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Ben Rankel Talks Graphic Novel FRANK; A Murder Mystery Set During One of Canada’s Craziest Disasters [Interview]

Exclusive: During this year’s Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo, I caught up with artist/writer Ben Rankel to talk about his upcoming original graphic novel Frank, which is a murder mystery that takes place amidst the chaotic and historical landslide that engulfed the entire Alberta, Canada town Frank back in 1903.

Frank, will be released through Renegade Arts Entertainment as a complete graphic novel that combines the amazing and horrifying Frankslide disaster where half of a mountain wound up sliding over an entire small town, with a fictional crime thriller thrown in for good measure. Rankel’s work can currently be seen in the latest deluxe hardcover of Rat Queens from Image Comics and he’s done some great guest art on series like D4ve from fellow Calgary creator Ryan Ferrier. Rankel’s art style is unique and cool, easily making him a very promising rookie in the comics’ world. I love the color scheme he used on the teaser image for Frank and that one haunting image, alongside knowing that the backdrop of his tale will be the shocking Frankslide makes this graphic novel, due sometime hopefully in 2017, one of the most exciting books on my radar.

Keven: I loved your Rat Queens short that was included in that deluxe hardcover edition; how did that collaboration come about with Kurtis Wiebe?

Ben: Kurtis and I have just been pals for a long time and just from the Con days over the years, we were chatting one night and he asked me if I wanted to do a short for Rat Queens and I was like “Yes I do – that sounds great”. He said “Ed Brisson was gonna do it but he keeps dragging his feet on it so now you’re gonna do it.” So that was great and it was right around the time I was getting a little bit more serious about comics and that helped a lot having a published piece through Image.

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Rankel’s work from the Rat Queens ‘Gary’ short on Image Comics

Keven: Was the concept always going to be Gary from the start?

Ben: It was always Gary and it was all Kurtis. I didn’t have to do much lifting – he already had a hilarious script that he sent to me. I love Gary… Everybody loves to hate Gary. Just doing those three pages, I now feel really attached to that guy. I feel bad for him, he’s so earnest, he just wants to do his best and get along. But nobody likes him.

Keven: I’ve spoken to some friends and they think Gary is always up to something and that he isn’t just that nice guy who gets a bad wrap for no reason – I don’t get that out of him personally.

Ben: He’s not so bad. Though maybe that being said, maybe there’s something he did that we don’t know about and shit the bed at one point. But I just feel bad for him, he’s sitting alone at the bar just trying to make friends and nobody wants to talk to him. If Kurtis ever wants to do more Gary one day, I’d love to be a part of that. It was so much fun and I got to run around and tell everybody for a few days that I was doing Rat Queens. I had done some stuff in the past, a few shorts with Ryan Ferrier but this was my first big attempt at some professional work.

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Rankels D4ve pinup

Keven: You’re officially going into comics full-time now — are you terrified?

Ben: Absolutely terrifying. I’ve had a dayjob with the same company for seven years now and that’s my career – it’s what I attach myself to. The stuff with comics was just something I did on the side to try and get better. So Alexander (Finbow, Publisher at Renegade Arts Entertainment) got a hold of me last Spring, just chatting after one of these Panel One gatherings he does. He asked me about some of these Canadian stories I’d like to write about and I thought we were just shooting the shit so I threw out a bunch of different things and he thought they were cool, then we didn’t chat for another six-seven months. Then he called me up in September last year and said “Ok, we’re gonna do this book.”

My plan was just to do this part-time and I’ve been working on a script for the last few months but the balance between this and my dayjob was starting to get to me a little bit. Thankfully I’ve got a partner who was willing to support me and we made the decision together a while ago that I was going to kick off the dayjob shackles and put myself into this book full-time. At the end of May, I’m saying goodbye to seven years at the same company and throwing it to the wind, hopefully not to crash, burn and die.

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Rankel’s work from Sydney York’s <3 album, which he was nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award

Keven: I think you’ll be OK – I hope you’ll be OK.

Ben: It’s scary to have someone else try and take care of you so that you can just go and do something that’s completely selfish.

Keven: But if you hadn’t made this decision then we as comic fans wouldn’t be able to see something like FRANK. Was this one of the main concepts that you pitched to Alexander at Renegade Arts a while ago?

Ben: Yeah at that time I just gave him a little historical rundown and I didn’t have a fully formed story yet but I pointed out a couple cool things that happened there. Like the miners that got trapped with the horse and when they finally get out, they’re all so excited to be alive they feed the horse a bunch of vodka and the horse dies after spending a week surviving in the mine. So that was a funny story and I’ve always liked the idea of doing stories set in Alberta and where I live. I’ve never understood why more people from Canada aren’t doing stories from this area and I’m not saying this to pick on anybody from here because they’re all my friends, but I want to do more stories that matter to us and get people jazzed about our history which is important to developing culture. It reinforces our own identity as a society.

Then when I spoke with Alexander about how I wanted to do it and who I thought should write it, that’s when the other bomb dropped on me and Alexander said, “No, you’re gonna write it.” It was a little bit shocking but I was super excited to do it. I used to do webcomics a long time ago up until I met Fiona (Staples) and that’s when I decided I didn’t like how I was drawing anymore so I shut down all of my webcomics and put time and focus into drawing differently. Drawing itself is a storytelling medium so if you’re an artist in comics then you know how to tell a story. Trying to do the scripting part of this has been a fun challenge.

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Keven: You’re going from doing these shorts, all the way to now writing and drawing an entire graphic novel. How long is this thing going to be?

Ben: We’re talking about 100-110 pages, so about 5-6 issues which is a pretty solid chunk of work. It is daunting but I feel really confident for some reason. It’s probably because I’m too naïve to feel any different but I feel good about it and happy. I have the story down and I’m just finishing my third version of the outline, then I’m getting into the draft next month. Then I have about a year’s worth of drawing and coloring to do.

Keven: I drive by the Frank Slide all the time, because I live so close to it and it is insane. I always ask myself why noone has done any sort of stories about this before?

Ben: There are so many stories like that in Alberta and Frank itself isn’t going to be a straight-up historical adaptation because I don’t want it to get boring, but I do want to get people more excited about our local history and there’s a ton of cool stories out there like that. Off the top of my head there’s this Opera story where a lady and her lover had a shootout with the RCMP over some stolen money – just awesome and ripe for adaptation and I’d like to do more things like that if Frank does OK.

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Keven: How much of Frank is the actual historical events of the landslide and what will be the fictional aspects of the book?

Ben: The main plot itself is going to be a crime, mystery and just weave into the actual historical events as a backdrop. The main character’s name is Eve. She’s moved out to Frank, which is a boom town and she’s gone out there maybe not for the best of reasons and things go South with somebody that she’s involved with. She can’t let go of that and while she’s dealing with that, he goes missing. So she’s trying to figure out if what happened to him is sinister and at the same time there’s a secondary character named Bob who deals with more of the historical elements and what is going on at the mines and discovers some red flags which probably hinted at the disaster to come but for some reason they didn’t.

One of the funniest stories I read while researching this was toward the end — the miners weren’t even pick-axing at the coal anymore, they were just driving in and the tremors were shaking the coal loose and they’d just scoop it up. They thought it was the most amazing thing ever, these guys just called it a self-mining mine and they didn’t have to work that hard, which is hilarious to me and in a lot of ways I see the same thing today with the boom bust oil cycles today. So I see some cultural relevance there with Alberta today and I’m excited to draw some allusions to that.

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Keven: What’s the tone going to be like – is there some dark comedic elements or what vibe are you working towards?

Ben: It’s definitely more crime in tone, like Law & Order and not procedural but definitely more of a mystery. But a little bit irreverent too because our main character has some emotional problems and she doesn’t deal with them well. There’s not going to be “thee’s and thou’s” or Victorian speech, I’m going to make the dialog modern and accessible to the audience. I mean, there’s humor in life so there should always be a little humor in a story you’re telling. I’m hoping there are a few good moments in there that get people to chuckle.

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