Interview with DELUGE’s J.D. Oliva

Deluge Number One Cover

Deluge, the Comics Experience miniseries by writer J.D. Oliva (Shunned) and artist and letterer Richard P. Clark (Captain Midnight, Star), takes place in an antediluvian New Orleans ripped apart by Hurricane Katrina. Among the chaos and devastation, a marauding group of cops takes it upon themselves to keep the peace.

At least that’s what they claim…

Despite the setting, Deluge’s frank, raw dissection of race and police overreach seems eerily contemporary. J.D. and Richard pack their three issues with pulsing dread, wrapping their necessary sociopolitical challenges inside a terrifyingly intense thriller.

(For something a little lighter, Richard also recently wrapped up the Kickstarter campaign for the trade paperback edition of Star, a satirical rumination on celebrity and technology. It earned the first 25% of its $10,000 goal within the first 48 hours of launch, and successfully finished in April with more than $2,000 worth of extras. It started life as a script in the first-ever Intro to Writing Comics course held by Creators Workshop!)

Comics Experience: Deluge is particularly arresting because of its strong sense of place. The story couldn’t happen anywhere other than New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina. What came first – the idea for the story, or the desire to explore a specific setting?

J.D. Oliva: So, what happened was, I was shooting a short film down in New Orleans in the summer of 2008. The state of Louisiana had been using a film tax credit system to help rebuild their economy after Katrina. I have a lot of friends from Chicago who moved down to NOLA to work in film, so it made sense to shoot down there. We were at a bar one night and one of the locals told us a story of how this group of cops went rogue and took to the Lower 9th in boats, picking off people they knew were a problem. I was horrified to hear this and thought, “That would make a great story.” Later that week, we were out on a Saturday night in the Quarter and I saw a cop smash his nightstick into a drunk guy’s face. The guy was a jerk, but I was still shocked at how vicious the whole thing seemed. A few of my friends said, “That’s just how they are done here!” and, “You should have seen them before the storm!”

So the idea was in the back of my head.

CE: That sounds terrifying, especially considering the major discussion regarding police brutality and accountability happening right now. Was that in the back of your head while writing as well?

JDO: Kinda. The broader discussion of police brutality seems to have gained traction recently. Eight years ago, I wasn’t really cognizant of it until I heard and saw what was going on in New Orleans.

CE: Also integral to the narrative is a discussion of gang structures in Chicago versus New Orleans, which takes place in the first issue. What was the research process like when shaping this element of the story? What other important or notable facts had to be left out because they didn’t fit?

JDO: I did find a news story (I forget where) about a real FBI operation to try and organize crime in New Orleans that ultimately failed because of the storm. It just fit the narrative that I was trying to build. Growing up outside Chicago, you always hear stories about gangs and see the wannabes that exist in every suburban town. Gang violence is a huge problem in Chicago, while in New Orleans it’s more of this wild west mentality of “I don’t like you so I’m going to kill you; you killed my cousin so now I gotta kill you.” It’s organized crime versus disorganized crime. My brother actually did sound on a documentary on kids killing kids in New Orleans that was being filmed around the same time I was writing Deluge. He’d tell me stories of what they were filming and it helped shape the story we were doing.

CE: Can you give us specifics on how the stories he covered helped you craft your story?

JDO: Just the one I mentioned. I found something that struck a chord with me and went from there.

CE: Although Deluge is fiction, New Orleans – much like Chicago – has a reputation for crooked cops, even long before Katrina. Were there any real-life incidents, even if they have little in common with the comic? If so, what made these stories so compelling?

JDO: Question 1 pretty much answered this too. I also edited a documentary (we’re documentary guys by trade) in 2006 about the immediate aftermath of the storm and remembered people talking about the National Guard being brought in to save people from the New Orleans Police. It was like Lord of the Flies.

CE: You also come from a filmmaking background. How has this informed your comics work, if at all? What are some notable overlaps between the two disciplines that many creatives may not realize?

JDO: Growing up I loved comics and movies and always wanted to do both, which was pretty unheard of back then. My experiences filming in New Orleans in 2008 pretty much soured me on narrative film. I really don’t like being on set all that much and I was secretly hoping that filmmaking would backdoor me into comics. After that experience, I decided to just focus on becoming a better writer (which I enjoy), and that lead me to Comics Experience. As far as filmmaking goes, I studied documentary filmmaking in college and have been doing that since 2004. I enjoy the run-n-gun aspect of just grabbing a camera and going to work. It’s very freeing.

What I really discovered in Comics Experience intro to writing class was that I thought much more visually than I realized. I used to hate writing shot lists, but because of them I found that I was pretty good at panel descriptions. When I first started writing, I was describing everything, even telling the artist where to put the camera and what the angle should be. Now I just try to use language to get my concept across and just let an artist (Rich in this case) do what he’s going to do, because it’s going to be better than what I had in mind. So I think it’s ability to think visually and to speak in a language that another visual storyteller can understand. I also think being a video editor has helped me come up with some interesting visual scene transitions, which is one of the things about our story that I was really proud of, cause the way we did them couldn’t really be done in film. My brain just works that way cause I’m always cutting images together. That was a lot of fun.

CE: Which transitions are you most proud of, and which stand out as especially difficult to pull off in film?

JDO: The one that sticks out in my head is in issue 2 where we cut between either Edwards’ golden retriever to the German Shepherd about to attack Jarrett. The dogs occupy the same space with identical composition in both panels. In film, if we were to do this it would create a much harder transition on the eye, plus there’s too much motion in the frames and I think transitions would be lost. Using the static images of comics creates that hard transition but in a way that visually flows much better, particularly in guided view. We used this trick 4 or 5 times throughout the series.

CE: What does your collaborative process look like?

JDO: On this particular story, I kind of lead because it was my baby. Rich followed most of the ideas I had and then turned them up. Especially on some of the more graphic elements of the story. We just respected each other’s’ roles. I wrote the story, he got the cues I was going for and really made them work in ways that were better than what I had in mind, which was very rewarding.

CE: How has Rich’s artwork enhanced your writing and added weight to your words?

JDO: I think Rich handled the violence in particular very well. It’s a brutal book but I didn’t get very graphic with my panel descriptions. Rich turned it up and really made the violence feel awful instead gratuitous, which is something that could have been very easy. I think the extreme violence complimented a very dour story.

CE: How did your experiences with the Creators Workshop help shape you as comics creators? What was some of the best advice you received?

JDO: I workshopped the entire series within the Creators Workshop. It was probably the first miniseries to be born in the Workshop, now that I think about it. Paul Allor, specifically, gave me some of the most thoughtful and challenging notes that I’d ever received. Working with him specifically was such a pleasure that I asked him to be the book’s first editor. Originally, Deluge was going to be four issues. Paul talked me into three, which was such a better move, from both a narrative and financial perspective. I give Paul credit with helping me really helping me stick the landing on the book.

CE: Which of Paul’s pointers in particular stood out?

JDO: The biggest adjustment Paul made was talking me into cutting the series to 3 issues instead of the intended 4. I spent a good chunk of issue 2 meandering in earlier drafts and he told me that it killed the flow of the story. Going to 3 issues kept the pace of the book very tight. It also made a significant impact on the bottom line. I saved quite a bit of money!

Deluge is available on comiXology here.

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