How does the award-winning creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips spend their time off from the critically acclaimed graphic novel Reckless? Creating another mind-bending noir tale, of course. Written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Sean Phillips, and featuring colors by Jacob Phillips, the new Image Comics graphic novel Night Fever is a surreal exploration of the dark corners of a strange new city and the human mind.
Foreign sales agent and insomniac Johnathan Webb roams the night, exploring the dark recesses of a foreign city in this thriller set in the 1970s. While exploring the underworld of this European town, Jonathan meets the enigmatic Rainer, who catapults him into an ethereal world of violence and endless possibilities. As Johnathan marches deeper into the night, he must confront the darkness within himself and fight to not be consumed by it.
In this interview with Popverse, acclaimed writer Ed Brubaker gives us his thoughts on adapting a long-dormant idea, Sean Phillips's inventive art style and technique for Night Fever, and the creative team's next project, Where The Body Was.
Popverse: Creatively speaking, how does it feel to finally execute this long-gestating idea?
Ed Brubaker: Really good. When you first start out your career, every now and then you'll have an idea and you'll just jot it down on a notebook and think, "That's gonna be something someday." Then, at some point, you start to get further along in your career and you're like, "I'm not gonna be able to do all of the ideas in that notebook, There's no way I'm finishing every idea." I actually thought "I don't think I'm ever gonna get back to that one. I don't think I'm ever gonna crack that one."
Then it was taking Sean's request for doing something in Europe or the UK, and suddenly trying to figure out a way to do that. I was like, “Wait, that idea!” and it was just perfect timing.
I said, in the afterword, I think of writing as therapy to some degree. I was going through this really rough year with a family member going through a lot of medical stuff and just kind of feeling in a really dark space, which was really the perfect place to write a really twisted noir story that then becomes some kind of surrealist nightmare.
So now that it's done. Does Night Fever live up to what you had in mind for that idea?
I mean, yes and no. It's interesting. There's parts of it that were in my original formulation that totally fell out completely. Like, part of the initial idea was the trouble would follow the guy home, from wherever he went. Bu,t initially, he wasn't gonna be in a foreign country, an ocean away. What I always do when I start writing one of my books is I have an outline that's either sort of semi-loose or very loose and this one was really very loose.
So, I kind of knew the gist of it and where I was going, but I left myself a lot of room to just discover things on the page, like some of the dialogue in the scenes and some of the turns in the story were things that I actually found as I was writing it. So in some ways, I feel like I took the idea and did something really cool and different with it, but it's not totally the same idea that I initially started with, but I'm fine with that, you know? If you surprise yourself, you'll hopefully surprise other people.
Night Fever is a departure from some of your previous works in terms of tone and setting. Did you face any unique challenges while writing this book compared to any previous graphic novels?
Yeah, I really wanted it to feel somewhat like a Cold War, Europe vibe, but also kind of the vibe of Heavy Metal magazine when I was reading it growing up and the late 70s, and early 80s, when they were doing bad translations of a lot of European comics. I really wanted to do something that sort of felt like a bit of a noir story, but also a bit of that strange Euro-comic vibe. And I think that's where some of the more surreal elements ended up growing out of, was trying to mesh those two elements together.
The biggest challenge was just trying to make all of the pieces fit together, as usual. [Laughs] Trying to get that flavor of the Cold War Europe vibe in there a bit, along with just how strange it feels to be in a foreign country on a business trip. With each book, I try to do something a little bit different with our structure, or the way we're approaching the narrative. It's always a challenge to try to make sure that you're layering in all the little bits and pieces.
I have a bunch of stuff on the main character's backstory. One of the things you really toy with when you're putting these graphic novels together is, are you revealing too much? Are you not revealing enough? But just playing with where to sort of do those twists and turns, it was a lot of fun. I haven't done anything in a long time that had that kind of a thriller, almost, like, Hitchcock tension kind of vibe. Almost a Man Who Knew Too Much kind of thing. I definitely wouldn't call him an innocent man, but he was just a guy on a business trip when it started out.
You mentioned that this book's setting was a request from Sean Phillips, allowing him to draw some familiar sights from the UK and Europe. What are some of the influences for the locations in Night Fever?
Sean based a lot of the town on a couple different places he's been in France, but primarily Angoulême, because I think that's where they have the big Comics festival, which is kind of hilarious. When I wrote it, I was just thinking of these sort of small European towns in Portugal or France or Spain, where I'd been. We don't name the country or the town in the book, but at some point as I was writing it, I realized I needed to pick a foreign language for the people to be speaking. So, I decided I had to say it was in France.
Once I said it was in France, Sean decided to just be literal with it and use photo reference from these old French places. He knows a lot more about Europe than I do, obviously growing up in the UK and traveling a lot, but he was really looking forward to drawing “Cold War Eastern Europe” more. When I was telling him about the story and then when I gave it to him and it was like a French beach town, it's like somewhere in the French Riviera. In his mind, the architecture of those places is so different. The age of the buildings and stuff. That weird swirly thing that has the mask, that design on the cover, that's actually inspired by the way the railings and lanterns and stuff that hang from the walls of the buildings in these old towns.
Those are very ornate cities, for sure. The architecture was very distinct.
Yeah, like a four- or five-hundred-year-old city. I love that idea of this dazed American wandering the night.
When you're creating unique worlds like this 1970s, unnamed European city, how do you know when you've done enough research to begin producing the project?
This one was really kind of instinctive. I did do a lot of reading. In the early stages, I went back and read noir novels and some old European comics that I had, and some more that I ordered, just to sort of brush up on the stuff that I remembered and try to find the tone that I was going for.
But because I knew we weren't gonna name the town itself, I just sort of felt free to write an imaginary European village, based on the different ones that I've been to, and just sort of mash them all together into a place that would have had a big book fair in the 70s.
I do a ton of period piece writing, so I'm always reading about anywhere from the ‘30s to… I'm starting to do more research about the ‘90s, which is even weirder, because I lived through it. But I looked at the ‘70s, and the ‘80s too. It's fun to go back and dig through the old magazines and see what TV shows were on, or what movie critics were actually saying at the time, as opposed to what they say when they look back. Sometimes Roger Ebert would actually review a movie, and then go back 20 years later and look at his old review and re-review the movie.
Night Fever is a visually stunning book. Each scene feels like an ethereal waking dream. How did you work with Sean Phillips to create the style for the book?
I think early on, when I first told him what I wanted to do and this sort of idea that it would have the flavor of a European album, Sean initially wanted to draw the same size as European albums, and the commercial side of me freaked out and I was like, “No, no, let's not change everything we do. There is a formula that's working!”
He decided to draw the art in what they call "double up", which is the same size that comics were drawn in the 50s, which is a hundred percent bigger than printed size. Comics are normally drawn at about 8.25" x 13", or 10" x 15". 18" by 20" is the size that everyone drew in the 50s. So the art is literally just enormous. If you're a fan of any of the IDW Artist Editions, the one that they put out that's this size is the Wally Wood one, and it's all just this art from the 50s that he did for EC Comics. That's the same size that Sean drew. So, if you know the Reckless books, basically he took two pages of the Reckless books and put them side by side on top of each other. Each page of Night Fever is the same size as two pages of another book, art-wise, which is just insane.
He pencils digitally, so that's why he did the pages the way they are, where it's a four-tiered structure instead of a three-tiered structure, because each page is divided up the middle. And so it was really about that more. I just sort of talked to him a little bit about the mood of the story – like, in the narration or the opening pages, when I was describing the city. I spent a half a page sort of describing the mood of the place and the era, and what the feel of it all should be.
Then, because he was working with that new panel structure, I would just tell him when things were going to be like a wide shot or whatever. I'm so used to writing in three tiers because everything we've ever done since Sleeper has been three tiers a page, just because that's just the easiest way for everybody to understand comics, so it was hard for me to wrap my head around what the pages were gonna look like. I would just tell him which ones we're going to be a full tier and just let him figure out how to do the rest of it. He really just kind of went nuts on it. He pencils digitally but then printed it out bigger and inked it all 50% larger than he normally does. He said he didn't do very much more detail than normal, but I suspect he doesn't realize that he did; I looked at those pages and there's so many little fine details in them and the ink lines are just gorgeous. I think it's a career best book for him. I mean, I say that every time we put out a new book, so knock wood, but I do feel it's just our ability to sort of go from project to project. It allows us both to just sort of keep pushing and trying new things and keeping ourselves engaged.
The protagonist, Jonathan a.k.a Griffin, is a morally ambiguous character. What drew you to him as a protagonist, and how did you go about developing his character arc?
It's just the instinctual kind of character that I write. A little bit is probably partly mining my own youth and putting it into different characters. I had kind of a juvenile delinquent childhood up until my late teens, early twenties, so I always think about that a lot. That person who seems like the fine upstanding citizen who maybe had a little bit of a dark edge to them when they were younger.
You have this guy who's this professional, and his career is, he flies all over the world to these book conferences and sells foreign editions of other people's work. When he started out, he wanted to be a writer. So he's sort of at that midlife place where you're really successful and you got everything in life that people are supposed to want, but somehow you're still not satisfied. You didn't go down the path you thought you would when you were a kid, telling yourself who you were gonna be when you grew up. You don't appreciate the life that you've got. I feel like it's just a symptom of being alive in a weird way.
When I wrote down that he was a foreign sales agent, I had that idea of a guy who can't sleep and I thought, “Why can't he sleep?” Then that idea hit me of, he has this weird recurring dream. An almost savage primal dream, something that's very deep inside of him. That was like, this thing that he used to have when he was younger, and now he's this fine upstanding citizen and then he sees this dream in this manuscript, and then he can't sleep again. He's suddenly remembered that dream, and it's like this piece of his old self is awakening inside of him. So you sort of see that he had a little bit of an edge in him already, before he goes out that night and makes a lot of questionable decisions.
Given his insomnia, drinking habits, drug use, and getting hit by a car that one time, would you classify Mr. Webb as an unreliable narrator?
I would like to leave that up to the reader’s interpretation, honestly. There's certainly an argument to be made that everything that he experiences really happens all the way through. Except for that one thing towards the beginning that sort of gets contradicted at the end, but I don't want to spoil anything
Yeah, no spoilers.
I mean, it's certainly up for interpretation that way. I think I try to dance around it but I want people, at the end of the book, to ask that question: “Is he serious? Is he crazy? Is he full of shit? Is he lying to himself? Is he lying to us? What's going to happen with this guy?” I don't want to spoil anything, because I know from talking to enough people who've read the book that It seems to be hitting people a lot harder than I even thought it would. I feel like I want to make sure people go into it as clean as they can while still promoting it – the line we always try to tread. But, yeah, there's definitely that question. And I'll tell you honestly, I'm not a hundred percent sure if he's an unreliable narrator myself. I allowed myself not to know for sure. What the lights in the sky were…
Let's leave that one for people to find out about.
Are there any side characters in Night Fever you'd like to explore further? Like Mr. Bronson and his date or whoever created those funky animatronics at the secret society party?
I mean, never say never. A friend of mine was like, “You can totally do another book with this guy.” It hadn't even occurred to me. Maybe someday, I don't know. I just thought of it as a one-and-done thing. But I also like the Rainer character so much that I've thought about doing a prequel book about him, or just a spin off book, and not explain why he's there.
Rainer is a force of nature that sweeps in, picks up Jonathan and just runs with him.
Yeah, he's a real interesting character. He's one of my favorite characters I ever wrote and partly inspired by the director Nicolas Refn who made Drive, and I worked with for about four years on a TV show. [Brubaker and Refn collaborated on the 2019 drama series Too Old to Die Young, which is available on Prime Video.] I really wanted to write a character that was sort of inspired by him, and also the kind of character that he would write into one of his stories: a weird mashup of some of his virtues, with some of the insane, apocalyptic kind of characters that he puts into things. The, “Sort of sweeps you away on a wild adventure and gives you grandiose speeches” [feeling] is very much when you're living the life of working with Nicolas Refn. You sometimes have those moments of, "Did I fall down the rabbit hole here? What the hell is going on? Why are movies stars coming over to the table?" [Laughs]
That was part of the fun of doing the book: I realized I had a place, setting something in Europe, where I can have this European character and sort of riff on some of this Refn stuff a little bit. Just to pay tribute to him and have fun with that.
That's awesome. Have you told him that he's inspired a character in your book?
Yeah, I don't think he's read the book yet, so I haven't spoiled it for him, but he knows there's a character that's sort of loosely inspired by him. I'm waiting to get him a copy. I can't wait for him to see what happens.
You mention in the afterword that this book was a break for you and Sean Phillips. Looking back on Night Fever's creation, did you find this book's creation to be less "work" and more "play"?
I mean, they're always really fun for the first half of the book, and then really stressful for the second half of the book, because you're trying to make sure that you didn't waste time at the beginning of the book having fun. [Laughs] Making sure that you've left enough room to tell the rest of the story and that all the pieces are falling into place how you hope that they would.
The joy of what Sean and I do is that we're lucky enough – and also just, we've stuck to it for long enough – that we've built up a big readership that comes out for whatever we do. We're really lucky and I'm really grateful for it, but it's also really challenging that every single time we do something, I'm trying to sort of top what we did before.
At first, I'm always just like, “All right, we're starting a new thing,” and it's all fun and games and super exciting to see all the art come in. Then, the last two months that we're working on it, it's just nothing but stress because I'm just like, “My God, did we do it?” I'm never a hundred percent sure that we've pulled it off, which I think is probably the right way to be as a creator. Always a little bit unsure if you've landed the plane right. Just kind of crossing your fingers that you didn't waste months of your lives.
Do you have any other "germ ideas" you want to revisit and complete now that Night Fever exists?
Yeah, the thing we did after Night Fever! Our book that comes out in December is a book called Where the Body Was. That's another standalone original graphic novel. It's actually longer than Night Fever, it's about 150 pages, and Sean is drawing the last ten pages right now, I think. That one was an idea that came out of bits and pieces of two different ideas from my notebook. I couldn't figure out how to make either one of them into enough of a thing. Then this other idea that I had been thinking about for years that I kept never getting around to… Using a really great idea for a character in a crime story and mixed with a couple of things from my real life.
One of which was actually a true crime thing that I was sort of one degree of separation away from and heard about when I was in my early 20s. I don't want to spoil it, but I always wanted to write a crime story and use it as sort of a jumping off point. I finally figured out a way to do that coming off the back of Night Fever. I wanted to do something that was completely different from Night Fever, and do something that was more daylight.
And how did you decide it was the right time for Where The Body Was? Was it a similar process to choosing Night Fever?
Yeah, there's always two or three ideas that I'm juggling in my head as to what should be the next thing we do. We were going to do Night Fever as a break and then maybe go back and do another book in the Reckless series. I'm just sort of stewing on what to do next with the Reckless books, moving from the 80s into the 90s. I actually had figured out the seventh book in the series, but I still only have the initial thoughts on the sixth one, and they need to go in the right order.
So when I was mulling over that and this other project that I've been thinking about for a long time, a sort of loose sequel to this book we did called The Fade Out, that's about 1940s Hollywood. I've been sort of working on some ideas for another book set in that world, 10 years later. I was sort of looking at both of them and neither of them felt quite like the exact right thing to do then, coming right off Night Fever. I just wanted to do something that just had a really different flavor from what we did.
I had this idea to do a story that would all be set in one neighborhood, on one street. The end papers for the book are a map of the street that's from an overhead perspective, with little pointers to show you where people's different houses were and where the body was on the street. And then the story is told broken up through the points of view of a bunch of different people who are all telling you different things that happened during this summer. It's just a very different kind of story than anything we've ever done before, just structurally.
Coming out of Night Fever, it felt like we've done something so weird and dark, but fun. I just wanted to do something that felt more grounded and sunny. There's daytime scenes, there's a lot of nighttime scenes too but there's a lot of cool daytime scenes and it's the sort of little contained noir all taking place on one street with these people's overlapping stories. We'd never done anything like that before. So, that's kind of where we are with our career where we've been working together for over 20 years doing books, and now, for the last, I don't know, four or five years, we've been mainly doing graphic novels. So I want to make sure we're not just doing the same book over and over again.
Another upcoming project from the very busy Brubaker is Batman: Caped Crusader, which is now scheduled to debut on Prime Video in the near future.