by Alex Dueben
Comics fans may not have heard of Ace Atkins, but they’d be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t find out. Atkins is one of the best mystery writers of this generation. He took over writing the hit series of Spenser novels from series creator Robert Parker following his death in 2012. He’s also currently writing the Quinn Colson novels, with a new entry in the series, entitled The Innocents, out now. In addition, this year 12 Gauge Comics published Atkins’ graphic novel Last Fair Deal Gone Down: A Nick Travers Mystery, which features Marco Finnegan on art.
The Nick Travers series, which Atkins wrote early in his prose career, focuses on an ex-football player turned blues scholar who, in the best noir tradition, does favors for people and inevitably ends up in trouble. Last Fair Deal Gone Down is the first book that adapts the stories into a graphic format. In celebration of its adaptation and the next book in the series, Crossroad Blues, which comes out next year, The Beat sat down with Atkins and Finnegan to discuss how the book came about through twitter, the blues, Elvis, and their collaborative process.
Alex Dueben: For people who don’t know, who is Nick Travers?
Ace Atkins: Nick is a character very much in the mold of classic heroes like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee or Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. As a young guy reading these books I always felt that there weren’t a lot of good Southern heroes and I wanted to develop a Southern hero. I love Chandler and Hammett and Robert Parker and Ross Macdonald and John D MacDonald. That’s what I was raised on as a writer and how I got into writing the books I write now. I love New Orleans, I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans my whole life, and built that character into that world of New Orleans. He’s very much a New Orleans character. He’s an ex-New Orleans Saint who’s into the music scene, but he becomes a problem solver. Friends will come to him with some kind of problem and he’ll help fix it. The Travers books were in the mold of the classic tough guy hero.
Dueben: Those different aspects of the character are so interesting, that he is this big guy, an ex-athlete who teaches at Tulane and is a blues researcher.
Atkins: I had a professor when I was at Auburn who had been a really great football player at Ole Miss and then he had played for the Packers for a while and then he got a doctorate and became an academic. I played football in college and you see people go into coaching and I thought it was cool that this guy who had this athletic background went into academics. I had a natural interest in the blues. I love the blues. It’s great fodder for storytelling.
Dueben: In terms of style, if people pick up the book they’ll be likely think of Darwyn Cooke’s Parker adaptations.
Marco Finnegan: It would be flattering if anybody thought that. I’m a huge huge fan of Darwyn Cooke and the stuff he did in the Parker books–and the fact that he did the Parker books and brought them to comics in the way that he did. Someone who’s known for drawing superhero books–and not only that, but what people call an “all-ages” style–and then doing the grittiest Parker books you can find. I wondering how many people picked that up and thought it was going to be a superhero book or an Ocean’s 11 heist, but were blown away by what it was. You see a lot of other adaptations and they try to make Parker a nice guy and the problem is that he’s not a nice guy.
Dueben: Even more than being influenced by Cooke, I would guess that you have a lot of the same influences that he did–like Alex Toth.
Finnegan: I was lucky enough that when I went to college the comic shop I went to was really silver age-based, and one of the people they turned me onto was Toth. In college we had an assignment to write an artist that we cared about. I thought, I’m going to write to Toth. I tracked down his address and he wrote me back this beautiful eight page letter. It reeked of sharpie and nicotine. I had to read it outside it smelled so bad. I still have it. It was, here’s why I do what I do and the way that I do it and who my influences are. It was a wonderful letter and on the envelope he wrote, I don’t even know if any of this nonsense will help you because I don’t know what you want to do because you didn’t explain yourself. It was cool to get yelled at by Toth via envelope. I wrote him a couple more times and the responses were a lot shorter but the fact that he sat down and took the time to write that was amazing.
I’m also a huge fan of Michael Lark. I reached out to him in college. At the time he was doing mainstream noir stuff–Batman: Nine Lives and Terminal City–and he just blew me away with everything he was doing. He talked a lot about Toth and we had a lot of common ground. He was a huge influence. Even though it happened years ago, they really influenced the way I started thinking about comics.
Alex Dueben: Marco, a lot of people know Ace and his books, but what’s your backstory? This is your first published comic book.
Marco Finnegan: I’ve always wanted to draw comics, but as I got older and I started teaching and I was doing a lot of freelance commercial artwork, comics just fell by the wayside. Whenever I read a book I always do a drawing. I’m a big fan of Robert B. Parker and so I did one of Spenser and Ace got a hold of it and liked it and we just became buddies.
Ace Atkins: A couple years ago Marco tweeted out a picture of Spenser. It had that great edgy noir style to it. I thought it was fantastic. We started a conversation and really started a friendship through social media. Something came about where Marco said, have you ever thought about doing a graphic novel? I said I would love to do a graphic novel but I really don’t know where to begin. He said, “I’ve got some ideas.”
Finnegan: I started reading some more of his work. I read The Devil’s Garden, which is fantastic. I was doing some drawings and he said that he thought it would make a good graphic novel and I said I was thinking the same thing.
Atkins: This is a book set in 1921 around the silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle. Not only were his drawings terrific, but he’d drawn them in the style of comics of the 1920’s. It was just amazing. Unfortunately what happened was the rights were tied up and it was a headache trying to do something. I said, I have this character, Nick Travers, and I have full control over those rights. Would you be interested in this?
Finnegan: I downloaded a couple of the books and I saw the short story. In terms of structure the short story was a pretty straight forward noir tale. It was a really good jumping on point to who is this character and what is he about. And it was shorter. To walk in anywhere and say, you don’t know me at all, please pay me and publish this 200 page book, is bold. I thought it would work well as a four part miniseries because the story had four clear discernible breaks . [12 Gauge Publisher] Keven Gardner wanted to do it as a graphic novel, which I think works better.
Atkins: Marco did some drawings and within just a few days, he said, I think I’ve got a publisher. There’s this company 12 Gauge Comics and I’ve read about Keven Gardner and I think he would be ideal. It turned out Keven and I went to college together. We were at Auburn University at the same time, we’re both originally from Alabama, but it was only through this Southern California artist that we made the connection.
Dueben: When it’s laid out like that, it does seem relatively effortless.
Finnegan: Twenty years of practicing to be ready at the right time! I always tell my students, you never know when it’s going to happen but when you get the opportunity, you have to be ready. I’ve had a lot of opportunities, but I just wasn’t ready.
Dueben: So how do you work together? I’m assuming it’s more than chatting on Twitter now.
Finnegan: I’m spoiled in the way that they’re letting me do this. Keven said, “write the script that you want to do and then show us what it looks like and we’ll give you notes.” Not do the script, get approval, do the pencils, get approval. All three of us want the book to look a certain way and we all agree on what that looks like. There hasn’t been anything where I’ve designed a character or drew a page that we disagreed on.
Atkins: I work with Marco when he does the plotting of the book. I also see the rough sketches, but my involvement as far as direction to Marco is minimal. It’s not because I’m an easy person to work with, it’s not because I’m not super focused on making sure that the books are done right–he just does it. I just saw the outline for Crossroad Blues and it’s actually better than the book. [laughs] He made these changes that streamline the story and I wish I had Marco editing the book when I wrote it.
Finnegan: I don’t know that it’s better, it’s a different language. If somebody filmed Crossroad Blues, they would change things just to make it work for the medium. Crossroad Blues is probably my favorite of the bunch–maybe just because I’ve been reading it so many times. Structure wise it’s all there, I just rearranged some things because it makes it easier to tell the story visually.
Atkins: His drawings are just spot on and he draws them in a way that really brings them to life.
Finnegan: That goes back to Ace because he designs this world so well in the books that it’s hard not to do it justice. When we started I asked, “what do you imagine him looking like?”
Ace said, “Jim Rockford built like The Rock.” I was like “okay, done.” He’s such a visual character. He’s this big ex-football player blues junkie who smokes and drinks and fights. It’s such a visual world and so much fun to draw.
Dueben: In other words, Ace says he does very little and Marco says Ace does a lot. Two completely different takes on a situation is very noir.
Finnegan: Ace did the hard work a long time ago writing it. He writes very visually. The plots are great and the structure is there but what makes him so strong a writer is that each character has their own voice. He completely trusts me with his baby–which is huge–but makes me nervous because I don’t want to send him something that’s off. We collaborate a lot more than he lets on. He probably regrets giving me his phone number because I’ll text him. I’ve never been to the South, I’ve never been to New Orleans, so a lot of that stuff that’s in there is Google Maps and because I want to make sure all that is accurate, I run all that by him.
Dueben: Now, adapting Crossroad Blues is a little different from adapting the short story. It’s longer, there’s a few different plot threads. Have you had to work differently for the next book? How long is going to be?
Finnegan: Right now we’re looking at around 120 pages. I’ve plotted it out and right now I’m thumbnailing everything out and scripting as I go. We’ll see where we land. We’re putting a little more thought into it, or at least I am, in terms of not just doing a straight adaptation. I’m doing the pencils and then give it to Keven and Ace to read to make sure they’re happy before I go back and start inking.
The first time around I was just so excited that after we did the plot and everybody was cool, I just dove in and drew it all. This time because the story has a couple more layers I want to make sure that it looks the way I felt when I read it. The Robert Johnson stuff is fantastic and it’s a great historical lesson about the blues. And these are specific locations. That one person who’s toured the Delta and followed Robert Johnson’s footsteps, I want them to pick up this book and go, he must have been there–even though it’s all Google earth and Ace Atkins pictures.
Dueben: Marco, it sounds like you’re really enjoying the Robert Johnson stories and legends of the book.
Finnegan: The whole Robert Johnson thing is just awesome. I’m not sure how many people about him or that myth. There are some nice things in Crossroads. It’s not an accident that Elvis–who’s known for appropriating the blues and making it popular for his fans–is the villain in this book impersonates Elvis. It’s subtle but it’s there. That goes back to Ace being super smart and a really good writer. He’s not preaching anything about Elvis. I love Elvis. I know Ace likes Elvis. This works on a couple different levels. When you’re dealing with a really good writer, you can reread it and see all that subtext.
Dueben: You guys aren’t just making one other book– it was announced that you’ll be adapting all the Nick Travers books for 12 Gauge over the next few years.
Atkins: I think so. It’s a very cool thing to see readers come back and see new readers meet Nick Travers, a character I was really passionate about, and to see him get a second life in graphic novels. The ultimate goal for me, which would be so cool, would be to start writing original stories for Marco to draw. There are two Nick Travers short stories and four novels, but I hope we come to the point in the future where Keven needs new material and we’ve got to do a new graphic novel. I think that would be great.
Dueben: Ace, you said before that you think Nick works well in comics, better than your other books or characters would.
Atkins: He’s a very graphic novel type character. The character is a little bit larger than life. The villains are more largely drawn. I don’t know if the Quinn books I’m writing now could work in a graphic novel form in the way that the Nick Travers book do.
Finnegan: With The Devil’s Garden and those historical fiction books, there’s so much stuff that really happened that you can’t go too far from reality in terms of the way the characters are designed and the way that they move. Because Nick is this ex-football player scholar it’s believable that on one page he can be talking about historically where the blues came from in the next page throwing somebody through a window. He talks like a college professor but he’s built like a tank.
Atkins: There were things that I did as a novelist that were a little bit crazy. Some of the characters are just so wild. I was writing these books in the nineties and that was the big Quentin Tarantino time and so when you wrote criminals, they couldn’t just be criminals, they had to be whack jobs. So all the villains in the Nick Travers books are really crazy. My newer books are a little more grounded in reality. It’s possible they would not be as exciting as graphic novels. The crazier edges around the Nick Travers books–this surreal new Orleans world, Robert Johnson’s ghost, and all that works great in a graphic novel. I never thought about that when I was writing it, but I think the transfer of the story works.
Finnegan: They’re almost Dick Tracy-like villains
Dueben: I think most people will just go, well, it’s New Orleans.
Atkins: There probably is a hit man who worships Elvis in New Orleans. I wouldn’t doubt it. [laughs]