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Nemesis in Noir: An Interview with Greg Holkan

[nemesis] is the story of a very normal police detective in a world of super-powered defenders assigned to solve the murder of their world's greatest hero. Equal parts super-hero parody and noir detective story, it is quite unique on the web. Its creator, Greg Holkan, also joined Eric Burns in the fantasy webcomic Gossamer Commons and although he's letting go of the artistic reins, he retains input into the plotting. Holkan is an interesting mystery himself to unravel, and this interview gives the clues needed.

What's your background?

I grew up in a very small farming community in rural Oklahoma. The most entertaining aspect of which is that now I get to watch the expression on most people's faces when I tell them how many people were in my graduating class.

After high school, I went to college, dropped out, went back, dropped out, went back and switched majors, dropped out, ad nauseum. I figure sooner or later I'll wind up with a bachelor's in something, and I'll be relatively employable.

Obviously [nemesis] is influenced by a lot of super hero comics. Which were/are your favorites, and influenced you most?

I was a fan of Spider-man when I was a kid, but when I got older I became less and less interested in anything Marvel. I actually stopped reading comics altogether for awhile until I started reading The Flash in middle school. From then on, I pretty much read DC's stuff, and thumbed through Marvel.

In the mid-nineties I got completely sick of super hero comics during the fallout from the death of Superman. I haven't bought a super hero comic in eight years or so, unless you count Asterix the Gaul or Astroboy as being a super hero.

As far as specific super heroes are concerned, I like the Flash, I like Green Lantern, I like the Atom. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are kind of boring. They're so important to the company that they can't really be put through the wringer, and that usually makes for boring stories.

Although that works both ways I guess, since I'd probably still be reading Green Lantern if it weren't for the Emerald Twilight storyline. I was so disgusted with it that I gave up on super hero comics altogether. Right before the Emerald Twilight storyline, Gerard Jones and Romeo Tanghal were putting out some really interesting stuff that was more along the lines of hard sci-fi. It was really cool.

I tend to be more influenced by the DC Comics mindset than the Marvel mindset. I guess that's the short explanation.

How did you come up with the idea of [nemesis], with someone killing super-heroes – starting with Mister Zenith, the Superman of their reality?

It started with me being irritated with super hero comics. I was doodling around and I started thinking about someone slaughtering these characters one by one. I chose the outer form of a devil as something of a habit. If I don't have a specific idea of what a villain should look like, I just make said villain a variant of the devil.

Basically the entire idea comes from the sense of glee I derive from slaughtering fictitious characters one after another. Geez, that sounds awful.

I like making the normal human, Detective Rick Murphy, the one investigating the "invulnerable" Mister Zenith's death, as well as the role of Mister Orion... normals in a world of super humans. Orion strikes me as a cross between Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, but who influenced the creation of Murphy?

Well, like I said before, the idea came from the sense of glee I derive from murdering fictitious characters. But that's not a story. So I fiddled around with it, working on different angles, until I decided that the "hero" of the story should be a human. Murphy comes initially from what the story needed. In this world, quite a few of the Numen are more or less racist. Murphy had to be someone who was very competent in his field, otherwise the story doesn't go anywhere and the Numen cover up the murder because they're all too scared to try to solve it. Murphy also had to be the sort of person who has the good sense to turn a case like this down. The only reason he took the case was because someone threatened him with physical violence if he did take it. So, for the most part, Murphy is the result of what I saw that the story needed. Murphy's a type A personality thrust into a very difficult situation.

At the same time, there's a tradition in hard boiled crime fiction of the detective who takes no end of abuse as he investigates. The Continental Op, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Spenser all take some serious abuse in the course of their investigations.

Also, I chose his name to try and evoke heroes from old film noir. I didn't reference anything in particular, but there's something about having two first names that just sounds like a detective. (or a crime fighter's alter ego.)

You have a wide range of styles, from the gorgeously-colored, almost chibi style of [Nemesis] to the more realistic – yet stylish black-and-white art of Gossamer Commons and Young Psychics in Love. Who influenced you, artistically?

Everything and everyone has influenced me. Just as soon as I decide something is crap and that there's nothing to learn from it, something happens to cast it in a new light so I feel compelled to pay attention.

I feel that as a creator, it's a good idea to be capable of many different styles. This runs counter to notions in professional illustration circles right now, where multiple styles are discouraged in favor of a single style per illustrator. I can understand from a practical aspect why this is the case with most professional illustrators. It's easier to find work if you are thought of as being something specific. On the other hand, you can severely limit yourself in terms of the sort of work you can find.

I like to think about the story I'm going to illustrate and then work up a style and a feel for that specific comic. Gossamer Commons required the style chosen to help create a sense of the mundane. [nemesis] is drawn chibi style specifically to make fun of super heroic conventions.

One of the artists I really look up to is John Severin. The work he did with Cracked Magazinein the 80's really made me want to draw. It wasn't until The Comics Journal interview with Severin that I found out just how much of the book's content was actually drawn by him, and in just how many styles he tended to work. It's staggering. While I often feel inspired looking at his work, I can't really say that he's a stylistic influence because he's so much better than I am that I don't think I've ever really assimilated the work he's done. It's a matter of him being so much better than me that all I can do is sit and go "gosh."

Who influenced your writing? Obviously you like both super hero and detective stories... are you influenced more by books, movies, or TV shows – and which ones, as far as your writing/storytelling is concerned?

I do like super hero stories, I line up at the theater with each new comics property that makes it up on screen lately. But as stated previously I don't read super hero comics so much anymore.

I like detective novels, but I don't much care for whodunits. I like Dashiell Hammett, but you can keep Agatha Christie. In hard boiled detective novels, the detectives often care less for the truth than they do for crafting a story that sticks. Sam Spade doesn't care about the truth if it doesn't get what he needs. If he has to use available evidence to suggest a story that gets someone thrown in jail, then he does it. If he has to plant a little something to make sure his story sticks, then he does that too. He's just careful about who he frames. I prefer that over the highly skilled and anal retentive twit who runs around collecting evidence that nobody else understands. With a hard boiled detective, it's understandable why they're around all these murders. With someone like Jessica Fletcher, you have to wonder if she's killing people herself.

I think I'm probably more influenced by older movies and TV shows like Magnum, P.I. All I remember of Magnum from when I was a kid was the feel of the show

One of my favorite movies is The Third Man, which is just a delight each and every single time I sit to watch it.

I like terse storytelling, although I'm not necessarily a great practitioner of it myself. I tend to sprawl a lot. I really like Hitchcock and can watch his work over and over again. I also love Blake Edwards's work, especially the stuff he did with Peter Sellers.

Who's your favorite Numan, and why?

Zombo the Living Zombie, simply because he's totally absurd.

You and Eric Burns got off to a very good start with the fantasy strip Gossamer Commons, and I'm glad you'll still be contributing to the plotting – why did you have to resign from the art – just time considerations, or was there anything more? How did you like collaborating with another?

It was entirely based on time considerations. I work 40 hours a week, I produce [nemesis], I teach a class at the local community college, I work freelance as a designer, and I have a girlfriend. I was having increasing difficulty producing artwork on time and keeping it at a consistent level.

I figured it was time to scale back a bit to keep from burning out entirely and pitching my computer out the window in a mad grasp at freedom.

And as far as working with Mr. Burns goes, it's incredible. He's gracious and inventive, open and receptive to ideas. Eric's been really great while I've been trying to juggle things in my personal life to try and accommodate my work on Gossamer Commons.

Collaboration also forced me to fight to hit deadlines. I feel I can be a little late with my work, but it drives me crazy to be late with work when someone else is depending on it too.

What's your favorite part of doing this on the web – and your least favorite?

The best part of doing this on the web is distribution. Period. Especially with all the stuff going on over at Previews and whatnot regarding minimum sales figures and all that. It's incredibly disheartening to look at making a comic in print form without any contacts or a beginning fan base. You have to find a way to get everything on the shelves. You have to find a way to promote your work, you have to find some way to get it printed. All this costs money and time. And a lot of it doesn't matter anyway if you can't find the right hands to shake and if you aren't very personable.

I'm not a people person, and I live geographically distant from the publishing hubs in the country. Publishing on the web lets me produce work in a way that's affordable and accessible. It's also easy for people to write to me or get hold of me if they have questions. That's nice all on its own, because it allows a kind of interaction with your readership that is impossible in print.

What I don't like so much is that sometimes it can be hard to tell if people are reading. Stat counters help a lot in that area though, though getting a letter from a fan is infinitely better. Knowing that people are reading my work is the strongest motivator I have for getting it done, even though I've struggled somewhat finding a way to pay bills and make the kinds of stories I want to make.

I don't make any money from either of the webcomics I'm involved with right now, so knowing that people keep coming back to read [nemesis] and Gossamer Commons really helps to keep me going. I'm not sure what my readership is actually sitting at right now, but it's definitely larger than I thought it would be when I started. It's not a huge readership but it is gratifying.

What are your plans – both for [nemesis] and for other projects?

I plan on releasing a collected first volume of [nemesis] around February, chapters 1-4. [nemesis] has a definite ending planned, and isn't intended to go on forever. Or at least hopefully it won't go on forever. I intended the end of chapter 4 to be the end of chapter 2, but I added a few things at the last minute that pushed most of the content of chapter 2 into chapter 3. In chapter 3 I added a few things that pushed the rest into chapter 4. I have a bare bones plot written down that allows me to improvise a little as I write. The downside is that the more I improvise, the more the story goes spinning off in ways that make it take more time. Not that I mind, I enjoy [nemesis] a lot.

I am also working on two other stories right now. The first is a zombie western comic set in a fictitious Texas town. I'd tell you what I've named it, but that's still in flux. I had a name I liked, but I found another comic with the same name, even though they aren't even remotely related.

The other thing I'm fiddling with is a bit more serious, set in Oklahoma City, focusing on a loser who is convinced that he's the reincarnation of King Arthur. It's a story of a kid, a hobo, and the Delusion That Ate Minneapolis.

[nemesis] is intended to be something of a graphic novel, serialized online. All the projects I've been working on lately are intended to be finite projects. I like the contained nature of a graphic novel, and I like the idea of almost finishing a project before I publish it. I'm not so hip to the idea of actually producing a gag strip on a daily or thrice weekly basis. Something about the idea of producing a strip that is intended to go on forever bugs me right now. I might try it again someday, but right now, I'm more interested in telling specific stories with a definite end.