Friday, June 21, 2013

Fireside Chat with Jai Nitz of Dream Thief

The days grow ever warmer, but that's no reason to neglect our hearth.  Jai Nitz certainly subscribes to such a belief, as he was kind enough to sit down with us for a Fireside Chat about his latest and greatest project, Dream Thief from Dark Horse Comics.  Please pull up a chair and join us behind the cut for an in-depth chat about inspiration, collaboration, interobangs, and far more.

Jai Nitz is an accomplished comic book writer with plenty of quality books to his name.  His resume includes stints at Marvel, DC, Image, and Dynamite, just to name a few.  Dream Thief, a comic about crime, justice, and what we do when we're asleep, is his most recent initiative with artist Greg Smallwood.  Issue #2 dropped this week and Jai was kind enough to sit down to talk about it.


Grant McLaughlin: To kick things off, let's roll with a general question of where did the idea of Dream Thief come from for you?

Jai Nitz: The original idea centered on the main question we ask in issue one: what's it like to wake up next to a dead body and now know how you got there? Or, more simply, what's it like to not really have any memories of what you did last night? I think that that's a question that most people struggle with. You know, the “what did I do when I got really drunk?” idea. I think it is a very universal question.

And then an even more universal question of what do we do when we're dreaming? What do our dreams make of us? And what does that mean? Mankind has questioned dreams for thousands and thousands of years. Why do we dream? Does it make any sense to anybody? There's a lot of different stuff like that.

What did I do last night? What would I do if I felt like I was accused of a crime I didn't commit? And what do dreams really mean? A lot of Dream Thief comes together with these questions.

GM: The first two issues have certainly given us a look at some of those questions. Are there any other questions that you hope to examine within Dream Thief?

Nitz: The biggest question of the book, and what a lot of people have gleaned from just the first issue, is the book's idea of cosmic justice. That's a big thing for me. I think justice is one of the most interesting things to write about. There's lots of different layers to it, but one thing I have talked about many times and that I talked about in the pitch specifically is that everybody wants perfect justice. If this guy robbed that guy, he should pay the price for it. If this guy killed that guy, he should go to jail or be given the death sentence. We all want perfect justice. No one should get away with it.

Unless it's us on trial. When it's us on trial, we're like, “wait a minute, there's extenuating circumstances; wait a minute, that evidence was wrongly seized.” Lots and lots of wait a minutes. Nobody wants perfect justice when it's their ass on the line.

I think that's a big question about it. Why do we need perfect justice? What is it about us as a species that we really crave this? When the justice system fails, we feel like our perfect thing failed even though it's not perfect and never has been. People really cling to those ideas and they always have. I mean, Hammurabi's Laws are nearly 4,000 years old and everybody looks at those and thinks, “Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good basis for justice.” It's crazy that that has been around as long as human writing has been around and we still can't get it right.

GM: Right.

Nitz: So that will definitely come up in the book later. As long as we get a later, because I don't go that deeply into questions like that in the first five issues of Dream Thief, but based on sales and critical acclaim and fan reaction, it looks like we're going to get to do more Dream Thief, so that's good.

GM: So should we be looking forward to more Dream Thief beyond issue #5?

Nitz: Well, we're still waiting – the champagne has not been uncorked yet. I think from everybody's perspective it makes sense. Greg and I want to do more. Dark Horse has always been behind the book and they're very much behind the book. The sales are making money. The fans like it. So if we're making all these key metrics, it makes sense – it's just good business for all of us to stay in business, so we think we're going to do that. But again, it's comics and it's art, so you never know.

GM: That's very true, but hopefully we'll have the opportunity to revisit the characters down the line.

Nitz: I'm crossing my fingers for sure.

GM: Dream Thief’s focus on cosmic justice and the mysteries behind that mask John finds in issue #1 are already pretty big draws, but due focus must also be given to the great work of Greg Smallwood on art. Could you talk a bit about how you and Greg came to be working on this project?

Nitz: Greg and I were actually just talking about this – we were doing a signing on Saturday together –and the really simple thing was Greg was participating in the DC Zuda comics contest. And if everybody remembers what Zuda was, it was DC's digital online comics company and it was all fan-generated. You would submit your idea for digital comic and people would vote on it and then the number one would get produced and you'd get paid to do it and then they'd print books of it at the end. So Greg was participating in that and trying to get his book called Villain picked up. And one thing he did was, like anybody promoting anything, he took flyers with art and setup stuff to different comic shops in the Kansas City metro area. One of the shops he came to was Astrokitty Comics & More in good old Lawrence, Kansas. And Astrokitty was my local shop.

So I saw this flyer, and Joel, the guy who ran the shop explained that Greg was promoting his book and that I should take a look at it. And I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to call this guy right now and see if he wants to work together, because he’s amazing.” And I did. I got home and I emailed him cold. I just send him an email: “Hi Greg! You may know me or you may not. I'm Jai Nitz and I write comic books and I would like to work with you.” I saw Greg on a flier in a shop in Lawrence, Kansas, so nobody else had seen his stuff yet. And if everybody else had seen his stuff, there's no chance that he would have worked with me because huge names would have picked him up. But he had just put his stuff at the comic shop, and I contacted him and said “I want to work with you.” And he said that would be great, let's start pitching ideas.

The funny part is that he has told me since – and I mean in the last few months – that we had met even before that. He had taken his portfolio to the big convention we have here in Kansas City called Planet Comicon. I was a pro and I had a table and he was just going and showing every pro his artwork. And apparently I was very nice to him and had nice things to say about him, to where he has always thought “Wow, that Jai Nitz, he's a pretty nice guy.” And I remember none of that. But when I sent him the email, it was validating. It was validating because, like in all things comic book, you are working by yourself, at your desk. You don't see other people. You don't know if you're doing anything good or not. And you don't think that anybody sees this stuff or if anybody cares. So when somebody out of the blue says, “I care. And I'm a real pro. I've actually really worked at DC and Marvel and Image and Dynamite. I would like to work with you.” To him, he said “Hey that's really validating,” and it pushed him to take it more seriously and it's funny because I'm glad he did. I'm glad that that push helped because I would hate to think that he didn't take it seriously and he didn't get as good as he is now because he's obviously getting better with every issue.

So it was just our local comic shop basically hooked us up.

The good news is that from that story, we're not just working on this book together anymore. We're really good friends and we live less than a mile from each other now and we do a ton of stuff all the time. We went to our signing on Saturday and then we went out drinking on Saturday. We both know each other's hours – we both know that at four in the morning the other one is up working on something. So now we really trust each other with everything, but I think it's based on the idea that we're right next to each other and have become such good friends.

GM: So much of the book revolves around the aboriginal mask that John comes into possession of halfway through that first issue. What's the backstory of the mask? How has it evolved and changed over Dream Thief's creation?

Nitz: The original, original, original stuff I did with this book when I was just writing a pitch and I hadn't even met Greg, I was thinking about secret identity stuff. The way it fit in the original 2009 or whatever pitch was that this guy had been doing his adventures for a while and then started getting caught on camera and being noticed by people, so he decided to start wearing a mask – he was a superhero like Spider-Man – I don't want to be noticed, so I'll wear a mask.

If any good suggestion comes out of anything, it's probably Greg - and I should just interject really quickly to say that Greg is a monster talent in a way that I've never experienced before. I've worked with a ton a ton a ton of talented people. I mean, there are some amazing talents that I've worked with in my career and Greg is just different from all of them in the amount of thought and work that he puts in that is just ridiculous.

So when I wrote the first issue for when Greg and I pitched this originally back in 2009-10 when we first met, Greg designed 32 masks and we ended up not even using one of the ones he original designed. He ended up making a new one out of two of the designs he did. It was amazing how long we were working on that element of that and that when we started it had nothing really to do with the story. I'd seen it as, “Well, the mask he'll design will be a vision that he has and that's part of the dream-space stuff” and then, it was probably Greg saying, “What if the mask has some actual significance?”

My first draft was very similar to what the first book – in my opinion there's a lot of minor changes, but if he had just drawn the art the way I wrote it, it would look very similar to what we got today - but that was one of the scenes with him waking up with the mask on that I was very specific about we don't know if he stole the mask or if the mask stole him. I like it being open-ended that maybe it's one or the other. But I also like the idea of the mask stealing him – that makes me very happy. That makes me very happy that that could have been part of the possibilities, when again, it started as something very dumb that Greg made better.

Now it looks like I'm a genius and I know what I'm talking about, when in fact, I have no idea.

GM: You use the idea of “Cordero watched a lot of Crime Scene so this is how I get rid of evidence or deal with guns” quite a bit in the first and second issues. And you do seem to write quite confidently about these and other topics. How did you come about this knowledge? Do you do a lot of research? Do you know a guy who knows a guy? Or are you also watching “Crime Scene”?

Nitz: It's a lot of different stuff. There's a lot of people who are now on network television intelligently talking about subject matter that nobody really knew about – like criminal stuff. Obviously the best, biggest example of that is David Simon writing The Wire. You learn stuff about crime when you watch The Wire. Not just heist stuff like Ocean's 13 and Ocean's 11 or whatever – I don't know why I would pick Ocean's 13 as opposed to 11, but…

You're not learning crime stuff like how to rob stuff, you know. You're learning about after you've robbed a bunch of stuff, how do you get caught. There's also a great show called The First 48, which subscribes to and talks about how most crimes are basically solved in the first 48 hours, whether they know it or not. People will acquire the right clues and the right evidence and the right everything in the first 48 hours that will eventually lead to the fall of the criminal. So that's a good show, obviously. But the Wire is the best show because it's scripted and it has the dynamism of characters that stuff happens to people that you see instead of a snippet of 48 hours in Memphis, Tennessee of crime.

So those are things I pay attention to, but also, yeah I read books. I'm not about to say, “Well, I've got enough from these TV shows to do everything.” I read books and check up on stuff, and I'm like everybody who has Facebook or Twitter. Every time an interesting funny story comes up, if I find a little nugget to it that tells me what I need to know about some other thing I'm working on, I'll save that sucker and come back to it later. Another of the benefits I have is that there's a guy named Alex Grecian who wrote Proof for Image Comics, but he's a famous novelist now. And the novels he's doing are about Scotland Yard in Victorian England in the years just after Jack the Ripper. And it's kind of the beginning of forensic science. He’s a good friend of mine and we talk often where he'll go on about forensic and how they work and blah blah blah, but he's talking about something from a hundred and fifty years ago or whatever, so I get to go over that with him and then be like, “What if this happens?” and he then goes “Well, yeah, that's where this technology comes from and that's where this technology comes from.” And then, again, it's like anything good – the wheels start spinning and you go “Okay... that – waitaminute, that – heeey!” So then that idea goes from something you read about in a book or you saw on TV or blah blah blah. It switches to “Hey that will fit into my story and will work in this place.”

And, you know, I kill a lot of people. I kill a lot people and get rid of a lot of bodies, so eventually you learn how to deal with it.

GM: Yeah, that makes sense.

Nitz: [laughs] Yeah, it makes sense.

GM: Building on that, who came up with the question mark – exclamation mark combination that you seem to have peppered throughout issues of Dream Thief?

Nitz: I actually wanted to do an interobang because I wanted there to be these moments of him going “whaaa-?” because it was that. And we did that and Greg was like, “Hey, it looks stupid. It doesn't work.” I loved the idea that it would work. But it didn't. Since it looked stupid, we just pulled it out – and there's been a lot of stuff we've done. Like, again, there's been a lot of things that people have talked about. Like, in issue one the Facebook Like thing, where one girl sees this other guy and she's like “bing!”. I've heard more about that than almost anything in the whole book. People have been mostly positive – maybe 80-20 – but they’re also sharply divided. It’s either “That’s awesome! What a great way to use a prescient visual icon and put it in a thought balloon so we all know what she’s thinking,” or “Why would you do that? I don’t understand why you would make that choice.”

It's funny because I think most people weren't bothered about it, but almost everybody has talked about that little thing. And that was something that, again, we wanted to have as much visual shorthand as possible. And I thought interobang was the epitome of visual shorthand, because you don't even have two symbols, it's only one!

The question mark call
(issue #1)
GM: See, I’ve always felt that interobangs take away more information than they give, as it robs some of the nuance of a straight question mark – exclamation mark combo.

Nitz: And that's the thing. Eventually, what I found is what you just said. It doesn't make any sense. People don't get it. It was me trying to be economical as possible with visual storytelling stuff, and it didn't work. So Greg was like, “It will work if we put them both there and they just share a dot.” And I was like, “I want that, so make it happen.” Because the thing I wanted didn't work, but I do want that. And then, yeah, for the reveal panel / page in issue #1, when Greg did it, I didn't even notice that it was those things. I didn't notice it was a question mark and exclamation point.

GM: And that's what I think is so brilliant about it.

Nitz: Yeah. I didn't even notice until later. Maybe when I first saw the colours of it, because the one panel is the actual whole page is a question mark shape and the other one the exclamation point is the background colour of it. So it's different. They're both there but they're nuanced in how they get there.

And now, there are places where I had interobang stuff in the script where we go, “Nope. Now there'll be a panel that's an exclamation point and a panel that's a question mark.” And you've seen that. That the end of two and especially there's a panel at the end of three that was just a panel of John’s face going “oh shi--!” And when Greg wanted to touch up some of the colours and when he went in to do that he changed that panel to include another version of the exclamation mark – question mark. When I saw it, I couldn’t help but think, “Damn, that’s perfect!”

It’s another example of how we’re on the same page, working as a team, looking for stuff like that.

The exclamation mark
response (issue #1)
GM: One other thing that I've been curious about is your use of thought balloons. They’re obviously not super in vogue at the moment, so why do you employ them? Why does it matter to you?

Nitz: One of the very first conversations I ever had about comic book writing was when I was still in college and doing local convention stuff. I remember talking to, it was Jim Krueger, and I was talking about thought balloon stuff. The ideas of thought balloons. He was lamenting that thought balloons had gone away and had been replaced by caption boxes. Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen killed the thought balloon, because they aren’t used there at all. So if the best two pieces of your literature don't have that, you don't use it anymore. And it's so dumb to me, because it's such a great tool.

You can have somebody having a thought at that moment and you get to read their thoughts. That’s amazing. People will say, “You don’t do that in movies!” but that’s because you’ve got an actor! You’ve got someone who is paid to emote, whereas in comics you get one facial expression per panel. And sometimes the reader doesn’t even get it! If you’re lucky, I mean super lucky like me, you get a Greg Smallwood, you get somebody who puts a lot of emotions in their faces. But if you get somebody who doesn’t know how to do that, it doesn’t work. Or guess what? If you get Spider-Man it doesn't work, because he can't emote through the mask. Which is why in every movie, Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield has his mask taken off at some point. So he can emote, because otherwise you can't tell.

But guess what? This just in: the way you can tell is with a thought balloon. And you can say, “I am saying I'll never let you go,” while at the same time thinking, “The first chance I get, I'm going to let you go.” And you can show that. If you go back and watch Chinatown or Casablanca, you can see that going through the actor's head, but you can't do that in a comic book. You can't show that range of emotion, because you have such a limited palette with which to paint. So why cripple yourself and take away a great tool?

GM: And then, I think I'll move towards winding down. Curious as to how did you come to comics and what excites you about it so much that you work as a comic book writer and continue to do that?

Nitz: I always tell the same story of I always wanted to do what my brother did. My older brother read comics. He read Conan and he read all kind of different stuff. And I always wanted to do what my older brother did. So he read comic books so I wanted to read comic books.

I remember getting into junior high and high school and being the comic book guy. Being the kid who read comic books and then meeting other people who read comic books and going, “Oh, I'm not alone in this. I've got other people that I like that do this stuff.” And then I started going to a comic book shop that opened up in Kansas City and I was like, “I want to work here.” I told them as much the first day I walked in. They were like “Yeah, whatever kid.” And then I was the first person that they hired.

That's just what I've always done. I've always read comic books and I wanted to work in a comic shop and the story I always tell is that my Dad said when I was 4, 5, “He's reading, this is wonderful.” And then when I'm like 11, 12 “He's collecting comics, this is wonderful. One day he's going to pay for his house.” And then when I'm like 17, 18 and I'm like “Hey, I want to go to college and I want to go to film school because I want to be a comic book writer,” he's like, “I've ruined my son's life. Go to law school. Don't be a comic book writer.” So it's always what I wanted to do and I've always set myself up for it. I read comic books, I collected comic books, I've worked at a comic book shop. I did every convention. I met the pros. I asked them questions. I set myself up to do it, so by the time I was in college, I did my internships were all comic book related, everyone I talked to was comic book related. It's always been the thing I wanted to do. I've made movies. I've used my film degree. I've done a lot of screen writing and I like it just fine, but for whatever reason my passion happens to be in comic books.

It's always a little disheartening that there's guys like Mark Waid who have forgotten more about comics than I'll ever know and I'm like “Jeez, it's so weird that this is my thing in life and there's still so many people who know more about it than I do.” So it's that kind of thing that I love doing it but it also humbles me, which is good. It's bad to be the best in the world at something where you never feel like anybody is ever challenging you. Comic books are an exercise in humbling for me, so that's good.

The other part – how did I come to it? And what's exciting about it?

I think the thing that's exciting about it, especially having made movies and doing other media stuff is that you pretty much get exactly what you said. I write a script, I've had very few changes to them – when I do, it's usually very good changes from a lucid editor, and then that change improves the book and the final product. There's a collaboration with an artist that you get to work with somebody that you respect and you admire their talent and you get to play to their strengths and try to make them look better and they try to make you look better.

There's a lot of stuff to it that I like, but mostly I like the idea that I can create a piece of art and it will come up pretty much the way that I saw it and my name goes on it.

GM: And do you have any other projects on the horizon that readers who have been enjoying Dream Thief can look start looking forward to?

Nitz: Nothing yet. The good news is that I have lots of irons in the fire and because of the success of Dream Thief it looks like we'll get to do more of them. The bad news is that none of them have been announced yet.

I'm not broken up about that. I want it to be that by the time Dream Thief #5 comes out that yes, our next thing is announced and I can direct fan attention. For right now, I have always my entire life worried about what is next. Like, “Okay, now that this is done, what's next?” And what I want everybody to know is that what's next is Dream Thief #2 and then what's next is Dream Thief #3. Because those are the things that I care the most about, so I want people to check them out.

So when I have the next project to do, trust me, I'll let everybody know about it. I think Dream Thief is the best thing I've ever done in my career. I think Greg's the best artist I've ever worked with. I think that he's an amazing talent waiting to explode and that he's getting better with every issue.

So that I think that while it's coming out, I want to ride this really good wave that we've got going and show people that it's really, really good. And that will hopefully lead to the next project and the next project and the next project. Rather than stealing the focus from it to talk about something else – which I love to do – right now the best thing I have is Dream Thief, so I want people to pay attention to it.

GM: That’s great. From here, all that's left is our Literary Rorschach Test. I have a list of 10 words, and your task is to respond to those words with the first thing that comes to mind. It can be whatever you want. A word, a sentence, or even a full-blown paragraph. The choice is up to you.

Nitz: I'll keep them short, because I'm long winded. I'll keep them very short.

Dream – Martin Luther King
Crime – David Simon
Hero – Sandwich
Learning – Lifetime
Caption – Narration
History – Repeats itself
Film – Don't go to film school
Work – Don't ever have a job
Collaboration – Best thing in the world
The End – Is always a new beginning


GM: Thank you very much for taking all this time.

Dream Thief #2 is currently available at quality comic book retailers and Dark Horse's online store.  Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood are doing some exciting things with this book, and you should definitely go and check it out one way or another.


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