Mayday: Your New Favorite Cold War Thriller [Interview]
November 4, 2016
ALEX DE CAMPI: It's April 1971. The CIA have just been handed the espionage coup of the decade when a KGB general defects with a list of all Soviet intelligence assets in Asia, including spies within the US Army in Vietnam. All case officer Jack Hudson has to do is get the defector and his microfilm from Hong Kong to California...and keep Palm Springs' overzealous FBI office from turning everything into a shitshow.
All Codename: Felix has to do is kill the defector and get the microfilm back to the USSR, by any means possible.
Easy, right? Now throw in a beautiful woman, a fast car, and a whole load of drugs.
MAYDAY is a very fast-paced and violent five-issue miniseries with a lot of sex and drug use. (Hey, they always say "write what you know.") But it's also got that early 1970s thriller thing going where the character moments and the emotional arcs are super raw and real. Oh, and it's all about music, too. The birth of metal and punk, the falling apart of the hippie ideal into harder drugs and selfishness. This was the year of rock and roll suicide, Joplin and Hendrix and Morrison; shortly after Manson, the Zodiac killer...Lt. William Calley being tried for the My Lai massacre; Jane Fonda giving the black power salute. Nixon in the White House and anti-Vietnam riots on the streets. It's a weird, rough time in America, and into the middle of the bright open modern spaces of California we throw two Soviet 20-somethings who are both fascinated and repelled by this world, and then we make their mission go horribly, horribly wrong.
Although every time someone pitches a comic as "it's [TV SHOW] meets [MOVIE]!", a fairy dies (#stopfairycide2k16), you can think of MAYDAY as Terence Malick's Badlands, but with the young couple on the run being Soviet agents. Or Ken Russell and Antonioni teaming up to direct a Bond film in California.
IC: MAYDAY is branded an "illicit paperback" on the back cover. Can you break down what that means?
DE CAMPI: I'm somewhat in love with '60s Signet and Pocket paperbacks, with their overhyped back copy print. I remember when I was about 12, I bought a complete set of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels for a whole $.25 at a local auction. Read 'em all, and it probably explains a lot about how I am today. Then our editor, Brendan Wright, started a little imprint when he left Dark Horse called Illicit Press, and we decided to fly under that banner because it recalled to me those very trashy cheap novels that I loved, as well as hinting at the sort of counterculture/samizdat literature that was popular in that era.
I also feel that Image is a very counterculture imprint, in some ways. Comics are kind of hilarious because the industry is so corporate, but most people in it behave like hobbyists. I'm attracted to Image because it's the only publisher where you can do very innovative things with format, with making a book a unique object without restrictions on length or design. That's really exciting, to be able to move those walls around.
IC: Music is an integral part of your storytelling in MAYDAY. What's your take on the music of the era?
TONY PARKER: A dichotomy of angst and ignorance, with some wonderful roots of great music. You have the mainstream emergence of punk, metal, and funk while a heavy soulfulness of dark folk (Creedence Clearwater Revival) starts to hit its stride. In many ways, it's a reflection of the Vietnam War. You have the realists who face up to the actual pain that it is causing, but a different side who sees the world as a happier and simpler place with no real issues. We remember and still listen to the darker and more honest musical acts, while the others have either dropped by the wayside, or are used as examples for simple-minded ignorance.
DE CAMPI: Oh, man. 1971 was a lot harder than anyone seems to remember. There were two Stooges albums out by then; Black Sabbath had both Paranoid and Black Sabbath out; Alice Cooper was doing amazing mixes of prog and metal...and MC5 and Parliament/Funkadelic...while the pop charts were dominated by these really saccharine Osmonds tunes. I love how dark and hard the tunes were in that era. Screw free love, give me "Electric Funeral." We have a Spotify playlist for MAYDAY that I'll be updating every month on the issue release date.
IC: Tony, MAYDAY is a story set in a pretty well-defined era. Are you interested in capturing a picture-perfect version of the time, or are you looking more toward capturing the mood and letting artistic license work from there?
PARKER: I tried to root it in the time that it takes place in. It's not the 70's that most people envision. Most people picture the late '70s and the Disco era. This was a disillusioned, dark, distrusting, dirty, and angry time. I tried to keep everything at least a year older than the time of the book, as everyone didn't go out and buy new everything every year. I avoided most movies of the time for visual reference, and kept to historical photographs. Almost all of the visual pop culture references would have been from media at least a year old, as it takes time for it to filter down to the common person. I want readers to feel like they're there experiencing it. There were a few times that I took a minor artistic liberty, but I tried to keep it to a minimum. I also tried to keep clothing characteristic to the individual. An older man wouldn't have a modern suit. It would be a few years older, or of a more conservative cut. It took a lot of image searches and online auction searches to get the best feel for it. I hope that it pays off for the reader.
IC: This story is action packed, but it's full of emotional moments, too, sequences where the acting has to hit as hard as a gunshot. How do you approach staging those scenes?
PARKER: I try to treat it like music, and respect the pacing set forward in the script.
DE CAMPI: Yeah, I think of pacing in almost a musical way, too. I think one of the things I do best as a writer is turning scenes in unexpected ways that are very real and true—of scenes having realistic emotional consequences to the characters. One of the primary consolations of fiction is emotional catharsis, so as a writer you can't shy away from sentimentality or quiet moments. And Tony is absolutely killing it on the emotion. It's a hard script to draw because you need to be able to do a car chase or crash one minute, then a very Antonioni-style lingering emotional sequence immediately after.
IC: Each issue opens on a quote from person from 1971. What does this do to set the tone for the issue? Are the quotes directly applicable to the issue, or the story more generally?
PARKER: That's all Alex. :)
DE CAMPI: I am a giant history nerd who has read thousands and thousands of pages of KGB, Soviet defector, and CIA autobiography for this miniseries (and hopefully its sequel minis, following these same characters during other key years and events of the Cold War). So many books, all fascinating, most out of print. It's part of what gives the book its tone: learning how unsure the people actually doing the spying were, how prone to accident, how often mistaken in assumption. The US and the USSR really didn't know much about each other.
But I'm assuming that everyone else isn't a big ol' nerd, so I wanted to start each issue with a thematic quote and mug shot from someone who defined the year. You can tell a lot about an era by its criminals. Issue one has our hippies in it, so we start off with Jane Fonda giving the black power salute and her quote from an April '71 Life Magazine interview about how property is theft...as we then proceed to introduce actual Communists into the story arc. Issue two is Charles Manson, because it's a tripped-out shootout in a very American setting. Seriously, the issue is just a shootout; it's very Geof Darrow-meets-Sam Peckinpah. Issue three is William Calley; four is Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly known as H. Rap Brown). Their quotes, which are often a mix of delusional and terrifying, give you some superficial insight into the era.
IC: There are a few significant characters in this story. What should we know about codenames Felix and Rose? Tony, both are Russians operating in the United States. How did you figure out their look and how they carry themselves?
PARKER: I tried to look at their potential back story. I pictured Rose as having ballet training, so she would generally have more of a dancer's stance. Felix is trying to behave like an idealized American in the beginning, but more as a caged animal as the series progresses. Visually, I initially had Felix as being older, so I put him in a suit. Alex thankfully corrected me, and I went with a cooler, but not as noticeable, outfit. I pictured Rose idealizing Jane Fonda, and trying to emulate her clothing where she could.
DE CAMPI: Felix and Rose are incredibly different people. Rose is there to navigate and Felix is there to pull triggers. Rose is a child of Moscow, the niece of a Politburo member, in the era in which Brezhnev very much consolidated and fossilized the privilege system in the USSR to completely separate the nomenklatura from the average struggling Russian. She is KGB, works in Hong Kong charming technology secrets out of foreigners, speaks fluent English, and is very comfortable in a Western environment. But she doesn't really understand consequences, that this is anything more than a pretty game.
Felix is a Volgograd street kid who ended up in the military and then in the GRU (Soviet military intelligence, a "neighbor" and somewhat rival agency to the KGB). He speaks okay English, but often has trouble understanding what people say, and speaks with an accent. And he's very ill at ease in the bright, shiny world of America. But Felix is intimately acquainted with consequences, and he's one of those somewhat scary people that the worse things get, the more comfortable he becomes.
They're both young, in their mid-20s. And they need each other to get through this mission and out of America. But there's a screw-up, and someone will have to be blamed for how the mission went wrong. "Blamed" means vanished in a permanent, stain-on-a-basement-wall-in-Lefortovo-prison way. So. Who will betray who? Or will their machinations lead them straight into the hands of an angry and vengeful CIA?
IC: You're playing with Russian nationals operating in the US, in addition to CIA and FBI cooperation, or lack thereof. There are a lot of things to compare and contrast in MAYDAY. As creators, have you been pleasantly surprised by the friction between any of the characters, and what that opened up for you?
PARKER: I like how everyone is their own person. It's not a forced team book where everyone gets along and fills team roles. Alex does a great job of giving all the characters their own motivation and voice.
DE CAMPI: The research I did really brought all the plot bunnies into my yard. There's just so, so much, once you start digging. The CIA's Soviet Bloc division was a hot mess in '71, still recovering from Angleton's damage (a fun Wikipedia hole for you: "Yuri Nosenko") and keen to make up lost ground. This is probably best shown in the difference between Virgil (the senior CIA case officer early in the story) and Simon (the counterintelligence officer who takes over from him). They have very, very different outlooks, goals, and backgrounds: Virgil's down-home Midwestern calm versus Simon's Northeastern/Ivy League privilege. And then of course the FBI, who have actual policing power within the US but an entirely separate approach and set of goals from the CIA. This is before you even get to the Russians and their goals. I'm big on individuality and subtext, so my people tend to be...people. Not straw men.
One of the surprises of the book for me was how much I enjoyed writing Rose. I get mad at Strong Female Characters, y'see, because male writers do 'em and their perceptions of strength are so boring and narrow. Strong means she swears, throws a punch, fires a gun. It's a purely received, masculine idea of strength and Christ, it's dull. Think of the strongest woman you know, the woman who survived single motherhood or emigration/refugee status or an abusive relationship or, hell, all of the above, and on top, made her place in a very masculine industry. Did she ever fire a gun? Yeah, didn't think so. Rose is incredibly strong, though many readers will see her as weak. But that girl could survive nuclear war. Her strength is very feminine. She doesn't use violence at any point during the book, but she plays the shifting allegiances in this forest of mirrors that is the spy world so, so well. Ultimately, she ends up in a very uncomfortable place, but it is the best solution available to her.
IC: Alex, you've said that "spies are terrorists in suits." What do you mean?
DE CAMPI: I'm fascinated by the tropes that cling to various genres. The spy genre is one where we take a whole bunch of things on faith that are actually deeply uncomfortable. Sure, people come in and they do big re-imaginings of spy books, but sometimes it's more effective to move only a half-step away from the tropes. Think, for a minute: What if James Bond didn't wear a suit and didn't have a British accent? What if he were brown, and wore a hoodie? What would you think of his actions then? And what if rather than convenient super-villains and crooks, he was doing what real spies do, stealing secrets and doing wet jobs against other countries? It all starts to get a little uncomfortable, doesn't it? As a culture, we'll let a white guy with a posh accent and a sharp suit get away with anything. Spies are just terrorists who work for first-world governments.
It's amazing to me how we can't get away from the spies-wear-suits cliche, too. I tried out a couple artists before choosing Tony for this series, and even though my script notes pretty much have all caps "FELIX IS 25 AND DOES NOT WEAR A SUIT!" all over them, every. single. initial. sketch of Felix from every artist came back with him in a suit. Here, I take a spy, and I put him in the clothes of a counterculture kid in sunny California, and make him a Communist—ironically what the American counterculture was worshipping at the time—and then give him a gun. MAYDAY is a book about bad people making terrible decisions, and it's also a very manipulative book, because while at the same time that you see how terrifying Felix's actions are, against nice, white, suit-wearing Americans, you're also going to end up liking Felix, despite yourself. (You'll also like Jack, the young CIA case officer, as he's really the only good man in the entire book—or at least, the only man without a significant ulterior agenda.)
MAYDAY #1 is available now.