Eleanor and the Egret is a comic unlike many others - in a good way. Set in an alternate Paris, it tells the story of the world's most daring art thief, who just so happens to have a talking bird as her accomplice. It sees the return of Sandman co-creator (and The Maxx creator) Sam Kieth to comics, teaming for the first time with the man behind Image Comics' riotous Chew, John Layman.
With the first issue (of five) in stores this week, Heat Vision spoke with Kieth and Layman about the series, its origins and the chance to work on a comic that purposefully goes against what many fans expect to see in modern comic books. (And for those who want to see what Eleanor is like for themselves, keep reading: There's a preview of the first issue below.)
Eleanor and the Egret is a wonderfully anachronistic comic: The fashions, and even some of the artwork in general, speak to the early 20th century, and then suddenly a keypad appears. It all works, and emphasizes the playfulness of the story, in a way - but what was the thinking behind this approach?
Sam Kieth: It sort of grew organically out of casual conversations John and I first had, and some doodles in my sketchbook. John's accommodating things I'd like to draw into it, like a magical Bird, a quasi-1900s universe, which may be why it wound up being [what it is] - given the unique way we work, the freedom he gave me invited extra room to be whimsical with tropes of the modern art work, in a hopefully non-pretentious way.
The first issue offers up a number of mysteries surrounding Eleanor: not only why she steals, but about the origins of Ellis the Egret and, of course, as the comic itself asks, "Who is the real Eleanor?" Despite all of this, she also seems to be the most empathetic, and perhaps even nice, character in the story, at least to date. Where did she come from, and to what extent are the mysteries of her central to her creation?
John Layman: Well, Eleanor is nice, and friendly, and she and, indeed, the entire project was sort of a palette cleanser after my previous book, Chew, which I spent nine years on, which got really dark and sad and everybody was kind of a jerk, at least on some level. I wanted something deliberately more … sunny? More whimsical and jaunty. And I think that's a surprise for readers, who might be expecting something darker from Sam and I. Hopefully, a happy surprise.
The book looks, and reads, like nothing else in mainstream comics right now - and, as such, a great argument for creator-owned and creator-led works. Both of you have worked inside a mainstream superhero universe or two in your careers, so does a book like this have an extra allure just in the opportunity to do whatever you want?
Kieth: Creative freedom helps, of course. It probably helps that we've both had unusual creative freedom with The Maxx or John's Chew series. But if we hadn't cut our teeth on superheroes, we might not have appreciated going nuts like we do now.
Layman: There's a joy that comes with playing with Batman, or Judge Dredd, or some cool character you have an affection for, but it does not compare to playing God in a world of your own choosing. Creator-owned [material] will also be where I will be most passionate. Not to say superheroes and stuff can't be fun, but it's an entirely different sort of satisfaction.
This series also feels particularly welcoming for new comic readers, whether it's the concept, the beautiful artwork or smaller things, like the signposts inside the cartooning to draw attention to or explain things that might otherwise be missed. It feels very much informed by picture books, in the best way. Do you think books like this can expand the audience for comics in a way that superhero comics/publishers can't?
Kieth: My style is often compared to children's book art for some reason, but little captions explaining - and signs pointing to - were common in political cartoons and in comic strips from the past. It bugs some fans, and I've gotten used to getting flak for it from editors, but John warmly keeps pushing me to add them in.
Layman: Yes, there have been moments of worry from Sam, but one thing Chew taught me was comics shouldn't try to fit into comfy commercial sensibilities. People are going to buy a Sam Kieth comic for Sam Kieth (and a Layman book to a much lesser extent for Layman), so I wanted to push Sam to go with his gut and just do whatever feels right and not overthinking - to have fun, and the readers will as well, which was my goal.
Based on this first issue, Eleanor feels like it could either be an intentionally limited story (What happens when Detective Belanger tries to solve the mystery of the stolen painting?) or an endless one, exploring Eleanor's past (and future) adventures. Are there plans to keep this world going beyond the initial run, if audiences are excited?
Layman: No, after completing a 64-issue epic - my previous Chew - I intentionally sought out something more self-contained. It's a single story, ending after five issues, and I have no intention to continue that, though my partnership with Sam is almost certain to continue.
What's the elevator pitch for this series for readers who don't really have a comics background or familiarity with Chew or The Maxx and would be entering it blind?
Layman: Well, I don't think having any sort of comics background is necessary, since it's not really like anything else out there. Having read Deadpool or Batman, say, isn't going to help you appreciate Eleanor any better. In fact, I'd argue this book might be better to give to a non-comic fan: "Here. Comics aren't what you think they are." But as far as an elevator pitch, there is none. Eleanor is too stubbornly difficult to categorize in a quickie one-sentence pitch, other than "two weird comics dudes doing their thing."
Eleanor and the Egret No. 1 is available in comic book stores and digitally right now, but if "two weird comic dudes doing their thing" isn't enough of a preview, keep reading - there's an extended preview below.