By Jarrod Jones. Flip through the pages of Archer Coe and you’ll find that it lives both within and outside of a very particular realm of fiction. It’s noir, but where you’d commonly find some smirking gunsel skulking in the shadows, in a story like Archer Coe there might be other things hidden in those ink-black parts of the world. Archer Coe doesn’t so much inhabit a morally compromised character’s headspace but infiltrate it, in a literal fashion, bringing us inside the mind where things can get messy and often do. It’s a story that plays with classic noir tropes while simultaneously challenging them, shifting them, changing them.
Archer Coe is a detective story that draws its strengths from magic, both the perceived kind and the literal. Our lead is a performer, a hypnotist known as “The Mind’s Arrow” who moonlights as a private detective when a case intrigues him enough. He speaks to cats, because cats know things. Out there in the dangerous city are charlatans, serial killers, shifty-eyed millionaires and other nefarious entities who don’t need a domino mask-sporting artiste sniffing around their business, and yet there’s Archer, decked out in a showman’s cape and disguise, a modern Mesmer out to set things right.
But what makes Archer Coe such a compelling protagonist is that he’s a flawed one, a gumshoe who often steps on his own feet. A kinder Sam Spade, a more humble Harry Houdini. And in his second outing, Archer Coe and the Way to Dusty Death from writer Jamie S. Rich and Dan Christensen, Archer’s up against an adversary who will put his skills as a clairvoyant to the test, as well as his resolve as a would-be hero. What’s more, this new opponent and their supernatural powers drive a ghostly horde straight to Archer’s doorstep — but Jamie Rich, who co-created Lady Killer with Joëlle Jones as well as the equally noirish You Have Killed Me, has more on his mind than telling a mere ghost story.
“I wanted to open up what was possible in Archer’s world, wanted to ask some questions about the difference between the mind and the soul, more as a vehicle to just think about how our personalities manifest than to explore any notion of what is next,” Mr. Rich tells me. “And again, I wanted to take advantage of all aspects of pulp and genre fiction and do things a more straightforward murder mystery might not allow.”
Jamie S. Rich spoke with me about his latest Archer Coe project (out later this month from Oni Press), teaming once more with artist Dan Christensen, and the enticing proposition of what a third volume of Archer Coe might look like.
1. Where is Archer Coe in his life and career at the beginning of ‘The Way to Dusty Death’?
Jamie S. Rich: The murder mystery he solved in The Thousand Natural Shocks, the first book, has actually brought him a little notoriety. As a stage hypnotist, having his abilities validated in such a scandalous and salacious public way means his act now has some real draw. He’s playing theaters and making some money. Yet, something is off. Before, part of his mental powers included talking to animals, particularly cats, and since last time he didn’t listen to the cats when they warned him of danger, they’ve been giving him the cold shoulder. I mean, go figure. Cats doing that?
What he hasn’t been able to do before is communicate with the dead, so when a bunch of ghosts show up outside the theater calling his name, it’s pretty unnerving. And then a young woman comes to hire him because she believes her widower father is being taken advantage of by a woman who claims to speak to the dead…
2. In ‘The Way to Dusty Death’, Archer faces a rival in the form of suspected charlatan Jane Collins. Why does Archer place so much doubt upon Jane when we’ve already seen him use fantastic abilities, such as speaking with animals and changing men’s minds through hypnosis?
JSR: The way I see it is that Archer has probably seen a lot of flim flam in his history as a performer, and the fact that he is the real deal has caused him to succumb to hubris. That’s Jane’s biggest issue with him, that he thinks he’s the only special one.
That said, skepticism is healthy, and there are enough damning clues to suggest that Jane is pulling a racket to give Archer pause — just as it does the client that hires him. Or there’s the fact that the ghosts who have appeared to him have demanded some satisfaction, and if Jane is everything she claims to be, he’s got to wonder why they are talking to him instead of her.
3. You’ve shared your fascination with the actress Rita Hayworth, particularly her performance in the film ‘Gilda’. Was this marriage of performance and film a sort of genesis point for your interest in telling these kind of period stories?
JSR: I hadn’t really thought about it, but that makes a kind of sense. Gilda was so important to me at such a young age, it likely had some kind of formative influence. Now that you say it, the set-up in volume one pretty much is Gilda, the relationship between the boss, employee, and the boss’ wife. Glenn Ford in that movie cuts a similar figure to Archer, in that they are both bad men trying to be better. Noir in its way challenged my white knight syndrome as a young man. I was more intrigued by these figures who had to make up for their own failings before they could bail anyone else out. Fancying yourself pure is a great way to trip over your own feet.
Much of the impetus for creating Archer Coe was wanting to do more with the private detective genre, but also wanting to find a way to separate the character from Mercer, the detective in You Have Killed Me. I see Mercer as the more typical Philip Marlowe type, the last knight in a world that consistently fails him, whereas Archer doesn’t expect much from everyone else, but does what he can to stand above.
4. You’ve mentioned in the past that nailing period detail can be quite tricky. This is your second visit to the world of ‘Archer Coe’; does revisiting a character’s head-space make it easier to flesh out the world around them, or more difficult?
JSR: I take a very organic approach to creating characters. Understanding how Archer thinks makes it easy to predict what he might do in any given situation. So, the longer I live with him, the more he makes sense. At the same time, since he has more confidence this time around, there was the challenge of not being too confident myself. Nothing is worse than a writer who coasts on a character’s own perceived reputation.
How do you go about overcoming the prickly obstacle of period dialogue?
Well, the funny thing is, in my head this is book is set in modern times. Archer is kind of a man out of time, running in some very old-fashioned circles. The books take place at no time and in every time, if that makes sense. So that allows me to cheat and just borrow from all the old movies I watch. I’m the man out of time working for the studio to write the next Tyrone Power feature.
But the real trick I think is not overdoing it. Find where it fits naturally. Nothing is worse than being able to tell that the writer looked up some kind of period glossary and is tossing things in willy-nilly. It’s like back in the 1980s when every writer who wrote a French character only knew like three French words, and throwing out a “sacre bleu!” or a “mon dieu!” was like instant Frenchness. And you knew all of them had just gotten those phrases out of John Byrne’s Alpha Flight. What did Aurora always say? “Sapriste”?
5. You’ve said that your comics projects often come from a personal place and your own experiences with the medium. Tell me about your working relationship with ‘Archer Coe’ artist Dan Christensen, and how you fit as a creative team.
JSR: I was working on Archer and Oni’s then editor-in-chief and current publisher, James Lucas Jones, showed Dan to me as a candidate for the book, and it was a no-brainer. We got on really fast. He understood all my references, and we started trading material. I remember him telling me to check out Phantom Lady with Franchot Tone and Ella Raines because he saw some elements of that in the first Archer story. Many of our comic book heroes were the same, too. He was a Matt Wagner acolyte. And when I said to him to draw the Zipper like a creepy character Jaime Hernandez would create, he didn’t need any other direction.
How did the two of you come about returning to ‘Archer Coe’?
In reality, I finished The Way to Dusty Death before he finished drawing Thousand Natural Shocks. It’s a trick I have, making sure an artist has a script waiting before they become available to him. Unfortunately, he had other things in the works, like his fencing comic Riposte, so we had to wait for his schedule to clear before he could begin on this one in earnest. But once pages were rolling in, the old familiar feeling came back and it was steady on from there.
6. Dan has rendered his share of creepy customers in ‘Archer Coe’. His use of shadows is aces, his villains are patently frightening. What macabre elements can we expect from the two of you in ‘The Way to Dusty Death’?
JSR: Ravens are a recurring portent, including men with the heads of ravens. And ghosts, which we aren’t sure exist on a different or the same plane as the mindscapes that Archer visited in The Thousand Natural Shocks. That’s some of my favorite stuff to write, the scenes inside other people’s minds.
7. With ‘The Way to Dusty Death’, you’re leaning into the supernatural elements of ‘Archer Coe’ in a way you haven’t before. Has there been a desire to explore the afterlife in your fiction? Or did you simply want to spin a mystery with ghostly elements thrown into it?
JSR: I wanted to open up what was possible in Archer’s world, wanted to ask some questions about the difference between the mind and the soul, more as a vehicle to just think about how our personalities manifest than to explore any notion of what is next. And again, I wanted to take advantage of all aspects of pulp and genre fiction and do things a more straightforward murder mystery might not allow. The desire is to take what might be a common noir plot and stand it on its head. For instance, volume 3 would likely be a weird take on the “inside man” job. It’s more modern, but I’m talking Spike Lee’s Inside Man. How else could that be done besides Clive Owen locking himself in the vault? Or is maybe Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” the demo for that idea?
But that also depends on where I am at in life. After a fashion, The Way to Dusty Death is grappling with my own sense of impostor syndrome. Like how I identify with that scene in Inside Llewyn Davis when he’s told he’s not getting the gig and he should be more like the corn-fed country boy singer, and he’s like, “That guy?!” Self-belief is a hell of a drug. Archer thinks he’s got it all, but maybe this other person has something he doesn’t if he’d just give it a proper look.
8. I’ve followed your Criterion Confessions blog with enthusiasm for some time. You clearly have a passion for film, particularly film noir — what is it about this genre that makes it so important to you, and why do you often color your stories in its shadows?
JSR: I think as an adolescent I was always fascinated by what lurked behind the common façade. Without dipping into it too much, I had been raised one way, only to have that upended when I was very young. My family situation changed and it threw a lot of things into doubt for me. Now I look back and see it was a very common end to innocence, when you realize perfection is impossible, but back then, I took it very seriously. In some ways, I interpreted it as meaning there was something wrong with me, and so I gravitated to antiheroes and other characters who, much like Archer, saw themselves as bad but were trying to be good. Wolverine being a prime example. Particularly because Wolverine, even when on a team, painted himself as the loner, the only one he could rely on.
So then I take a film class at the community college while in 11th grade, and the teacher shows us The Maltese Falcon and explains to us what existentialism is and it all suddenly made sense. It wasn’t really about rebellion or being tragic and brooding, it was the idea that you have to know who you are, no one else can decide that for you, and once you know, staying true to that. When navigating those shadows, how do you keep them from overpowering you. But the best of all, if you’re Humphrey Bogart you can look good and sound good doing it. So why the hell not?
Where do you go for good noir comics?
Brubaker and Phillips, of course. The aforementioned Matt Wagner. Blacksad. David Lapham. Grass Kings by Kindt and Jenkins. 100 Bullets. Shawn Martinbrough can draw noirish comics like no one else.
9. You once had an interest in publishing ‘Archer Coe’ online but it ultimately ended up at Oni Press. Where do you think the comics market lies today in this regard? What side do you stand on in the divide between digital and analog?
JSR: I read just about everything digitally. I like carrying around a library and being able to read it wherever I go. Plus, I don’t keep comics for the most part, so there’s no clutter to get rid of. I don’t think traditional books will ever go away, just like vinyl records, but I think eventually new generations will embrace electronic reading more and more. Hard to say how quick that will be. We may not have yet seen the form it will take.
Would you ever exclusively publish a comic online?
The first Archer Coe was actually intended to be published in weekly chapters online for a thing Oni was doing that never came to fruition. When we finally published it, it actually was on comiXology first and in print second, so I am not adverse to that model.
Honestly, I think the way to do it is the way Brian K. Vaughan has been doing it with Panel Syndicate, which I guess Mark Waid also did with Thrillbent. I like that direct delivery from creator to audience that we can get now. And I prefer their model of an issue at a time to a web model. I won’t likely keep up with your comic if you publish it daily on a website, page by page. I don’t have the patience. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t put one out that way, but I think the material would have to fit the delivery system.
10. How does it feel to be writing again? Can we expect more in the future from the auteur Jamie S. Rich?
JSR: Ha! Well, my work on Archer was done quite some time ago, the way it usually is for a comics writer, and I did quite a bit since then. I think eventually there will be an Archer Coe volume three, and a Double Life of Miranda Turner volume two, and some more prose down the line, too. For now it’s mainly just my weekly Criterion review, though. At least until some idea really takes hold and I can’t resist it — though even then, who knows if it’s something I will do just for me or something I will share? The verdict is still out.
‘Archer Coe and the Way to Dusty Death’ hits stores June 27. You can pre-order it here.
Enjoy this ten-page preview of ‘Archer Coe and the Way to Dusty Death’, courtesy of Oni Press!
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