case it was Italy.
RT: I picked up a copy of his sketchbook. Absolutely stunning illustrations.
BL: My favorites are the Black Coat drawings, naturally.
RT: The Black Coat’s partner, his Kato if you will is, Ursula Morgan. She has a rich history. How did she evolve as a character?
BL: I have to give more credit to Adam Cogan here again. He really helped me develop her as a character. We started out thinking we needed a love interest. But I also knew I needed an assistant. We started playing around with the idea of merging the two and got Ursula. She’s a lot of fun to write for, because she’s basically just as capable as the Black Coat, but has the added responsibility of keeping an entire network of spies in check. She’s kind of the grown up and Black Coat’s more the kid with the cool toys.
RT: She’s a fascinating character. The reason I compare her to Kato is that I’ll read something that she does and think, wow, the comic book could almost be about her. Then you’ll have Black Coat do something even cooler, and I’ll think — no, he’s the star.
BL: That’s good. I think a book can live and die on the strength or weakness of its supporting cast. I’m pretty happy with the cast we’ve assembled around Black Coat. He can be missing for half the book and there’s still something interesting going on (in my opinion).
RT: Such as when it seemed that he was ready to enter Davy Jones’ Locker?
BL: Right. I think he was out for like the first 14 pages of issue 1. Not normally how you start a new series I guess — having your title character out of commission. The supporting cast pull it off though. I was happy with how that played out.
RT: I have to say, and this is going to sound like faint praise, but I think your treatment of the character’s death and the missing time was much stronger than what DC is doing in the Batman titles.
BL: Thanks. I know I’m going to disappoint people when I say this, but I really haven’t been keeping up with Batman these days. I kind of go in and out of his books. Right now I’m in the dark I guess. For Black Coat we just wanted there to be consequences for his actions in the previous series. Pulp style characters get off the hook too easy in my opinion.
RT: I’ve seen enough of what DC is doing to know I won’t like it, and I’ve read Batman since I was about twelve. I broke with No Man’s Land. What you did in Black Coat was different though. Smarter. You introduced him as almost matchless. Then you brought in the supernatural “The League.” It was almost as if the forces of evil cheated to take him down.
BL: That’s precisely the reason. To have him be this sort of super-spy swashbuckler meant that no Red Coat was ever going to be a match for him. He needed a bigger threat. Something unstoppable. That’s what “The League” is. And, yeah, they’re evil. And, yeah, evil cheats to win. So I guess it just made sense for things to go that way.
RT: What about his death and resurrection?
BL: Did we plan to kill him from the start?
RT: Yeah, because it looks like the story just carries him away if you get my drift.
BL: Yeah. I did. In the first draft actually he was dead by the end of issue 2 in the first series. We decided to give people more time to get to know him though, but it was always my intention to have him go through that. I mentioned consequences earlier. Death’s about as consequential as it gets. I’ve been trying to have him be a character that learns as he goes. He makes mistakes and learns from them.
Sometimes they are just BIG mistakes.
RT: Something else that you did was also look at the consequences of how he might get back. It was a good plant. So you’re not just focusing on the grim possibilities but also the fantastic.
BL: Yeah, and I think that’s part of the draw to this stuff for Black Coat’s character. Ben Franklin shows up in issue 3 of the new series and the two of them get to talk about it as well. For me, I think it’s just that fake science is fun to write sometimes.
RT: How much research do you do for each story?
BL: A fair amount. I try to get the places and the timeline of real world events as accurate as I can. When I start bending the facts, I try to
keep things as plausible as possible and that takes some research time.
RT: So, the historical characters like Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge are accurate representations despite being in the alternate history of Black Coat?
BL: Yes in that they knew each other, supported the war efforts, and were part of early espionage campaigns. For the rest of it I took some liberties on the details. When it comes to real life characters, I usually just try to set-up a “why not” scenario and go with it.
RT: Were you a history buff before Black Coat?
BL: I’ve always liked history. I didn’t major in it in college or anything. I guess Black Coat gives me a chance to get my fix of it and be creative at the same time. I’m a History Channel kind of guy.
RT: What’s your experience in writing, besides Black Coat I mean?
BL: Eh… not much. I’ve actually spent more time on the art side of things. Not comics specifically, but in general. I started writing Black Coat because I realized it was never going to happen if I waited for someone else to do it. I guess I started writing out of necessity more than anything else.
RT: I think Black Coat would work just as well in plain prose books, but you chose comics. Why may I ask?
BL: I suppose it’s because I read a lot more comics than regular books. Coming from the art side of things, the visual aspect of making a comic is a real motivating and gratifying part of the process for me. I love seeing the characters come to life and act out the scenes that I have in my head. And at the end of the day I think I could describe how cool Black Coat is till I’m blue in the face, but I’d rather just show people.
BL: Two reasons, I guess. Francesco worked very well in Black and White, but Dean’s work is so kinetic and exciting, I felt like it really begged for the color to really come to life and convey the full sense of what he was drawing. The other reason was that we had a lot of people asking about color and I thought this was a good time to make a switch. I wouldn’t rule out doing more Black and White down the road. But we wanted to see how we did with color this time out, and I guess there’s a third that’s story related, but I’ll make people read the books and figure that out for themselves.
RT: What’s it like working with Dean Kotz, the new Black Coat artist?
BL: Dean’s been fantastic to work with. Very talented. Very professional. He’s done a ton of research for this book and it really shows. His action scenes are amazing and he’s so humble to work with too. Sometimes I’ll ask for a revision on one panel and I’ll get back and entire page completely redrawn. He really wants to get the story right and that’s a great attribute for an artist to have — especially if you happen to be the writer.
RT: Who is an artist himself…
BL: Yeah. I’m glad I’m getting to work with him on this series. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to afford him a year from now.
RT: What an awful thought.
BL: Dean deserves it though. He’s a real talent.
RT: Your artwork meshes so well together. I notice that there doesn’t seem to be a conflict between Dean’s inking style and the color.
BL: That’s another thing I’m kind of doing out of necessity. I’ve never been much of a colorist, but I thought I could take a stab at it here. Dean’s work makes it easy. He puts a lot of detail into every panel.
RT: Frankly, I think your colors are great. I notice that you actually use them for something other than making the book pretty. The scene with the gargoyle for instance.
BL: Right. Usually I try to write for the format. In the case of the Gargoyle character though, it was a bit tricky to fully convey his ability to turn his body to stone in black and white. Adding color helped make things a lot clearer for the reader.
RT: So you’re using color as another storytelling tool?
BL: Sure. As best I can. I try to use whatever’s available to convey what’s going on as quickly as possible. Keeping the reader engaged and not asking needless questions like “wait. what just happened?” is important.
RT: You’ll get no arguments from me. So, when does the next issue of Black Coat come out?
BL: The #1-2 double issue comes out in October. #3 will be out in November and #4 in December.
RT: Back on schedule. What’s the future of Black Coat after the mini-series is complete?
BL: I have a few ideas but nothing concrete right now. The writer’s wife wants him to take a break for a little while so we’ll see how that goes.
RT: Hah-Hah-Hah. If somebody can’t find Black Coat in their local comic book store, where can they order the book?
BL: There are a lot of places online to order the books. If you’re willing to wait a few months, they’ll be available through Ape Entertainment.com.
For online right now, Midtown Comics are great. They’re a good bunch o’ guys.
RT: Let me also recommend the Phantom of the Attic in Oakland, Pittsburgh PA. Anything you would like to add?
BL: Hmm. We’re really trying to reach out to retailers with the relaunch of this book so we’ve added a section to the website (www.the-black-coat.com) just for them. If any retailers would like to read the books before they order, they can write to me for the password and they can check out the books in their entirety.
RT: Well, Ben thanks for taking the time to talk with me about Black Coat.
BL: No Problem — I really appreciate your time and your interest.