Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover are the writing and art team behind Bandette, named for the costumed teen thief who battles sinister master criminals and stays one step ahead of the law in its pages. We talked to Coover and Tobin about what it takes to make the relentlessly charming Bandette work.
io9: Describe Bandette for people who haven’t heard of it.
Colleen Coover: I call it a faux-French crime caper. Sort of an adventure romp.
Paul Tobin: That’s basically what it is. I just wanted a book that was as charming as possible. I got a little fed up with the grim and dark and I just wanted something that was relentlessly fun, relentlessly charming. With a main character that just really enjoyed life. I wanted it to have mystery and adventure and teens.
Coover: And I think, really at the heart of is, we were trying to create sort of the European comic that we would have liked to have had accessible to us as kids, cause we both like European comics and we’re both fans of Tin Tin and Asterix and some of the more adult stuff from Jacque Tardi or Hugo Pratt. And this is just sort of our attempt as Americans to sort of channel that style of comics into an American comic to satisfy this nostalgia for something that never existed.
What do you think it is about heists and thieves that we so love to see in fiction?
Coover: They’re way fun!
Tobin: Well, there’s always the tension of the getting away with it, while at the same time nobody is like — Bandette would never, ever hurt anybody. And I think what I like about heist films is that they’re sort of like a reverse-detective story. How can we do this without going in with guns blazing? How can we be roguishly charming and still criminals.
Everybody loves a bad guy, so you can get a little bit of that. It’s nice.
Coover: And it’s all about outsmarting the adversary, rather than just busting your way in.
Coover: Yeah, nobody likes a heist movie that’s like “Well, we got a bomb and we blew up the bank and we took the money.” That’s not a heist movie. It’s the reverse of a detective story. It’s “how can we commit the crime.” I like that. I find it endearing.
Is it also that you can include interesting facts and sophisticated tastes when you have a character going after objects?
Tobin: I think you can have a heist film where the criminals can be handsome, or suave, or debonair, or charming, or roguish. However you want. You can put a lot more character into them.
And like I say, it’s fun to write a villain. I don’t really see Bandette as a villain, but she is against the law in many, many ways and that is interesting to me.
Coover: And also, we both have a fascination with art objects and antiques and this provides a way to write those objects into your scripts in things like the diamonds and the fossils and the other rare, unique objects that Bandette and her adversaries acquire.
Tobin: Yeah, I’m a born collector at heart. It’s mostly original comic art and old comics at this point. But I have a lot of ancient coins and some artifacts and things like that. I have a huge love for art and sometimes it’s like, “Well, I can’t afford a Van Gogh, so how would I go about getting one.”
Bandette is a little weirder than expected. How do you go about creating that character?
Tobin: I sort of let my imagination run and then, once you have a set of characters, they start to play off of each other. They take on a life of their own. Like, Absinthe is truly a villain, and while I want to keep Bandette charming, she has to go against a guy who really is a bad guy. There’s just no way around it.
I don’t like a bad guy who is a good guy at heart. He’s a killer and he does really horrible things, and Bandette has to fight him. But she still has to be relentlessly charming. So the tension of that makes her a little bit weird at times.
And also she cares so much about the urchins, the supporting characters, and that guides her as well.
Coover: I think the only mission, if Bandette has a mission, is to please herself. (to Tobin) You look like you’re disagreeing with me on that. I mean, she wants to have fun. That’s part of her motivation.
Tobin: Yeah. How she cares for the other people in the books is her main motivation for me.
Coover: But that includes getting cool stuff.
Tobin: Yeah, getting cool stuff is a big thing.
Having a group of urchins is a trope that could be too precious or too obvious, but Bandette’s aren’t. How do you avoid those cliches?
Tobin: One of the reasons we do the little short urchin stories, the like two-to-four page stories, is so that they can have their own individual spotlight. I want Bandette to exist within in a world, and where I think a lot of works of fiction fail is that the world that a character is in revolves completely around them.
But I want Bandette to be in a world. So that was part of the reason for the urchins, so that the world was expanded. That Inspector B.D. Belgique exist past Bandette, that their relationship with Eloise is there, that the three ballerinas have their own life. And everyone has their own life. Daniel has his delivery business. I think it’s important when you’re creating a world to have it expand past the main character.
What motivated setting Bandette in a sort of “Alterna-Paris”?
Coover: When I was designing the world, and designing the characters, and when we were developing the characters visually — which happened very organically while we were developing the story — I was very conscious that I wanted to be not a fake Franco-Belgian comic, but the next thing to a fake Franco-Belgian comic.
I mean that’s why I named B.D. Belgique “B.D. Belgique.” It’s “B.D.” for “Bande dessinée” and “Belgique” for “Belgian.” I created B.D. for my sketch blog about a year before we even started thinking about Bandette. He was just a character that I sketched because I felt like drawing French one day.
And that really appealed to me because, again, I’m a great admirer of Jacques Tardi and I really wanted to use that style of cartooning. Which can be very funny and very kinetic and can also be used for some really serious storytelling. And I just wanted to explore that.
Tobin: And the reason for “Alterna-Paris” is we kind of wanted like a Parisian setting, but we didn’t want to have to say that “this is the street they’re on” or things like that. Because that actually intrudes on a comic like this. So we just wanted a world that felt like that but wasn’t that. Because that pins things down and you don’t want to cement things.
Coover: And I didn’t want to get bogged down in research. You want to be able to convey the sense of place rather than a photograph or Wikipedia description of a place. You don’t need to be precise. This isn’t a documentary. This is fun.
Bandette is so bright and charming. Is that partially a counter to the expectation that darker comics are better comics?
Coover: That’s probably not entirely wrong.
Tobin: Yeah, I definitely felt that way. I wanted it to be happy. But at the same time, I think that, too often, when creators go about trying to create things that are charming or happy, they think that they don’t need to make it of high-quality. It’s just like “I was just doing this, ha ha ha.”
But here, we wanted to pour every bit of my writing into it and every bit of Colleen into it. And the merger of us, because I think we work really well together as a team. And I think even if you’re going to do a charming comic, you should really make it as a high-quality as possible.
So we love doing this.
Coover: I think people sometimes confuse serious art with “downer.” Or being scary or gross, even. And, quoting a hypothetical person, “We are going to be really grim and gritty, and everything is really high stakes and it’s death, death, death, horrible peril, sexual violence, the whole thing.” But that can be done really well if you take yourself seriously. But if you’re doing it just because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do? Why not have fun instead?
Bandette does have real villains. Absinthe is a bad guy, Il Tredici is terrifying. Is it hard to balance making real threats with the tone of Bandette?
Coover: You say yes, and maybe that’s true for a writer, because you have to straddle that line between real peril and the fact that things have to keep going. But for me, Il Tredici is my most favorite character to draw because he is pure, pure evil. And that for me is part of the fun is this sort of specter of bad that can be this shadow against which the light of Bandette shines.
Tobin: I mean, I can see that from an artistic standpoint. But from a writer’s standpoint, it’s hard. I hearken back to what I said earlier, that I want Bandette to exist in a complete world. And in a complete world there are bad guys and she’s going to come up against them. And she does.
But at the same time, I don’t want it to affect her very much. It affects the urchins in a way a lot more. Bandette furious is fine with me, but Bandette crying — I can never have that. So I do have to balance the bad people, and keep them as bad people because I want there to be true peril. But at the same time, Bandette has to keep that smile on her face. That’s the reason she wakes up in the morning. She’s relentlessly happy.
Do you think that if you have the extreme happiness of Bandette, you have to have the counter in scary villains?
Tobin: I think it’s very important to have that. Because they play off each other. She’s happy even though the bad, and the bad exists even though she’s happy.
I keep mentioning it, but the complete world thing is really important to me.
Right, I guess you do have to world-build without stopping to explain how the world works.
Tobin: Yeah, that explaining thing is just the death of momentum.
Coover: And that’s another reason that the world isn’t necessarily Paris, although it is Alterna-Paris. You know, if we have a politician show up in Bandette, he’s not the prime minister of France, he’s just the prime minister of whatever.
Tobin: If we put in the actual prime minister of France, then we cement a time period. And we try to avoid that as well. We see it as modern day, but if you say “July 26, 2015” then you read it three years from now and it feels like it’s old. And I want it to have that timeless feel. That no matter when you read it, it’s happening right then.
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