In the following email interview, Steve Nedvidek, Ed Crowell, and Jack Lowe — the writers of the dieselpunk action / adventure comic The Jekyll Island Chronicles — discuss the second volume of this series, A Devil’s Reach (paperback, Kindle).
Photo Credit: Caroline Lindsay
For those unfamiliar with The Jekyll Island Chronicles, what is this series about, and when does it take place?
Jack: The Jekyll Island Chronicles takes place between the World Wars, a time of breathtaking change in technology thrust upon a highly unstable world. The series is an exciting blend of action and adventure with elements of dieselpunk and sci-fi. The whole story is layered across a landscape of alternate history where our heroes get to fight with help from some of the most brilliant minds of the time. We’ve taken wounded WWI veterans who are still willing to sacrifice for a greater good, and pitted them against a cabal of anarchists who would stop at nothing to bring the world to its knees. And it happens that Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia, was the winter home to many of the wealthy industrialists who, in our story, are challenged with assembling this new army of good people to face-off against these merciless villains.
And then what is A Devil’s Reach about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book in The Jekyll Island Chronicles, A Machine Age War?
Jack: Chronologically, with A Machine Age War closing at the start of 1920, A Devil’s Reach picks up just a few months later that same year. Narratively, our heroes realize that the battles in A Machine Age War were only a small part of a larger war. The anarchists, led by Luigi Galleani — in the book and in real life — attempt to disrupt again by bombing Wall Street. So, there is a movement by the government for a mass deportation of the most troublesome in our country, which ultimately benefits the bad guys. And as all this is happening, Nikola Tesla discovers that plans to his death ray — also a real thing — have gone missing from the vaults of the British government. This gives us a chance to meet some new historical characters. Because it’s alt-history, we know that many of our historical figures will pass away, while our fictional character characters grow, change, and wrestle with their own roles in this new war.
Where did you get the idea for A Devil’s Reach, when did it come up in relation to writing A Machine Age War, and how did that idea evolve as you were writing it?
Jack: We’ve always known this would be a series. And we’ve always had the bigger picture in mind. Parts of the narrative have already born themselves out in history, so our job is to create — and sometimes discover — a story arc that drives our characters along within that known history. For example, as we learn more about mail bombings and the bombing of Wall Street, followed closely by deportations, then our job is simply to ask “What if?” We know that Tesla had been working on a weapon of incredible power, so, “What if?” It is also odd to see how what we are writing about, in certain ways, is repeating itself today. That is scary…
You mentioned earlier that The Jekyll Island Chronicles has elements of dieselpunk and sci-fi story. Are there other genres or combinations of them at work in the story as well?
Ed: We also won’t hesitate to add alt-history, action adventure, sci-fi. But as a design aesthetic, dieselpunk is right where we are. You’ll see some of the last vestiges of steampunk, but diesel is coming full force into this war. And with the wealthiest and most intellectually advanced people of the age given free rein to imagine and build highly advanced technology to bring into battle, the “punk” side of diesel is certainly evident.
For each of you, are there any writers or other stories that had a big influence on A Devil’s Reach that not an influence on A Machine Age War?
Jack: I continue to be influenced by such historical nonfiction writers as Erik Larson. His ability to weave seemingly juxtaposed stories into a greater narrative is spellbinding for me. If we can capture a similar “this was happening, and at the same time this was happening” feel, and “in the end you’ll see how they’re related” then I believe we’ll have the makings of a very compelling story.
Ed: I have a massive love of spy novels and westerns; I just devour them. I wanted to explore a whole new set of characters for A Devil’s Reach. We have incorporated a band of spies — an underground intelligence network called The Restoration, led by a crusty character named Queen Anne — into the mix of our heroes.
Steve: I kept turning over Oliver Twist in my mind, especially as we developed the idea of The Restoration. I played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! as a kid, and kept seeing top hats on the gang. There was definitely a Dickensian vibe for me.
How about nonliterary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of them have a particularly big impact on A Devil’s Reach?
Jack: Well, it was certainly exciting to see the reception that Fantastic Beasts and Wonder Woman received. Knowing that there is an audience for WWI and 1920s stories affirms our belief that there are many great tales to be told about this forgotten time.
Steve:With the initial scene at Brooklands and the founding of the London quick response team, the Flying Squad, I had car chase scenes racing (pun!) through my mind the entire time I was working on layouts — everything from the opening sequence of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to The Fast And The Furious to Thelma And Louise. There are also shadows of Titanic, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and, believe it or not, nods to An American Werewolf In London, The Natural, and Helen’s dreams are all Twilight Zone.
The three of you cowrote A Devil’s Reach, as you did with A Machine Age War. How exactly does that work? Like, does Steve create the characters, Jack think up the scenarios, and Ed pen the dialog…?
Steve: As you can imagine, it is tough with three creators. While we each have our strengths, it’s very much a team effort and a democracy. We help each other fine tune our writing and hold one another accountable for character or story drift.The overarching idea and storyline was my idea, but it was very thin when Jack and Ed first heard it. Ed actually was the one to suggest the original connection to Jekyll and what was going on there. Together, using a three-act foundation, we flesh out ideas, create the turns, characters, conflict, and salient plot points. We all know where the story is headed and what needs to happen in general terms. Then, we split up the writing duties, usually by acts, and handle the scripting by ourselves. After we have something written down, we get back together and critique each other’s work. You really have to be thick-skinned at this point, because a fragile ego can be bruised. We have all been friends for so long, that we usually power through it. And when we don’t, we take a break, sleep on it, and come back to it later. We know each other pretty well and can see nuances and nonverbal cues as we go through the process. Not everything appeals to all of us, so we have to know what is worth fighting for and what is worth holding loosely. This thing is not worth busting up friendships that have lasted two decades.
So Ed, what, in your opinion, was Steve’s best contribution to A Devil’s Reach?
Ed: Steve didn’t make a “best” contribution: he made several. His first was the spark of an idea that started it all. If he hadn’t done that, nothing else would have followed. He continues to contribute with his ability to visualize and layout the story page by page, and he is the driver, or maybe better, the drover, who keeps driving us forward. That last point is hugely important as it would be incredibly easy for the books to get lost in the mix of our busy individual lives if someone didn’t keep us moving forward.
We named our company after the Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so in keeping with that, Steve is our Nick Bottom.
Steve, same question to you about Jack.
Steve: Jack makes a lot of great contributions to our process and has areas of expertise that he particularly enjoys. For example, he loves the heroic action scenes. Jack thinks with incredible detail and writes in a way the reflects that perspective. It’s his personal process, which often creates more ideas than we can include. In the final battle, for example, we had about ten pages of script we had to walk away from, just to complete the book. But for A Devil’s Reach, the moment I like the most that he contributed was actually not a battle scene. It was a simple, little, brilliant turn that opens Act Three. I still love that scene…and think of Jack when I read it.
And Jack, same question to you about Ed?
Jack: Well, Ed is a history nut and knows the politics of the age like few other people. His gift is combining that knowledge with flashes of creativity and storytelling. Our story would likely be all fantasy without him. He brings the “history” to our “alt-history.”
You also work with artist J. Moses Nester. Has he ever done something in the art that prompted you to make a change to the story?
Ed: Moses gave some great input — in the design of machinery especially — as the project progressed. We as creators were actually pretty buttoned-up on where we thought the story arc should start and end, and we stayed pretty true to that. I don’t recall there being a change in the story arc because of artistic decision. There was one scene in A Devils Reach, the massive sea battle, that proved so complicated to explain that we actually all had to gather at Steve’s house around the kitchen table to envision it. There was just no way for Moses to get what we were talking about without being present. It felt like we were in a war room, talking about which directions ships were coming from — using models — how planes were entering the scene, where bombs were exploding, etc., etc., etc. We must have talked about which direction the ship was “listing” a hundred times.
We also, for both books, had a colorist. Moses did the final inks, but S.J. Miller does our color work, and it is wonderful.
Now, one of the interesting things about the publication of A Devil’s Reach and A Machine Age War is that a portion of the sales are being donated to the construction of the National WWI Memorial they’re building in D.C. Was that your idea?
Steve: When you are doing alt history stuff, you pay attention to dates and real events. We knew that the 100th anniversary of World War I was coming up, and once the release date of the book got pushed back further than we had originally hoped, we started to realize that we were actually getting close to that 100th anniversary date. Steve had spent many years in the marketing world, where they actively look for opportunities like that, and he started talking about the anniversary and the fact that the WWI memorial had not finished being built. The three of us agreed that we should approach IDW / Top Shelf with the idea of a give back to the WWI Centennial Commission. The publishers got behind the idea and even extended it so that they would make a donation for every book in the series that was sold during the year of 2018.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and games that may have had an influence on A Devil’s Reach. Has there been any interest in turning it or A Machine Age War into a movie, show, or game?
Jack: That has been on our mind since the beginning. The way we talk about the story, the way we write the script, and the way we attack our layouts is very much like working through a film storyboard. Steve creates the layouts for each page, before we deliver it to the artist, and his cartooning and composition skills get to come out. We all think cinematically, so it’s no surprise that we would love to see this project go beyond graphic novels to another medium. We also get to go to the real Jekyll Island on the Georgia coast for inspiration. We get to walk through the buildings, see the locations, and think shot angles the whole time. It is like having a backlot in your backyard; your imagination can just go nuts.
At first, we thought film would be the best form, but the story is so rich and there is much of the narrative that we can’t actually fit into the books, it now feels more like episodic television. One of our earlier inspirations was to see what AMC had done with The Walking Dead, and we like that model.
But, if this was a game, holy cow — that would be so unbelievably cool. The whole dieselpunk thing would just explode off the screen.
Finally, a question for all three of you. If someone enjoys A Machine Age War and A Devil’s Reach, what similar comic or graphic novel of someone else’s would you each suggest they check out next?
Jack: If you enjoy us, then you’ll also like Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer. It has a similar time period and a similar aesthetic — lots of cool technology used to fight the Nazis.
Ed: I love what the Top Shelf guys and John Lewis did with the narrative in the March trilogy. It deserves the praise it gets, as it opens up history in a compelling way, especially to kids in school. It shows that history and imagination do go together and can live simultaneously in graphic novels.
Steve: But then, as we are fond of saying to the throngs at Comic Con, there is nothing else quite like us.