Writer James Vance and artist Dan E. Burr have reunited after 25 years to create a sequel to their acclaimed graphic novel, Kings in Disguise, originally published by Kitchen Sink Press in 1988. Their new book, On the Ropes, returns to the continuing story of Freddie Bloch and set in the troubled times of the Great Depression. The first book told the story of young Freddie, who leaves home in search of the father who had abandoned him and learns about life as a 1930s-era hobo after meeting with Sammy—the self-annointed “king of Spain,” though he’s really more the king of the hobos—who shows him how to survive hopping the freight trains.
25 years later, the authors return to the story of Freddie Bloch; its 1937 and he’s working for an escape artist in a Depression-era WPA circus. One again, the authors set us down during those desperate years in America revisiting the mass poverty, the violent suppression of organized labor and the struggle of ordinary people to survive as the country works to pull itself toward economic recovery. Published this spring by W.W. Norton, On The Ropes is out now and during a phone interview the two creators told PW how the project came about, the difficulties of creating a historical graphic novel, and hinted at future plans for their protagonist, Freddie Bloch.
PW Comics World: On the Ropes is quite a big project for you, more than 20 years after Kings in Disguise. Why now?
James Vance: The truth is I considered doing the sequel book twice over these last 25 years, but the timing was just never right, because it’s obvious it’s a big undertaking and there was a lot of research to be done and the time needed to be carved out to do a piece this big. And I just never committed to doing it. And then when my wife, Kate Worley, died in 2004, I think it was the same year we were approached about doing this sequel, I realized that this was the time to do it, because she was a big fan of Kings in Disguise and it brought us together in a way. And when we heard that W.W. Norton was interested in reprinting Kings in Disguise and they also asked if there was the possibility of a sequel, to publish along with it, then I thought, okay this is the time. I’d like to do it if Dan was available. And that’s how we got started at this point.
PWCW: Dan, is this a project you thought you’d ever be working on again?
Dan E. Burr: I had more or less forgot about any likelihood of doing this project, so it came out of the blue really, and surprised me that we would once again be reentering this subject matter and working with these characters. So it was a complete shock. And it’s turned out to be a good one. And it’s been a long process getting it finished but here it is!
PWCW: James, you mentioned how much research goes into this project. Could each of you speak a little bit to that part of your process?
JV: There’s a lot of research just to begin with just to pinpoint exactly where we are in history when we’re telling the story. Just general research about what’s going on in the world and what’s going on particularly in terms of the labor movement in the United States, what’s going on in the Midwest at that point…the story takes place mostly during a couple of months during 1937, but it flashes back to 1932 and even earlier at one point, and the same amount of research was involved then for those minor flashbacks. You have to have an awareness of just what the world was like that the characters were living in.
In my case, writing the script, I had to make sure that everything they said was not only colloquial but colloquial and not anachronistic. It had to be slang that you would have heard from the people living in 1937. And also, slang spoken by young people in 1937 would have been different from slang spoken by older people in 1937. You would retain some of the more old fashioned slang from their earlier days. So there was a lot of that. Making sure the actual words fit. Making sure you knew exactly what was going on on any given day during the story. Because although the characters are all fictional, and their actual story is fictional, the world they live in is completely based on historical reality. So yeah, there’s a lot of research there.
And, of course, when I would come up with a setting or a particular bit of action that involved any kind of period research I was able to find things and suggest them to Dan to look at, but as far as I’m concerned that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And I’ll let him speak for himself, but I do want to point out that anything that I researched in terms of visuals, he must have done 100-fold on his own, because you don’t say, “This is what the phone looked like, this is what the people’s clothes looked like, this is what people’s hairstyles looked like.” Dan had to research every single thing that’s drawn in the book. I can’t imagine the amount of research he had to do!
DB: Yeah, he’s right! There’s a little bit of leeway because in 1937 while all those things like hairstyles and clothes and cars had changed, of course, a lot of those older 1932 clothes and hairstyles and cars were still around. And the same thing for the earlier flashbacks to the 1920s. Generally, things have to look like they did at that particular time, whether it’s ’28 or ’32 or ’37. But yeah, there is researching to make sure that, in general, things look as they should have looked in that particular year.
PWCW: James, you mentioned that W.W. Norton approached you about the reprint and the sequel. Is their pitch what really brought this together or did you already have some of it written? You did mention that you had started it a couple of times.
JV: Well the reason that it came up is that, we’re represented by an agency, and apparently, the agent had occasionally approached publishers about bringing Kings in Disguise back out. So during that time, the early 2000, more mainstream publishers like Norton and others were experimenting with graphic novels, so it was a good time to be pitching those notions to people. So Norton bit on the pitch and that’s when the idea of a sequel came up. The sequel itself is based on a play that I wrote, which is even older than Kings in Disguise. It was a play that was performed in 1979. So the basic framework was there in terms of that, but no, I did not have a synopsis or anything because I didn’t know they were putting the idea of a sequel together when they were approaching the publishers. In fact, I didn’t understand at that moment that they were even approaching publishers with Kings in Disguise. I guess it’s just what they were doing on a regular basis. So when the idea came up I had to first decide did I want to actually try to do that, to cover that material that I’d written so long ago, but there was nothing on paper except the idea of continuing the story from Kings in Disguise.
PWCW: So on top of being a sequel more than 20 years in the making, it sounds like it was also a book that was nearly 10 years in the making itself.
JV: I believe we agreed to do this in late 2004? Dan does that sound right?
DB: It was actually about May of 2005. But I kind of feel like in a way we didn’t really get things up and running until 2006. Not in a major way, for reasons you and I both remember. But it was about the Spring of 2005 when we got confirmation that this thing was going to happen.
JV: Yeah, early in the process, we’d just barely gotten rolling it seems like, the whole thing came to a stop because I had to stop for a surgery, which completely threw a monkey wrench into the works. And I really lost several months between the time I had to have the surgery and the time I had actually recovered enough to be able to sit back down and work. So yes, it’s taken us quite a while, but it took us even longer for that reason. I do remember that when we had started it was before the global financial collapse, so that tells you how long ago that was!
PW: So do you have any more stories for these characters that you hope to one day tell?
JV: I know what happens to Fred after On the Ropes. Whether anyone is interested in finding out about it, and Dan and I agreed to try and tell that story again sometime in the future, but right now I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. But yes, I know what happens to him and I think it would be interesting to go ahead and explore that. And that wouldn’t be based on any material that’s been previously written. But if you read the book you can see that Fred’s story isn’t over. He’s already set himself up for the next pile of troubles that he’s about to step into. He doesn’t even know what he’s gotten himself into yet. And he thinks he’s seen the worst thing that can happen. But the trouble he’s in, he’s probably gotten himself into even more trouble than he encounters during On the Ropes. Now whether Dan wants to do another one is up to him! But I certainly won’t do it without him.
PWCW: Any other projects you’ve been working on recently?
DB: Yeah! I finished a book with an author named Michael Goodwin called Economix. That project has seemed to do pretty well. Managed to make the New York Times Bestseller list very briefly! And it got a lot of good reviews so I’m very pleased with that project as well.
JV: I didn’t know about the Times list. Congratulations! Good for you! I have just finished, actually I was working on this simultaneously with On the Ropes, which didn’t make things go any faster, but it certainly made life interesting. I was working on the final volume of Kate and Reed Waller’s Omaha the Cat Dancer series. Before Kate died she had agreed to go ahead and finish the story, which had run for years, and I had her partially written script and her notes and her outline and working from that I finished the script for that and worked with the original artist Reed Waller to get that completed and that is going to come out in September from NBM.