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DF Interview: Van Jensen brings a real-life crime drama to comics in Two Dead
By Byron Brewer
Two law enforcers. Two different and distinct ways of handling the job. All amid a city exploding with crime, conspiracy, violence, racism, madness. And murder.
It is even scarier because it is based on truth, on history.
Writer Van Jensen and artist Nate Powell bring a truly terrifying noir drama to Dark Horse Comics next fall. To get an early eye on this unique book, Dynamic Forces sat down with Jensen to learn more about this fascinating real-life crime story-turned-comic book.
Dynamic Forces: Van, Two Dead is really a different animal than most books out there. It is, I hear, based on a true story of a law enforcer in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1940s. Tell us about this back story please.
Van Jensen: It’s inspired by an incident that happened in 1946-1947, something I stumbled onto while working as a crime reporter in Little Rock. The city was really violent at the time, rife with organized crime and strictly segregated. Amid that, the chief of detectives was schizophrenic and thought that evil forces were overtaking the city and conspiring against him. It was a powder keg situation, and the chief was a torch right in the middle of it.
DF: What can you tell us about the characters?
Van Jensen: Just a note: We’ve renamed characters and changed a few details out of respect to the families of the real people involved.
The chief of detectives is Bailey, an old school cop with a Wild West mentality. Any problem can be solved with a gun. He’s the embodiment of machismo, but internally he’s falling to pieces. He sees demons and darkness bursting from the shadows, attacking him, tearing apart his city. He knows he needs help, but his bravado won’t allow him to ask for it.
His lieutenant is Gideon, a World War II veteran and FBI Academy graduate who wants to switch to a more modern method of policing. He and Bailey are in constant conflict as they fight for control. But, ultimately, Gideon wants to help Bailey.
Beyond them, we’ll see mobsters, gun-runners, moonshiners and much, much more.
DF: You touch upon many of the same elements that are causing friction in today’s headlines between citizens and police officers. How do you handle these?
Van Jensen: I started working on this story years ago, so I wasn’t directly thinking about those issues at the time. But even when I was a reporter covering crime, I saw a lot of that friction up front. I remember covering an officer-involved shooting late one night in a black neighborhood, and the residents were clear that they didn’t trust the police. Officers have an incredible amount of power, and while many are very, very good, some don’t handle that authority well. The challenge is that citizens don’t typically have much recourse when they’re wronged by police.
The dynamic I wanted to explore really is the tension between one cop who wants to do things the right way, and another who thinks the only way to truly police a city is to act without restraint. That route, the path of violent authoritarianism, is an attractive one. But it’s a path that ultimately leads to destruction. In a lot of ways, I think the biggest sort of spiritual inspiration for me on this was Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. It is, ultimately, a story of the maddening lure of power and violence.
DF: Did you do a lot of research for this noir period piece?
Van Jensen: Oh, yeah. I started researching it eight years ago, while still at the paper. I talked to a few primary sources that were still living. I pulled all the microfiche of old newspaper articles. I found a good bit of material in the Little Rock Police Department and City archives. Then I tracked down a few other sources for visual reference.
DF: As a former newspaper reporter and editor myself, I thought I was the only one who still remembered researching using microfiche, lol. Oh, also I heard that artist Nate Powell has a personal tie to Little Rock?
Van Jensen: Nate grew up in North Little Rock, which is a sister city, just over the Arkansas River. He has that innate knowledge and sense of place that only comes when you’re born and raised in a particular locale.
DF: Van, I cannot recall Nate having done any true crime/noir before. What does he bring to this book?
Van Jensen: Nate is, simply, one of the greatest living cartoonists. And with the March series of graphic novels, he’s shown how skilled he is at tackling historic nonfiction. Nate hasn’t done anything I’d call noir, but his art has always featured heavy shadows and strong atmosphere. There’s also an ephemeral, dreamy quality to his work that perfectly captures Bailey’s descent into madness. I can’t imagine doing this book with anyone else.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Van Jensen for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Two Dead #1 hits stores September 7th!
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