Steve Ellis on Zuda's "High Moon"

"High Moon," the web comics series by David Gallaher and Steve Ellis that won Zuda's inaugural competition, has just wrapped up its third story arc and is due to make the jump to print in October. Full of werewolves, gunslinging, and Old West mysteries, "High Moon" proved an early favorite for the new web comics portal established by DC Comics upon its launch in 2007. CBR News caught up with artist Steve Ellis to discuss the series' evolution, upcoming story arcs, the collected edition, and more.

At its heart, "High Moon" is an epic of werewolves in the Old West, with the mysterious Conroy Macgreggor operating on both sides of the law and often fighting creatures even more dangerous than himself. But there is more to the series than lycanthropic gunslingers. "There is mystery, mysticism, hoodoo, steampunk, intrigue, conspiracy, trickster deities, and the list goes on," Ellis told CBR. "I think the real strength of the project is the stories that David is coming up with and the characters, which amaze me with their depth. David and I collaborate quite often, but it seems like the characters are making their own decisions."

In the first three story arcs of "High Moon," there are a few interesting shifts, the first being a bit of Western mystery (plus werewolves), then adding some steampunk elements in book 2, and wrapping up with some mysticism/demon fighting, all of which gave Ellis a lot of distinct material to draw. "It's always a challenge working on 'High Moon,' but I am a glutton for punishment," he said. "While the theme of the Old West and the historical content ties everything together, the stories go in many different directions. There is always something new and cool to draw, whether its demon wolves, multi-eyed bat monsters, giant steam engine golems - it's always a blast."

The upcoming fourth arc of "High Moon" will take its cue from a classic Warren Zevon song, describing the story as "Ah-ooo! Werewolves of London." "It's spring of 1891 and Conroy Macgregor is heading to London to find out more about the mystery behind Prescott's little bottle and the group behind the mysterious symbol on the bottom of the bottle," Ellis explained. "London in the 1890s has a lot of interesting things for a werewolf to find himself involved in."

Given that this is a historical piece, there was also a certain amount of research necessary to get the details of "High Moon's" Old West setting just right--though, on the other hand, the werewolf and mystical elements allowed for some leeway in certain regards. "When it comes to the historical accuracy of the artwork, it sometimes becomes very exacting," Ellis said. "I remember on Page 13, David wanted the main character to look through a bunch of files with photos attached to them. I was about to draw paper clips or staples holding the photos on, but David corrected me. Neither paperclips nor staples had been invented then, so we ended up finding out that they used special straight pins. Sounds like a minor detail, but we really try to keep things within a close range of accurate. There are many things like that in 'High Moon.'

"David and I also like to plant 'Easter eggs' throughout the story, as well," Ellis continued. "So you'll notice certain people or characters or objects with historical and or geek relevance popping up throughout the project. For example, Macgregor and a famous masked western hero get their silver bullets from the same person. Keeping those things right makes it more powerful when you break the rules."

Despite the fantasy elements, though, Ellis stressed that the world of "High Noon" is essentially just like our own. "Much of 'High Moon' follows the actual history of the times. Usually it's hiding in the background of the story but the world is still moving in the same direction it moved in real time. The reasoning behind the motivations of two of the major antagonists are directly related to actual historical events. How they go about reacting to these events makes the story."

"High Moon" will be the second Zuda comic to be released in a print edition, following Jeremy Love's "Bayou," which is on sale now. Steve Ellis said he is excited to see his book in print, noting that both bound and web formats have distinct advantages. "The web is a great way to get the stories out there, and I particularly love the serial nature of it. But there are some definite benefits to having a print edition. Having it printed, to some degree, means you have passed a test. The fans like it and the company is willing to put the cash and promotion behind the project - it's like a big vote of confidence. Plus, it allows the print edition to have a certain level of 'premium' collectibility."

As for other formats to which "High Moon" might jump, Ellis said he wouldn't mind seeing the characters in other media but that he's not concentrating on these possibilities. "Working on the project, I'm concerned primarily with making the best damn comics I can make. That said, there is always talk of other mediums. Zuda itself is looking to jump some projects into other areas, but for 'High Moon' in particular, I would love to see toys, shirts, television, film, anything, and everything. But still, it comes down to the comics. I am devoted to 'High Moon,' it's the first project that I feel has given me the freedom to push the limits of what I can do and continue to do."

As one of the earliest Zuda contenders, "High Moon" was in at the ground floor, and was ultimately in production even as the details of DC's web comics platform were still being sorted out. "When I first started working with David on 'High Moon,' I had no idea what the format would be. It was a mystery project from DC," Ellis revealed. "And, when I found out about the scope of the project at the Zuda gathering in San Diego two years ago, I was pretty excited. DC has done something extraordinary with Zuda. A company known for taking a long time to develop things, jumped feet first into a completely new delivery method and style of project - something that provides a template for the other publishers on how to do web content. Sure, there have been tons of other web comics before Zuda, but none have had the backing of a major publisher - especially considering the fact that Zuda doesn't have too much editorial control. The projects in a given contest are chosen from whatever crosses [editor] Kwanza Johnson's desk over a certain period, and then the winners are chosen by the readers -- that's a vetting process that ensures that the projects have a certain level of quality. I look at the contests every month and especially in recent times it seems as though the contestants are better and better."

In those early days of Zuda, there was much discussion, particularly in the primarily self-published web comics community, about the particulars of creators' arrangements with DC. Ellis, for his part, said he is more than pleased with his Zuda deal. "Why not go it alone as, it were? For one, page rate. With the time and hours poured into a page of 'High Moon,' there's no way I can do it without getting paid and still have time to work for money," he said. "For two, we still own the copyrights. It's ours. And, we're given the latitude we need to tell our stories our way."

Another consideration is the exposure Zuda's web comics portal offers, particularly given that "High Moon" was a winning series. "Being the winners of the first Zuda contest provides us with the vast promotional resources that we wouldn't have access to if we did this all by ourselves," Ellis said. "And, at the end of the day, it allows us to continue to create the best comics we can."

In addition to continuing "High Moon," Ellis will also be illustrating a Destroyer story in "USA Comics" #1, one of Marvel's 70th Anniversary specials. "This was a wonderful surprise," the artist said of the project. "[Editor] Bill Rosemann and I had been talking for a while about working together in 2009, and this Mighty Destroyer project for 'USA Comics' #1 came up and he thought of me. It was another historical piece this time set in WW2 and I'm not afraid of going through the historical research that something like this requires to make it work. John Arcudi wrote a very powerful story that somehow balances a great concept with tons of action. The ending of the story really punches you in the gut."

Whereas "High Moon" allows Steve Ellis a certain flavor of iconic historical scenes to illustrate, "USA Comics" gives him quite another. "It still carries that Nazis are the best comic book villains," the artist said. "There is sometimes no greater pleasure than drawing a hero punching the lights out of a bunch of Nazis. You never have to pull your punches with those guys."

Ellis revealed that he is also collaborating with "High Moon" writer David Gallaher on several upcoming projects, including a new series designed for the iPhone. "It is a hyper-kinetic, spy-fi thriller, inspired by an old-time radio series and based on historical fact. We also have a couple of projects in the hopper at Marvel that we are excited to see develop."

Ellis also teased that he and writer Fred Van Lente will have an announcement soon about "The Silenceres: Black Kiss," a series about super-powered mob enforcers.

"High Moon" goes on sale in October from Zuda Comics.

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