Ryan Curtis is a visual effects supervisor working in television who turned his attention to writing comic books during the pandemic. Ryan joined Comic Book Yeti to talk about his first comic book and first Kickstarter campaign for Slums of Empire City, which you can check out HERE.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Ryan, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave to discuss your first comic book. Slums of Empire City is now on Kickstarter and the campaign runs until July 29, 2021. What’s your elevator pitch for this series?
RYAN CURTIS: The 1993 movie KIDS, if it were set in Gangs of New York.
CBY: What was the original inspiration for this story?
RC: The story of “Sadie the Goat” I came across in a Reddit article and fell in love with the idea of this loud, obnoxious wild woman roaming the streets of NYC in the late 1800s. As the tale goes, Sadie would head-butt men in the stomach (hence “the Goat” moniker) and rob them. She was feared on the streets until she ran into her nemesis Gallus Mag at the Hole-in-the-Wall saloon. Sadie came out of the altercation minus an ear after Gallus Mag bit it off, forcing Sadie to leave the Fourth Ward in shame.
CBY: The story starts on July 4, 1869 in New York City’s 4th Ward. In addition to Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, what type of research did you do and which sources did you use to try and capture an authentic 1869 New York City, especially regarding the dialogue or vernacular? For Brazilian artist Caio ROB, did you provide him with any particular references for the look of the city or the character designs?
RC: I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours poring over old newspapers, genealogical sites, and census records trying to find a shred of evidence that Sadie was an actual person. I didn’t find any. But what I did find were hundreds of interesting, often hilarious stories in the newspapers and that really helped me construct a bigger world and develop more colorful characters. Sadie’s cronies, for instance (Harmon and Haley), I found in a short newspaper article about these two men slipping onto a quarantine ship and stealing sugar, before being arrested by the harbor police. Sounded like two bumbling guys, so they made a great team. I handed Caio ROB a ton of reference material that I had accumulated over the years: photos, tintypes, lithographs, maps, anything I could find. We did refer back to the Scorcese film Gangs of New York a lot as well as Once Upon a Time in America. Caio is particularly good at emotive characters and urban landscapes so it's a perfect union for the material.
As far as the dialogue, and vernacular, I chose to keep it more modern than leaning into proper speech of the time. You’ll hear a few select adjectives here and there, but I worried that if we went too “Deadwood” with the dialog, much of it would be lost.
CBY: Speaking of the rest of the team, Caio ROB is the artist, letterer, and colorist for issue #3. Kayro Rocha is also a Brazilian artist and provides colors on issues 1 and 2. How did this creative team come together, and what makes your collaboration successful?
RC: I found Caio through some Facebook comments, someone was looking for an artist and he responded. I had spent weeks going through hundreds of artists' portfolios making notes as to which ones really spoke to me. I needed someone who could really capture character emotions, and Caio’s blew me away. He has been amazing to work with, so collaborative and imaginative and very kind and thoughtful. Originally we were going to just go black and white, but once we got the first issue finished I changed my mind, and Caio brought in Kayro to color the issues while he was finishing the art for the last two books. The process went very smoothly.
Shout-outs to the rest of the team, Leandro Vagner (aka Leco) doing flats and LetterSquids who did the Cover Logo.
CBY: Having a story that is a mix of people that existed, potentially real people in the case of Sadie the Goat, and a larger cast of fictionalized characters, did you feel limited in any way in straying from any real events or portraying any characters, like Dutch Herman, in a way contrary to their historical selves?
RC: Dutch will most certainly be a more heroic character than the real-life Herman Palmer. The real-life version was in the NYC Rogues Gallery and was arrested for beating people to near-death and other terrible crimes. The comic version also beats people to near-death, but he does it for good reasons. So…hero.
I haven't been overly concerned with character accuracy yet, but when we get to issues 7, 8, 9, we will be following the iconic American poet, Walt Whitman. I know only a little about the man, so I’m sure many people will complain that it’s not historically accurate enough. That’ll be some fun research.
We are bending the realities in some places, and are rigid in others. Hole-in-the-Wall saloon, for instance, was (is) a real place that still stands today on Water St. The DOVE saloon, however, is made up. The Ferrell’s Oyster saloon at 91½ Charlton Street was real, but being connected to Sadie the Goat...probably not.
"The tricky part was deciding how to split the story (something I’m still struggling with). I have ten 1-hour episodes outlined that I want to put into comic book form."
CBY: I have read the first 3 issues, really enjoyed them by the way, and Sadie is such a fascinating character, particularly in the third issue when you learn about Sadie’s family. Once you found bits and pieces of stories about Sadie from your research, how did you go about creating such a fully formed, nuanced character? Were there any modern inspirations for Sadie?
RC: Calamity Jane from Deadwood is certainly a big inspiration for Sadie, although I’m sure they would hate each other. I just wanted an interesting character. A flawed female protagonist who’s an asshole, a pathological liar, an obnoxious cheat with a filthy mouth and bloodthirsty desire to run a dangerous street gang. The same-old, same-old.
Of course, then comes the challenge, how do we get the audience to love her? Because we shouldn’t, she has hardly any redeeming qualities, but I think when you see where she comes from, that she is the middle child of a huge family who are super focused on their hustle, that her mother is an evil person who has put so much negativity on Sadie’s shoulders, that she is blamed for “something” in the past which caused the family great strife, we start to understand why Sadie is SOOO damaged.
CBY: In the first issue, Sadie, Harmon and Haley decide to relieve a gentleman of his cash and discuss using the “Winchmen,” “Knicker Kicker,” or “Maiden Kiss Kiss,” Sadie choosing the “Maiden Kiss Kiss”, which we then see play out. I loved these. Are these the actual names of things, or did you invent them? Either way, what are the “Winchmen” and the “Knicker Kicker”?
RC: Great question. There are lots of great olde phrases for methods of stealing but these, alas, are fabricated. I’d love to tell you what they are, but you’re gonna have to check out further issues to find out. (Even though I 100% fully know what they are, with no doubt, I am open to suggestions)
CBY: In the first 2 issues, you’ve begun laying the groundwork that orphans have been disappearing. Was there any real-life inspiration for this part of the story and, structurally, what led to the choice to have 3 issues per character, focusing on Sadie the Goat, Dutch Herman, and Walt Whitman (though we haven’t met Whitman yet, I’m assuming he will be the focus of future issues 7 through 9)?
RC: There was never a child trafficking ring that we are aware of, but I needed some device to pull all these stories together. The problem with having terrible street criminals as your protagonist is there is very little that they would consider BAD enough to start their hero's journey. No one wants to see kids get hurt (except Sadie, she DGAF), so it seemed like the best device.
In Dutch’s story, he will connect with two historical figures, Etta Wheeler, who was the driving force behind developing the framework for Child Protective Services (which she based on the rules from the ASPCA because they had animal protection laws before child protection laws) and also Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly.
In Walt’s storyline, he's also searching for a missing kid but this one unfortunately happens to be a real little boy, Charley Ross, who was kidnapped from his home in Philadelphia. It’s said that Charley was the first kidnapping case to “go national” in the press.
CBY: Slums of Empire City started as a TV pilot script. What was that process like to adapt a pilot script to a comic book script?
"I got into VFX because of my love of storytelling. I really loved editing and used that to become a VFX Editor, then eventually made my way to being on-set and really fell in love with filmmaking."
RC: It was much easier than you’d think actually. The characters, locations and themes are all there. The tricky part was deciding how to split the story (something I’m still struggling with). I have ten 1-hour episodes outlined that I want to put into comic book form. Having the three storylines made it tricky to tell all those stories at once, so I decided to break them up into 3-issues. When all 9 issues are complete that will take us to approximately the fourth episode. I really struggled with "Do I just tell Sadie's story for 10 books, then go back and do Dutch’s story?" But there are so many crossover points and setups and payoff that I thought it would lose something. So hopefully people will be cool with it this way.
CBY: You’ve worked as a visual effects editor/coordinator/supervisor on many television shows, such as Haven, Human Target, The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Project Blue Book, Van Helsing, and, most recently, Superman and Lois. What exactly does a visual effects supervisor do and what led you to that career?
RC: A VFX Supervisor works with the film crew, writers and directors to plan and execute any VFX (or CGI) shots that exist within the movie/show. We break down the script and then come up with a plan on how these things need to be shot. Typically the VFX Supervisor then runs the creative portion of the VFX, working with a team of artists to get the Director’s vision on the screen.
I got into VFX because of my love of storytelling. I really loved editing and used that to become a VFX Editor, then eventually made my way to being on-set and really fell in love with filmmaking. I eventually started writing and directing my own projects and now comics.
CBY: Are there any moments from any specific shows that you’re particularly proud of and want to brag about?
RC: New season of Van Helsing is about to debut on Netflix everywhere (except USA...use a VPN). You should check that out. We had so much fun making it.
CBY: As you began working on the scripts for Slums of Empire City, is there anything in particular you learned, generally, as a visual effects supervisor that was helpful to writing a comic book script and/or was there anything on a particular television show you worked on that informed how you want to tell stories or the kinds of stories you want to tell?
RC: Having never written a comic book script before, I reached out to some TV writer friends who have written lots of books for the Big 3 publishers. They gave me some [hints] and pointers, but what I came to realize was that doing a comic as an indie is so much more fun than doing it with a big publisher.
Our current method is, I outline to the artist what I want to see in these panels, camera direction, etc., and he does it. Sometimes he takes liberties and makes them better. Then I get to make notes and adjustments before we go to ink. Collaborative.
From what the guys tell me, they rarely get to see any art before the book is done. Write it, hand it in to an editor and wait to see it on shelves.
CBY: Having worked in visual effects on several shows that were adapted from comic books, do you research the source material at all?
RC: Yes, on some. Superman and Lois, they (the writers) were very, very respectful of adhering to the legacy framework.
For other shows, we would refer to the general look, but it’s more about the rules of the world we would try and follow closely.
CBY: Do you think comic books as a medium are seen as a farm league for film and television?
RC: This is a tricky question. "Farm League" has the stink of “lesser than” and I don’t think comics are a lesser form of storytelling.
I think you’ll see many big-name writers in film/TV moving to the comic realm because they have freedom to tell the stories that they want directly to their own audiences. That's a very powerful draw for creators. The comics sphere is a very friendly and nurturing place (despite Twitter wars) and it's a great incubator for excellent stories.
Will the waters always be patrolled by producers scouring for IP that can be translated into screen? Yes, but that's a good thing. For me, it’s a place where I can tell stories to get them out of my head and into the world where hopefully people will fall in love with the characters as much as I.
"As the tale goes, Sadie would head-butt men in the stomach (hence “the Goat” moniker) and rob them."
CBY: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
RC: TV writers I love are David Milch and Stephen De Knight.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
RC: Gotta go old school Superman, The Walking Dead, and Watchmen.
CBY: Is there anything else you have coming up in the future that CBY readers should be on the lookout for?
RC: I’m working with an artist out of Argentina right now on a Noir Gothic Steampunk horror book called Cowboys Vs. Frankenstein.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
CBY: Ryan, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, I appreciate it, and good luck with the Slums of Empire City Kickstarter campaign.