Joseph Illidge takes a stroll with Boardwalk Empire to research ‘The Ren’

Credits: Joseph Illidge
Credits: Joseph Illidge

Joseph Illidge takes a stroll with Boardwalk Empire to research ‘The Ren’

One of the key components to telling rich and engaging stories is presenting a world that immerses the reader in a world that rings with authenticity. That is why research and detail are so important to any work that seeks to set itself in a historical setting. Recently Joseph Illidge paid a visit to the set of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire to gain some insight and reference material for his upcoming period project The Ren. Much like the popular cable series, The Ren takes place in the 20’s and the time period and setting are essential in creating the atmosphere and backdrop for these dramas to play out against. Mr. Illidge took time out to share a bit about his location visit, the team responsible for working on The Ren and a call to a friend for some musical playlist recommendations!

MT: Recently you paid a visit to one of the set locations for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

JI: Yes! Terence Winter, the creator and Executive Producer of Boardwalk Empire, was kind enough to give me and Shawn Martinbrough, co-creator and co-writer of THE REN, a tour of the set. Many thanks to Terence for the great time!

MT: Are you a fan of the series?

JI: No doubt! I love the show, from the writing to the fashion to the production design, so it was a great opportunity to see everything behind-the-scenes.

MT: Do you have a favorite character?

JI: It’s hard to nail it down to just one favorite.

I really like Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, because of his poise, sense of strategy, and how he considers everything before he speaks. He doesn’t mince words, and he’s a man who follows through on action. His new business partner, Sally Wheet, played by Patricia Arquette, is great as a formidable woman in every way for Nucky.

But, of course, the breakout character this year is Dr. Valentin Narcisse, played by Jeffrey Wright. The way his character is a criminal hiding behind the philosophies of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey is just so twisted…you want to hate him, but he’s such a good villain!

MT: Can you share a bit about your visit and what it has to do with you current project the Ren?

JI: The visit was research for me, as I’m now writing THE REN, a graphic novel which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. Boardwalk Empire is now operating with that historical context as a backdrop for the war between Chalky White, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, and Wright’s Dr. Narcisse.

I took tons of pictures of the set of The Onyx Club, a Black-owned club with various performers of color, to give them to the illustrator of THE REN, Grey Williamson. The stage, lighting fixtures, tables, the floor, the overall art deco influence…all of those things are beneficial to an artist.

As a writer, it’s my job to help provide the artist with visuals and information so he or she can envision the story with a level of authenticity, so they can vibe off of the reference.

MT: Can you share a bit about the Ren and what it is about? When can fans expect to see it hit stands? Who is currently working on the project? What formats will the project be available in?

JI: THE REN is a 200-page graphic novel detailing the love story between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. I can’t share more at this time, because quite frankly, we have to keep the details under wraps, but I can tell you that a few well- known historical figures from the Harlem Renaissance will make appearances in the story. Some of them will factor a great deal into the lives of our characters.

2015 is the planned release year for THE REN from First Second Books, at a time when it will make an impact. That year will be the 90th anniversary of writer and editor Alain Locke’s essay “Enter The New Negro”, which became the manifesto for the movement.

My co-collaborators and co-creators on THE REN are co-writer Shawn Martinbrough, artist on Robert Kirkman’s crime series Thief of Thieves for Image Comics, and Grey Williamson, illustrator for DC Comics and Valiant, and mentor to a number of Black illustrators working in comics today.

THE REN will be released in print and digital formats. It’ll be great to see what kind of added features we can include in a version of THE REN that people can experience on their IPads.

MT: What kind of challenges do you and the creative team face in creating a work of this kind?

JI: From a creative standpoint, it’s making sure the work has a historical sense of truth. A lot of research is going into this story. The people, the times, the social conditions that took Black Americans from the first World War to the philosophy and practices behind The New Negro Movement, which would eventually be renamed “The Harlem Renaissance”.

There are many famous writers and artists who are significant, but can’t appear in the story because their timelines don’t match up with the years of our story, which are 1925 and 1926. So we have to be accurate, and present the illusion of a story that could have happened, that could have been a part of the history books.

Personally, we’re all perfectionists. Shawn, Grey, and myself, and our editor, Calista Brill. All of us are working overtime to make sure THE REN will be the kind of groundbreaking book that stands the test of time.

When you look at well-done crime stories that have been adapted from graphic novel to film, like what Sam Mendes did with Road to Perdition and David Cronenberg did with A History of Violence, Shawn, Grey and I want THE REN to be just as cinematic in feel and engrossing as an experience.

MT: What originally attracted you to this project? What kind of sensibilities from your previous work do you find coming into play on this particular project?

JI: The opportunity to tell a story of my people in an important time for Black history and American history is what drew me to the project. You can’t turn that down. It’s more important than writing any superhero story. A work like Art Spiegelman’s Maus trumps almost any ten years of Superman comics (except for the first ten) in terms of its significance to literature and cultural impact.

Sensibilities-wise, it goes back to my time working at Milestone Media, the first mainstream Black-owned comic book company, back in the Nineties. Working as an editor on those books with founders Derek T. Dingle, Dwayne McDuffie, Michael Davis, and illustrator Denys Cowan prepared me for the responsibility and mindset for approaching and discussing Black culture in comics.

Creating and writing THE REN is an extension of that experience.

MT: The time period in which the story unfolds saw an explosion of artistic expression. Musically, if you had to choose a soundtrack for The Ren, could you name of couple of pieces that you would imagine would play in a score if it were a film?

JI: This is the part where I pass the buck to Professor Christopher Chambers of Georgetown University. He’s been a friend and ally when it comes to research for THE REN, but he still owes me a playlist for the period.

C’mon, Chris! I need to load up my Droid Razor with some old tunes!

Thank you, Mr. Illidge. Fans looking for a roaring 20’s fix until the much anticipated release of The Ren can check out the phenomenal series Boardwalk Empire on HBO Sunday nights.

Joseph Illidge started his editorial career at Milestone Media, Inc., the first Black-owned mainstream comic book company and creators of “Static Shock!, the award-winning Warner Bros. cartoon.

Joseph was the first African-American to become an editor of the Batman line of comic books and graphic novels for DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Joseph was also the editor for the company’s top-selling female action-adventure comic, Birds of Prey.

After his tenure at DC Comics, Joseph became the Comics Editor for the critically-acclaimed independent graphic novel publisher, Archaia Entertainment. Now the Head Writer and Editor for his own production company, Verge Entertainment, Joseph works for various clients on film and graphic novel projects.

Read More by Mark Turner


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