RED LIGHT PROPERTIES, now available in its first five issues through Monkeybrain Comics on Comixology, is a genre mixer with a gritty dose of realism that, for Eisner-nominated writer and artist Dan Goldman, hits close to home. Growing up in Miami, and aware of its hectic combination of cultures, crime, and mystery, Goldman ingested plenty of fodder for comics creation. A lifelong interest in the paranormal and occult has taken him down some unusual roads in storytelling, and his unlikely but all too human hero Jude Tobin couldn’t have a stranger profession: exorcist for haunted properties in Miami during the current economic slump. His methods “green light” properties that are bedeviled by hangovers from their violent pasts with a practical result of money in the pocket for our occult explorer as well as downtrodden home owners. It’s just a day in the life of a guy who ingests psychedelic substances to boost his own natural sensitivity to the spirit world in order to sell houses.
Goldman’s approach to comics storytelling establishes belief in a number of intriguing ways. Not only does Goldman emphasize the personal relationships in Jude’s life, dealing with a live-in ex wife who still has feelings for him, a step-son who is starting to display his own occult abilities, and wrestling with his own personal demons including his dead father’s ghost, but he also explores a relationship crux in the stories of many of the haunted properties. Many of the darkest emotions that haunt “red light” real estate spring from love and loss, and owners themselves benefit from Jude’s exorcisms by making peace with traumas in their past. Add to that the artistic methods that Goldman pursues, including use of photography and digital imaging, as well as increasingly experimental page layouts, and RLP delivers a hefty sense of realism alongside its phantasmagorical subject matter.
RLP has been a long-term project for Goldman as an indie creator, and he’s particularly enthused that the comic has now found a home at Monkeybrain. It’s the kind of comic that naturally makes you want to fire questions at the creator. It’s the equivalent of seeing a circus performer pull off a remarkable high-wire act while juggling weighty and disparate materials to create a unique spectacle. You want to ask, “How on earth did you do that?”. But I tried to ask him a few intelligent questions rather than just gawking at his handiwork.
HM-S: How did you come up with the unusual concept for RED LIGHT PROPERTIES?
Dan Goldman: It comes from the collision of a few things kicking around my head for many years: waking up at night and feeling someone watching you from the empty hallway, listening to my mom rattle off war stories of Miami real estate drama for twenty-odd years, my own experiences growing older in this body while trying to figure life out. I was working RLP for nine years before I drew the first page, trying to develop my visual style because the characters were already walking around in my head and I needed the chops to do them justice.
Red Light Properties’ owner/shaman Jude Tobin serves a dark mirror for me, person I’ve looked deep into and decided I don’t want to be. He comes off as an asshole but he’s really just misunderstood with bad communication skills. He and his family are utterly real to me, and that makes RED LIGHT PROPERTIES a great platform stand on and poke all these ideas about life and death and love and consciousness and failure, all using the language of comics.
HM-S: I notice that the setting is not only Miami, but multi-ethnic. What does this bring to the comic for you?
DG: The whole world is multi-ethnic now, I’m just reflecting it. The world grows richer and more interesting in places where cultures bump up against each other. I grew up in Miami, where the series takes place, before I ever traded it for New York City (or more recently São Paulo). All three of these cities are massive destinations for immigrants. It’s how I’ve always seen the world, so it’s only natural that it’s a part of this one too.
HM-S: Has researching the occult and haunted property taken you into some strange places mentally or physically, or is the background for the work purely imaginative?
DG: I’ve been researching the occult/paranormal since I was a boy. My grandfather died right after my fifth birthday and I used to see him around the house for years. After he passed, my mother shared with me something she’d read about Peter Seller’s death experiences during a heart attack and it just sunk down into my consciousness, emerging again around the time I got a library card. I think it was the same summer GHOSTBUSTERS came out. I was a weird little nerdling then; I used to ride my bike to the library during the summer (they had cold A/C) and I stayed mostly in the back aisle of the library, poring over musty old spirit photography books.
So whether it’s perception or just my overactive imagination, I’ve been plenty of places that made me feel things and theorize about them: my brother lived in an apartment that made my skin crawl the moment I set foot there. It turned out that the landlady’s sister committed suicide and she kept her ashes in a box in top of the closet (while he lived there). There are always touches everywhere I went and sensitivities to energies that I’ve been aware of… and whenever I dug deeper, usually found a cool story in answer to my questions.
That desire for the underlying pattern that explains how life/death works is where Jude Tobin comes from.
HM-S: Jude is a pretty extreme character who appears to struggle with a reason to live, “whacked out on drugs and living with ghosts”. What is it about Jude’s character that appeals to you and how do you think he appeals to readers?
DG: Jude’s tragedy is that he needs to take hallucinogenic drugs to fully access the spirit world and accomplish exorcisms, which is rough on the body and the mind. Cecilia asks this of him on a daily basis, knowing that it keeps him straddled between the living and spirit worlds… but without his work, they’re just another real estate agency in a depressed market. It’s Jude’s talent that drives the office, and she’s determined to be successful, even though she knows it comes at a huge price for her family.
He appeals to me because as any cartoonist knows, when you sit down to draw pages, you’re separated from everyone else’s world, coming up for air to eat with your loved ones and get a little rest. To Jude, his shamanism is a kind of art, so I relate to him artist-to-artist. I think that’s clear to readers too.
HM-S: Jude seems to have a sensitivity to the supernatural without the use of drugs, but he uses them to boost his consciousness, often further than he expects. Do you find it difficult to depict these kinds of altered states in comics form?
DG: Yes, as a baseline, Jude was born with a sensitivity to spirits. He knows when they’re around and can sometimes see them, but he needs a heavy entheogenic agent from his toolkit to amplify his abilities enough to project himself into the spirit realm and interact with them directly. There’s a whole logic to the way ghosts function in relation to the life/death membrane that I get into the book and how Jude’s drug-mixes relate to that.
Is it difficult to depict? Yeah. But it’s also the most fun part of drawing RLP. I love weird brain-melty comic page designs and surreal storytelling dropped in the middle of mostly-realistic stuff, so Jude’s work-trips are a perfect excuse for me to let any story off the leash and maul the reader’s eyeballs for a while.
HM-S: What about this comic makes you want to write and draw it?
DG: The initial germ started off as metaphysical questions but now all these characters are ALIVE IN MY HEAD AND THEY HAVE TO GET OUT. Getting the first chunk of the story done was literally a release of a decade’s worth of pressure in my skull — trepanning by comics — but the more I tickle them to understand their life stories, the more the whole story starts growing. I think I’m gonna be at this a while…
HM-S: What’s it like both drawing and writing the comic? Are there pros and cons to being your own creative team?
DG: The drawing for me is a lot hard harder than the writing, which just kinda flows out of me when I sit down. The art — especially getting it just the way I want it — is a brutal process, like squeezing juice out of oranges until there’s just nothing left. I’m always destroyed at the end of a story. It also takes longer; I think I’d be much more prolific if I worked with artists and just worried about the script… but I don’t know anyone who can do RLP the way I do it.
HM-S: I notice the use of photographs blended with artwork. Is that a form you think is particularly suited to comics?
DG: It’s just a style that I’m playing in; RED LIGHT PROPERTIES actually combines photography and rendered 3D models and digital artwork together into its comic pages. I’m comfortable using whatever tools are at my fingertips to give the stories the most impact I can.
Comics are a fluid and evolving medium anyhow, stories made using words and pictures. I have zero patience with anyone who insists otherwise; I just smile and nod as they tell me about which Windsor & Newton brush they like best.
HM-S: While there’s the overarching theme of the occult and supernatural, relationships seem to be a major focus of the series, from Jude and his ex-wife Cecilia, to the stories behind the properties. What role do you think relationships play in the comic?
DG: The relationships are everything in RLP because that’s what makes characters worth caring about. I purposefully make their little tensions and joys as dramatic than the supernatural events, things that would be horrifying to us but they’re totally desensitized to after years in the business. That’s interesting to me as a creator and reader: I want to know what this kind of work, and what trying find meaning in the living world while surrounded by spirits of the dead feels like.
Where the casework, the haunted properties, come in is to ground every ghost stories in something human. Having a poltergeist throwing dishes around is neat visually but it’s got no emotional meat to it. When you find out the tragic reasons and complicated metaphysical structures behind those flying dishes and how to “treat” the house, suddenly the scenario demands more of your attention than just a Hollywood BOO!-type scare.
HM-S: A lot of the more seemingly fantastic elements of the comic, from occult rituals to bizarre murder cases, are actually pretty firmly grounded in reality, aren’t they? What do you think is the value of talking about subjects like pedophilia, murder, and the afterlife?
DG: Placing RLP in the “real world” demands that, doesn’t it? Miami is a violent and vapid city where crazy things happen every day, and these good and bad things are all part of human experience. When you’re delving into the reasons why spirits linger in a structure, that’s historically been the explanation for hauntings (though I’ve got a doozey coming up that gets into the inverse of that).
What draws me to telling ghost stories (versus, say, zombies) is that they’re not just the shells that remain of who we were but echoes of the dreams and experiences that aren’t ready to let go, for whatever reason. And the spectrum of reasons behind that is rich material to tell all kinds of stories with.
HM-S: I notice that “A Series of Tubes”, issue #5, really branches out in terms of panel design. In creating and designing the artwork for the comic, have you had any surprises or discoveries?
DG: I’m so happy you brought that up. I’m very proud of A SERIES OF TUBES… I’m not sure what started happening there, maybe I just really let myself go with those layouts and got all free-jazz with them. The end result is a direction I’m continuing to push in with the new stories I’ve been working on.
The biggest discovery that came from that was how little of it was conscious. I’m a heavy full-scripter and a very loose sketcher, and when I finished the story and read it, I was transported, like I was reading someone else’s work. That’s a good sign to me.
[Photo by Seth Kushner]
HM-S: So what’s the history of RED LIGHT PROPERTIES in terms of production? How did it end up at Monkeybrain?
DG: In the three years I’ve been creating this series digitally, I’ve stayed free enough approach the series from different directions without being locked down to a single format or system. RLP started off as a free publisher-sponsored webcomic serial, it became DRM-free digital issue downloads on its own site, and now it lives at Monkeybrain Comics as an exclusive part of Comixology.
It was always the intention to tell these characters’ stories in an ongoing series like this, though at launch I saw it as a series of graphic novels because the digital marketplace hadn’t really happened yet. This whole time, I’ve been watching my creator friends having a blast in a floppy-to-trade world, and I’ve developed a really intense case of “ongoing series envy.” Until now, all my books have been for the book trade; the only time a comics publisher has ever published my work was a 4-pager I had in Image’s POPGUN anthology. But comics are born from serializing, designed for series. In the book trade, it’s something they’ve learned from us and had great success with. So when it came time to make a new change, doing an ongoing series of digital issues seemed like the cleverest route. No shipping delays, shortages, returns, or waiting on the publisher.
And in the digital-first series world, becoming part of Monkeybrain Comics was an obvious choice. They speak fluent internet. They’re the tiny mammals eating dinosaur eggs, poised to inherit the landscape. That’s something was already a part of, but we are stronger together. Being able to publish easily and quickly to Comixology in multiple languages on all major platforms (except videogame consoles, right boys?) means I’m maintaining almost as much control as I had rolling solo, but now I’ve got distribution and discovery on my side as well. It’s a huge flaming sword to cut through the noise with.
[Photo by Seth Kushner]
HM-S: What’s coming up for RED LIGHT PROPERTIES? What are you most excited about?
DG: Word of mouth around Miami is going to bring the Tobins a lot more success and attention than they’re prepared to handle, which is going to cause all kinds of problems for them, professional and personal. There’s a long road ahead for Jude and Cecilia, and I’ve got many stories in the can, just waiting to get out.
Presently, I’m finishing up the remastering work on the existing part of the series, making the early pages and script the best I can before releasing them as digital issues through Monkeybrain. There are print collections coming too but it’s not the time to announce anything just yet.
I’m probably most excited about finally seeing these characters in print; for three years, I’ve been watching them jump screens with nothing new for comic shops or book stores or my table at conventions. That’s all going to change soon, and it’s gonna be glorious.
HM-S: Thanks for the in-depth insights, Dan! You do realize that you’re going to make all your readers think twice before buying a new house, don’t you? Well, we know who to call, at least.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.