Not too long ago, I wrote a review of The Pale, a black and white mystery comic about the discovery of a burned corpse in a small desert town. Jay and Sanders Fabares are the husband/wife duo behind the comic. Sanders writes the comic while Jay handles art duties. They have been making the comic since 2015 after years of research. Jay and Sanders took time from their busy schedule to talk about the making of The Pale and its various influences.
Ben Howard for Loser City: The Pale, it’s excellent. I love it. We need more comics like it. Tell me everything that led up to its creation. How did you both get into comics? What made you want to work on comics as a team? And where did the idea for your current project come from?
Sanders Fabares: Thanks! Well, I started reading comics when I was 8. The only comic books I had were an old tattered Marvel Star Wars #95 and The Mighty Thor #381. I didn’t understand how they connected to anything else in any way, but I must have read those issues hundreds of times. I tried to find a few other Star Wars issues, but it was so much harder back then. I never got really, really into them until high school, when a friend traded me his prized longbox of assorted comics. That summer of ‘94, my love for comics kicked into high gear- I started reading Wizard magazine, went to McFarlane’s convention up in Phoenix, and became a regular reader of current titles. The one thing that I didn’t really have were friends that were into comics. It was just kind of my own thing.
Jay Fabares: I never really got into comics when I was younger besides the Sunday strips and comics at the grocery store. Not that I wasn’t exposed to them, just nothing really jumped out at me. That changed in 2008 with The Umbrella Academy. it was love at first page. I started reading trades at the library and then head over to Barnes and Nobles to read the latest releases. I even started reading Sanders’ collection of comics! Nowadays we mostly read on Comixology. Webcomics are relatively new to me, but got more into them as The Pale was released in that format.
The Pale was born out of a cocktail of several ideas I was immersed in at the time. I was doing a lot of research on common myths that spanned across several cultures for another idea that I couldn’t get to work… so I was stuck in research mode for years, just soaking up random bits of information.
Around the time the idea came about, Sanders introduced me to Twin Peaks— which I ate up like cherry pie! It’s obviously a major influence, but Twin Peaks alone didn’t spark the idea for Fink and The Pale.
SF: As Jay said, it was basically a mix of so many things that we love: Mystery, small town drama, the American Southwest, Boston Terriers. The initial idea came when Jay had watched an episode of Hannibal where one of the minor characters had a condition called Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. It gave Jay the idea “what if there was a face-blind detective who is tracking a killer?”
JF: I tried to do it alone and the first few pages turned out horrible– I was all over the place! I’m glad Sanders offered to co-write. The idea evolved while staying true to the original concept. It was an idea that we both could really sink our teeth into because it had everything we liked.
SF: We knew that we had something special, a story that we had to tell.
SF: I was originally against it being black and white, but that was before I saw what she could do with it. I am just so used to reading in color and I had always visualized the story in color. I’ve read so many black and white books that end up looking muddy and muddled, but then again there were ones like The Walking Dead that are clean, the lack of color adds to the mood. When I saw what she was doing with the first pages, I knew that foregoing color would work- maybe even enhance the book.
LC: Mystery is a genre not seen in comics a lot nowadays. What is it about the mystery genre that made you want to write one?
JF: I’ve always loved the psychological chase that mysteries/crime genres offer and I like seeing how certain characters are drawn to that line of work. Some of my favorite TV crime dramas in recent years are True Detective and The Killing, but growing up I also loved Sherlock Holmes and The X Files. Discovering clues with the characters are fun but I also like seeing how their personal lives intertwine– or even interfere– with their work and vice versa. I’ve always been drawn to those types of characters… characters who are obsessed with solving a problem that is set before them. I think it’s not so much we choose this particular genre, more write what you like. Makes writing a bit easier if you already find the subject matter interesting. For our first story, it’s pretty ambitious but also makes perfect sense!
SF: It’s interesting that we decided to go full-on murder mystery for our first book, but in a way it makes sense when you look at the things we were into at the time. The Killing (on Netflix, go watch it!) was one of the first TV shows that we had watched that felt like each episode was a movie. It seems like since it came out there have been an explosion of shows, both foreign and stateside, that deal with small town murder mystery drama. The game has been upped from the episodic Law and Order type show to where an entire season represents one mystery. Broadchurch was another really good one. While other genres’ strengths are pure escapism, mystery engages problem solving skills and keeps you hungry for more pieces to the puzzle. I think that mysteries have to have two components to separate themselves: an interesting main character that the readers can empathize with, and a unique setting that is presented in a fascinating way to create atmosphere.
LC: You know, despite growing up most of my life either in suburbs or cities, I always had an affinity for stories set in small towns. I believe part of it is nostalgia for childhood memories of vacationing in the Georgian mountains where my grandparents lived, but I also like how well small towns work as the setting for darker stories. There is something about taking the ideal of the small town- a place where horrendous things couldn’t possibly happen because everyone knows each other and supposedly have stronger morals- then twisting it to show their dark underbellies. Horror novels and the movies of David Lynch are great at this.
What I’m getting at is that I loved the small town setting to The Pale. It adds a layer of uneasy atmosphere, as though even in this nowhere town, there is darkness. Furthermore, there’s a level of authenticity to Rocket Ridge. Did you guys base it on a real place? Also, what attracted you to the small town setting? Sounds like the TV shows you mentioned played a huge influence.
JF: I grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area but have always been attracted to small rural towns. Some of my favorite memories came from traveling cross country with my family, going through these little desert towns, seeing old western historical sites. I recall the atmosphere of the people, surviving in these little remote towns.
Sanders and I actually took a road trip a bit ago, traveling the area that The Pale would take place in– which would be The Navajo Nation and the surrounding border towns in Arizona. We talked to shop owners, cops, guides, as well as listening to conversations in restaurants or special events. We spoke to a cop who had left his small town, experienced big cities, traveled all over, but eventually came back to the small little desert town he grew up in. That’s very telling to me. We try to visit a town about 70 miles out of Phoenix maybe once a year, to birdwatch, mostly hanging around town… watching movies in their tiny one screen theatre is a trip!
Rocket Ridge isn’t based on any one place, it’s more of a combination of Arizona towns off of Route 66 and beyond the main roads. Arizona has a beautiful landscape that is inspiring, isolating and promotes a certain emotion. Whenever we drive through these back roads, I always wonder, who is living out here? What do they do? Just like how David Lynch was able to romanticize the idea of a small forest town, I wanted to capture that sense within a desert town.
SF: I grew up in Lakeside, a rural town in San Diego’s east county, so I know a bit about small town vibes. However, in California you don’t really get the sense of isolation that you get in places like Arizona
I lived in Tucson for six years. I would often go out on these long distance runs through the Sonoran desert. Not just flat desert, but craggy canyons where you could easily get lost. Sometimes I wouldn’t be watching the time and I’d go out a little too far. Darkness would fall before I could return. The deep silence that fell along with the dark boosted my feeling of being totally exposed. It was broken only by a coyote’s yip, a bobcat’s yowl, an owl’s screech, even the occasional mountain lions’ scream. This was before cell phones had lights, compasses, and music. I was cut off. I would get that panicky voice in my head, saying “you are vulnerable and you are being watched by hungry things that know it.” Those small hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. I remember the sense of relief that came with reaching my car again, but I was always aware of how things could have easily turned out differently. That feeling surrounds all small towns to different degrees because they are much more close to the natural world, susceptible to the dangers from it. It is an ideal setting for exploring the primal motives of a murderer and the desperation of the heroes who are trying to stop them.
LC: Well, what would a small town be without its quirky residents, right? The part I liked the most about The Pale were the unique characters. Everyone from Sheriff Terrence Logan to Agent Fink were their own unique individuals. In fact, my review described Sheriff Logan’s interaction with the Rocket Ridge police department as a sitcom family. How important was character development to the comic?
JF: Ha ha, I’m glad that comes through. Even if they press each other’s buttons, they do feel like a family.
SF: It’s very important to have that realistic camaraderie between the Sheriff’s staff. They operate under a leadership structure of course, but due to the slow nature of their day to day the rules still tend to get a bit more relaxed.
We wanted to create characters that you grow to love as the book goes on. Characters who were relatable and realistic. We didn’t want any of them to be one dimensional stereotypes or just plot filler. I know in my own head I feel like these are real people. One of the most fun things about writing the book has been discovering who they are and how they interact.
JF: Also we don’t want their actions to feel out of place. We are giving them time to let their personalities shine because you want to know these characters and to understand where they’re coming from.
LC: Agent Ink is particularly interesting to me. I was not aware of face blindness until his introduction. You have taken great pains it seems to treat his condition with respect and make him as well-rounded a character as anyone else. What interested you in writing a character with face blindness and how did you go about making sure his condition was treated with respect?
JF: Fink (Agent Franklin Ink) started off as a visual… a scribble of a detective surrounded by a crowd of people with simple smiley faces. The idea of a cop searching for someone he can’t easily recognize, was an intriguing idea that translates well into comics.
A lot of research went into understanding the condition as best we can. Videos, documentaries, specials, articles, help but we found most helpful were comments from people who live with the condition. Reading first hand experience is very powerful and informative. We’re going to focus on the general life experiences and emotions that people with prosopagnosia (face-blindness) can relate to. Fink is more of an idealized, high functioning version, he may not have other symptoms that could accompany the condition, but I think it is important to be aware of them. We also wanted to have a character that didn’t have a visible condition.
We’re also keeping in mind how to translate this condition. People without face-blindness can bump into someone that they “know from somewhere”– or even spot people they haven’t seen in years– with no trouble. The fact that our brain can retain information like this is incredible.
Now imagine you can’t do that.
SF: It’s interesting how the different areas of the brain are able to alter the way we perceive things. With all brain conditions there are varying levels of how face-blindness can affect people. Everyone describes it a bit differently, but one thing that they all must do is develop different coping mechanisms. In Fink’s case, his condition has caused him to become a stronger linguist, focusing on their other tells like body language and speech patterns. I am sure that he is a hell of a poker player!
It’s fun to write Fink’s character, because you have to do your fair share of imagining how a detective with this condition would go about things differently. Imagine that you have to catch a killer, but everyone looks exactly the same. Imagine how frustrating and scary that would be to be trying to find someone when you can’t tell what they look like!
We didn’t want face-blindness in the book to just to become some kind of gimmick– that’s where researching it comes in. Face blindness has been portrayed in various ways in TV and film, but to my knowledge it has never been done in comics, so that is exciting. It isn’t just a tacked on way to try to round out the main character. It is a huge part of the story.
LC: Another fascinating aspect of the comic is how big of a role Navajo culture plays in. There are scenes that take place on a Navajo reservation, Navajo characters play major roles in the story, and one of the symbols from Navajo culture on found in the crime scene that launches the story. What was your interest in Navajo culture to make it a significant part of the story?
SF: During my time living in Arizona I actually participated in an archeological dig for a few weeks. We helped excavate zones in an Anasazi ruin site, sifted and logged all that we found. It was fascinating to me, to learn more about their ancient way of life, to be able to touch that history. I’ve met a variety of people from different tribes and I always find Native American mythology and art to be inspiring. Their folklore is so beautiful, retaining a true connection to that natural world that many other cultures have lost. I’ve always thought that the Tony Hillerman Navajo mysteries were incredible, because they were the only time that I’ve seen southwest tribal cultures used in a modern fictional narrative to such success. He was able to capture the feel of the region as well as show respect to the people that live there. In comic books I have never seen it anything like it, so it felt like an obvious choice for us, as huge admirers of it, to take on.
JF: For me it was mostly it was the mythology and how it connects with the region. When we visit the area, there is a sense of something spiritual- awe inspiring about the area. I can understand why The People were determined to remain in their lands during the U.S. expansion into the West. For our story, we wanted the setting to reflect what we saw in that area, and that requires a bit of diversity.
LC: I’m particularly interested in the Navajo characters in the story, Officer Yazzie and the family he is friends with. I guess you can’t tell me right now, but will they be playing bigger roles in the future? Jay, you explained to me how Yazzie is an officer of the Navajo First Nation Police, a separate entity from American police. We’ve already seem some tension between Yazzie and Logan’s department, although that more had to do with his deputy making tasteless jokes. As the investigation goes on, do you think there might be tension between the two groups?
JF: We definitely introduced these characters because we want them to be key players telling the story. They’re more than token characters and we are having fun exploring their personalities, so expect to see more of Yazzie and the Begay family in the future. Officer Yazzie is a friend of Sheriff Logan, so you’ll see him interacting off and on with the Rocket Ridge staff. As for any tensions that could happen between the two police departments, there will be some friction of course, just as there will be some friction when FBI Agent Ink enters the picture. I think playing with the different jurisdictions is going to be fun. Like any office, everyone thinks it’s the other department who’s doing things backwards.
LC: This story seems to be slowly building up it mystery. How long do you guys plan on this series to last?
JF: I think we can easily hit more than 30 issues if we really wanted to. What do you think?
SF: Originally, I thought it would be around three trades in length, or 15-18 issues. As we expanded the story of our characters and the mythology I started seeing it more towards four to five trades long. Right now, 30 issues seems like a good number to shoot for, but if we can complete the story in 20 I am fine with that too. As long as everything we are doing serves the narrative and mystery’s story arc that we are going for.
LC: Thanks for the interview, guys! Before I go, would you like to recommend any comics old or current? Also, what advice do you have for aspiring indie comic creators?
JF: I can not get enough of The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt. Absolutely love it. It’s finished, so you can binge read it like I did! My advice is if you want to make comics, read comics! Learn what works and doesn’t work for you as reader and take that knowledge and apply it to your own work. It can be story structure, lettering, to types of panels… I find I am always learning something whenever I read a comic.
SF: Thanks! This was fun chatting. Most recently, I really enjoyed The Sword. The Luna brothers’ give their books this epic cinematic feel that I just love. I’m also in the middle of re-reading Rumble, one of my favorites from the last few years that has great action and unforgettable characters. James Harren’s art and layout are so wonderful while Arcudi’s Story is just pure fun. I like to compare it to a Studio Ghibli version of Big Trouble in Little China.
For great dialogue and more serious reads, I recommend Southern Bastards, Sheriff of Babylon, Cannibal, Briggs Land, The Walking Dead, and Saga. For humor, I think The Fix and 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank are both pretty phenomenal. My all time favorite series would probably be Preacher, The Sandman, The Sixth Gun, Scalped, Y: The Last Man, and Sweet Tooth.
SF: Advice for aspiring creators? Read as much as you can and seek out what inspires you. Soak up Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics cover to cover. It’s one of the best books that I have ever read on the craft and it will really expose you to the unique power that comics have as a storytelling platform. With your drafts, don’t be afraid to redo if it doesn’t feel true!