Where are ‘The Missing Men’? Hobtown Mystery creators share a lifelong connection

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes drew pictures and devised stories together as kids. They’re nearly 40 now and haven’t stopped.

“We’ve been friends since we were six years old,” says Forbes, who along with Bertin, spoke via Zoom from their shared office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “The very first thing we ever did together was draw little characters and write little stories and then go out on the playground and act them out. So it’s been the basis of our relationship for the vast majority of our life.”

“When we were introduced, a kid said, ‘Hey, Kris, you can draw; my friend Alex can draw. Why don’t you two draw together?” says Bertin. “We did that for decades.”

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Bertin and Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series featuring crime-solving teens investigating unsettling goings-on in a mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. It’s been described as “Nancy Drew meets David Lynch.” Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press in 2017, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” is out in a new color version from Oni Press.

“You always hear that advice that you need to write for yourself, and I think it is good advice. When I do my own work – I write short stories and screenplays – I do write for myself,” says Bertin, who is the author of the story collections “Bad Things Happen” and “Use Your Imagination.”

“But for this, I’m writing for him, and I think he’s doing the same thing for me. And so what makes it really special to me is that, whatever else it’s about, it’s about our friendship. Not to get too sentimental, but this person is my family at this point. He’s like a brother to me, you know? We’ve been friends for that long,” says Bertin. “When I give him a script, I’m so excited to give that to him – more than I’m excited to see something on the shelves – because it’s for him. They’re our characters.

“I’m trying to excite and surprise my friend. And that is one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my entire life,” says Bertin. “I know that sounds weird and really corny. But it’s true.”

“It’s a really lucky thing,” says Forbes. “I think it probably is kind of rare.”

Kris Bertin (L) and Alexander Forbes (R) are lifelong friends and the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin (L) and Alexander Forbes (R) are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin (L) and Alexander Forbes (R) are lifelong friends and co-creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes are the creators of The Hobtown Mystery Stories, a graphic novel series that features a cast of young friends investigating the unsettling goings-on in their mid-’90s Nova Scotia town. Originally published in black and white by Conundrum Press, the first book in the series, “The Case of the Missing Men,” has just come out in a new color version from Oni Press. (Images courtesy of Bertin, Forbes and Oni Press)

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Inhabiting Hobtown

Over the decades, Forbes and Bertin attended school together, worked at a local bar together, lived together and now share a workspace – Hobtown HQ, Bertin calls it – and they developed and percolated the stories and lore over time as they worked on their own individual projects. 

In “The Case of the Missing Men,” a group of teens is drawn into a dangerous and disturbing conspiracy that involves members of the local community, a dash of the paranormal and, possibly, some inexplicable mini-men. There’s something both wholesome and weird about the story.

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“That describes where we’re from,” says Forbes with a laugh. “Wholesome and weird.”

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The characters draw on familiar archetypes: Imagine a Scooby-Doo-style team of amateur sleuths reminiscent of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, teen genius Tom Swift and a character with psychic ability (and an upset stomach).

While both express admiration for the classic teen detective series, Forbes says he wished those books could be as compelling as their covers promised. “The aura of those books was always special to me. I was always attracted to them,” he says, but he often found the stories disappointing. He says he wanted the Hobtown stories to be “what I wish those books were – full of illustrations and actually spooky.”

Despite relying on familiar types, the creators also invested the Hobtown characters with realistic problems and struggles.

“What if Nancy Drew, who is perfect, is a prisoner of her own perfection?” says Bertin. He also references “Missing Men” character Sam Finch, a rich kid who led a globetrotting life with his adventurer father before arriving in Hobtown. “You’re just traveling around the world with these men in a jet – what would you be like? You might be stunted in some way. You might seem really tough and cool at first, but then it’s like: No, you don’t know what it’s like to have friends.”

“Throughout the series, it’s him becoming a softer, good kid,” says Forbes. “He just doesn’t know how to be around people.”

“So those are the kinds of things we’re after with the characters,” says Bertin.

The origin story

The Hobtown creators say the collaboration began after Forbes had his initial ideas for the stories and was consulting with Bertin.

“We were living together at the time. I was asking him for a lot of advice about how to write a mystery – how to write period, really – and I think he got tired of my pestering and just sent me a script at one point,” says Forbes about Bertin.

Bertin says he was drawn to the characters, especially the odd little men who are glimpses in the story.

“There’s a lot of folklore here from a variety of different cultures – from the French Acadians that were here, the Scottish and the Irish, as well as the Mi’kmaq [the local Indigenous community] – about little tiny people, about mini-men,” says Bertin. “I was like, you’re not even aware of it but you’re totally tuned into the natural horror, the beating heart, of our region.”

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Bertin says it wasn’t long before he was hooked. 

“That’s what got me so excited. And I just eventually said, ‘Just let me write it; I’ll give you something and you draw it.’ Honestly, it’s been the most rewarding work that I’ve done in my entire career,” says Bertin. “And I know we’re young. So there’s still room for something better to happen.”

“I think a big part of it is how familiar we are with each other and how our brains work that the script really was exactly what I was hoping for, aesthetically,” says Forbes. “The humor of it and everything. Yeah, it’s been really fun.”

And what does all of the underlying lore woven through the story mean?

“We could explain it. We could probably talk for way too long about what the things are and what they mean,” says Forbes. “It’s just more fun for people to interpret a lot of the mystery stuff on their own.”

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Finding a palatable palette

After the original black-and-white edition of “Missing Men” and its follow-up, “The Cursed Hermit,” came out, the pair moved to Oni Press and began work with Los Angeles-born, Portland-based colorist Jason Fischer-Kouhi

Bertin and Forbes, who said they’d originally conceived the books in color, spent time with their West Coast collaborator creating a palette that captured the look of Nova Scotia’s coastal towns and provided a similar sense of creepiness as the black-and-white books.

“We had to show him pictures of the region,” says Bertin, adding that the Atlantic Ocean has a much different hue from the Pacific, for example. “The Atlantic looks like, you know, the wall of a mental institution. It’s so gray, it’s barely blue.” 

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The goal was to find a muted color scheme, softer browns and olives, that would occasionally pop – such as when ominous figures in yellow rain slickers and strange masks appear in the story.

“We just had to be like, ‘We want this to look like a VHS tape of a show that doesn’t exist,’” Bertin continues. 

“And the palette he landed on is really great,” says Forbes.

Both formats of “Missing Men,” it’s fair to say, are visually successful. While there’s something unnerving about the original and its lack of color, the new version’s vibrant panels and slightly larger format offer more clues and echoes to pick up throughout the story (and both Bertin and Forbes gleefully share that there are visual hints and quiet echoes throughout the book).

“All the little details we put in, we really try to fill this thing,” says Forbes, who adds that there are elements in this first volume that readers will connect with even more as the series goes on. “We want to reward the astute reader.”

The next case

As for the immediate future, there will be more stories about the team; a second volume is scheduled for later this year.

“We’re under contract with Oni for five books. And, you know, we have danced around an idea for a sixth if people really want it,” says Forbes. “So it’s not a lifelong thing, but it’ll be a part of our lives for a while longer.”

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Both Bertin and Forbes want to see the characters develop and change. 

“We’re trying to move away from what people expect and take the story where we think it’s most interesting,” says Bertin.

“These characters, what they go through, they’re transforming,” says Forbes. “They really do transform.”

Bertin, who shares that he’s working on the fifth book currently, remains enthusiastic about the entire project.

“Every day that I’m here, and I see what it looks like on the page or on the screen,” he says. “I’m more excited than I was the day before.”

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