These Mermaids Have Teeth: An Interview With ‘Black Cloak’ Creators Kelly Thompson And Meredith McClaren

by Rachel Bellwoar

Detective Phaedra Essex is used to being unpopular, but when her ex-fiancé is murdered, there’s no way she’s not working the case (even if means confronting her past in the process). Set in a world where mermaids and elves co-exist, Black Cloak is the latest series from writer, Kelly Thompson, and artist, Meredith McClaren, and is the fantasy-murder mystery you didn’t know you needed. Subscribers to Thompson’s Substack newsletter will have read the series digitally, but starting this January it will be available in print curtesy of Image Comics.

In an interview carried out over email, Thompson and McClaren share some of the ways they worked together and make a case for mermaids being the best.

Cover A by Meredith McClaren

Rachel Bellwoar: Black Cloak #1 begins with a look at the city of Kiros, “the last city in the known world.” Is that something you mapped out first, before writing the rest of the series, or was that a page you saved for last, after knowing what places to include?

Kelly Thompson: Yeah, the first script was… possibly unreasonably dense, for just that reason. Tons of world building and we just dump you in on page one. I hate big exposition dumps and prologues and all of that stuff you often get in fantasy-esque things – I like to just dump the reader in and let the art and the story lead them more naturally through the world. Sort of like if you’d just crash landed there yourself. Sometimes cool details get left out (for another day perhaps!) and I think it puts a lot of pressure on the artist, so you have to have the right partner if you want to take this approach, but it’s definitely how I prefer to read a story and how I prefer to present one, if I have the right team. Meredith IS that team.  

Meredith McClaren: Oh boy. We jumped right in. Kelly gave me a layout of the city from above and that was the first page I did. I think I leaned on the crutch that the camera was so far out that we could blur things a little. Be more sketchy before working out something more distinct by the end of the issue. You gotta start somewhere.

Thompson: Yeah, I definitely drew her a ridiculous map of the city. It was absurd Meredith’s first page of the book showing the city of Kiros from outside the walls is awesome – so it can’t have been that bad!  

Bellwoar: What was it like, creating an entire universe from scratch, and do you have a favorite spot, among the locations so far?

Thompson: It’s very intimidating. Especially in creator-owned where you feel more free, but you also have less of a safety net. Fewer cooks in the kitchen is often a good thing… but not always. The Lagoon is a close second, but for me it’s gotta be The Trees. Although one of my favorite things that Meredith has done is create such a rich world and one that has a ton of contrast between areas of the city and the citizens of Kiros.  

McClaren: I love drawing narrow city streets, but the Lagoon is probably my favorite. It’s the only place in Kiros that is devoid of intentional architecture. (Save the wall separating you from it.) It feels so far apart from the rest of the city. And rightfully so.

Words: Kelly Thompson / Art and Colors: Meredith McClaren / Letters: Becca Carey

Bellwoar: For all of the ways that Kiros is different from any city on Earth, there are still murders in need of solving, which is where the Black Cloaks come in. What can you tell us about the Black Cloaks and how Detective Phaedra Essex came to be one?

McClaren: Kelly usually keeps me on my toes as the story plays out. I only know things a little bit before the rest of you. So I can’t say too much. 😉

Thompson: This is a real condemnation of me—though I suspect Meredith doesn’t mean it that way—we were moving SO fast last year—it was like being shot out of cannon, I’d worked a lot of stuff out prior to us starting scripts and drawing but I was never ahead of our work as much as I’d have liked—to make up a pretty outline from my chicken scratches and random notes. 

Bellwoar: One of the brilliant things about Black Cloak is how it uses the familiar, police procedural format to help readers adjust to the rules of a fantasy world. Were there any crime shows that you turned to for inspiration, in terms of the dialogue or figuring out the orientation of some of the panels? 

McClaren: I don’t know that it is totally a crime show, although crime factors heavily in it, but Arcane landed just as we started ironing out the first issues. And that definitely helped guide how I approach Black Cloak. It’s a high mark to reach for, but it has pushed me to try harder.

Thompson: Yes! Arcane is definitely the thing that most reminds me of Black Cloak of anything I’ve seen or read out there – but I mean that mostly in a good way. I think the stories are quite different, but they both have a solid mystery at the center (like most good stories!) and all these great characters spinning out and around that mystery. Influential things for me on Black Cloak were everything from Arcane and Blade Runner to Mare of Easttown and True Detective

Words: Kelly Thompson / Art and Colors: Meredith McClaren / Letters: Becca Carey

Bellwoar: Essex and her partner, Pax, have a natural, buddy cop rapport and seem to know each other really well. What made you want to have that relationship be positive?

Thompson: Yeah, I’m not super into people being dickish and unfriendly for no reason—so if we were going to go that way it would have to be a big part of the story that gets excavated and we just didn’t have that kind of time. Besides, I always really enjoy seeing a positive side to that relationship—we get the disgruntled partners plenty, I’d rather have two gifted detectives that are good at their job and are trying to do the right thing and only have one real lifeline in that—their partner. 

McClaren: Essex needs a buddy. She already has plenty of enemies.

Thompson: I changed my answer. What she said.

Bellwoar: Color is a major tool for relaying how magic works in this series. Is it difficult, sometimes, to gauge how much to spell out and how much to trust the reader to put together on their own?

McClaren: I think in this I tend to err on the more conservative here, and that’s not always to the benefit of the story. One of the difficulties of any storytelling venture is you’re never really sure how much to spell out for the audience. Everything seems obvious to you, because you know what was meant. And I’m a big advocate for having audiences figure things out alongside the characters. But sometimes those things paired together can make it difficult to parse plot points.  

Kelly is really good about knowing when we should guide the reader a bit more though.

Thompson: Thank you. I was honestly a little worried Meredith wouldn’t come on to the project because on our first book together years ago—Heart in a Box—Meredith and I had this idea about the color changing gradually through the book based on something happening to the main character. And while it was a brilliant and beautiful idea and I think (probably) worth it—it was a HUGE pain in the ass. Certainly far more for Meredith than me. The colors have been MUCH easier here, although I admit it’s always where I push her—hopefully for the best. 

Words: Kelly Thompson / Art and Colors: Meredith McClaren / Letters: Becca Carey

Bellwoar: In the series, members of the royal family can be identified by their tattoos. What I didn’t realize right away is that those tattoos can stand for things and be translated. How much work were those tattoos to design?

McClaren: I would LIKE to say lots. Loads. Reams of research. But… tattoos are hard for me, repetition wise. So the truth of the matter is I kept the symbology as simple as possible so it’d be easier to replicate over the course of the book’s artwork. Very forgiving.

Thompson: She says that and I’m sure it’s true—but the designs are great. They really make sense. The fact that they feel like a partial sleeve and look very controlled and somewhat tribal all feels very right to me for something a class of people get as a mark of respect or to mark a station or achievement. And I think it all fits very nicely into the world we’re building. 

Bellwoar: As the cover for Black Cloak #1 gives away, it has mermaids (though not necessarily the friendly kind). What made you want to feature them on the first cover?

McClaren: Mermaids are awesome. Everyone loves mermaids.

Thompson: Yeah. I gotta agree with Meredith. Mermaids have everything—especially our slightly more omnivorous ones—they’re beautiful and they’re also monsters, they’re human and they’re also not remotely human, they’re magical and mythical and mysterious and they’re also just another creature trying to survive another day. And of course they’re a water creature and everyone knows water creatures are both the most fascinating and most terrifying of all creatures. ;D

Bellwoar: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Kelly and Meredith!

Black Cloak #1 goes on sale January 11th from Image Comics.

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