Jim Harberson and I did a quick interview about our Death Cat graphic novel experience with Craig Thornton of WWNY in Watertown, NY . . . Enjoy.
“Check out this link to read Death Cat by James Harberson, Frazer Rice and artist Stephen Baskerville.I posed three question to co-authors Frazer Rice and James Harberson.
CT: What is the inspiration for Death Cat? How does the genre (comic/graphic novel) serve your inspiration and the story you want to tell?
Jim: Death Cat was Frazer’s idea (see below). It’s our homage to William Gaines’ infamous 1950s horror comics (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear), which used O. Henry (twist) endings to amplify the scares.
Death Cat was originally a vignette for our second screenplay, Dark Messiah. In that version, rest home staff bet upon which resident Bingo the Death Cat will next snuggle (right before religious maniacs murder everybody). Eventually, we cut it from Dark Messiah and turned it into a stand-alone short film. Frazer and I decided to convert it to graphic novel form as calling card for our larger projects, given that it captures our humor/horror sensibility. Moreover, graphic novel format suits Death Cat because it permits a stylized rendering of a rather outrageous story difficult to emulate in a film (at least a live action film).
Frazer: I got the idea from Oscar, a cat living in a Providence, Rhode Island nursing home credited with predicting the deaths of scores of the home’s residents. Oscar made international headlines and I thought it would make a good story somewhere, if not necessarily a full length film. Death Cat harkens back to the movies Cat People and Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, which had felines as the scary centerpieces. We tried to incorporate it into Dark Messiah, but it just didn’t integrate with the story well enough. Jim reinforced the O. Henry twist on Death Cat and I think it works well. So, while we couldn’t use it immediately, we filed the idea away for future use. We started experimenting with the graphic novel format and we came back to it. Death Cat seemed like a compact, low stress way to experiment with that media without breaking the bank.
CT: There is great look to Death Cat, and a deceptive denseness to the material for such a short piece. Can you talk a little about the collaboration between authors and artist and how the development/creation process works?
Jim: I converted Death Cat from screenplay format to graphic novel format using Final Draft software. Doing so required reducing eight screenplay pages to five comic book pages. While both films and comics are visual media, compressing time effectively can make the conversion challenging (which Greg Burgas discusses in this essay and which Scott McCloud brilliantly illustrates in his book, Making Comics). Unlike cinematic action, comic book action, due to space constraints, often isn’t conveyed in real time. It can be, to great effect, but comic storytelling conventions usually require narrative jumps films do not. The narrative effect is like stills from a continuum rather than the continuum itself. Once I finished the first draft, Frazer reviewed it and we haggled over a handful of issues. We agreed to have SFW and NSFW versions of Death Cat because my vision was mildly sexier than his. Frazer is the moral compass of our process.
We then searched for an artist. Frazer wisely suggested giving the piece a Gothic feel. Doing so amplified both the horror and the humor, the horror by making Shady Grove appear a death house, the humor by making the horror seem, in the end, absurd. We settled on Stephen Baskerville, a seasoned, self-evidently gifted comic book illustrator. Stephen got what we were up to and his first drafts required few changes. He even inserted the sly homages to the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We hope very much to work with him again.
Frazer: Moral Compass . . . that’s frightening . . . although it would look great on a business card! Jim and I are like Statler and Waldorf in the balcony of the Muppets Show – I think we both know where we want a project to go and our sensibilities are similar, but we can always find something to improve (or complain about!) However, the interaction with the artist was the most surprising aspect of the process. We found Stephen by fumbling around the internet for artists that could get it done (that is, execute in a timely way, the work-product would be professional, and the artist could actually draw cats!). We contacted his agent and sent him our “screenplay”. Apparently he liked it, we agreed upon a price, and off we went. It took a few weeks. That first email with the initial pencils was one of the scariest I have opened. It was like finding out whether you were accepted to college except you didn’t have the benefit of seeing a thick or thin envelope. I opened it up and was stunned. It was excellent. It was scary, it was naughty, it had creative flourishes that neither Jim nor I had thought of as Jim mentioned. It got the tone of what Jim and I were trying to achieve. Out of the 30+ frames and the cover, Jim and I had (really) minor edits. Stephen executed those. Then he inked it and colored it. We had an adjustment on the color of the cover, but then after that we were done. A terrific experience. I was expecting some level of disappointment or crossed signals in dealing with an artist for the first time- neither occurred. This was all the more unexpected as Stephen is in Bath, England and our correspondence was essentially over email and pretty limited at that! I credit Jim with helping us be “good clients” as I think we had our story in an easy to understand format for Stephen (or any other artist) to interpret.
CT: What is the future of Death Cat? Are there more episodes in the works? Will it be exclusive to Smash Cut Culture?
Jim: We haven’t planned future Death Cat episodes, but we haven’t ruled them out, either. It’s a fun concept, ripe for exploitation. Imagine a game show in which Bingo’s job is to sniff out the terminally ill among various onstage “contestants” and television or web viewers get to bet upon/vote for the person they believe he will choose (rather like the orderlies and nurses in the story). That game probably wouldn’t be rigged, however. (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man (1987) indelibly informed my humor/horror sensibility.) Death Cat remains exclusive to Smash Cut Culture. They’ve been most generous to us in publishing it and several articles I wrote (mostly about horror films) last year.
Frazer: Smash Cut Culture was really helpful and a good venue to help get our feet wet with graphic novels. They were a great way to get something “out there” that we could point to in speaking with others in the industry. We’re happy with Smash Cut Culture and would enjoy a continued experience with them. As for new episodes of Death Cat, Jim and I have our thinking (scheming?) caps on . . . It has the backbone and flexibility to be a cool serial. The other good news is that Jim and I have a bunch of other content that is more of a feature length variety that we are producing as we speak.”