INTERVIEW: MICHAEL CARROLL ON JENNIFER BLOOD

3667323-jennifer-blood-36I have recently gotten into Michael Carroll’s run on Jennifer Blood so I decided to interview him about it. While I was preparing the questions, I discovered that the series is ending with issue 36 so the interview became a bit of an overview of his run. Some parts of the story are discussed but we tried to keep it spoiler free. Enjoy.

You came on board on issue 25. Were you following the book before that?

I was indeed – that was because the Powers That Be in Dynamite asked me to pitch ideas for a Jennifer Blood prequel mini-series that would fill in the gap between Jen faking her death as a teenager and then, years later, taking revenge on her uncles. They sent me the first eight issues and then I picked up the rest after that. The mini-series (Jennifer Blood: First Blood – now available in as a trade paperback, apparently – I haven’t seen it yet!) was the first US-published comic I’ve written, and it shows! I was more used to writing six-page Judge Dredd tales so having twenty-two pages to play with was a little daunting at first. The first few issues in particular are a little too dense! They’re packed with six- and seven-panel pages, and in modern American comics that’s rare. I was learning the craft as I went along… I think the latter issues of that series are a lot better and stronger… So anyone who’s struggling with it, please keep going!

You’ve joked that Al Ewing wrote you into a corner. Did you enjoy the challenge that brought?

Absolutely! Al finished his main storyline with issue #23 (issue #24 is a flashback issue). He left Jen in prison, stabbed in the back multiple times by an assortment of other prisoners. Most of his plot threads had been tied up, so my main task was to carry on from there. It certainly was a challenge – not least because I was following Al Ewing and Garth Ennis, two of my favourite writers! – but if Al had left Jen safe and sound, without a cliff-hanger ending, I would have had to create a whole new scenario and hope that it was strong enough to keep the readers interested.

I started with your first issue but never felt like I was missing anything from a story stand point. Where you mindful of having to serve new readers as well as old when you came onboard?

Not really… I remember thinking that ideally the established readers shouldn’t even notice that there’s a new writer. After all, history shows us that people will often drop comics when the creative team changes! As it turned out, an administrative error in the production of issues #25 and #26 meant that they were credited to Al as the writer. That mightily pissed me off at first, but as soon as the reviews for #25 started to come in, I realised that it was a Good Thing – none of the reviewers noticed any drop in quality in the writing! (And then we got a little bonus: Al Ewing himself contacted some of the reviewers and told them that he hadn’t written issue #25 – and that had the reviewers amending their reviews and commenting that on the seamlessness of the transition).

At the beginning of your run, with the various escapes, I felt you managed to keep Jennifer’s actions as believable and not that far fetched. Was grounding the book in some level of reality important?

Yeah… Well, Al introduced certain elements during his run on the title that were great, but not the way I’d do things! For example, there’s a female detective who’s after Jen and early in her story her partner is killed. Thereafter, the detective is repeatedly visited by her partner’s ghost, and later the ghosts of others. It’s all in her head, of course, and she knows that. And it does work brilliantly for that character – the ghosts are a manifestation of her own psychoses, but it’s still an approach I deliberately chose not to take.

I wanted to keep the focus on Jen’s character for the first part of the story because I felt it was important that she deal with the loss of her kids. Garth’s run on the tale was all about Jen taking revenge on her uncles for killing her father, Al’s run concentrated on Jen protecting her family – and going to extreme lengths to do so – so for my run I wanted to push Jen even further over the edge. Without her kids, she has nothing left to live for, even though she can’t admit that to herself. So she’s desperate to get them back. And that desperation begins to seriously cloud her judgement.
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In the beginning, I felt like I knew where the story was going, to a certain degree, and what caught my attention was the “she might get caught here” tension especially at the diner. Was that what you were going for?

I was trying to really ramp up the tension! One of the consequences of Al’s last storyline – The Trial of Jennifer Blood – was that the whole world knew who she was and what she’d done. That was a great piece of story-telling, but by its very nature it eradicated one of the aspects that had been instrumental in drawing the readers into Jen’s world, the question of “Will she ever be found out?” Without that angle, there was a danger that the readers might feel that the story had lost some of its sting. I could have had Jen take on another identity and restart the process (once she’d escaped from prison, of course!) but I didn’t want to retread the same paths Al and Garth had taken. The story had to keep moving forward, and it seemed to me that the best approach was to take that literally. Once Jen gets back into the world, she barely stops running.

The key thing about maintaining tension in a long-running story is to always keep at least one step ahead of the readers, if possible! There’ll always be someone who guesses what’s coming up, but on the whole, when you introduce a new twist, you don’t want the readers thinking, “What? Where the hell did THAT come from?” Instead, you want them thinking, “Oooh, I should have seen that coming!” In other words, you plant the seeds of the story’s twists and revelations, but you don’t label them! Keep it subtle.

You changed Jennifer’s character with her killing non innocents. What was the thinking behind that?

I felt it was important to remember that Jen is a killer. Whatever sympathy the readers might have for her, she is at heart a stone-cold murderer… From OUR perspective. From her point of view, everything she’s done is justifiable, and that’s the key to her insanity. In the past, Jen has killed innocent people – but again, they’re only innocent to us. To her, they’re the enemy. I strongly urge you to read Garth and Al’s issues: You’ll see Jen change from a housewife with a hidden past into a psychotic killer – but the change is done so gradually and so expertly that you don’t notice it until you look back.

It’s all a matter of scale: you punch me, I punch you back. That seems fair to most rational people. To Jen, you punch her, she puts a knife in your throat and twists it. To her, that’s fair. As her story progresses, you’ll see that she does a lot of things that seem perfectly reasonable to her, but from anyone else’s point of view they’re utterly monstrous.

So I made a conscious decision to clarify that Jen has turned from being the hero of the comic to being the villain. It’s only in issue #35 that she begins to grasp what she’s become (I won’t elaborate because I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!).

With “Blood Legacy” you took the focus away from Jennifer and focused on the impact of her story on others. Did you feel you were taking any kind of risk moving the focus away from the main character?

I think that was the biggest risk I took with the title… And I have to thank Nick Barrucci and Joe Rybandt – Dynamite’s publisher and senior editor, respectively – for trusting me not to screw it up!

To me, it was very important for the story to show Jen’s impact on the world. I could have done that by, say, having members of the public spot her in the street, but that felt a little too easy, too safe. At the end of issue #30, I’d left Jen in a very precarious position and, again, it would have been the safe and easy option to show her using her skill and wits to get out of it. I thought, “The comic is CALLED Jennifer Blood: the readers know she’s going to get free somehow! So why do I have to show that every time?”

Jumping to a completely new set of characters allowed me to show a very different aspect of Jen’s overall story: she’s not actually present for those tales, but her presence is felt. I wanted to show that she’d unwittingly become an icon, even though it was for negative reasons. Partly, this came about because it’s always bothered me that long-running superhero comics will sometimes have a major super-villain encountering a civilian who doesn’t know who he is. I mean, there was an issue of Spider-Man where Doctor Octopus married Aunt May! How could she not know who he was?

I particularly enjoyed the first part of the arc, “Spreagtha Ag Fola” (Issue 31), not just because it was set in Ireland but because of your choice of victim. I felt it showed that anyone can be one. Anything you’d like to say about that issue?

That one was fun to write, and pretty tricky too! I wanted to return to the flavour of the earliest issues, to some degree, but at the same time I needed to move Jen’s story on a little. The protagonist of that issue, Caroline, is a strong woman with one weakness, but she’s inspired by the news reports of Jennifer Blood to overcome that weakness (note how carefully I’m not giving too much away!). The following issue is in a similar vein, but in that case the heroine was directly affected by Jen’s actions.

I really enjoyed Mike Mayhew and Colton Worley’s covers on the book as, along with being great pieces of art, they always reflected what was happening in the book. Did you have much involvement with those?

Not much at all, really! Mike contacted me a couple of times to ask what was coming up so that he could prepare some roughs. I sent him the scripts, but that was all: I didn’t make any suggestions. I trusted him to come up with the goods, and he knocked it out of the park every single time. I’ve had no contact at all with Colton: I’d delivered my final script before he came on board. I do love his covers, though – especially the cover for issue #34!
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There were a fair amount of gunfights and sword fights in your run. That along with a lot of social issues like abuse. Did you have to do a lot of research for your run?

Yeah, no matter what I’m writing, I spend more of my working week on research than on anything else. With Jennifer Blood – especially at the start, with the First Blood mini-series – I learned more about guns than I ever imagined I’d need to know. That was mostly because I wanted to emulate the style Garth had adopted for his issues, and he made a LOT of references to guns! I deliberately dropped a lot of that when I was writing the ongoing series, because it just wasn’t an aspect of the story that I found interesting enough to maintain.

Research is a weird thing that comes in all shapes and sizes… For issue #33, for example, I created the character of Andrea and I knew that I wanted her to look a certain way, so I found myself asking my wife what sort of clothes an American woman in her early twenties would wear on a first date. You might think, like I did, that there’d be a simple answer to that one, but no, there isn’t! That question leads to many others: Who is she meeting? Does she know this guy well? Where are they going? What sort of place is it? What does she expect to get out of the date? We ended up trawling through the Pinterest website looking for photos of appropriate outfits.

Another example: a certain part of issue #36 is set in a particular city (not saying where!) and I wanted very specific things to happen in that location… This resulted in hours spent on Google Earth looking for the right sort of building in the right kind of street. The readers will never need to know that I found the perfect location for it all to happen, but it’s important to me to get these things right!

I was sorry to hear issue 36 would be the last one. With the cliffhanger of issue 35, I think you are planning to go out with a bang. Would that be true to say?

I think so, but my definition of “going out with a bang” might not match everyone else’s! The ending in issue #36 is what I wanted to write from the start – this is where my entire arc has been heading. For me, it’s a good, solid, satisfying ending… I know that some readers won’t like it. I hope that some will love it… It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens next month!

Did you know the end was coming and did it impact the story you had to tell?

Yeah, I learned from about issue #28 that they wanted to bring it all to an end in either issue #35 or #36, so I had plenty of time to wrap up the important storylines. It would have been great to carry on for another year or two (or three!) – and I easily have enough stories to tell to make that work – but I’m happy with the way it’s all turned out.

For what it’s worth… One of those unused storylines would have reintroduced something pretty big that was hinted at in the First Blood series! That would have been fun!

What other things will we see from you in 2014?

I’m still writing Judge Dredd (and hopefully will be for many more years!), so there’s a few more Dredd tales to come this year, including a five-part tale called Traumatown that’s illustrated by Nick Percival. I’ve seen some of his pages… They’re absolutely stunning!

There’s another Judge Dredd e-novella on the way too, hopefully (still waiting for the editor’s feedback!). Last year’s Dredd e-novella The Cold Light of Day was very well received, and toward the end of the year that’s going to be packaged in a real, physical book along with Dredd e-novellas from Matt Smith and Al Ewing.

On the Young Adult fiction side of things, the seventh novel in my Quantum Prophecy / New Heroes series, Hunter, will be published in May. It’ll be very interesting to see how that one is received!

Plus there’s a bunch of things I’m not yet allowed to announce… 2014 is going to be a very busy year! (And it’s my twentieth wedding anniversary, too!)

Jennifer Blood Issue 36 is on sale on February 5th. Michael Carroll’s entire run thus far (issues 25-35) is available on Comixology.