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For more than a decade, Ed Brubaker has transformed the landscape of crime noir graphic novel storytelling. However, his latest work, Panel Syndicate's Friday, might surprise you.
The award-winning writer is known for highlighting the humanity in criminals who must live with the consequences of their actions — as he did in Criminal, Kill or Be Killed, and Bad Weekend, which all explored the dark and twisted side of the comic book industry. Even his Bruce Wayne (Batman Beyond: Rebirth) resonates with the jaded cynicism born from the helplessness that comes from having seen too much death.
However, Friday, a collaboration with artist and Panel Syndicate co-founder Marcos Martin (Batgirl: Year One, Doctor Strange: The Oath), is less “brooding old men” and more Harriet the Spy. The story follows college freshman Friday Fitzhugh and her near-genius bestie, Lancelot Jones, who’ve been solving crimes and debunking myths since they were kids. Their lives changed after Friday went off to college. Home for the holidays, Lance recruits her into helping solve a series of unexplained supernatural events occurring in their hometown. It seems Lance hasn’t moved on, nor has he dealt with a traumatic event that still haunts both of them.
An ode to the YA mystery books like Encyclopedia Brown that Brubaker read as a kid growing up on a naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Friday is another take on the teen detective duo story. Having collaborated with Martin on a Captain America Annual about 15 years ago, Brubaker jumped at the chance to work on another major project with the award-winning artist. Colorist and Panel Syndicate co-founder Muntsa Vicente rounds out Friday’s creative team.
Panel Syndicate was really ahead of its time when Brian K. Vaughan, Vicente, and Martin launched it in 2013 with only one title (The Private Eye). The concept was simple: Attract the masses and new comic book readers to the medium by creating digital-only, DRM-free, high-quality work in a pay-what-you-want-to format. Seven years later, and in the middle of a pandemic, it seems as though Panel Syndicate was ahead of its time. This business model could be the rule, rather than the exception someday.
In the interview below, SYFY WIRE talked to Brubaker and Martin about Panel Syndicate's growth, working together again, and their shared love of Lovecraft and nostalgic teen mysteries.
What were some of the crime novels that influenced Friday? And why did you choose the ‘70s aesthetic?
Ed Brubaker: The basic trope of the teen detective pair is so universal at this point that I mostly just tried to create new characters and their world, but leaning a bit into those tropes. So readers can project nostalgia for their own favorites onto Friday and Lance.
I never read the Three Detectives series, but a lot of our readers did, and asked if I had. When I was a kid and then in my mid-20s, I was obsessed with a lot of Young Adult books, like Harriet the Spy, and Encyclopedia Brown, and the Great Brain, and the various John Bellairs series that are illustrated by Gorey. And I wanted Friday to feel like a book that could have existed in the same time as those books. But what I'm trying to do with the story is to add the growing-up part to the story of the teen detective, and make the world she grows up into more like a real terrifying horror story a bit.
Marcos Martin: That was part of Ed's original pitch and one of the things that attracted me the most. The chance of mixing up the Lovecraftian elements more associated with the early 20th century with the completely opposite aesthetics of the gritty ‘70s, and see what could come out of such a contrast of styles.
When you, Brian and Vicente decided to open up Panel Syndicate to more than just your own work, what were the types of projects and creators you were looking to attract? And how does Friday fit into that model?
MM: Basically, we always look into creators whose work we know and admire and who we think can benefit from our model, either financially or in some other way. At this point, this usually means established creators who are committed enough to this concept and thus willing to take the risk of working without the assurance of an immediate return. Other than that, we have no other requirements in terms of genres, tone, drawing style, et cetera, although we do have a general idea of who our audience is at the moment and how a specific work might do in regards to that. In that sense, we've been lucky enough to have an incredible writer like Ed come on board and allowed Friday to be part of the Panel Syndicate project.
You made the decision pretty quickly to work with Marcos even before you came up with the plot. What drew you to his work?
EB: He's simply been one of my favorite artists for a long time. I love his storytelling sense, his attention to detail, and just the way he draws people and things. His style has been evolving over the years into something almost more like a classic newspaper strip artist from the ‘30s, or an EC artist from the ‘50s, and I've been following his work closely forever.
Was it a collaborative process?
MM: I'm one of those annoying artists who like to keep close communication with the writer (and all other members of the creative team), which means a constant exchange of opinions and back-and-forth emails. I had the feeling Ed was as passionate about the work as I am, so that worked perfectly for both of us as we nitpicked and obsessed about every little detail, from the font style to the length of the balloon tails.
Lancelot feels like a young Sherlock to Friday’s disgruntled Watson. Is that similarity intentional?
EB: He's definitely more the sidekick, yeah, but I wouldn't say I ever thought about Holmes and Watson. Her name springs from the obvious place, of course, which is the Girl Friday idea. So that's part of what the story is about. Like what is that relationship like as you grow up, when you're the sidekick to the world's smartest boy?
What made you decide to show two different art styles in the middle of the book?
EB: The storybook section is sort of weird — it's the reader being told an old folk tale, in an odd style of writing — so I wanted it to seem more like illustrations out of a children's book or an old pulp magazine. It was Marcos’ idea to draw it the way he did, and he and Muntsa decided to color it like a faded old newspaper strip. It really makes it stand apart. We have more stuff like this in upcoming chapters, too.
MM: That was probably one of the most challenging aspects of this first issue. There were a number of paths we could have followed in terms of the visual style, all of them valid from some standpoint. Some of them I felt could prove too distracting or could risk taking the reader out of the story. Others I simply wasn't proficient enough artistically to pull off. So I ended up settling for this slightly more realistic approach that I felt made more sense from a storytelling viewpoint while at the same time I could also handle stylistically.
Panel Syndicate’s option of pay-what-you-want makes the work really accessible for so many — especially right now. But will this be in print one day?
MM: Well, I know there's been some interest and we're definitely not against it, but there are no actual plans at the moment. In any case, it probably won't happen until we're all done with the series, which is still a long way away, so we're happy we'll be able to keep offering our work in the most accessible and affordable of ways.
What’s your favorite panel in this story?
EB: The entire second-to-last page of chapter one is one of my favorite things so far. And I love the page with the recipe for how to make a maybe-deadly weapon with snow and rock.
MM: I wouldn't say so much a panel, but a page, the scene where Friday has the feeling someone's watching them in the trees.
What’s next for both of you?
EB: More Friday, and a book called PULP that will be out in July, from Image, with my other artistic partner, Sean Phillips.
MM: Friday Issue 2!