The Big Heist: Antony Johnston Talks/Previews "The Long Haul"

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When last we spoke with writer Antony Johnston he was busily writing "The Hypothetical Lizard," a series based on work by Alan Moore and steeped in the world magic. His next book to hit stands couldn't be any more different. This Wednesday sees the release of "The Long Haul" from Oni Press, a 176 page western-theme graphic novel by Johnston and artist Eduardo Barreto. CBR News caught up with Johnston to learn a bit more about the series, plus we've got a 28 page preview of the graphic novel for you to review.

"'The Long Haul' is the story of Cody Plummer, a man recently out of prison for robbing banks all over the frontier, now trying to make a living by going straight in 1871 Chicago," Johnston told CBR News. "Trouble is, Cody's been a crook all his life, and going straight isn't easy for a man of his disposition. As if that wasn't bad enough, Bob Harding - the Pinkerton agent who put him in prison - is constantly breathing down his neck, waiting for the day when Cody snaps and returns to his life of crime.

"Well, that day has come. Cody hears about a train carrying $1.9 million in Federal bonds to San Francisco, which is leaving Chicago soon. And as if that wasn't enough temptation, the man in charge of security on the train is... Pinkerton agent Bob Harding.

"It's just too much temptation for Cody. He gathers together a crew of old friends and ex-crooks for, as they say, One Last Job."

As for Cody, Johnston hasn't based him on any specific historical figure, saying he's a "fictional archetype, the rogueish, charming, professional thief. He has an undercurrent of danger about him, and he fights dirty, but at heart he's just a very good thief. It's all he really knows how to do."

Johnston's gone to great pains to be as historically accurate as is possible with "The Long Haul." For instance, let's talk about the train. With so much money at stake, Pinkerton's gone to extreme measures to secure their haul, making this not your run of the mill train. They're utilizing a 2000 pound safe, fourteen armed guards and the latest, by 1870s standards, security technology available

"I can't give too much away, but I can tell you that all the actual technology is very real, either using or based on genuine designs from the period; the locations and railroads are all real; and the Indians, the Shoshone tribe, are genuine. I've only really fudged it in a couple of places for the sake of the plot, but again, I don't want to give away where. Certainly, the whole thing is plausible. Everything in the book could have happened in 1871. "

Johnston said that the series has everything you'd expect from a Western, including Cowboys and Indians, but he noted not exactly in the way we're used to seeing them depicted. With "The Long Haul," Johnston's paid close attention to the details of life on the new frontier, including what passed for race relations in the late 19th century. As for the genesis of this project, Johnston said it was born out of "selfishness."

"I was chatting with James Lucas Jones, my editor at Oni Press, and he bemoaned the lack of Westerns in comics at the moment," said Johnston. "I'm terrible at getting the hint, so after a brief pause asked if I'd ever considered writing one. Still not taking the hint, I said no, no I hadn't. I love a good Western as much as anyone, but I'd never considered writing one. Finally, he asked me outright if I would - consider it, that is - and the next thing I knew I was up to my neck in books and documentaries about the Old West, being rather amazed at just how different the reality was to what we see in most movies and TV shows.

"What really set me on the track of this particular story was a BBC documentary about the building of the Pacific railroad, which was fascinating stuff. I mean, this was a massive achievement of engineering and human endeavor by any standards. At the same time, I was trying to think of something that hadn't really been done in a Western before, and while there are plenty of 'blow up the train, shoot everyone and ride off' style robbery stories, one thing I'd never seen was a complex, precise robbery in the style we expect of contemporary heist capers. The two ideas collided, as they so often do, and that got me rolling."

What followed was six months of intense research and work on "The Long Haul." In addition to influences already mentioned, Johnston said many contemporary films and television programs played a part in helping him craft this story.

"I watched, or re-watched, a lot of modern heist movies - 'Ocean's 11,' 'Sexy Beast,' 'The Italian Job,' that sort of thing - and a lot of Westerns, like 'Tombstone,' 'Unforgiven' and the TV series 'Deadwood' (which, as well as being brilliant, is also the most realistic screen-based depiction of the Old West yet). Tony Hillerman's excellent 'Leaphorn & Chee' Navajo mysteries, although they're set in contemporary New Mexico, have also had an influence on the way I approach native cultures as a whole, which turned out to be a larger part of the book than I originally expected."

Traditionally, "the western" is a mostly American story, although Australia could certainly lay claim to it as well. So, what's a good ol' Englander like Antony Johnston doing writing a Western tale?

"Well, when your editor is gagging for a Western, you'd be a fool not to at least give it some thought...! But really, it's the history. I'm a documentary nut, the kind of guy who'll sit and watch the History Channel for eleven days straight, and once I started reading more about the reality of 19th century America it sucked me right in. It was a really exciting time in history, just as fascinating for its political and social turmoil as the frontier tales we're so familiar with. Like British Victorian history, it's very close in historical terms - we're only talking 150 years ago, here - and yet things were so very different for such a short period of time, before the modern world emerged and made almost everything from the age obsolete.

"You can see that, especially in the later periods, on even a cursory reading of the history. Advances in chemistry, engineering, medicine and electric technology all loomed on the horizon, ready to drag the world into the 20th century, and everyone at the time could feel it, feel that the world was changing forever. How could anyone, British, American or whatever, not be fascinated by that?"

"The Long Haul" has been a long time coming. We first ran a preview of the book back in August of 2004 citing an October, 2004 release date, but here we are in March of 2005 with the book finally coming out this Wednesday. What's held up this project for so long? Johnston said the blame lies entirely on his shoulders.

"It's all my fault," admitted Johnston. "Not only did the book run nearly forty pages longer than I originally thought, but in the closing stages I went over and over it before I was happy, wanting to make this the best story it could possibly be. Given when he received the script, Eduardo did an amazing job to get everything drawn when he did, especially with the care and attention he put into his work. I'm normally very good at meeting deadlines, and can happily blame someone else, but this one was all me. It was worth it, though.

Johnston is joined on "The Long Haul" by artist Eduardo Barreto from Uruguay. While some in our audience might not be familiar with his name, he's a 20+ year veteran of the comics industry, working hard at his craft without ever being a "breakout star," if you will. "I really don't know why that is, because he's brilliant," contends Johnston. Barreto's worked mainly for DC Comics over the years, probably best know for a three-year run on "New Teen Titans" as well as working on another Oni property, "Union Station" with Ande Parks.

"What's funny is that I didn't know any of this, either, until after I saw his work on 'Union Station,'" said Johnston of Barreto's history in the industry. "That was the book that convinced me he'd be perfect for 'The Long Haul,' and so I set about haranguing James for the next few months to get Eduardo on board.

"Eduardo's style is clean, classic and craftsmanlike. He has a great eye for detail, for character emotion and nuance, and like me, he loves a bit of historical research. But he's also a superb storyteller, with clarity and focus, and that was absolutely essential to a book like 'The Long Haul.' There's a lot going on in this book, some of it very complex, and it was vital the artwork made everything crystal clear. Luckily, that's what Eduardo does best."

Look for "The Long Haul" in stores this Wednesday. Click any of the images below to launch the preview.

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