by Jarrod Jones. Close your eyes and think about the spy genre. Your brain’s flinging images of stuffy British types at you, isn’t it? Dressed in smart three-pieces, sipping at martinis, twisting their leathery faces into studly masks while they try to save the world with the least amount of effort. The entire enterprise feels about as dry as those martinis, wouldn’t you say?

The spy genre needs a hangover cleanse, a shot in the arm. And if the film and television mediums won’t accommodate this change, Drs. Brian Stelfreeze and Doug Wagner are primed and ready to spike that particular vein with Thomas River.

Covert operations require finesse. Thomas River has it. Don’t bother with those “different kind of spy thriller” qualifiers when you talk about this new series from 12-Gauge Comics; Thomas River might tap into the same frenetic Jason Bourne action that film studios were absolutely in love with 16 years ago, only it’s made for now, today, modern in a way James Bond could never be. Speaking of Bond, Thomas River is also just as sleek as you’d want these types of stories to be and sleeker still because, well… this is Mr. Brian Stelfreeze at the helm, peak-Stelfreeze, bringing his own sharp-edged vision of the action/espionage potboiler to the fore alongside confidante, friend, and compatriot, Doug Wagner. Thomas River has a power to it that these stodgy Bond flicks could never have, because its eponymous hero is so unlike the martini-swilling, smooch-stealing, wry-smirking British hero.

Thomas River is a man, a black man, born in Baltimore eons away from Bond’s high society but is no stranger to laying his adversaries low with the same level of finesse that only a world-weary superspy could possess. “I believe truth is a force multiplier for creativity,” Stelfreeze tells me. “The more truthful the fuel, the more explosive the creativity.”

And when I ask about the comparisons between Britain’s idealized white knight and the somewhat more earthbound, architectural-designer-by-day-spy-warrior-by-night Thomas River, Stelfreeze laughs: “That’s like the difference between someone born in a minefield and someone studying it as an academic exercise. Thomas River has had to watch his back and beware of alliances and prejudice his entire life. Being a secret agent probably feels like a vacation to him.”

Just another way Thomas River diverges from the stale norm and becomes something more tangible, impactful, thrilling. An old world needs a new hero, and he’s almost here.

With only days left in the Thomas River Kickstarter campaign, DoomRocket spoke with Brian Stelfreeze and Doug Wagner about their latest collaboration, the visuals and language that give it life, and how they might fare if they were asked to defend their country on the QT.

Promotional art for ‘Thomas River’. Art: Brian Stelfreeze/12-Gauge Comics

DoomRocket: Thank you for taking the time for DoomRocket, Brian, Doug. I really appreciate it!

Brian Stelfreeze: No problem at all. This sounds like a lot of fun.

Doug Wagner: It’s honestly my pleasure. Thank you for taking the time.

1. The two of you are buds from way back and have worked together for years. It seems as though your projects stem from a simple question, a casual question: “You know what’d be cool…?” What was the inciting question that formed ‘Thomas River’, and would you describe this comic series as your most personal project you’ve worked on together, as friends? 

BS: You just nailed it. I think most stories come from a general sense of inequity, but yeah, this one is quite personal. It’s difficult to exist today without bumping into an aggravating sense of inequity.

DW: This one definitely started out exactly how we typically discuss ideas. I actually remember this day quite well. Brian called; he always has a certain tone in his voice when he’s about to hit me with something new. He was excited about a scene that had popped into his head. If you’ve read [the first issue], it’s the President’s ultimatum scene. That’s all Brian had at the time. I immediately loved it, we started going back and forth with the “What If’s,” and we both decided it was something we wanted to do, and we ran off to our respective holes and started crafting. Yes, I know that sounds overly simplistic and leaves out the painful parts of idea execution, but that’s really how Brian and I tend to work.

2. I’m going to really try to avoid spoilers in this interview, but there are a few things from ‘Thomas River’ I’d love to tackle. To begin, the book’s inciting incident, an act of terrorism that’s, um, frighting. [Laughs] Without giving the game away let’s talk a bit about the mechanisms of this sequence, its clockwork timing and precision. How did the two of you finesse this moment?

BS: I believe the most discordant things are the juxtaposition of horror and normality. That’s the real terror. It’s when the feeling of “normal” gets taken away. We wanted to start with a normal so recognizable it almost slides past your attention. Then we corrupt it in the most horrifying way we can imagine. 

DW: First, thank you for letting us know it worked. We kicked this scene around a few times trying to come up with what we thought might have the strongest impact. We both kept asking, “What would we like to see here if we were the reader?” and “How can we build something that will produce a visceral gut reaction in people?” Story execution is all about experimentation and instinct. I wish I could say we knew it would work, but I can tell you we were both worried it wouldn’t. It means a lot to hear it did in at least one person.

3. Brian, your career in architecture is such an asset in this sequence, you can make a city feel just as alive as if we were walking through it. I live in Chicago, and your Chicago panel freaked me out. How do you capture the essential aspects of an entire city in a single panel? The lines, the form, the way a city block rests around itself—does a city have a voice that you can tap into?

BS: Definitely, but I wanted to do the city without doing the postcard. Most people know that the real city never makes it onto a postcard. The real city is what you see out of your window or going to work. I wanted the people from those cities to recognize those places. The thing that freaks you out is knowing you’ve been on that corner where that terrible thing happened.

4. Staying with Brianin the official press release you said that ‘Thomas River’ was an opportunity to tell a story about a James Bond type of character “who reflected [your] own upbringing and those of anyone who didn’t grow up in international chateaus… a black super spy who could speak to that American identity.” Let’s talk about Thomas River. He’s an architectural designer from Baltimore with a military background, and he knows how to clear a room with, oh, let’s say “expert proficiency.” [Laughs] There’s some of you in Thomas, isn’t there? How does telling a story so close to your heart affect the way you approach illustration?

BS: I believe truth is a force multiplier for creativity. The more truthful the fuel, the more explosive the creativity. I’ve personally felt some of the drives and pauses Thomas River has to experience, so I can make those moments more real. It’s portraiture rather than character and I believe that realness can resonate with the shared experience of others.

5. Thomas River, as a James Bond/John Wick analogue, seems like he’d land differently due to the character’s race. For instance, James Bond is a scrapper, but he’s a wealthy white scrapper, and people who enjoy his exploits don’t generally hold him to account for the mayhem he brings wherever he goes. What does this mean for a black character like Thomas? Considering how authority polices people of color differently than white people and considering how the media holds black people to a different standard than white people, how will ‘Thomas River’ address this potential double standard? Should it?

BS: [Laughs] That’s like the difference between someone born in a minefield and someone studying it as an academic exercise. Thomas River has had to watch his back and beware of alliances and prejudice his entire life. Being a secret agent probably feels like a vacation to him.

DW: Oh, we’re definitely going to address the double standard, but not in an overtly preachy way, and we most definitely should. But, I don’t think we’re going to do so in a way you might expect. That’s not Brian and I’s style. We prefer to handle it from a more personal perspective. Comics is a visual medium first and foremost. We’d both rather “show” you something as important as this versus speak at you about it. We’re hoping everyone can relate to Thomas enough that when they see the world through his eyes, they’ll gain a new understanding of their own world. Yes, we’re taking the whole “walk a mile” in Thomas’ shoes approach.

6. I’m interested in learning a bit more about a member of the ‘Thomas River’ creative team, Michelle Poust. Brian, it says in the Kickstarter information that she’s “honed her skills” as a colorist under your guidance—I look at your history of painted works and compare them to the finished-color proof of ‘Thomas River’ #1, and it’s clear that Michelle has cracked the way color influences your work. What has your working experience been like with Michelle?

BS: Thomas River is definitely a ship of friends. Michelle and I have worked together for over a decade. She has been my student, my assistant, my bodyguard and, sometimes, my teacher. We’ve had uncountable conversations about color and storytelling so it was an easy call to get her involved. It’s really cool to see her color work on the pages. It gives me a chance to experience my work in a different way.

7. Doug, your work in ‘Thomas River’ feels very much in sync with the real world. The language feels natural, there’s a refreshing lack of captions filled with purposeful prose, nobody’s throwing speeches around—well, the President gives a speech, but you know what I mean. [Laughs] There’s a rhythm to the way language exists in real life, and you seem to have gotten your arms around it. What’s the trick?

DW: [Laughs] Years of practice and observation… oh, and lots and lots of editing. I’ve always seen my biggest weakness in my own work as my dialogue, so what you’ve just said to me makes me happier than you could possibly know. When I’m working on the final dialogue polish, I toil over every word and obsess to achieve a certain flow and cadence to all of it. I think what helps me the most in attaining something decent is I take great joy in being a people watcher. Any time I’m out in public, I love studying how people interact with the people and world around them. That includes me eavesdropping on an embarrassing amount of conversations. I honestly don’t really care about the drama or about what they’re actually talking about. I care about the back and forth—the pauses, the uncomfortable word choices, the melody of it.  

8. I want to stick to language and how it’s presented in ‘Thomas River’. Doug, you have Ed Dukeshire, a letterer and frequent collaborator of yours, optimizing the visualization of your dialogue. How do you lay out word balloons to maximize the language of the story in your script, and how does Ed finesse them to achieve this natural effect?

DW: Early on in my career, Brian literally forced me to letter my own work. I hated every second of it. However, as is typical, he was right. I gained so much appreciation and perspective from doing it. I can’t tell you how important a letterer is to me, and how much of an art I learned it to be. The reason you see Ed’s name on a majority of my work is because he’s one of the best. We work fairly seamlessly together. I’m not one of those guys that likes to pre-layout the word balloons. I like to let the letterer go with what they think works, and Ed’s gut is always right, and then we kick around any edits we think might work. In my opinion, a letterer is the writer’s colorist. There has to be a special synergy between the two or everything falls apart. Ed and I have that synergy. To sound all corny, Ed gets me.

9. I want to talk a bit about the ‘Thomas River’ Kickstarter, if that’s all right. You’re already well above your publishing goal with each subsequent dollar reaching for the next set of tantalizing incentive offers. You’re also publishing a weekly ‘Thomas River’ strip, “The Bravest Soldier”, in anticipation of the first issue. There was a time when a first issue would drop, and… that’d be it. [Laughs] But decades’ worth of comics trends seem to have converged on “the debut issue” these days, including the omnipresent array of variant covers, sketches and, of course, the obligatory Kickstarter carnival barking. Even though 12-Gauge Comics is ultimately publishing and promoting ‘Thomas River’ and your first issue is already in the bag, does the hustle feel like it’s on your shoulders, as its creators? What’s the workload to get a release like ‘Thomas River’ off the ground?  

BS: I think of it more like, “If we volunteer for the first issue, will the fans give us the next?” It’s actually been an insane learning process. There are no best practices established at Kickstarter, so it has this awesome Wild West feel to it. I love it.

DW: I’ve loved every minute of it, but I’ve definitely felt an enormous amount of pressure from creating and running this Kickstarter. I pitched this idea to Keven [Gardner] and Brian, so I was terrified what they might think if it failed. I can’t tell you the relief I felt when it was funded.

In regards to the amount of work involved, all the rumors you’ve heard are true. It takes about a month of working 40+ hours a week on prep just to launch, and then the real work begins. Marketing, social media, emails, phone calls. Brian and I both believe a Kickstarter is successful through a grassroots style of campaign. That means we wanted to interact with our backers as much as possible. I think we’ve done an “okay” job at that, but we’re getting better at it every day. If you know either of us, you know we’re not the most socially active kinda guys. However, we’ve both surprised ourselves on how much we love interacting with our fans. Without cons, it’s been a nice change of pace and something we plan to continue going forward.

10. On that tack, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many publishing outlets to tighten their belts, do you feel that crowdfunding is finally leveling the playing field between the independent comics scene and the so-called “Big Two”? How has crowdfunding influenced the way you make comics? Or has it?

BS: I think it’s expanding new outlets. Not everyone can make it to a comic shop and most people outside of traditional comics even know what’s being published. I think, for independent comic producers, it’s difficult to get retailers to go deep into the Diamond catalog and find what they’re offering. Those same producers can have a much bigger reach with social media and get books directly to their fans. The big publishers will do just as well in the direct market, but this opens up options for the smaller folks.

DW: Crowdfunding has changed everything. It provides creators with a way to deliver formats and products that may not be viable otherwise. We can create books that may not work in the direct market and find fans that otherwise may never see our works. Brian and I were just talking about how we can do anything we want now. We’re not limited to how many pages are in a book, we’re not limited to the format of the book, and we can offer items and extras that we wouldn’t otherwise even be able to consider. It’s just so exciting to think we could offer metal covers or a small run of hardcovers or an action figure and not lose our homes. Crowdfunding just creates a whole new playing field with possibilities we haven’t even imagined yet.

11. Let’s wrap up with a hypothetical. Say the two of you were tapped by the government for some covert wetwork. Do you think, given the requisite boot camp and training, you’d be cut out for a life of international intrigue?

BS: I can handle the drinking champagne on the Champs-Élysées part of the job but I have a systemic lack of toughness and a low tolerance for danger. I would fail out very quickly but I would bring my sketchbook and take notes for future references.

DW: Okay, I’m comfortable enough with myself to say I might be the most obstinate, ornery, hard-headed person you know. If someone, anyone, orders me to do something, my first instinct is to do the opposite while I share my middle finger with them. I mean, ask my wife. I’m great if you ask me to help you, but order me… I just don’t react well to that. I’m like a dang 5-year-old. With that in mind, I know without a doubt I’d be kicked out of bootcamp on day 1. Plus, I don’t like champagne, I’m not “smooth,” I’m a horrible liar, and I’m way too much of a boy scout. Yeah, definitely not secret operative material.

The ‘Thomas River’ Kickstarter campaign is nearing its end. Contribute to score some killer incentives now.

Check out this cover to ‘Thomas River’ #1, courtesy of 12-Gauge Comics:

Cover to ‘Thomas River’ #1. Art: Brian Stelfreeze, Michelle Poust/12-Gauge Comics

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