Brandvold talks Writing "Bat Lash" with Aragonés & Severin

"Will he save the west – or ruin it?"

That was the question DC Comics posed when they introduced their newest Western hero in 1968's "Showcase" #76. Bartholomew Aloysius Lash, better known as "Bat Lash," had more in common with Bret Maverick than John Wayne. Laconic, fond of gourmet cooking, and rarely without a flower in his hat, Bat was nonetheless a first-class gambler, a crack shot, and a rogue equally loathed by outlaws, lawmen, and the many lovely ladies he left in his wake.

Written by comics legend Sergio Aragonés, and illustrated by master artist Nick Cardy, Bat Lash only lasted seven issues in his own book, but despite this brief run, Bat made a memorable impression on readers with the offbeat combination of action, comedy and drama that characterized his stories. Several decades and a guest appearance on the "Justice League Unlimited" cartoon later, Bat Lash is finally back in a new miniseries premiering later this year, co-written by Aragonés and Western novelist Peter Brandvold.

Brandvold is a name that might be unfamiliar to comic fans, but he's published more than two dozen books since 1998 and has been hailed as "the next Louis L'Amour" by critics. Though westerns aren't as popular in fiction as they were in L'Amour's day, Brandvold has managed to make a career from his writing. " The market for western fiction is relatively small by, say, 'romance,' standards, but I've been fortunate to make a living at it for the past ten or so years, acquired a fairly loyal following," Brandvold told CBR News. "Of course, I've had to write a lot of books to keep the dogs from howling - and I'm starting a new series under the name Frank Leslie - but I write fast and have fun doing it."

Like Lash, Brandvold tries to inject some new life into the well-traveled Western genre. "The problem with the western market is that it's been slow to change," Brandvold said. "There's still an old-fashioned quality about many of the books being published. Some are just too corny and slow. I'm trying to change that in my own small way by writing gritty, adrenalin-pumping stories - dark, violent, and sexy stories - about compelling, three-dimensional characters."

These qualities will show up in Brandvold's Bat Lash series, which he says has the working title "Guns and Roses." "It's refreshing to have a western character with as much self-effacing charm as grit," Brandvold says, "and the way Sergio and I are portraying Bat, he has both. I think if I introduce anything new, it would be a touch of the darkness that hounds at Bat's heels because of the horrible things that happened in his past, and which I'm writing about now in this new series, juxtaposing the charm with grim violence."

Although he wasn't a comic book fan growing up, Brandvold became interested in comics through one of the industry's most acclaimed writers - Mike Baron, the Eisner-winner writer of "Nexus" and "The Badger," whom Brandvold describes as "my good friend, neighbor, hiking, and drinking pal." Baron introduced Brandvold to comics, and in the process, introduced him to a whole new type of writing.

"I really didn't start reading comics until late in my thirties, and I'm glad I didn't or I wouldn't have this whole new world opening up to me," Brandvold said. "And, I tell you, comics have had an incredible influence on my prose work. My 'Rogue Lawman' series of books was totally inspired by comic books."

Brandvold soon decided that he wanted to try creating comics of his own. "I not only got interested in comics, I got absolutely obsessed with them - nearly went broke buying them - and decided I wanted to try my own western comic series," Brandvold recalled. "Mike also put me in touch with Michael Wright at DC. I simply told Michael I'd like to pitch a western, and I can't remember if it was Michael or Dan Didio, but someone suggested I pitch Bat Lash. So I researched the character and pitched an origin story."

After reading the original issues and researching the character, Brandvold found that Bat Lash had a lot in common with his own work. "I absolutely fell in love with the character, with the way Sergio established his character and the way Nick Cardy drew him," Branvold said. "It's a weird coincidence that Bat Lash shares so many of the same attributes as my own roguish bounty hunter character, whom I've written about in about eight novels - Lou Prophet, beginning with the novel ' The Devil and Lou Prophet .' They have much the same sense of humor and comedic charm while being very good with the ladies as well as their six-shooters. They both also share a sense of loneliness and sadness based on tragedy that I've always felt appealing in fictional characters."

Brandvold is quick to praise the "tongue-in-cheek, madcap quality" of Aragones' writing on the original series, along with Nick Cardy's work, which he calls "art of the highest quality." "Each page of Cardy's comics is like a lone piece of perfect art," Brandvold said. "My favorite cover is the one for #2, where Bat and a little girl are hiding behind a tombstone in a snowy cemetery, and an Indian holding Winchester is skulking past. That's a terrific, moody cover. It teems with story! You really wanna tear into the issue. A favorite moment is when Bat invades the Mexican - is it a prison? I forget - and he hangs from the cannon. That's like something out of a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movie."

The new miniseries teams Brandvold with Aragonés in a unique collaboration. "I write the scripts, send them to him, and he was sketching them out - at least, he did that with the first one - but he's been so busy with 'Mad' work that I'm not sure if he's doing that or not now," Brandvold said. "But he and I hammered out the general arc and time period of the story, which, as I said before, is an origin story. It's been great fun working with him, and I hope these issues have at least some of the humor and fun he brought to the original series. I'm trying very hard to do that and I think it's working out so far; he and I seem to have similar sensibilities, which is probably a little odd - him being Spanish and living in California, and me being a Norski from North Dakota! But I think it's a neat collaboration . "

Brandvold has found that the differences between writing comics and novels offers both limitations and opportunities. "Obviously, in comics you're working primarily with images and dialogue," Brandvold said. "The limitations are that you really can't get into the character's head for any length of time, like you can in a novel. But in a novel, you have to make the prose extra vivid, since you're not working with actual images on the page, and the best novels are series of word pictures. In a novel you get 'voice,' a rhythm to the prose, and there's really no voice in a comic. Comics, too, are more stripped down, sort of like a motion picture.

"For me, there's little difference between writing comics and writing prose novels," continued Brandvold. "In both, I still have to first get inside my little kid's made-up world and imagine the story - really see it like a movie - before I can sit down and write it. Comic scripts go faster just because, as long as I've painted some vivid pictures for the artist and penned dialogue that resonates, I really don't have to worry about the phrasing, whereas in a novel the phrasing and rhythm and pacing of the prose is as important as the word-pictures I'm painting."

Joining Aragonés and Brandvold is artist John Severin, an industry legend who's no stranger to comic westerns, having recently illustrated the controversial "Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather!" at Marvel. Working with Severin is a dream come true for Brandvold. " Concerning Severin, this is how blessed I am," Brandvold said. "When I first started reading comics in earnest, I was reading all the westerns I could get my hands on - a lot of European stuff like 'Blueberry' by Charlier and Moebius, 'Tex' from Italy, and 'Morgan Kane' by Kjell Hallbing from Norway. Another, and probably my favorite series, was 'Desperadoes,' written by Jeff Mariotte right here in the good ole USA. I was reading his first trade paperback, 'Quiet of the Grave,' and didn't even know who the artist, John Severin, was, but I kept thinking, 'If I ever get a chance to write a western comic book series, wouldn't it be great if this fella Severin drew it?'

"Well, I loved Severin's art so much - he had such a keen eye for the western landscape and horses and men and such a feel for story, and he obviously loved to draw so much, as much as I loved to write - that I researched him on the Net. I really wasn't surprised to learn that he was one of the top two or three writers in the business, and that he'd been doing this for over fifty years, but I was absolutely inspired that, well into his 80s, he obviously still had such a passion and proficiency for his life's work. The problem was, I didn't think I would ever get the opportunity to work with such a craftsman and such a legend. But, here I am working not only with Severin but another legend, Sergio Aragon é s! Who'd have thunk?! I've never met Severin, though he lives only sixty miles from me. I have to tell you, I'm a bit of a bumpkin - associate mostly with my dogs, wife, and a few long-suffering friends - and I'm worried I'll make a fool of myself if I go down there. But I've made a fool of myself before, so one of these days I'm going to give him a call and throw caution to the wind!

"I'm very excited about the project and the fact that, on my first comics project, I'm working with two giants in the business. To be talking plotting over the phone with Sergio Aragonés and then to have an artist like John Severin penciling my scripts is an indescribable thrill!"

Brandvold, who says the current "Jonah Hex" series at DC is "my favorite comic right now in any genre," hopes that his "Bat Lash" miniseries catches on with fans. "I hope we can continue it, run one a month like they're doing with 'Jonah Hex,'" Brandvold said. Even though Bat Lash once threatened to ruin the West, in comics, at least, he might help save it.

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