First published in Comixpedia, November 2003
Ted Slampyak broke into the comics scene in 1989 with “The Case of the Beguiling Baroness,” published by Caliber Press. This story turned out to be only the first in his stylish adventure series, Jazz Age Chronicles, which followed the blueblood adventurer, Clifton Jennings, and the blue-collar private eye, Ace Mifflin, as they pursued supernatural criminals in 1920s Boston. Soon after, he went on to work on projects like Quantum Leap and Neil Gaiman’s “Mr. Hero,” as well as providing illustration and storyboarding services.
In 2002, he returned to his roots, with “The Power of Silas Rourke,” a new Jazz Age story, and one of the original strips to run on the Modern Tales sister site, AdventureStrips.com. After the unfortunate demise of AdventureStrips, Ted remained with Modern Tales, repurposing his JazzAgeComics.com site as a single creator subscription site, and the official home for Jazz Age on the web. The current story, “No Escape” [author’s note: Working title. Officially launches Dec 29th—will confirm] updates weekly (the current strip is always free), with pages from his original “Beguiling Baroness” story and other extras added to the member section throughout the week.
What motivated you to choose Boston, 1926 as the setting for your stories?
The series was inspired by a role-playing game that a couple of friends, Marc Gacy and Dan Neff, and I used to play in high school. The game was based (loosely, the way we played it) on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, and like his stories, took place in New England in the 1920s. I wanted to start a comic-book series, but I was growing tired of super-heroes, and I wanted to try a different genre. I decided to adapt the characters and some of the storylines we’d come up with in the game—with my friends’ permission, of course.
I did consider picking a different city for the setting, but Boston was just a perfect locale. First, it is in New England, where lots of superstitions abound. I always think of New England—Legend of Sleepy Hollow, etc. —when I think of Halloween. Even though I wouldn’t classify my stories as “horror,” there’s still a strong supernatural element. Second, Boston has the bluest of the bluebloods in its Beacon Hill Social Register and along the halls of hallowed Harvard, and I wanted Jennings and Carlisle to be firmly in that world. But Boston also has a large working-class community, mostly Irish Catholic, but also of other ethnicities, and I wanted Mifflin to be representative of that sphere. Boston is the perfect setting for the clash of those two Americas.
Also, Boston is small enough and isolated enough to feel like a small town, but big enough to be urban enough for the sophisticated Roaring Twenties. And I also wanted to avoid clichés, and 1920s stories in towns like Chicago and New York have been done to death.
“Clash of two Americas” certainly sums up the relationship between Mifflin and Jennings. Do you think their relationship is peculiar to the time period as well as the location?
I don’t think so. America has always had a class system. And of course, the friction between Jennings and Mifflin isn’t just about class. Flynt is wealthier than Jennings, and he and Mifflin seem to get along okay.
At heart, it’s a personality clash. The difference in class and background just serve to heighten the friction.
Characters representing the middle class seem largely absent. Does the middle class play a role in this clash?
Jeez, that’s a good question. Wow. I hadn’t even thought about that.
I suppose, when I think of the “middle class,” I first think of the migration to the suburbs after World War II. Of course, that migration started well before that, with the advent of commuter trains and then the automobile from the turn of the Century into the ’20s. Sure, the middle class was there. But I guess, when I think of the 20s, and think of Jazz Age, I immediately think of an urban environment, and the distinctions thereof.
Which is all just a lot of hooey that masks the fact that I’d just never thought about having a character or a story that involved the middle class. Oops!
The setting is very authentic, right down to the phonebook ads. How involved is your research process?
Initially, it was incredibly involved—perhaps too involved. You’re right—the phone book ads were researched, as were the acts appearing at the local movie theaters and vaudeville houses on the dates in question. I think in those early stories, the research was a little too evident—a little too distracting—to the story as a whole. I made too much effort to find places to stick what I learned into the strip.
The upside to all that research back then is that I don’t have to do so much now. I’ve got a very comprehensive foundation for the settings of the series, which made it very easy to bring the series back. I have a file cabinet full of research from the days of the comic book, and that helped a lot with getting the series back up to speed.
Do you think it’s possible to actually over-research, or is it just a matter of learning to manage your information?
Well, yeah, it’s a matter of managing it. But I think that’s a result of over-researching—if you’ve spent so much time amassing so much information, it’s so very tempting to find a place to use it. And sometimes that becomes as high a priority as telling the best possible story.
On the panel you spoke on at SPX, you mentioned using an almanac for the year to even get each day’s weather accurate. That amazed me.
Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Actually, that’s not so bad—if the weather is treated as just a background issue, or a topic of small talk for characters. There are times when some background detail is needed for the pace of the story—to slow things down, or to show how a character is, or isn’t, noticing his surroundings, or something. Then it’s great. It’s when it becomes the focus at a time when it shouldn’t that you can tell the writer is trying too hard to shoehorn his research findings into the story.
The weather was an important element in Silas Rourke—the clouds and rain come on just as Rourke is revived, and the extent of his reborn power was equaled by the severity of the storm. Weather was as much a fictional element as the characters in that story, so it doesn’t really matter what the weather “really” was that day.
However, in the story you’ll also see that it’s fall, and the leaves are falling from the trees. In that respect, I need to be accurate with the weather—were the leaves falling off the trees in Boston in mid-October? Had they fallen yet? Or would they fall later in the season? On something like that, getting the weather right is crucial.
Aside from small details like the weather, have you ever needed to make any deliberate omissions or alterations to historical fact?
Well, other than the fact that I know Mifflin didn’t reside in his actual office building, or that there wasn’t really an archaeology professor named Jennings—no. Or the fact that the top of the Hotel Vendome didn’t really blow off in 1926—though it was destroyed by fire in the 1970s, I believe.
Like I said before, I’ll gladly include actual events that contribute to the story—but I’ll have to make up some stuff. Sorry, guys, I just do!
But I guess you mean the big things, like who was president or things like that. So far I haven’t had any need to do that. I will be including some historical figures in future Jazz Age storylines, but in ways that could have happened. You know, those times between historical events, where you might’ve shaken hands with Calvin Coolidge or Charles
Lindburg, and who’d know if you did or didn’t? Of course, if I did a story where Mifflin kills Coolidge—that’d be trouble.
Before your re-launch with Modern Tales, how long had it been since you last worked with these characters?
I think the last time I did anything with the characters was an eight-page story I drew, that Marc wrote, called “The Big Case.” That was in 1993. It was published in Caliber’s Negative Burn anthology book.
So, almost ten years.
Was it difficult to get reacquainted with your characters after such a long absence?
Not really, no. Even though I hadn’t worked on the series in all that time, I had been giving the series a lot of thought. I’d wanted to revive the series from the moment I stopped working on it, and I kept ideas about it circulating in my mind.
And while I’d been away from the series, I’d worked a lot on freelance stuff, like storyboards for ad agencies, that helped me refine my color sense. So when I made the shift from black-and-white to color, it worked.
Jazz Age carries a tremendous sense of nostalgia, both in the setting and in the tone of the storytelling. Do you feel there’s a dissonance created by blending this kind of story with forward-looking technology? Or, to put it more succinctly: Why does Jazz Age belong on the Internet?
Because everything belongs on the Internet. The Internet is just the vehicle, the medium; it’s totally independent on the content. That’s like saying old Jazz recordings don’t belong on CD, or old black-and-white movies shouldn’t be put on DVD.
But that does bring to mind something. Some people commend me for using an old-fashioned art style when drawing Jazz Age. They say it looks like a comic strip from the early part of the 20th Century. I have no idea what they mean. I mean, I know my style itself is somewhat “old school,” but I’m not trying to look nostalgic with Jazz Age. The story takes place in the ’20s, but I’m trying to draw it with all I know about comics today. I’m not going for a retro art style; just a retro subject. But hey—if people think I’m doing old-style artwork on purpose, and they like it, why should I argue?
We’re in agreement on Internet as vehicle, although I can’t help wondering if there are exceptions. Seth comes to mind, particularly his Clyde Fans story. It just feels like publishing a piece like that online would betray its themes. But maybe I’m just being over-indulgent of Seth’s eccentricities.
Well, the medium may pose challenges, but I think you can use almost any medium to convey almost any kind of story.
If Jazz Age were solely in print, for example, it would have a different format. The reason it’s in landscape format—wider and flatter—rather than traditional comic-book format, is so it’ll show up all at once on the screen. But those differences in format are minor, I think. It’s like filming for TV or for movies. The different aspect ratio may change how you present some things, but the story itself can be told either way.
Retro storytelling was a very clear theme in the strips that Chris Mills selected for the AdventureStrips anthology. Did you have any concerns that being part of a retro anthology might skew the way readers interpreted your own style?
No, not at all. Of course, when I first heard about AdventureStrips, it wasn’t described as a retro-themed site. In fact, I wasn’t specifically asked to do Jazz Age—I could’ve done anything for it, though Chris did say later he was hoping I’d bring back Jazz Age.
The problem, I think, with AdventureStrips was that it wasn’t specifically marketed as a retro site. Some of the strips were old-styled, and some weren’t. If it were exclusively old-style pulp, then maybe it would’ve found a target audience easier. I don’t know.
But it was pushed as adventure stories, and pushed on a web-savvy, webcomics-reading audience, who, for the most part, are very forward-looking. For them, adventure is Matrix and very futuristic stuff like that, and here they log on and see, basically, their parents’ comic strips. And their parents, while they do have access to the Internet, normally wouldn’t think to find entertainment like webcomics there. It’s a real challenge, targeting a webcomic strip to people who aren’t already looking for webcomics. There’s a hurdle there that must be jumped first.
After AdventureStrips shut down, what motivated you to stay with Modern Tales? Did you have any reservations?
No reservations. I’ve got a great deal with them, so I’m happy there.
Have you seen any significant change in your audience since you moved Jazz Age to a dedicated Web site? How is Jazz Age doing now, as compared to when you were still on AdventureStrips?
The only difference I’ve seen in my audience since the end of AdventureStrips and the beginning of Jazz Age‘s own site, is that it’s smaller. With AdventureStrips you had people going to fourteen different strips, and so there was a large cluster of readers. If someone was reading Red Kelso, or Sorcerer of Fortune, they might wander over to my strip as well. Now, the only people going to JazzAgeComics are people specifically out to read Jazz Age. It’s mostly the same core readers as on AdventureStrips, but with fewer casual readers.
Any other major points of interest I should be aware of?
The strip hasn’t missed a week, even when there wasn’t a host for it and I had to put each one on my own site each week. I have a small, loyal following that has stayed with me every week since the beginning, for which I’m grateful.