I recently had the pleasure of talking with writer Ben Fisher and artist Michael Henderson about their comic Smuggling Spirits from publisher Studio 407.
Smuggling Spirits is set in an alternate Prohibition Era America, where demons known as darklings populate the land along side humans. It’s the story of Al and his ward Nathan, a pair of bootleggers who literally see the world in two completely different ways.
Shawn Aldridge: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Ben and Michael. I recently read Smuggling Spirits and thought it was a great, original story.
Michael Henderson: First off, thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and I’m glad you liked Spirits, Ben and I are both really proud of it as our first work.
SA: Where did the idea for Smuggling Spirits come from?
MH: The concept for Smuggling Spirits was all Ben’s. I had a big hand in developing the look of the world and the characters but it was his brainchild.
Ben Fisher: As usual, Mike is underselling himself a bit here. While I originally came up with the concept, it’s hard to imagine this book without Mike’s interpretation of the look and feel of all these characters and creatures. In fact, I initially sent Mike the first few pages of the script and a plot synopsis, and when he sent me back a few sketches, I immediately started reworking my pages to accommodate his style.
I had been playing around with the idea of a “reverse Six Sense” concept for awhile — a story where everybody sees the ghosts (or, in this case, darklings) except the protagonist. Initially, I thought it might work well as a comedy, but the deeper I got into it, the more it developed a serious, dark tone.
SA: How did you you guys come to work on this project? Were you friends before?
MH: Ben and I actually never met through the whole process of making the book. It wasn’t until our pictures popped up on a creators biography that I even knew what he looked like, and close to a year after the book was originally released that we even met face to face. I think we clicked well mostly out of a desire to not just make comics, but really good comics too.
BF: I didn’t show Mike any pictures of myself too early because I was afraid my devastating good looks might distract him from the creative process. Now that we’ve met in person, though, there’s nothing I can do. Don’t get me wrong, the man draws a great self-portrait. I just wish, you know, he were wearing clothes…
Mike and I first got together to enter into a short comic contest with Viper Comics (we submitted a comedy that was basically “Ace Ventura” meets Call of Cthulhu called Lost & Frond). We got lucky and the story was published, and I enjoyed the process of working with Mike so much that I immediately invited him to collaborate on Smuggling Spirits. And, for any publishers reading this, we’d LOVE to see the full length mini-series of Lost & Frond in print! One word for you: Were-dingoes.
MH: Yeah, I had spotted a post Ben had put up on a comic art forum way back when. I had been bouncing around from job to job and decided to give one more go at getting into comics when I saw it. We entered the contest Viper Comics was having and pulled up 2nd and got a backup story published. We couldn’t see the harm in trying to pitch a book around and eventually we landed it at Ambrosia, who was also just starting up at the time. We worked so smoothly that it just made sense, and it’s still surprising to have made such a good friend that I’ve still only met once.
SA: What was the journey from Ambrosia, who was the first publisher, to Studio 407, who is releasing the collection?
MH: I’m going to let Ben take that question, if you don’t mind.
BF: Ambrosia took a chance on us, as unknown creators, and published the book in trade paperback format and we remain grateful for the opportunity. Both of us have had some pretty exciting opportunities arise as a result of the right people reading those books and seeking us out for new projects.
But like so many independent publishers, Ambrosia wasn’t able to sustain itself, and they recently released the rights to the book back to us. Only a few days later, Studio 407 gave us a fantastic opportunity to not only re-publish the book as a single, full-sized hardcover, but gave us time to add some new pages, re-edit some old pages, and extend the ending. They have been an amazing ally, and we’re very excited to be working with them.
SA: As creators, who are some of your influences?
BF: I don’t know who influenced me as a writer. I read a LOT of novels (everything from Pynchon to King). When I was first transitioning to writing comic scripts I devoured a stack of Bendis, Ellis, Simone, Vaughan, Peter David, and even Whedon, because they each bring such a great (and very different) cadence to their dialogue. Of course, I idolize guys like Moore and Gaiman.
MH: The influences on my work vary and I bring different aspects of them to each project depending on the subject matter or the genre. Artists like Will Eisner, Alex Toth, Frank Miller’s early work and more recently Gil Elvgren and Rene Gruau have had an impact on what I do. Smuggling Spirits, I know drew a lot of comparisons to Sin City‘s noirish feel, but I hope that I distanced myself enough from it in the types of characters that grew out of it.
SA: Speaking of the characters that grew out of it, the darklings all have their own unique appearances. They’re all so beautifully bizarre. Were their looks described in the script or did they evolve over time?
BF: The look of the some of the more notable beasties, like the Croc-O-Bat and the Crape (as we affectionately named them), we spent a lot of time discussing the final product. We wanted these things to be completely outlandish — just utterly skewed from a visual perspective (it fit in with the thematic of people seeing only what they want to see), and that was one of the reasons we wanted to book to be black and white — those monsters in full color would look ridiculous. But in black and white they look, I think, fantastically cool.
MH: The darklings all evolved out of their personalities, but each had some visuals drawn from somewhere in the animal kingdom. The “croc-o-bat”, as Ben calls it, is a pretty obvious mix of crocodile and bat, but I wanted to invoke a dragon image, something much larger than anything in our world. I’ll admit some of them came with no real reference, but more out of a joke. My pride and joy is the gelatinous frog, which is my nod to the Mad Bomber What Bombs at Midnight, from the Tick.
SA: Ben, you mention the theme of the book being “people seeing only what they want to see”, which is the case for Al, who refuses to acknowledge the darklings. One of the ways this is conveyed is with split panels, where the reader sees what’s actually happening and what Al sees happening. Whose idea was it to do the split panels?
F: Those split scenes were a very drawn-out collaborative process. It was difficult to figure out how to convey Al’s perspective in the comic book medium and we called each other to talk through it more than once.
MH: The idea for the split panels was Ben’s. On first read, I hadn’t the slightest idea how I was going to pull it off because it’s such a tricky sell. I didn’t have any color to assist in the representation of what was going on or hint to the reader that we were looking at two completely separate points of view. It was easy enough to do the first time, but to make it interesting over and over became more difficult. I’m proud of some of the instances I was able to do it, but there are spots in hindsight that I wish could have been clearer or more dynamic but I think every artist feels that way.
SA: What would you tell readers makes Smuggling Spirits a must-read?
BF: Well, for starters, I think it’s a really great story that’s not much like anything else on the shelf right now, or I wouldn’t have put so much into it. Plus, it has flying alligators, spiders that drink blood through your eyes, acid frogs and A GIANT GORILLA WITH CRAB HANDS. What’s not to love?
MH: I think it’s a fun read for fans of both noir and horror, and I’m hoping it becomes something that horror fans that don’t necessarily read comics can really get into. There’s more to it than meets the eye. No pun intended.
SA: Do you two have any other projects coming up?
MH: Ben and I have another horror/fantasy/action graphic novel in the finishing stages coming out, hopefully, this spring from Arcana Comics. It’s entitled Hexen Hammers. It’s colored by my good friend Adam Guzowski (Image Comics “Proof”) and new talent Tom Bonnevillain, both, like myself former and current Joe Kubert School students. I’ll defer to Ben to describe his very original, slick story. But I will say it’s as fun a thrill ride to read as it was to draw.
BF: Hexen Hammers is a book about a group of highly dysfunctional witch hunters during the Salem trials. The story is a pretty unconventional look at witchcraft and incorporates some fun science fiction elements. Mike really stepped up his game on this one, and the coloring looks fantastic with his lines. Oh, and not to spoil the end or anything, but the hero makes a bargian with the devil to break up his marriage with a Superboy punch.
I’m also finishing up a superhero comedy called “Splitsbille” for Viper Comics with an extremely talented artist named Kevin Stokes.
SA: Thanks again, for your time guys — it was fun. For the readers out there — do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Smuggling Spirits. It really is a great read!