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Armstrong, Robot

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This Wednesday marks the debut of Ferro City, a new ongoing Image Comics series by Mr. Do-it-all Jason Armstrong. As the title of the book indicates, Ferro City will feature a whole lot of metal, steel and iron; a logical consequence when you know that robots and humans walk shoulder to shoulder on the same city pavements day after day. But, rather than the book being a Will Smith-less decoction of "I, Robot", it is more like “the science fiction movie that Humphrey Bogart never filmed!”

Although Armstrong was laughing when he made the Bogart comparison, he is in fact serious about wanting to capture the feel of those classic movies Bogart starred in. “Basically, I [indeed wanted] to capture the feel of an old black and white movie for a comic book – I thought a science fiction take on “The Thin Man” or “Casablanca” would be a fun comic to draw,” the creator says.

“I’m approaching Ferro City as a crime drama with science fiction overtones. Robots and humans working together to solve crimes. The first series of stories will revolve around robotic crimes, so I have a vehicle to talk about the robots, but I have some stories in the works about DNA theft, and I hope to get down to vaguely adapting some Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet short stories. The Long Hard Drive, The Little Transistor… that sort of thing.”

No successful crime story can succeed without gripping characters. In Ferro City, the leading roles are filled by Cyrus Smithe and Kate Weston, the daughter of Harry Weston, the partner of private detective Smithe who gets offed while working on a case. Armstrong confesses that the book was originally going to be titled ‘Smithe and Weston’, until he figured out that he wanted to tell stories about other characters as well, that is. “Smithe used to work down in Machine Town (a Chinatown pastiche I want explore later),” the creator continues, “but he quit under delicate circumstances. Kate Weston is Harry’s daughter, and is quickly dragged along on the chase to find her father’s killer. Kate just happens to be a robotologist at the Ferro City University.

With a whole city to fill, Kate and Cy obviously aren’t the only characters of note in the series. “There’s a whole cavalcade of Dick Tracy style mobsters, including the Hurrah Maharaj, One eyed Ivan, and “The Brain” Boyd,” Armstrong fills us in as he gives a quick rundown of virtually everybody that is set to show up. “Hired killers Jimmy Finch, Tommy Gunn and Machine Pistol, Gorilla Johnson, Slick Dipstick and Bruce the Caboose all make appearances.”

“Robot Police members include disillusioned cop Sam Hardie, and the mysterious young detective Kim Che from Machine Town,” he continues.  “I hope to introduce Kim into the regular mix soon. A number of my friends have spent some time over seas in Korea overseeing animation, and they swear that Kimchee is the absolute worst thing they’ve ever eaten – I thought why not?” [Laughs]

Don’t be fooled by the fact that Armstrong mentions all of these characters in one breath. He really has a plan for all of them. “Hopefully, the ‘broad strokes’ approach I have taken with the characters allow me to leave out details -- I hope the reading audience will fill in the details for themselves, and be surprised when I throw them a curve ball,” the creator continues. “The ‘Dick Tracy’ style mobsters allow me to play cartoony against violent character traits.  Take "Gorilla Johnson" and "Slick Dipstick" -- a name and a single image at the end of issue one that immediately conjure up a reaction.

“The Hurrah Maharaj is one of the top mobsters in Ferro City. He has a giant steel hand he uses to control his empire of illegal technology smuggling. Smithe and the Maharaj know each other -- something made Smithe quit the police force -- "It's Machine Town; let it go, Smithe." Kate Weston is just trying to follow the mobsters and constant double crossing without a program. There is a lot of character undercurrent I hope to explore in future stories.”

Of course, with a city of ten million robots, the mechanic dudes are bound to show up frequently. “Yup, there’s lots of robots,” Armstrong says gleefully. “42G is the main robot police officer we meet.  I’ve quickly introduced a robot boxing theme to a back-up story in issue #1 (we’ll meet Spar-10 later – there’s all sorts of story threads I start and then plan to come back to). Another robot [we’ll meet] is Dash, Cy Smithe’s robotic driver. There sure are lots of robots to follow!”

While robots play a key part in the action, what readers won’t find in Ferro City is superheroics. “My pals have all come over and questioned me “Where are the fellas in tights?!”, Armstrong recalls. “After so many gigs working for DC and Marvel, though, it’s quite a departure for me not to do superheroes or a ripping Kirby take on my comics. Ferro City sort of snuck up on me and sucker punched me in the kidneys when I wasn’t looking. It just felt like the right time to do a non superhero project. I still do work for superhero projects, but this is my consuming passion at the moment.”

Passion is what drives Armstrong, though the creator finds caffeine is quite essential to keep those flames of passion burning. After all, it’s not exactly easy to handle both the writing and art chores on Ferro City, while also spending the day at a Toronto-based animation studio.

“I (ahem) have a full time day job at [the studio], so I find I have to squeeze in to work on Ferro City,” Armstrong admits while laughing a nervous caffeine laugh. “I start the day extremely early, and work for a couple of hours before I go to my day job, and then spend a few hours after dinner working. Lots of stuff to do, lots of coffee to drink, let me tell you.

“I’ve developed a story writing shorthand that I use in a series of sketchbooks – one for roughs and one for final art,” he continues as he elaborates on his creative process. I draw out my roughs for designs and page layouts at the same time, and even rough in quick dialogue in my “roughs” sketchbook. I then redraw the page once I’ve settled on it in my “final art” sketchbook. I tend to rework the line work on the pages again directly in Photoshop with my Wacom tablet. (Check the example below for a more in-depth look at Armstrong's creative process - ed.) I’m having a really great time with a new look for me. I’m NOT finishing the line work on purpose to give myself more room for greyscale painting. I find it to be lots of fun.”

Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge

Something Armstrong is also enjoying is working at Image Comics. “B. Clay Moore and Eric Stephenson are to be thanked for helping find a home for Ferro City at Image,” he explains. “I approached Clay with my proposal at the same time he was thinking about a Hawaiian Dick anthology. I’ve yet to see any script, Clay…”

“To be fair, I have worked for Image before – I pencilled the lead story for a video game magazine sized comic called Future Cop. I don’t think it ever went anywhere, but Dexter Vines is a really great inker, and the colouring was exquisite.”

Overall, Armstrong feels that Image has been really great in allowing him the creative freedom to do what he intended to. “The marketing and publishing of a monthly comic is too much for one fella to handle on top of everything else I am doing, and I am fortunate enough to have Image Comics behind me.”

Still not convinced you should pick up Ferro City #1 on August 10? The following four-page preview is sure to blow you away--like the mysterious killer did Weston.

Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge

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