Starting in 2012, Vertigo Comics is diving into one of America’s most haunted cities, New Orleans, with its newest ongoing monthly comic book series, “Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child.” Announced at New York Comic Con, “Voodoo Child” is written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, the former Editor-In-Chief of “The Source” magazine and ex-Executive Producer of News and Documentaries at BET Network, and features art from Milestone Comics co-founder Denys Cowan.
Revolving around the murder of a modern day Voodoo Queen, the series stars Tulane student Dominique Laveau, prime suspect in the murder and a descendant of the famous 1830s Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. A real woman, the historical Marie Laveau was one of the most influential nineteenth century forces on New Orleans, helping shape both the city and the modern American version of Voodoo. Working as a hairdresser by day and Voodoo priestess by night, Laveau reigned over New Orleans as one of the city’s most powerful religious figures. “Voodoo Child” explores that history and the city to its fullest, jumping back and forth through time as Dominique struggles to survive the attentions of the secret Voodoo Court.
Just in time for Halloween, “Voodoo Child” writer Hinds celebrates ALL COMICS EVE with a discussion with CBR about the series, touching on everything from ghost stories and the creatures that populate the New Orleans spiritual world to the real life Voodoo Queen of New Orleans that inspired the title.
CBR News: From the initial Vertigo blurb for your new series, we know one of the Voodoo Queens of New Orleans has been murdered and student Dominique Laveau is the main suspect. What can you tell us about the initial story in “Voodoo Child?”
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds: The first arc of the series plunges us right into this world of a New Orleans balanced between mortal and supernatural elements. It introduces us to a compelling character I’ve been really excited to explore — Dominique Laveau, descendant of Marie Laveau and inheritor of a legacy she never imagined, this strange mantle of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. As our story opens, we meet a terrified Dominique running for her life through the nighttime streets of a city still recovering from Katrina. Forces unknown have framed her for the murder of the preceding Queen, and all of New Orleans, mortal and supernatural, is apparently out to kill her.
The first arc of the series is about Dominique’s flight and fight for survival and her search for answers. That search covers a lot of ground, from the bloody days of the American Civil War in New Orleans, to today’s French Quarter and Magnolia projects, to the otherworldly dwelling places of Voodoo’s demigod spirits, the Loas. It introduces a wide range of characters: all-too-mortal cops and gangsters, ghostly shades and Loups Garous (werewolves), the Voodoo Loas, and the mysterious members of the Voodoo Court, the secret organization, headed by the Queen, that’s been pulling the strings in New Orleans for centuries, maintaining the equilibrium between mortal and supernatural worlds. And, if I’ve done my job decently enough, it will show New Orleans in all its textures, from the spiritual to the political, to the mundane and the magical.
Tonally, is the series going to be a dark fantasy similar to Vertigo’s other titles like “Hellblazer,” or are you treating it more like a crime thriller with supernatural elements?
I’d call it a dark fantasy that engages real world pathologies, crime being just one. I’m just as interested in the character, quirks and travails of the very real city of New Orleans and the people who call it, and have called it, home as I am in the supernatural elements that we’ve constructed in our story world.
What was the genesis of “Voodoo Child?” Was it a story you’ve been wanting to tell for a while?
The brilliant Karen Berger and I had been tossing series ideas back and forth for a bit. I knew that I wanted to write something that was centered in a city, something that would give me a milieu to explore and a mythology to build from. I also knew I wanted to write a series that pulled key components of its lore from Caribbean, African or African-American sources, which also jibed with how Karen was feeling at the time. One day she said, “Hey, what do you think about Marie Laveau?” New Orleans was already one of the places I’d been mulling setting a series, so I told Karen, say no more, went away to think for a few weeks and came back with “Voodoo Child.”
How much did you know about the historical Marie Laveau before that point?
I certainly knew who and what she was, not that I was an expert, nor am I an expert now, by the way! Besides the historical record, fictional versions of Marie Laveau have popped up in any number of places in pop culture, and she’s quite a visible part of contemporary New Orleans lore. So I was familiar enough with her.
Then what can you tell us about your fictional version of Laveau and her descendant, Dominique?
The most interesting thing for me in building a fictional version of Marie Laveau was thinking of her relationship to power: how she shaped and was in turn shaped by it, as a woman and as a creature of her times. The historical record talks a lot about the real Marie’s use of power in many ways — gathering favors, currying influence, using her position as Voodoo Queen for both spiritual purposes and as a way to wield power and influence. I simply used these notions of power as the DNA for my fictional Marie Laveau and extrapolated it into the supernatural realm. That DNA applies to Dominique as well, although her exercise of power, in fact her discovery of power, comes under greater duress. It’s also something that she has deep ambivalence about. There’s a ton of conflict and dramatic potential to mine from a reluctant protagonist who must undertake a voyage of self-discovery while simultaneously learning to wield power and fend off those who would seize it from her. That’s a dramatic mix we’ve all enjoyed in many well-told stories over the years, and it’s a mix I set out to use in “Voodoo Child.”
Since the story stretches over large spans of Louisiana history, did you do a lot of research into the history of Voodoo as well as Voodoo practices and rituals?
I did! It’s one of the aspects of my old journalism career that helps in my current work. I love getting lost in research, the more arcane the better. In truth, though, a lot of my research with respect to Voodoo was more aimed at establishing the baselines, so I could then have a foundation on which to spin out my own adaptations of that lore. You know that old adage about knowing the rules before you break them? It’s as true in writing a series like this as anything else.
Along those lines, during NYCC at one of the Vertigo panels, you compared what you wanted to do with Voodoo in “Voodoo Child” to Mike Carey’s approach to Christianity in “Lucifer.” Can you elaborate on that?
Well, first of all, “Lucifer” is one of my favorite works in this medium and, to my mind, one of the best ever. Mike Carey is a brilliant writer. After I said that at NYCC, I thought, “Man, I hope that didn’t sound presumptuous!” Here’s what I meant: When I think of “Lucifer,” I think of a story that uses Christianity as the fertile ground from which it pulls its myth, philosophy and characters. “Lucifer” is not, to my mind, a story about Christianity in terms of the expected ritual and practice of the religion. Rather, it’s a tale that features greater-than-human characters pulled from that particular pantheon and imbued with the very human quirks, nuances, wants and desires that make for compelling drama. That’s what I wanted to do with “Voodoo Child.” It’s not some ritualistic and doctrinarian exploration of Voodoo the religion. It’s not about people sticking pins into dolls or any of the usual disseminated images of Voodoo practices. As with Christianity in “Lucifer,” I set out to use Voodoo as the fertile ground from which to grow a set of myths, philosophies and characters. I wanted to feature an unexplored pantheon, the Voodoo pantheon, and its wide number of governing spirits or Loas. I wanted to bring these Voodoo Loas to life as characters within my story-world, and, like any good drama, give them the flaws and foibles that make for driven, compelling characters. Tales of gods who walk, war and interact with men. In truth, that idea goes as far back as Homer, at least in the Western canon. And Mike does it pretty damn well in “Lucifer,” so I’m sipping from some powerful elixir here!
Jumping to the artistic look of the series, what has it been like working with Denys Cowan?
I have to say, doing this series feels like being drafted by the Joe Torre Yankees, or the Showtime Lakers. I’m blessed to have such incredible collaborators, from the crazy cool Jared K. Fletcher, who talks like he letters, if you can imagine that; Dave McCaig and his amazing colors, no one does skies like Dave; John Floyd, who’s simply the bomb with the inks; the mad genius of Rafael GrampÃ¡, whose cover work you’ll just have to see to believe; and, of course, my great editors Joe Hughes and Karen Berger.
But Denys is teammate numero uno. I called him a living legend the other day and, of course, he was like, “Man, stop it!” But that humble approach is part of it too. Denys — and any legend, frankly — possesses not only otherworldly talent, but also this sense of Zen and humility that helps ground you as a collaborator, that helps you remember that you, all of us, are always operating in service to the story. If I hadn’t had a three-year working relationship with Denys when we were both doing TV stuff for Reggie Hudlin at BET Networks, I might have been completely intimidated by the prospect of working with him. But since we had that relationship, it made the transition to the series much easier. Still, every time I open a file with new pencils from Denys, I get anticipatory goose bumps that are always dwarfed by a wow feeling when I see the actual art.
Have you and Denys had a lot of conversations about trying to depict New Orleans as accurately as possible, or do you have more leeway as you are delving into the city’s secret, unseen spirit world?
I’d say both points are true. We’re both familiar with the city, which helps, and I’m also the annoying writer who’s always inundating everyone with reference pictures and images. So accuracy is important to me. But it’s not just accuracy for accuracy’s sake. New Orleans is as much a character as Dominique. And Denys draws her — the city — that way, along a very real spectrum of feeling and emotion. New Orleans is always there in our series, so even when we depart to dreamscapes, mindscapes or any other “scapes” you can imagine, we try to maintain a certain grounding to our foundation, a constant relationship to the idea of New Orleans, if not New Orleans herself.
How did you first become interested in the history and spiritual traditions of New Orleans? Was it during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina under your tenure at BET, or did interest spring from an earlier source?
I’m from the Caribbean, Guyana to be precise. My part of the world is one where the spooky oral tradition is rich and alive. Every kid grows up with constant tales of the weird things that go bump in the night. That was my upbringing. New Orleans is the one American city that reminds me of my homeland culture. It’s just a richly textured, haunted place. And that’s only heightened by its cultural legacy. I began my writing career as a music journalist, and I’m also a DJ. So much of my sense and appreciation for New Orleans also came through music. Whether traveling down to the city’s rough projects with artists like Master P and Cash Money, to writing a book with Wynton Marsalis, to spinning post-war New Orleans funk and jazz at some club, the rhythm of the city has always captivated me. Then, during my tenure at BET, I produced much of the network’s coverage after Katrina and, like many, found my heart repeatedly broken by what had happened to one of America’s great cities. I decided right then and there to someday set a story in this city, a story of challenge and eventual triumph, a story that would capture all I found strange, marvelous, tragic and just plain human about this city. I dig New Orleans. I just hope we do her justice.
To end, since this is Halloween and since New Orleans is the most haunted city in America, after all of your research, do you have a favorite ghost story or Lousiana boogeyman?
I do! And it’s a boogeyman who was a very real individual — the Axeman, a serial killer who terrorized New Orleans over the course of a year, between 1918 and 1919. Like the name implies, the Axeman did his bloody business with an axe. Where the story enters into truth-weirder-than fiction territory is how his murder spree culminated. Evidently, after a short gap in the killings, the Axeman sent a letter to the New Orleans newspapers declaring his intention to strike on one more night, but he would spare any household in which jazz was playing. It’s like some kind of warped Passover story, a New Orleans version of the tenth plague visited upon the Egyptians during the Exodus, with the Axeman playing the role of the Angel of Death and jazz as a stand in for the lamb’s blood used by the Israelites to mark their doors so Death would pass them over. Apparently, there was a lot of jazz rocking New Orleans that night, and the Axeman was never heard from again.
“Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child” is out from Vertigo comics starting next year
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