Atkins & Finnegan on adapting CROSSROAD BLUES and capturing the spirit of Mississippi [INTERVIEW]

Let's take a trip to the deep South—the Mississippi Delta—and learn more about the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson and the forthcoming graphic novel adaptation of CROSSROAD BLUES, co-created by Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Ace Atkins and artist Marco Finnegan.

The following feature was originally published in Image+, Vol. 2 #6

Let's take a trip to the deep South—the Mississippi Delta—and learn more about the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson and the forthcoming graphic novel adaptation of CROSSROAD BLUES, co-created by Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Ace Atkins and artist Marco Finnegan.

IMAGE COMICS: Ace, you’re known as a NYT bestselling novelist, and before that, your impressive journalism career boasts a Pulitzer nomination. How were you able to so fluidly transition from reporter to author—and now to graphic novelist? What were some of the crossover skills? Some of the obstacles you encountered creatively along the way to CROSSROAD BLUES: A NICK TRAVERS GRAPHIC NOVEL?

ACE ATKINS: Working to become a novelist nearly 20 years ago wasn't easy. It took a lot of hard work while holding down a full-time job as a crime reporter in Florida. But Marco has made the transition for me being a graphic novelist pretty damn easy. He does most of the work! Marco did a wonderful job drawing Nick when we first started talking. He really understands Nick and the noir world he inhabits. That level of understanding of a character and a world is a rare thing. It's terrific to work with someone you trust with your creations.

IC: Is CROSSROAD BLUES a straight graphic novel adaptation of the novel? What has the collaborative experience been like between the two of you when bringing this story to life visually?

ACE: I've given Marco the license to adapt the story, and he's done a beautiful job. I think I've had a few minor suggestions, but overall, Marco has nailed the story. There are four Nick Travers novels, and I'd love to see us keep going after that with some new material.

MARCO FINNEGAN: We had to change some things in order for the book to work as a graphic novel and not be 300 pages long. Ace writes so visually that it's easy to see the book in my head, but in order for it to fit into a graphic novel, some things had to be changed. Any changes I made, Ace and I talked about at length and made sure that the essence of the story was still there. Lots of texts and emails. These are Ace's toys, so I didn't want to break them while I was playing with them.

IC: Many of Ace’s novels are set in places where he’s lived, and currently Ace resides in Mississippi, the setting for CROSSROAD BLUES. How familiar are you with Mississippi? How strong of an influence was the setting and culture of the South when approaching the aesthetic feel of CROSSROAD BLUES? How much time/research went into understanding the look and feel of the South?

MARCO: I'm a huge research junkie, so I would take "walks" using Google Earth. It’s a great resource tool. I dug into all the old photographs my public library had, and I read descriptions of the area, but Ace was the best resource; if I would draw something that felt off, he'd call me on it and get me back on course. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge, especially about the South. So, lots of research went in to trying to capture the feel of the region...hopefully it shows!

IC: How did you two come to team up on this project, and how long has this collaboration been in development?

ACE: Marco contacted me on Twitter a few years back and showed me a few sketches. He asked if I'd like to team up for a project. The art was so damn good and striking, I couldn't say no. Marco (in Southern California) ended up linking me into Keven Gardner at 12-Gauge, the Alabama-based editor of the book who attended the same school as me in the early 1990s—Auburn University. We didn't know each other, and it took a Californian to put this all together for two Southern boys.

MARCO: I stalked Ace on Twitter! I am a HUGE Robert Parker fan, specifically his Spenser novels, so when Ace took over the series, I sent him a drawing of what I thought Spenser looked like. I loved his take on Spenser and devoured the rest of his books; we would chat on Twitter, and I told him that if he ever wanted to try comics, I'd love to draw them. He told me about this blues investigator series that he had—I read the first couple of Nick Travers novels and was just blown away. Such a great character and story!

IC: Marco, are you a blues fan personally? How much blues music did you listen to while working on this project? Were you new to Robert Johnson? Do you have a favorite cover of Johnson’s Cross Road Blues? Do you (or Ace) have any recommendations for what music/artists/songs readers should listen to while reading CROSSROAD BLUES?

MARCO: I'm a big fan of the blues, but working on this book really made me appreciate it a lot more. I was familiar with Robert Johnson's legend, but not the man. CROSSROAD BLUES really opened up a part of the country (the Delta) that I wasn't familiar with. The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson was on repeat most of the time. Lots of Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal, and Muddy Waters in there, too. One of my favorites that I learned about while researching was Son House. Lots of good stuff out there.

ACE: You bet. Robert Johnson for sure. But also some of his friends like Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines. I also drew a lot of inspiration from modern female vocalists for the Virginia Dare character in the book, like Sue Foley and Susan Tedeschi.

IC: Who would you recommend CROSSROAD BLUES to? For comics readers who aren’t as familiar with Ace’s backlist of novels, what type of reader do you think will want to pick up CROSSROAD BLUES?

ACE: Nick is a classic hardboiled hero who just happens to inhabit the weird worlds of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. I would look to fans of Darwyn Cooke’s incredible Richard Stark adaptations. As a novelist, I found a lot of inspiration in Stark (Donald Westlake) for what kind of story I wanted to tell. I liked the gritty urban setting but always wondered what it would feel like down South.

MARCO: Fans of SOUTHERN BASTARDS and LOOSE ENDS should definitely give it a look, and I think fans of Brubaker/Phillips books like THE FADE OUT and CRIMINAL will dig this, too. Ace writes some of the best bad guys, and we have one in here (Jessie) who was fun to draw.

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