by Jarrod Jones. The doors are locked and guarded at the speakeasy. A knock is followed by a demand. Password. The locks slide open with a greased shunk. Entry. The harsh world outside, now miles away. Booze and magic and other such wonders thrive in the speakeasy. Which means Eliot Ness and his Untouchables have to smash it.
It’s Prohibition-era Chicago, and when I used the word “magic” just then, I meant it. Because I’m setting the scene for Tommy Gun Wizards, the latest creator-owned series published by Dark Horse Comics, and as far as a premise goes this one’s got a corker: Ness and Co. ain’t just busting up Al Capone’s booze operations, they’re out to topple the underground magic outfit that’s taken Chicago by storm. It’s history, kind of, set through the prism of crystals and runes and other arcane things. Magic is a commodity in Tommy Gun Wizards, and since the government has decided it has to go, the lives of magic users throughout Chicagoland have nose-dived into a tailspin.
High-wire dramatics and mob-versus-cops intrigue—Tommy Gun Wizards has both and that one-two punch packs a wallop. Could this book stand out even further than it already does—even now, before it’s been published? I think so, largely because Tommy Gun Wizards shows us a different angle to the artist Christian Ward, whose first published writing credit belongs to this dynamite project that’s been rattling around his noggin for some time now.
“Though [Tommy Gun Wizards] is my first book, I’ve been developing comics and pitches for years,” Ward tells me. “Unlike many ideas, it never went away, and for five years I’d think of its cast and the world almost weekly, each time expanding it, adding to it, developing it. The world made more and more sense to me and the characters, their motivations, became more complex and interesting.
“I just couldn’t shake it.”
Teamed with artist Sami Kivelä, who provides Tommy Gun Wizards a staggering amount of period detail, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, who lends the book a sophisticated edge, Christian Ward is stepping into a larger strata of comics creation. Ahead of its August 28 release, I had the opportunity to speak with Ward about his writing debut, working with such an incredible team, and what happens when you lob a magic grenade into the lap of history.
1. Capone vs. Ness, Chicago, Prohibition… magic? If you would, please share with our readers the set-up for ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’.
Christian Ward: You’ve pretty much said all that anyone needs to know going in: 1930s Chicago but instead of alcohol, it’s magic that’s banned—specifically, a once commonly available drug called Lick which gives the taker magical abilities. So, we have Ness and his Untouchables trying to take down a magically powered mob. Led by Al Capone. Although maybe, just maybe, not all is as it seems.
You’ve said that ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’ is a story that you’ve had rattling around in your mind for years. What was it about this particular story that you felt you absolutely had to get it out of your system and on the printed page?
Simply synchronicity. Though this is my first book, I’ve been developing comics and pitches for years (this is just the first I submitted) and I’ve always had a rule: If I can’t sell the idea in a few sentences I abandon it. This one happened to hit on that perfectly. Unlike many ideas, it never went away, and for five years I’d think of its cast and the world almost weekly, each time expanding it, adding to it, developing it. The world made more and more sense to me and the characters, their motivations, became more complex and interesting. I just couldn’t shake it. It always felt like the one ready to be born first but I couldn’t help but hold on to it. Partly because I was worried I wasn’t ready to write and partly because I was saving it for me to draw.
I think you can blame Jason Latour for why it’s happening now. I’d just come out of watching Into The Spider-Verse and was buzzing with its creative energy. Jason had posted a very heartfelt statement on twitter about the power of creating comics and I was swept along. I remember thinking I wanted to a slice of that pie. As I walked back from the cinema, I thought on how that for years I’d bored my wife, Catherine, with all my ideas and I realized there and then that if I didn’t do it—if I didn’t do it now—I never would. So there and then I plucked Tommy Gun Wizards from the front of the queue, DM’d Sami on Twitter, emailed Daniel Chabon at Dark Horse, and there and then the journey began.
2. ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’, needless to say, is a period piece. You told Comics Beat you were struck by Sami Kivelä’s attention to period detail in the Seventies-set ‘Abbot’ from BOOM! Studios. How important was it to you that Kivelä nailed the details of Chicago’s Prohibition era?
I know when I read a comic set in the UK and it doesn’t look like the UK it takes me straight out of it. It’s so distracting. For all its magic Tommy Gun Wizards is as much a character piece as anything else, so it was even more important to me that readers weren’t distracted and could connect with the characters. It all had to feel real. I didn’t want to just rely on a reader’s suspension of disbelief. As an artist, that level of attention to detail would have bored me. Sami, however, thrives on it. He loved researching the clothes, the architecture, and in particular the automobiles. In fact, I even put more cars in for him draw! I’ve realized working with Sami and reflecting on my own books as an artist how key it is that the right artist is on the right story. When you work on a creator-owned project you have to be able to trust your collaborators completely and it’s been fantastic to have that trust in Sami. Once he was on board, I knew I could trust him to guide this ship home without me looking over his shoulder.
3. Before it’s been published ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’ is already famous for being your first solo-writing project. Writing your own series—has that always been a part of your career long-game?
Absolutely! In many ways I feel more confident as a writer than I do as an artist. I get off on the puzzle element of it. Fitting everything together, getting the pace and structure right. The laying and “paying off” of the clues. I don’t think there’s anything as satisfying as finishing a script. I love it! It’s funny because I had a thought years back that Tommy Gun Wizards might have been my third book after Infinite Vacation in 2013, but I met Matt Fraction and working with him was too much of [a] thrilling opportunity to turn down and actually, at the time, I’d never even considered writing for other artists.
Though going forward I plan to write and draw my own books I’m now far more excited about writing for other artists. And of course, I’ll always work with other writers who I admire and who excite me. Making comics is such a strange alchemy when you really connect with other collaborators (like I have with Matt, Willow, and Saladin) and love discovering a book born from the imagination of more than one mind. I just love making comics, whether on my own and/or as part of a team.
Has this experience so far changed your perspective of how one goes about making comics at all?
Not really, no. No more so than drawing them for the past 10 years has. I think as an artist, particular as an artist on creator-owned comics your actively involved in the storytelling and world building. Writing a script rather than drawing is simply a question of tools.
It’s funny because when I starting making comics I was always worried that it would steal my enjoyment of reading them, interestingly though it’s just made me love and appreciate them more.
4. Dee Cunniffe is providing color flats to ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’, which you’re working off of as the book’s co-colorist. Was your hopping on as colorist a way of ensuring that your instantly recognizable visual stamp was on the book?
That’s absolutely it! This being my first book, I wanted to do everything I could to help book appeal to my existing fanbase. Which is why I’ve also drawn a continuing back up story for issues 1-3 as kind of thanks for all my fans that take a chance and pick the book up.
What is your working relationship with Dee Cunniffe like, and has it changed at all now that he’s flatting a story that you’ve written?
We worked together on ODY-C before this so I knew Dee was the perfect colorist to help me on Tommy Gun Wizards. The only difference is that on ODY-C he just used “clown colors”. Here he’s actively selecting flat versions of the final color. So though, technically they are flats, in truth here it’s far more like Dee is laying down the first coat of paint for me to apply mine on top of. I might tweak the colors here and there but mostly I just overlay gradients then tone, texture and of course all the magical elements, i.e., my digital equivalent of flicking paint off a toothbrush.
5. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is on board as the book’s letterer, which is a tremendous get. What has Hassan brought to the project?
I’ve known Hass for a couple of years now after being a fan of his Strip Panel Naked [YouTube channel]. In fact, I was one of many people who first pestered and bugged him to quit his day job and do comics full time. So, it would have been rude not to ask him to be part of the Tommy Gun Wizards team. He’s quickly become one of the best letterers in the field and as you imply, we’re very lucky to have him. Hass has an incredible insight when it comes to comics (as he clearly demonstrates in Strip Panel Naked and his Eisner winning Panel x Panel) and he brings that level of understanding when it comes to letters. Not just knowing exactly where to place them but also in his bubble and font design. For this book he’s been playing with both formality and chaos in his design that reflects the themes of the book. Everything is considered and elevates not just his letters but the comic itself to the next level. We’re very lucky to have him and hopefully this will be the first book of many we do together.
6. ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’ is a fantastical bit of history, very much its own thing. But in terms of media interpretations of the world-famous Untouchables, you have ostensibly found yourself working in the long shadow of De Palma. Aside from the obvious—adding magic to the mix—how did you go about differentiating your Untouchables story from other well-known takes on the material?
Working with Matt made me more confident about honoring the art and stories that inspire you. Honestly, I bathed in De Palma’s shadow. I love the movie and was very happy to walk alongside it. So, there are definitely winks and references to it in Tommy Gun Wizards but our characters are very much their own. It’s not just magic but their motivations that set this apart. Surrounded by magic potential familiar characters suddenly begin to make increasingly interesting decisions.
7. Let’s talk about the ethics of Prohibition for a moment. In the States, the government took away the citizen’s ability to imbibe spirits. Ultimately that turned out to be a social catastrophe, pushing crime to full-tilt throughout the nation and, in Chicago, the streets were overrun with the casualties of the police’s war against the mob. In the end, Americans got their booze back, and now “Prohibition” is short-hand for government overreach. In ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’, you’ve added magic to the zeitgeist. What happens when you take away people’s ability to use something so incredible? What kind of societal consequences would that have for the kinds of people who populate your story?
In many ways to me it makes far more sense that the Volstead Act would be passed against magic than alcohol. I can see why the church might view it as ungodly. I can see why the state might fear it. That fear is stoked by two of the book’s biggest mysteries: where the Lick came from and why it’s only Chicago that has it.
Chicago’s history informs our story but I had to think very carefully about how both the world and the every-person would respond to actual magic rather than simply swap out alcohol for magic and be done with it. How would people feel when they could perform magic, how would the city be when that magic became normalized—because it would be—and then how they would respond when it’s taken away. Though I started looking at the alcohol ban that was only the starting point. The effects of magic would be far complex on society. Being equal parts what the prohibition was, a kind of gun control for magic and something completely new.
As I said earlier, I have lots of story planned for Tommy Gun Wizards. Including populating it with smaller stories of everyday people, some who build their life around a skill they had when using Lick and then have to rebuild their lives when that skill is taken away, some who have lost loved ones to Lick-infused violence and hate Lick, and some who will travel halfway across the world to try it only to be devastated when it has no effect on them. World building is vitally important so a world beyond our main cast is touched on these opening 4 issues, but if this arc does well and we get more issues I hope to expand the world even more.
Will ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’ dabble in the morality of enforcing an unpopular law? If so, how?
Morality is certainly something that comes up in Tommy Gun Wizards though perhaps not in ways you’d expect and certainly not restricted to the issue of prohibition. I’m interested in characters who might not have the most straightforward motives, or even motives that might contrast with who we think they are. One of the best things about sending these scripts to Sami was his surprises at the twists and turns certain characters take. I’m looking forward to seeing how readers view of characters might change as the story progresses.
8. From the US to the UK, where you hail, mistrust in the powers-that-be is at critical mass—surpassed even that in most respects—and our laws have become little more than Scotch tape holding together a stone monument. Have you come up on any sticky moral issues when it comes to narratively lionizing authority figures and/or criminals? If so, how did you work around them?
Not really. There’s a definite separation from our characters here to their real-life counterparts. In reality both Ness and Capone are as inspired by their countless movie and TV selves as by the real people. In Tommy Gun Wizards both of them are twisted reflections of the real figures rather anything truly biographical. I don’t use Ness in the story, for instance, to represent the themes of a government over-reaching. The morality of the story feels more like a personal one rather one I’m leveling at society. Focusing on, as I alluded to earlier, decisions made by our key players.
How much of our contemporary malaise has ended up in ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’?
This is first and foremost an adventure fantasy, though there is some very light commentary on certain current affairs for sure. I don’t think you can write anything in a bubble. There was one issue very present in mind when writing the later issues in particular and it’ll be interesting if readers pick up on that.
9. To wrap up, I’d like to shift gears towards period aesthetics. There’s a page in the first issue where Sami Kivelä has re-created the Wacker Drive view of the Chicago River as it snakes through downtown and it’s gorgeous. What kind of instructions did you have for Sami in your scripts in terms of capturing the essence of Chicago during this period?
That’s all Sami. In the script I simply said something along the lines of “the car drives through Chicago at night.” Like I mentioned, I didn’t have to guide Sami at all because he was the right artist for this book so he simply didn’t need it. My work was done the minute I DM’d him about being on the book.
When do you think miring in the minutiae of a period setting gets in the way of telling a story? What happens when you’ve arrived to that place?
As long as everything is service of the story, and your story is strong enough, and you keep to the path it’s setting then I don’t believe you have to worry. Though we placed an importance on the setting feeling authentic, it’s the story, the characters and their choices we’re a slave to, not the period setting. This might be referencing real gangsters but in our world some of those gangsters fly so it’s easy to have fun with it.
10. I’d like to toss a wild hypothetical your way: If you had lived in Chicago during Prohibition, on what side of the issue do you think you would have fallen?
In the real prohibition I’d be anti-ban much in the same way that I believe certain drugs are better off being legalized now. If we’re talking Lick? I’d be pro “magic gun control” though I’d have to admit if it could allow me to draw faster, I’d would have hidden a little vial of it in my desk, no question!
‘Tommy Gun Wizards’ hits shops August 28.
Check out this 4-page preview of ‘Tommy Gun Wizards’ #1, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!
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