Just a F.A.D. - Part One

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So I have a confession to make. And if anyone else out there wants to stand up and admit it also, we can all be brothers. Because I’ve been privately nursing a little idea I had a while back into a thing I’d like to see published as a comic book. And now I’ve got some other people involved and I’ve seen the artwork and hot diggity, ain’t I pleased.

I confess this because that publishing part is really the classic version of the F.A.D (Fanboy American Dream). And if any of you have done more about it than privately thinking about how freaking cool it would be to see your work on the local shop’s stands, then you know that making that dream a reality is more than just a nifty trick. It’s the kind of feat that makes changing your name, moving to Hollywood, and waiting tables until some movie producer sees you on the street and makes you a star seem like a relaxing little hobby.

So sitting down with Matt Maxwell, creator of Strangeways , is a chance to talk a little bit about pulling that trick off. Because he did that. And rumor has it; he got his start writing a column in the very place that you’re reading this one about him.

But this story has a twist ending, folks, so make sure you read to the bottom. What started off as an informative little chat got way more educational than I’d anticipated, and more so than our buddy Matt would probably have liked.

Broken Frontier: Okay, first things first. You mention at the back of the book that you've been pitching some version of this story since 1996 when you took it to Dark Horse. Exactly how long has Strangeways been in your head?

Matt Maxwell: Hmm. I'd probably been working on it a while before that. However, I didn’t take so long in plotting my writing back then, so the whole thing went pretty quickly. I remembered reading one of Robert Howard’s short stories adapted to a b/w horror magazine and saying to myself “hey, that seems pretty cool to play around with” and before too long I had cowboys and werewolves going at each others throats in a sort of steampunk/alternate history California. Thinking back on it, there was too much jammed into the package and I settled on a more straight-up horror/western combination. Which, frankly, is a more direct and stronger read.

But yeah, I took it to Dark Horse in 1996 or so, with no artist attached. Bad idea. Trying to sell a plain script with no name recognition is a one way ticket to a great big headache. Not for the timid, which I was. I basically quit after that.

BF: It also seems like getting this thing into print was a long and complicated road. Can you briefly describe the evolution?

MM: You got a few hours? Oh, briefly. Okay.

I’d started with the idea, which got me to a script after a few months. I’ll add that the script was heavily overwritten and would have worked better as a novel (with some changes) or as a movie (with some different changes). I was trying to do it all at once, and you just can’t do that and have it work out. I wanted the introspection that a novel allows you and the fluid flow of action that film allows you. It was a poor comics script. And while comics can do things that both film and novels can do, you have to balance it carefully, or you very quickly end up with illustrated novels or captioned storyboards. Neither of which is comics.

So, script in hand, I went looking a publisher. Which, as I mentioned above, isn’t such a great plan. Get some pages done first. Make the art as professional as possible, and make sure it tells a story. I wasn’t in a position where I could get an artist on the book, which made it pretty much un-sellable. Now, publishers say that they’ll look at scripts with no art attached, but I bet I can count the number of times folks have broken in like that on the fingers of one hand.

When I revived Strangeways, back in 2003, I went back to the original script and dusted it off. Now, I didn’t change it all that much, or at all, really. I just went looking for artists at places like comicsportfolio.com (dead now) and Digital Webbing and some of the various online forums I was reading. I finally hooked up with an artist...

Sadly, that artist didn’t work out. Things got dragged out for a year and at the end of things, I had less than an issue’s worth of art that had already been paid for. Back to square one. Luckily I found some great artists by way of Digital Webbing. I say artists, though I originally only hired Luis Guaragna of Estudio Haus in Argentina. However, I needed some more issues done and Luis was hip-deep in finishing the first story arc, so I hired another art team and they’ve worked out really well.

In 2004, I’d talked with Adam Fortier, who at the time was just forming Speakeasy. He expressed interest in Strangeways, but I didn’t have a firm offer/deal for a while.

BF: How did the deal finally go down?

MM: Very quickly and informally. I handed him the lettered first issue at Wizard World LA last year and he said, “November.” Okay, there was a little more to it, but we can get to it.

BF: Were there any hard lessons (or even, really, easy lessons) you learned while trying to find a home for Strangeways?

MM: Easy lesson? It’s hard. By far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The writing? Basically trivial compared to the amount of effort I’ve put into getting an artist, talking to publishers and marketing. The writing was just the start. Everything else is tougher, and I hate to say it, far more important than the actual creation of the book.

And if you’ve got a junk book, don’t even bother. I know for sure that I don’t, though I have to remind myself of that from time to time.

Hard lessons? Take everything with a grain of salt. None of this takes care of itself. You have to be on top of it all the time or it’ll try and run away.

BF: When did you meet Luis Guaragna? Did you work with him on anything before? How did the project evolve when you two were working together?

MM: I met Luis by way of Digital Webbing, where I’d placed an ad stating that I was looking for an artist for a b/w horror series. I downplayed the western angle, or at least remembering doing so, probably because the horror atmosphere was the thing that needed to really come through. Western setting can be done here and there, and would come through anyways, but if the artist couldn’t do horror via emotion and atmosphere, then I couldn’t work with ‘em.

I don’t know how the project evolved as a result of Luis’ work, but he certainly planned out pages differently than I saw them in my head, and far better. He was able to take my somewhat cramped scripts and make them work and flow, as well as give them some interest. When I think of them in my head, it’s relatively static 6 or 8 or 9 grid panels, nothing terrifically interesting. I’m still getting the ropes down as to how much can fit on a page and other mechanics of comics that you don’t have to think about otherwise to worry about coming up with innovative layouts and the like. And Luis has done a great job with that, and keeping the creepy atmosphere.

BF: Western/horror hybrids are a fire a lot of guys are trying to fan recently. What do you think accounts for this? What interests you about the genre?

MM: Seems to me that there’s a lot of the “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” driving western/horror hybrids. Both of them can be visually driven action pieces, which make for good comics, if you pace it right. Also, they’re relatively fresh as these things go and could be packaged well for other media, which a lot of comics guys are shooting for, ultimately. I include myself in that. I love comics, and they’re a great money sink, but tough to make a living with so far.

As for my own interest, some of that comes from western film, which I’d always thought of primarily visually (mostly in the films of John Ford, who was location shooting). But more importantly, I liked the themes of westerns (which, if you dig a little bit, look a lot like the themes of film noir/detective fiction) and how they could interact with horror. Westerns are often, if not usually, about a lone man who walks between evil/wildness and good/civilization, using the tools of one to aid the other. Granted, that’s a pretty simplistic basis to work from, but I think that I’ve done well enough with it. Ultimately, it’s all just fiction and stories. We dress them in different clothes, but the story is what’s crucial.

BF: And now the fun stuff. This is obviously before my time at the site, but rumor has it that you used to be a staffer at Broken Frontier. Does this in any way relate to you finally getting Strangeways off the ground?

MM: Heh. You caught me. I’m not sure that writing Full Bleed, my former column, got me get off the ground as a writer. However, I will say that it was much easier to approach folks in the business as a columnist, working up an interview angle or the like. But it wasn’t a magic bullet for making Strangeways happen. Hell, if it was, I’d be done and the book would already be out there, wouldn’t it?

But it did give me a chance to talk comics and poke around the industry more, as well as give me a weekly deadline to deal with, which is decent practice for the real thing. And I finally archived all my old Full Bleed entries over at my blog, Highway 62 for those of you following along at home.

BF: I note that everyone on the creative team's credits also list their email addresses - I gather this is a first-time project for a lot of people. Is this the case?

MM: I’m listing those so that if people like what they see, they know where to find more. Hoping, in my case…

BF: How'd you put everyone together?

MM: Luis has done some work in Argentina, but I think this is his first job here in the states. Gervasio and Jok, who do the art for issues/chapters #5 and #6 haven’t done too much work here either, though they’re working on The Hill, which I understand is coming out as an OGN from Speakeasy sometime this year.

Steve Lieber, who does the covers, has been in comics for a very long time, most recently and visibly on Gotham Central, though he got a lot of attention for his work on Batman and Hawkman. And then there’s his work on Road to Perdition (with Max Alan Collins) and Whiteout/Whiteout: Melt (with Greg Rucka writing). I’ve known Steve for a long time, and in a perfect world, I’d have the means to get him on interiors for Strangeways as well. I’m happy enough to have him on covers, though. They look great, and they do their job: stopping your eye dead in its tracks and demanding attention.

As for Guy Davis, who provided the pinup for the first issue, I’ve been a fan of his for awhile (was really blown away by his designs on The Marquis and his work overall on BPRD) and just emailed him to ask for a pinup. I knew his horror sensibilities would mesh well with what I had in mind for the book. And that his pinup would be something completely unexpected yet wonderful. Which it was.

BF: How many issues do you have planned for Strangeways? Do you have multiple arcs planned? Same characters/rotating cast/chocolate strawberries?

MM: Don’t know exactly how many issues I have planned, but I’ve got a sort of ending in mind for Collins. But it’s a long road to getting there, plenty of stories to tell along the way. I’m trying to work in relatively self-contained arcs that would favor trades/OGNs as opposed to just singles, but each of them would contribute to the larger story of Collins’ journey through the Strangeways. Largely, the stories will be focused around Collins, but there’s some where he’s just on the periphery. I imagine that we’ll see some faces more than once, but we’re not there just yet.

BF: What's the one question you always wish interviewers would ask you?

MM: Something that would make me look brilliant. Maybe “And just how did you get to be so brilliant, anyways?” I can’t think of an interviewee who wouldn’t eat something like that up.

BF: What's the one thing you want the world to know about you? About Strangeways?

MM: The less said about me, the better. The one thing that I’d say about Strangeways is that beyond its genre mashing, it’s a great story, and could be read by anyone who wants a great story, not just folks who like either cowboys or werewolves. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like at least one of those.

BF: Your favorite Beatle?

MM: John. But I’d rather be Ringo. He seemed like he was always having a good time.

And this is how the interview was supposed to end, everyone. Kind of a nice happy little piece about a local dude made good. When Matt and I began trading emails, #1 was on the stands, #2 was on the way, and everything looked optimistic for our hero.

But sometime between when our email-swapping Q&A began and when the questions were supposed to get back to me, tragedy struck. As anyone who picked up #1 and was waiting for #2 knows, there was something of a hitch. So Matt promised me we’d sit down and talk about what went wrong and why his life went all crazy-like. But it was going to have to wait until it wasn’t so crazy-like anymore. And that’s where the story will pick up next time...

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