Image Comics will be releasing Mayday November 2nd, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Set in the 1970s, it tells a tale of Russian spies who are racing for their life to escape America. Meanwhile, in 2016, U.S. relations with Russia seemingly get worse by the day, presidential candidates claim they are friends with Vladimir Putin, and hell, maybe it’s possible there’s a Russian spy revival in the works! I spoke to writer Alex de Campi and artist Tony Parker about their new comic out November 2nd, the research required to write it, and lots more.
AiPT!: The Cold War spanned 1947 to 1991, why did you settle on 1971?
Alex de Campi: Well, I rolled a 1d20…
No, seriously, ’71 is a very transitional, turbulent time in US modern history (and in popular music), and the years after it are some of the most fascinating in the Cold War in terms of events in Europe and beyond.
AiPT!: When you work on a project like this how important is research?
Alex: It depends on the writer. I’m a huge history nerd and there’s nothing I love more than primary sources so of course I marched off and read a dozen autobiographies of Cold War operatives and case officers from both sides, and one biography (Angleton’s). For me, research brings all the plot bunnies to the yard… and it’s given me about four ideas for short prose thrillers to write about events previous to 1971 that just… beg for it, really.
Tony Parker: Absolutely imperative. I don’t want anyone who is familiar with the era taken out of the story by having historical incongruities, and I want anyone who isn’t familiar feel like they’ve fully immersed in it. I avoid modern or idealized representation of it, and try to go straight to historical news photographs and picture archives. I make visual references to pop culture of the time, and Alex’s script makes it incredibly easy for me to drop little things in among her well researched writing.
AiPT!: One of the biggest fears of the Cold War era were that spies were already here inside our country and yet this comic is about two spies trying to get out. Why flip that on its head?
Alex: One of the biggest fears of the Cold War wasn’t actually illegals or NOCs (Sorry, The Americans) — e.g. Soviet operatives under deep cover in the US. It was instead Americans working as spies and passing information to the Soviets. And in the late 1960s, it was that the Soviets were deceiving us with false defectors (thank you, James Angleton, and your remarkable legacy of WTF). The fear of Soviet assets (aka spies) in the US was largely real, with the late-1980s arrest of folks like Aldritch Ames right out of the CIA’s Soviet Bloc division and Robert Hanssen out of the FBI.
(Nomenclature: a spy, or an asset, is a person who gives you information. The person at the intelligence agency receiving that information is a case officer. A person from an intelligence agency engaged in special tasks / active operations is generally referred to as an operative. This is important for clarity. James Bond is not a spy, he is an operative.)
But yeah. Basically I had too much sugar one day and wondered what wold happen if Terence Malick’s BADLANDS was about young Soviet agents. Also I wanted to take the “spy” genre out of its calcified suits-and-poshness state, make the operatives young, make them not in suits, make them uncomfortably close to terrorists.
AiPT!: It seems our culture has had varying ways of showing Russians in stories, from Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs Spy,” to the 1960’s Get Smart, and the Boris and Natasha characters in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. Most recently we have The Americans where the Russian spies are the protagonists. It seems American creators’ take on Russians is a tumultuous one. Why do you think that is?
Alex: …because Russia is a massive country, bigger than the US and hugely culturally diverse? And that even under the Soviets, Russians ranged vastly in their education / intellect / privilege / opinions? I mean, all except for possibly The Americans, the rest of those portrayals of Russians are cartoony bullshit. Amusing bullshit, but still.
AiPT!: Music is a big part of this series–you have a Spotify playlist updated with each issue’s songs (and a song and its lyrics play a big part in the first issue). How much does the music inspire (and inform) the writing and drawing process?
Alex: The writing really comes first, and then I find a song to fit the scene. I very much feel a rhythm, a tempo when I write — it’s an instinctual thing, seeing the pattern of action and emotion in a scene almost like a piece of music. Then I go find the music.
Tony: I’ll try to soundtrack the page or sequence that I’m working on. It helps immerse me into the story, and gives it a sense of temporal authenticity. It also gives me an excuse to listen to music I like from that era that I may not normally be listening to.
AiPT!: Tony, this isn’t your first foray into the 1970’s, is there anything about the era that in your opinion makes it special?
Tony: It was a highly chaotic and transitional period. There was an active and brutal shift in societal paradigms, and a loss of innocence for the United States. There was very little hope, and even less belief in traditional social structures and institutions. This may sound incredibly depressing, but it was wonderful for entertainment. With no walls left to constrict the artist, creative expansion bloomed, and formerly unheard voices were screaming so loud that they could not be ignored any longer. Risks were becoming more commonplace, and decreases in production costs allowed for younger and riskier artists to create their vision. There were a lot of mistakes made, but there were a lot of new entertainers that would have not been able to survive in an earlier era.
AiPT!: Alex, in your Image+ interview you said “Write what you know,” should we take this to believe you have dabbled?
Alex: I’ve taken everything other than heroin. Although there was some really dodgy coke in Hong Kong, that s--t was damp, and there was a rumour the dealers would mix in Horse with the coke to get you more addicted. Anyway, my twenties! They were fun. What I remember.
I keep forgetting I don’t really have a normal life. At my new gym they asked if I had any injuries and I said yeah, wonky left shoulder, fell off a polo pony in the Dominican Republic and a motorcycle in Vietnam and they were all like WUT. (I’ve fallen off a lot of things.)
AiPT!: Tony, there’s quite a trippy drug scene in the first issue and I’m curious how do you approach drawing something so trippy?
Tony: Thanks! Alex wrote some great sequences there. I was inspired by the drug inspired artists of the era, and tried to push the compositional elements a bit further. Comics are a wonderful medium for this, as the restrictions of the page are not near as confining as the restrictions of the screen. Blond deserves massive credit for his work on the sequence (and the whole book, for that matter), for his colors just made it scream out. I kinda happy freaked out when I saw them for the first time on my screen.
AiPT!: Will we feel a sense of completion of the story, at the end, or will there still be questions?
Alex: The miniseries will have an ending, because I am a f-----g grown-up.
AiPT!: What’s your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?
Tony: Social media, Challenge, Fresh Pineapple (crap, I’m boring).