Smash Pages Q&A: Marco Finnegan on ‘Crossroad Blues’

The artist discusses his collaboration with novelist Ace Atkins, his work for the ‘Where We Live’ anthology, his upcoming Young Adult graphic novel, and more.

Marco Finnegan was a comics novice when Last Fair Deal Gone Down was published in 2016 by 12 Gauge, though he’d been working as an artist for some time. The book was his first collaboration with the writer Ace Atkins, and the two have established a close working relationship. Their second collaboration is out now from Image Comics.

Crossroad Blues is the adaptation of Atkins’ debut novel. The two have set out to adapt all of Atkins’ Nick Travers stories to comics. The stories are about a former football player turned academic, blues researcher, and harmonica player. In this book Travers tries to find a missing researcher, and gets involved with a strange cast of characters including an Elvis-worshipping hitman, who are trying to uncover – or hide – the true story of the legendary musician Robert Johnson.

People who follow Finnegan on Twitter know that he seems to always be posting drawings and sketches, and has mentioned working on comics for younger readers. I reached out to ask about working with Atkins, and find out more about his other comics projects.

How did you come to comics?

I always wanted to comics but never could seem to “break in” (probably because I stunk!) So I started storyboarding for commercials while teaching during the day. Storyboarding really helped me to develop speed/confidence since the deadlines were always super quick and the most important thing was clarity.

When the opportunity to draw the first Nick Travers book came along I just applied the same thought process as storyboards, clarity and timeliness and somehow a style evolved.

When you and Ace were working on Last Fair Deal Gone Down, was the plan to adapt more of the Nick Travers books?

The plan was always to do all of the Nick Books, but Last Fair Deal Gone Down was the best choice because it was  a straightforward story. Not a lot of editing was needed to make it work.

What’s it like working with Ace as a collaborator, and how was he as an editor as you were trying to rethink and adapt Crossroad Blues?

He’s a great collaborator. Really open to ideas but also has a vision that he’s trying to get across, so there was a lot of back and forth but all in service to the story.

How do you describe Nick Travers and can you talk a little about trying to depict him. Was it hard to get him right?

Nick is an ex pro football player so I tried to make him look imposing–especially when he was pissed.

Adapting Crossroad Blues is a different beast from the first one. Last Fair Deal Gone Down was a short story, as you said. How do you compress and cut down the novel?

Crossroad Blues took a lot more work. It’s a big book and in order to keep the comic version under 1000 pages I had to read the book through and pull out the essentials without losing the core part of the story. The way we work is that I start with a rough outline, present it to Ace and Keven (from 12 Gauge) then I start drawing. Ace will come in and offer notes, edits and then we edit along those notes. Again, any changes I made were just to streamline the book-so certain characters and scenes that work in the novel may not work as visuals. Ace writes great dialogue so I try and keep all of that as well.

Once the three of you have gone through the outline, what happens next?

This time I went right to penciling/inking after the outline/script but if time allows I like to do full script/thumbnails then final.

How do you go about researching a book like this? And what kind of research do you do as far the landscape, the historical details, and getting the right feel.

I like research. Maybe too much. I get sucked into the rabbit hole of research really easily. But most of it involves the public library, google earth and Ace.

In some ways I think Crossroad Blues is easier to adapt than Last Fair Deal Gone Down just because it is a very visual story and it has a lot of crazy characters. And Travers himself is a very visual  character.

He’s a blast to draw as are all the other characters in the book. I mean, an Elvis looking hitman is fun!

How much did you know about Robert Johnson and blues before you started?

I knew of his music and the legend but I really learned about the Delta and the history of the blues.

So have you started work on Leavin’ Trunk Blues?

Not yet.

You’re also one of the contributors to Where We Live. Do you want to say a little about the book and your story?

It’s a great cause and I’m humbled by the talent in the book. Lucky to be able to tell a small story of one of the brave survivors. The eyewitness accounts are just unbelievable – and the fact that these folks leapt in to protect and help each other is astounding.

On Twitter you always seem to be posting art a lot. You mentioned it took a while for you to break into comics. Was sketching always a really important part of your practice and how you work?

I’m always doodling, but I’ve found that I prefer doodling in context/comic form. I struggle when I’m asked to draw just one image. I’d rather draw 12 panels then a splash.

You mentioned on Twitter a while back that you’re writing and drawing another graphic novel.

I have a YA gaphic novel I wrote and am drawing for Lerner Books that will be out next year. It’s a crazy story about the Zoot Suit riots but with some fun monster/scifi elements. The book is about two sisters who are Pachucas in the neighborhoods now known as Chavez ravine. The girls stumble into a rescuing a creature that the Navy wants as the riots are breaking out around them. This comes from growing up Chicano and never seeing any E.T./Goonies-type flicks happening in my neighborhood.

So right now, you’re making comics with Ace Atkins, and making YA graphic novels.

Yep! The goal is to do at least one YA book a year while collaborating on other books as well. I’m lucky that I’ve got really talented people who want to work with me. In fact I’m working on adapting one of Lisa Unger’s novels with her into a graphic novel. So lots of stuff in the pipeline.

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