Spoiler warning: This interview contains some spoilers.
What if The Joker came to Gotham and there was no Batman to stop him?
Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare explores this premise. It’s a harrowing but rewarding series that blends procedural drama and Grand-Guignol. Black Ship Books managed to interview the talented individuals behind this fascinating comic.
1. Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare seems to be a kind of prequel, Comix Tribe’s equivalent to Batman: Year One. When is it set in the timeline of the fictionverse that includes Red, The Alliance and The Oxymoron?
Tyler James: For the past few years, ComixTribe’s motto has been two words: “Start here.” One of the benefits of being a small, young publisher (and there aren’t a ton!) is that our books present an opportunity for readers to jump right in… no previous reading required or understanding of complex (or convoluted) continuity needed.
When John and I were talking about this story, and where it fits, it was important to both of us that readers were not required to know anything about the OXYMORON character. While he played a small role in THE RED TEN series, with THE LOVELIEST NIGHTMARE, we wanted to strip all the superhero trappings away from the character, and tell a cerebral police-procedural/ serial killer story.
There are some small Easter Eggs that fans of our other titles will notice, but again, if OXYMORON: The Loveliest Nightmare is the first ComixTribe book you read, you’re golden. We’ll let Marvel and DC fret about continuity… we’re just trying to tell a solid story.
John Lees: Yeah, I wanted this to be a self-contained story. The way I like to think of it is that, if you read OXYMORON: THE LOVELIEST NIGHTMARE first, then you’ll want to read THE RED TEN next, and if you read THE RED TEN first, you’ll want to read OXYMORON: THE LOVELIEST NIGHTMARE next. So, while one might feed into the other in terms of the general mood and existing broadly in the same universe, either one can be enjoyed on its own.
2. In the comic, it’s mentioned that Swanstown has a history with white-faced villains and monsters. I find that very interesting since it helps create a sense of history and expands the world in which the story is set. Can you tell us more about these other monsters and their influence on The Oxymoron himself?
Tyler James: We set out to do some world-building in these first couple of issues… and many, many interesting threads are dropped that will provide areas to explore down the line. While this story is the first time the Oxymoron makes himself known to the people of Swanstown… I really like the idea that he’s been a festering as a part of the city for far longer than they’d like to believe.
John Lees: There’s a really interesting historical true crime story, the case of the London Monster, which ran from 1788 to 1790. In this period, over 50 women reported being stabbed in the buttocks by a mysterious, terrifying assailant. Someone was arrested and jailed for it, but many historians have put together a credible case suggesting that in fact there was no London Monster. Some women reportedly even stabbed themselves. It was an example of group hysteria. Alan Moore talks a little about the case in his afterword in FROM HELL, quite poetically describing it as a time where evil energy accumulated in the world and was seeking an outlet to be born, but never quite found a physical agent. And I liked the idea of applying a little of that thinking to Swanstown. I loved the idea that there’s this primal, evil force that has taken shape in various ways across the generations, all ultimately preludes to the fullest realisation of that wickedness in the form of the Oxymoron.
3. The Oxymoron is partly a Joker analogue. But he also seems to be motivated by larger principles and goals than simply causing chaos. Does he have an ultimate game plan?
John Lees: Well, you’ll have to keep reading to uncover the full extent of the Oxymoron’s plan! What we’ve seen so far suggests that he has become sick of the blurry line of moral malaise that is modern society, and longs for a return to good old fashioned good and evil. And we’ve seen that Mary Clark somehow factors into his plans. But the short answer is… yes.
4. There’s a particularly harrowing scene in Issue #2 involving a shoot-out in a theater. Were you nervous of the public reception of this scene, especially in light of the 2012 Aurora shooting?
John Lees: I wouldn’t say I was nervous when I wrote it, no. I figure that the people most likely to get up in arms about it can shrug off the mass murder of real people in shootings like Aurora, so the death of some fictional characters shouldn’t bother them too much. I don’t think you can be honest as a writer if you’re going to pull your punches. So, once I decided to do this scene, I committed to it fully. I might have been nervous if I was only doing it for sensationalism, but the scene came from a quite genuine anger.
Alex Cormack: As for drawing this, Aurora was on my mind along with Columbine, Sandy Hook, Umpqua, Virginia Tech, and whatever we are about to hear about next and the one that’ll come up after that, and after that, and after that.
5. What is your take on gun control? It’s a complex issue and of course, the right to bear arms impacts on different countries in different ways. Do you feel that there are issues created by US legislation regarding firearms?
John Lees: Like I said above, the issue of gun control – and particularly the reaction the gun lobbyists have to it – makes me angry. I’ve talked about this before, but where I come from, in Scotland, we had an awful school shooting back in 1996. Within a year, privately owned guns were outlawed, and since then there have been no more school shootings. Australia also had an awful school shooting, they outlawed gun ownership, then there were no more school shootings. And yet in America there is school shooting after school shooting after school shooting, and the media and the politicians throw up their hands and say, “If only there was something we could do!” It doesn’t seem like rocket science, to me. But I concede that American culture has a much deeper connection to its firearms than those other countries, so it’s not so simple as just banning them. But the very least we could do is institute some kind of controls.
Alex Cormack: I would love to see some very heavy gun control come down but all and all I really don’t think anything will happen until it affects some group’s bank account.
Tyler James: I’m just frustrated and angry, really. When Congress did nothing after one of their own was shot in the head and after 20 elementary school children were gunned down, to say nothing of the thousands of gun related deaths that don’t make the front page news… it showed that there really is no hope for improving the situation. This is apparently something we, as a country and a society, have decided we can live with. And there’s nothing in our little comic book that’s anywhere close to as scary as that.
6. As I mentioned in my review, this series is an intelligent, often challenging read. What demograph did you have in mind when creating it?
Alex Cormack: I always thought of it as rated R.
John Lees: I always thought of it as All Ages! No, I’d say Alex is right, this is very much a book for teens and above. I’d probably have loved it when I was a kid, but that’s because I was a vicious little monster!
7. I was impressed at the solid structure of the narrative. The comic is a collaboration between two writers. What is the process behind such a collaboration?
Tyler James : The breaking of this story was a very rewarding process for me. I knew the kind of story I wanted to tell, the kind of OXYMORON tale that would make a real impact… but I also knew the best person to tell that tale was Mr. John Lees. So, we spent a solid month writing back and forth in a Google Doc, tossing out ideas, plot points, etc. We were able to hammer that into a coherent narrative, and a strong, dramatic arc for each of our main characters. Then, John did the hard work of scripting the issue, and getting a first draft in place. I’d then slip into an editors role, we’d go back and forth on a few things, and then polish up an artist ready draft for Alex….
And then he’d do the really hard work of bringing it to life visually.
8. The comic is very structurally dense in terms of narrative. What were some of the challenges writing such a rich, interwoven story?
John Lees: First, just writing it was a challenge! Issue #2 in particular took a while, as it was one of the most narratively dense things I’d ever written. And in the plotting of it, I’d have an idea of BEAT-BEAT-BEAT for three big, escalating set-pieces, but figuring out the specifics of what those would be and how they would unfold was challenging. And the other big problem I found – with all four issues, really – was fitting it all in! I’d often finish a draft and send a message to Tyler saying, “I’ve crammed 30 pages of story into a 24 page bag!” Trying to get all those big set-pieces in, but also find some space for character moments, could be a real struggle. And in trying to convey a lot of important information, one problem I found myself falling into, which we wouldn’t discover until the lettering phase, was that I’d overstuffed my dialogue to compensate. Then we had to go back and strip down the words all over again!
9. The artwork is well-suited to this kind of procedural drama/thriller. I was pleasantly reminded of the artwork from works such as Gotham Central and Batman: Year One. What are some of the artistic influences behind the art of Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare?
Alex Cormack: For the overall artwork the influences were really all over the place but the most reoccurring had to be Ryan Ottley, Quentin Tarantino, Frank Miller (more Sin City than Batman though, one scene specifically), and a whole mess of horror movies.
The characters Mary Clark and Commissioner Donahue first appeared in the Oxymoron Anthology’s story Quiet Riot written by Paul Allor and art by Aaron Houston so their designs, along with Oxy, had already been figured out, I just tried to put my best spin on them. As for the rest, if not already described by John and Tyler I would sometimes base them off friends (one scene in #4 you can find most of the ComixTribe family) and some I just I completely made up.
While drawing I had a lot of horror movie soundtracks playing which probably influenced me in more ways than I know (especially Deep Red, the unofficial theme, Suspiria, Dawn/Day of the Dead, the Shining, and 28 Days Later soundtracks).
10. I’m sure that our readers would also like to know the process of taking a issue from script form to completion. Can you take us through it step-by-step?
Alex Cormack: Oh sure. I’ll get the script, print the sucker out, read it straight through just to get the whole story in my head. Then I’ll go back and roughly sketch out each panel and each page in a notebook I have (we’re talking stick figures and scribbles here folks) figure out what the whole page will kind of look like. Then I’ll get to it!
I draw in Adobe Flash which I’ve been told no one else does, but I started in animation and it’s the program that I know the best. It’s still all hand drawn with a pen on a Wacom Cintiq (it’s like a big tablet). Some people don’t like digital art for the sake that its digital and they think it’s cheating. These people are idiots. I draw digital because it’s faster, and I save on ink and paper. If I could draw as fast and as well on a chalkboard I’d do that. It’s just another tool, there is no cheating, you still have to put in the effort and draw every line. For people to hate it is like hating Jimi Hendrix because he had an electric guitar instead of an acoustic.
Anyways (keep it together Alex) once the page is done up, I’ll send it along to the Tyler/John and to Jules to color!
11. Mary Clark makes an interesting -and unexpected- protagonist. She seems to be a deliberate inversion of Bruce Wayne. He’s a wealthy, well-connected, white male with the resources and training to work outside the system. She’s a black female obliged to work within a system that views her with hostility.
Was her character crafted as an opposite of the socialite billionaire/vigilante one expects to see in this type of story?
John Lees: I wouldn’t say she was consciously created to be an opposite of Bruce Wayne, but we’ll call that a happy coincidence! As Alex touched on above, credit for Mary’s creation must go to writer Paul Allor and artist Aaron Houston for their short story in the OXYMORON anthology book. That character was instantly striking to me, and the notion of a regular beat cop having to deal with this larger-than-life supervillain resonated in my mind long after reading. This is going to sound goofy, but one of the inspirations for Mary Clark was actually William Masters from MASTERS OF SEX! I was watching the first season of that show at the time I was fleshing out Mary’s character, and I liked the idea of crafting someone who wasn’t necessarily a people person, not someone immediately likeable or good at connecting with others, and yet who we might come to care about anyway.
12. The Oxymoron seems to have a history or at least, an obsession with Mary. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Tyler James: We’ll find out in issues #3 & #4 that Oxymoron is less obsessed with Mary Clark specifically, and more about what he hopes she represents… that she might be the yin to his yang.
John Lees: To clear up the ambiguity about the Oxymoron having a history with Mary… he doesn’t. The first time he ever encountered her was on that rooftop. I think there was a little confusion because some Oxymoron dialogue was juxtaposed over a flashback of a traumatic past encounter with someone who wasn’t the Oxymoron, as seen in the opening pages of issue #1. The dialogue in that opening page wasn’t something spoken to Mary in the past, the idea was that this was the dialogue that Oxymoron says to Mary in the phone call he begins at the end of issue #1, but that was my failing for not making that clear enough.
13. Mary has an auto-immune disorder known as Addison’s Disease. The city itself is under attack by corrupt officials and a faulty infrastructure. One of the comic’s themes is clearly that of internal corruption. The Oxymoron seeks to expose this corruption. Even though his methods are violent, he can still be seen as serving the greater good.
Do you see him as a villain or revolutionary?
Alex Cormack: Definitely a villain.
John Lees: Oh, a villain, a hundred times a villain. That was actually one of my main goals in the writing of the series. Whenever I’ve been at conventions and talking about the Oxymoron character, it’s always set my teeth on edge a little when people talk about Oxymoron is “cool”, and how secretly you root for him over the people he’s facing. They say he’s an “anti-hero.” And I want to scream, “ARE YOU FREAKING CRAZY!? DID YOU READ THE RED TEN? HE BRUTALLY MURDERS CHILDREN!” With this series, I wanted to put this notion of the Oxymoron as a loveable rogue to bed. That was a big part of why you hardly see him in issue #1. I wanted to get the reader emotionally invested in the cast of characters who would be facing the Oxymoron, help you see them as the protagonists to the point where you’re emotionally invested in their well-being as opposed to cheering on their destruction. If I’ve done my job, once you’re done with this series, you’ll hate and fear the Oxymoron.
Tyler James: Issue #3 will make that abundantly, gut-wrenchingly clear. You’ve been warned.
14. In Issue #2, Deborah comes home to another young woman. I’m assuming it’s her wife or girlfriend rather than roommate?
If this is the case, it’s a nice change to see gay character handled as just a character, not as a token or someone defined by their sexuality. Likewise, it’s a pleasure seeing a character like Mary who isn’t defined by her race.
Do you feel that mainstream comics often choose “safe” casts rather than focus on a more diverse collection of characters in terms of race and sexuality?
John Lees: Yeah, that’s Deborah’s girlfriend, and her low-key introduction was very much a conscious choice. I even wanted to make sure the point of that scene wasn’t like a page turn reveal, “Oh God, she has a live-in girlfriend!” But rather, the scene is about showing how emotionally invested in her work Deborah is, and how she carries the trauma of this new darkness home with her. As for comics being “safe,” I think that things are getting better, and we are seeing wider representation. But there’s still a long history of overwhelming straight white cis male dominance to compensate for. I’m a straight white cis male too, so maybe I’m part of the problem. But I think something all creators can do is try to consciously avoid springing to the easy default of making a character just like yourself.
Tyler James: I think that scene does a great job of putting the reader even more in Debra’s shoes. She’s a small-town girl who was already caught up in a whirlwind of life-changes — first time moving to the big city, first assignment fresh out of the police academy, first cohabitation situation with her first serious relationship… it should be an exciting time for her. But thanks to a madman, she suddenly feels completely over her head. Her sexual orientation is beside the point… but I’d like to think it’s a more interesting choice than the alternative.
15. This is a question I ask as many creators, writers, artists and publishers as possible and I’d love to get your feedback. How would you like to see the comic book industry grow and change over the next few years?
Alex Cormack: More more more! I feel like it’s getting more respect now than ever, more people reading is always good!
John Lees: Build the audience. Develop a wider range of genres to appeal to more and more demographics. Comics should be a flexible as film or TV or any other entertainment artform. Let’s have more comedy comics, more romance comics! And let’s come up with more ways to get comics in the hands of readers more easily.
Tyler James: Agree with all of the above. I think the comic book medium is producing some of the best books ever right now… more people should know about that, and sales should reflect it.