"It's neat!" writer Brett Matthews told CBR News, speaking about his and Dynamite Entertainment's The Lone Ranger series, which has just been nominated for the Eisner Awards for Best New Series and Best Cover Artist. Illustrated by Sergio Cariello with covers by John Cassaday, the series has been generating buzz and fan acclaim since its 2006 issue #1, which sold out and went into a second printing. The sell-out was a first for Dynamite, as are the newly announced Eisner nominations. It's great to know people appreciate the book critically because that tells me what we're trying to do with it is getting across. 'The Lone Ranger,' as we're doing it, isn't an easy book on any level, and it helps to know people with pretty damn good taste are enjoying it.
"More than anything, I'm happy for [Dynamite founder] Nicky [Barrucci] and Dynamite, because it means a lot for the company. Despite how hard or challenging my take was -- especially at the outset, when you don't have the luxury of seeing it realized and knowing that it works - Nicky has been nothing but supportive of John [Cassaday] and I and wanting to know what he could do to make it happen. He's always done what's best for the book, even when it's cost him money or hasn't been the easy decision. That's no small thing and I'm glad to see him rewarded for it.
"I'm also happy that my fellow creators – Sergio [Cariello], Dean [White], and Simon [Bowland] -- are having their work recognized just because I think it's exceptional and they're all great to work with. And everyone already knows Cass' stuff is killer, but this is a passion project for him and I think it shows. This thing has gone from being a twinkle in our eyes over some beers to this, which is pretty cool."
While industry accolades are all well and good, they are only a part of the book's audience and some of the series' harshest as well as most enthusiastic critics come from a very specific demographic, that of longtime Lone Ranger fans. Of the feedback he's gotten through friends or simply overheard in the comic shop, Matthews said, "Ninety percent of it is overwhelmingly positive, ten percent is vicious. Which is good. I'd always rather do something people love and hate rather than something everyone just feels lukewarm about, because then I'm not pushing or challenging readers enough. On the whole, I've been told so many wonderful things and gotten so many nice [e-mails], it's a little overwhelming. It's always nice when people love something you love and that you work so hard on, but the reality is, whenever you have an established fan base and you change something about a character - especially one as clean-cut and iconic as the Lone Ranger - there are going to be those that will just shut off and hate whatever you do regardless of whether it's any good or not. It's not their Ranger. It's not the character they love.
"I've always said, from the very beginning, that we love and respect that guy, too. Which is exactly why we're not going to just re-tell those stories. They've been told, and they're a product of their time and they're wonderful. So, we to introduce the character as a product of this time, in a way that people could come to know and follow the Ranger. That's impermissible to some, which to me is kind of selfish, but it's not something I lose sleep over. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and about the only thing that would ever bother me would be if someone were to say that the creative team on this book doesn't love and respect the character, because that would just be factually incorrect.
"But honestly, that's more of a conceptual point. The reality we've all experienced is that people have been great, both critically and conversationally. And we've really appreciated that and will continue to."
One of the major differences between how the Lone Ranger has been traditionally portrayed and Matthews' updated version comes in the form of the relationship between John Reid (the Lone Ranger) and Tonto. Less sidekick than mentor now, Tonto has becoming a driving force in the Lone Ranger's origin and life. "It's just what felt right to me," explained Matthews, "and only in hindsight do I get why people were surprised by it. I've had enough people tell me what a divergent take on the character it is to accept that as accurate, but in the middle of it, it really seemed the only way to go. The classic relationship was never an option, as the stereotypic speech and dress and the power dynamic in place between the two thankfully doesn't make a lot of sense anymore.
"The biggest decision I made was that the Lone Ranger and Tonto would not know each other as boys as in the classic mythology, because their fateful intersection then becomes so coincidental and convenient you lose all credibility and the very sense of stylized reality we were working so hard to build. Knowing that, and that this was going to be the story of John Reid becoming the Lone Ranger and not that of the Lone Ranger proper, Tonto's role fell into place pretty immediately. I wanted him to be a seemingly faithless, nomadic guy with a mysterious past and no apparent affiliations. A man who has killed and would do so again without hesitation, which informs and complicates the Ranger's decision whether or not to go down that road. Tonto is the ultimate outcast - he is and always has been a half-breed in the popular mythology, which means he's shunned and excluded in all sorts of directions. He's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. And though he wouldn't admit it, he's probably trying to find out who he is and what he is to do just as much as the Ranger. He thought he knew, once-upon-a...but things didn't work out."
Another group of fans are not so critical of the changes Matthews has made to the Lone Ranger, those who are discovering the character for the very first time. "I don't think I was aware how completely off the radar the character was for so many people, but that's become my understanding, and it's great to be able to bring him back in as much as we can," Matthews said. "I've heard of people picking up the book and faintly recognizing the title but not actually connecting that the guy on the cover is the Lone Ranger. Which sounds weird, but again, that's the reality of where this thing was at for a lot of people. And we want to reach those people, and at the same time, service any and all of the classic fans that are willing to come along for the ride. Those are particularly special."
Matthews counts himself among those "classic" fans, and has a relationship with the Ranger character going back to his childhood. "The Lone Ranger is something I was surrounded by growing up," said Matthews. "It's pretty much the only thing I ever saw my father love. The tapes of the old radio show were around. There were tapes of the TV show. And, like a lot of kids not of that generation, I didn't really understand it. What I did get was this was something that was iconic and could inspire passion. I found that power fascinating -- the way you could hear the 'William Tell Overture' and see this guy on a big white horse and get goose bumps, whether you had any idea who he was or not -- though my version of that as a kid would have been Indiana Jones or 'Star Wars,' you know? Which is what's so great about doing this book, because it allows me to answer that question for myself, and hopefully in doing for others. It lets me put out there what I always responded to about the Ranger, that feeling of mystery and righteousness and just the presence the character gave off, and at the same time resolve things that didn't make sense to me because I wasn't a product of that time. I wanted to understand why these things were the way they were, and if there wasn't a reason for some of them, to provide one that feels real and hopefully fits in.
"For example, I never understood how a guy that saw his family and friends slain before his eyes could instantly resolve to never kill again. That's not realistic. It's cause-and-effect. I think he'd want the man responsible dead -- that that's the human emotion and something we can all relate to, if not justify. So how do you reconcile the two, how do you make it real? How does he rise above the one to get to the other? That's what the book is about."
In telling the tale of how the legacy of the Lone Ranger fell into his hands, Matthews remarked, "Nicky asked me if I would do it. It was all of a forty-five second phone call, while I was stuck in traffic on Santa Monica. He'd read my stuff in the past. John wanted to do the character, he and I are buds and wanted to work on something together, and we found the Ranger was something we shared a love for. Not just the character, but the idea that the Ranger could be cool and complex and maybe even a little scary. That it could be a hard western, but still respectful of its roots, which were not something we were willing to discard despite that keeping them made the job really complicated. A revenge tale that becomes something more. And everyone at Dynamite just got behind that and said they trusted us to do it and we were off and running. It's rarely that simple to get something going, but it really was."
Now that Matthews has established a revised origin for a legendary character, the challenge is to keep up the momentum and Matthews intends to that by not rushing into the stories of the legend, but instead to continue looking at how the Lone Ranger got to be who he is.
"We're going forward about six months in time to see where John Reid/ the Ranger is at. How far he is on the road to becoming this legend -- which isn't his goal at all -- and why that's really hard. Some pieces are falling into place, but it seems every one that does brings new complications. It's going to be a lot for him to deal with. He doesn't really see that his mission has changed, that this is all becoming larger than him, but things are starting to move in that direction.
"It's not like the book will suddenly -- or slowly, or ever -- jump forward to an older, circa-TV aged Reid. To me, that would defeat the reason it exists. I want to see John Reid struggling to become that guy, to become the Lone Ranger. I want people to get to know him as he does, the guy behind the mask, and why he puts it on makes the decisions he does. It's certainly not to become a legend... at least, not unless doing so has a specific purpose. That's what's interesting to me and what I want to explore."
Matthews will use multi-part story arcs as his primary tool in moving "The Lone Ranger" forward, but won't be a slave to the form. "I don't think we'll see anything as long as the origin arc again, and I'll likely mix in a one-shot or two along the way to separate arcs and 'cause they're fun. I actually like stand-alone stories a great deal, and even more that anyone could walk into a comics shop and get a beginning, middle, and end under one cover, especially if they're unfamiliar with the character. It's a great way to introduce new people to 'The Lone Ranger,' and to tell more action-oriented, conceptual stories, all of which is good.
"That said, it doesn't fit too neatly into the rhythm of the ongoing but there are ways and it's something that's on my mind. It's definitely something you'll see, in one form or another."
With the critical and sales success of "The Lone Ranger," as well as the revival of DC's "Jonah Hex," one might suspect the western genre is set for some kind of a comeback. "I think people just love westerns on some level and always will," Matthews said. "The backdrop they tell their stories against and their morality is very distinct and unique to them. Their visual style is their own and appealing, and supports a broad variety of storytelling and experimentation. They're sort of America's collective fairy tale. A place of violence for sure, but justified violence, which I think is a really important distinction. Somebody's always gonna shoot somebody in a western, what matters is why they did it."
"At the end of the day, I don't think westerns went anywhere," Matthews added. "It's us that goes away. Westerns are right there, waiting for publishers and production companies brave enough to embrace what makes the genre great. And I think they always will be. Hop on the highway and head for the sun. You'll find one."
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