IDW has made quite a line expansion the past month, with its crime-horror tale Darkness Visible and Highlander prequel miniseries released last week, with more to come in the coming weeks. One of this week’s offerings is Animal Noir #1, written by Nejc Juren and Izar Lunacek, with Lunacek pulling art duties.
It’s been described as a mixture of crime story sensibilities with an Animal Farm flare, which is true, but it’s so much more than that. Lunacek and Juren manage to fill the seams of their tale with questions of sexual shaming and class warfare, all while bringing an aesthetic that would feel right at home with the underground comix set, yet firmly placed in a 21st century framework.
I spoke with Juren and Lunacek recently about the genesis of Animal Noir, their influences, and what we can expect to see in their tale moving forward.
FreakSugar: Animal Noir is one of the most unique stories I’ve laid eyes on in quite some time. For readers debating checking out the first issue, what information would you want them to know going in?
Nejc Juren: First of all, thank you for saying so. Animal Noir is a very special project to us. We really tried doing it the right way, building the world where it takes place one brick at a time, creating interesting, lovable, and layered characters that inhabit it, and then having them service the story. The story had to be king. It has to be fun, dynamic, snappy and just the right amount of heavy and dark. If the story didn’t work on the surface, then all the work we put into building the underlying world would be for nothing.
But in the end that was the least of our problems. The world we created was teeming with stories. It was much tougher to choose between them and contain them.
We are incredibly in love with the result. We took a lot of risks and they all almost magically turned out even better than we could have expected. But it was a long process. Just the world-building took six month. Making the pitch and finding the right publisher another six months. IDW was perfect but it took us a long time to find each other. Then the real work started.
We are both really headstrong, stubborn storytellers and we had to constantly assimilate to each other, let go of our egos and at the same time be relentless and keep the fire going. It was tough but as rewarding as any creative process can get. So we hope the readers will find at least a part of that joy in the stories. Maybe it’s the blindness of parenthood but we really do feel they have so much potential for love.
FS: What’s the genesis behind the idea of Animal Noir?
Izar Lunacek: I got the idea years ago when I read in – of all places – King Features Syndicate info for prospective authors that doing a comic about a giraffe is one of those tempting yet ultimately bad ideas. And it’s true: they’re so nice to draw yet a total disaster to fit into the page and invent a character for. Even if a giraffe is on its own, you need extra-high panels for it and when you’re drawing it whole, there’s no telling what expression it’s making on its tiny face. When you throw another animal into the scene, it gets worse: you either have to use extreme perspective for the reader to see the faces of both creatures at the same time or you have to cut the giraffe’s head off, chopping off yet more character. Plus, what is a fitting character for a giraffe? It’s high and distant and pretty and that’s about it. But at the same time I thought to myself: how is that not a perfect combination of traits for a PI?
Detached, empty, lofty, powerful and aesthetic yet somehow alone up there in his dark clouds. And Manny appeared out of nowhere: a rich kid that cares, a hardboiled aristocrat, a giraffe that left its detached kin behind and dived into the foodchain.
This is where it started: I wanted the giraffe to investigate crime in his natural environment, taking apart the prey-predator relations of Serengeti while keeping a distance from them so the idea of lion royalty munching on masses of oppressed zebra offered itself on its own. The hippo mafia and hyena artists followed soon after. This is where Nejc came in with his fantastically grounded ideas for a defined social contract of the world with related safety valves: the blood tax and the food porn. That really gave great footing to the world and created a firm basis we are now building on.
FS: What can you tell us about the world of Animal Noir? How did you decide on the social hierarchy of the story you’ve set up?
NJ: Without giving too much away, here are the basics:
The world is set in the Serengeti and it is inhabited only by the animals that also live there naturally. Their civilization is supposed to be 1100 years old and it started with the initiation of the blood tax. The area was settled by migration and not by war. That’s the main reason their present social hierarchies are not straightforward and clear. The lions may think they run the world because they hold the most important positions on the mound. The giraffes have equal (though not as loud) claim, because they are the most educated and the most involved in the essential processes. They may be apolitical but no great change comes without their consent (that’s also why no great change ever comes). Hippos do the dirty work from within society, elephants from the outside and they are all badly integrated and family oriented. Zebras may look the most helpless and oppressed but that again is only on the surface. There’s 15 million souls in this world and 10 million of them are zebras. Most live in extreme poverty but a million are educated middle class. That’s as much as the lions and giraffes combined. The 9 million uneducated Zebras are the tamest and the least socially mobile but also the most dangerous element of society, because they are known to swarm every few decades. And no one knows how or why.
We wanted the social hierarchy of Animal Noir to have the same amount of rationality and craziness that real world social hierarchies do. That’s why we imagined a whole series of historical accidents that brought them where they are. But notice there are no ruins in this world. All progress was mostly linear. That’s why they were able to develop so much in such a small amount of time. That’s also why they never managed to overcome the cruelest parts of their society. In fact, those are the very things that hold them together. Civilization is never held together by the beautiful, good or rational things inside it, like kindness, friendship and cooperation, but by what is the most ugly and irrational: unnecessary suffering, false memory and the suppression of our natural urges. That may sound bad, but that’s the storytellers dream. That’s where things like hunt porn come out of.
FS: There’s a long tradition of using anthropomorphized animals in storytelling. Do you have any particular influences that have informed your work?
IL: I’ve always been a huge fan of Pogo and Krazy Kat, not to mention Crumb’s Fritz the Cat. In recent years, I really got (and pulled Nejc into) French comics: Sfar and Trondheim’s Dungeon is a big influence on this series, both visually and narratively. I am nuts about the series’ sketchy yet detailed linework and we both adore the way the authors are able to tell incredibly human stories you can really relate to using a complex fantasy world populated by animals and magical beings. I love that, I think it’s actually more effective than either pure realism or escapism. Outside of comics, the tradition of animal fables – the meaning is a bit different in Europe than in the States, it means specifically short animal stories with a moral point such as the ones written by Aesop or La Fontaine – is still very big in Slovenia: you listen to these tales of bears and bees and bunnies all the time as a kid and it opens up this whole world where animals walk and talk and take on ethical stances connected to their way of life without ever ceasing to be animals and without ever transgressing into a straightforward allegory for the human world. I guess Pogo is close to it, with Albert the alligator accidentally eating his fellow swamp-dwellers while also staying a friendly buffoon. Slovenia’s most popular comic was made very much in this tradition too: Zvitorepec is a series of adventure stories starring a fox, a wolf and a turtle who somehow keep being animals despite traveling to Africa or Chicago. Disney is different: Mickey or Donald could be embodied in any animal, or a human, for that matter, they just happen to be a duck and a mouse although you can still find traces of their bestial nature in their early cartoons. I feel there’s something almost archaic about the fable-way, something that harkens back to tribal tales of animal ancestors setting up the groundwork for the world we live in today. Your Native American trickster tales are about that and Chuck Jones translated much of it into his Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons that I’ve always adored. I think it’s key to the concept too that the stories take place in the animals’ natural environments as opposed to, say, Zootopia or Blacksad where everyone is just thrown into a global metropolis – it has more potential for playing with cool points if the animals have to constantly clash with their old natural selves and surroundings.
FS: The various species represented all seem to have personalities unique and their own. How did you decide on how to assign which traits to which animals?
NJ: We asked ourselves two questions: how many real life qualities can the animals keep and how they fit in into the society we created. The social contract was the key. Society is a complex organism that must function as a whole. In the long run it must be stable and balanced. And to reap the benefits of communal living, all creatures must perform specific function and give up something they hold dear. They shape and control each other. Notice how all species in Animal Noir have grown very similar in size. The lions have become smaller, the monkeys and gazelles bigger. Even the elephants who are outsiders are growing smaller. The only ones that seem to have evaded this evolution are the giraffes.
IL: I’ve been into weird animal facts since I was a kid so I’m in charge of the documentary-correspondence part. I keep throwing funny stories about hippo harems, monkey beta-males, giraffe neck duels and prickly lion penises at Nejc ’til he comes up with a social transformation of the phenomenon.
What I feel is important here, though, is that although every species has a basic character – and social role – of its own, there’s always specific individual exceptions: this is where the interesting stuff happens and where shopkeeper hippos, urban musician elephants and, last but not least, a giraffe PI, come in.
FS: The “noir” part of Animal Noir is heavily represented in the first issue. Do you have any favorite noir books or films that have resonated with you and impact your storytelling?
NJ: There is nothing like the joy of reading a smart, well written, hard-boiled thriller. Raymond Chandler was amazing, Jo Nesbø is great and The Watchmen is probably the best noir story ever written. But the body of work that had the biggest impact on me, are the Icelandic sagas. They are hard-boiled, they are noir, they are perfect pieces of storytelling where every sentence just clicks, they have the best snappy dialogue and some of the most three-dimensional characters ever written. And they were written a thousand years ago by people who really only cared about two things: being hard-boiled badasses and telling good stories about their badassery.
IL: Although I’m irrationally attracted to the genre, I managed to avoid reading any Chandler and Hammet who stand at its source. I actually think I’m scared I’ll be disappointed and think I’m better off just trying to recreate my fantasy of noir’s great beginnings. Nejc says I’m wrong, though, and he’s read the lot. As it is, I was recruited purely by noir movies and comics: I second the Watchmen comment, but I’d also like to add Miller’s Dark Knight books and Sin City: it seems much of the great 80s turn in US mainstream comic came from a return to the superhero’s noir origins. Batman started out in Detective Comics, for chrissake. Other than that, I love second and third wave noir movies: Chinatown, The Samurai, Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There… There’s simply something incredibly appealing in a damaged, detached individual pulling aside layer after rotten layer of a corrupt world for our viewing pleasure. It’s also a great channel for social critique: no wonder it’s back in style today when big business and politics are almost as connected as they were in the 1930s.
FS: How would you describe your writing and art styles? As I read the first issue, I felt a very R. Crumb, underground comix vibe to the story.
IL: I love stuff that surfs the line between underground and mainstream: Mignola, Crumb, Sfar, the Coen brothers. Art-wise, my drawing definitely shows years of reading Crumb, Kelly, Millionaire and, more recently, the sketchy French guys. Color-wise, the colorists of Dungeon and Dave Stewart’s work on Hellboy are bright beacons, with their limited palette and play of greyed and saturated hues. I’ve gone through a lot of different styles in the last 15 years but what interests me right now is a loose, sketchy composition that can still keep a slick line and nice cross-hatching when the need arises. I know I mention Sfar’s school a lot but I adore the way they – the man himself, but Blain, Kerascoet and others too – can switch from pure croquis to a detailed, shaded drawing depending on the rhythm of the story and the gravity of the depicted moment. As for the story, we are both huge fans of Alan Moore’s carefully structured marriages of ideas and life, but who isn’t? We definitely try to do stuff that flows while maintaining a depth of character and concept. I guess as a philosopher I’m more in love with photogenic ideas while Nejc’s music man keeps the beat of life going. And the characters we just hammer into being together over long coffees from bits of everyone we’ve ever met.
FS: Can you tease what we can expect to see in issue 2?
NJ: Issue 2 continues the plot from issue 1. We see how hunt porn is made and we see how it’s consumed. We meet the disfigured judge’s gazelle wife, who Manny doesn’t hold in high regard. And we meet the hippo mobsters other children who aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but make wonderfully stupid mistakes that help us uncover different layers of the Animal Noir world. We raise the stakes in Issue 2 and push Manny up to his neck into the mushy carpeting of the underground hunt porn world.
Animal Noir #1, written by Izar Lunacek and Nejc Juren with Lunacek on art, is on sale now from IDW.
From the official issue description:
Anthropomorphic animals like you’ve never seen them before. It’s Chinatown meets Animal Farm and just like the George Orwell classic Lunacek and Juren’s animals are an allegory for today’s world.
Private Investigator (and giraffe), Immanuel Diamond – Manny to his friends – has been asked by his uncle – an influential judge — to track down a prey fantasy movie. Adult films in this world are staged hunts where one animal eats another and the judge’s wife starred in one that has been hidden (until now).
Giraffe detectives, hippo mob members, prey-obsessed lions, street fighting elephants, and oppressed zebras are just part of this wild animal kingdom.