Spandexless Talks: Carl Yonder and Joe Grahn of Pirate Eye / by Anthony Rosen

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Before I reviewed Pirate Eye, I got a chance to chat with creators Carl Yonder and Joe Grahn. We talked about how to blend up pirates and detectives, Space Ghost, and the seedy underbelly of Pirate Noir. Check it out. Spandexless: So who got to pat themselves on the back after coming up with the name Pirate Eye? And was this a concept that suddenly came on in epiphany, or is Smitty's story something that's been fermenting for a while?

Joe Grahn: Well, the name and bare bones idea came from nowhere. I think I was probably watching Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which I'm sure we all can agree is when inspiration is most likely to strike. There was a lot of fermenting after that, though. "Pirate Noir" can't be too piratey or too completely 1930s hardboiled, so we had to practice at striking that balance. And we did work hard to try to give him a setting full of characters, not just 'extras'. Everybody around him is a potential client, debtor, or enemy, so it was important to give some weight to the folks around him, too.

Carl Yonder: Joe and I knew we were building a world with Pirate Eye and one way to accomplish this was to really populate the world with pirates of all kinds.  So we did, and I ended up adding on and, on some pages, even doubling the number of panels Joe had put in to accommodate those background pirates.  We wanted to be able to use some of these pirates in the future, because for us it really sells the idea that this is not a static world and that many of these pirates are traveling the seas and are up to no good.  A perfect example is that the pirate Smitty talks to in the bar in the first issue can be spotted in the second issue. I'm not saying more than that, but if you buy both books you can see for yourself.

S: There's a part of me that really wants to know which episode you were watching when that idea sparked. Anyway, when did you two officially get together to start work on that first issue? And how did you guys go from there to getting hooked up with Action Lab?

C: Joe and I started working together in 2006/2007.  He posted a “writer seeking artist” ad on Pencil Jack for a superhero/spy/adventure story.  We really connected and were very much on the same page with that book.  Ultimately it didn't pan out, but we started brainstorming ideas for another book and then Joe came up with Pirate Eye.

From there we had a pretty wild ride, creative shifts, at least one full issue drawn and we were even involved with DC Comic’s Zuda Competition. We always knew the concept was a great one, but figuring out how to make the most of the concept didn’t click right away.

How we ended up with Action Lab was another moment of fate. I was involved with another pitch to Action Lab that was passed over, but whenDave Dwonch checked out my website he saw a series of Pirate Eye ‘faux covers’ I did, and then Dave asked me if I could submit Pirate Eye to Action Lab.  So I emailed Joe, and we talked and decided that we may only get one issue of Pirate Eye published, so we did everything we wanted to do in the first book. It was such a thrill to think that a story we have been working on for several years not only found its “sea legs” in terms of what the book was, but also a home with Action Lab. Now the only problem is we have too many stories to tell.

S: Joe, I have to imagine it had to be tough to find the right tone for a pirate investigator, were there any great pirates or detectives that helped you breathe life into Smitty?

J: I didn't want Smitty to be a half-and-half mix of Sam Spade and Jack Sparrow. I knew he'd have some gumshoe personality to him, but I tried to look at other kinds of detectives, too: Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Hermione Granger. Smitty's a guy who's been all around the world and seen a lot, so I wanted him to have the ability pull from those experiences to look at problems a lot of different ways. On the pirate side, I looked at a lot of real-life pirates who maybe weren't as well known as, say, Blackbeard. There were women who captained their own ships, former knights and royalty who were pirates on the side-and a whole lot of just really terrible people who did a lot of really awful things out there on the water. So I wanted Smitty to have this weight; he led a pretty horrible life in his pirate days and saw and did a lot of evil things. So now, does he try to make up for that? Are there lines he won't cross anymore? That lingering effect of having led such a life is what I think shaped him as a character more than any specific pirate.

S: Carl, there's a lot of visual cues that separate the look of a pirate story from a detective's tale, especially in terms of color palate and lighting, but I was happy to discover that your art successfully blends the two.  How did you manage to produce a style that successfully pays homage to both genres?

C: I feel that both genres play very well off of one another. Noir films have heavy shadows and sparse lighting, so in Pirate Eye it works out perfectly, since most of the lighting is coming from either candles or lanterns.  It just naturally lends itself to heavy shadows and sparse lighting.

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I've surrounded myself with a great deal of reference from noir films and classic pirate illustrations, just spending time looking at what makes each genre unique and what I ultimately like about each one. The other thing that helps is how ingrained pirates are into society. Everyone has a clear idea of what pirates are and how they look.  A lot of that is thanks to illustrators like N. C. Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, and Howard Pyle, not to mention the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  All of this really helped shaped that collective view of what pirates are, so I'm able to really build upon that common knowledge but approach it with a noir lens.

If all else fails and perhaps a scene or a character design is not coming together, I ask myself “If Pirate Eye was a noir film from the 1940s how would it look?”  That typically gives me a different perspective that works out perfectly.

S: Side question: if Pirate Eye was indeed a noir film from the 1940s, who are your choices for leading lad and lady?

C: I often don’t think of specific actors or actresses when I am drawing Pirate Eye. I really think of how the production would look. How much detail would they put into the set and costuming, or would they play with shapes and shadows to sell the location and period?  I know this is a bit of a cop out, but I loved how much of film noir was very low budget and dealt with composing interesting shots to tell the story.  But if I was every in a place to actually cast Pirate Eye, I think it would be pretty trippy to see Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly cast.

S: Real question: what do you think it is about this pirate archetype that has kept people fascinated, even after all these years?

C: I think because there is no real archetype to pirates and they appeal to all ages.  Real life pirates and pirate fans come from a variety of backgrounds.  I also feel that with pirates you can tell all sorts of stories, high seas adventure, buried treasure, rum and occasionally sultry women.  What's really not to love!

Pirate Eye is published by Action Lab Entertainment. I dug it, and if you'd like to pick up a copy yourself, head on over to their site!