Fairlady's Brian Schirmer and Claudia Balboni Merge Fantasy and Noir
February 11, 2019 | Sam Stone
The Black Jack Ketchum team of Brian Schirmer and Claudia Balboni return with the new comic series Fairlady, a hybrid fantasy/noir about a private investigator taking the dirty jobs in a magical realm.
Within the fantasy template, the tropes of thrumming battles, towering dragons, and whimsical quests define the genre’s most prominent works. And while all those elements flow through Brian Schirmer, Claudia Balboni, and Marissa Louise’s new comic, Fairlady, the creative team is spiking that recipe with far more ambitious and innovative flavors. The result injects gut-punch noir into swords-and-steeds escapism, substituting rain-soaked alleys and seedy bars for surreal landscapes.
“I'd never seen or read a story about a female private investigator in a high fantasy setting. When I realized that, I immediately knew I needed it to exist,” explains co-creator and writer Schirmer. “Then I realized it was up to me to partner with super-talented artists to make it a reality.”
Taking place in the kingdom of The Feld and its surrounding realms, the new ongoing reteams Schirmer and artist Balboni after the duo’s genre-blending Image Comics Western, Black Jack Ketchum. While both collaborations feature a wanderer exploring unforgiving and strange wastelands, Fairlady’s antihero, Jenner Faulds, ventures outside of The Feld to take bounties and assignments too dirty for her fellow P.I.s, or Fairmen.
Within Fairlady’s mythology, the Fairmen arose after a cataclysmic war—soldiers looking for freelance employment and providing a makeshift degree of order. Jenner is the first Fairlady, tackling a beat dismissed by her peers as she and her hulking “feline” companion, Oanu, work for manipulative merchants and pursue tragic cases. In Jenner, the creative team has conceived a character striking past the norms of Caucasian, patriarchal standards, overcoming adversity while avoiding heavy-handed commentary. Jenner’s development was a team effort.
“I originally pitched the series as a gender-swapped Magnum, P.I. in a post-War-of-the-Ring world. So, at her heart, Jenner Faulds is the daughter of Thomas Magnum and Éowyn, Rohan's shield maiden who posed as a man to fight in battle,” Schirmer elaborates. “Her physical traits, her hair, her attire, that was all Claudia. Making her a woman of color, that was [colorist] Marissa [Louise]. I'd suggested at the outset that we have a racially diverse world, and Marissa ran with that. The last thing any of us wanted was a rehash of Middle-earth's endless whiteness.”
While Jenner roots Fairlady with an underlying struggle of gender politics and directly manages the investigations, her anthropomorphic partner, Oanu, is poised to become a fan-favorite character… just don’t make any comparisons to domestic cats to his face. While the fuzzy muscle wasn’t always intended to resemble a 'roided out Maine Coon, Schirmer looked no further than his own four-legged companions for inspiration.
“Oanu was originally going to be a seven-foot anthropomorphic hare,” Schirmer explains. “But the more I thought about it, it felt a little too Usagi Yojimbo, even if ours was more barbarian than ronin. Claudia designed a few alternatives, and we all agreed the cat look was the way to go. And yeah, I'm a cat dad.”
Aside from vivid personalities like Jenner and Oanu, the world of Fairlady is a character within itself. The Feld is a city built within the remains of a giant mechanical warrior from an advanced civilization, lost to the passage of time. The inhabitants of this world—including constabulary supervisor Camershon and high priestess Neija—are all haunted and bound by the wrenching war that nearly tore them all apart. That melancholic and wondrous setting also provided a welcome change to Brian and Claudia’s collaborative dynamic, after previously addressing the 1800s American West in Black Jack Ketchum.
“It was nice to visualize an entire city and give it life. I am always happy to work with Brian because his descriptions make it much easier to get a picture of what he has in his crazy mind,” Balboni says. “We have a perfect synergy, which is the ingredient that everyone wants during a creative process. I never designed something like this, and this project gave me the opportunity to explore some new horizons.”
In fleshing out the Fairlady cosmos, Schirmer and Balboni have made an adamant design decision that offers an accessible, and mysterious, stream of information: each issue is a self-contained, standalone tale.
“It's classic episodic storytelling,” Schirmer says. “We don't see that as much in comics these days—nor in television, film, or even games. So much entertainment demands more and more of your time to just get one story. I'm not against that; I just wanted to try this.”
The writer has found the storytelling approach both liberating and challenging, gaining inspiration from Fell and Global Frequency writer Warren Ellis, who employed the same done-in-one strategy within those titles. “It frees you to tell a different type of story each month, not only introducing readers to new characters and situations, but also different conflicts, different tones, different themes. The challenge comes with the pacing. Yes, every issue of every monthly comic has a finite number of pages in which to tell its installment, but with a standalone, you need to finish your tale.”
Whether it’s tracking down missing persons cases (as in her debut issue) or investigating deaths suspected of foul play, Brian, Claudia, and Marissa have crafted a fun, wind-resistant series that transforms classic fantasy into something far more tangible and gritty, without compromising its intoxicating visual aesthetic. Lined with relevant social commentary that informs the story rather than distracts from it, Fairlady slides into the 2019 zeitgeist with determined purpose rather than existential crisis. And for Brian and Claudia, the new series allows an organic genre mashup unique to comics.
“I'd never read a fantasy story with a female P.I. as the lead, just as I'd never read a surrealist Western about a historical figure. It's also fun to blend the various genre elements,” Schirmer says. “How might someone fake their death in a high fantasy setting? How might magic play into a murder investigation? What does sexism look like in such a world, and how does it impact the life of our protagonist in ways both similar and different to our world? Asking and answering questions like these is what gets me out of bed in the morning as a writer.”
What does sexism look like in such a world, and how does it impact the life of our protagonist in ways both similar and different to our world? Asking and answering questions like these is what gets me out of bed in the morning as a writer.