January 20, 2010

THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE: THIS IS ENTIRELY ABOUT CHARACTER, GIRLS

The other criticism about 10 Beautiful Assassins that I have to briefly address here is that of character design, or rather, what some have called the lack thereof. While it is true (as much as it pains me to admit) that the female characters in the book are virtually from the same mold (just as every boy band in the world is fabricated in a farm roughly 17 miles north to Dublin, owned by Monsanto, artificially grown in vats, look into your hearts, and you know this to be true), this was not always the case. At the early stages, literally the first two or three pages as well as the first couple of character designs that were delivered by Elmer Damaso had quite a different quality, a bit more cartoonish and with a lot of promise.

Or as I wrote in my very first character descriptions...
THE MAIN CHARACTERS

I’m going to keep the character descriptions relatively short here, since I would like Elmer to have as much leeway with the designs as we can give him. A few references here and there to actors or real-life people, but much more to give us a sense of the mood we are going for (and somebody please tell me I’m not the only one who remembers Cary Grant and his films).

... which then introduces us to Bernie for the first time...
BERNARD (BERNIE) BLACK

Bernie is 26-years old and should be played like the rightful heir to Cary Grant’s John Robie in TO CATCH A THIEF. He is a young Pierce Brosnan or George Clooney, with the knowledge and skill of someone who is known around the world as The Black Rose, the best cat burglar around (for he always leaves a black rose behind in the place of whatever valuables he has stolen). The only other cat burglar who can compete with him, but has much less of a code of honour is Lilly White.

He can be suave and smooth, but the moment he is around a beautiful girl, he loses it and becomes an instant dork. Pretty much like the rest of us.

He should be about 5’10 and should fill out a tux nicely, so don’t make him too skinny. A good actor from today to use as a reference would be Leonardo DiCaprio, because he has that boyish look still about him.

I want us to keep his background to be mysterious throughout most of the story, with a reveal later on (read Lilly White’s little bio for more).

We’ll have a scene in the book during which we play him and Crystal in the Eurostar and she is trying to suss out something about his past, very much like the Bond scene in CASINO ROYAL, but whereas the Daniel Craig Bond is smooth and somewhat aloof when talking to a woman, we here have Bernie almost pull a Will Ferrell in ANCHORMAN or Toby Maguire in SPIDERMAN. When it comes to girls, Bernie is not only usually at a loss for words, when he finds some, he then usually finds the wrong ones…



And for Lilly White (wait a minute, wasn't that Lily Frost? No, in the original concept it was Lily White, because somewhere in my head I had a movie title, which wouldn't have been 10 Beautiful Assassins, but rather Black & White. Maybe I shall write that movie one day)

LILLY WHITE

We know that Lilly and Bernie have a past together, although it should only be hinted at until the very end. Perhaps they grew up together or perhaps they have worked together at one point and it didn’t work out. I’m thinking that the last Gentleman Thief probably raised Bernie in existence, which would be Sir Richard White, Lilly’s father. I imagine it to be in very much the same way that we had a surrogate father figure in Donald Sutherland for Mark Wahlberg in the remake of THE ITALIAN JOB. I think that Sir Richard taught both Lilly and Bernie all of the tricks of the trade and that their rivalry is based on the fact that they both tried to outdo each other, even from their very early years. That is also the reason the end of the story will take place in the very same castle they both grew up in.

(By the by, if you want to know how Sir Richard looked like, then take a look at Connery in ENTRAPMENT… just saying)

Lilly is a dominant, almost boy-toyish woman.

Think Kiera Knightly in DOMINO or simply think Selina Kyle in Ed Brubaker’s run of CATWOMAN. She is slightly taller than Bernie, and more than a bit taller when wearing high heels. While to Bernie the cat burglary is almost like a way to honour the man who raised him, Lilly sees it more as a game, like she sees everything in her life as a game. She has serious commitment issues to anything or anybody and really doesn’t understand why Bernie likes her to begin with.



And then, of course, there was Crystal Maiden, who I always considered the heart of the story I wanted to write. Or, as I wrote in the one scene early on, when she throws away the Blue Heart Diamond, she says "Eh. Who needs this?"... which should have been a double entendre, especially since Bernie goes mental over it. "You can't throw away your heart! Not when I almost had it!"
CRYSTAL MAIDEN

John Maiden’s daughter is primarily defined by her enormous boredom when it comes to the life of the rich and famous. Having grown up in the public spotlight herself, she is the very antithesis of spoiled heiresses like Paris Hilton. She actively dislikes the golden cage her father has put her in, which is only made worse by the fact that John Maiden seems to have his priorities pretty much down to 1) the company 2) his image and 3) his company (again). When the necklace gets stolen and her father brings in the girls of Madame X’s very special escort service, it is Crystal who actively seeks out the information about Bernie and finds that man and his way of life to be incredibly exciting, not knowing that he is such a total dork.

She does find that fact out rather quickly, however, when she follows the tracks of some of the girls and saves Bernie’s ass (quite literally) from one of them in Paris, or to be more precise, in the Paris catacombs (I told you we’d be making use of all the coolest locations) and then later in a Paris hospital.

She makes Bernie an offer that she thinks he cannot refuse. Keep the necklace and train her in his area of expertise and she will call of her father’s hunting party. It makes Bernie even more appealing to her when he refuses. She’s the girl next door to him and for some strange reason he feels relatively comfortable around her as they both track down Lilly, always missing her by one step on her way back to the castle (Lilly actually tries to sell the necklace in London to one of her dealers, which will result in an OCEAN’S 11-worthy attempt by Bernie and Crystal to outsmart Lilly, only to be outsmarted by three of Maiden’s girls, who are in turn then again outsmarted by Lilly)

I like to think that Crystal has a good heart and that she is not only smart, but quite valuable to Bernie throughout the story. She is more like Drew Barrymore in terms of persona and visuals, the kind of cute, likable girl with a bit of a wild streak, which puts her both visually and in terms of character into quite a different column than Lilly.



As you can see by those short descriptions, the story I envisioned would have been a much larger one than what it ultimately became, for the simple reason that I somewhow had to cram in those 10 assassins and had no space for them (the original running time of a one-off book would have been 288 pages in manga pacing, and went, kids, we can't do this. In manga pacing, it takes a character 10 pages to just look at somebody or take a shit!  That's the fucking reason their stories are usually somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 pages and comes with a gazillion volumes! Even if I take out all the other characters.. and a semblance of a story, it would leave 28 pages per assassin, and that ain't a story, that's 10 badly conceived SNL sketches! Yeah, that didn't really do me any good, saying that, but I was desperate for that "published" credit, so I went and said, well, let's see if I can combine a few things...especially when the notes came in every time that stated, less character moments! Where the hell is the action? Readers only care about the action!) Yeaaaaahhhhh.... and I bet said publisher had a grand old time watching Transformers 2 this past summer, too.

Same goes for Madame X (I cannot take credit for naming her Ichi, which was the publisher's idea, and I admit I have forogotten why that was a good name, but it had something to do or other with Japanese culture, and I am too lazy to go back and check the billions or so of lines in my Yahoo Messenger logs)
MADAME X

I’m going out on a limb here and betray my old age when I say that I would like to have Madame X be played like a mixture between Joan Collins in DYNASTY, Jackie Onassis-Kennedy in real life and Heidi Fleiss portrayed by somebody like Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION. She has the decadence of Collins, the riches of Onassis-Kennedy and the brutal viciousness of Close.

She is in her late 40s and possesses the style of Old Money from Europe, which is to say her choice of clothing is somewhat conservative, more Baroness than US Nouveau rich, with simple and expensive clothes, really big sunglasses (like Onassis), a simple pearl necklace that costs more than Connecticut and big hats. Give her gloves: white ones. Give her ten dead husbands (all have died under mysterious circumstances). Give her a the habit of smoking thin cigarillos.

When it comes to her and the girls, let’s play it (when we meet her on her yacht) almost like she owns a harem of her own, with her being Queen Bee … and let boyish fantasies run amuck.

She should be almost like a higher-class female version of Hugh Hefner, only that her girls are able to do things that Hugh’s bunnies couldn’t do. We could (and probably even should) make the joke that most of the Bond villainesses are recruited from her stable (in just a throwaway line during her dialogue with Maiden).

Madame runs a tight ship, so to speak and at one point even approached Maiden to have his daughter Crystal be groomed by her and the other girls, which Maiden refused… she and Maiden are like chess players when talking, always trying to plan numerous moves ahead in a sexual cat-and-mouse game. Madame is still rather annoyed by the fact that Maiden took out one of her best girls and married her. She feels that he should have married Madame instead.



One of the major problems was that I am a very collaborative person, and by that I mean that when I work with somebody on something, I need to talk to them constantly, throw around ideas, listen to what they have to say, because in comic books, your artist is your Director of Photography, your production designer... and all of your actors. Big problem? The publisher forbade me to talk to Elmer directly. Yes, specifically. And so he tried to play us against each other, telling Elmer one thing about me, then turning around and ripping the shit out of Elmer to me, stating that he was lazy and that he wouldn't produce any work if not constantly prodded (which is a complete lie. Elmer Damaso produced pages under circumstances that were absolutely horrid, and even things went south, as they did, he did the best with he had been given.)

I didn't like that very much. I know how this game is played, I have been in corporate for over 10 years, and I hate this game. I refuse to play it. And then the first couple of pages came in. I saw them and was happy. The amount of detail was breathtaking. And Elmer gave everybody in those first few pages distinctive visual personalities. As you will notice, the TV reporter in the Cannes sequence is the only female character in the book that wasn't raised in the sister farm next to the boy band farm. Elmer wanted to stretch his wings, wanted to give the reader different variations, wanted to give the reader a fully realised world.

The publisher was livid. Pissed off to the point of no return. That isn't manga! he shouted (virtually, but you could imagine the veins popping. Nobody wants to see this! This is an indie comic! This is something Dark Horse would publish, but not us! (Never quite understood why being published by Dark Horse is a bad thing per se, but ... eh). Characters were not allowed to have wrinkles! Characters were not allowed to look different! There are rules!

Nobody will buy this! he said.

So the character designs you see in the finished book are not the ones Elmer and I wanted. They are explicitly the ones that were demanded by the publisher. And if they are formulaic, then it's because the publisher has such a low opinion of you as the reader that you would only accept different tit sizes as variation when it comes to people.

Both Elmer and I thought more of our potential readers.

And I think the particular criticism proved us right.

P.S. As I think you can see from the character descriptions, the story would have been much, much bigger than the one that was ultimately written (where the hell did that Ocean's 11-like operation in London go? Couldn't write it. No space. The catacombs of Paris? No space. The entire scene in the Paris hospital? No space. There were days when I looked at that list of the assassins.... which was a yellow virtual post-it on my monitor, with the names of the assassins... and how few of them I had "used" so far, and how the hell would I get them all in? I despaired on those days. On some days, I screamed at the computer. On others, I simply wanted to go, hey, I have an idea. I'm going to write a group scene and kill all of those motherfuckers! Muhahahaha! Didn't see that one coming, did you? But I tried. And how I tried to a least attempt to make them real characters. In some instances, I failed miserably, because I was constantly racing against the page count... and I think it shows in some of the book's scenes, there is a feeling of "now we had the biker chick, let's move on, for god's sake, let's move on, there is no time, there is no time! Yes, I know... now shut the fuck up, Jack Bauer)