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Neal Shaffer By Zach Smith
For Neal Shaffer, writing comics was something he’d never even thought of until a few years ago.
That’s not to say he didn’t have other mediums in mind.
“Writing was something I’d wanted to do from as early as I can remember,” says Shaffer, 24, in a phone interview from his home in Baltimore. “In college, I definitely made a choice not to be an English major or a Film major or a Journalism major - I found each too limiting on their own.”
Shaffer wound up getting a degree in American Studies - a subject that allowed him to combine many different fields of study into one. “Suppose you study filmmaking - when you see a film, you break it down from that perspective, as a filmmaker. If you study psychology, you break it down from that perspective.
“What American Studies consisted of was developing the ability to have more than one perspective in trying to interpret and understand something. That’s interesting to me - the idea that there is more than one perspective, that there isn’t one particular methodology - that objectivity is not really possible.”
It was with this open-minded perspective that Shaffer approached the subject of damnation for his upcoming miniseries ONE PLUS ONE from Oni Press, to be published this September (a preview story is in the Oni Summer Color Special, in stores Wednesday, July 24).
“The main character, David Coulson, came from an idea that goes way back for me - that Hell is not necessarily a place of damnation, or that it’s completely removed from the regular world.”
ONE PLUS ONE, whose first miniseries will run five issues, deals with human agents of a Hell-like place whose mission on Earth is to make sure the potentially damned meet their destiny. But don’t expect “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
“It’s not the traditional view of Hell - it’s a place where a lot of the skills you have in the real world would help you when you’re there. Most people end up going there - only really, 100% pious people might get to heaven. You can go to Hell and get on just fine.
“What ONE PLUS ONE is about is a Hell whose is existence is as regular as the real world, and is tied to it - what happens here affects what happens there, which is why you need people who make sure you go where you need to go - and that’s what David does. He guides you, puts you on the path to Hell. He has to be present, has to affect change - he’s definitely a hustler.
“But in the miniseries, we downplay those aspects of it - you don’t see much of Hell, the Devil doesn’t even figure into it. It’s another world, another kind of place, different from our world. What’s important is how David sets these people’s fates in motion - that’s what the series is really about.”
With ONE PLUS ONE’s combined themes of corruption and the supernatural, it’s not surprising that his favorite writers include both authors of crime noir and existentialist works. “Camus, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Nelson Algren, Hubert Selby Jr., Raymond Carver, Ross McDonald…what I like to read about are people with problems. In comics, my favorite right now is 100 BULLETS, because it’s so damn good. I think everyone should be reading that.”
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In his own writing, Shaffer enjoys a close collaboration with his artist, roommate and longtime friend, Daniel Krall. “In college, it was Daniel - who’s an accomplished illustrator - who really got me into comics. He had an internship at Insight Studios, and that’s where we did our first project together, an online strip called ATMOS AND THE VARIABLE.
“When we work together, it usually starts with us bouncing ideas off one another till we decide on something. Then I go write a script, and Daniel critiques it. Then he goes and does some pencils, some inks, I’ll critique those, and it goes on and on.
“The work Daniel does - on character designs, especially - I love that. He knows exactly what a person, a place or a thing looks like - I never have to worry about going into excessive description on his behalf. I tend to err on the side of subtlety, and he gets what I’m writing about. It’s great.”
“You almost forget their are two of them,” says Jamie Rich, Shaffer’s editor on ONE PLUS ONE. “To be honest, if there is any turmoil in their creation, I don't see it. There is magic in that apartment. How the spell is cast is a mystery to me, I just know I like it.”
Rich remembers being particularly impressed with Shaffer and Krall’s professionalism when he met them at last year’s San Diego comics convention. “They really knew how to present themselves, and they followed up immediately with proposals. I got the sense these guys could do anything they were assigned and it would all be amazing.”
“We worked hard on that,” recalls Shaffer. “We went in to get a book, and we made sure our stuff looked as good as possible.
“We had three ideas we were showing, and we gave each idea a little booklet with a cover, a one-page pitch, and a page with our studio logo, some art, etc. And we ran into a lot of other people showing stuff at the con, and some of them made us feel a lot better - just Xeroxes stapled together, typos on the page - we made sure we looked professional, that the book was good, everything was clean and well-printed, every base was covered.”
The work paid off - ONE PLUS ONE is earning a tremendous amount of pre-publication buzz, something Shaffer finds very gratifying. “It’s great to see people interested in new people who haven’t been around before - I’m grateful for that. I hope it lives up to the hype, and it grows.”
In the meantime, Shaffer’s trying to break into journalism - “It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s something I definitely want to do at some point” - while developing new projects for comics. “I love working at Oni, and I love working with Jamie Rich - he’s one of the ten percent of editors who are both talented smart, people and know how to edit.”
Rich is just as enthusiastic about working with Shaffer and Krall again. “We haven't decided yet what exactly will be the next step, but I am open to whatever ideas they may have.
“Oni loves their work, and we hope this is just the beginning.”
ONE PLUS ONE is featured in the Oni Press Summer Color Special, in stores this Wednesday, July 24. The miniseries will be in stores September 11.