Recapping "Dead Boy Detectives" with writer Toby Litt

At one point I was collecting comic books fairly heavily, but as my favorite titles began to get cancelled one after another, I began to lose interest, and when my absolute favorite, The Dreaming (a Sandman spinoff series) was cancelled, that was the final nail in the coffin, and I stopped reading them altogether.  When I found out last year that a new Sandman related series, Dead Boy Detectives, would be coming out I decided to head to my local comics shop and check out a few titles. With this series unfortunately ending after twelve issues it's been a quick reminder of what I both love and hate about this particular medium.  I was lucky enough to get the chance to catch up with authorToby Litt to chat about the series and his experience writing it.  

One of the things I liked the most about this series is that it seemed like it could go in literally a million different directions, but that has also got to make things a little complicated on your end.  How big of a challenge was it for you guys to map out story arcs and decide what each next step was going to be? 
I think the bigger challenge was working out what kind of a comic Dead Boy Detectives was going to be, and what kind of tone it should have. The comic, as it came out, is really a collaboration between myself and Mark Buckingham and the editor, Shelly Bond. We got together, in person and online, at various stages to work out the direction in which Charles, Edwin and Crystal should head.
Early on, it was decided to go for longer story arcs (four or five issues) followed by one- or two-shots. This gave me a chance to set the characters off on riskier and more emotional trajectories. (For example, Charles's investigation of his mother's murder in Ghost Snow.)
The tone and narrative of Gaiman’s original series feels fairly emotionally detached, especially the further along it goes.  In that respect “Dead Boy Detectives" couldn't be more different.  Was there a conscious decision that the series feel so “warm” or was this just the natural progression of what your collaborative team was doing together?
I don't think this was consciously discussed. One of the things I liked most about the previous Dead Boy Detectives stories (including the manga version by Jill Thompson) was the humour between Charles and Edwin. They are very different in background and approach but also have so much in common. When friends have been round one another for so long, they develop lots of shorthand. There was a line I'd wanted to use for a long time, but only managed to get in quite recently. Edwin says to Charles, 'Chortling has been absolutely banned since the great unstoppable snigger of 1993.' It was always a joy to get to the lettering stage of writing the comic, and to be able to tune in to just how Edwin and Charles would speak. They have access to such a great, neglected cache of language. (Where else could I use 'chortle' and 'snigger'?) Their relationship is warm, so the comic is going to be warm.
I’m always fascinated by the fractal nature of the "Sandman" universe, which is something I think we started to see a little bit of in issue five and six, with the feline characters and the world behind the mirrors.  Was it difficult at all to strike a balance between exploring new characters and their own new worlds, while at the same time trying to avoid getting lost too far down any one rabbit-hole in particular?  
I hope I solved this by introducing what I saw as a new micro layer of existence into the Sandman universe - which is the Neitherlands. It isn't on the mortal level where, say, The Corinthian hunts for prey, and it isn't on the high level of the Endless, and it isn't on one of the many already established levels in-between. These have been brilliantly told. And although you could tell lots of new stories in them, it would involve the sort of page by page checking with Neil that wasn't necessary with Dead Boy Detectives. He gave his overall blessing, then kept an eye on it - issue by issue. Death was able to make a cameo or two, but she was never going to become a recurring character (mainly because Charles and Edwin, in order to continue existing, need to avoid her).
I know as a reader, comic books can be an incredibly frustrating medium.  As a writer, how difficult is it to work in that industry as opposed to the other types of work that you have done? 
It is very different, I have to admit - but, most of the time, in a good way. You are part of an assembly line of collaborators. Your job, as a writer, is complicated by the fact that you have to do something at four or five points on and before the line. You have to design this model of the car in the first place but also to step in, right at the end, to polish the paintwork. And some of this work is extremely time-pressured. (Word should go to Bucky here, who was working on Fables and Fairest as well as Dead Boys, and whose deadlines were murderous.) But it's a great feeling to come up with an improvement at the very last moment. One of the last lines in issue 12 should clearly have been there in the plan since issue 1, but only came about ten seconds before I sent off the email.
Shelly Bond is an amazing editor. I've never worked with anyone who was so good both at the kind of necessary general editorial cuddle ('You're doing a really good job - keep going') and the hard attention to wrong punctuation and phrasing ('Two repetitions of "got" on this page, please change').  What I've learned is, first of all, how to tell a story a number of times and for it to get better each time. Previously, I've always found this very difficult. For example, I'd get asked to write pitches or treatments for screenplays. And I'd say, 'I'd rather write the script, then do the treatment from that - it'll be easier.' Now, I understand the virtues of this process. But it all depends on having collaborators who come back with something that wows you. I was extremely lucky to have that all the way through - Lee Loughridge on colours (I love Deadly Class btw), Todd Klein on lettering (Todd fucking Klein!), and inkers and finishers Gary Erskine, Russ Braun, Andrew Pepoy, Victor Santos, Al Davison, Ryan Kelly and Emma Viecelli. And, without wishing to get Paltrow-Oscar about this, Sara Miller did a huge amount of editorial work.
Early on, I asked Lauren Beukes (Zoo City, The Shining Girls), who'd done a great run on Fairest, if she had any advice. She said I'd be fine - all the other people around me, especially Shelly and Bucky, would make me look good. She was right.
Dead Boy Detectives is coming to a close with issue #12 and I'm wondering do you have any projects lined up for the future, comic book or otherwise?
I have written a script for The Children's Crusade, which is a crossover that Vertigo published in 1993 and 1994, starring the Dead Boy Detectives. Neil Gaiman wrote graphic-novel length episodes to top and tail it, and the issues in between involved the younger characters from Black Orchid, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol and The Books of Magic. But the crossover didn't quite come off, so I have written a long bridging section to show what Charles and Edwin were doing between Neil's existing sections, and to expand on the world of Free Country. This will hopefully come out in the Autumn of 2015.
I had a book of short stories come out this month, Life-Like, and I'm working on another couple of collections - one of which will be mainly fantastical.
Apart from that, I'm hoping to collaborate on a graphic novel - one that will scare you shitless.


Staff Writer

Brett is a nursing student at Ball State and a multifaceted nerd with obsessive interests in esoteric religious studies, death metal, comics, mixed martial arts, podcasts, tarantulas, and of course horror movies. Brett is also an undisputed world-champion of Muncie soccer.

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