North 40

I recently stumbled across a couple blog posts I wrote years back about North 40, the great series by Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples, and discovered that since the old WildStorm blog where they were originally published is now pining for the fjords, the posts exist only on my hard drive and the wayback machine.

Not that my posts were any great shakes, but the series was. And while Fiona has obviously gone on to be the unanimously lauded, acclaimed artist of the Eisner Award-winning series Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, the more stuff about North 40 on the internet, the better. So here 'tis. 

Oh, and North 40's now available in trade paperback. Go buy it. In fact, buy a bunch. You'll be glad you did. 


July 2009

So here’s how it all happened.

I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, checking out the various booths when I spied my old pal Rob Simpson, a former Marvel editor, former DC editor who was then working at Dark Horse. He introduced me to the couple he was talking to, a friendly pair named Aaron and Cristi Williams. I was under the impression that they were old friends with my old friend but later learned it wasn’t true—they were just friends with pretty much everyone they met. Cristi offered me copies of Aaron’s books and not wanting to be impolite and because I’m a huge fan of free swag, I oh so kindly accepted.

Rob and I caught up and then I had to run for a meeting with another old pal, Eddie Berganza, to discuss the DC/WildStorm crossover DreamWar. Unusually for me, I was actually a few minutes early. As is not unusual for SDCC, Eddie got caught in the crush of people trying to leave the con, and called to say he’d be a few minutes late. As all I had to read were these new Aaron Williams books I’d been handed, I opened the first one…and was instantly sucked into the world of PS238

I immediately discovered that Aaron had created a world populated with classic comic book characters, all of whom had been tweaked and tilted and turned just enough to be both completely, instantly recognizable and yet utterly new. They were old pals you’d never met before. And then Aaron grabbed ’em and put ’em through their paces, crafting stories that were clear and accessible and never went where you thought they were going and yet managed to be completely satisfying. Not to mention funny, which they were in spades. Great characterization, great pacing, great dialogue. The series was the real deal. By the time Eddie arrived I had a new favorite comic book series.

Naturally, I asked Aaron if he had anything he’d like to pitch. This is sorta like asking a shark if it likes to eat…only not really. In fact, you know what? That was a lousy analogy. Because while it’s a half-decent comparison in that, like that shark and eating, I get the feeling Aaron would cease to live were he somehow stopped from telling stories, so let’s all fervently hope no one stops him from doing so, and why would anyone anyway? But the other thing is that it’s clear Aaron loves the art of storytelling. Whereas I’ve never heard any convincing evidence that a shark really loves eating, as opposed to simply doing it because it’s a biological imperative.

And, see, the thing is that PS238 is absolutely wonderful. But it’s not exactly WildStorm material, not in the way most folks think of WildStorm, at least. I mean, yes, the quality level is there, but it’s kid-friendly, and while it’s dramatic and has its tense moments, it really does seem, superficially at least, to not be our cuppa. And yet I could tell that a storyteller as imaginative and skilled as Aaron could almost certainly work in a bunch of different genres and styles. People who can tell stories are a rare and valuable thing and not to be pigeonholed.

Anyway, I asked Aaron to pitch me. And he did. He pitched me North 40 pretty much complete, with the first story arc plotted and paced, broken down issue-by-issue, and the characters already in place. It was kinda crazy, actually, how finished an idea it already was. I mean…it was all there, down to the theme he wanted to explore with the series. The slightest of nips and tucks and we were good to go.

Now all we needed was an artist. And it took even less time figuring out who’d be perfect for that.

I’d worked with Fiona Staples on the adaptation of Trick ’r Treat, the Michael Dougherty Halloween film which was, at that point, awaiting a release date. It was, I believe, the first full-length comic Fiona had ever drawn, although she’d colored some stuff, and it was insanely great work on her part. So great I immediately offered her a project which could not have been much more different than the claustrophobic horror book she’d already done for me: this time I offered her a superhero book that spanned the globe, hopped back in forth in time and, oh, yes, was actually a film noir tale in spandex disguise. Pretty much the polar opposite of her previous gig. And yet I had not the slightest doubt she’d hit it out of the park.

Which she did. She teed off on Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor like it’d just insulted her mother and then ran over her puppy. She smacked the bejeebers out of it and left it sobbing in the corner, begging for mercy as though it were a minor mafioso and she were a Robert DeNiro character in a Scorsese flick. Which is to say, she did a really, really nice job.

So when North 40 came around, I immediately thought of Fiona. Oh, sure, she hadn’t yet drawn a small town. And she hadn’t had to design many new characters. And North 40 is essentially a western with fantasy and horror elements. In fact, basically, except for not having funny animals, North 40 is pretty much everything Fiona hadn’t yet drawn for me. And did I have any doubts this time around?

I did not. One glance at any North 40 image will illustrate nicely why I was as sure she’d be perfect for this as I am quite confident the sun’s going to rise in the east and set in the west tomorrow. (Well…except perhaps in Conover County. You can never tell for sure what’s going to happen there.) 

I sent Aaron’s proposal to Fiona and a day or two later I got some preliminary sketches. Aaron and I conferred on what changes we’d like done and concurred that they’d look a bit better without the saliva we’d accidentally drooled on them (quite independently and several thousand miles apart, mind you), and that beyond that they needed no tweaking. A few days after that I received the colored versions. Aaron designed a tasty little presentation and I submitted it. A few days later I got the green light.

Needless to say, this is not the way projects normally go. The entire birthing process is usually a much more arduous one—not always, but generally. I mean, a comic book series is a serious investment of time and energy and resources. Everyone involved in the decision-making takes it mighty seriously, and evaluates each property from a bunch of different angles. And all that’s a good thing, and it takes time to do it right.

But it’s been apparent to everyone at both WildStorm and DC Comics that North 40 is a most unusual book, in the best sense. It’s unusually original, unusually well written and unusually well illustrated. Even the response has been (very pleasantly) unusual, in that I’ve been getting emails and calls from pros who’ve gotten sneak peeks and gone out of their way to rave about it.

Which is extremely pleasant and very gratifying but, I must say, not really as surprising as it might normally be. This book has been in the works for a while and we’ve known pretty much exactly what we’ve had for a year now. And we could not be happier to finally be able to share it with the rest of you. Or, given the subject and tone of the book, mayhap it would be more accurate to say we’re pleased to finally be unleashing it upon the world.

North 40. Grab it while you can. But some caution is advised. Because there’s somethin’ mighty big and bad lurking just around the corner and you’re gonna need all the help you can get. And used properly North 40 might be just what you need.

Or…it could just be the beginning of the end…


Here're two of my favorite sequences of the entire series, smooshed together. Other bits from the series got more attention, but I just always loved what Aaron and Fiona did on these pages. I mean...the ghost looks terrified of the things walking past. How awesome is that? And, all things considered, absolutely understandable.

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