Mug Shot: Jonathan Case Avoids Playing the Heavy with The Creep


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Spinning out of his ongoing feature in Dark Horse Presents, John Arcudi’s The Creep stalks into his own limited series with a little help from artist Jonathan Case.

The genre of detective fiction has always found a welcome home in the realm of the graphic narrative. Indeed, one could argue with its ability to visually enhance story mechanics such as atmosphere, tone, and suspense through the use of varying panel sizes and construction, the use of negative space, and a beautiful marriage of words and pictures, comic books may be the storytelling mecca detective fiction has always been looking for.

John Arcudi’s The Creep first pounded the pavement during Dark Horse Presents’ first kick at the can back in the early Nineties. The critically acclaimed anthology was the launching pad of some of independent comics’ most successful properties, while profoundly transforming the careers of a half dozen top tier creators. John Byrne’s Next Men, Frank Miller’s Sin City, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and Paul Chadwick’s Concrete – the roster of DHP’s original incarnation reads like a fanboy’s dream team of legendary artists and writers.

Nestled amongst these titans of comics myth was a quiet, unassuming character called Oxel Karnhus, better known as The Creep, thanks to an unfortunate condition called acromegaly. Often associated with gigantism, acromegaly is caused by a hyperactive pituitary gland and causes severe, abnormal growth of the face and extremities. Oxel is by no means your typical gumshoe. His condition has numerous uncomfortable and unseemly symptoms affecting not only his own actions and perceptions but those of the audience, as well. One of the most unique and challenging protagonists in comic book pulp noir in quite some time, Oxel’s appearance and overall design were the responsibility of Green River Killer artist Jonathan Case, whose artistic mandate for The Creep might be best described as a light touch.

“Early on, John let me know he wanted to stay away from Oxel's design just being Rondo Hatton (a notorious American actor with acromegaly who played primarily thuggish roles due to his appearance) . He wanted me to explore the range of acromegaly and what it can do. For my part, I wanted to make Oxel monstrous but still relatable. Like you might be able to tell that he used to be a handsome guy. It's a distorted face, but it's not exactly unfriendly.”

While series cover artists Mike Mignola and Frank Miller have chosen a more stylistic interpretation of Oxel’s appearance, favoring the more dark and macabre aspects of the series’ title character, Case took a more down-to-earth, expressive visual approach.

“I imagine Dark Horse was pretty happy to get covers from those two, so it may have just been that they read a summary of the character and gave it their own, equally valid interpretation. I'm not sure. As astoryteller, I just wanted to give Oxel a look that I could play with, to give him a big range of expression.

I think Dark Horse and John knew I could do noir, and that I could sort of take a light touch on heavy subjects. I have an aversion to heavy for heavy's sake.”

It’s this sensitivity to his protagonist and his subject matter that makes Case particularly well-suited to The Creep and his most recent investigation. Delving into the weighty topic of teen suicide, it was something of an emotional challenge for Case to adopt the right mindset to illustrate Oxel’s perhaps misguided attempt to help an old college flame.

“It was a very challenging piece of work for me. If you walk into a comics studio, you'll see a bunch of people wearing the exact expressions on their faces that they're drawing. You can't help it, at least I can't. I internalize what I draw, so dark subjects can wear me down. The Creep has been a great project, but between this and Green River Killer, I'm overdue for some comedic romps.”

Complicating matters more is the story’s unique setting. Taking place during the not-so-roaring Eighties, an era that gave us "Star Wars", Reaganomics, and the Bangles, The Creep’s setting is not so much noir in tone as it is appropriately a little washed out with flashes of color slapped here and there. Huge gobs of ink saturating the plot’s many emotional beats would have only served to muddy the visual storytelling and confuse the reader, a fact Case is well aware of.

“John told me when we started out, it's the era just before cell phones and the internet— basically the modern conveniences that'd make Oxel's PI work easier. I also thought of movies from the 80's set in New York. Some really stress the grittiness, some promote (or invent) the romance. My mental image of New York is really based in that time period, and the way movies looked back then. It was before color correction and digital washed over everything, so the look was unvarnished and untidy.

“These days, 'serious' visual work seems practically monochromatic (it's like visual shorthand for "No, really, I'm SERIOUS"), but back then, even in a bleak palette, there'd be injections of reds and yellows balancing things out. So I latched on to that tried to use it here and there. The story is pretty domestic, so in my view, I couldn't approach it by just blobbing noirish shadows everywhere. It was the same balancing act again— the grim with the tender.”

Full of nuance and mystery and real, complex characters, The Creep is not only a testament to great detective fiction but thanks to Case’s clean, balanced visual storytelling, a simmering masterpiece of detective comics fiction. His thoughts on the genre could easily sum up his work on The Creep itself.

“You get a lot of bang for your buck, I guess: unrequited love, flawed people, mysteries to be solved. It's kind of a high-style, voyeuristic genre, so maybe comics is a good fit that way. You turn the pages to get your questions answered, but you can linger on the visuals if you want. Something like that!”

The Creep #1, John Arcudi (W), Jonathan Case (A). Dark Horse Comics, limited series, $3.50. On sale September 12, 2012.

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