For the past two years, David Lapham has terrified horror fans with his work at Avatar Press, delivering taut, visceral tales of bloodshed and brutality with such titles as CROSSED: PSYCHOPATH, CALIGULA, and FERALS (to name just a few). Beginning in May, Lapham will return to the genre that started his career: crime noir (or what he calls "domestic noir," as explained below). His new series, called DAN THE UNHARMABLE, has been his behind-the-scenes pet project for years, an intensely personal tale that he's as passionate about as his other creator-owned works STRAY BULLETS and YOUNG LIARS. Lapham opens up about this ongoing series for the first time ever, in an interview exclusively with Bleeding Cool (and featuring Lapham's never-before-seen design sketches).
LAPHAM: Dan's a bohemian, homeless man who works as a man-for-hire, a kind of private dick. He works for enough dough to keep him in the basics of food, or sometimes a room if the park is too crowded, or a new Melvins CD if the old one got scratched. Dan also takes sex in lieu of money… for certain clients. Basically, he's a man of simple needs who doesn't want more. He's uniquely qualified for the dangerous work he does because Dan is completely unharmable. Physically and mentally, nothing can hurt him. Dan doesn't care about anything except maintaining his very happy low standard of living.
At the start of DAN THE UNHARMABLE, a situation arises that Dan can't ignore – he finds out he has four kids from a forgotten relationship. Their mother has been murdered and the court has made Dan legally responsible for their care. This puts him in a dilemma, because whether he cares about these kids or not, his freedom-loving lifestyle does not include doing it from a jail cell…
LAPHAM: I like taking ideas out to an extreme. So I had this idea, what about a guy who just couldn't be hurt? Bullets, fire, drowning, whatever… nothing can hurt him. And what if that extended to the psychological? Dan doesn't get riled up if you call him any horrible thing that you can imagine. You can't insult Dan's mama, or dare him to do things. Dan's just chill. So extending from that, I entered a situation that Dan can't ignore. Four orphaned kids, their mother brutally murdered in the style of a classic Hollywood murder – even the most hardened man couldn't ignore this. Dan would if there wasn't a court order compelling him not to. So at first, he's forced to help them, and as we go… well, we'll just have to see if actual paternal feelings develop over time or not.
BC: You've given Dan a very distinctive look. What are you trying to capture in his physical appearance?
LAPHAM: I just wanted a very chill and unique fellow, a guy who looks like he lives in a park but isn't scary. He's a big guy, but he looks pleasant. He's got this big King Buzzo hair, because big King Buzzo hair cracks me up. He's got a big Frank Zappa mustache because of the same reason, and the basic look I wanted to give him has a Wallace Beery vibe – this big, menacing guy that's so affable-looking. Like Beery in Treasure Island, he's just a rascal. That's Dan.
BC: By comic book logic, if you get bitten by a radioactive spider, your new powers largely define who you are going to be. How would you describe the way Dan lives his life upon gaining invulnerability?
LAPHAM: It goes back to what I just said, about Dan being unharmable both mentally and physically. Basically, Dan's checked out, and you can't get to him – and this makes him extremely happy. A bullet won't get his attention, and neither will someone looking cute like a kitten. Dan's not a sociopath. A cute kitten is cute to him. He's just not going to be motivated by anything but his own happiness and the pursuit of it. In Dan's case, who he is might have defined his powers more than the reverse.
BC: DAN THE UNHARMABLE feels very reminiscent to your previous work, YOUNG LIARS: a main character with unnatural characteristics, being hunted by mysterious baddies, a cast of oddball and quirky characters. How do you feel these projects compare, and how are they different?
LAPHAM: It's similar in that it's a lot of things I like, strange characters and an offbeat approach to the world where the characters' physical and psychological states are very much entwined. DAN THE UNHARMABLE doesn't have a group of emotional twenty-somethings, like the YOUNG LIARS group. He's the opposite of that. His world is not as surreal as YOUNG LIARS, where characters would die and come back to life without explanation or become different people. The YOUNG LIARS series is more dreamlike (though it was not a dream). DAN's more straightforward in those terms. Dead is dead. The real world is real.
BC: DAN THE UNHARMABLE is an ongoing story. How will the story arcs play out? Without ruining the surprise, can you give us an idea of the themes you'll be exploring as the series progresses?
LAPHAM: My first thought was that Dan would be like a grown-up version of the Hardy Boys, where each arc would take on a case. "Dan and The Secret of The Lost Goldfish", "Dan and The Dead Girls of the ACC", "Dan and The Naked Scarab", etc. And while I will do a lot of that, the introduction of these four kids who may or may not be Dan's biological offspring has really suggested some story directions that are more personal. So, it'll be a combination of both. The first Arc is called "The Bittersweet Fruit of Lust", and it's about taking on the case to help his four kids find who murdered their mother.
The second arc is called "The Severed Case of a Man Called Head", and it explores how Dan deals with his family now that he's saved them. We focus a lot on Dan's eldest daughter, whose name is Chandra but whom he renames Lizzy after the Melvin's song (mostly so he can remember it). We'll find out a little about how elements of his past continue to put his kids in jeopardy, framed around the case of his eldest daughter being framed for murder.
BC: As I understand it, DAN THE UNHARMABLE has been a project very near and dear to your heart. What makes this series so special?
LAPHAM: Any series where I get to be me is extra special to me. This one, I invented from my brain, so like YOUNG LIARS and STRAY BULLETS, it's naturally close to me.
BC: Were you involved in the selection of Rafael Ortiz as the artist? If so, what qualities made him the standout artist for DAN THE UNHARMABLE?
LAPHAM: DAN THE UNHARMABLE is actually the very first thing I wrote for Avatar. William Christensen went through a lot of guys to find the right guy to kick off our series. What made Rafael stand out was how he made his characters act. He draws a great Dan, and his facial expressions and body language are excellent. The way I've written this book, that's very important to the storytelling. I see so much personality in Dan, and Rafael can pull that off.
BC: Your previous works at Avatar are largely horror tales: three post-apocalyptic CROSSED spin-offs, the CALIGULA miniseries set in antiquity, and the current ongoing FERALS werewolf saga. DAN THE UNHARMABLE, however, seems very much to be a departure. Is there a common ground in DAN for the fans of your previous Avatar work, and what other readers do you hope that DAN will hold appeal for?
LAPHAM: Everything can't be the same. While I think CROSSED, FERALS, and CALIGULA all have different takes and different feels, they're all horror stories at their core. Dan keeps things fresh. Like those other books, Avatar fans can look forward to DAN as being no-holds barred. It'll push the envelope. It can and will get brutal.
BC: There's something of a 1960s / 1970s retro feel to DAN THE UNHARMABLE. Although set in the modern world, Dan himself feels a bit like a throwback to an earlier, more swarthy time – as do the young siblings Peep and Bobo. What are your thoughts on the clash between modern sensibilities and those of yesteryear in this series?
LAPHAM: That goes back to what I said earlier about the influences on Dan's look. There's a definite hippie / Bohemian feel over Dan and some of the characters you mentioned. His kids, though, are modern kids. It really just serves to displace him and these oddball characters from the rest of the world. They're not from around here, and yet, there they are.
BC: Thanks to your work on STRAY BULLETS, it seems that the words "crime noir" are frequently bandied about whenever you tackle a new project. Does that description apply to DAN THE UNHARMABLE? If so, what are the key ingredients needed for DAN to be crime noir?
LAPHAM: Yes, it's funny because I've rarely done a straight-up noir, like the private eye and the femme fatale. I always called STRAY BULLETS a domestic noir, meaning that it's a domestic drama using all the heightened elements of a noir story, but in the end, it doesn't matter if the characters are actual criminals and cops, or whatnot. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. I think by what I described, you can see that DAN THE UNHARMABLE is more of a real noir in some ways. He's a man-for-hire who takes on cases. But I give it my own treatment, which hopefully takes us in very unexpected directions.