Jim McCann and Janet Lee Interview
This interview, conducted with the writer and artist of the unique OGN, Return of the Dapper Men (now available from publisher Archaia) was scheduled for the print version of Extra Sequential. This is the last interview from the recent final days of ES, but you can see the rest of our almost-to-print articles right here. Now, read on to discover more about this gorgeous looking book.
A group of men in sartorial elegance floating to the floor like feathers. It’s an unusual impetus for a new fantastic tale, but inspired by said image, writer Jim McCann couldn’t help himself, as he and artist Janet Lee reveal about their new original graphic novel for Archaia, Return of the Dapper Men. The book exists in a world called Anorev, a world where adults do not exist, and books are used for standing upon, not reading, or as Archaia describe it, “a tale of a world in between time, where children have played so long it’s almost become work, machines have worked so long they have begun to play, and all the clocks have stopped at the same time.”
“I’ve known Jim for about 15 years, I think,” Lee reveals. “He’s one of my closest friends. We met socially when he was still living in Nashville, worked at the same company for a while, lived less than a mile from each other. At one point, we had a mad scheme to go on Trading Spaces together. Eventually Jim sold his house in Nashville and moved to New York, but we’ve always kept in touch. He visits me when he’s in town to see his family, and I visit him when I’m in NYC.” The pair admit that it was three images in particular that set off the creative chain of events that would be the creation of these very well-dressed gents and the world in which they live. “A couple of years ago, Jim was visiting for the holidays; while in Nashville, he came to see one of my gallery shows,” Lee elaborates. “He saw three particular pieces: a six-foot-tall, Magritte-inspired image of men in bowler hats and striped suits raining over the rooftops of Paris; a tiny image of a steampunk boy with goggles; and a small illustration of a robot girl. About a month later, he sent me an email with what turned out to be the opening lines to Return of the Dapper Men and a note asking if I wanted to do an OGN. Of course, I said yes!” McCann aggress with Lee’s assessment of the project’s genesis in that it, “was born from three pieces she had created for different gallery shows but in my strange mind formed this story that I had to write. And every time she’d send me a sketch or I’d come across a doodle, more story would spring to mind. It’s truly a collaborative process, inspiring each other.” The writer also admits that in a broader sense, he finds inspiration in many corners of the world. “I love fairy tales and the fantastical. Anything that transports you away from the cabs and crowds and bills or changing cat litter, the things we all do or deal with as part of daily life. I want to remind myself (and others) of that overwhelming sense of wonder you feel when you see something new and exciting for the first time. In approaching Return of the Dapper Men, I looked back at my own youth and the worlds I would create with action figures or on paper or acted out in my backyard with an imaginary legion of characters. I thought about the feelings I had when I first saw Empire Strikes Back. The first time I read Shel Silverstein aloud. Acting like a Wild Thing or building a pillow and blanket fort. And the 50th time I saw Empire Strikes Back. All of that is what I wanted to bring to this, but also the perspective of the adults that are now my peers and the man-child I sort of have become by not letting go of dreams and instead making them destiny and reality.”
A huge part of making Dapper Men a reality was finding a publisher that would understand the unique book and trust the vision of the duo behind it. Janet recalls that during a trip to New York for a trade show, she and McCann, “spent about a week hashing out the story line and character concepts. We also came up with a short list of publishers we thought would be a good fit for the book. Archaia was at the top of that list. Later that year at San Diego Comic-Con, Jim pitchedReturn of the Dapper Men to Mark Smylie [Archaia’s Chief Creative Officer] and Stephen Christy [Archaia’s Editor-In-Chief], and the rest is history!”
Speaking of history, creating the background for Anorev and its uniquely enchanting world was one of the first challenges for the tale. “I remember our early discussions as being the time where we really fleshed out the world of Anorev,” Lee recalls. “What did it look like where the robots lived, where the children lived? What did the children and robots look like; what did they wear? I spent a week in New York making character sketches and bouncing ideas off Jim. Initially, my thought was that the city would look a lot like my neighborhood in Nashville, which is filled with Victorian and Craftsman-style homes, lots of trees. We ended up with a cross between Paris and East Nashville with a fairy-land of gears beneath the streets for the children to play in.”
McCann mentions that the scope of Dapper Men can not necessarily be contained in one book. “It’s also large in scale in that this is actually the first in a trilogy of books. Wait until you see what’s planned for the future.” He describes the tale as, “both incredibly large and universal in scope, and at the same time a very personal and microscopic story. At its center, there are three main characters and their actions determine their fates, and also the fate of the world even though two of them don’t know it. It deals with larger themes of clockwork universe and some theology if you dig deep enough, but then if you just read it as a story with no analysis, it’s a tale about kids not wanting to go to bed (for the first time in as long as any of them can remember) for fear of change. But without sleep, you can’t dream, and without growing up, there is no such thing as destiny. It’s about discovering that, and learning that first step of growing up and embracing what you are meant to become.” Within this steampunk/fantasy/sci-fi realm exists Ayden, the sole boy to possess curiosity, a cherished robot girl named Zoe and a Dapper Man referred to as 41. These three must discover why time has frozen and come to grips with who they truly are in their world. The aforementioned 41 is just one of the many Dapper Men who fall upon Anorev. McCann refers to Lee as his “amazing co-creator and artist” and reveals that she “finds it large in scope when I tell her that there are 314 Dapper-Looking men raining down from the sky. She loves me for that, don’t believe otherwise.”
As an artist Lee’s hands on collage approach couldn’t be more different from the slick renderings most comics readers are accustomed to, but its visual approach is key to cementing the inherent dream-like nature of the book. “When Jim talked to Mark and Stephen at SDCC, he showed them images of some gallery pieces,” Lee reveals. “For the past several years, I’ve been working in a sort of “original collage” technique where I draw images on vellum, cut them out and then layer them onto wood or canvas or paper with other components (like art papers, or pages from old books). It’s a type of decoupage—very ’70s. Archaia was always completely clear that they wanted me to illustrate the pages my way using my style, so that’s the way I’ve approached it. Now that being said, I did discover pretty quickly that paper wasn’t heavy enough to support the number of layers I was using and that I wanted to build each page as a single board rather than making individual images which we’ve brought together during Photoshop layout.”
Going from the art gallery to the comic book shelves is a transition for the artist, but hopefully one that others will also continue to make as the line between art forms, whether sequential or otherwise, continues to blur. Lee reveals, “After Roy Lichtenstein, I’m not sure anyone can possibly claim that the art world at large is unfamiliar with comics. I suspect that the percentage of gallery artists who read comics is probably pretty similar to that of the general population, a little higher number amongst the forms that respond to contemporary culture, a little fewer amongst the more traditional forms. That last part’s a guess, but comics are so pervasive now, anyone relating to pop culture must be aware. Lee continues, “In some cases, it’s probably true [that gallery artists don’t recognize or value sequential art] but heck, the oil painters look down at people working in acrylics. Old-school painters wouldn’t even draw their own figures, but would call in “draftsmen” to take care of that chore. My first teacher wouldn’t let me sketch out a piece on canvas with a pencil, but insisted we only use a brush and paint. In any type of artistic venture, people seem to want to classify something as “better or worse.” The trick is in realizing that all true artistic merit comes from how effectively the artist communicates with his/her audience.”
Considering this is Lee’s first foray from the gallery to the comic shop, the artist admits that she’s, “never been a “normal” gallery artist, and I’ve always been a huge comics geek, so in a sense it’s been surprisingly easy. I’ve been experimenting for a while with things like sequential portraits where I incorporate images and stories of the person’s life into their portrait. I’ve also played a bit with things like “sequential shows” where the individual pieces tell a story as you walk through the gallery. I find art to be a narrative medium, but it’s all well and good to produce a limited series of related images, and another thing entirely to phrase them on page after page in a way that’s interesting and supports the narrative. In that sense, the learning curve has been incredibly steep. I read just about every sequential book I can get my hands on to get ideas and, hopefully, become better.” The key to any good comic is a good collaboration, as Lee freely admits. “Fortunately, Jim has a great way of letting me know (kindly) when something sucks, and letting me bounce ideas off him. That’s one of my favorite things, so far, about sequential art: it’s wonderfully collaborative. The team works together to build something that’s better than the sum of its parts.”
McCann is not new to the process of working with other creative types however. Originally working as a script writer on the popular ABC drama One Life To Live, he moved to New York in 2004 and soon stared working for Marvel in their PR department before gradually writing their characters in stories such as Dazzler and New Avengers: The Reunion, featuring archer Hawkeye and the recently resurrected Mockingbird, two former Avengers team-mates and their life and death love life.
“The amazing thing about Marvel,” he reveals, “is that they always knew I wanted to write, and when it came time for that to happen, they helped me make that happen. I’d written for the stage and TV, and am a massive comic book fan, so it came as no surprise that the writer in me would finally say, “OK, time to get to work on THIS part of my life.” McCann has not left Marvel behind completely though, as his writing chores on crime-fighting lovers Hawkeye and Mockingbird prove, as does his new relaunch of Alpha Flight, focused on Canada’s foremost superhero team. “I love the Marvel offices and miss being a part of it. Fortunately, I am local, so I can pop over any time,” McCann mentions. “That said, I still miss being on the super-duper inside track. However, that has freed me up to explore and really work out my writing more than I imagined.” McCann is also aware that sitting behind the keyboard means, “I have more time to write, which means I HAVE to write! This is my source of income and it’s also what I’ve said I’ve wanted to do for all my life, literally. So, time to DO it.”
McCann’s scripts dedicated to long-time lovers with a generous dose of superhero action in the monthly series Hawkeye and Mockingbird are a great delight to fans of adventure and the scribe reveals that, “it was originally pitched as the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the Marvel U, but I recently discovered the incredible show Burn Notice, which I watch faithfully now. The characters of Hawkeye and Mockingbird have a very human aspect as well, and for that I look to Nick and Nora Charles (of The Thin Man), Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and many other classic film pairings.”
With his TV past and current comic book scripting there’s not necessarily a lot of difference in the approach to scripting for the writer. “Not really in the form of storytelling; they are both serialized mediums, dealing with years of continuity and existing characters, and have vocal fan bases. With an original graphic novel like Return of the Dapper Men, it’s more like a pilot or a film, where you put something new out there and hope people buy.”
Speaking of which Dapper Men was inspired not only by his co-creator (“Janet’s art continues to inspire me.”) but also those darker tales and fables that all good parents read to their kids, despite their darkness that some may not embrace in today’s sensitive world. “I went back and re-read the texts of Grimms, Barrie, Carroll and they all had dark overtones that have been glossed over in today’s cartoon adaptation world or pop-up book incarnations. They had real lessons there, some were deeper and hidden, something left for you to discover when you re-read them as adults. As a child, you take away one level from the story—the face value. That’s what’s become the modern way of remembering these classics. But they were intended to educate the adult as well. I love that, and I hope that Dapper can achieve something remotely close to that.”
As for his own status as a dapper men McCann reveals, ”I am the least Dapper Man you’ll meet (on the outside, at least). I’m a t-shirt and jeans (or shorts) guy. All the time. I don’t know that I have a suit…I’ll have to check,: and as for his favourite garment in his wardrobe? “There is a t-shirt two sizes too big that I’ve had for 15 years now. It’s been washed so many times that it’s like a blanket. It’s nothing special, a drab green/brown shirt. But it is my “serious writing” shirt. I always make sure it’s washed and if I’m wearing it, then it means I am in the zone or have a deadline. I only wear it when writing (but not every time I write) and I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.”
One man who knows a thing or two about sartorial elegance is a certain Tony Stark, and the man who plays him on the big screen. McCann met the stylish man himself at Comic Con and relates an awkward tale about the encounter, though he does admit that when it comes to conventions, “I see something new and funny at every one of them. Personally, my most embarrassing moment was when I almost pushed Robert Downey Jr. in a pool at a party in SDCC trying to get to Katee Sackhoff and Joss Whedon to introduce them to each other (they had not met yet). I jumped over a stanchion at the corner of the pool and there he was—RDJ! I stammered out, “So sorry, Mr. Downey Junior!” and kept running.”
The 4 part Widow Maker storyline begins in December and runs through both Black Widow #9-10, written by Duane Swierczynski and Hawkeye and Mockingbird #7-8, written by McCann.
The luscious Return of the Dapper Men hardcover is out now from Archaia, containing 120 pages of whimsy, fantasy and very well-dressed gentlemen, as well as introduction from fashion guru Tim Gunn and a diverse and dazzling gallery from some of the industry’s best artists.