A Peek Behind the Iron Curtain with "Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll" – An Interview with JEFF MESSER
Jeff Messer braves the Yeti Cave to chat with Andrew for another Cryptid-Bits about the Zoop campaign for Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll Volume 3, finding and working with different collaborators, found family, and musical influences. This is a great, in-depth chat!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Thanks for joining us today, Jeff! How are things back in North Carolina?
JEFF MESSER: I live in Asheville, which is its own thing, somewhat separate from North Carolina, and the South in general, which is great. I’m in this little oasis of sanity amid a lot of lunacy. Of course, Asheville is full of creative types and a lot of retirees, so we have our own brands of lunacy. But we have four seasons of weather, and little to no natural disasters to fear, so it is a good place to be.
CBY: Yep, I haven't been there in over 15 years, but I thought Asheville was a fun town. But on to the comic - you've worked with a diverse roster of artists across each installment of Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll, with a range of styles represented. You’ve got a group of creatives from all over the world involved in these volumes, so to kick things off, would you like to take a moment to speak about the role of others involved in bringing each piece of this collective narrative world into being?
JM: Once I started working with Tachadon Sakulsittachai on the main feature of the book, his style set a tone for the overall book in a lot of ways. His character designs for the main characters are what I use to provide references to other artists. Initially, it was not planned as an anthology book, but when I decided to adapt the opening scene of a screenplay my 18 year-old son was writing, things shifted. His story required a different style and feel, so I found an artist to fit that story. Tachadon’s work is a little quirky, and not overly realistic, leaning towards an anime style. When I started adding more stories and more characters, as the book became an anthology, I reached out to artists based on what the story called for. Some were grittier, some were funnier, and some were more stylized. It’s hard to say what it is that informs that decision, but it is kind of a gut feeling when I see the artist’s work, I know right away if they will work for certain stories. So far, my instincts have served me well, as I think I have a really talented roster of artists doing their best work.
CBY: I’ve gone through the process of scouting and building collaborative relationships with artists in my comic creation efforts, so I’m curious, what did your outreach, communication, and time management process look like with such a broad team for each publication? Were things done in parallel, in sequence, etc? How have you found it best to move things along and keep channels clear for smooth collaboration and completion of work to everyone’s satisfaction? What’s worked best, and what challenges have you faced?
JM: When I decided to explore comics publishing in 2018, I started joining Facebook groups where artists posted their art looking for gigs. I ended up compiling hundreds of pages in a giant binder, and I would make notes about what projects each artist might best fit. Once I decided to start moving forward, I reached out to some of the artists and asked them about their rates, and interest in collaborating. My first was finding Chris Geary in the UK to be the artist of a Robin Hood graphic novel project. He and I found an easy collaboration, and I sent him script pages, which he would break down for the comic. I trusted him to tell me when we needed to make adjustments to make the story flow work.
Once the pandemic hit, and I was stuck at home for months on end, I decided to really move things forward. Chris and I were finishing the first Robin Hood book, and I decided to dig out these old spy stories from my youth. I had wanted to adapt those old hand-written novels into comics for a while, but it never happened.
With Tachadon, he instantly got the vibe of the stories, and his character designs were a revelation for me. But he and I don’t speak the same language (as is the case with most artists I work with now), so we had to translate our conversations and communications. This required me to be much more specific and precise as a writer, to keep the language translations very clear. I also sent him a lot of reference photos, and suggestions. But once we got about half way through the first issue, he needed that less and less from me. We just sort of clicked. But learning to write more clearly for him, made it easier to work with other artists.
Some require a lot of reference materials, while others do not. And I trust them to take my scripts and follow my panel suggestions when it works, and to throw it out and come up with something better when it doesn’t. I tell them all that I trust their instincts as artists to make it look the best, and I support them making bold choices. Language barriers are more difficult with some artists, and I have to give more notes, but all in all, I end up having to give very few notes and make few changes. And, the end result is that I have become a better and more efficient writer. Win/win.
CBY: You’ve cited having relatives around you growing up as a key influence on the worldview you built in your writing endeavors, and your conversations with your son around his creative pursuits as an impetus for launching Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll. Clearly this comes through a bit in the Spade brothers’ inclusion as a dynamic in your narrative, but they don’t remain at the center of the story all the time. How would you characterize the role of family as a dramatic lever within this world?
JM: I grew up in a rural farm community surrounded by a lot of dysfunctional family dynamics that went back for generations. The upside was that I had a lot of cousins living nearby, and my cousin Mike and I were as close as brothers. We would make up characters and stories as we worked on the farm, or played in our Grandparents’ backyard. I was more of the writer of the two, and I pursued writing stories. He was my sounding board, and contributed ideas as well. Our other cousin lived down the way, and we would all hang out, ride bikes, throw the football, and roam the woods together. So when the Spades story came along, I made it about three brothers, one a spy, one an ex-Army loner, and one a fast-living playboy. In some ways I borrowed bits of our personalities in those original creations, and heavily fictionalized it. Maybe I was doing self-therapy at a young age. Who knows?
Once the project became an anthology series, I decided to spin the Spades feature into its own solo book, and realized that the real star of the anthology series should be Cassi Storm, the girlfriend of Duke Spade (the spy brother). Forgive the names. I was 14 when I made them up. But the idea of Cassi being the main character of the overall universe actually allows me to tell more varied stories and also allows me to take the focus off the Spades brothers as the stars. It keeps their story intact, and lets the other characters in the universe grow and expand without having to stay within the Spades framework.
In my own life, when I was in my twenties, it became about “found family” for me, and how we make our own families when we don’t feel close to our own. So, the idea of that bond, and that loyalty really drive my storytelling. And it often unites us in stronger ways. These characters are more bonded because of it, I hope.
CBY: Now, the stories hop around in chronological order throughout - what was the narrative rationale behind presenting it as such? From a procedural/production standpoint, how has that played into the process of creating these stories?
JM: When it started, the idea of it being set in 1985, and moving forward from there. Then when it became an anthology book, and with my son’s tale (Cowboy) not being set in the 80s, I had a problem to solve. How could I make it all one universe? I used a "mission report" kind of feature with the story of Duke’s and Cassi’s first major spy mission, where their mentors are killed when things go wrong. It dawned on me that going back and filling in the gaps of the past could be fun. As well, building a bridge between the 1985 story and the more modern story presented the chance to weave a much larger narrative. The end goal now is that, once all of this is over and done with (if and when that time comes) a reader could read everything and see how it all forms a larger story that spans 40 years and multiple generations of characters.
It’s like the way Star Wars is being told now (and even originally with Lucas’s non-chronologically ordered films) jumping around the timeline to tell interesting stories that are little pockets of the bigger universe. It really is a lot of fun.
CBY: I know they were more popular in the 70’s than the 80’s, but can you cite any classic women-in-prison films you drew upon for Gulag-A-Go-Go? It follows some installments that definitely deliver on the “sex” component of Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll far more than the stories included in Vol. 1. Does Vol. 3 pick up on where things left off in Vol. 2, and can readers expect a similar escalation in stakes and level of maturity in content?
JM: The women's prison in Gulag-A-Go-Go (a title a friend suggested as an homage to Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg comic), as well as the Girl Spies adventure are honestly as inspired by an episode of Charlie's Angels from the 70s that I saw as a kid that imprinted on me in a big way. The Angels were in a prison on a mission. I saw that episode and it stuck with me on a subconscious level. Never forgot it.
When I decided on the title, Sex, Spies, & Rock ‘n Roll for the anthology book, it opened the door to more adult content, for sure. That was not the original plan, but having that on the table with that title was freeing. As well, working with a lot of non-American artists allows for some different perspectives. They are far less uptight about sex than we are here, and when I asked for some sexy scenes, what I got back was more X-rated than R-rated, as I had intended. But that inspired me to actually embrace the idea that sex can be, well, sexy, and also humorous. In fact, more of the sexual material than not tends to be awkward and comical, which I kind of like.
As things continue, when the story is served by it, sex will be a component. And it will be treated as just a normal part of the characters’ lives.
As an aside: when my wife and a gay friend of ours saw the first book, they both noticed some of the female nudity (which was a big part of 80s culture that exploited female nudity in films), and both of them informed me that I should be equal opportunity with the nudity in the future books. And it really stuck with me. Why should I only show naked women in sexual scenarios? Why not also show men? And not treat it as scandalous, but rather just normal. Often quirky, and weird, but normal. It also allows me to show Cassi as a strong, sexually powerful and confident woman of the 1980s, which takes those 80s tropes and kind of turns them around a bit. She’s totally confident, and in charge. More so than most of the men. And she not only owns it, but she uses it to her advantage.
Being able to go to the edge with the stories, then jump off, has been liberating as a storyteller.
CBY: While a lot of the musical aesthetics are explicitly stated in the comic, and there are obvious nods to televisions shows like the Dukes of Hazzard and films like the James Bond series, are there any other influences you’d like to share which have been particularly relevant to specific installments or the overall story?
JM: In film and TV, it’s a little bit of everything. I was a teen in the 80s, and Tuesday night’s TV line up for a few years was The A-Team, Riptide, and Remington Steele. G.I. Joe cartoons started around then too, and I was nuts for that stuff. But also, when I would get home from school my grandmother was watching General Hospital, which was chock full of spies, intrigue, and all that sort of goofy melodrama. I was a General Hospital addict from age 12 onward.
Indiana Jones, James Bond, Star Wars, and even goofy stuff like Cannonball Run, and Spies Like Us were things I gravitated towards. And classics like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and Three Days of The Condor were big for me.
In the 1990s, Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Chasing Amy and other low budget indie films were an influence on me as a writer during that time, which has found its way into these stories now. It is very Kevin Smith-esque to have characters riff on Phil Collins music or (as happens in a scene in a future installment) debate Roger Moore being too old for James Bond, and whether Pierce Brosnan should replace him in the next Bond film.
CBY: To that end, the Rock N’ Roll component is utilized both pervasively, and also loosely, with decidedly pop-oriented artists like Phil Collins and Men Without Hats getting heavy mention. Let’s get into the weeds a bit; tell us a bit about the mixtape track list compositions in each volume, what typifies rock n’ roll in your definition of the genre, and maybe, instead of a Top 5 list of your favorite tracks, have you thought of the favorite rock song for each of your characters that might inform readers a bit about their personality?
JM: I spend countless hours finding the right songs for the moments in the stories. I go down that rabbit hole pretty deep. I have to make sure that a song reference also is accurate to the time of the story, so I research what songs were popular on any given date, and try to make it so that anyone fact-checking these stories will be impressed with how spot-on it all is. I have favorite artists, who I liked when I was a teen, but I have also enjoyed deep dives into artists I ignored back then, or feigned dislike for. I have a new appreciation for bands like Def Leppard, and The Fixx.
I also try to figure out each character’s tastes. Duke Spade is a mid-80s top 40 kind of character (Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, Steve Winwood, etc.) Bob Gregory, his spy buddy is more of an INXS and Hoodoo Gurus fan. Tom Spade is definitely into heavy metal and hard rock. Jon Spade was an aspiring musician, and I imagine his style as being a lesser version of Rick Springfield’s sound. And so on. So if you pay attention to it, you will see that certain types of songs fit with different characters.
CBY: The mixtape concept is clearly a throughline - with you publishing these titles through your own Mixtape Comics, can you detail some of the trials and tribulations you’ve faced in financing, printing, and distributing these books? What went into the process before the first crowdfunding dollar hit, and what sort of growth and diversification do you have planned (if any) beyond the Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll line-up?
JM: In 2018 I started helping Mike Grell (a hero since I was a kid, and a personal friend for almost a decade now) with the idea of bringing back some of his creator owned work, and using Kickstarter type platforms to raise money to publish them. We did a campaign in 2019 that was a huge success, and I learned the ins and outs of crowdfunding along the way. So I started planning to adapt the Robin Hood stage plays I had written with my pal Robert Akers. An outdoor Shakespeare Company produced the first play of ours in the summer of 2018, and it was the biggest hit in that company’s 50 year history. So they opted to do the next play in the series in 2019. So I was seeing all this success with the Robin Hood scripts, while seeing success helping Grell, then I got invited to San Diego ComicCon in 2019 as a nominee for an Eisner Award because of a book I had co-written about Mike Grell.
Suddenly all of these creative and personal threads were coming together and sending me a sign that I was onto something with this new path.
So, I started alternating between crowdfunding a project for Grell and one for me, building a small audience off of his coattails a little bit.
The pandemic hit in 2020, just as we were halfway finished with the first Robin Hood graphic novel. And I decided to really focus on publishing. I was working a job and got sent home, told to file for unemployment and wait. And with the extra unemployment money that came with that, I had a little more money on hand, and decided to invest in my publishing. So, by the time we did the first Robin Hood, it was almost paid for before we raised the money on Kickstarter, which allowed me to keep going and stay ahead of schedule so that most of the books could be finished before the campaigns.
And it has worked, for the most part. I’ve been able to have the next books of whatever project completed before launching a funding campaign.
The biggest complications have been overseas shipping logistics and costs, as well as print cost increases, and sporadic paper shortages and delays. But hopefully that sort of thing is almost over now.
CBY: I know you’ve also been working on a comic adaptation of your Robin Hood stage play in recent years. Is there anything you’d like to share with readers around how that experience has differed from Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll, and do you anticipate venturing off into other stories apart from either world with future titles you have in-store?
JM: Robin Hood is fun for the whole family, while Sex, Spies & Rock 'n Roll is definitely more adult. With Robin Hood, I work with my co-writer Robert Akers, and artist Chris Geary and colorist Gereth Oddie, and it is just the four of us, all sharing a more collaborative partnership. Sex, Spies & Rock 'n Roll is all me as the God of this universe, bringing in people to help realize it all. For better or worse, it falls on my shoulders to make it all work, and any criticism and blame are fully mine.
That said, Sex, Spies & Rock 'n Roll has become something that is so much fun, creatively, that my cousin Mike, and my old high school pal, Donald, as well as my son, are all writing material for the books, and I have been open to others who want to come play in this sandbox with me. I realize that it can too easily look like a wild vanity project with my name as the only writer and creator. And to revisit the Star Wars analogy, the idea of having others who “get it” and want to add to my universe is appealing. I am happy to add them to the voices.
I love collaboration, as I feel like it helps bring out the best. Especially if you can keep the goal of telling the best possible story, and forget ego when you collaborate. With Robert and I writing Robin Hood, we made that pact, and can no longer remember who came up with which lines of dialogue. We worked together, and through trial and error honed it to be the best we could make, together. And we make sure that it is something we can only do together.
Sex, Spies, & Rock 'n Roll is a universe all in my head, and I am now inviting people to peer inside and offer their creativity to contribute to it. So hopefully, someday soon, it will grow and expand into places I never even thought of, but still feel like it belongs as part of this wild tapestry I’m trying to weave.
CBY: And now, we come to the opportunity for you to let us know a bit more about what’s catching your attention lately. Jeff, what comics, music, movies, and other media would you recommend our readers check out at the earliest opportunity?
JM: I’ve reached that age where all modern music sounds lame, and the same to me. Maybe it is. Maybe that’s just me. But anytime something unique pops up, I take notice. I like to keep an open mind. I love live music, and concerts. I don’t love seeing bands I grew up on, who now look quite old and frail (Phil Collins’ health decline made the final Genesis tour as much a hard watch as pure pleasure for me). I just heard the new Dave Matthews Band song from their upcoming album and tour, and that really excites me. In the past year I’ve seen great bands that I still think of as “new” like Coldplay, Onerepublic, and Train. I like Fitz And The Tantrums, Matt Nathanson, and I am also enjoying rediscovering bands from the 80s. I adore Sheryl Crow, who just released a cover of a Post Malone song, and that made me surprisingly happy. When my kids were first listening to Post Malone and mocked me, asking if I knew who it was, I dad-joked that "I did, but preferred Pre Malone." And, yes, they rolled their eyes and groaned.
Comics are tough. I think the big companies are just publishing to keep their IP out there to be mined for other media. But I do love a lot of what Tom King is doing, and I try to support small presses like Mad Cave and Scout comics, who are doing interesting stuff. I really love supporting a lot of crowdfunding projects and discovering people like me who are suddenly able to get their works out there to wider audiences. It wasn’t like that ten, twenty years ago. And I think they/we are the new independent comics scene.
I can’t keep up with TV and streaming. There’s too much of it to follow. But what I keep track of I am loyal to. I love the whole Yellowstone universe (1923 being an instant favorite), loved The Old Man with Jeff Bridges, and was loyal to The Walking Dead right up to the end, and am thrilled at the spinoffs coming. I’m all in for The Mandalorian, Andor, and all the Star Wars stuff that’s going on right now.
I get to the movies maybe once every few months, so it is mostly the big “event” films like Marvel movies.
I will say that I encourage people to stop listening to the crowd noise of social media, and enjoy what you enjoy. There’s a strong push for herd mentality in a lot of popular culture today that I think is unhealthy. Like what you like. Search it out. And forget what the so-called “fans” are saying online. And keep in mind that most of the comic book media experts out there don’t actually read comics, so their opinions are only worth as much credibility as you are willing to give them.
CBY: Thanks for sitting down with us today, Jeff!
Sex, Spies & Rock N' Roll vol. 3 is now available for support, along with a variety of perks, on Zoop at https://zoop.gg/c/sexspiesrocknrollvol3