“The Pneumatic Detective: The Case of the Red Ant Menace” (excerpt)
JOSHUA COON & CASSEY KUO are a writer and artist from New York and New Jersey, respectively. Joshua teaches on comics at RIT, and he shares new work on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. Cassey is an illustrator whose work can be found on Behance and Facebook. They began developing their first project together, The Pneumatic Detective, in Spring 2015.
JC: I created the Pneumatic Detective the first time I went to Comic Con. I was so inspired — it was like 50 CCs of inspiration straight into my veins.
The Pneumatic Detective story is like a Dennis Lehane fiction piece, co-written by Jack Kirby. It combines elements of classic sci-fi, blended with some steampunk, then overlaid with historic events. The main character is a disabled vet who lost his arm in World War I by defending a scientist who was attempting to defect to the Allies. After the war, the scientist tracks the vet down in Iron City and builds him the arm.
When we actually meet the Detective it’s some time later. He’s pretty far along in his career, running this agency called the Iron Grip. I’ve always loved in a comic like Wolverine, when one of Logan’s old friends would show up out of nowhere and say “Hey, remember that time back in Saigon?” but never explain it. So the Detective carries a ray gun, and has other elements to his character we just don’t know about yet.
Making this has been a great learning experience — trying to take my story and deconstruct it for someone else. And it’s so fun to get stuff back from Cassey. I keep saying, “That’s what you think this would look like? That’s so cool!”
CK: It was really great because from the beginning, Josh knew what he wanted and that made things a lot easier for me. It’s been this constant back and forth. I feel like I’m becoming friends with the characters, but it’s the city I feel like I’m still a visitor to. Like I’m visiting a friend in Chicago.
JC: Part of the reason I love this time period is like, as Americans, we imagine that our history is longer than it actually is. Like between the Wild West and WWI, we think there’s hundreds of years. But actually, the guys who fought in WWI, their grandfathers fought in the Civil War. They were still ratifying states in the west as late as 1912.
We talk now about living in turbulent times, but back then you had WWI, the Spanish flu, and the Bolshevik Revolution. You also had amazing progress like workers unionizing and women demanding the right to vote — all these political ideologies at once. There’s a lot of stuff going on and it makes for a really powerful background. Then we add robots and rayguns and science run amok. Our first episode is The Case of the Red Ant Menace — German sympathizers are growing giant red ants in the sewers and subways that are going to take down Iron City.
CK: I’ve done tons of research. I spent two days just looking up 1920s photos of cars and gears. Prior to this I hadn’t done a lot of machinery, so my research went into a lot of artists’ interpretations of what technology was in that time period, and looking at how people handled arm prosthetics.
JC: I almost feel bad because I know she doesn’t like drawing machinery.
CK: What drew me to the story was that it was a whole lot of things I didn’t like to draw — a lot of things I’d gotten out of practice at drawing, so I avoided drawing altogether. I foresaw this as a good challenge to stop complaining about it and just do it. I think my way in was to do pages and pages of tragically-drawn characters until I started to gain some confidence. First the characters, then the cars, then the supporting pieces. I can’t avoid it anymore.
JC: I sent Cassey my original design of the arm, and when she sent it back she’d drawn this pulley, like on a car, but I thought that would be too fragile. Anyone could come along and slice it apart, and the arm would go slack. I love all the exposed cogs and gears she draws in it now.
I know he’s missing a limb, he’s gone through traumatic experiences. But for me, it’s not about what he’s lost — it’s about what he has. The loss is part of his character, but it’s not the defining aspect.
For example, we also have a Chinese American character named Sun. She’s lost her entire family to the Spanish flu, so to cope with it she’s made it her mission to find other Chinese orphans, and in some cases help them get back to China. She’s lost a lot, and she could have let that destroy her. But instead she interested in bringing people together, and without realizing it she’s teaching herself to become a detective.
CK: I’ve had a lot of freedom in developing Sun. Josh initially just said he wanted a female character that kicked ass. In the first outline she was the Detective’s partner right away, but it seemed to me like she was very passionate about finding these families of lost kids. I felt like she wouldn’t want to lose that role so easily, that solving crimes wouldn’t be her first priority. What I like to do with Sun — or any character — is to show their personal drives and what they have to go through. Whenever I read a story or a comic, I really enjoy learning and seeing how a character develops and why they do what they do.
JC: I’ve got a daughter, and I want to make characters that are fully formed and that I would be proud for her to read. And I also want to put in robots and giant ants and heroism — the kinds of big ideas that can only happen in comics. I think dark, brooding comics today have lost some of that. The thing I love most about comics is that I think they’re able to show off what’s best in people.
To see more about Sun in The Pneumatic Detective, click the top left thumbnail.
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