Former CIA Operations Officer Tom King, co-writer of DC Comics' best-selling Grayson, has teamed with The Activity co-creator Mitch Gerads on art for a new series coming from Vertigo later in the month -- Sheriff of Babylon.
The series, a crime drama set during the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2004, deals in conspiracy, betrayal and heroism in one of the most dangerous places in the world.
King and Gerads joined ComicBook.com at last month's New York Comic Con to discuss the series.
The final order cutoff for Sheriff of Babylon is Monday, so if you want to be guaranteed a copy, contact your retailer soon.
What's your elevator pitch for the series?
Gerads: That's more Tom's thing. It's 2004 Baghdad, after the invasion, and our book is this great crime story dealing with Americans, Iraqis, etc. This strange crime story in the middle of all these crazy things happening at that time in history.
King: I used to say, it's True Detective set the year after they invaded Baghdad, but now everybody hates True Detective, so I need a better crime series.
If you're a comic book fan, this is Scalped and Preacher set in Iraq a year after the invasion. If you're just a fan of pop culture in general, think of this as the new HBO series and this is the thing everyone's going to watch on Sunday nights, and then on Monday everyone's going to be like, "Holy s--t, what happened? Did you see that? I can't believe it," and that you can write a thousand think pieces on. It's supposed to be one of those hour dramas that seem to drive our culture today.
Gerads: Every issue does feel like that. After I read a script, there's always that big, "Holy crap, I need to go talk to somebody about this now."
So how much of this draws on your espionage background?
King: Well, this is the first comic that I'm actually submitting to the CIA, so every page has been approved by the Agency to make sure I'm not going over any lines. This one really draws from a lot of personal experience of what I did. I was there for about five months, and I only write about the time I was there. I can't write about the classified stuff -- what I did as a CIA officer. But what I can do is write about that background and try to give you what the heat felt like, what the dirt felt like, what the danger felt like, and try to get all of those little details into this book.
How much research did you have to do to capture the specific locales, rather than just the kind of "here's a desert!" that many Americans think of for stories set in the Middle East?
Gerads: I'm exhaustive about it. I guarantee I spend three times as much time researching a page than I do drawing one. It's so important to me, out of both respect and just a weird, professional quirk, that I get things as right as possible when I'm dealing with real-world things, real-world times. So it's a lot of exhaustive research. I've not mastered Google, but I've found all the nooks and crannies to get into the good stuff. But I've done my absolute best to make sure everything is noticeable to someone who maybe was there.
How much of what you're actually drawing on is stuff that is heavily dramatized, versus actual events?
King: It's a crime novel; it's about murderers and cops. I try not to make anything that couldn't have actually happened, and every moment I tried to be like, "okay, well these characters that I've created, if they really existed, how would they act here?" It's as realistic as I can make it.
That said, what fiction does -- and I love what fiction does -- is that it pushes the limits to create metaphor, and so I try to use these moments of blood and these moments of death to talk about the reality of what happened. I feel if something's extreme, it's extreme in the use of an analogy.
How much bouncing back and forth do you guys do to get that right?
Gerads: I think we've done that a couple of times, but for the most part, Tom's scripts are so well-written that I get what he's going for right off the bat. He has a great way of expressing -- there's been times that he's written in here, "Even I can't find reference for this. Here's my explanation of it" -- and it will be long, but concise at the same time. You'll get it, and it makes it a little bit easier to dive into that brain and find that image, versus, "It's a room and it's Iraq. Go for it!"
King: I've got to change the next issue! I wrote "Room in Iraq" on every page!
Obviously, when you first came to Grayson, DC wrote a lot about the fact that you had a CIA background, but you never really played that up the same way. Here, though, you're obviously kind of using that background in a way that's really tangible.
King: I think what makes great writing -- and I'm not saying I'm a great writer, but what really entertains me is that when you bleed into the pages, you do take what's real to you and put that in your writing. If you're not invested in it, if there's nothing about yourself in your writing, then it's crap. So how I spent my life, how I spent my '20s, was in this weird world and I have to draw on this because that's who I am. I don't have another person who I was, except this guy who sits all day in his room writing comic books and not everyone's James Robinson; we can't all write that story. So I think it's probably more interesting to do the Iraq angle.
How did you two team up on this book?
Gerads: Jamie Rich, the editor on the book, gave me a call one day and I think his first pitch was Justified meets Homeland. He called me up and he pitched me two books and one was so weird and off-the-wall that in my head I was convinced it was a fake pitch to get me to do the other one. So the minute he started explaining it, I knew right away, "yes." At that time, I'd finished my previous job and I was holding out for that thing I was super excited about, and I was super excited about this one minute into Jamie calling me.
King: Well, I'm a huge fan of Mitch's. I'm a Twart nerd. Sorry, that's an old callback. Twart is an old board that a bunch of artists did, and I started with Tom Ballard and I basically slowly worked my way through and I'm going to get Samnee next. You hear me, Samnee?
He's been tied up with one writer for f---ing five years, and I've always wanted to work with him because he works on topics I want to work on, and I just didn't think it was possible. It was the most no-brainer e-mail I've ever gotten when Jamie said his name, I said "Yes." And then I sat there and just said "Oh please say yes, oh please say yes." It was a praying kind of situation.
Any final thoughts?
King: I would like to say that I know a lot of people who served in Iraq are going to read this book, and I want to thank them for their service, and for what they've done.
Gerads: I definitely share that sentiment. When I do these kinds of things, especially this book, as corny as it sounds, it's a tribute. I have a deep respect for them and this book, I think, really, you can feel the respect. It's not an over-the-top story. It's real.
Sheriff of Babylon #1
Baghdad, 2003. Florida Police officer-turned-military contractor, Chris Henry is tasked with training a new Iraqi police force. When one of his trainees ends up dead, Chris is forced to team up with Nassir, the last remaining cop in Baghdad. Pulling the strings to bring them together is the mysterious Sofia, an American-educated Iraqi who has returned to take control of the city’s criminal underworld. This miniseries is a thrilling wartime crime drama told amid one of the most tumultuous times in modern history.
THE SHERIFF OF BABYLON is a new eight-issue miniseries pulled from GRAYSON cowriter Tom King’s real-life experience as a CIA operations officer and is illustrated by Mitch Gerads, cocreator of The Activity.