One of Will Eisner's creations returns to the printed page this month in Will Eisner's John Law: Dead Man Walking, from IDW. This collection features Eisner's classic stories and new adventures of John Law by writer/artist Gary Chaloner. For those who are unfamiliar with John Law, who is he? "John Law is an adventure story built around a detective," says creator Will Eisner. "His adventures deal with the occult and he is a strong, honest and heroic character. He was created in 1948 as a potential comic book character. He was never published because sales were not promising. Ultimately, the stories were used in the Spirit series and John Law himself was morphed into the Spirit character."
"John Law is a detective in a corrupt city called Crossroads, a town much like L.A. in the late 40s," adds Chaloner. "The stories are primarily about Law himself and the events surrounding the death of his father. Along the way, the reader gets to meet a wide variety of crims, femme fatales, and suspect characters as well as learning about Law and his past.
"Other characters include two other Eisner creations, Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic, both featured as support to Will's The Spirit in his newspaper section back in the 40s. I've included them as permanent cast members in John Law. Then, of course, there's Nubbin the Shoe Shine Boy."
Why bring Law back now? "He's being revived because we believe he is relevant in the current comic book world," states Eisner.
So how did this project come about? "Well, the abbreviated version is: Kurt Busiek got me a gig for Kitchen Sink's Spirit: The New Adventures," says Chaloner. "Though the story was never published, it got me in touch with Denis Kitchen, Will's agent and friend. I asked him to ask Will if I could develop John Law." Eisner continues the story. "Gary Chaloner proposed recreating and licensing John Law for publishing on the Internet. We accepted Gary's offer because he is a talented creator who is in touch with today's comic book reader."
What is there about the character of John Law that interests Chaloner? "Well, he's a normal guy with an eye-patch. That interests me. It raises questions that as a storyteller I can go off and answer in fun and interesting ways. Why is he a detective in such an evil town? How did he lose his left eye? Why do so many people hate him? And that's just the top of the list.
"Law is also from a generation that went through World War Two. A very important time that changed the world. Law was going through a lot when he was called up. His life was interrupted by the war. So when he comes back to Crossroads, he's not the same man. That's very fertile ground for stories. Law comes back from the War with a new respect for life, having seen so much of it lost so cheaply. Which is why he makes such a good cop when he comes back.
"Besides all that, I think he's very likeable and I hope readers actually care for him and the situations he finds himself in.
"Then, of course, there's the cars, the fashions, the women, the gangsters, the list goes on and on..."
Since Law was created in the 40s, how much updating did Chaloner have to do to make him and the rest of the cast work for a modern audience? "Well, I think a lot of the 'updating' comes from telling the stories with my own voice as a forty year old creator in 2004. There's a personality and style there that's different to Will's and that allows the new stories to have a vibe of their own. Will's 87 now, and he tells stories from a totally different perspective... both from an age perspective and a cultural and experiential perspective.
"One interesting thing: Will was a bit ham strung back in the 40s by social norms and stuff like that. He had Ebony, the cartoony black side kick and all that stuff that's considered racist today. I, as a storyteller, can look back on the 1940s with a different perspective. I can include the racism, the reality of culture clashes between the Hispanics, the Italians, the Irish, the Native Americans, the Asians... I have a bit more freedom than Will did to explore all the cultural relationships in a melting pot like Crossroads... and I plan to use it. Hindsight is great!"
How much input does Eisner have in the new stories? "I have very little input," he says. "My contribution is limited to monitoring the treatment of the character. Stories and art are written and created by Gary Chaloner."
Chaloner adds that Eisner has "as much input as he can spare the time for. He has total editorial say and veto over the stories. Bloody hell! Who wouldn't listen to Eisner?! Luckily, so far, he's left me pretty much alone, so I must be doing something right, or he's very busy. Either way, I've been lucky."
What can readers expect in the new stories in the book? "The stories that make up the first book, Dead Man Walking, lay the groundwork for future material, of which I have about four books worth already planned," replies Chaloner. "It's as self-contained as I could make it, but there are important plot points that will lead into future adventures. There's a hundred odd pages of new material in the book."
There's also a special treat for readers. "The first book will include my original stories and art before the feature was abandoned," says Eisner. "The publishers felt it would provide background."
"These three stories have been restored and toned by me... and they look great!" continues Chaloner. "Will's stuff was made to be toned in noirish greys and blacks. I have to say, it's a bit daunting having Will's material in the back. It's so easy for people to see how perfect that stuff is compared to mine. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound..."
John Law is taking most Chaloner's time. "I'm doing everything myself! Writing, pencilling, inking, toning, lettering and designing... then there's the web site stuff...
"If people are interested in more John Law material by me, they can always check out the weekly updates on ModernTales.com. There's a lot of superb stuff on the site as well... from great creators like Scott Mills, Roger Longridge, Donna Barr, Steve Bryant, cat garza... the list goes on and on. So, do yourself a favor, as they say."
If you're looking for new work by Eisner, it's on the way. He is "working on the final art of The Plot." What is The Plot? Eisner replies that this "book reveals the true story of the origin of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I undertook this because this infamous fraud is still being used by Islamic terrorists to defame Jews. The rise of anti-Semitism around the world makes it important that a response be published now."
Eisner has worked in the field of comics/graphic novels for over 60 years. What does he see as the biggest changes in what he's able to do now versus when he started and how has the public's perception of the graphic novel changed? "Now I find a growing audience of adult readers to whom I can address serious and adult subjects. Graphic novels, at long last, are finding acceptance in libraries and mainstream book stores."
What is there about the graphic novel format that still excites him? "The graphic novel format that I undertook in 1978 still provides me with a limitless platform upon which I can try experimental formats and ideas. There is so much that is yet untried that I am eager to do."