Interview: Jim McCann & Janet Lee on Archaia’s Return of the Dapper Men

Return of the Dapper Men

Return of the Dapper Men

Jim McCann is the writer of Marvel’s popular Hawkeye & Mockingbird and the upcoming Chaos War: Alpha Flight. Janet Lee is a gallery artist. Together they bring you Archaia’s Return of the Dapper Men, a fairy tale that looks like nothing you’ve seen before in comics. Westfield’s Roger Ash spoke with McCann and Lee to learn more about the book.

Westfield: How did Return of the Dapper Men come about?

Jim McCann: Janet and I have known each other for 15 years now. She lives in Nashville and I live in New York, but I go back to Nashville every Christmas and a couple of times through the year. She is a book buyer by day and a gallery artist by every other hour of the day and night. Two Christmases ago, in 2008, I was visiting and saw these three different pieces from different showings. One was a Christmas ornament, one was a little, 5”x8” maybe, framed picture, and then another was a six foot tall painting that she had done. They were three very, very different looking pieces. The ornament was a steampunk looking boy, the smaller painting was a robot girl flying in space, and the large painting had these very dapper looking men raining down on a Victorian setting. It is very Magritte looking. I came back to New York after Christmas and couldn’t get those three pieces out of my head. I had actually brought two of them back with me and put the very large one on hold. To me they told a story. They all went together. I wrote up the proposal and the first paragraph became the intro to what is now Return of the Dapper Men. I basically said to Janet, “Hey, you want to do a graphic novel?” So I pulled one of Nashville’s hottest up and coming gallery artists off the market for the next year and a half. At San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, I brought a few printouts of some of Janet’s work, went to Archaia and pitched it to them on the floor. They did something that rarely happens- said yes right away after hearing the story and seeing the artwork. We immediately kicked it into gear and sat down and planned out the whole story and how Janet was going to go from gallery artist to telling a sequential story. Okay, Janet, your turn?

Janet Lee: [laughs] I’m supposed to take over from there? There’s not much else to tell. That’s pretty much how it happened. Jim sent me an email that was amazing. It made me think of Neil Gaiman and J.M. Barrie and Tim Burton all rolled into one, so of course I said yes.

Return of the Dapper Men page 13

Return of the Dapper Men page 13

Westfield: Had you ever thought of doing a book before, Janet?

Lee: I’ve always wanted to try my hand at book illustration. I kinda thought the first thing I’d end up doing would be a children’s book, but I’ve always loved comics so this was just an amazing opportunity. I couldn’t possibly say no, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

McCann: Me too!

Westfield: You have a unique art style. It’s something different than I think people have seen in comics before. Can you talk about that a bit and was it difficult adapting it to the comic form?

Lee: I’m still completely amazed when I take my little placards to conventions and everyone freaks out because they’re on wood. [laughs] It’s pretty bizarre. For several years I’ve been working in decoupage, which is the very time-honored, 1970s tradition of gluing layers of paper down on a particular object. I had been using decoupage with the gallery art. Jim was calling the pieces that he saw “paintings”, but actually they were giant decoupage pieces that I had done.

I draw original illustrations and layer them onto wood or canvas or something like that. It wasn’t a difficult transition to sequential art: it was the way I envisioned doing the book to begin with. When he originally pitched the project, Jim took a bunch of the decoupage images to show Archaia and they said they wanted exactly that style, so it was a really easy decision to do it that way. It is probably a little more complicated than doing pages the regular way, because I’m drawing multiple layers and gluing them down and sort of building up a picture from behind. But I think it adds a really nice depth and a nice texture to the page that you can’t just get on plain paper.

Initially I started building some of the pages on paper, and it’s just not sturdy enough to withstand layers and layers being shellacked on top of it. I ended up taking a piece of wood that’s roughly trim size and I’ll draw out what I want to do for the page. Then I’ll cut out the individual components and go back in and paint some elements in the panels, maybe do some layers of paper within the panels and then glue the whole thing together. After that, I take the piece to be scanned, and that becomes the page.

Return of the Dapper Men page 15

Return of the Dapper Men page 15

Westfield: Jim, what can you tell us about the story?

McCann: It’s a fairy tale. It is very much in the spirit of the things that influenced us growing up which were the original texts of Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and also Where the Wild Things Are. A lot of Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein, that kind of whimsy. But then also the multiple layers of where an adult can read a story and get one meaning out of it and a child can read the story and get another layer out of it. In saying that it’s all ages, it is all ages in three ways. It’s all ages kid appropriate. It’s all ages, an adult can read it. And it’s all ages in that hopefully that it is something that is for all the ages.

It’s the story about a world where time has stopped and has been stopped for as long as anyone can remember. There are no adults and no one to tell the kids to go to bed, so they have never grown up. They’ve grown wilder and wilder and the robots have become more and more human. It’s become a very segmented society and stagnant. Until 314 dapper looking gentlemen rain down from the sky and time starts back up again. They go about setting things right and getting things back on track. It’s told from the point of view of one of the Dapper Men, a robot girl, and a human boy. It takes place from when time starts back up again at 3:14 pm all the way to bed time. The people and the robots of Anorev have to learn what it is to grow up, to change, and to find destiny. It taps into that feeling and anxiety that children have about going to bed and about changing and growing up. And also about what adults have about what it is that is their destiny or why they’re here; what they’re supposed to do. Plus, a little bit of clockwork universe theory where the world machine is wound up and has ground to a halt and our society needs to change and get back on course. And then a touch of steampunk just for fun.

Lee: It’s all about layers. Decoupage layers. Story layers. The theme is layers.

McCann: Yeah! It is a very layered story but at its heart, it’s our version of a fairy tale.

Return of the Dapper Men page 56

Return of the Dapper Men page 56

Westfield: It sounds like Jim had the initial idea but the two of you worked out the story together.

Lee: It’s been incredibly collaborative. This being my first graphic novel, I don’t know what I expected but Jim’s included me every step of the way. We feed off of each other’s ideas.

McCann: Janet’s art absolutely fuels my ideas as far as the story goes. I pictured Anorev and wrote it down in the script, and then Janet took it to a whole other level just as she’s done with everything – the characters, all of the settings. When we were plotting things out, she was drawing character sketches and she drew a girl. I saw her and I instantly knew that was one of our antagonists. Just as the initial three pieces inspired the story, I’ll look at things that she’ll just doodle and be completely inspired. Her art really does speak to me. Not in an “I hear voices in my head” kind of way. [laughter] I absolutely love working with her. I’ll throw something out there and she’ll knock it out of the park. She’ll come back with something totally unique. Or she’ll draw something and it will add another layer to the story. I’ll go back in and say, “Oh! OK, no. We should totally have this.” At Christmas this past year she had drawn another doodle. Return of the Dapper Men is rather self-contained, however as soon as I saw this doodle that’s no bigger than your hand, I all of a sudden knew how we could make this a trilogy. I knew exactly what the story was for two more books. It speaks a lot to how collaborative a process this is and how much we continue to inspire each other.

Lee: I think I’m getting completely spoiled. Am I ever going to have a partner as good as Jim again? No. He’s stuck with me forever, obviously. [laughter]

McCann: And I don’t want to let her go either. I am lucky enough to have a partner like Janet.

Westfield: And you have Todd Klein designing the cover for you.

McCann: Yes. That was amazing. They had Todd come on and his sensibilities, going back to Sandman and all through the years, really gives that other world type of feeling. He and Janet worked much closer, so Janet can talk about that.

Lee: Todd came in and his initial ideas were completely in the direction I wanted to go and then he made one suggestion: he wanted to add an organic element to the cover and it just clicked at that point. It was exactly like a turn of the century children’s book would be and that was perfect. I don’t know if we would have gotten there without him. He is a genius.

Return of the Dapper Men page 59

Return of the Dapper Men page 59

Westfield: Jim, you were telling me earlier that there are some announcements people should be watching for.

McCann: There are a number of announcements still to come between now and when the book hits that will attract both comic book readers and I think it’s safe to say that it’ll attract a lot of attention from the general populace with the people that are involved. The support for this book has been overwhelming. Archaia’s been phenomenal, I have to say. They have been so great to Janet and I. They let us take these crazy ideas and this incredibly unique art style and they’re taking a huge chance on a fairy tale and throwing their support right behind the book. We’ve found the same thing has happened within the artistic community. There are a number of artists who have asked to, and have agreed to do, pin-ups. A lot of names within the comic book industry and outside of it that’ll surprise a lot of people and will excite a lot of people, as well as some amazing graphic artists. There have been a number of artists and writers within the community that have put their support behind the book by going on Twitter and going on Facebook and talking about how excited they are. The person writing the intro, the foreword, is someone that I can’t even believe said yes, but I’m so honored and thrilled that we got a yes and with as much excitement as we have for the book. The support from the whole community has been very flattering and very humbling.

Lee: I agree.

Westfield: Is there anything else either of you are working on that people can look forward to?

Hawkeye & Mockingbird #6

Hawkeye & Mockingbird #6

McCann: Hawkeye and Mockingbird, we’ve got a lot of great things coming up. There’s been a lot of support behind that book, both critical buzz and fan buzz. The action and drama is just going to keep accelerating.

Lee: And Mouse Guard.

McCann: Yeah! David Petersen has asked Janet and I to do a story in Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Volume 2. Then a couple of other things that Janet and I have planned that people have asked us about. So it looks like we’re starting to be a team. That’s awesome.

Lee: Yes. That’s exciting.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

McCann: Thank you to everybody who’s supporting the book out there in fandom. And supporting all our work. It means a lot to us. And thanks to Archaia and Janet, to the professionals and fans that have been spreading the word about it, as well as all of the people that are involved in the process doing pin-ups, the foreword, Todd Klein, Dave Lanphear who’s lettering it. Everybody who’s been a part of team Dapper, we’re very, very thankful.

Lee: We are. And you know, I haven’t done comics work previously but I’ve gone to conventions and been a fan for ages. It’s really amazing to be on the other side. Just meeting people and getting to talk about the artwork — not just to people within the industry, but to people who come to the Archaia booth– has been wonderful. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

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