Weird westerns have become one of the new big genres in comics in recent years. The combination of horror and fantasy with western tropes has gone from being a fairly fringe area of fiction to one that can be readily found in print, online and in comics. One of the best examples of the genre is the long running comic “Strangeways” written by Matt Maxwell, the second volume of which is currently being serialized on CBR’s Robot 6 blog.
“Strangeways” has had a long, strange trip to publication. Originally solicited as a miniseries by Speakeasy Comics, writer Matt Maxwell went on to publish the collected edition of the book himself through Highway 62 Press. For the second story in the series, “The Thirsty,” Maxwell sought an outlet that would allow him serialize the vampire tale, which eventually led him to CBR’s Robot 6 Blog. As the second storyline enters into its last stage, CBR took time to talk with Maxwell about the series, the upcoming anthology and his plans for the future.
CBR News: For people who haven’t read it, could you describe “Strangeways?”
Matt Maxwell: “Strangeways” is the story of Seth Collins, an ex-Union officer, just after the Civil War. It’s his journey across the last days of the wild west when the frontier was starting to be closed off. It just happens to have various monsters and supernatural creatures that we wouldn’t expect. It’s him coming to terms with the war and what happened during it. It has a lot to do with family. The idea of family and what you’re willing to do for family has played a fairly major role in all the stories so far. It’s a spooky western. There’s a long tradition of what’s called the weird western.
Where did “Strangeways” come from? I know it’s something that you’ve been working on for a while.
There was an abortive attempt to do “Strangeways” as a comic back in the nineties. It was a total mess. I had no idea what I was doing. Coming off of writing prose as opposed to comics, they’re two completely different skill sets. As for the actual origin of mixing cowboys with werewolves and vampires and that sort of thing, there’s a movie called “The Valley of Gwangi” which was animated by Ray Harryhausen. [I saw it when] I was a kid, and dinosaurs are of course great and cowboys are great and “The Valley of Gwangi” was about cowboys and dinosaurs, so what could be better? That was probably the origin. It had been bubbling around in the back of my head. I saw horror and I saw westerns but I didn’t see them combined very much. I’d heard of Joe Lansdale, who’s famous in horror writing for using a lot of western themes and settings. I’d come across one of Marvel’s black and white horror magazines that reprinted a lot of their old seventies comics, and there was a story called “The Horror from the Mound” which is a Robert E. Howard story about a rancher in New Mexico who finds a vampire locked away in a burial mound in the hills outside his property and how that unfolds. That story stuck with me. I think I read the story not too long before I attempted the first script of “Strangeways.”
What about the title? Strangeways is a pretty perfect title for this kind of western-horror-fantasy story.
Originally the title was Badlands, but Dark Horse Comics in the nineties put out a miniseries by Steven Grant called “Badlands,” so I had to come up with my own. I couldn’t tell you where the title itself came from. There’s a fairly infamous prison in Manchester nicknamed Strangeways, but I heard about that afterwards. The Smiths have an album called “Strangeways Here We Come.” I’m not particularly a Smiths fan, so I hadn’t come across that until I’d come up with the title. It’s possible I heard it through osmosis and it bubbled up there.
I was thinking of Neil Gaiman in Sandman, the period where he’d taken a break from the main story and was doing a lot of the stories within stories. He came up with an idea called “soft places,” where magic and reality overlap. I thought, “That’s an interesting idea.” I didn’t particularly care for the name. It wasn’t something that worked with a western set-up. I needed a name that suggested a place where things are different. Eventually, the name “Strangeways” came out.
The first book was “Murder Moon,” which came out as an original graphic novel in 2008. Was your plan always to have that kind of publication schedule of largely self-contained stories?
I’d always planned it the way “Hellboy” does things. They did a miniseries, and when it was done, well, you’ll get another miniseries when Mike Mignola’s done. I thought that’s the way you should approach it to keep a consistent level of quality and don’t feel rushed to keep making the monthly deadline. I always intended to do standalone stories that connected into a larger framework. That was probably as much the influence of books like “Sandman” and “Swamp Thing” as anything else.
Between “Murder Moon” and “The Thirsty,” you changed artists, going from Luis Guaragna to the team of Gervasio and Jok. What was the thinking behind that?
For “Murder Moon,” Luis Guaragna, drew the main part and Gervasio and Jok did the backup story called “Lone.” When the time came to start working on “The Thirsty,” Luis was wandering around the world, literally. Gervasio and Jok were familiar with the material and they drew up some sample pages and they did good work.
Not too long after they started, I was contacted by Luis and he asked if I had some more work. I had the backup story for “The Thirsty” written. That’s worked out pretty well.
How did you end up connecting with JK Parkin and serializing “The Thirsty” online through Robot 6?
I was looking for a place to serialize “The Thirsty.” I had originally serialized the first chapter of “Murder Moon” on my own website and I’d gotten some attention. I wanted to give readers and retailers a chance to see what they were getting instead of just ordering it blind. Especially since it was supposed to go out as single issues and then get collected. The solicitations got out before Speakeasy demonstrated that it wasn’t going to survive long enough to do the initial printing. I figured, with an orphaned miniseries half collected, nobody was going to want to pick it up much less pick up the collection, so I decided to just cancel the whole thing and go back to my original plan of doing a self-contained original graphic novel. I knew JK. I asked if he might be interested. He said sure. That was pretty much that. Things changed not too long after I started the serialization, and there was a mass exodus from Newsarama to what would become Robot 6.
Has working online and serializing the story one page at a time affected the story in any way?
I wrote “Murder Moon” in 22 page chapters, even though it wasn’t my intention to release it as single issues. That’s just the way it came out. I wanted to try to keep it close to the structure that people were familiar with when I wrote “Murder Moon” and wrote the outline for “The Thirsty,” although I hadn’t scripted it yet. When I’m doing outlining, I’m trying to think in a page by page fashion. Ultimately, planning it for doing a page a day really didn’t occur to me when I was writing it.
It probably doesn’t read best serialized day to day. It’s funny thinking of it as a webcomic sometimes, because when people are writing webcomics, they’re thinking very seriously about keeping interest up on a day to day basis and making sure each individual entry is satisfying. That’s not something that’s a particularly concern for me. The next project is planned to be an anthology, so it’s eight to ten page stories with a few pages in between each story for the overall narrative. That might read a little more satisfying. It’s a pretty big commitment to ask people to come back 120 times to read a couple pages a week.
“Murder Moon” was about a werewolf and “The Thirsty” is about vampires. Was the idea always to keep the different “Strangeways” stories as distinct standalone tales and that, while the world may have a million fantastic creatures, not to have all of them crowded into a story at once?
It keeps things simpler. It’s not asking people to accept that there’s a whole giant fantastic universe of crazy things happening. It’s just, “Hey this is weird, I’m breaking the rules, here. Now I’m breaking rules, here!” And I haven’t even tapped into real western folklore. I’ve tapped into the myth of the west, but there’s folklore from all areas of the U.S., some of it imported from Europe and some of it homespun. Not to mention the vast array of Native American mythologies. I want to use all of those as bits in the toolbox to draw from.
After taking a break for the holidays, “The Thirsty” is starting up once again. How much longer do we have to go until this story is finished?
There’s one more chapter. There’s twenty-two pages in the last chapter. Then there’s the story of De Medina. His story is almost fifty pages. I haven’t decided whether that will run online or not. I may just include it in the graphic novel, which would probably make me a stinker in some people’s eyes. Or noses, as the case may be.
Do you have plans for when you’re going to collect the book?
I’m actually talking to publishers now to see if there’s interest in it. There’s every likelihood that it will be self-published as “Murder Moon” was. And let’s be honest, you have to get distribution by Diamond or you won’t be selling to comic stores, and that’s not yet a slam dunk.
The new minimums for Diamond certainly don’t help independent creators.
They help consolidate the marketplace for a certain range of publishers. At the bottom end it basically chases everybody onto the internet first. With “Murder Moon,” I made the old minimums without too much difficulty and had reorders on top of that, but the new minimums are significantly higher.
You mentioned that the third “Strangeways” book will be an anthology.
The third book is tentatively titled “The Land Will Know” and it’s an updating of the western ghost story. I have artists tentatively lined up for it, including people that readers will have heard of, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Why make an anthology and what have you enjoyed about this approach so far?
It gives me a chance to work with a lot of different styles. Let me tell you, if you want to boil down a story to eight pages, even a pretty simple story, that takes a fair amount of discipline. It’s something a lot of writers don’t really have to do too much. Part of that is because publishers don’t spend a lot of time and money on anthologies, because it’s perceived that anthologies don’t sell particularly well. Maybe it’s because they don’t. I don’t know. This is a whole story disguised as an anthology.
In just the past few years, weird westerns have become huge, especially in comics. “Dead Irons” from Dynamite and “High Moon” on Zuda are just a few examples of recent incursions into the genre…
There’s a huge spate [o weird westerns], and a whole spate of specifically werewolf westerns. “High Moon” is good, and the art’s really amazing. It’s a very different story than what I was doing in “Murder Moon” and “Strangeways” in general. There’s a series from Moonstone called “Rotten.” I don’t know what the explanation for that is, what the phenomenon at work is, but people often arrive at similar ideas from very different starting points all the time.
Having mentioned all these other titles, some of which are very good, what I love about “Strangeways,” and what really makes the book stand out, is the tone. It’s subdued and understated in the way that many old westerns were.
I think a lot of the difference is that a lot of those [comics] are horror or fantasy stories that are set in the west. Mine is a western that happens to have a werewolf. It is much more understated. It’s like the supernatural part is intruding and representing certain things. Using the werewolf to talk about the end of the frontier.
I sometimes have trouble calling it a horror series. I use horror because it’s the fastest shorthand that people will latch onto, but I don’t do a lot of things just to make horrible things happen. I don’t use gore or try to shock you, particularly. I would rather shock you with a character’s insight than shock you with blood.
I remember a few pages recently where the way the scene played out, if you changed a few words that dealt specifically with vampires, it could be a scene out of an old school western.
It could be a gang of outlaws instead of vampires. You’re right. I try to be true to what a western is and what a western does. I’m not particularly interested in breaking the genre. I think the genre works just fine. I just happen to change some of the scenery.