Interview by Johnny Destructo at AICN
Johnny Destructo here! I was lucky enough to get a phone interview with Rick Remender, the talented scribe behind THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME, UNCANNY X-FORCE, PUNISHER and VENOM. We discuss THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME, a fantastic 3 issue mini-series put out by Radical Comics. We also go on to talk about the differences between writing creator-owned works and mainstream comics, the reason why Deadpool is such a SNARKtapuss and how he gets into a character’s head. Rick also gives us the scoop on the upcoming sequel to THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME and the film starring Sam Worthington! Read on!
JOHNNY DESTRUCTO (JD): So, Rick, I’ll be honest, I just finished THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME. It totally missed me when it first came out in the shops and I didn’t get around to it until I knew I’d be talking to you. I know there are other unfortunates out there that have missed this. Give us a quick run-down on why they should go get it.
RICK REMENDER (RR): Well, obviously, beyond the initial concept, which I think is a strong hook, the book itself is just a labor of love. Greg Tocchini and I spent a number of years on that, giving it way, way more than was financially feasible in terms of the investment of time versus financial reward at the onset of it. We didn’t know it would have, you know, film interest later on, or sell as well as it did. It was just a matter of wanting to make an astounding and a beautiful crime book to the best of our abilities. Something that was a little neo-future and something that hadn’t been done before, and still staying true to the McGuinness aesthetic of something very gritty, ugly and crime-y. So, yeah, if you haven’t seen the book, I don’t think it’s a hard sell. You just gotta pick it up and look at it. I mean, Greg Tocchini’s art by itself is worth the price of admission. The trade is reasonably priced for a hundred and fifty pages of material for $15.
And the concept is a not-too-distant future, where, in response to a number of terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has devised a neuro-inhibitor that will prevent the population from committing unlawful acts, and this will be broadcast from various radio towers and special broadcast towers across the country and will ostensively end American crime. We follow a team of grifters on a heist job as they go to do one last big score before crime becomes impossible.
JD: That’s the hook that brought me in, when I heard about the A.P.I. (or American Peace Initiative), which is the name of the “mind-control ray,” if you will. I thought that was a great hook. But I have a question about the A.P.I., actually. The way it works is that it physically prevents you from engaging in illegal activities, but you have a bunch of criminals trying to set themselves up with really big scores so that they’ll be rich before the A.P.I. turns on, but wouldn’t the beam prevent them from trying to spend their ill-gotten gains anyway?
RR: Well, no, the whole story is about them trying to get over into Mexico after the heist, or Canada.
JD: Right, that specific group. But there seem to be, throughout the background of the story, you have other thugs and criminals trying to amass as much money as they can and I was just wondering if that beam wouldn’t allow them to spend it, since they know it’s illegal.
RR: Sure, you’ve got, in Kevin’s dad, who’s the mob boss of the South, you see somebody who’s moved all of his business into credit cards and banking. The new criminal enterprise if you will… legal criminal enterprise. So he’s already set up, and that was a big part of Kevin’s story, that his dad isn’t gonna be in crime anymore. Since the announcement, he’s been moving his operations into things that will be legal on paper. And then you’ve got some other gangsters that maybe haven’t thought it through as well as they could, or are planning on leaving the country as well once they acquire the McGuffin… the point of the heist is a device, you know… in order to distract people from the A.P.I. going off, they’ve devised a… well, not devised, but it’s something that I see potentially coming down the line in our future, anyway, where the government is shifting from paper currency to digital transfers, where everybody would have a fiduciary charge card and have all of their transactions recorded and everything would be taxable and there wouldn’t be any more cash. It would make it more difficult to do illegal things like buy drugs or weapons because you’d have no more paper currency to do it with. And what Graham Bricke, our focus, has discovered, is that there’s a bank where he has worked his way in as a security guard, and they have a lot of these machines that charge these fiduciary cards, and each one is responsible for X amount of digital currency and can charge the cards unlimitedly, if hacked correctly. So this becomes the object of everyone’s desire and everybody has a different plan on how to use it if they get their hands on it, but it’s a box that if cracked, can charge unlimited funds.
JD: Actually, as a side note, you were talking about the future of finances and everything being on credit cards and you wouldn’t be able to do things like drug transactions or say, prostitution… I think we would find a way around it. I think we would go back to the barter system for those things.
RR: Hmm… yeah, I’m sure. But, again, that’s the one-two-punch to stop crime. A: take away the paper currency and then B: the broadcast that would make it impossible in the first place. So, yeah, were it not for the broadcast, they would obviously find other ways around it.
JD: I was kind of startled, you just kind of jump right into it, which is a fantastic way to start the book and I like that you don’t coddle the audience with exposition and you just kind of throw them into the story face first. When you look at the grand scheme of this story, there are so many places you could have started… what was it about the bathtub scene that made it your key starting point of this storyline?
RR: Well, tonally, it sets the stage for what you’re going to be seeing in the book: it’s brutal. It defines Graham, it defines the world around them, and it defines the heist… so, for me, it was a matter of in a 7 or 8 page sequence I got to set up the world. It’s interesting that you said it wasn’t an exposition-dump, because it kind of WAS, but I think the art of opening a story and getting the exposition dealt with is finding a way to do it where it DOESN’T feel like you’re dealing with an exposition dump and, to me, having Graham torture Enrique… it was an opportunity to A: have them discuss the job that Enrique has screwed up, costing Graham his crew to finish the job, B: again, it showed how mercenary and brutal Graham can be, AND, via their conversation, set the stage that there’s not going to be any opportunity to do this in a couple more weeks, so it sets up that ticking time-bomb in the distance.
JD: You were talking about Graham and about how brutal he is in this beginning scenario. Is there something, as a writer, that appeals to you about writing a villain that the audience comes to root for versus a straight-up hero?
RR: I think it’s about character. I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a hero or a villain. They don’t exist in reality, so I don’t write them. What we do have are degrees of character attributes, people with ethical and moral compasses and how they point in different directions, but nobody THINKS they are a villain. Everybody manages to find some bullshit to tell themselves, to do anything they want and then they rationalize it in their head. “Oh, I’m gonna fuck that guy over who’s trying to get a promotion at work because, you know, two years ago he didn’t show me respect,” or something… “And he deserves it because nobody wants to work with that guy,” or any number of scenarios. You point out any terrible, evil person, going to Hitler! Going to the most… every evil person, every evil deed is completely rationalized and nobody ever truly believes that what they are doing is wrong, and so, in terms of writing character, I try to start from that standpoint, and while Graham is a brutal criminal in terms of he’s in an underworld with gangsters and terrible people trying to steal a lot of money, he’s doing it against a system that is Orwellian and it’s frightening, and it’s one that we WANT to rail against. We want to see the small guy rise up against the corporate, government overlords who are tightening the grip on us. We want to see him succeed and get one over; he’s a hard-luck case. He’s trying to take care of his mom who is sick while he’s doing all of this. His motives are human, his motives are motives that any one of us could have: a sick mother. He got out of prison and all he could find was work as a janitor because of his record. He’s put in a spot that makes him identifiable and, as a character, interesting, I think. So, ultimately, you’re rooting for this guy who’s an underdog to succeed, and the people that he exacts his revenge on, that he deals his brutality to are hardcore gangsters and scumbags for the most part and are people who we don’t see any problem getting their come-uppance.
JD: Speaking of these characters, you have so many voices to deal with. There’s the 40-something career criminal, the young, sexy femme fatale, the rich, douchebaggy guy…. and you know, they say that a writer, when he’s writing different characters, they are all a part of that writer. How do you find the voice for each of these characters when you’re writing your own creator-owned content?
RR: When I create characters, I have a character worksheet that I fill out, and I go through and I define who they are, and I build the whole thing. It’s got hundreds of questions you’re supposed to answer and by the time you’re done answering all these questions, you have 3D optics on a character as a human being in your mind. And so, before starting the book, before even designing the characters, I did these and I sent them to Greg and he has these for his designs, so he knew who these people were as well as he was designing them. That’s something that pays dividends in terms of story and character arcs because you know who they are and you know where they’re going and you know what they will or won’t do to get there. And as for the writer’s voice, it’s difficult to put my finger on what part of Graham I identify with because a lot of it is fictional, a lot of it is Steve McQueen/Clint Eastwood tough guy talk. And that’s fun to write! It’s fun to pretend you’re that tough guy, more than anything else. Falling into a character like that can be a little empowering and it’s a ton of fun, but as for his voice and for who he is, I feel that it’s a matter of wanting to see a character, an underdog, overcome insurmountable odds and overcome an authoritarian system and I think that’s something we can all identify with on some level. Shelby is a victim of abuse and she’s duplicitous and she’s not who she says she is, and we slowly unravel her… and that’s not an attribute that I have, but it’s one that I know plenty of people who exhibit, so I think on that front… I use some people that I know or have known as an example more than I use any of my own experience or voice.
JD: That’s an “easy cheat,” you know, when you’re writing stuff that you’ve created yourself, you’re not going to start out writing a character that you don’t really have a feel for because you have that luxury. But let’s say that for Marvel, or for other publishers, if you have to start writing for characters that you’re not as comfortable with… are there characters that you sort of struggle with in terms of finding their voice or motivations?
RR: I do a lot of work before writing a character to make sure I don’t fall into those problems, like when I took on X-FORCE, PUNISHER or VENOM… any of the things that I’ve recently written for Marvel. I spend a great deal of time prior to writing the books researching the characters, writing out what I think about the characters, what they think about each other, their interpersonal dynamics, how their histories interconnect… you know, their view of the world, what they want for the future, their families… all of these things that define a person as well as peeling away some layers. Why is Deadpool always joking? Is he just crazy? That’s not a very interesting character to me. So, for that, I discovered that, for me, most people I know that are constantly riffing and constantly joking, they’re so desperate for that validation from those around them and they are so desperate for that approval that they’ve learned this tool of this desperation banter, where they are constantly making these goofs to try and sway or, in some way, even manipulate the people around them to like them.
JD: Well, yeah …you even touch on that with Phantomex and Deadpool. I think Phantomex even calls him out on that.
RR: Right! And their conversation was the thing I used to unearth that. To show that, for me, Deadpool IS that, and he’s somewhat needy. He still is crazy, his brain doesn’t work right and he’s still a tremendous mercenary, but, for me, that was an interesting angle for the character that humanized him and made me empathize with him. I think when he’s just a cartoon, you can fall into a lot of traps with that in terms of finding empathy. But, that said, I think that what Dan Way is doing with the regular series is tremendous too, and a lot of this was sort of born of things that I saw Dan developing.
JD: You had mentioned earlier that you were working on filling out these “style sheets,” if you will, of characters and what they are like and their different characteristics. Is that something that you create yourself to fill out or something that you found online or through a class or something?
RR: The starting point was given to me, God, a long, long time ago and I don’t even remember who gave it to me or when it was given to me and then I went in and added a few hundred questions of my own, things that I think define character and can help you sort of get your mind around what it is you’re writing. By this point, I think it has, like, 800 or 900 questions. I don’t do that for every character I write because some of them I already feel comfortable enough with, but for a brand new character, I will try to spend an afternoon and move through the questionnaire and fill out as much of it as possible. If you can find 3 or 4 hours per character to do it, it really pays dividends. I think you can find these sorts of things online or you can even make your own up.
“What’s the character’s response, or preferred mechanism of dealing with authority?”
“Did the character serve in the Military?”
“What do they think of their mom?”
“How many siblings, color of eyes?”
“Where were they when 9/11 happened?”
Just anything like that, and as you get your head around who they are, it gives you a lot of other ideas.
JD: In THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME, you employ this inner monologue style where the main character, Graham, he has an interesting way of speaking in his mind. He thinks things like “Crazy’s punctual,” and “Optimism gets eager.” Would you like to explain where that came from? It definitely has a very NOIR feel, is that a reference that I’m missing?
RR: Stylistically, I think it comes from a couple places. I was reading James Elroy prior to writing that and Elroy is very terse, he has a very concise style. He’ll take a sentence and trim it down to just a few words. I find that I try to cut the fat out of anything I write. The fewer words, the better. I think that when you see verbose writers, I think it reads as egotism, and it wastes my time. So, I don’t want my time wasted and I know that people don’t want their time wasted, so I find ways to write in a very terse style that gets the same amount or more information across and gets the same emotional hits without having to fill up a panel with text, which to me is lazy and irresponsible, especially given the medium we work in, where people work hard to make these beautiful pages of art. I also like the inner monologue with quick bursts of thought because it reads naturally and it moves me through the panel and it adds a sense of time. When I read a couple quick bursts of thought and I see a character doing something, the visuals take me a certain amount of time to absorb, but then by breaking up something that could be two sentences and putting it into one caption, by breaking that into three captions and having it be just a couple words per caption, it just sort of moves you through the panel and adds a sense of time passing. It takes longer because I write everything out, the full script with the full dialogue and then I self edit until I cut every bit of fat. It was something that I picked up when I was reading James Elroy and something that my editor at Marvel, Axel Alonso, was pushing me to do on Punisher because he was pointing out that I was getting a little verbose in Frank Castle’s thought captions and he was going through and trimming them to show me how much you can do with less. On things that I had already trimmed down, he would show me “Nope, just cut all of this except for just this word,” and you get much more impact that way. It doesn’t take your mind 2 seconds to read this caption, it’s just one word, “Desperation,” or whatever. It has more impact and keeps you actively engaged in the story and flipping pages instead of being bogged down by some egotist’s long-winded, rambling text. As writers, we all hear dialogue, we can all do that. I find it’s a better system for me and I like the challenge of trying to see how I can take what should have been 2 or 3 balloons and cut it into one sentence.
JD: It especially seems to happen within the action sequences in the book and it comes across as very realistic, because nobody thinks in these overly verbose, intricate thought patterns, it’s just little bursts of emotion or, you know, sensing something. Very naturalistic, it struck me as very cool.
So, I hear there’s exciting news regarding a film version of LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME? Sam Worthington as Graham Bricke and F. Gary Gray is going to be directing it?
RR: Yup, and I’m getting news from Cannes, where they’re shopping it right now, it’s got a ton of distributors signed up, so it looks like we have a movie coming up. The screenplay is tremendous; I was blown away by it. I watch Friday about once a year, and I still do and I have since it came out. The movie has no business being as good as it is. It’s a solid screenplay, solid performances, amazing direction, and it, again, captures tone so well. It really places you in that area of Los Angeles at that period of time. His (F. Gary Gray’s) work on The Italian Job… and, obviously, Sam is blowing up and crazy. He’s tremendous; I think that seeing him as Graham is going to be great. It’s a role that we really haven’t seen him in and he’s going to bring a lot of depth to it.
JD: When I heard that Sam Worthington was going to be in it, I was, at first, very enthusiastic, but then it sort of occurred to me that he’s so much younger than Graham is… are they going to sort of age him or is it that he just happens to be younger?
RR: They’re just going to make him a little younger. I think the paradigm… I think the shift will be that Shelby and Kevin will be a little younger. They’ll probably be in their early to mid-twenties and then Sam, who’s in his mid to late thirties. And so the dynamic still works, you’ve got the older guy and a younger couple who are 10 or 15 years younger as opposed to 25 years younger. It changes it a little in that he’s not as old and grizzled, but underlying motives are still there and the character is still there in the screenplay. The minor alterations to fit Sam have been really well massaged.
JD: You mentioned the screenplay, and I was reading an interview you had done previously and you said that you were writing the screenplay, but it looks like the press release lists the script by Karl Gajdusek.
RR: I did the first draft, then Karl came in and did another one. For the funding, we needed someone who had previous experience. To get the kind of money it takes to make something like this independently, which is what we’re doing, outside of the studio system where we have a giant studio bankrolling this, they didn’t want to take the risk of somebody who didn’t have screenwriting credit and that’s understandable. I took that in stride. And the second version of the screenplay is, frankly, better than mine. He’s a tremendous writer, just tremendous, but obviously benefitted from having the structure of the comic and my first screenplay there so that he could then pick and choose from. There are two or three flaws in the screenplay, in my first draft–I never did a second or a third. In the very first draft, then he solved (the flaws) in his and tied it up a little bit. It’s very common to have a number of screenwriters pass it on down the line. For me, the important thing is that we get a great film out of it and Karl’s done such an amazing job, I think that we’re going to.
JD: How did you feel writing the script? Was it exciting? Were you nervous about it?
RR: I’ve written 2 screenplays now. That was my second. The first one was with a co-writer, which took the stress out a little bit. I was writing that screenplay at the time I was writing a couple books for Marvel. I was finishing up FEAR AGENT and I was writing the Bullet Storm video game. So I was just a little bit too busy to actually hit nervous.
JD: I gotcha! So, the comic sequel… THE LAST DAYS are going to be continuing. So is this going to be continuing as a sequel?
RR: It’s just another group of people in the same situation. I’ve got two stories that I’ve written. The first one we’ll be getting to is called LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME: DEATH OR GLORY; this takes place in a small town where the API is announced. The entire town are members of a militia who have been predicting a government take over of this manner, or something… they’re highly paranoid and anti-government. They’ve built sort of a Thunderdome shantytown around a couple gas stations in the middle of the woods. So once the API is announced, they gather up, jump in their pick-up trucks and take off to go sequester themselves in their militia hole. And it’s a love story about the daughter of the man who is the head of the militia and a transplant in the town, a guy who was just traveling from New York to Portland, where he was supposed to join a band. He met this girl while in town and fell in love with her and she fell in love with him. The night before he’s supposed to come steal her out of her dad’s house so that they can go move off to Portland and be young hipsters, the API is announced and her dad calls together the militia and they go up into the compound. So, this guy has to try to break his girl out of this militia compound and it leads to complications. Upon his sneaking in and finding her… there are some complications I don’t want to reveal quite yet… it leads to he and she escaping and being chased by a few very nasty fellows, who are members of this particular militia. They’re totally unaware that they’re being chased and it leads to the kind of shenanigans and hijinx you can imagine, and, you know… trying not to give too much away… I think that’s plenty…
JD: Yeah! Sounds good! So, the first story had a very film noir feel to it because it’s a heist. Is that feel going to translate to this story as well, or are you going to take a different approach with your storytelling?
RR: Same approach, different type of characters… younger, in a very different situation, but the ticking time bomb of the API broadcast is still playing a big role in their lives. If they can just stay away from her dad and the militia folk who are out to bring her back for another seven days, then the API will stop them from ever being threatened or frightened again. They’ve got a ticking time bomb the same way, but instead of a heist, it’s trying to avoid people who are trying to kill him and grab her… and there’s some money involved as well… and maybe an ex-boyfriend of hers who’s a member of the militia. It’s just the same high concept, but telling a drastically different story. This is more akin to TRUE ROMANCE than the first one, which is more akin to, probably, HEIST.
JD: I love TRUE ROMANCE, it’s such a good movie. It’s kind of the opposite… instead of the ticking time bomb being we can’t do ill-will anymore, now we’re finally going to be able to live protected… sort of the opposite.
RR: Right, she’ll be free of her dad and crazy militia folk, and there’s a few other things going on in there that they’re dealing with. A friend of his, whom he’s trusted, may be not trustworthy. Of course, there’s always the zigs and zags and the back and forth. It can’t be as simple as all that.
JD: Oh, of course… is the original artist Greg Tocchini going to be returning?
RR: No, Greg and I have another project that we’ll be announcing soon. Hopefully, around the time that we hit San Diego, Greg and I will be discussing our new project. I will be doing the sequel to AMERICAN CRIME with an artist who I’m not ready to reveal yet, a Russian guy who I found who is just astounding, just gorgeous stuff. The book is in good, good hands.
JD: How far along is the second series and when can we expect to see it hit stands, do you think?
RR: I would personally like to have it coincide with the release of the film, and to that end, it will probably be the same format as the last one. It will be 3 issues at 40 pages per issue so that people get the same value for their money and a big, big piece of story. And so, it will be 140 or 130 pages. We’re starting it now, we’re already in production. I would say that if it’s not going to coincide with the film, it would be a little bit before that, probably early 2012.
JD: Ok! You had mentioned another storyline. You said you had 2 more stories coming up. Is the second storyline going to take place after the API has hit or do you have any stories to tell about after that happens, do you think?
RR: Not yet, we’ll see. I think for me, there’s 500 million stories to tell as the API’s announced… 500 million people trying to do 500 million different things before they can’t ever commit another crime or even jaywalk or spit gum on the sidewalk. For me, there’re so many stories to be told in that period of time that I’ve got at least a couple more of those I’m going to hit. I feel like Graham’s story was told. I don’t know that I need to go back to Graham and now I’m going to move on to some others. For me, after the API is a much less interesting storyline than what happens before it.
JD: Well, that’s pretty much all we have for you. Thank you so much for joining us, I appreciate it. Best of luck with everything!
RR: Thank you very much. I will chat you up soon.
JD: THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME TPB is available now from Radical Comics.