Despite being left-off the Emerald City brochure, I was able to track down Tony Harris at the Image booth. I was eager to speak to him about his new project, Chin Music, with Steve Niles but Harris was having none of it. Niles and he — weary of trailers and fan websites spoiling all the best parts from upcoming series — want to keep everything under wraps until the day that the project is released. He was, however, only too keen to talk about an upcoming creator owned project for DC Comics.
Since you can’t — or won’t — talk about Chin Music, what can you tell us about your other upcoming project?
The Whistling Skull is a creator-owned book I’m doing for DC. It’s six issues. It was announced at Chicago Con last year, but they announced it way too soon. I’m actually penciling issue six right now. B. Clay Moore is my writer and it’ll be out through DC Comics.
DC Comics? Not Vertigo or —
DC Comics. It was something we were going to do through Wildstorm and then they went away and my editor, Ben Abernathy, and Hank Kanalz championed the book, big time. As far as I know — I could be wrong — but I believe that we’re the only creator-owned coming out with the DC bullet on it.
…or the DC peel as it is now. So, that was just pure coincidence that you had the right project at the right time?
Yeah, but Ben and Hank really made it their baby as well. They really championed what we were doing.
How much input did you have into the concept of the book, and the plotting…
Oh, everything to do with the book. We actually sold the book to DC about six months to a year before we found B. Clay Moore and brought him in as a writer. I created the book, the universe, all the characters — everything. Then I set about finding someone else with the right sensibilities as a writer to come in and take that part of it over. I’m penciling it and I’m inking it and painting the covers, so I’ve got so much on me already that I didn’t want to take on the actual writing as well. As a plan, I sit down and plot everything out together and then Clay goes and writes the scripts.
So, what’s the concept behind the series?
It’s set during WWII in Europe and it’s based out of London, but our first arc takes place in a Swiss-German town, which is really small. It’s sort of a detective piece. The main character is called The Whistling Skull, the full title of the book is actually The Further Adventures of the Whistling Skull, but that’s a mouthful, so we just usually call it Skull.
The two main characters are the Whistling Skull and his sidekick, Knuckles. Knuckles is a really large guy and he’s actually mentally handicapped, but we’re playing it completely straight and, as far as I know, we’ve the only book where one of the two principals is mentally handicapped. They grew up together as children, so they’ve known each other since they were eight or nine. The Whistling Skull is a mantle that was willed to the Skull so, from the character’s inception, there have been eight different men who have been the Skull, but no-one knows that. Everybody thinks he’s this immortal zombie.
In a nutshell, the book is basically Sherlock Holmes on mescaline.
Aside from Conan Doyle, are there any other influences feeding into it? The art looks like it’s been pulled from a Republic Serial.
Oh, very much. It’s very much in the same vein as all the old serials and the old noir films.
Yeah, it was definitely a conscious decision. Anybody’s who’s followed my work over the years knows that I’ve switched-up my style from book to book and I’ve let the project dictate what the work needs to look like. So, when I finished Ex Machina, which was very heavily photo-referenced — because it was a political drama — all the drama in the book was interpersonal relationships between people. It was more about politics than superheroes and actions, so it was important for me to be able to emote properly…or “act” with the characters to convey the right emotions. So, when I finished Ex Machina, I knew I was gonna be doing Skull next, and it was conscious decision not to use any photo reference of any kind, just go back to drawing straight from my imagination. But everything is referenced as far as the period goes, because I’m a nut for that stuff. If you look at the layouts here for the book, I do them like this [two page-layouts to each sketchbook page] then scan them in and print them in blueline, then go straight to inks on the board. So, I work out my storytelling beforehand in my sketchbook and make sure all the reference is correct and the period clothing is there. Hopefully we’ll see this stuff in print in some capacity.
Is Skull going to be a one-shot deal with these six issues — a self-contained story? Are you going to back and tell the previous adventures of the other Skulls?
That’s the very thing about our universe is that it’s built in with seven other guys who have been this character before the guy you’re following. We haven’t told any of those stories…yet. There are a few flashbacks to the previous skull before him, so you do see a little bit, but you get a sense of a larger world immediately. The whole story is actually 40 issues. If we did it monthly — which we’re not going to — we’d like to publish 10 a year, ideally. We’re going to follow the Hellboy model and do a series of mini-series and not release any of it until that particular arc is done. Again, I’m working on issue six now, and we should have a street date to announce in a couple of weeks.
Are you shooting for San Diego as the launch date?
Hopefully, but what I’m told by DC is that they green-lit the first six, and it’s a very self-contained story, so if it doesn’t go any further with them, then it doesn’t. Ultimately, though, Clay and I will tell those 40 issues, whether it be at DC or — if they choose not to go beyond that — getting our reversion of rights and going to Image or somewhere else.
Can we talk a little about Chin Music? How did the collaboration between you and Steve Niles come about?
Steve and I became friends a few years ago and we immediately wanted to work together, but we wanted to wait until we could find the right thing that would serve both of our abilities best. Steve had a project called Chin Music that he wanted to pursue, but didn’t have everything fleshed out beyond an initial concept — like, a high concept — and an opening sequence. He told me about it and I had a project that I had, that had a working title that was so lame that I’m not going to tell you what it was. But there were a lot of elements to it, that when I told it to Steve, it seemed like the two projects were the missing puzzle-pieces for each other. So, I said, “Wow, what if we took the elements from yours and put them in with this from mine?” It wasn’t like cobbling something together; it was more like it all just fit perfectly. Then, we got on Skype a couple of times and had some brainstorming sessions and the thing just wrote itself. It was crazy.
So, what’s the deal with this series — is this another limited series?
It has the potential to go as far and as long as we want it go, as long as people want to buy it. The initial story is five issues, though.
Can you talk about some of the genre notes that you’ll be hitting in this — Steve’s a horror guy, obviously, so is it going to be a straight-up horror?
It’s definitely a horror story, but it’s also a lot of other things. Chin Music is going to change about 12 different times before you finish reading the fifth issue. In your mind is what you’re going to think it is — you’re going to think it’s this, then you’re going to get to another scene and then you’re going to go, “Oh, shit, it’s not that, it’s this!” It’s always going to keep you guessing. It’s pretty firmly rooted in horror and noir. It’s set at the end of the prohibition era in America, and most of it takes place in Chicago. The main character’s name is Shaw…and that’s all I can tell you.
Well, that’s again dictated by the period. It’s the 1930s in Chicago, so the types of clothing that people wore, the cars they drove, the architecture that was prominent around that time — that’s all going to be there. Those elements were just prolific at that point, so yeah, it’ll be drenched in all that stuff. And that’s my favourite kind of thing to draw anyway.
Are you going back to old photographs — trying to recreate the real Chicago of that time — or is the setting going to be more fictionalized?
It’ll be our version of Chicago, because we’re turning it all on its ear with a lot of horror and twisted weird stuff, so it can’t look exactly like Chicago did. Visually, I’m going to approach it in the same style that I’m using on Whistling Skull. I don’t think I’ll go back to photo reference for a while… if I ever go back to it at all.
And when can we expect to see Chin Music on the shelves?
I don’t know. I’m finishing Whistling Skull now and Steve has begun writing the first issue of Chin Music. I’m slated to go directly into Chin Music the day after I finish The Whistling Skull. I would hope we’ll see the first issue later this year.