By Jarrod Jones. There are few creators working in the industry today who are better suited to the noir genre than Alex de Campi and Victor Santos. Rebellion and romance inform everything they do. Both are students from the school of Melville; they know how a good yarn can thrive in the shadows, have learned to speak the language of violence fluently. De Campi & Santos, they can transfer their readers to another time, another place, pull them into the shadows unlike any other. United for Bad Girls, an original graphic novel from Gallery 13, they evoke Cooke, Sale, Miller. Stand right beside them.
Set during the evening of December 31, 1959 in the final hours of Batista’s Cuba before Castro seized control of the country’s fate, Bad Girls follows three women as they attempt to survive the night after relieving the mob of six million dollars. There are obstacles in their way: most of them are men; some of them are circumstance; and time, in true noir fashion, is always against them. There’s revolution in the air — political, yes, personal, absolutely. As the seconds tick by, we watch these characters enter into situations where their safety — say nothing of their survival — is far from guaranteed.
A sense of inevitability is paramount in this original graphic novel from Simon & Schuster’s graphic novel imprint. Bad Girls is a poker game against Destiny, and the house has its back. It’s a story about resistance and change, two things that are a part of its creator’s very DNA. “A great noir, like a great tragedy, provides signposts of the disaster to come throughout the story,” De Campi tells me. “It’s all there. It’s all planned. And I’ve lived as an expat in countries when there was a coup happening. I know that feeling of instability in my bones. (I also get really nervous when I see a convoy of black Range Rovers with darkened windows.)”
Alex de Campi and Victor Santos spoke with me about Bad Girls, how music can work on the comic page, and what makes the perfect noir.
1. Tell us how the team of Alex De Campi and Victor Santos came together, and why your project was always meant to be ‘Bad Girls’.
Alex de Campi: I approach comics like a novelist. I very rarely pitch a concept to publishers. I just… go write a book, then find someone to draw it, and then we approach publishers with a full MS and some sample pages. Like, this process doesn’t have to be as complicated as most people make it. You don’t have to wait for permission to begin. Don’t ask; just make. So I wrote this book, and it took me a couple years to find the right artist for it. When I saw Victor’s work, I was like, “this is it.” His design sense is so, so good, and with me lettering the book, that matters a lot to me. Because he has a very strong design vision, it inspires me in return, and gives me more exciting options when I’m designing the interaction of the letters and art. So, luckily, Victor liked the script, and had time in his schedule. I love working with writer-artists like Victor. I mean, he absolutely does not need me — his own books, by himself are wonderful. (You should read them.) So to have someone who is so strong at storytelling working with me is just a dream.
Victor Santos: Really I fell in love with the story and the characters. I was in summer holiday time when Alex send me the script, I downloaded the document in my ebook and surely it was my favorite reading of that summer. Images constantly coming to my mind while I was reading. When the story made its nest in my head I was sure I would draw that book. I enjoy doing my own stories and graphic novels, but I love working with talented writers. The process is different, I learn a lot of them. And they make me a better storyteller. So I like to think in my next work as complete artist there will be a little of Alex there, too.
2. ‘Bad Girls’ is the story of four women thrust into incredible situations on, of all nights, New Year’s Eve 1958 in Havana, Cuba. The situations in which they’re placed all occur under the boot of male oppression, and those situations are grim. Some get into trouble because of revenge, some out of naïveté, others out of desperation. But it’s clear to see they — well, most of them — are running on pure survival instinct. So why the name? Why ‘Bad Girls’?
AdC: They’re all in roles traditionally seen as “bad” or “loose” by society. A gangster’s girl/gold digger who, in one character’s words, “raised herself up by her bra straps”; a gambling-addicted jazz singer who used to work at a strip club; a dance queen and single mom who brings her kid to work. And a teenager who wants to snare a movie star. Also, c’mon, “Bad Girls” is so much a better title than “Girls Just Trying To Get By, And Their Morally Ambiguous Titles.” And they are badasses. In their own way.
3. Alex, you’ve said that what takes place in ‘Bad Girls’, over the course of nearly twelve hours, is “mostly based on real events.” One thing I found interesting is how, in the beginning, there are hints of the chaos to come hidden in plain sight. There’s a fleeting mention of “an attack in Santa Clara.” A drive from a character’s lavish home to the El Edén club passes through town where military can be seen patrolling streets. Midnight is coming, yet you can feel the tension from the beginning. How did you decide to structure this tale? Since this story is more about these four women than it is the Cuban Revolution, how did you decide what parts of history were to be used for the purposes of story, and what parts were meant to be kept in the periphery?
AdC: A great noir, like a great tragedy, provides signposts of the disaster to come throughout the story. But if you do it well, those signs should mainly be visible in retrospect, or on re-read. It’s all there. It’s all planned. And I’ve lived as an expat in countries when there was a coup happening. I know that feeling of instability in my bones. (I also get really nervous when I see a convoy of black Range Rovers with darkened windows.)
But also, I’m not Cuban. The Cuban Revolution is not my story to tell. This is a story about four women (two white Americans, a Black American, and a Cuban) caught up in a situation out of their control. I make sure the casual reader understands why the revolution is happening, and what is happening, but beyond its fallout on a US mob-run casino, it’s not this book’s story.
The bits of history I kept were some of the more absurd ones, such as the doomed opening of El Colony; wealthy Cubans putting revolutionary scarves on their sleeves as they carried on partying; and the fate of many of Havana’s casinos. And the flight, of course. But also, the book takes place over approximately eight hours of real time. That creates a certain focus, too. While I love to build atmosphere and create a sense of place, I’m also relentless in terms of trimming away fat in the story. If it’s not necessary, it goes.
4. I love how music is implemented in this book. “Fever” kicks off the opening by being presented on stage, and then transferring to another scene where it plays on a record player, its lyrics peppered through panels. I put the song on as I read this and followed the sequence with my eyes and ears and found the panel work had a rhythm, perfectly in step with the tune. (And, I should say, your story has changed the way I’ll listen to “Mambo Italiano” forever.) How did you two decide to work music into ‘Bad Girls’?
AdC: I adore the music of that era, and because so much of Bad Girls is set in a casino during its stage shows, I felt we had to incorporate music. Music is often a large part of my books — my spy thriller Mayday even comes with a soundtrack of early 1970s psych-metal. (Mayday is getting a sequel, later this year: 1972, Berlin, krautrock. I just finished writing it.)
Sometimes I use music to score a scene, the way I did with “Fever” (listen to the Peggy Lee version, friends). Sometimes I use it as a counterpoint, like “Mambo Italiano” (Rosemary Clooney version, plz.) I love taking a really serious or terrible scene and using a saccharine pop song on top of it. Someday I’m going to write my London gangster noir, and the final shootout will be to Lord Kitchener’s “London Is The Place For Me.”
Getting the licenses for all the music I used was… surprisingly easier than I thought, once I worked out the system. But yeah. Someday I’ll be powerful enough as a writer to have people that will do that for me. Minions. I want minions.
What tunes did you wish made it into the final product, but didn’t?
When Taffy starts singing in Joe’s office, it was originally meant to be “‘Round Midnight,” but one of the licensors took way too long to get back to us so we used “St Louis Blues” (which is out of copyright) instead. The opening music on pages 2-3 should have been Perez Prado’s “Mambo No.5” but again, too long and too expensive, so we used “Maple Leaf Rag”.
5. Victor, ‘Bad Girls’ is an unmistakably noir story, from your use of shadows, to the white-out outlines of characters framing certain corners of the pages. There are panels where I see Robert McGinnis, others where I see Robert Bellem, others Frank Miller. What kind of noir sensibilities did you want to come to the fore in ‘Bad Girls’?
VS: I try to adapt my art to the kind of story I’m drawing. It’s not only a question of storytelling or style, it’s the mood. In Violent Love, the Image Comics series I made with Frank Barbiere, we placed the story in Texas, in the 70s. So the style was a little dirty, with loose lines in the inking and textured shadows, very Gene Colan, and a muddy and sandy coloring. But in Bad Girls we deal with glamour and luxury, yes, with layers of dirt, poverty and violence behind… but the mood of the story demanded clean and elegant bold shadows. So, effectively, there is a lot of Robert McGinnis (I love his art) and Seth Kushner, Liv Elgreen and tones of pulp magazines. Frank Miller´s influence is huge as ever, or Tim Sale, Alex Toth or Matt Wagner… But artists I call the “Dan de Carlo school,” like Bruce Timm, Darwyn Cooke, J. Bone, Rick Burchett, Ty Tempelton… were a big influence in how they synthesize a lot of elements in very simple (but not easy) panels.
But of course, there are classic noir movies, like Orson Wells’ stuff, and the music referenced by Alex… Now with Google and YouTube you actually can immerse in that age.
6. Taffy, easily my favorite character in the story, rather brazenly tells party-goers El Edén is the place where “fortunes are won and hearts are lost.” There’s quite a bit one could read into that — especially given this genre — and without giving too much away, by the second time she says it the inference itself seems to have shifted to something a bit more sinister. What is it about that sinister nature of the noir genre that makes us want to mire ourselves in its ominous pessimism? Is it the faint glimmer of that happy ending, the sun rising under the end credits?
AdC: The faltering callback to Taffy’s intro to the book when she goes on stage for her second show of the night is very deliberate — it underscores everything she’s been through in the couple of hours in between. Noir is a very cathartic type of storytelling. You know going into it that the characters are really going to get put through the wringer, but that some will survive/triumph. It’s just… which ones? One of the greatest consolations of fiction is watching people who are prettier than us go through a worse time than us, and then eventually persevere. And it’s exciting, especially with a multi-character noir. We set up early on that there are a lot of hard, sudden twists in the story, so we train you to see death in every shadow. Thus when we let the light in, and banish most of the shadows, it’s really wonderful.
VS: I agree with Alex. In comics we can play very freely with expressionistic sensibilities. Thinking visually, we can slenderize to the extreme and it looks natural. Consider the Nicolas Winding Refn’s movies, like Drive or Only God Forgives. He’s visually brilliant, I love his movies, but even he has a limit about the things he can do. In comics, we move in a different field, we can even change the lighting and colors from panel to panel and make it work.
7. What do you think noir can provide comics above all other mediums?
AdC: Noir is ultimately a very dark suspense thriller, so the physical fact of having to turn pages (or swipe to the next one) gives you so many opportunities for really wrenching, exciting moments. And noir has always had such a strong design sensibility to it; you can go to town with that if you have an artist as talented as Victor.
8. Victor, ‘Bad Girls’ is awash in gorgeous color. From magenta to mauve, from cerulean to indigo, you let color inform the action on every page. How did you land on this palette, and how did you decide when and where this story’s hues would shift?
VS: Thank you! First, there are practical reasons. In the story we are moving across different parts of the casino. Changing the colors and playing with them is an easy way to show to the reader where exactly the action is happening. In the story some of the most important resolutions are “Should I trespass this door and do what I must do?” The palette of colors changes in every room, so you can feel that concept of “entering in a different world” or “entering in a forbidden place”.
This carries us to the second reason: the mood. Outside the casino the colors are natural, cold tones in the hot Cuban night, the warm streetlights… but inside the casino all the colors are artificial, unnatural. We argued a little with the editors because this is not the real colors of a casino (ha ha) but it was more important to me to transmit that people, the american clients, live in a different, separated world. This is not Cuba; it’s a luxury world built for them. Color is wonderful, a powerful tool in comics. I think it’s more interesting using color as a emotional tool than trying to reproduce reality with it.
9. This is quite a violent story. There’s a ferocity to it, but there’s a romanticism there, as well. It’s a story where there’s no guarantee that everyone will make it out alive. What do you hope to convey with this book’s depiction of violence?
AdC: I come from the Sam Peckinpah school of storytelling. I don’t put the violence in there to titillate you; I put it in to make you examine your mortal soul. And, you know, if you’re acquainted with real violence (as Sam was; as I am), what you remember most is how sudden it is. There’s a moment when everything changes, when the world goes sideways. I always try to bring that to my stories, that terror, that moment when it goes wrong. But it’s all meaningless unless you care about the characters. I’ve read comics with the most ridiculous cartoon ultra-violence and you just don’t care. Physical violence is nothing without emotional violence. I always come back to certain playwrights when I talk about this: Albee; Schiller; Pinter. The people that taught me, in a way. If you can’t write a violent scene that’s nothing but two characters talking to each other, you have no place writing fights. Go back to where all the ladders start, gang. And the flip side of that is, because you’re really character writing, as well as nailing a visceral sense of brutality and terror, you’re able to create those moments of joy, those moments of romanticism as well.
VS: I like that you mention romanticism here, because there is not romance without violence, and tragedy and danger… I think the word “Romantic” has been devalued because a lot of crappy movies about silly mid-class people falling in love in very stupid ways. This is emotional soft porn. I love romantic stories, like the works of Shakespeare and, as Alex says, a lot of Greek Tragedy. Women and men fighting against Destiny.
Alex, do you feel that, considering the trajectory these four women take, that the characters ultimately commandeered their own fates from the storytellers?
AdC: Not really. Their fates were baked in to their characters from the beginning. Each of them, because of who they were, couldn’t have made other choices. Oh, did I mention Euripides and Aeschylus were my teachers, too?
10. Favorite film noir, please.
AdC: Melville’s Le Samouraï. I’m passionately in love with that film. So restrained, so stripped down to only the bare necessities. It’s got this hard, beautiful economy to it that I try to emulate in everything I do. It’s probably not considered a traditional part of the noir canon, but it qualifies. I mean, I stan all of Melville’s crime thrillers so hard. Le Cercle Rouge, also perfect. Bob le flambeur, gimme. Even later work like Un Flic is still so great. Look, the only major creator who stans Melville harder than me is John Woo. You might have seen his Le Samouraï remake, The Killer.
VS: Damn, Alex! you are my cinematic twin soul! If we would have meet in my Spanish Fine arts college in the class of modern cinema, we would have been besties forever. I made my final course project about The Killer. It’s my favorite film ever, not only noir. Thanks to The Killer I discovered Le Samouraï and all the Jean-Pierre Melville movies, and finished this path titling Polar (the French noir genre) to a trilogy of books. So I subscribe to every Alex´s word here.
‘Bad Girls’ is set for a July 17 release. You can pre-order it here.