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Chris Condon Plungees into 'Night People' and Barry Gifford's World

We chat with the writer about his latest crime comic and the challenges of adapting a literary icon.


Chris Condon Night People Interview

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Chris Condon about Night People. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.

 

For crime junkies, Barry Gifford is a legend. His closest brush with mainstream success was the David Lynch adaptations of Wild at Heart and Lost Highway (if you can call David Lynch mainstream, that is). His grim imagination is wholly American, and the reflection can horrify his readers as much as compel them to the next page.


While adapting his work has proved successful, it's nevertheless incredibly daunting for those taking on the assignment. Today, we chat with That Texas Blood writer Chris Condon about translating Gifford's prose for comics. His new book, Night People, done in collaboration with several artists, including Brian Level, Alexandre Tefenkgi, Artyom Topilin, and Marco Finnegan, is a pulpy, scuzzy, addictive read that skillfully contains Barry Gifford's essence.


Courtesy of Oni Press, the first issue will land in comic shops this Wednesday (3/6) and promises to leave an impression on its readers. Chris Condon hopes it will also direct them back to the shelf where they'll find the source material and the many other Barry Gifford gems, as muddy with grit as they may be. All adaptations are invitations to other parties worth occupying.


We spoke with Chris Condon about adapting Night People, preparing to receive notes from a literary icon, and the adaptations that inspired him to give this project a whirl. We discuss Barry Gifford's style and when to lean into it and away from it. Night People is not for the timid, after all.

 

Chris Condon, Night People, and Barry Giffrod's World


Brad: How familiar were you with Barry Gifford before Oni Press came to you with this idea of adapting his book?


Chris Condon: Well, it's really funny because I wasn't really familiar with Barry, but I knew his work. I didn't know that I knew his work. One of the things that [Oni Press President and Publisher Hunter Gorinson] had brought up to me before Wild at Heart or Lost Highway, which I was, of course, a fan of. Wild at Heart is one of my all-time favorite David Lynch films. I didn't even know that I knew Barry, but I was interested in the idea of adaptation anyways, just as it's something I haven't done and I'm very vocal and interested in doing something new, always trying to push myself to do new things. So to do an adaptation was an interesting prospect, any which way you go about it. But one of the things that he really sold me on with Barry was just his... Have you ever heard of the Black Lizard imprint?


Brad: Oh, yeah.


Chris Condon: Yeah, of course, they have Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson, all these books. That's Barry and I loved the Black Lizard imprint. In fact, if I were at a bookstore, I might just look for the Black Lizard imprint on the spine and just grab the book that has that on. I know it's a sign of quality. I got really excited about that, which is how much of a nerd I am. But that was the thing that I got excited about.


But now having really understood who Barry is and understanding his work, and especially with Night People having read it and reread it five times or whatever I've done, and really combed through it with a fine tooth comb, I really just feel like I get his world and his perspective. And I'm sorry that I didn't get into him earlier or know his work earlier. I think I might have really enjoyed him in high school, especially. He was that kind of a figure that I would've definitely gravitated towards if I had just known. Unfortunately, I didn't have anybody pointing him out to me at that time. So, I'm glad I did come to him eventually.


Lisa: I am a huge fan of adaptation as a concept of, "Okay, let's translate this idea. I'm going to process it, and I'm going to put it out in another medium." I love that. What was part of the attraction of doing an adaptation for you? And what creative muscles do you feel like you're flexing doing an adaptation versus coming up with a completely original and new idea?


Chris Condon: Yeah, it's a very different thing. And I feel like if it was a different author or if it was a different kind of story, I might've approached it differently, but Barry has such a strong voice that I felt that it was very necessary to do a faithful adaptation. And that was also one of the things that Hunter and I talked about was, "How do we want to approach this?" I do know that Hunter felt pretty strongly that because Lost Highway is essentially just inspired by Night People, it's not really an adaptation at all, that we wanted to do something that was Night People. And I feel like if we're going to do Night People, we should just do Night People.


And so I went in very conscious of the fact that I wanted to keep Barry's voice, but also being cognizant of the fact that I wanted to be able to bring my own thing to it. And so what I did was I really tried to keep it as close to Barry's dialogue and his style of storytelling, especially in Night People where it meanders a little bit, but that's the charm of it. I tried to keep that sort of feel to it while also really stretching the muscles I'm comfortable using in terms of just visualization and how we transition from page to page or scene to scene, things like that, because that's where I was getting into more of, "Okay, how do I cut this together with this? And if I move this scene here, will it work better as an intro or whatever?" That's kind of what I did.


And it was a really interesting job to have to be able to do that because you have to create everything, you're just sitting there with a blank page. In a way, it's sort of like homework, and you want to get the A, so you're just trying to do it as well as possible. And I really was very conscious of the fact that I was working with a legend and somebody who, again, has a very distinctive voice, so I wanted to do right by Barry and hopefully bring people to him because I wish that I had found him earlier, and if I could bring people to him now, that would be amazing.


And yeah, I really am proud of the work in the first issue. I think the first issue is... I don't know if it's necessarily something that I would've written myself, but in terms of the adaptation, I'm really proud of the adaptation because I really do think that it's a clear distillation of what Barry did in that first book of Night People, especially, a really clear, just visual interpretation of it. And I think Brian Level, who did the first issue, knocked it out of the park.


Brian really did set the scene and set the tone for all of the rest of the issues. He designed a bunch of the characters, not all of the characters, but a bunch of the characters. And one of the characters that appears throughout all of the stories is this character, one of my favorite characters, actually it's Easy Earl. The third story is Easy Earl's story, and that issue is coming out amazingly, and I'm really excited for people to see it. It was a unique job, and I'm really fortunate to have been given the opportunity to try to stretch new muscles and do new things. And it's not every day that you get offered an adaptation like this.


Chris Condon, Night People, and Adaptation


Lisa: I love the idea of there are things that are inherent to reading a novel that you cannot do in the comics medium, you have to find another way to evoke that same kind of mechanism, for example, the way the issues, each has a different artist. As comic book readers, going from issue to issue has an implied continuity where with a novella, you close the novella and you set it down and you're like, "I've read a book." There is more of that separation. Are there other ways where you're like, "Okay, I can't do this exactly in a comic, but I can evoke that novel-reading experience through this or that mechanism"?


Chris Condon: Because the way that Night People starts is not exactly the most thrilling, cold, open kind of thing. Not to say that it's not worthy of opening a novel or a novella, but I was conscious of the fact if we're going to do this as a comic, we have to bring readers in. And you know that people are at the shop and they'll flip through a book, and they'll look at the first couple of pages. And if you get them in the first couple of pages, that's great. And so that's what we had to do. And well, you've seen the issue, the whole issue, but the first four or five pages are pretty-


Brad: Extreme.


Chris Condon: ... impactful, extreme, visual gotcha, and that was on purpose. And that happened four chapters into the story, in the book. So he just threw some lines out that implied that this happened. He didn't really focus on it too much, it was just sort of, "This happened, and now this character is talking to this character." And I put us in that moment because I knew that we needed an in to get people.


So that's how I approached it. And there were definitely things that I had to cut back - stories for Miss Cutie and Big Betty that I would've loved to have kept. Not only were they long backstories and worthy of being that long, but they were also very hard to read. They have rough histories of these characters, and there are reasons why they are doing the things they're doing, but unfortunately, we have 30 pages per issue, and you can't include everything, as much as I would have loved to.


That's where with Texas Blood or Enfield or a couple of the other books that I'm working on right now, that's where back matter is really helpful, is that I'm able to dive into the history of things. Whereas in wanting to tell a progressive sequential story, you can't really stop the narrative short to tell this thing that happened, as much as I would love to. I did think about how do I try to include this, but it wasn't possible, we couldn't tell the story of the first book and include that because you need to get to the end, you can't just keep hitting these things.


And that's one of the things that writing a novella in prose, and just having Barry just in his, like I said, in this sort of, I call it meandering, but it's not really meandering, he's got a reason for doing it, but he'll have a chapter that's got these guys, the hunting guys with dogs, and then the next chapter will be Big Betty, where she comes from and all that. And then he'll go to Miss Cutie, and then you'll go back to this random character that you had heard about three chapters before.


And it's hard to be able to translate that into a comic because you want to - you want to keep the story moving, and you want to keep everything moving and swift, and it's got to be swift and fast because people are turning pages quickly. It's a medium where you read it quickly. You might want to reread it, and you might want to pour over the artwork, but in terms of reading, you read a comic relatively quickly, and you can't just dump dialogue onto a page or narration on it. You could, but I don't enjoy those books so much.


I'm a writer, so hopefully, this counts, but I really love to look at the artwork on a page. And when there's too much dialogue, I get fatigued, I'm like, "Oh, I've got to read?"


Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.


Chris Condon: I love to read, it's fun and it's always great reading all that stuff, but, we're working with fantastic artists, let's let the art shine. And that's always what I do, and that's what I tried to bring over to Barry's stuff, is to cut down his dialogue to a very digestible level, and cut down the story to a very digestible level, and just have it be, hopefully, have the same impact, but just in a very concise way.


Brad: Yeah, I also love a long novel, I love a thousand-page epic. Stephen King, reading IT, no problem. But when I read a comic-


Chris Condon: Yeah, It is one of my favorite novels.


Brad: But when I read a comic though, and I turn the page and then it's like nothing but word balloons, and I have to squint past the word balloons to get to the art, that is just so aggravating to me. And I think one of the joys of Night People is how the comic really does embrace the sequentially of it all.


Lisa: I know that Barry Gifford is involved in this process and is seeing these pages. I have never read any Barry Gifford, so I have no idea. This is my introduction, which I think-


Brad: Have you seen Wild At Heart?


Lisa: No.


Brad: Okay. Gotta fix that.


Chris Condon, Night People, and Notes from an Icon


Lisa: So, I'm going in fresh. How familiar is he with the comic's medium? Does he have any kind of fluency in that area, or do the notes that he's giving - does he seem to have a respect for the medium?


Chris Condon: Barry has been so welcoming to everything we've done, he hasn't really had any notes in terms of, "You need to change this, you need to change this." He hasn't been overbearing in the slightest. His major notes have been with character designs because he had certain images. And he draws himself, so he's got a visual brain as well. But he's familiar with the comic's medium. There's a film version of Perdita Durango, one of his books that was actually directed by somebody who was a graphic novelist.


So he is definitely familiar with it. In fact, we were trying to get him on board for doing a cover, I don't think that we were successful because I think that he wants to let the other artists interpreting his work shine and not steal the thunder, and that's really how gracious he has been. And he's really been fantastic to work with and has really loved how I've interpreted his material. We've talked about it, and I did a thing for this magazine called Crime Screen Magazine, it's like an online list, whatever you want to call it, and mentioned a few novels that were inspirational to me in terms of having a similar vibe to Night People - just very chaotic, dark vibe, very American stories was the other thing. So, I feel like that's what Night People is, it's a very American thing.


I feel like if I'm on the street of a city and there's just so much happening, that's what I feel like Night People is, where it's like there's a homeless man over here, there's a rich guy walking by. There's somebody walking by and just bleeding out of their head. You're like, "What's going on?" That's Night People, it's just the chaos of America. And that's what I tried to find in the five things that I selected Crime Scene.


And one of the things that we connected on that I didn't even know that he had a relationship with this person, that he knew them at all was Katherine Dunn who had written Geek Love, which is also a very American novel because it's essentially about selling people on an insane idea. And in that novel, it just so happens that it's the seal boy, Arturo, who sells people on, basically, his guruism, "Be like me," and they call it Arturoism, and everybody cuts their arms and legs off and become seal people themselves.


Well, we saw it during COVID, and people were shooting up bleach or whatever, not obviously the most bright decision, but people could be swayed by things. We see that in our political climate, people are willing to believe anything. So that was part of what I was doing there. But yeah, he's been gracious, and I thought about discussing things with him - I talked to him on the phone when I first came on board, when they officially greenlit the thing.


And it was such a challenge. It was such a challenging piece of material too because there's a lot of intense things happening. And yet it has this pinch-on vibe to it all that it's like weirdly darkly comic, but also just the material... There are so many intense elements. There's incest and just intense violence. And so it was really an interesting challenge to come and go, "Okay, how do I do this and not get myself canceled?"


Brad: Yeah, Lisa and I were talking about that because it is such a graphic book.


Chris Condon: I really just think that he captures a vibe of what our world is, and I think that that's what... It's not, maybe, the most realistic world, but it's got the vibe of our world, of our America. And it's set in 1992, so it's got that too, it's got that sort of the tail end of the 20th century where we have all these great technological advancements and all this, and then man has twisted everything into becoming a weapon of war, or just all this sort of stuff, and that's what the story of Night People essentially is. Mostly it's about women realizing that the men have really fucked up everything, and fucked them up, and then turning the tables, or trying to turn the tables.


Yeah, it's a really interesting thing. Barry, he was very gracious in terms of the adaptation and all that. And he sees everything, he approves everything, but he doesn't really give notes, he's not overbearing, he's not looking over my shoulder or anybody's shoulders. He sees the artwork come in, and he loves it, and that's pretty much it. I couldn't imagine a better note than what he says 90% of the time, which is, "This is exactly right. Perfect."


Brad: So process-wise, he gets the script first, then he approves that, and then art, and through the whole process, he's just approving?


Chris Condon: Yeah, he approves everything.


Brad: And the first time you do that, that's got to be pretty stressful because it's not like you're adapting Tolstoy, who can't comment.


Chris Condon: Yeah. Well, the thing with Tolstoy is that Tolstoy is owned by the people now, right?


Brad: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Chris Condon: That's the other thing, so you have to be approved by the public.


Brad: That's true.


Chris Condon: Where I think Barry's a little bit more of a cult figure, but he is around, and thank God he's around. It was daunting to have the script sent over, and I have no idea if he's going to accept it or not, but he said the nicest things. He was just like, "This guy gets it." And I was like, "Okay, cool," because that's all that I could ask for in terms of him reading it and enjoying it and seeing from my perspective how I interpreted his work because you could really screw up somebody else's material if you're not careful.


I looked at a few of my favorite adaptations. I've talked about this before, and I'm going to take the time to clarify my comments. There's a Stephen King book that he co-wrote with this son, Owen King, called Sleeping Beauties. It's not my favorite novel, but I like it. But the problems that I have with it, were cleared up with the comic book adaptation of it, I actually thought that it was a fantastic adaptation. And actually, I think maybe my issues were maybe it just wasn't the right time for me to be reading it, and I would like to reread it now, since we've gone through a pandemic, I think I might have a different perspective on it.


But as much of a Stephen King fan as I am, The Stand is not my favorite novel of his. And they have the same thing in terms of - they're very long novels. And we were talking about long novels, I don't mind a long novel. But there's something about those two works that, for whatever reason, they just didn't really connect with me, but I really did connect with the comic book adaptation of Sleeping Beauties, and maybe it's because it boiled it down to its base essence, and the artwork was beautiful, maybe. I don't know why, but I just really enjoyed the adaptation of that.


So that was something on my mind in terms of looking at, "Okay, let me look at this adaptation to see how they did it." Then, the other two would be the two Coen Brothers adaptations of True Grit and No Country for Old Men. Being familiar with all of the preexisting material that was then adapted in all three of those, I was able to say, "Okay, this is how you do it well." Especially with the Coen Brothers, they stayed so true to the material. And those are two novelists, Charles Portis and Cormac McCarthy, respectively, who have such a strong literary voice that I felt like that's what Barry is too, so why change his voice? You want to stay true to his voice. So that was what I brought to it.

 

Night People Issue 1 hits comic shops on Wednesday, 3/6.

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