Unbound: Talking Red Plains with Caryn A. Tate

Caryn A. Tate’s Red Plains, now playing at the Top Shelf 2.0 anthology site, uses the classic Western setting to frame stories that have a bit more depth to them than the standard shoot-em-up. In a series of interconnected episodes, she explores the conflict between ranchers and farmers, the life of a black cowboy, a murder mystery with a twist, and, most recently, a complicated tale of civic life, gun control, and armed revolution.

What makes Tate’s comic tick is her characters, who stretch the Western archetypes with their quirks and flaws: Sheriff Doles, a former handyman whose intellectual curiosity and laid-back style rub the town fathers the wrong way; Jackson Stevens, the trigger-happy, over-privileged son of a wealthy rancher; Bob Schwartz, a seemingly upstanding lawyer with a hidden dark side; Mayor Wells, who suffers from a mysterious illness, and his wife, who seems to be running the show. The four episodes that are up so far are interconnected but can be read on their own as well; together they paint a fascinating picture of life in the Old West. I interviewed Tate by e-mail to find out how she comes up with her stories and puts everything together to make a sum that is greater than any of its parts.

Brigid Alverson: What was your inspiration for Red Plains?

Caryn A. Tate: Well, I grew up on traditional working ranches and farms in the West, so the West and its people are truly my inspiration. I've always had an abiding love of westerns as a genre, and the ones that are done well are stunning—not only are they mythological, but they have so much relevance to our lives and our culture today.

Aside from westerns, I'm inspired by a wide variety of quality storytelling—the TV series The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street chief among them. I'm enthralled by the writing on those shows, and the epic and realistic feel of them as well as the underlying meaning have been major influences for Red Plains. There's more to it than you might initially expect. Despite the action and adventure inherent in the stories, Red Plains is more than a typical western shoot 'em up.

Brigid: Do you have a specific location and period in mind for this comic, or is it more generically 19th-century and Western?

Caryn: It's funny that you ask, because I've done a lot of thinking about the location of the town of Red Plains. It's actually an amalgam of all of my favorite landscapes and locations of the West. For instance, the town itself is where the name implies—in the grasslands of the plains. Nearby is an immense mountain range, much like the Rockies, where many of the larger ranches are located. The Escovidos live in high desert country. While I do have a real life location in mind for the town I wanted Red Plains to be iconic and classic, so that stories wouldn't be limited by too specific of a location. It is the West.

As far as time period, it begins around 1879, 1880-ish. It is the heyday of the cowboy and the Wild West.

Brigid: Did you have all the characters in mind from the beginning, or did the cast grow organically as the comic went on?

Caryn: Most of them I had in mind, yes, but several of them surprised me. The Escovidos, now some of my favorite characters, are prime examples of that. Luis was partially inspired by Zorro, one of my favorite works of fiction—I wanted to explore the concept of the prominent and wealthy Latino family, rather than the more prevalent bandit or peasant portrayal. His daughters grew organically from there, and are now some of the most enjoyable characters in the series for me. They're all so drastically different from each other!

Characters like Sheriff Doles, Jackson and Doug Stevens, Mayor Wells, and Books were all in my mind from the get go, along with much of their personalities and histories. It's so fun to create a character for a specific purpose—like Deputy Tom Bennett, or Rand the cowboy—and then have them grow and change and become someone so real and three dimensional. You'll see both of these characters a bit more in upcoming stories, but as always, the focus of Red Plains isn't on any one character or group of characters - it's about everyone here. This is a town full of people of various ethnicities, backgrounds, personalities, and goals. We have cowboys, ranchers, farmers, prostitutes, businessmen, soldiers, politicians, bounty hunters, traders, outlaws, gamblers, and of course those "outcasts" of society - women who don't have paid jobs because of society's restrictions, and Native Americans who are caught between two worlds.

Brigid: Each of the chapters so far centers around a conflict that has some resonance for today's readers—the settlers versus the ranchers, racism, violence against women, corrupt businessmen who consider themselves above the law. Are these themes that interest you in real life, or do they just make good material for stories?

Caryn: To my way of thinking, it's vital to ensure that every story of Red Plains is pertinent while still being entertaining and enjoyable. There are reasons that Red Plains is an important story to be told right now, and I want to be sure those reasons shine through in the storytelling.

The Old West has become a bit more of a myth than I think is good—we tend to romanticize it and think of it as a time period that's long past, that has no bearing on our lives and culture today. But so much of it clearly resonates, including the subjects you mentioned. Racism, violence against women—and violence in general—and corrupt leadership are all examples of this. Something I've become very interested in upon starting the Red Plains project is the culture of violence in America and, more specifically, the gun. The use of violence and firearms, in particular, as a means of solving conflict is so ingrained in our culture and it's fascinating to explore part of that mentality.

So, yes, definitely, these themes interest me in real life, and the bonus is they make great story material too!

Brigid: I particularly liked the story arc “One of Us,” because it reminded me a bit of a Western version of Law and Order. How do you develop your stories, and how do they change from initial idea to finished pages?

Caryn: Wow, I'm so glad you say that, because that's just what I was going for. I love great detective stories, especially when intermingled with the exploration of corruption and inequality.

Usually my story ideas start from something I see in real life or anywhere—the news, a real historic event... it could be anything that sparks the idea. After that it's a matter of fleshing it out, creating an outline and/or treatment that helps me see any areas that need to be further built upon. From that point, the characters make it all come to life and make it exciting.

They're very fluid, so they change constantly from the initial idea to the finished page. A bonus is that I letter my own comic, so I have one last chance to change anything that I think may work better. Sometimes it's just a single word of dialogue that makes all the difference.

Brigid: Each of the artists you have worked with so far has a distinct style. Has working with different artists changed the tone and content of your stories?

Caryn: Not on the content side, but I do sometimes adjust the tone a bit to try to play up an artist's strengths. For instance, Larry Watts, the artist on the current "Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up" storyline, excels at the action scenes. So while I had a ton of action already planned for the story, I try to portray it in a certain way in the script so that Larry can really make it shine the way he knows how. He's also great with facial expressions and getting the characters to "act", which is so important for showing the audience how a character feels rather than telling them.

All the artists I've worked with are fantastic. It's really fun to work with such a variety of talent and see their take on the world of Red Plains.

Brigid: It took a while for the sheriff to come into focus, but he seems to be a key character. Tell us a bit about him.

That was deliberate because I wanted it to be clear that Red Plains is not just the sheriff's story. He is a key player, to be sure, but so are many other characters. Because of the nature of the western it's natural for the sheriff to play a part in most stories but in the case of Red Plains I wanted to keep him out of the spotlight initially to give the rest of the cast a little more exposure. This comic is truly an ensemble piece—this is a world, and it's stories are not told from one person's point of view.

I also wanted to avoid the usual "Hero Sheriff" approach as that didn't resonate for me. Sheriff Doles is a flawed man, though a good one, and we don't shy away from showing him as he truly is throughout the series. He's got some kind of weight on his shoulders, and we'll gradually learn more about that as the series continues.

Brigid: There is a lot of violence in Red Plains, which is in keeping with the genre. How do you write convincingly about something so far removed from everyday life?

Caryn: While not everyone, thankfully, has been directly involved in crimes of violence, we're all human and we can all relate to how it might feel to be involved, on every level—whether it's as the victim or the victim's family, or the perpetrator. The most important thing I try to convey with this violence is the aftermath and that hanging question mark: Why did this happen? What were the alternatives? What happens next? Seeing the impact of violence on those left living is something that is and will continue to be prevalent in Red Plains.

That's why it's important to me to portray all violence in Red Plains as realistically as possible. There are no high noon gunfights in the middle of the street, no easy, bloodless battles. When someone gets shot or stabbed, it's a bloody, ugly thing. The person holding the gun or knife has to deal with what they did. Everyone else affected has to deal with it, however they decide to do that. That moment of passion can't be taken away, and its effect on everyone involved is something we'll constantly be dealing with.

For more of Caryn's work, visit her website, carynatate.com.

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