If graphic designer/comic writer Eric Skillman’s name isn’t immediately familiar to you, his work on the covers of some of high-end film restoration company the Criterion Collection’s titles might be. His design work has adorned the covers of film classics like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. But increasingly, the artist has been making more and more forays into writing, bringing his love of noir to his EGG: Hard-Boiled Stories anthology and in May he’ll be releasing his first OGN, Liar’s Kiss through Top Shelf.
Mr. Skillman was kind enough to talk to MTV Geek about his latest project, his graphic design work, and how to pick a good artist.
MTV Geek: Could you give our readers a rough sketch of the plot of Liar’s Kiss?
Eric Skillman: Without giving too much away—it is a whodunit after all—the book is about a private detective, Nick Archer, who spends his nights with the woman he's supposed to be surveilling on behalf of her jealous husband. But when the husband turns up murdered, his cheating wife is the prime suspect and it's up to Nick to clear her name… and even in those two sentences I've already lied to you at least once. Sorry, it's just that kind of book.
Geek: It seems like the story wears its noir inspirations proudly. Were there any particular stories that fed into Liar’s Kiss?
ES: I'm a big fan of all the classics, from Dashiell Hammett to Richard Stark to Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and all that's in there somewhere, I hope. But probably the most direct inspirations were, first, Allen Baron's fantastically bleak film Blast of Silence, the DVD release of which I was privileged to art-direct, with the great Sean Phillips providing cover art. As part of that package, we put together a little 4-page comic adaptation of the opening scenes of the film, which I broke down into comic script form for Sean to draw—just about the best first-comics-writing experience I can imagine, really. The process of putting that together was what first put the "noir comics" bug in my brain.
The second major inspiration was one of my favorite books, Richard Aleas's Songs of Innocence. "Aleas" (a pseudonym for Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai) manages to use genre conventions not just as stage dressing but as a way to play with your assumptions and expectations as a reader, in a way that really gives the book—the ending, in particular—a powerful emotional punch. If Jhomar and I have been able to achieve even a fraction of that, I'll be thrilled.
Geek: What caused you to make the leap into the full-length OGN format?
ES: Honestly it hardly occurred to me to do otherwise—it's really a pretty brisk jaunt from cover to cover, I imagine most people will wind up reading it through in one or two sittings. Even if practical considerations had forced us to serialize, it was always conceived of as one start-to-finish story, and I'm glad Top Shelf agreed that this was the best way to present it.
Geek: How did you end up bringing the project to Top Shelf?
ES: I've done a few design projects for the Top Shelf guys—Eddie Campbell's seminal ALEC omnibus, Eddie and Daren White's The Playwright, and the AX manga anthology—and really enjoyed working with them. Combine that with one of the best track records of any comics publisher and I guess it's obvious why Jhomar and I would want to work with them… I'm just thankful they were excited enough about the book to want to work with us!
Geek: Could you tell our readers a little about your background in graphic design?
ES: I've been designing packaging for DVDs, books, albums, posters, etc—you know, all that fun dead tree stuff that people used to buy before iPads—for about 10 years now, the majority of that time on staff at the Criterion Collection, where I've been privileged to work with and learn from some truly great designers and illustrators.
Geek: How did your own graphic design background influence or inform the look of the book?
ES: I've actually found writing for comics to be pretty similar to art-directing. Of course, whenever I've said that to other art directors or writers, they all look at me like I'm crazy, so it's possible that I'm doing one or the other wrong. But the way I see it, design—at least the kind that I like—is about communicating a story though imagery, just like comics. In both situations, the operative thing is to find that balance in just how much "direction" to give. To make sure that you give the artist enough information to get them to convey whatever you're trying to convey—whether that's power dynamic between Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster on the Sweet Smell of Success cover, or the look in Nick Archer's eyes when he makes a certain decision in Liar's Kiss—while still giving the artist enough creative freedom to keep them engaged and doing their best work.
Which is to say: I don't know that my design sensibilities influenced the specific look of the book all that much (apart from the cover, where I bullied everyone into approving that pink color), so much as I hope they made it possible for Jhomar to put his own stamp on it and pull out all the stops. And as anyone who's flipped through the book can tell you, he really outdid himself.
Geek: How did you and your artist, Jhomar Soriano hook up on this project? For you, what was the appeal of some of his earlier work?
ES: I found Jhomar on DeviantArt, and just fell in love with his line. It's crisp and sharp and rough in just the right places, and the inky black shadows do an amazing job of creating that elusive "noir" mood. At that time, Jhomar's DeviantArt page only had a few samples in what he calls his "Western" style—as opposed to the scratchier look he's used on manga projects like Arkham Woods and Mr. Grieves—but they were enough to convince me that he was the man for the job. It wasn't until we were well into the project that I even knew about the third amazing style in his arsenal, the gorgeous watercolors he uses in the Liar's Kiss flashback sequences.
Actually, that's another important similarity between comics writing and art direction—find the right artist and ride those coattails, and you can't help but look like a genius...
Geek: What else do you have coming up on the horizon?
ES: Well, there'll be plenty more design work: Criterion stuff, as always, and I also designed the big relaunch issue of The Comics Journal that's coming out soon, which I was pretty happy with. And I should probably use this opportunity to plug my design process blog, Cozy Lummox. I'm also pulling together the third issue of my self-published crime anthology series, EGG: Hard Boiled Stories. Looking out into the future, I'm working up a couple new pitches—one another crime/noir thing, the other a strange sort of true crime/history/thriller/cookbook hybrid—and we'll see where it goes from there. And finally, I suppose I should also mention that I'll be making appearances at various conventions this year to promote Liar's Kiss—starting with MoCCA in New York, then TCAF in Toronto and HeroesCon in Charlotte. So… I'm keeping busy.