“In America, no one is more powerful than a police officer,” a character says at one point in Two Dead, the new crime graphic novel from publisher Gallery 13, “a cop can detain you, hurt you, even kill you, and it’s all legal.” Written by Van Jensen (The Flash, Green Lantern Corps) with art by Nate Powell (John Lewis’ March trilogy), Two Dead tells the story of a Southern town beset by mob violence, racial strife and corruption at every level.
Inspired by true events that occurred in post-WWII Little Rock, Arkansas, the story revolves around a fresh-faced police detective assigned by the town mayor to keep an eye on his chief, an old war-horse known for getting results through less-than-legal means, who may also be slowly going insane. Also key to the story are a pair of African-American brothers: one a hired gun for the local mob boss, the other a volunteer cop for the local militia charged with protecting the black side of town. A crime epic that’s equal parts James Ellroy and Jim Thompson, Two Dead is a timely reminder that the problems we face today have always been around, deeply-rooted into the very fabric of America itself. Released in November, we got the chance to sit down with writer Van Jensen and talk about bringing the comic to life.
NATHAN CABANISS: Before writing comics, you were a crime reporter in Little Rock. How did that inform the story being told in Two Dead?
VAN JENSEN: My time as a crime reporter is the genesis of all of this. I was in the Little Rock PD precinct when I came across this bit of tragic history from the 1940s that tied into organized crime, segregation, police violence and mental illness. I wrote about it for the paper, then spent 12 years working to turn it into this book — in fits and starts.
CABANISS: When adapting a story inspired by true events, how do you decide what to keep and what to change?
JENSEN: Early on, we decided to go the “inspired by true events” route, which is less of a direct iteration of factual history than “based on true events.” I changed names out of respect for the dead, but most of the key characters and plot details are true things that were reported on in depth at the time. I had to create conversations and I created some composite characters, and of course I wove everything around a theme of the cycles of violence, which requires some narrative license.
CABANISS: You work in a variety of different mediums, being a screenwriter and filmmaker in addition to writing comics. What’s your process for figuring out which medium is best for the story you want to tell? What was that process like for Two Dead?
JENSEN: Sometimes it’s pretty evident. Dialogue-heavy stories don’t work well in comics, but do in film. Novels are great for depicting characters’ interior thoughts. But then sometimes I just have to try writing something one way and have it not work. I recently finished a novel that was a comic script first, then a screenplay, before I finally figured out what it needed to be.
CABANISS: Powell’s artwork here is phenomenal — I especially enjoyed the way his style changed depending on where it was in the story. How did he get attached to the project, and what was behind the decision to approach the artwork in such a way?
JENSEN: Nate is, literally, a national treasure. He grew up in North Little Rock, which I had known. And we’ve been pals for years. Back in 2011, we chatted about the project, and he did some sample art. But then it was still a long road to get here. I think for Nate, the project touched on racism, social transformation and mental health, all passions of his, and it’s set in his hometown. He also was glad that I forced him to draw action!
CABANISS: What was behind the decision to release Two Dead as an OGN as opposed to a more traditional miniseries?
JENSEN: Ha! Well, it was originally slated to be a 10-issue series from Dark Horse back in 2014. Then they gave us the rights back (long story), and when we landed at Gallery 13 we collectively decided we wanted it to be an OGN. That’s the only format Nate has ever worked in, and I like the freedom it offers.
CABANISS: Noir and crime fiction have always occupied a corner of the comics market–most superhero stories are ultimately crime stories, after all–what do you think the medium brings out in the genre that other mediums can’t express?
JENSEN: Noir has this kind of terse poetry when it’s at its best. Dialogue that hits with a fast rhythm. Comics are a kind of visual poetry, with panels dictating the flow of reading. Nate and I tried to embrace that staccato feel, while also leaning into the heavy shadows that are so essential to the genre. I do love, also, how the element of ghosts works so well in comic art but would be much harder to pull off in film.
CABANISS: Moving on to the comics industry as a whole, the comics market is in flux — monthly sales seem to be a continuing exercise of the snake eating its own tail, while at the same time there’s serious growth in the YA graphic novel market. Considering you’ve worked for publishers big and small, where do you see the future of the industry going?
JENSEN: You’re right. People within mainstream comics, though, are finally wising up to this shift, and I think that’s why we’re seeing things like DC’s new imprints. Just, generally, a greater breadth of diversity of books and creators and readers, which is what leads to the medium having true health. Of course, in that fractured market, it’s a challenge as a creator to stand out from the crowd. I think we’re going to see some sustained shifts with talent moving more to the imprints at big publishing houses.
CABANISS: Finally, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can talk about?
JENSEN: I have an OGN adaptation of Live and Let Die, the James Bond novel, coming out this month. After that, I guess everything is still a bit up in the air. Some new stuff at DC, and some other things that are just too nascent to discuss, unfortunately.
Two Dead is available now, wherever fine books are sold.