Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Silent Invasion's Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock spill all at SPX

Cerkas and Hancock
by Mike Rhode

Canadian cartoonists Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock were at the Small Press Expo at the NBM table promoting their new book The Silent Invasion 1: Red Shadows (160pp. B&W trade pb: $16.99; ISBN 978168112174151699.  DIAMOND CODE: JUL18 2036). The first book is a reissue of the story that began in the 1980s, but the plan is to continue with new stories and bring the series up to the present day.

NBM’s press release describes the book as:

The paranoid cult-classic science fiction mystery of the early days of indie comics returns! The series will begin with two books reprinting the original volumes, followed by the never before collected third album and concluding with an all-new fourth book of this epic series of conspiracy and paranoia. Set against the background of a nightmarish 1950s crawling with communist spies, corrupt FBI agents, McCarthyites, Stalinists, cold warriors, flying saucers, mysterious government organizations, The Silent Invasion weaves a byzantine tale of mystery and deceit as a bewildered investigative reporter Matt Sinkage pursues the truth behind an apparent alien invasion of earth that points to involvement at the highest levels of American government officials.

Before SPX started, I met with Cherkas and Hancock in their hotel room to hear about the convoluted history of the series, and what is planned for it now, as it returns years after it last was published.

Mike Rhode: My first question is… why bring The Silent Invasion back after thirty years?

[Cherkas and Hancock laugh]

Michael Cherkas: That’s a mysterious question. It comes down to this – Larry and I had worked on a fifth book that we did floppy comics for and they were published in 2001. Then in 2009, we self-published a hundred copies which we took to TCAF and they did really well there. So we figured there is an audience for this book, but we just have to find it and it’s not in the mainstream comic book field. It’s not superheroes and action adventure. Two years ago we were at TCAF and Terry Nantier of NBM was there…

Larry Hancock: Terry came up because of the 40th anniversary of NBM. He did a panel and asked us to participate since we were local to Toronto. At that point in time, we got to talking to him about doing another book. To clarify one thing, Michael referred to the last one that we’ve done being the fifth book of Silent Invasion. The book that is out now, book 1, was originally published as two books (books 1 and 2). Then the next book 2 will collect the original 3 and 4. In our new nomenclature, book 5 will actually be book 3.

MC: And when Terry publishes it, it will finally get its wider audience.

LH: We hope.

MC: And then at the same time, we are working on a new book that brings the story up to … we were originally going to bring it up to this era, but in retrospect it’s a really quick rush of events from 1965 to 2018.

LH: To say that a little differently, the original 12 issues we did as a comic book, which Terry originally reprinted as 4 books, are now going to be done as 2 books – 1 right now and 1 six months from now. And the unpublished 5 issues are going to be book 3, six months after that. And then subsequent to that we’re doing a book of brand new material.

MC: Book 3 takes place in the 1960s. The new book we’re doing starts in 1970 on the day that Apollo 13 runs into trouble. We introduce things like that not just to make people think that there might be a connection; [laughs] there is not necessarily a connection. Part of the intent is to try to bring it up into the era where we now have people in power who are more satirical than satire. Right now we have a Premier in Ontario and a President in the United States who are both in that satirical part of politics. That’s where we’re trying to bring this up to. Terry said that this is the perfect era to publish Silent Invasion again because of imagined conspiracies and the talk of the ‘deep state’ and all. He thinks there might be some synergy. [laughs].

MR: By doing new material, the first time since 2001…

LH: Just to clarify, while I’m known primarily known as the writer, and Michael is primarily known as the artist, but in actual fact we plot everything together. We live very close to each other and we constantly get together and plot everything. In general terms, Michael is the one who puts things on paper and I’m the one who provides the scripting. And Michael does the final editing on everything since if he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get on the paper. [laughs]

MC: Or if the words don’t fit! [laughs]

MR: Larry, do you storyboard then?

LH: No, I keep saying I can’t draw a straight line, but then again I don’t need to draw a straight line…

MC: The way it works is that we do the plotting…

LH: …we visualize a good deal…

MC: …and years ago it was more detailed. In the current story we’re working on, we say this is the scene, and we don’t even describe it beyond the first panel in the sequence and where we want to end it up. Sometimes I go, “You know, I can’t draw any of this until I have some words.” I just want to get some to figure out the reactions [the characters should have]. Then there are other scenes where I’ll just say, “This is kind of what I want to happen, and I sort of know what the wording will be,” and I will lay out the pages really roughly drawn.

The current story we’re working on is supposed to be 125 pages, five chapters at 25 pages each. The first chapter, when I broke it down based on the story that Larry and I talked about was going to be 32 pages, so I said, “We need to edit this down.” We do that often, and after I do the roughs which then Larry scripts to, and even after I do the blue pencils which are supposed to be the final pencils, then Larry edits the script again, but often what happens when I think I’ve done my final pencils, when I’m start  lettering it, I think, “Oh, I don’t like something” and I just redraw the whole panel. That’s happened numerous times, or we’ll have something that’s two panels and I say, “Nope, that’s going to be one panel this time,” or something that says two panels I’ll turn into three.

LH: Michael gets very picky. [When] a story is published, if it gets printed a second time, it’s very rare that there isn’t something that’s changed. If you take a look at Michael’s original artwork, you’ll find panels pasted over top of panels, and heads over top of heads. When we originally did The Silent Invasion vol. 1, the first comic book in the collection has been substantially redrawn from its original first appearance as a comic book.

MC: Actually chapters 1 and 3 in the new collection are substantially redrawn from the original comic book.

LH: They’re the same as what Terry published thirty years ago in the graphic album, but between the comic book and the graphic album they changed a lot. We want our best foot forward whenever we’re going to be putting something out for the public.

MC: But then Larry tells me, “How many times are you going to redraw that? Are you going to sell any more copies? Does it really matter?” And he’s right. Because at the end of the day, most people don’t notice those imperfections… those perceived imperfections that I might see.

LH: I’m an accountant so I’m very practical.

MR: He’s creating stuff for future academics to study the three different editions, Renegade, first NBM and new NBM, and write papers on.

MC: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

LH: And I’m the one who’s had to convince him that we’re going to store all these past versions in boxes in my storage locker. Michael just wants to toss it all out, and I’m the one who keeps saying, “We need it for the archives. We’re going to get donation receipts that will be so valuable that we can go out and buy and extra cup of coffee off of it.”

MR: So you have saved the original art, and you’re able to rescan (or reshoot back then) it as necessary?

LH: Interesting enough, what’s happened to the original artwork when we go back to look at it… you’ll see in the book Michael uses zipatone, and in particular on some of those, the artwork bled too badly. The ink bled too badly so most of this is just reshot from the previous printed copies. But when we tested to see what was the best way to go about it, it turned out to be good.

MC: We knew that would work because we’ve had some European editions published and they just shot from the English-language NBM editions and re-lettered it.

MR: In this introduction, Max Allen Collins listed European artists such as Yves Chaland and Joost Swarte as influences on Michael’s art. Is this accurate?

MC: When we started this, I picked a style specifically so I could complete the art fairly quickly. The first three issues were teaching myself how to use a No. 5 Winsor-Newton brush too. To teach myself that I looked at the European guys who drew with brushes like Serge Clerc and Yves Chaland. There’s a whole school of that called clear line (aka “ligne claire”) but we were joking last night that I don’t do clear line. I do thick line. [laughs] I was just trying to figure out how to reduce the imagery so it’s almost iconographic and keep it fairly simple. There were a few other French guys I was looking at who were really loose. Yves Chaland and Clerc are precise; I was looking for something that had a quicker look to it. When we were doing this, I was also freelancing as a designer and illustrator. The first twelve issues were 50% of my time so I had to figure out how to do it in less time.

LH: When we were originally doing The Silent Invasion, we were doing it on a bimonthly schedule with Renegade Press, although we did take a break between issues 6 and 7, an extra month, but we had a deadline and we were working on a disciplined basis.

MC: Basically I was trying to work so we could do a full issue in six weeks. I hear in this day and age people do a whole comic in a month. I don’t know if that’s true or not because it seems like it’s a lot of work. I found doing this was very time consuming.

MR: I think it probably depends on your method. If you’re inking digitally, it’s probably faster than by hand.

MC: That’s another thing. I don’t do anything digitally. I still do it straight up the old-fashioned way. But we’ll see – I haven’t inked anything in years. I don’t know if it’s going to look like the old stuff. The last time we did was early 2000s. I’ve drawn stuff but what I’ve found is that my brushwork is thicker now so there’s going to be less detail in the art. But I’m not sure yet. I wish I had new samples to compare it to.

LH: In addition to doing The Silent Invasion at that time, we had a series we called Suburban Nightmares. The first volume that Terry produced was four issues from Renegade was all set in the 1950s and was childhood fears. The next stories that we did elsewhere that appeared in the second volume we updated to other time periods. We’ve done other stories as well. Michael did The New Frontier in Heavy Metal. That’s why the DC book by Darwyn Cooke was called DC’s The New Frontier.

MC: But nobody gets them confused anyway.

LH: I know. But since then, we’ve been working on other stuff on the side. We did one issue of a minicomic that we self-published that was distributed only in the Toronto area which is about a superhero who has lost his powers. It was called Union City Comics featuring The Purple Ray. The first issue was all about him attending a comic book convention and signing, but most people were giving attention to the people who started the Purple Ray TV show which was a big success. It’s sort of the idea of comic creators losing the rights to the characters and being overshadowed by the creation itself. At the end of the first issue, the publisher announces a big budget movie which he’s going to have nothing to do with, but they still use him for promotional material. We still have pages to do before we get up to 120 pages.

MC: I have penciled the entire second issue…

LH: But my point on that was going to be… what’s happened to the first issue?

MC: I’m redrawing it entirely.

[Both men laugh]

MR: So you will not be selling the minicomic here at SPX?

MC: No, we should have brought them.

NBM's Terry Nantier, Larry Hancock and Michael Cerkas at SPX

LH: I figured this is the big event to rerelease The Silent Invasion so we wanted to make sure the emphasis was on that. What The Silent Invasion was, when it was originally released by Renegade Press in 1986, was a big success at the time. We sold 14-15,000 copies of a black and white; by the time the last issue came out, it was down to 3,000 or 4,000. We were nominated in 1987 for a Kirby Award, the precursor to the Eisners. Amazing Heroes chose us as one of the ten best comics of 1986. When I say one of the ten best, I’m not talking about the ten best independents. We were one of the ten best comic books of the entire year.

MC: This is something that nobody knows. Larry, you might not even know this. There was actually one year I was nominated for a Rueben [from the National Cartoonists Society]. They have a category for comic books and I was nominated for the comic book. I don’t know how that happened but it was probably in 1990… it was just weird.

LH: At the time we were nominated for the Kirby Award, that was presented at San Diego and we sat in the audience briefly to hear ourselves lose to another Canadian comic book – Cerebus. At that time, Cerebus was riding high.

MR: You guys were doing this during the black and white explosion…

LH: That’s it. We say we didn’t benefit from the explosion because we came along a bit after it started, but we got hurt by decline of them.

MC: A lot of factors came into this. We could have continued to publish like a lot of people did and just trundled along, and had we done that, we might have found some kind of success again. But we thought, “I’ve got two kids, blah, blah, blah. There’s no way I’m going to do this right now.” That kind of stuff is better if you’re living in your parent’s basement…

LH: At the time too, when we were doing this with Deni, she did the twelve issues of Silent Invasion, and then we did four issues of Suburban Nightmares, and she was starting to fall off. The whole black and white market was starting to fall off. We were in negotiations with Comico to do a different series with them but they ran into hard times, and then we went to talk to Dark Horse and they eventually published Michael’s New Frontier as a black and white comic after it was initially printed in Heavy Metal, but then they also decided to concentrate differently. They paid us and a whole bunch of other creators a kill fee, on the basis that they’d been negotiating in good faith to publish stuff and then chose to stop.

Eventually we hooked up with Calibur and Calibur Comics reprinted the whole first six issues of The Silent Invasion with the intention of doing a new series, and they actually published the first issue of what we were calling Silent Invasion Abductions. After publishing the first issue of that, Caliber decided they were going exclusively with creator-owned…

MC: I think when Dark Horse killed our thing, it was something to do with them doing less creator-owned and licensing stuff. You know what, that was fine. We were just at the tail end of everything.

LH: That’s true. Some of the Suburban Nightmare stuff we did with Dark Horse was in Cheval Noir.

MC: The other thing at the time, Chris Kemp and I were asked to do a Vertigo proposal for Shelly Bond, and that went on. Chris and I did quite a bit of work on that one until she said no.

LH: We met with Stuart Moore who was launching DC’s Helix line. I went to some Oakland conventions that Michael wasn’t at and was trying to talk to Vertigo and others. Generally when I was meeting with them, they liked our writing but wanted to say, “Well, can we get somebody else to draw while you guys write?” and I said, “No.”

MR: You were caught up in the black and white implosion – did you guys consider working in color?

LH: At one point in time, when we were talking about reprinting this, we were considering adding one single color like Ms. Tree was published by Renegade.

MC: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind doing things like limited color, but not full color. Maybe picking a really limited pallete. Even in the new reprint, I suggested to Terry, “Let’s not print the black as black, let’s print it as another dark color, like dark brown.” That makes it look a little different, and like you’re thinking a bit more.

 LH: Michael’s chosen a color pallete specifically for the covers to stand out. We’ve got a sickly green, a sickly orange…

MC: The reason Terry wanted to reprint this now is that graphic novels are everywhere. I go into a bookstore now and the graphic section is huge. If I go into Indigo, the big bookstore chain in Canada, the graphic novel sections is quite large, and you often see a lot of graphic novels there that aren’t carried in comic stores. Ones that are literary. So you’ll see lots of things that aren’t in your traditional store. Although if you go into The Beguiling, you’ll see lots of them. In Toronto, there’s only The Beguiling that’s on that model; Silver Snail and all the other stores carry a lot of American superheroes. They do carry some other stuff, but not a lot of it, and you have to search for it. I think that Terry figures there’s a bigger market for graphic novels and a bigger market for a wider variety of artwork. If he publishes it now, it will find its market.

MR: So it’s really been 18 years since it’s been in print, and you guys will be new to at least a generation or two, even as comics are being taken more seriously as literature. Are you guys having problems writing the book with the satirical nature of politicians now? It’s hard to take our politicians seriously.

LH: It’s interesting because in the story line we’re doing now, about 120-125 pages, we’re setting the storyline to come up to the present and we’re conscious of where we want to go. We haven’t reached the difficult parts of the reflection of the current day. The story is set in the past, but we want to reflect the current day, and make it resonate with the people who know the current times and don’t know the past times.

In the first story, we introduced a Senator Harrison Callahan, who you will see in the second book. He was our Kennedy substitute at the time. Michael’s often talked about going back and making him a Kennedy instead of a Callahan.

MC: At this point, we’re still not sure how far up to the present we’ll go.

LH: When we were talking about this, Michael originally wanted to set this book going all the way from the 1970s into the 2010s.

MC: I want to do each story ten years apart, but now I’m not sure.

LH: It’s a little more difficult when we’re trying to do chapters with somewhat continuing narration and characters and stretching it over 40 years.

MR: Are you still following the same main character the whole time?

MC: We’re following the family instead because Matt Sinkage disappears at the end.

LH: Books 1 & 2 are about Matt Sinkage and one of his main characters particularly in book 2 is a guy who worked for the FBI called Phil Housley. Housley becomes our main protagonist in book 3 because of the alien abductions.

MC: And that one is the search for Matt Sinkage.

LH: And then in book 4, which we’re working on now, we start off with Matt’s brother Walter and his wife Katie, who were characters in the earlier books. As we progress, the main character turns out to be Walter’s son Sparky.

MC: Because abductions run in families. Did you know that? Alien abductions run in families, so if a grandfather was abducted, his children and grandchildren will be abducted.

LH: No, no, if the grandfather swears he was abducted, then the children and grandchildren will swear they’ve been abducted to.

[Larry laughs]

MC: This is another difficulty. Larry only believes in empirical evidence, and I believe that something is going but there is no empirical evidence.

LH: Again, this is the whole point of The Silent Invasion. What is really going on? Is it happening, or isn’t it happening? The fact that we both have different viewpoints on this thing is what turns this into a twisted story? Are the aliens real or aren’t they? Is there a conspiracy, or isn’t there? Is Matt Sinkage sane, or is he just a lunatic? We’ve got two creators who are jousting with each other. We talk about fist fighting during the writing. We’ve never come to blows, but we do have arguments. We also bounce ideas off each other and one says, “This is strange. We won’t do this,” and then the other one says, “Wait a minute. We can make that work.”

MR: I was a little bit confused at times reading the first book because Sinkage sees a flying saucer go overhead but everybody else at the party sees a jet. Later at the start of chapter 6, there’s three flying saucers in the sky and nobody paying any attention to them, including Sinkage.

LH: To some extent, it’s us just keeping the saucers and aliens present in the readers’ minds without characters paying attention. To some extent it’s for atmosphere, to some extent it’s for mystery, and to some extent it’s for creating that questioning in the reader’s mind.

MR: If they’re up as high as an airplane or higher, you wouldn’t be noticing. It would be a little dot.

MC: My brother claims he saw a flying saucer when he was in grade 5. He says he was at a friend’s house and looked up and saw a disc, but when he looked again it was gone. So what was that?

LH: We’ve talked a lot about storytelling. When you’re telling a story, you have to keep in mind: what do the characters in the story know, what does the reader know, and what do the creators know? All of those are different amounts and we have to juggle that. But you not only juggle it; you also get to play with it in regards to what you’re going to tease or not tease… whether you all it red herrings, or foreshadowing, or simply withholding information.

MR: Are you hoping to bring The Purple Ray or other books back into print?

LH:  The Purple Ray has never had wide distribution so we will talk to Terry about that eventually. It’s just an ongoing project.

MC: I would like to do it.

LH: Suburban Nightmares and The New Frontier – certainly we’d like to talk about getting that back in print as well. We’ve been working on The Purple Ray and Michael has also been working on a story that I’m going to help with about the Ukrainian Famine.

MR: Fiction, non-fiction, or a mixture?

MC: Fiction, but based on reality. Historical fiction.

MR: Do you have any family members who were in it? The Ukrainian Famine was caused by Stalin, right?

MC: I don’t have any family members, but I know people who did have family members in it. I’ve got fourteen pages of it finished. The first chapter is done. That’s an ongoing project too, one I’d like to finish in two years.

MR: Honestly, I think today that would be a better seller than reprinting your other comics.

MC: I think so too. I know that in Canada, there’s a big built-in market because there’s 1.25 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent and libraries and schools love that stuff.

MR: Any final comments to wrap up this interview?

MC: Buy this book!

LH: I don’t do rap very well; I’m just not a rapper. Michael and I have been successful at other ways of earning income other than just doing comics. The comics are things we do for ourselves and not necessarily for the money.

MC: Except that I really enjoy doing it better than design… [laughs]

LH: Doing Silent Invasion again definitely gives me the itch to get back in and do a bunch more.

MC: Buy this comic and make a couple of old comic book creators happy!

NBM Blog on Silent Invasion (mostly written by Cherkas)
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