The Cover for Dream Thief #1 by Alex Ross
Wednesday afternoon is usually a busy time for Astrokitty Comics & More located in the midst of downtown Lawrence, KS. However, this Wednesday, also known as New Comic Book Day for a significant portion of the Earth’s population, was especially hopping (and radical) because of the addition of a signing event held by the creative duo behind Dark Horse Comic’s new release Dream Thief. Jai Nitz (writer) and Greg Smallwood (artist) were awesome enough to spare a few minutes out of their day and dish out a bit of insight on the creative process and influences behind the best book about sleepytime vengeance since DC’s failed Elseworld series Jung Justice (disclaimer: that’s not a real book).
Dream Thief revolves around John Lincoln, a dark and brooding man of mystery following, unaware, in the shadow of his father’s footsteps. Dream Thief is a modern-classic of the comic-noir genre in the making. It has all the elements of great storytelling: dames, booze, bad omens, dead bodies, and unanswered questions.
Nitz says Dream Thief is “like a reverse Quantum Leap, where instead of [Lincoln] jumping into somebody else’s body, someone jumps into his body” jazzed together with the classic who-done-it setup of “What would you do with a dead body? You’re living your normal life, you’re doing your normal stuff and all of a sudden you fall asleep and when you wake up it’s with a dead body and what do you do? I guess I think about that a lot.” And that sort of intense meditation on the ramifications of waking up next to a freshly departed corpse is what makes for great storytelling.
As radical as this sounds (and it totally is radical) the story behind the making of this book is just as fun to listen to as the actual story of Dream Thief. Nitz credits much of his influence and inspiration early on to co-creator, Greg Smallwood’s artwork which inspired him to “try harder at every turn.”
“The inspiration for a lot of different stuff that we’ve done in the book is because of Greg. He went so far above and beyond at making everything cool that it inspired me to try harder, to push harder, to make the story better in return. The very beginnings of our collaboration were very inspiring to whatever idea I had to begin with” he says.
“You told me that you had other ideas,” says Smallwood, “but you said that you thought this one was the one I was suited for so I just said yes to that one first.”
Jai Nitz (left) and Greg Smallwood (right)
“It’s weird,” Smallwood continues “because you saw my artwork and it was superhero stuff. I did superheroes because I thought that would be appealing to other people but I wasn’t super-interested in doing superhero work.”
Well, that desire to work outside of the realms of capes and Kryptonite led to a longtime collaboration that began back in 2009.
“It’s been four years that we’ve been working on it “says Nitz, “but It wasn’t’ four years where we did it 40 hours a week every week. There have been a lot of stops and starts and different stuff that got in the way but part of the inspiration of the book was working with him, he pushed me to do better work again and again and again.”
“This initial kernel of an idea I had,” says Nitz, “has gotten better and evolved this entire time because we worked together. And we’re in close proximity, we get to see each other, we get to hang out, we get to drink a beer and go, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be cool if we did blah?’”
“The inspiration,” he finishes with a chuckle, “came from, you know, sleep but the book that you see comes from him being awesome.”
Greg Smallwood signs a book for an anxiously waiting fan.
Moving outside the realm of collaborative artistic betterment, a big stylist influence for Dream Thief comes from contemporary crime-drama classic The Wire (yes, the HBO one). Both Nitz and Smallwood are fans of the HBO series as is Nit’z brother who provided some stylistic sound boarding during the Dream Thief process.
“The person I talk to most in life, beside my girlfriend, “says Nitz” is my brother and he’s a huge fan of The Wire.”
Other personal touches in the book come from all around and Dream Thief benefits by conveying a sense of genuine and honest storytelling amidst a background of murder, masks, and marijuana.
“When you go back and read it, every conversation he has with his buddy is a conversation I’ve basically had with Greg or another friend. I’m not a super-powered killer so I don’t have that to draw from. I draw from the things that I think are interesting in life around me. I think that’s where most of the inspiration comes from on the crime end of stuff. You write it like life and oddly enough in life crimes just happen.”
That aforementioned buddy being Reggie Harrison, former college football star and best friend to Dream Thief’s main man. Two of Nitz’s own best buddies fused together apparently (like so many Super-Saiyans) to create the muse for Reggie.
For artistic assistance, Smallwood says he uses a combination of modeling with Google Sketchup for background layout, character modeling in Scupltris and photo-reference, with himself posing for many of the more unique or challenging character arrangements or angles presented by Dream Thief.
The best part of the time spent at Astrokitty today was the buzz of excitement generated by friends and fans coming in to the store to purchase copies of Dream Thief and have them signed by the creators. Small timeouts were taken throughout the interview to chat with fans and sign books. The pair were also giving out posters and paper-doll cut-out sheets featuring John Lincoln, with an array of accessories and paraphernalia thought up by Nitz and designed by Smallwood.
Look, he’s so happy!
In terms of artistic influence, Smallwood names Chris Samnee, Jason Latour, Dave Johnson and Sean Phillips among those whose work he admires. Although, Smallwood says he does not limit himself to contemporary artists to gain inspiration for the art of Dream Thief.
“I do look at a lot of older comics” he says. “I find that what I’m trying to do now is what they were doing back then. I think the further back that I go the more it appeals to me, like a lot of the crime stuff that came out in the ‘50’s. I could probably go on and on.”
Dream Thief is currently scheduled for a five-issue run but the creators definitely seem open to extending that into the future if the opportunity presents itself. Much of their desire to continue working on Dream Thief comes from Nitz wanting to work on a project he and Smallwood have cultivated and created completely from start to finish.
“There is no filter from what I want it to be versus what you see; it is exactly what we want it to be.” He says. “This is so gratifying that I would continue to do it forever.”
That conviction coupled with the hard-work and talent that these two brought together has gelled into a ferociously gripping and entertaining new series.