If you haven’t heard of Philip Gelatt before, that’s because he’s not a published comics writer just yet. But he will be in about 24 hours.
I sent Phil a few questions about his time with Indy, working with Dark Horse and Lucasfilm, and how an unpublished writer landed a gig writing such a well-known character …
JK: From what I understand this is your first published comics work, correct? How did you land the gig?
Phil: Yep, my first published book, yeah. I finished writing the first volume of Labor Days before I did this book, but it’s not coming out ’til the fall.
I got this gig through a friend who had done some art for Dark Horse. He learned about the book and was almost the artist on it, but that fell through. Anyway, he told me they didn’t have a writer for the thing yet, which led to me spending a hectic week pulling together every idea I’d ever had about Indy and turning it into a synopsis that I then sent into them as a pitch to get the book. I was incredibly nervous about the whole thing and I really appreciate the guys at Dark Horse giving me a shot at it.
JK: Who is the artist for the project, and were you familiar with their work before this?
Phil: The artist is Ethen Beavers, I wasn’t aware of his work before this but I certainly am aware of it now. He has a great style, fluid, sharp and expressive. And he did a wonderful job dealing with some of my more difficult panel descriptions.
JK: Did you come into it as an Indiana Jones fan?
Phil: I certainly did. As a kid, I was a huge fan of the films, a huge fan of Harrison Ford and the character. Seeing Last Crusade in the theaters is one of my fondest childhood movie-going memories. Packed theater, one of those times you can just feel the energy of the audience while they’re watching the movie.
Hell, back when I used to go to Sunday school I was the kid in the corner of the room raising his hand and demanding that we talk about the Ark and the Holy Grail or asking what other lost artifacts were mentioned in the Bible and then being really disappointed when those topics somehow became rather boring when there wasn’t a whip and a fedora involved.
Since then I’ve periodically revisited the films and come to appreciate them in new ways. I still think Raiders is the best. Indy has a great desperation in that film, he feels a little off-kilter, like maybe he would actually blow the Ark right then and there, if pushed.
And watching the box disappear into that warehouse is one of the great downer endings of American film. I love that that film ends on a question mark.
JK: What did you think of the new movie?
Phil: You know, I didn’t love it. But realistically, it was never going to be the same, partly because I’m not 10 anymore and partly because Spielberg, Lucas and Ford are all different now than they were then.
But there were moments in there that were really good, really strong. I think what I wanted from it was to feel that urge to cheer for Indy again and I definitely got that at least a couple of times. And I love the idea of an aged hero, having to strap on his whip and save the world one more time. That’s a setup that’s always going to strike chords.
JK: When is the book set? Will we see a younger Indy, or the older one in the most recent film?
Phil: The book is set in the winter of 1930. Dark Horse wanted it to be before the films. That suited me just fine as I wanted to do a story about a slightly younger, slightly more dastardly Indy and I didn’t want to get anywhere near the new film for fear of getting tangled up in things they were doing with that story.
It’s interesting trying to write a character like Indy, because there is such an encyclopedic list of stories that have already been done. You know, every time a film comes out, the tie-ins start to appear: comics, novels, choose your own adventures, video games, etc. The stories aren’t all canonical, sure, but I really wanted to find a moment in his chronology that didn’t already have anything in it; I didn’t want this book overlapping with Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs or Indiana Jones and the Sky Pirates, for example. Turns out, 1930 was more or less free and clear for Indy so that’s where I stuck him and it worked out great for the story at hand.
JK: The book looks to be going for a similar feel to Dark Horse’s Clone Wars Adventures series, which was also aimed at a younger audience. Was your approach to the material different because of its intended audience?
Phil: I approached this book like I would have approached any Indy story I was assigned. To me, the Indiana films and any Indy stories, if done right, are really for all-ages, and that includes younger audiences, so I didn’t feel the need to blunt any part of the story or simplify it.
I’m a firm believer that the best fiction for kids doesn’t actively patronize its audience or look down on them. I really wanted the book to feel like any other Indy adventure, of any format.
The real stretch probably would be making an Indy adventure for a mature audience, actually; if you can imagine such a thing. The Hard R Indy story.
All that being said I did take certain things into consideration. For example, Indy doesn’t so much as hold a gun in this book, let alone fire one. And after turning in my script, my editor did go through and take out any mention of “blood” and “gore” in my panel descriptions. There weren’t many, but they all had to go.
JK: Did you interact with the studio at all as you wrote it? Did they have any influence on the story, or the final product?
Phil: I had minimal interaction with the studio as I wrote. The entirety of the story, from the object Indy is looking for to the characters he encounters to the locales he visits, were my choices. But before I started actual scripting, my synopsis had to go through Lucasfilm and get through two sets of eyes: the story editors and the continuity editors, to make sure that everything in there fit Indy’s character and fit into the canonical time line. They had a few notes for me but none of it was huge. And the final script might have had to go through the same approvals, but if it did, I never heard about it or got any notes from it.
The biggest thing I had to change, and I can’t remember if this was a Dark Horse note or a Lucasfilm note, was a small bit of the ending. Originally, I let Indy actually acquire the object at the end of the story. But they were unwilling to let that fly, he had to lose the object in the end. I was a little annoyed at that, because surely, at some point in his career, Indy has managed to actually snag an object and keep hold of it. But I managed to figure out a way for the object to get lost that satisfied me and is probably a stronger ending, all-in-all. Indy gets what you’d call a Pyrrhic victory, I suppose.
The book is, with the exception of a few tweaks here and there, remarkably close to the script as written.
JK: So what’s Indy up to in the first volume?
Phil: Indy is up to all kinds of mischief! He starts off in the middle of a blizzard somewhere in Sweden, hot on the heals of Forrestal, who has beaten him to a dig site. After navigating a trap laden cave, he’s off to London for some creative sight-seeing at the British Museum and then finally to the markets of Marrakesh for a confrontation with a familiar foe.
I tried to use the historical backdrop as a very real part of the story, as well; so Indy is dealing with the Great Depression, he’s having trouble finding money to fund his adventures and he knows that very unsettling things are happening in Europe, specifically that the Nazi party is gaining strength in Germany.
And the whole thing is a search for an object of great power that is linked to old Viking myths of Odin, Ragnarok and berserkers, that kind of stuff. I wish the book had more space to get into the mythological backdrop, but these digest-size books go by so quickly there wasn’t a lot of time to get into the details of it.
I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s a fun story, familiar faces, quirky moments, lots of adventure, tricks, traps, punches, globe-trotting, in-jokes, the whole kit and caboodle. And the artwork is great; Ethen Beavers did an amazing job with the art and Ronda Pattison an equally impressive job with the color.
JK: Going back to what you said about the historical backdrop, that’s one of the things I liked about the most recent movie, the tie-ins with historical events … like Indy ending up at the atomic bomb test site and the Red Scare overtones. What kind of research did you do for the book, into the Great Depression, the Viking myths, etc.?
Phil: I did quite a bit of research. Spent a lot of time reading into Viking myths and learned all kinds of interesting tidbits. Like Viking burial sites don’t contain metal helmets or armor which has led historians to think that they wore thick leather helmets and armor. I had no idea; I always pictured them in metal helmets.
The original idea for the story actually came from a memory I had of stumbling across an account of Viking initiation rites that sounded really interesting and creepy. So I went back and re-read a bunch of stuff about the caves that Norse cultures would build to use as ritual chambers, about strange Odinnic mystery rites. Just the term “Odinnic” sounds so archaic and mysterious, I figured I had to use it.
I am a huge fan of history and the early 20th century is one of my favorite time periods. So I got really into what the world was like in 1930 and I did try to get as much of that as I do make mention that that was the year the Nazi’s had one of their first election victories; and I have a character in there who’s never heard the term “Nazi” before. That’s an interesting idea to me, the moment when people first started to realize what was coming. And that it had a name.
And there were more specific things. I tried to have a scene where Marcus was singing a famous tune of the time. But for copyright reasons, that song had to change. And I put a fairly obscure biographical Tolkien reference in there, too, that I doubt anyone will catch. And another to the giant Buddhas in Afghanistan that would much later be destroyed by the Taliban. Things like that are really fun to me, and there a number of them in there. Basically, I tried to load the thing up to the brim with historical tidbits, without slowing down the narrative. Gotta keep those thrills, coming, right?
JK: This is volume one, according to Dark Horse’s website. Are you involved with the series after this first one? If so, can you drop any hints about future stories?
Phil: I’m not sure yet if I’ll be asked back to do the second volume. I have plenty of ideas for fun little Indy stories, but ultimately its in the hands of Dark Horse.
JK: As long as we’re talking, do you want to say anything about Labor Days? Any update on when it will be out?
Phil: It’s scheduled to come out at SPX in the fall. I don’t have much to say about it right now except that the art is almost done, it looks awesome and we have some fun plans for promoting it closer to the release date.
The world needs to ready itself, the coming of Benton Bagswell is nearly upon us.