Ah, the old west. Where the orcs roamed, the elves warred and the wizards dueled. Wait – what? Oh, didn't you know? When the settlers of Old Europe came to America, they brought with them their magic. At least, that's how it went down in the world of "Texas Strangers." Co-created by writers Antony Johnston and Dan Evans III, the new Image Comics series drops the genres of fantasy and western into a pot, throws it on the fire and stirs up a stew unlike anything we've tasted in quite some time: a comic book for kids.
Fittingly, the series opens with a campfire. Madara Jane and her twin brother Wyatt, both just children, sit in counsel with a native shaman – a native elf shaman. The young siblings are charged with the quest of returning a mysterious and magical knife to the place from whence it came – Texas. Along the way, the kids encounter danger, intrigue, outlaws, orcs, elves, orgres and a group of lawmen known as the Texas Strangers.
"I was having a discussion (yelling match) on a nerd forum about the use of mixed genres in 'Firefly/Serenity,'" co-writer Dan Evans III told CBR News. "I felt like Whedon had a cool idea but kind of gave up on it. As it tends to happen on the internerd , someone said I was a jackass and I mouthed off about there being better mixed genres than those two, like epic fantasy and westerns. After that, I realized that I really wanted to see what that whole process would look like. I then got on Instant Messenger and yelled at Antony, 'what do you think about a Magic Western!? How much would that rawk?' I get excited on IM."
The idea was from the beginning to create a comic suitable for younger readers, a fairly courageous feat, considering how much has been said about American children abandoning the comics industry – or, if you like, children being abandoned by the American comics industry.
"Like a lot of comics creators," Johnston said, "I grew up reading comics, and I remember how much enjoyment I got out of them when I was a kid, so I think it's natural to want to give something back. And outside of manga, there just aren't that many comics aimed at kids any more." Just as other British writers have explained over the years, the comics Johnston read a child were largely non-superhero and non-manga titles; books like "Asterix," "Starlord," and "2000AD."
"There's a prevalent attitude in the US industry that if you're going to write for kids, it has to be brightly colored superheroes," said Johnston. "Poppycock, I say, and hopefully we can prove that with 'Texas Strangers.'"
While best known for his critically acclaimed, adult-oriented work on titles like "Wasteland," "3 Days In Paris" and "Julius," Antony Johnston has worked on comics for younger readers before, like "Rosemary's Backpack," his second ever graphic novel. Evans comes to comics from a background in children's television, having produced shows including "Transformers: Beast Machines" and "Digimon." But despite the fact that Evans works primarily in television, he's been a fixture in comics circles for years, yet never attempted to create a book of his own.
"To tell the truth and hopefully avoid Mr. Byrne's ire," Evans remarked, referring to former comics legend John Byrne's unfavorable view of creators who come from outside the industry, "I never really thought I was ready to write in the comic medium. I love television and serialized storytelling, but I wasn't really sure that it would translate to comics, especially as I had some problems in the past turning comics into television programs.
"But ['Texas Strangers'] came from some need to do a story that I can't really tell in US TV. The western genre and fantasy, to some degree, have been watered down in what you can do for kids. I mean there is a girl [in 'Texas Strangers'] who competently holds a six-gun and a knife. Boom! That is changed on TV. But beyond that, there are all sorts of themes and stories that you see in kids literature and entertainment that cannot be done on TV without losing their appeal. I don't need to do teen sex or graphic violence, but I need to reflect a lifestyle so that the stories feel true and exciting."
Populating the book is an endlessly diverse cast of principles and supporting characters. The aforementioned twins Madara and Wyatt are the children of a war hero – a war fought between Texas and the Azteca and Orcs of Mexico. "She learned how to track hunt, shoot and fight from her dad," Evans explained. "But she had a mom that let her still be a girl. You don't see that at the start but I wanted her to be more like the tomboys I know. Not at all afraid to punch you for being a jerk then set up an appointment to get her nails done after. She is still young enough and life is at a place where a young woman can do that."
"Wyatt," on the other hand, and in Evans' words, "is a nerd." A fledgling magician, Wyatt is at the series' beginning struggling to find his place in the big wild world of 'Texas Strangers.' "The thing is he is really good at magic and the only thing to temper him is the values he gets from his family and training. Still, Madara has been there a couple of times when things have gone awry, so she is always looking out for her 'baby brother.'"
Also featured are the Texas Strangers themselves, who prefer to be called Rangers. There's Sally Sunclaw, a Creole "animal talker;" the elf Tula Roadwalker, Zog the Scottish ogre, and their leader, the mysterious Rick Blackwood, who Evans will only describe as "a good guy in a black hat. You get the feeling that while he will always land on the side of good that it isn't always right . You will notice that he is always dressed head to toe...I wonder why?"
If "Wasteland" is any indication, writer Antony Johnson seems to be fond of stories with a large internal mythology upon which to build an ongoing narrative. There's obviously a great deal of back-story to the world and characters of "Texas Strangers," but with it being a children's comic, Johnston and Evans will unravel the series' mysteries a little differently than they would in other titles.
"I love back-story and world-specific mythologies," Johnston confessed. "As a reader, I love the feeling that there's a real history behind the story, that there's a world out there larger than just what's on the page. The main difference is that with something like 'Wasteland,' the story is as much about that history and mythology as it is about the present day. With 'Texas Strangers,' the back-story is less obvious in the individual stories we're telling."
Johnston and Evans have worked out their world's full history, from the first settlers through the War of Independence, the Civil War, the French Revolution's impact on America, the Texas Revolutionary War, the Alamo, and everything right up to the story's present time. "It is something that informs our characters, and the stories we're going to tell, but it's not like we're going to have a major revelation about the history every issue."
In addition to being one of the first new kids' comics in a while, "Texas Strangers" is also the only monthly kids' book currently published by Image Comics. "They were pretty much the only major publisher who'd even consider this book, so we knew we had to impress them right out the gate," Johnston explained. "Luckily [Image Comics Executive Director] Eric Stephenson knew my work, so he was receptive to me pitching, and he liked the basic idea. We put a 'pitch package' together for San Diego last year - the first six pages, some character sheets, and an overview - and handed it to him. Now here we are."
Illustrating "Texas Strangers" is Belgian artist Mario Boon, who was actually so keen to work with Antony Johnston, he sought the writer out at the Bristol Comics Festival. "I had a bunch of my graphic novels for sale in aid of charity," Johnston recalled. "And one day I got a phone call from the booth handler saying there was this crazy Belgian guy at the table who'd bought one copy of every book and now wanted me to sign them.
"So I did, and he showed me his portfolio at the same time, which was very impressive, and we kept in touch. Of course, that mad Belgian was Mario, and as we spoke more I realized he was quite the wunderkind in the Flemish kids' market. When an opening for artist came up with 'Texas Strangers,' I invited him on board."
With an artist in Belgium, a writer in England, another writer in Los Angeles, and colorist Traci Hui in Berkeley, "Texas Strangers" is a decidedly international affair. Conducted entirely over the internet, the 'TS' team's creative process is an appropriately mixed-matched and humorous one. As Dan Evans III explained, "The current process involves me waking up and barely forming sentences and then Antony telling me that I need to stop playing City of Heroes and do the outline. We then yell at each other for an hour until he claims he has something to do and logs off.
"I go to some coffeehouse and knock out the whole [script] and then realize I hate it. Antony explains to me why I hate it and makes it better. I go back and explain to him that we aren't writing 'Masterpiece Theatre' and to rough up the language. He is nice enough to ignore all the typos I put in and then we try and think of a scene that will make Mario or Traci weep when they read the script. The Antony takes over and I magically start seeing pages in my email. Did I mention that we make great use of the collaborative part of Google Docs?"
Johnston added, "Because of our backgrounds and individual skills, it's a pretty even workload. Most of the time Dan will have the basic premise, which we then both work up into a plot before Dan takes it away and polishes it up. I write the first drafts of the script, which we then both go over and edit before I do a final polish.
"The finished script then goes off to Mario in Belgium - he emails us pencils which we comment on and approve - and then the inks go to Traci Hui in Berkeley. God bless the Internet."
All-ages American comics are traditionally structured as single-issue stories, as is the case with the "Marvel Adventures" line and DC Comics' many licensed kids' books like "Powerpuff Girls" and "The Batman Adventures." In contrast to that trend, each story in "Texas Strangers" is two-issues long, a format that comes with its benefits as well as challenges. Johnston explained, "the benefits are that we get to tell longer, more involved stories than those books, but still short enough not to lose a younger reader's interest; and that we get to have a cracking cliffhanger in the middle of each story. It also means anyone can pick the book up at any time and not feel horribly lost."
"One thing I love about the format is that at forty-four pages I always get to have a big set piece and a nice 'here is the world' section," said Evans. "I grew up reading my dad's comics where Curt Swan or Gardner Fox would talk about these places with Jewel forests or Aquatic Cloud people but you would only see one quick shot and never any follow-up… at the time it would set my imagination off and I would think of a hundred stories just about those places."
"The challenges are fitting a full story into just 44 pages each time," Johnston said. "I'm not a big fan of decompression, especially not in kids' books, and this format forces us to cram a lot of story into a few pages - so we use a few devices largely eschewed in modern comics, such as narrative captions and thought balloons, to keep the story moving. It's certainly challenging, but it's also a lot of fun."
Perhaps the biggest challenge "Texas Strangers" will face is the direct market itself, which is populated largely by adult readers. It is the creators' hope that "Texas Strangers" will appeal to parents, who will buy the book for their children. "Or," Johnston added, "if they take their kids to the store - and there are some great stores with youth-specific sections out there that sell lots of books to kids - then hopefully their kids will see it and want to read it. The main thing is making people aware that it exists."
Of course, outside of the direct market, comics are known to enjoy greater exposure to kids. Dan Evans III is often to be found at bookstores all over Los Angeles, annoyed to find the graphic novel sections filthy with children. "I get mad because I can't get to the new 'Naruto' or what have you, but it does say to me that kids will find comics if the comics are worth finding to them. 'Texas Strangers' is supposed to be a big adventure. Something that all kids want: Using the skills they know they have to show up the adults around them telling them they can't do it. But not in a mean way that has crept into a lot of kids entertainment lately."
In future issues of "Texas Strangers," readers (and their kids) can expect to see ghostly vengeance, meddling gods, card games, buffalo soldiers, vampire elves, the answer to what really happened at the Alamo, and what may be the fastest quick draw ever. As for its writers, Evans continues to work in television, but tells CBR that he's been switching from being a "suit" to being a "creative." Meanwhile, Johnston's "Wasteland" continues at Oni, and his novel "Stealing Life" will be released this month by Abaddon Books. The writer also has stories in the "Postcards" and "24Seven" anthologies, which should be released later in 2007. I'm also about to start work on something quite special and unique that will launch at San Diego this year, but I can't tell you what. You'll just have to wait till summer."
"Texas Strangers" #1 rides into stores on March 14th.
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