Dustin? Off the Boots: The Original Desperado Returns

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Jeff Mariotte and his creator-owned, critically-acclaimed series, Desperadoes, are back. This time around, the miniseries will be flown under a new banner. This December, IDW Publishing, known for its outstanding horror comics, releases the first issue of “Banners of Gold,” the new Western/supernatural adventure that continues the story of Gideon Brood, Jeremy Betts, and Abby DeGrazia.

Broken Frontier had the chance to talk with the Desperadoes scribe to discuss his thoughts on Westerns and working with IDW. 

Broken Frontier: “Banners of Gold” is your fourth Desperadoes miniseries. With so much happening before this series starts, what have you done to make it friendly to new readers?

Jeff Mariotte: The characters and their relationships will be pretty clear to anyone picking up the book, even if they haven't read the others. And although the basic situation grows out of the previous mini, the story stands alone. In the back of the first issue, though, we're including a cheat-sheet describing who our heroes are, and essentially how things came to be at this point.

BF: What is it about the characters in Desperadoes that brought you back to continue their story?

JM: It's a cliché, in which I have never believed, that characters can take over a writer and make him tell their own stories. But these characters do seem to have lives of their own sometimes and I just kind of peek in to see what they're up to now. They are very close to me, more so than any other characters I've created in dozens of comics and something like 25 novels and counting.

BF: It sounds like you have close ties to these characters and that you enjoy stepping into their world. On a personal level, does this mean that it might be difficult for you to kill one of them off?

JM: I had second thoughts when Race Kennedy died. He had largely been the viewpoint character of the first miniseries, which was told to a great extent through his journal entries and he was a very popular character, who I enjoyed writing about. But creatively I felt like it was important—to the story as a whole, to the growth of the team, and to the sense of realism I'm trying to bring to the series. So yes, it's hard—but it has happened, and it can happen again.

BF: If you had to narrow it down to one thing, what do you think it is about Desperadoes that makes it such a success?

JM: The characters. There have been plenty of Westerns and even more horror comics and while some of them are great, others are just okay. I like to believe that it's the characters here—their personalities, their interrelationships, their sense of humor and sense of honor, that keep people coming back.

BF: It seems that Westerns and horror are getting more of the spotlight in today's comics. You've managed to take the two genres and combine them into one hard-hitting story. What is it that makes these genres mix so well together?

JM: I have loved Westerns since I was a little kid, growing up at the tail end of the Western's real dominance over American pop culture. In those days, there were dozens of Westerns on TV, Westerns in comics, Westerns in movies. The first comic book I can remember ever reading was a Roy Rogers comic, and he's been a lifelong hero.

I came to horror later in life, in the 70s when there was a kind of renaissance of a lot of pulp fiction. I came to it through Robert E. Howard, whose Conan stuff I'd been reading (and in fact, I'm currently writing a trilogy of novels set in Howard's Hyborian Age) and then H. P. Lovecraft. That made me an insatiable horror fan.

A straight Western comic is going to be a very hard sell. Since I love horror as well as Westerns, when I first pitched Desperadoes to Jim Lee for Homage Comics, we agreed that combining the two genres would make for a more commercial project.

I think the reason they seem to be a natural mix is that the West has become more than just history to us—it's also legend and myth. Like other legends and myths, the stories are bigger than life and include elements of the fantastic, whether horrific or not. There is also, combined with this, the American Indian tradition, in which ghosts, witches, spirits, etc. are often treated as everyday phenomena. The result is an impression of the old West as a place of supernatural mystery, and a great setting for horror stories.

BF: You mentioned the mythical nature of Westerns and some of the American Indian traditions. Concerning these elements, are there certain conventional plots or themes that you consciously try to avoid in Desperadoes - or perhaps some that you welcome?

JM: I haven't done traditional monsters in Desperadoes; there's never been a vampire, or a werewolf, or anything like that. Nor have there been monsters lifted from Native American traditions, like the Manitou. The supernatural threats the heroes face come from my imagination. On the other hand, in “Banners of Gold," there is a supernatural element straight out of the American history of the period—a Spiritualist, which was a very popular movement at that time. The story of the Spiritualist, a woman named Sarah Williams, ties in to the main menace but she is not the threat in the series.

BF: I'm glad you brought her up because the Sarah character intrigued me the most while reading the first two issues of this miniseries. She seems to have a sort of historical relevance, which helps ground her in reality. At the same time, she has this ominous, mysterious nature about her, which makes the story that much more interesting. Can you tell us a little about how she came to be? Did you do much research to make her beliefs more realistic?

JM: The Spiritualism movement was very active in the US and Europe during the time period in which these books are set. It's always kind of fascinated me. Most of the claims they made in those days have since been debunked but nonetheless I think it's a strange and kind of creepy set of beliefs and it has a lot of resonance for me. So I've wanted to include a Spiritualist character in one of these stories almost from the beginning and she just kind of presented herself to me in this one, starting with the image of Brood laying in the dirt looking at her ankles. I've done a lot of research about the Spiritualists over the years but did some additional reading up specifically for this series.

BF: “Banners of Gold” is the first Desperadoes miniseries published by IDW. Can you tell us a little about what it's like working for a different publisher?

JM: IDW was started by some friends from my decade at WildStorm Productions and they were all people I liked and had a ton of respect for and they were doing some great things—especially with horror, which is one of my real loves. So when they offered me the chance to go there as editor-in-chief, I jumped at it.

About a year and a half after that, I had another opportunity—to become a full-time freelance writer, which has always been my goal. Again, I jumped. But I am still very close to the folks at IDW and I don't think there is anyone doing as interesting horror projects as they do—probably never has been, in the history of the business. When the chance to do Desperadoes there came up, I didn't have to think twice. They are completely committed to it—even made it their lead title for December. They are willing to bend over backwards to make it the book I want it to be. Alex Garner, who is art director and one of the founders, even contributed a very sweet cover for the second issue. They were completely on board with the idea of getting Jeremy Haun to do the art even though he is still relatively unknown. He is a gigantic talent and I'm hoping this series gets him the attention he deserves. John Cassaday was a relative newcomer when he did the first series, and look at him now...

BF: The cover price for each issue of this new mini series is $3.99. I'm sure the cover price makes sound business sense for IDW but I also know that, while not necessarily a giant leap from other current cover prices, some comic fans might skip your story because of the price. As the story's creator, how do you feel the dual nature of the pricing structure?

JM: I'm not unaware of the flack that a vocal minority of comics fans throw IDW's way because their prices are a little higher than some others. But there are several facts underlying that, which those people may not be aware of. IDW, unlike DC and Marvel, is not a) part of a multinational entertainment conglomerate and such a small part that their actual title by title sales don't even show up on that conglomerate’s annual report, or b) traded on the NYSE or any other exchange. It's a very small company, owned by four partners and they don't have the outside funding sources that other companies do, or the ability to perpetually publish comics that don't make money. They also don't sell ads in their books, because that would require that the ads break up the story the way they do in many other comics, and IDW is all about the story and the creator's vision.

They also put prose stories, many by very noted authors and other value-added features, in the backs of their books, where other publishers put more ads. They also print on better paper than most. So for that $3.99, customers are getting a superior product in many, many ways. Whether any individual feels he or she has gotten $3.99 worth of entertainment value out of any given comic is up to that person but in general I believe IDW really delivers.

In the case of Desperadoes, they're getting a known quantity, a series that's been nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award, that's been critically acclaimed all over the fields of horror and comics, that has been influential in getting other Western projects off the ground and that is, if I may be so immodest, a really good story, told with incredible artwork.

BF: Thanks for your candor. It sounds like you really believe in your work and the work that IDW publishes. It's refreshing to hear a creator admit to feeling positive about the art he produces.

JM: There's a lot of false modesty surrounding any creative project and of course, a lot of the genuine article, too. I'm not the relentless self-promoter that some creators are but believe in letting the work speak for itself most of the time. But my years in this and related gigs—I've been involved in publishing, writing, and the book/comic business for a quarter century—have given me some perspective and I think I'm a pretty good judge of quality. I give each project my all but some shine more than others due to factors beyond my control. This story creeps me out as I write it and again as I read it when each issue is done and that's very rare in horror comics. At the same time, I think the characters are interesting and very real on a lot of levels, so I'm extremely proud of this series.

BF: You've mentioned that you've been in books and comics for awhile now. How do you balance your writing schedule when you have so many deadlines?

JM: I tend to try to charge through one thing at a time, rather than split my focus. Right now, for instance, I'm trying to finish the second Hyborian Adventures book and then I have to do a proposal for a comics project and the script for the fourth issue of "Banners of Gold." But stuff always comes up to throw off the schedule—rewrites for the first Hyborian book are on the way, as are galley proofs of the last book in my Witch Season teen horror series. So I just work pretty much all day, every day, and make sure it all gets done.

- James W. Powell

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