Jim McCann and Janet Lee save the day—and the night—with their big-buzz graphic novel
by Joe Nolan
Hear that buzzing sound? No, it's not Rudolph's nose on the fritz. It’s what’s happening as Jim McCann and Janet Lee give Santa a run for his sleigh with Return of the Dapper Men, a graphic novel that has become one of the season's hit holiday gifts.
Although their celebrated new book takes place in a fantastical world, Jim McCann and Janet Lee share a Nashville connection. McCann, a native Nashvillian, moved to New York in 2004 to become a successful author of comic books. He wrote episodes for X-Men, New Avengers, and other Marvel Comics titles. Lee currently lives in Music City, where her art shows in local galleries and coffeehouses. Together this dynamic duo has taken the winter shopping season by storm with one of the most sought-after titles to hit holiday shelves.
Hailed as an “instant classic” by USA Today, Return of the Dapper Men is also in the Holiday Gift Guides of both The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly. The first print run—10,000 copies—of the handsome, hardcover book sold out by distributors in twenty-four hours. If anything is working against the book during the year's busiest shopping season, it's that demand is outstripping production.
Return of the Dapper Men is set in a world called Anorev, a place where time has stopped, children never grow old, and bedtime never comes. However, everything changes one day when a multitude of well-dressed gentlemen fall from the sky to set things right. What follows is a tale of destiny shared by a young boy named Ayden, a robot girl called Zoe, and a wily, wise Dapper Man who seems to know more than he's letting on.
Jim McCann and Janet Lee answered questions from Chapter 16 prior to their book signing on December 9 at Art & Invention Gallery in Nashville.
Chapter 16: Jim, your story begins at the very beginning of all things: the Big Bang. It's a real knockout opening sequence. What inspired it?
Jim McCann: We actually begin just as time is about to start up again, and then we go back to the beginning. I wanted to give a sense of history. Janet's art is perfect to really sell a lot of those images with minimal words. We also sort of ease the reader not only into the world of Anorev, but into the world of sequential storytelling. Those first sixteen pages or so read more like an illustrated children's book than anything, which was a very deliberate choice. It's all about beginnings, in a way.
Chapter 16: Janet, in the book's opening images, in a drawing of a city skyline, there is a building that looks suspiciously like downtown Nashville's so-called “Batman Building,” the AT&T building. Am I seeing things?
Janet Lee: In many ways, Return of the Dapper Men is visually all about Nashville. The genesis, the inspiration, for the story came from three images I had made for various shows back in 2008. It's the reason Jim and I bill ourselves as "co-creators." And the look of Anorev itself always grew out of my home neighborhood, East Nashville. I didn't intentionally include the Nashville skyline, but the architecture around me was my inspiration (with a bit of Paris thrown in). For example, Ayden's house is based on a Woodland Street antique shop.
Chapter 16: Speaking of beginnings, Dapper Men is introduced by Project Runway's Tim Gunn. How did that dapper man get involved?
McCann: I had the pleasure of meeting Tim when Marvel was putting together a comic book miniseries set in the world of high fashion and modeling called Models, Inc. Tim graciously allowed Marvel to write and draw him into a story where the best dressed man in a suit donned the best suit in super hero comics—Iron Man—to "fight crimes against fashion." I was in PR at the time for Marvel, so Tim and I did a number of events and signings together. He lives in the same neighborhood as me here in Manhattan, so we would ride the subway home together. He's one of the most genuine men I know.
While all of that was happening, Janet and I were trying to think of who could best introduce the book in the foreword. We kept coming back to the original Dapper Man himself, Tim. He knows fashion, obviously, and is also a great lover of books. So, one day I asked if he would be interested, and he said yes! I sent him the script and then spent an afternoon in his apartment showing him the original artwork. The result, his foreword, is something I know Janet and I will both treasure for the rest of our lives
Chapter 16: Usually, the idea of timelessness is associated with notions of paradise, but you've turned this idea on its head. Anorev is a dystopia specifically because time has stopped.
McCann: I loved the idea of the World Machine, as shown in Clockwork Universe Theory, and the idea of what if, after being wound up, the world just sort of stopped. What would happen? There is a sense of paradise to some of the kids, but even they know something is off. To me, it's a lack of momentum or change that happens, and that's not really paradise in my mind.
Chapter 16: In the book's first pages you use a lovely poetic device, making connections between the words “no” and “now”. The narrative often seems to cross over into verse. Is this prose or is this poetry for you?
McCann: It's a third-person-omniscient narrator. I personally know who the narrator is for me when I read it, but I want to keep that open for others to interpret. In going back and reading the amazing texts from J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll and then juxtaposing them with the minimalist simplicity and conservation of words that Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein used, I created this voice in my head that I knew had to be the voice to take us through this world, going in and out of straight narration and dipping back to the sublime. I wanted something that kids would find entertaining and adults would find intriguing.
Chapter 16: You fill your first thirty pages introducing your universe and your characters, all the while building to this intense, absurd, hilarious moment when time returns to Anorev, bringing with it 314 Dapper Men raining down from the sky. Where did the idea for the Dapper Men come from?
McCann: The Dapper Men, and the entire story, was inspired by Janet's art. I was in Nashville over Christmas of 2008. I was visiting Janet and saw these three distinct, yet striking, pieces (all of which I now own): one was a Christmas ornament of a steampunk boy, another was a five-by-eight-inch image of a robot girl floating in space, and the third was a six-by-three-foot Magritte-inspired painting of these dapper-looking men raining down on a Victorian setting. Weeks went by and I couldn't get them out of my head because, in my strange twisty mind, they told a complete story. I couldn't stop thinking "Who are these men? Why are they raining down? Why are they identical in almost every way? Why come back now? And what if one of them were different from the rest?" In answering those questions, I started to build an entire universe, all based on Janet's art.
Chapter 16: Tell me a bit about the process of transforming the book from a script to the feast for the eyes that is the finished product.
Lee: In some ways the process was incredibly easy. The story was based on my art, so we always knew what the characters and setting looked like. In other ways, it was challenging, and we were using an untested medium for illustration. Because this was my first time to illustrate a book, Jim gave me a detailed script, and we spoke constantly. I think we helped each other. In some cases—like the image of the two birds intertwined—Jim was very clear about what he wanted. In other instances—like the underground world of the children—Jim would give me a general direction ("Think of the best pillow forts, tree houses, play places you ever knew; then imagine that no one ever told you to stop building"), and I just ran with it.
McCann: We have an incredibly collaborative process. Many times I will have an idea for a character in mind, but when I see Janet draw a character sketch or even just a doodle, an entire arc, backstory and all, will form in my mind. That happened with a number of characters in Return of the Dapper Men. Sometimes I will have specific layouts or angles or shots that I feel are important to see to best convey the story, and other [times] I'll simply say, "OK, Janet, this is all yours—whatever imagery you think will best accomplish this, go for it!" And usually that's when she curses my name ….
Chapter 16: Dapper Men references Alice in Wonderland, Isaac Newton, Pinocchio, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the math writer/Lewis Carroll authority Martin Gardener. How are these writers and tales a part of your story?
McCann: There are even more references in there that are hidden within the very names of some of the characters. I wanted Easter Eggs for people to find. Also, I am terrible at naming things, so I look to history to help provide a nice jumping-off point to start. But almost all of the writers and the stories referenced are things that inspired the story in some fashion, be it in the role a character plays in the story, the very name of Anorev, or a nod to the writers who help shape who I am today and who help as I continue to evolve.
Chapter 16: In the backgrounds of several of your images, a number of these “Easter Eggs” pop up in pointed examples of intertextuality. How did you discover this fantastic device?
Lee: That is actually something I have been doing for years in my gallery work. I once did a piece, for example, that cataloged moments from an imaginary woman's life, and I built it on top of obituaries from the newspaper. I'm not sure anyone ever noticed they were there. But I knew, and it had meaning for me.
When we pitched Return of the Dapper Men to Archaia, we showed them images of pieces where we had incorporated text, and they loved the idea of doing that in the book. So, when I decided to build an image about the creation of the world, I built it on top of pages from a book by Newton. When the Dapper Men were sewing up the seams of the planet, they did so over pages from Alice's Adventures Underground.
Chapter 16 : What's your reaction to the acclaim the book has found?
Lee: I couldn't be more amazed or humbled. Jim and I have joked that we are comic-book spouses and that Return of the Dapper Men is our baby. For months and months, it was just this little seed; we nurtured it, and it grew. Then we sent it out in the world, and other people love it, too. That is, quite simply, an astounding feeling.
Chapter 16: In Anorev, the children all live underground while robots and machines live in homes on the surface. One of the book's major plot points is the healing of the rift between the people and the machines. What inspired these ideas?
McCann: It's the idea of needing to face fears that we all have: change, growing up, and destiny. We need to know when it's time to set aside playthings or old prejudices and move forward. We need to stay vigilant that we don't grow complacent and fall back into old ways or childish behavior. And we should all look and see what it is we are doing here and if we are doing everything we can to live up to the potential of achieving that. But most of all, we can't do it alone; we have to work together. You can read whatever you want or need into that, be it ideology, philosophy, religion, politics, or just a nice morality fairytale at bed time.
Chapter 16: It's a coming-of-age tale told on a cosmic scale. It's a simple story about growing up, but it’s also a metaphysical fable.
McCann: It's about finding out who you are and deciding if you are ready to take that leap and become the "you" that you are meant to be. And in doing so, how does that change help and affect others?
Jim McCann and Janet Lee will appear at a book-signing and reception in honor of Return of the Dapper Men on December 9 at 5:30 p.m. at Art & Invention Gallery in Nashville. Original art from the book will be for sale at the reception and throughout the holiday season.
Published Thursday, 9 December 2010