TenNapel Strikes Gold in "Iron West"

Some comic book stories play like big Hollywood blockbusters - full of action, but ultimately offering little to stir the emotions or intellect. Others play like an independent movie - very soulful and thought-provoking, but mainly consisting of panels with talking heads. In the comics created by Doug TenNapel, however, you get the best of both worlds.

In "Creature Tech," you read about a man experiencing a crisis of faith who must deal with a giant space eel. In "Tommysaurus Rex," you discovered a tale about a grieving boy whose dead dog is reincarnated as a dinosaur. TenNapel has the ability to give science fiction action a personal feel, and he's doing it again this July in "Iron West," a graphic novel from Image Comics that brings robots to the old west.

CBR News spoke with TenNapel about the graphic novel, and the creator also treated us to a few tidbits about his showbiz dealings. But to begin with, let's talk robots!

Robots in the old west? You always have the most intriguing ideas. Where did this one come from? Was there a particular inspiration behind this?

Yeah, all of the great Westerns are about man's civilization taming the frontier. Specifically, "Once Upon a Time in the West" addresses the corruption that comes with the railroad; "The Wild Bunch" shows the threat of tech like the automobile and the machine gun on the men of the west - so I embodied this fearful technology in these evil robotic outlaws.

Where and when does the story take place?

It takes place in 1898, Twain Harte, CA, just after the gold rush. All of my stories take place in Central California as a general rule, and my family used to go on vacation in Twain Harte.

Did you do any kind of research about the old west for this? Is your old west closer to "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" or "The Apple Dumpling Gang?"

Now that's a tough question because I'm a huge fan of both those movies! I did do a lot of research on that part of the west and I was amazed at how the gold miners lived like animals. I incorporated a bit of history in the dress, some of the language and some of the architecture, but I kind of went off in some parts, too. And by "went off," I mean this becomes one of the more elastic worlds I've ever created. The world I set it in is probably more like the loose rules of a "Ghostbusters" or a "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Are you a fan of westerns? And if so, do you have any favorites?

I like the usual: "High Noon," "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," but I like "The Magnificent Seven" best. I love the clunky music and the characters are so cartoony, yet they work as a great popcorn flick. I like the grit of Leone, but in the end, "The Magnificent Seven" is the "Star Wars" of the western genre when it comes to having a good time.

Tell us a bit about the story and characters in "Iron West."

The story is about Preston Struck, a lying, train robber who is trying to rip people off even in the middle of a war against these evil mechanical outlaws. He is in love with a hooker named Ms. Sharon, who only came out west to marry Struck. He, of course, never made good on his promise, because there hasn't been a promise he hasn't broke. Struck is guided by a Mi-Wuk Indian Shaman named Two Rivers, who tries to get Struck to be a good man. They are aided by Sasquatch, an ass-kicking wall of fur and fang who hates Struck's guts.

Your stories always contain a moral lesson to be learned, although your lessons seem more apparent and powerful than most. Is this something that evolves from the story? Or do you start with the lesson and work outward?

The morals evolve from the story, but it evolves pretty quickly. In fact, they are developed within the first three note cards because I ask myself moral questions about the characters from the beginning. A few normal questions I ask go something like, 'What is my hero all about? Why is he here? What is his greatest fear? How is he entangled with the bad guy? Why is the bad guy bad?' You can't ask even the most rudimentary character questions without getting into moral world views.

The lesson gets clarified early on because I start writing the big ending first. I like having a clear goal to hang my story upon, so there's always a heavy-handed plot/fate pulling my characters along. Some find this a weakness in my storytelling, but I see it in all of my favorite stories, so I put it in my own.

What is the most difficult part for you? The writing, the drawing, or one of the other tasks involved in making a comic?

The writing is hard, because I never know when it's good enough. I can write a page of really bad dialogue and just consider it a place-holder - and many people wouldn't know - but if I just sketched in a panel and didn't finish it, everyone would know. So the artwork is less flexible than the writing, but the writing is harder to master - I only say this because I come to comics from the visual side of things. The visual is always a given to me, but the writing I really have to work for.

Your books have always been published in black and white. While I love the look of your pencils and inks, is there any chance you'd ever do color?

I'm considering a color book or two in the future. I think if black and white is done right, you don't need color. It's not that I have a problem with color - I'd be glad to have any of my books colored - it's more a problem of finances…and that includes time. I can barely get my books done as it is, and I can't imagine adding another step like coloring to the schedule. I did "Solomon Fix" for "Flight, Volume 2" (the anthology book from Image Comics) and I had a pal color that for me. I can't imagine coloring my own stuff.

How long did this book take you to complete? Did you start the second you finished "Earthboy Jacobus?" Were you working on both side-by-side? Or is this project a recent undertaking?

I first created "Iron West" in 1998, but didn't hammer out the story until late last year (2005). After "Earthboy Jacobus," I was exhausted and really burned out from the medium of comics. I rested awhile, then tried knocking around some story ideas in late summer. I finished two scripts and just knew I wasn't ready to tell those stories. After a serious epic like "Earthboy Jacobus," I was looking for "empty calories" to just have a blast!

Just before Christmas of last year, I got out my "Iron West" file and looked over the characters and the unconnected plot points. I just had a feeling it was time to exorcise this particular demon. You see, these stories sit in my studio and rot in my mind and the only way I can get rid of them is to tell the story. For years I wanted to do a giant flying space eel story, and so I knocked out "Creature Tech" and I no longer desired to draw giant flying space eels - exorcised! Cowboys vs. robots was burning a hole in my head for a few years too many, and now that it's done, I don't want to draw robot cowboys any more.

I noticed in the solicitation that Joe Potter did the cover for "Iron West." As you've done the covers for all your previous books, is there any reason you stepped back from doing this one?

I guide my designers in the kind of cover I'm looking for, but I don't see the cover as part of the story. I'm not trying to make my mark as a designer, so I let other people design my covers for me. I'm also really bad at Photoshop, so I don't feel comfortable making these images print ready. Doing the comic is still a pretty traditional venture for me, so I feel like I can easily manipulate that medium. Photoshop is dragon best left for other crusaders to slay.

You've had a couple of your comic book properties optioned by studios. What is their current status in terms of feature development?

"Tommysaurus Rex" and "Creature Tech" are still in the script stage, which is actually a good thing. When producers care about a story, they don't just pull the trigger on anything. I've had meetings from directors and producers interested in "Earthboy Jacobus," and it's just a matter of time before that honkin' epic gets made.

Your "Catscratch" cartoon is also regularly airing on Nickelodeon at the moment. What's in store with regards to its future?

We're still making the first 20 "Catscratch" episodes, and I believe the first 14 have aired. January of 07' will bring the Catscratch Happy Meals with McDonald's! I got to approve the toys and they are most excellent.

While you seem plenty busy, do you have any other projects you're working on?

I'm dinking around with a few children's book publishers about some other graphic novels. I hope to figure out what I'm doing next by the end of summer.

I've also been talking to Image about releasing "Gear" as a color graphic novel! We're still working the details out on this one, but I'm hoping to get it done for next year. I'd like to have Joe Potter color it, and I hope to correct a few glaring mistakes that got past me on the first publishing back in 1998…so here's to the future!

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