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Helm Is Where the Heart Is: An Interview With Jim Hardison

Posted by Luke Brown On September - 15 - 2008

Jim Hardison is the writer of one of Dark Horse’s newest comics, The Helm. We had a chance to talk to him about his experiences as a relative newcomer to the comic industry, and what it’s like to work with Bart Sears. Hit the jump to see what he had to say about The Helm, and his future comic plans.

If you could, why don’t you fill everyone in on your writing background before you were working on The Helm. I know you’re new to the comic industry, but do you have experience writing for other mediums? If so, how does that compare to comic writing?

The Helm is my first comic, but I’ve been writing most of my professional career—something like twenty years now. Wow, I guess I’m old. Most of my writing is for my company, Character, so the public never gets to see it but I’ve also done a bit of screenwriting and short fiction. The screenwriting is mostly television stuff for kids and the short fiction is mostly horror for adults. My background is in filmmaking, which led me into directing—primarily television commercials and educational films—but also a bit of series work (the animated show Gary & Mike). The great thing about writing for comics has been the freedom to write what I want and the speed with which the comic goes from words on a page to a finished book I can hold in my hands.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Helm, can you give us a brief synopsis of the book?

An epic loser, Mathew Blurdy, finds an ancient, magical, talking Norse helmet at a garage sale which identifies him as the Valhalladrim, the chosen warrior of the light. Only thing is, Matt’s an epic loser and the Helm totally hates his guts. Unfortunately, they are joined by a bond that can only be broken by death. So the Helm starts training Matt to be a warrior, with an eye toward getting him killed if possible, while Matt fumbles his way through girlfriend problems, his weight issues and keeping his new magical powers hidden from his mother—whose basement he still lives in. And all the while, the forces of evil are closing in. It’s really about how hard it is to try to change as well as a meditation on what it means to be a hero—what it takes to qualify when you’re pretty much totally unqualified.

As a newcomer to the industry, how did you go about getting The Helm published? Did you shop it around, or did you know someone at Dark Horse who was interested from the onset?

I’m only starting to realize how lucky I was in getting the Helm published. I’d had the idea for quite some time and was thinking of doing it as a movie script, but then a friend of mine wrote a graphic novel and when I went into my local comic shop to pick it up, it got me thinking about comics as a medium. I work with someone who used to work at Dark Horse and I asked her to set up a meeting with an editor she still hangs out with. I pitched a handful of ideas and the Helm was the one he liked best. It was a remarkably quick and painless process, which I guess goes against the experiences of just about everybody else I’ve met in the industry. I kind of feel guilty about it, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

This being your first comic, how much of the story stayed true to the original premise, and how much did you have to change to conform to the 22-page format?

Remarkably, the storyline didn’t really change at all. The major beats are all still there, even in the same order. The big issue for me was figuring out how to break the story into four discrete pieces, trying to understand how timing and pacing work in comics and how the narrative structure is different from film. Maybe if I do another twenty comics or so I’ll start to get a good handle on that.

What did you feel were the differences in the pacing of the story in comic form versus movie form?

The big one is that movies generally follow a three act structure—but the series is four issues. It changed the math of the story progression a little—figuring out where to start and stop the issues, but fortunately, I think it worked out pretty well. Apart from that, there’s a big difference between creating story momentum in a film versus a comic. In films, when you want to pick up the pace and make things more exciting, you can use lots of shots to create a kind of frantic feel. The duration of each shot is fixed—so you overwhelm the audience with too much information in too short a period of time and they start feeling worked up or even anxious. In a comic, the audience can study a panel for as long as they want, so if you start piling in all kinds of panels during an action sequence, you slow the pace down instead of picking it up. It’s the opposite effect from what you get in film. That took me a little while to figure out. Another thing was building the story for good page turns so that you leave the audience in suspense at the turn and then pay off their expectation or surprise them with the reveal. There’s no exact equivalent in films. I’m sure this is all pretty much common knowledge for folks who have worked in or been reading comics for any length of time, but it was all news to me.

Was there a difference in the detail of your scripts before and after you found out Bart Sears was going to be penciling the book?

I hadn’t actually written any of the script before Bart came on. My editor, Dave, suggested Bart in our first meeting and showed me some of his work. Being a complete newbie, I didn’t know who he was, but I was impressed by his art. We sent him the story treatment and he agreed to do the comic based on that. Fortunately, before I started writing the script, Dave gave me a primer document on writing for comic artists that warned me off of trying to exactly dictate shots and layouts. Bart is an awesome artist and I basically just needed to describe the action, the feelings I was trying to capture and then get out of his way. He’s done an excellent job bringing the story to life visually and I’m very grateful to have him working on the book.

When you first got to see the penciled pages coming in, what was your initial reaction?

I was blown away. It was so much fun to see the story playing out. And I was shocked by how fast Bart was—especially given the level of detail he gets into. Getting new pencils in from Bart is still one of my favorite things. I just got the last of the pencils for the last issue and I’m starting to have Bart withdrawal symptoms already. This comic stuff is addicting!

Having now worked in both comic and film, what are some of the advantages/disadvantages you noticed about telling a story through comic form?

A great thing about comics is that there isn’t a fixed pace at which the audience takes in the story. A film’s got a fixed duration—the audience can’t watch it any faster or slower than its running time, so they can miss things or get bored with shots. The audience can take their own time with a comic, so they can pick up as much detail as they want in a panel before moving on. Also, they can go backward and forward at will so that they can check back if they need to clarify something. That allows for a huge amount of layering of detail and meaning in the story. I barely scratched the surface of any of that with the Helm—but I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities more in the future.

Now that you’ve seen how much fun making a comic can be, and you’ve finished The Helm, do you have any more comic stories planned?

I’ve got a few ideas I’d like to try. First, there are more stories for the Helm—I’ve mapped out about a half a dozen, as well as the ultimate conclusion of the whole concept for some hazy point in the future. I’d enjoy doing more with Mathew Blurdy, but that’s going to depend on whether there’s enough of an audience to continue. Beyond that though, I’ve got a couple of other twisted superhero stories and a handful of horror concepts—mostly with comic overtones—but a couple that are just flat out horror. I’m excited to give comics another try and hopefully put some of what I’ve learned on the Helm to use. Working in a new medium has really energized me and generated a lot of new ideas.

The first two issues of The Helm are available at comic shops now. If you missed out on this new series, be sure to ask your shop how you can get your hands on it. Thanks to Jim Hardison for taking the time to do this interview.

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