Heffernan Takes the Wheel of "Driver for the Dead"

This July, Radical Publishing takes a stab at the supernatural horror genre with "Driver for the Dead," written and created by "Snakes on a Plane" writer John Heffernan. The series follows the story of Alabaster Graves, a hearse driver who specializes in transporting bodies of a special and supernatural origin to their final resting place. When voodoo priest head honcho Mose Freeman passes on, it's up to Graves to transport the body through the Louisiana back-country to his final resting place.

Infused with the myth, lore and legends of voodoo and Creole mysticism, the Louisiana that Graves traipses across in his armored specialty hearse with Mose Freeman's granddaughter is full of danger and enemies, including the evil necromancer Fallow, who draws his power from the flesh of the living and would like nothing better than to get his hands on Mose Freeman's remains.

CBR News spent some time with writer/creator John Heffernan to pick his brain about the new series, learning how sitting in a Denny's spawned the creation of the book, his love of comic books, his previous work with snakes in film and how the series' take on voodoo and mysticism is unlike anything you'll ever see in Hollywood.

CBR News: John, tell us the origins behind "Driver for the Dead." How did you come up with the idea and how did it come to find a home at Radical?

John Heffernan: I was sitting in a Denny's around five in the morning, unable to sleep, and I came across this article in a local paper about a hearse driver who was carjacked at gunpoint. Authorities later found the hearse, but they never found the "freight." Apparently this happens a lot and it got me to thinking that, for whatever reason, perhaps corpses are more valuable than we give them credit for. Why? Lots of potential reasons. Satanists? Voodoo rituals? The gold in the corpse's teeth? Anyway, what happens when you absolutely, positively have to get a corpse delivered from point A to point B without it being "interfered" with? You need someone who knows about these kinds of things. Someone you can count on. You need a driver. A Driver for the Dead. From that concept, the story and the characters were born.

I've been a screenwriter for a number of years but I've been a comic reader for even longer, and have always wanted to do my own book. This story seemed to lend itself to the comic medium, so I pitched the idea to Barry Levine at Radical, and he agreed. Radical is known in the comics industry for the high production value of their books as well as the creative freedom they give their writers and artists, so it seemed like a good fit, and it was. Radical is also known for developing properties that can easily transition into other media, like film and television, and "Driver for the Dead" is no exception.

What's the general concept behind the story?

The action centers around a hearse driver named Alabaster Graves, and although Graves drives bodies around for a living, he's not your average corpse jockey. He's a specialty driver, one who's been around the moonlit block a few times and knows that there's more to the business of death than the undertaking profession might allow the public to believe. When something...unnatural...goes down, and you've gotta get a body in the ground and time is of the essence, that's when you call Graves. In our initial story, we present the case of an old hoodoo witch doctor named Mose Freeman who dies performing his rites. Mose knows that there's a lot of bad folks in the bayou who'd love to get their hands on his black-magic infused bones before they're laid to rest, so before he dies he hires Graves to make sure his body gets to hallowed ground before it can be harvested. To get the job done, Graves has to make a midnight run across Louisiana with Mose's body in tow and Mose's great-granddaughter riding shotgun, pursued all the while by a necromancer named Fallow who sustains himself by transplanting his own aging tissue with a steady supply of fresh flesh...and for whom the heart of Mose Freeman would be the ultimate prize.

The story obviously has a lot to do with voodoo and Creole mystical influences. What drew you to this particular realm in the creation of the series?

A lot of the presence of the voodoo and hoodoo stuff has to do with the setting of New Orleans and the larger backdrop of Louisiana. The history of that location and the people who live there is inexorably tied to the cultural traditions of black magic and sorcery that came over on slave ships from West Africa and found a home in the New World. Like the people who practiced it, those cultural traditions became an integral part of America and Americana and continue to resonate to this day. So if you're going to tell a supernatural story about death and dying in New Orleans, you're going to have to incorporate voodoo and hoodoo in some way. I wanted to incorporate it in as big a way possible, to go beyond the Hollywood cliches of voodoo dolls and zombies and explore the origins of the traditions of black magic in the deep south and how it affected everything in that region from race relations to family dynamics to civil war history and even to modern day funerary practices.

It's very important to me to keep the mystical elements of "Driver for the Dead" grounded in a kind of cultural reality that can feed and shape the story and its characters. It's also fun for me as a writer to do research into the folklore of different cultural groups, as every ethnic identity has some form of death mythology that influences its culture, and the more you learn and the deeper you go into that folklore the more connections you find between the people, places and things that make up the history of that culture as well as the key figures in other cultures around the world. So wherever Alabaster Graves' adventures take him, the monsters he'll face and the forces he contends with will be influenced by that particular location and the myths and lore and legends that surround it.

New Orleans is one of the most unique and magical places in the world. It has a history and energy like no other city. Due to its geographical location it's been a crossroads of many different cultures from all over the world and it retains a taste of all of them. In the past few hundred years it's been home to Native American, African American, Dutch, Spanish, French, and modern American residents. It has endured hurricanes, civil wars, oil spills, pirates, naval battles, plagues, and fires. It's violent. It's sexy. It's haunted. It has streetcars. It has jazz funerals. It has above-ground cemeteries. It has its own food, its own music, its own language. It's gothic and creepy and humid and sultry and I can think of no better place to set a story.

Why do you think that a story like "Driver for the Dead" is best suited for the comic book medium?

First off, the subject matter is visually appealing - if you've got the same warped tastes as I do. To me, a supercharged hearse made from a '69 Pontiac GTO looks cool. A .50-caliber depleted uranium incendiary round destroying a vampire's heart looks cool. A 200-year-old necromancer with pierced and tattooed swaths of skin assembled from stitched-together pieces of his victims looks cool. Especially when drawn by Leonardo Manco, who absolutely nailed every panel of this book. You've gotta see it to believe the level of detail that he put into these pages. And if you believe, like I do, that the comic book medium is the best showcase in the world for cool action/fantasy/horror art, then you can understand why I wanted the story to unfold on these pages. Second, the story has legs, meaning it lends itself well to a long-running episodic format like a monthly or bi-monthly comic book series. People keep on dying, which means that Alabaster Graves will never be short of work. So there will always be a new story to tell, well beyond the first three-issue miniseries. Finally, presenting the story in comic book form is a good first step towards presenting it in other media. It's far easier to get studio executives to see your vision for the world and its characters if they can actually see it on a page, rather than just hearing it in a pitch or even reading it in a screenplay.
You're best known for writing "Snakes on a Plane" - did your time writing that script inform "Driver for the Dead" at all?

Absolutely. Every job you do informs the work you do on every other job in one way or another. "Snakes on a Plane" took a long time to develop and was set up at various points at no less than two movie studios and at least three production companies, so there were a lot of producers and executives with a lot of script notes, and that meant a lot of writing and rewriting. I'd like to think that each revision I did made the script stronger, but what it certainly taught me was how to be economical in my storytelling. Every word on a screenplay is money on a movie screen, so naturally a lot of the production notes centered around how to make the story faster and tighter. A comic book script is no different; it's all about the pacing. You don't want to be slow. You don't want to be boring. And most of all you don't want to be extraneous - everything has to be driving the plot or deepening the character in some way. Also, working on a film script in the development or especially in the production stages teaches you to be collaborative. You've got to be open to other people's ideas, whether they're coming from a producer or an editor or a publisher. You've got to write to the strengths of the people you're working with, whether that be an artist or an actor. And you should always be ahead of your deadline.  

At this point in your career, you've written quite a few snake-centric programs and films. Will snakes be incorporated in a big way in "Driver for the Dead?"

Funny you should ask. In the opening scene of the first issue, hoodoo man Mose Freeman is performing an exorcism of a child possessed by the spirit of an African loa known as an Arpe Reposoir - a Snake Demon. The child barfs up a nest of snakes that have been growing in his stomach, the idea coming from reports of the practice of an old hoodoo trick involving the planting of snake eggs in the food of one's intended victim. It's interesting how snakes keep appearing in my work, because it's not really a conscious decision. I don't sit down before I start writing and ask myself, "Now how am I going to work a snake into this one?" They just keep popping up unannounced. I've come to think that maybe the snake is my totem animal. 
Why do you think telling the story of Alabaster Graves is important, not just as a writer, but as a reader as well?

It's no more or less important than any other piece of art or fiction. It is what it is, an entertaining narrative told with some clever dialogue and some really kick-ass fuc*ing pictures. But I do think that in a genre so dominated by costumed superheroes, having other stories with other kinds of heroes is appealing because it gives a smart adult reader different options to choose from and different ways to be entertained, and that's a good thing for the industry as a whole. I also happen to love horror comics, and this book has no shortage of blood and guts and gore.

What has been the biggest challenge of telling this story, and by the same token, what has been most rewarding?

The most challenging aspect of writing this comic for me was also the thing that was most rewarding, and that was the art direction. Figuring out how the panels are laid out, and what's happening in each of those panels visually. As a screenwriter, you learn that one of the most important things is to try to not communicate the story visually, to try not to "direct on the page." That is the domain of the film director and is universally frowned upon; a screenwriter should only concern him or herself with the story and characterization and nothing more.

But for a comic book writer it's just the opposite. The artist relies on the writer to provide a kind of textual blueprint as to what's happening visually in each panel - the point-of-view, the camera angle, the close-up, the pull-back- to-reveal. And not only that, but how many panels are on the page, and how big they are and in what order. And is the story communicated better with a big full-page splash or four wordless panels or seven panels of talking heads filled with dialogue balloons? Or something completely new and different? These are the decisions that the comic book writer faces, made more difficult by the fact that there's no standard format for comic book writing as there is for screenplay writing; every writer does it a little bit differently.

I was greatly assisted by something I read by Jack Kirby, who advised comic book artists to remember that a comic book page, although bearing some resemblance to a TV or movie screen, is not, in fact, a TV or movie screen. It's a page. Once I grasped that concept and started thinking about it in that way, it got a little easier. Of course, I also had a very patient and intuitive artist in Manco who could interpret my feeble attempts at visual storytelling and not only get what I was trying to communicate but also make it so much better. And once I saw the finished artwork for what I had written, and received compliments on not only the words but also the artistic layout, it felt really good because I had never really done anything like that before.

What are you most excited about for the book's release?

Walking into my local comic book shop and seeing the first issue on the stands. That's been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid. And hopefully providing some quality entertainment. That's what I'm in the business of, providing a little fun and diversion for like-minded people who enjoy the medium as much as I do, and I hope people will give it a read and let me know what they think. I'll be around.

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