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Steven S. DeKnight talks pulp vibes, demons, and grizzled leads in 'Hard Bargain'

Comic Books

Steven S. DeKnight talks pulp vibes, demons, and grizzled leads in ‘Hard Bargain’

The OGN ‘Hard Bargain’ is currently crowdfunding via Kickstarter.

Steven S. DeKnight has a penchant for big, dramatic storytelling. Whether writing on Angel and Dollhouse, creating Spartacus, showrunning Daredevil, and/or developing the Jupiter’s Legacy adaptation, DeKnight-led stories usually have the mix of action, humor, heart, and massive stakes you’d want in your sci-fi/fantasy/noir/etc. But after years of writing these mega-tales for TV and film, DeKnight is adding to his still-burgeoning comics bibliography by joining forces with artist Leno Carvalho (Dean Koontz’s Nevermore) for Hard Bargain.

Due to be released by Humanoids, Hard Bargain OGN is currently crowdfunding via Kickstarter. (But before it was a campaign, it was reportedly just a long-running story in DeKnight’s head.) The story of Hard Bargain focuses on the (awesomely-named) Frank Harding, a P.I. in 1940s Los Angeles who has to fight thugs as well as “demons, monsters, and other malevolent supernatural beings.” But in his latest hard-boiled adventure, Harding investigates a case “deeply connected to his own murky past—as well as L.A.’s all-too-real history of prejudice and discrimination,” and one that “reckons with the dark underbelly of bigotry, violence, and revenge” plaguing the City of Angels. You may have seen something like Hard Bargain before, but it truly is an inventive slice of supernatural noir strengthened by DeKnight’s storytelling chutzpah.

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The campaign for Hard Bargain runs through early August (Editor’s note: it’s actually July 25) (head here if you’d like to contribute). In the lead up to the campaign’s start, we got the chance to field DeKnight some burning questions about all things Hard Bargain. That includes how he’s transitioned into comics, the story’s arc of growth/development, the “influences” of a series like Angel, the real-world themes at the center of this book, and a potential long-term future for Harding/Hard Bargain in general.

Hard Bargain

Courtesy of Humanoids.

AIPT: I’ve asked other creators in this position, but what is the transition like writing from film/TV to comics? Was it as different and/or similar as you’d expected?

Steven S. DeKnight: The transition from writing film/TV to writing comics definitely took some getting used to. In comics, you really have to pay special attention to the math inherent in the format. You need to plan your reveals where you know the reader is turning a specific page, you need to limit the number of panels per page to give your artist room to work their magic, and if you’re doing a monthly, you generally have to work within the very narrow confines of 20 or 22 pages an issue. Detailed outlining and pre-planning are a must.

AIPT: Apparently this story sat with you for quite some time. Did it evolve or grow over all that time in your head?

SSD: This is one of those ideas that I just couldn’t shake. I hatched it a good 30 (gasp) years ago and set it aside many times during that span, but it always drew me back in. I’m actually grateful it took so long to realize because it gave me time to mature as a writer and really reflect on the deeper social issues of the concept beyond just the tough guy detective kicking ass and taking names angle – which, never fear, there’s still plenty of!

AIPT: I always loved Angel for (among many, many other reasons) it had that distinctly noir/pulp feel. Do you see this book as even a remote spiritual sibling, or did writing for Angel prepare you at all?

SSD: I adored my time working on Angel and even though the idea for Hard Bargain was birthed about a decade before I found myself so blessed to be on that show, it without a doubt shares a spiritual kinship. Angel and Frank Harding are both detectives specializing in supernatural cases, both are masters of the witty quip, and, most importantly, both are haunted by their respective pasts and compensating by trying to do good in the world.

Hard Bargain

Courtesy of Humanoids.

AIPT: What was it like working with Leno Carvalho? How did he help shape or inform the way the world looked and operated?

SSD: I admit that I tortured the good people at Humanoids for over a year searching for an artist. They must have sent me about a dozen, and they were all absolutely the best of the best. I would have been honored to work with any one of them, but for this particular tale, I wanted a very specific style. When they sent me Leno Carvalho’s art samples, I damn near levitated off my chair. He really captured that wonderful cross between two-fisted pulp noir and EC horror comics I was going for. In every single panel on every single page, Leno elevated my words into the stratosphere. Hard Bargain just plain wouldn’t have worked without his incredible mastery of the medium.

AIPT: I feel like noir and hardboiled crime stories have had a resurgence over the last decade-ish (same for horror, really). To what do you describe that interest – is it merely that time’s a flat circle?

SSD: I think noir and hardboiled crime stories are having a resurgence because the arena is just so rich and visually fertile. Plus, with the world being in such chaos, people have a yearning for tales of simpler days long past. What really interest me, however, is showcasing all the elements that make those simpler days so appealing – the fashion, the cars, the whole “men were men and woman were woman” – while simultaneously digging below the surface to reveal that those good old days were actually far from it, and that we must acknowledge that unfortunately little has changed in the grand scheme of the ills of society in respects to racism, misogyny, and economic disparity.

AIPT: The book’s meant to deal with “prejudice and discrimination” as well as Harding being “forced to reckon with the fact that the sins of one generation will always be paid for by the next.” Is this kind of story tailor-made for this “messaging”? How do you balance big action and more cutting context?

SSD: Balancing any sort of social messaging with big genre action is a very delicate bit of baking, and the secret to success is making sure you have all of those elements whisked smoothly together before you pop that idea into the creative oven. What you don’t want to do is have the messaging overpower the taste of the cake. It should always just accent and enhance the flavor. Thankfully with Hard Bargain, the “message,” as it were, is absolutely integral to the mystery that Frank Harding is investigating. In this story, you really can’t have one without the other.

Steven S. DeKnight talks pulp vibes, demons, and grizzled leads in 'Hard Bargain'

Courtesy of Humanoids.

AIPT: What’s the secret to the really great dialogue in this (and all truly great noir in general)? It’s the best kind of cheesy and totally badass.

SSD: In my opinion, Raymond Chandler was the unopposed master of two-fisted, hardboiled, gumshoe dialogue. I devoured his short stories as a teenager, and they are just filled with witty, entertaining, often self-effacing zingers. But it all comes from a grounded place of character and never snappy dialogue for the sake of snappy dialogue. What the characters say always reveals something about them lurking just beneath the surface. Fear, lust, rage – you have to keep an eye on those relatable human emotions, or your dialogue will ultimately just ring hollow. A fate we’ve hopefully avoided with Hard Bargain!

AIPT: What can you tell us about his supporting cast, including Rumi and Nahla. Why is that support system so important? And how do you make a cast that shines but never outdoes our dashing lead?

SSD: It was always important to me to have a diverse supporting cast of characters in Hard Bargain, and Nahla and Rumi fit perfectly into the tale I wanted to spin. Nahla is your classic Girl Friday with a Middle Eastern twist – and more than a few tricks up her sleeve. Rumi, also from the Middle East, serves the vital purpose of our hero’s confidant and supplier of arcane weaponry. The trick with any supporting character and to make them just as intriguing as our hero but never actually overshadowing him or her in the telling of the story. Which isn’t to say that Nahla and Rumi won’t be the heroes in their own stories in future volumes of Hard Bargain.

AIPT: There’s so much lore and history here that, while hinted at, makes the world seem so alive. How much worldbuilding do you do, and how do you decide what to show and not?

SSD: Worldbuilding is such a vital part of any genre storytelling and frankly one of the most joyous things about playing in that sandbox. For me, I always plan out future tales and reveals that go far beyond whatever story I’m presenting. This is largely an offshoot of working in television where you have to make damn sure the series you’re pitching has legs, i.e. enough interesting avenues to go down that it can last five seasons or more without becoming boring or redundant. I applied the same approach to Hard Bargain, where you get tidbits of the lore and history of the world, all of which will be explored in greater detail in future volumes if this first one is successful.

Hard Bargain

Courtesy of Humanoids.

AIPT: I feel like this book is also about brotherhood and family and how these things enhance and complicate life. Is there any bit of that percolating in here?

SSD: The concept of family and brotherhood is definitely a huge part of this story. Not only in relationship to actual family, as played out with Frank Harding and the “villain”” of the story, but also in respects to the family that we build in our lives outside of the bond of blood and lineage. Nahla and Rumi – and to an extent Frank’s pal Irv – are all his family, even though none of them are related. We gather the souls we need around us as we go through life, and together we hopefully make the world a better place for each other.

AIPT: I don’t want to spoil too much regarding the “villain” of this story, but do you see some connections/similarities with Harding? Are they two sides of the same coin in terms of how you deal with loss/grief and how you lean into family/friends/etc.?

SSD: Frank Harding and the “villain” of the story (readers will soon understand why we put that in quotes) are definitely two sides of the same coin, each dealing with their pain and loss and rage in different yet intricately connected ways. There’s ultimately a deep understanding – even compassion – between them despite the fact that fate has pitted them against each other for the most horrible of reasons.

AIPT: Do you see a long term future for Harding? Is this a character with real mileage?

SSD: If the audience responds favorably to this initial volume of Hard Bargain, I have many, many more Frank Harding tales to spin. I’ve roughly mapped out a series arc that will take four or five more volumes to tell, along with hopefully a couple of companion volumes of standalone stories that will allow me to more fully explore the supporting characters while introducing even more unusual denizens of this particular world. Hell, there’s a bouncer at a nightclub Frank Harding goes to in this opening tale who only appears in a few panels. I have a whole story worked out for this guy that I really hope I get to tell. It’s a real knockout!

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