No Heroes in THE HARDWAYS – An Interview with Russell Lissau and Shawn Richison
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
Everyone loves Las Vegas, right? Everyone loves a crime story, right? It's a setting and story that almost writes itself. But thankfully, with THE HARDWAYS, it doesn’t. The creative team Russell Lissau (writer) and Shawn Richison (artist) roll the dice and give us a tale of crime gone wrong. Here they are to tell Comic Book Yeti if the house always wins.
COMIC BOOK YETI: THE HARDWAYS is a crime comic. It’s one of my favorite genres. Is this new territory for either of you or is it in your wheelhouse? And who is the bigger crime drama fan?
RUSSELL LISSAU: I’ve been a crime fiction fan as long as I’ve been reading books, probably starting with Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys. From there I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, and then eventually to Elmore Leonard and other masterful writers. As for movies, I think my favorite genre is the crime thriller, especially caper movies: “Ocean’s 11”; “Miller’s Crossing”; “Suicide Kings”; “Ronin”; “Heist.”
Interestingly, I didn’t discover crime comics until I was well into my 30s. I didn’t even realize it existed as a genre until I read the first “100 Bullets” trade by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso – and I was hooked for the rest of the series. As a comics writer, I broke in with Batman, and I tried to focus on heists and mystery-solving more than Bam! Pow! Socko! stories. Once I began writing creator-owned tales, crime stories were an immediate go-to. In my opinion, The Hardways is a culmination not only of 20 years of comics storytelling but of 40-plus years of being a crime fiction fan.
SHAWN RICHISON: I, too, started early with mystery stories, much akin to Russell’s experience. One of my earliest memories is my mom reading the Enid Blyton Famous Five chapter books to me as a kid (probably 5 or 6 years old) and later branching out on my own reading the same stories as Russell mentions, as well as becoming a huge fan of crime movies in my pre-teens and into highschool. I remember renting Beverly Hills Cop with my dad, going to see Tequila Sunrise on a school trip in grade 9, and later on, becoming huge Tarantino fans, starting with Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and, of course, Pulp Fiction. (I probably saw that one 2 dozen times in the second-run theatre near my house the summer it was released!) I was big into crime comics, too, starting probably with the (admittedly more superhero-centric) Punisher and Wolverine series in the late '80s, and reading a ton of stuff in the genre through the 1990s and onward, including titles like Frank Miller’s Sin City, Whiteout by Rucka and Lieber, and Ruse by Mark Waid and Butch Guice.
My first full-length graphic novel was actually a crime caper called Drive, which was written by Nate Southard and published by a boutique label called Frequency Press in 2001. That one was set in Vegas too, so it’s been fun to revisit the genre and locale. I’d say Russell is the bigger crime fiction fan, since he watched The Wire before I did! (laughs)
RL: The Wire, how could I forget The Wire! And for that matter, its predecessor, Homicide: Life on the Street, the best police procedural there’s ever been – and the comic book it inspired, the fabulous Gotham Central from Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark.
SR: To be fair, I was watching a lot of Law & Order in the '90s. And The Sopranos was must-see TV for me when it originally came out! I just somehow missed that amazing series, and once I finally found it, man, it blew my mind!
CBY: You are telling a crime drama story set in Vegas. But not the Vegas most people would expect. Am I right in thinking it's off the strip? There are lights and glam, I mean it's Vegas, but your setting is a 6 on the Vegas show scale. But more importantly, it’s not a multimillion-dollar heist or hustlers outsmarting or outplaying the house (or is it?). THE HARDWAYS is an abduction tale. Was the setting intentional from the start?
RL: The Koala-T, the casino that’s the main setting of the miniseries, definitely is an off-Strip casino. It’s an older place that caters to locals. It’s not as flashy as the Strip joints with their fountains and famous headliners, but it’s not a sawdust joint, either. It’s got some class, and some pizzazz. Those characteristics are important to the story. For starters, the story needed a casino property that had an outdoor parking lot that could be seen in the first establishing shot. I had a few places in mind from the start, and a quick search of the internet for photos led to some perfect shots that I sent to Shawn as part of the script. It also needed to be a place that’s not as high-profile as the better-known Strip properties, so that when the kidnapping that kicks off [and] the action in the story happens, the casino manager can try to keep it hush-hush and not get the police involved.
SR: It’s just the quintessential Vegas name for an off-Strip casino, isn’t it? The Koala-T, complete with the cute mascot. We’re not talking about Caesar’s Palace, or even the Golden Nugget here. This is definitely an also-ran type of joint, and the perfect setting for this story. One thing I love about Vegas is you do have the high-rollers, millionaire jet-setters and celebrities, but also there’s a skid row, grifting, con-artist element baked into the DNA of the place, you know? I love kind of exploring both of those elements, but of course, mostly the ne’er-do-wells that inhabit the darkened corners of America’s Playground…
CBY: They may be Ne’er-do-wells, but they are also Vegas locals. The dealers, managers, the staff and even the players. This is how they earn a living. And the people involved in the story, we can say: No one is a good person. Everyone’s motives are stained in one way or another. There is no clear “hero” in THE HARDWAYS. Is that a problem at the end of the day?
SR: I don't think so. In fact, that's kind of a staple of modern crime fiction (or, at least, my favorite version of it). The Sopranos, The Wire, the Criminal series by Brubaker and Phillips. Not many, if any, redeeming characters. And yet, the audience can still find someone to root for.
I think that just comes down to making the motivations come clear. That's one thing that is so great about this story, is that as the chapters unfold, we're peeling back the layers, and revealing more about the characters. Even if they're relatively irredeemable, I think there's an inevitable human element that the audience will connect with. I'd be interested to hear if readers have their favourites and which characters those might be. I know I do, but I've already read the whole script!
RL: As Shawn notes, it’s not that kind of a story. It’s not a quest tale, a “hero’s journey.” And obviously, it’s not a superhero comic. The lack of a traditional hero is a signature of crime fiction. Look at The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing, 100 Bullets, the DeNiro film Ronin. None have heroes. But they all have protagonists, and there certainly are antagonists.
The same is true of The Hardways. And at this stage of the tale, you haven’t met all the antagonists yet.
CBY: Setting has an equally important part to play in a crime story. That said, how much research went into the look and description of the casino? I would say you nailed the look and colors (and Josh [Southall] did a great job in lettering placement).
RL: A LOT. I typically visit Las Vegas once or twice a year, to attend an annual comic book festival and just for fun. On my last few visits, I took a ton of photos for Shawn to use as reference. Shots of a casino entryway I liked for one scene; a shot of the UNLV campus; people crowded around a craps table (which figures highly in the story’s opening scene); close-ups of video poker machines; shots of overhead signs; the carpeting; and much, much more. I wanted the people, places and things in The Hardways to look realistic, and I saw it as my job to provide as much photoref to Shawn as I could to make that happen. He already has a very realistic art style; the photos help give him what he needs to make it real.
SR: As Russell mentioned, I love to work from reference, and he does a great job of helping out in that regard. If you see his scripts, he not only provides a ton of photos of his own, of the places he’s visited there, but also links to other images right in the document, which makes my job a hell of a lot easier. As far as the colouring goes, that’s the work of Juan Romera, a guy I’ve worked with a bunch of times and I think he really nailed the garishness of the city, and the seediness of the kidnapper’s lair in this one.
CBY: I hope people can appreciate the depth of the title. It’s a gambling reference and why it is plural [is] you are giving us an abduction tale gone wrong for everyone involved. With no designated editor, how did you plot and keep it tight for five issues? I love that there are no direct twists but you see people switching tracks.
RL: There are no major twists YET, (laughs evilly). As for plotting, The Hardways started as most of my stories do, with a nugget of an idea inspired by something I saw in real life. In this case, it was a statue at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The place is filled with statues and fountains. I saw this one and immediately flashed on a gun battle taking place in front of it. And I thought, why is that happening? And I realized it was a ransom drop gone sideways. And that led to more questions and more notes and the five-issue mini-series we call The Hardways!
Keeping the story on track wasn’t hard for me. I knew the setup early, and I knew (more or less) how it would end; then it was just a matter of plotting out the twists and turns of the second act. I outline all my stories before I start scripting, so I knew what would happen on each page (with changes made as I went along, of course) before the scripting actually began.
SR: I think Russell’s background in journalism probably contributes to his ability to keep a story on track, as well as having written for the Batman family in the past. Not everyone in indie comics has had the opportunity to work with an editor, so having that experience is likely invaluable. That said, it takes a special skill set to turn a critical eye on your own work, while at the same time providing art direction, supervising the lettering, etc. He definitely wears a lot of hats. And of course, if something doesn’t work in the script for me as an artist, I’m more than willing to speak up and offer my opinion, as well. It’s an attempt at “many hands make light work,” you know, and I think our cumulative experience digging in the trenches is beneficial to making the book the best it can be.
CBY: You have gotten some great feedback from industry peers. Rightfully so. You did your own gambling with The Hardways and took the route of self-publishing without any crowdfunding. How is that working out? Is there a future plan after it's completed, like to collect it and try another means of selling it?
RL: We did crowdfund for The Hardways, actually – we just didn’t use a platform like Kickstarter. For all of my self-published projects, I raise money to pay the artist, the letterer and to cover at least some of the printing costs by selling naming rights to characters and likeness rights. I call them "sponsorships." Cash from naming rights goes to me, and in turn I send it to the letterer and printer; all the cash for likeness rights goes to the artist. And sometimes they’re not just characters, they’re street names, building names and more. For The Hardways, the name of our centerpiece casino is the name of a poker group to which I once belonged. And in the fifth issue, there are some restaurants in the background of a scene that also were sponsored. And there’ll be names and faces throughout all five issues that are courtesy of the sponsors.
I’ve been part of a couple Kickstartered anthologies, and it’s a lot of work. I’m a single dad and I have a busy day job – I can’t imagine running a Kickstarter on my own. As for collecting it? The series is digital-first now, both through Comixology and directly from the creators via our stores. But we’re still shopping it to publishers and hope to have print issues by the end of the year, with a paperback collection next year. Maybe we’ll self-publish the collection after raising money – gasp! – over Kickstarter!
SR: The hardest part of Kickstarter, to me, is fulfillment. It’s always trying to make sure that you don’t underestimate shipping and printing, and then have people waiting around, and trying to figure out other rewards, etc. Just a giant headache. I am always in awe of those folks that are able to knock it out of the park again and again. I will probably do a Kickstarter again (I’ve done one before) down the road, but doing things the way that Russell has figured out is ingenious, as it creates a built-in fanbase of folks that are excited for the next installment of the book, while relieving that pressure of trying to solve all the usual problems normally associated with a Kickstarter. All that said, I cannot wait for shows to open up again, so we can produce a print version of the book to sell at our tables! And of course, if a publisher is looking for a kick-ass crime story, we’re all ears.
CBY: This question is more geared for Russell, but Shawn, feel free to add anything. Sponsorship. This is an interesting approach. I’ve never seen it applied to comics. It seems a practical way of raising funds. I can see the front-end benefit of it over the back-end fulfillment and stress of crowdfunding. I'm sure it has as many hardships as crowdfunding. What can you share with us about the process?
RL: Being drawn into a comic is a common Kickstarter reward, and naming characters, buildings and streets is a common practice for comic book writers and novelists. I combined the two and monetize it without going through a crowdfunding platform.
The process is pretty simple: when I’m working on a script, I’ll make a post on Facebook about the project and open sponsorships up to friends – always friends. Sometimes I get a few takers; sometimes a lot. For The Hardways, we were deluged with sponsorship requests. In fact, there was a scene that I added after the first draft was done because it worked better than what it replaced, and it turned out to be a great opportunity for people to be drawn in as background characters – and my friends snatched up the available spots in minutes.
And unlike Kickstarter, I never collect the pledges until work on the section of the book in which the sponsors appear is complete. That way, in case the script winds up not being produced, I don’t have to refund donations. Everyone’s happy.
SR: The main stress, after Russell has done the hard work of actually asking people to sponsor the book, and all the book-keeping involved, is obviously making sure that everyone's likeness is close enough. So far no one has complained though, so we're good!
CBY: Is The Hardways a one-time story? I could see this evolving into another miniseries set in Vegas or the Koala-T Casino. Is there a notebook with other ideas sitting around? More characters in a sketchbook? Are there plans to pitch this as a movie?
RL: The Hardways is indeed a finite story. Would I ever set another comic in Las Vegas? Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I’d love to return to it sometime in the future, with Shawn as my wingman, of course. As for a movie? Well, that’d be fun, but I’m focused on the comic book series right now.
SR: This chapter is one and done, but never say never. Depending on who survives, we certainly could continue the story, I’m sure. I really like the Frank Miller or Brubaker/Phillips model of having a quasi-connected crime universe with main characters in one story showing up as cameos or background characters in another. I could definitely see doing something like that with Russell, if he comes up with future ideas in or around Vegas. Of course, let’s make this one first, and then, once it’s wildly successful, and we’re all wearing the t-shirt in line for the feature film, we can talk about spin-offs.
So far, there are no plans to pitch anything as a movie. Why? Do you know any movie producers? Seriously though, I always want to focus on the comics first, and if something were to happen, well of course I'd be happy to entertain it!
RL: My store is at: https://russell-lissau.square.site. Both Shawn and I have special editions of The Hardways #1 (packed with the script and other extras) available there. As for social media: @rlissau on Twitter and Instagram; [and, for Facebook, it's] facebook.com/russell.lissau
SR: @shawnrichison (Twitter, Instagram) shawnrichison.tumblr.com