Tropical Surroundings And Ugly Things: Rich Tommaso On Dry County

by Hannah Means Shannon

Rich Tommaso’s work in comics always feels like a rare delight in whatever genre he takes up–whether horror, mystery, crime, or even international espionage. But his roots lie in crime stories and his roots go deep. Through a career of self-publishing, working with various art comic publishers, and more recently, finding a home at Image Comics, Tommaso has accumulated quite a body of work, and many of them are ripe for revisiting.

During his hiatus working on Spy Seal, which will return in 2018 from Image, Rich Tommaso has taken up an earlier self-published project called Dry County, and has brought the originally black-and-white work to full color well befitting its setting in 1990’s Miami. In this crime story, a young and struggling cartoonist pins great hopes on developments in his love life, only for a shocking turn of events to pull him into a world he’s never really encountered before. Lou’s decision to play “amateur detective” may get him into deep water, but his decision to pursue his love interest Janet seems unshakeable.

The first issue of the opulently colored Dry County arrives from Image Comics on March 14th, 2018, and Rich Tommaso joins us here today to give us the inside story on his Miami-noir love story.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Where does Dry County stand in the history of your comics, and what made it your choice for bringing it to a new incarnation?

Rich Tommaso: It represents the kind of book I most want to see myself producing: a crime novel. Although I do like to jump around and work on as many different types of comics that I can, the thing I fantasize about most—when I imagine a library of my books—is having a big collection of crime novels on that shelf. The reason why I’m releasing it as a series from Image is to be able to edit the work a bit from its previous self-published form, and to take advantage of the luxury of full color as well. It’s set in Miami, Florida, so I always wanted to see this thing in the colors befitting its vibrant, tropical surroundings.

HMS: This probably relates a bit to the first question, but why Miami? I mean, I can see choosing it for aesthetic reasons, actually, and for strange goings-on. There’s even a kind of noirish crime tradition to build on, if you want to.

RT: This is where SOME of this story actually happened to me when living in Florida, circa 1990. This book is very autobiographical. I took my real-life experiences and wove them into a story filled with all sorts of crime scenarios that seemed to lend themselves to the already dramatic events that were occurring in my life during that time.

HMS: What’s the significance of the title of the work? Does it refer to a county that won’t serve alcohol?

RT: Without giving too much away, yes, the title relates to a significant place that is revealed at the tail end of the story. A county that doesn’t serve alcohol. It’s also the title of a B52s song from the late 1980s, so that made it equally perfect.

HMS: Looking back on a work that had never appeared in color before, and taking it up again to transform in this way, how did you feel while working on it? Did it feel like someone else’s work you were coloring, or like you drew it recently? What kind of choices did you make in your color palette?

RT: I always pictured this in color—and yes, mostly because of its setting. The perfect place to go crazy with neon lights, tropical surroundings, and the pastel palettes of Miami Beach’s famous hotels. But then I thought about how I could turn that on its head when showing Florida at night. I could have fun muddying-up those happy tones in the evenings—when ugly things were happening. I also made a point, early on, to mute or wash out those vibrant colors whenever I showed the main character, Lou in his own neighborhood. As a reminder of what his personal status was—a young, low wage earning, struggling writer/artist. It foreshadows things for him—maybe clues us in on his chances for success in life and love. So, it turned out being much more interesting and fun than I even initially planned, once I really started thinking about just why I was bringing this book into full color.

HMS: I love how the threads of narrative in the first issue build up, but never feel hurried, until suddenly, Lou is in the midst of a crazy plot that feels much more “adult” than the world we’ve previously seen him inhabiting. Why do you think he’s so easily ensnared in this tangled situation? Does he kind of “need” something like this in his life?

RT: It’s not directly drawn out, but he’s supposed to be a virgin. A 20 year old guy, who feels he SHOULD of had at least ONE girlfriend in his life at this point. He falls hard for [Janet] because he IS desperate to get this part of his life on track. He wants stability of some kind, he wants to be a hero, wants to “win the girl” for once. As soon as things seem to be going his way, she’s snatched away from him.

HMS: Can you tell me about the decision to use torn notebook paper for the narration, and when it came to coloring, to make it yellow? What do you think it conveys about Lou?

RT: Since he is an aspiring writer—AND because he’s operating like a detective, I thought it would be interesting for him to keep notes on his mysterious little story. It possibly helps to draw some lines that may lead to Janet—or, if anything, maybe he could use this amazing, thrilling experience for a book or comic book story someday. Also, I just thought that a few of the early pages of Dry County looked very boring with these lines of dialogue just floating above the panels. The notes give the book a nicer design over all.

HMS: Without giving too much away, what should we know about Janet? Though she has a complicated history, we learn in the first issue, is she the “goddess” she seems to be?

RT: She’s simply a girl who’s had REALLY bad luck with men—past and present. She would like a very stable, fulfilling, satisfying life—a happy marriage would be great. She has a job she enjoys, a few friends, a house, a nice car—but she’s never had a very satisfying, loving relationship with her recent ex-boyfriend, Earl. She likes Lou because he’s kind and interesting—and she can tell he adores her from day one—even when things are difficult, he stands by her side.

HMS: What are you proudest of about Dry County, past and present version?

RT: I feel with this project, I was very successful with blending my real-life events within a traditional genre story. Usually, if I’m starting out with something that’s almost wholly autobiographical, the fictional parts don’t end up adding much to the tale. Normally, I’m better at doing one or the other. For this book, the ingredients were measured just right in order to make Dry County into a personal and exciting piece of crime fiction.

Thanks so much, as ever, to Rich Tommaso, for joining us at Comicon.com for this very interesting discussion.

Look forward to the page-turning Dry County #1 in comic shops in March!