“The American West, in the Year of our Lord eighteen-hundred and seventy-nine, was a place of miracle and wonder, of powerful forces and magical acts.” It was with these words that writer Jeff Mariotte introduced us to the Weird West world of “Desperadoes” in 1998. And this January, IDW Publishing brings you the latest chapter in the Desperadoes saga, “Desperadoes: Buffalo Dreams.” CBR News caught up with Mariotte, who told us what to expect in the next chapter of his Weird West saga.
The first installment, “Desperadoes: A Moment’s Sunlight,” came about when then Homage editor in chief Jim Lee approached Mariotte about doing a project set in the American West. The book married the Western and Horror genres at a time when neither genre was prevalent in the comics marketplace. In “A Moment’s Sunlight,” former Texas Ranger and stock detective Gideon Brood set out to exact vengeance on the serial killer who murdered his Native American wife and their young son. Driven by self-loathing, the killer, Peik, of mixed white and Native American background himself, “preyed on half-breeds like himself, who were, to his twisted mind, ‘prisoners of their own skin.’ He liberated them by skinning them, and the ritualistic way in which he did it gave him temporary powers of invisibility and enhanced strength,” said Mariotte. On his path to vengeance, Brood joined forces with ex-buffalo solider Jerome Alexander Betts, schoolteacher-turned prostitute Abby DeGrazia and Race Kennedy, a detective with the Pinkerton Agency.
The gang’s second adventure, “Desperadoes: Quiet of the Grave,” brought them toe-to-toe with the reanimated corpse of a young hothead named Jimmy Miggs that Brood had gunned down in a gunfight in the streets of Lutrell, AZ. This story was Race Kennedy’s swansong, but introduced a new cast member in the person of the roguish Clay Parkhurst.
The third installment, “Desperadoes: Banners of Gold,” saw spiritualist and psychic Sarah Williams enlist Brood’s aid in fleeing Lutrell (after the zombie’s assault on the town in “Quiet of the Grave”) for the greener pastures of the civilized East. But on their journey, they were dogged by hired killer Montana Donnie Fletcher, who had been sent to dispatch Gideon Brood.
In “Desperadoes: Buffalo Dreams,” for the first time in the history of the series, the supernatural aids our heroes rather than hinder them. “Abby DeGrazia is contacted magically by Geronimo and Lozen, the female Apache warrior she met back in ‘A Moment’s Sunlight’,” Mariotte explained. The task those two Apache tell our heroes to perform “is really what sets the whole tale into motion.” And Clay Parkhurst’s road agent past catches up with him when a chance encounter with a former associate, a fugitive-turned-lawman known as Johnny Fish, blows up in his face.
A member of the Western Writers of America, Mariotte’s Western influences are many and varied. “The first comic book I can ever remember picking up and reading was a Roy Rogers comic, in a Russian barber shop in Paris, France,” Mariotte said. “Roy and Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy had already caught my attention on TV and in movies, so seeing a comic about my hero was an exciting event, and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with comics.”
Mariotte admitted that there is a special place in his heart for B-Westerns, although more serious films like “Tombstone,” “Open Range,” “Unforgiven” and “The Searchers” number among his influences as well. Mariotte also cited the work of Western novelists Elmer Kelton, Will Henry, Loren Estleman and Peter Brandvold as just a few of his literary forerunners.
Mariotte is a fan of other contemporary comics work in the Western genre, though he cautions that, “It takes more than hats and horses to make a real Western.” That being the case, Mariotte looks at a lot of the other books as “superhero stories set in a fictional west.”
“My intent was always to make sure that ‘Desperadoes’ was as authentic as I could get it, true to the West, then bringing in the horror element, so that the stories would play as straight Westerns before the weird element came in,” Mariotte explained. In addition to EC’s classic horror comics, Mariotte also cited “Creepy,” “Eerie” and “Vampirella” as some of his horror influences, along with the works of horror novelists H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Clive Barker, just to name a few.
Structurally, horror movies often devote the entire first act to setting up the terror that is to come. But writers of horror comics do not enjoy that luxury. “I usually work in at least an indication of the horror or supernatural element by the end of the first issue,” Mariotte said, “but sometimes it is very subtle.” In “Quiet of the Grave,” the horror quotient in the first issue was limited to the disappearance of Jimmy Miggs’ body. Of course, soon enough, “the reanimated corpse came back to cause havoc.” But when he can’t introduce supernatural elements as early as the first issue, Mariotte relies on good old-fashioned suspense. “Many times the horrible things that regular human beings do to each other are scarier than anything supernatural, so I try to play off both elements and keep readers turning pages.”
Mariotte takes the old writers’ axiom, “write what you know,” to an extreme most don’t: “I like to write about places I’ve seen.” Mariotte likens this to location scouting for films. “Walking the hills and valleys where Geronimo walked, standing on the streets of Tombstone really brings it home in a different way,” he said. “Whenever possible, I like to visit the locations, see how they smell and taste and sound. There are things you can’t know, no matter how much research you do, until you go to a place.” Mariotte was born in Illinois, but he and his family now reside on the Flying M Ranch in southeastern Arizona, just a stone’s throw from many classic Western locales.
Each installment of Desperadoes has boasted a different artist. Superstar John Cassaday and Western great John Severin lent their talents to the first two installments, followed by John Lucas, Jeremy Haun and finally Alberto Dose for “Buffalo Dreams.” “Each one brings something different to it, and it’s a revelation every time,” Mariotte said. “Alberto’s work has a hardboiled edge to it, with a Steranko-like dedication to light and shadow.”
Mariotte typically writes fullscript, but after that his collaboration with the artists is largely hands-off. “Most of my collaborations on ‘Desperadoes’ have been over fairly long distances, so we can’t sit around and work out pages as we go,” Mariotte said. “I write a fairly detailed script and include lots of reference material-photos of locations, specific props, people, when historical figures come into it. The rest of it the artists get to make up, and if they have specific questions or want my feedback on something, I’m always available for that.”
Mariotte enjoys being able to revisit the “Desperadoes” cast in intervals. “I can be away from the gang for awhile, and then come back and pick up with them right where I left off,” he said. “It’s almost as if they’re just living their lives and I get to peek through the window and describe what I see every now and then.”
As far as Mariotte is concerned, the potential for Weird West stories is limitless. “The West was a weird place. There are ghost towns and haunted mines and when you bring Native American beliefs into it, then the possibilities are even greater.”
Mariotte was also a fan of The DCU’s cast of Western characters, which helped him pen the soon-to-be-announced DC Universe based novel “Trail of Time.” “Trail of Time” is a time-travel epic starring Superman, the Phantom Stranger and The Demon, which ends with a climactic battle in 1872 Arizona, where our heroes encounter some of DC’s greatest Western characters (including Jonah Hex, El Diablo, Scalphunter, Bat Lash and Johnny Thunder). Mariotte jumped at the chance to lend his talents to the series of novels, the stated goal of which was to team some of the DC universe’s flagship characters with some of their lesser-known brethren. “When it was offered to me, it sounded like a lot of fun because I could play with some of DC’s great roster of characters who probably wouldn’t get a whole novel of their own,” said Mariotte.
The first issue of “Desperadoes: Buffalo Dreams” hits stands in January, 2007 from IDW Publishing.