Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Western Comics Focus: Jeff Mariotte

Presented by TROY D. SMITH

Jeff Mariotte, it seems, has done it all. In addition to his own creations, such as WITCH SEASON and ZOMBIE COP, he has written prose and comics for licensed characters in multiple genres: STAR TREK, CSI, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, CONAN, and many more. (In fact, he wrote the CRIMINAL MINDS book I gave to my wife a couple of Valentines ago- we are, in many ways, a sick and twisted couple.)

Jeff is also no slouch in the western department. Two years ago, Western Fictioneers enlisted a panel of experts to vote on the GREATEST WESTERN COMICS OF ALL TIME. He served as one of those judges, and despite the fact he declined to vote for his own works, two of his series made it into the Top 20: DESPERADOES at #6, and GRAVESLINGER at #14.

Here's what we had to say about DESPERADOES at the time:

Desperadoes is a Weird Western title that has been released periodically since 1997 as a succession of miniseries and one-shots (five to date.) Each story has been written by Jeff Mariotte, and the title has been illustrated by various artists, including John Cassaday and John Severin. Originally published by Homage Comics, it has since moved to IDW Publishing.
The “desperadoes” in question are former Texas Ranger Gideon Brood, ex-slave and buffalo soldier Jerome Alexander Betts, Pinkerton detective Race Kennedy, schoolmarm-turned-prostitute Abby DeGrazia, and (beginning in the third installment) roguish gunfighter Clay Parkhurst. Their adventures take place in a realistic Western setting which has a way of turning rather strange: they have encountered zombies, ghosts, and a vicious serial killer with magic powers. The resultant combination of Western adventure and atmospheric horror has garnered wide praise.

You can catch up on the whole saga in the 500 page DESPERADOES OMNIBUS:

Jeff has graciously agreed to join us today and answer a few questions...

1. Why do you think the Weird Western genre has found such an audience the last several years?

That’s an interesting question to ponder, and if I knew the answer, I could probably capitalize on it in some way. My first take is that weird everything is popular these days. Look at the whole urban fantasy genre, which essentially takes tropes from many different genres—mysteries, thrillers, romances, etc.—and adds monsters. I suspect that contemporary American pop culture has reached a point at which the traditional genres were maybe feeling a little tired—and maybe a little over-examined, since they had become acceptable topics for academia—and needed a shot of something new. In the short-attention-span world that is comics fandom, my series Desperadoes might have come along a little too soon. I’m not saying it was the first weird western comic, because it wasn’t by a long shot. But when it debuted there were precious few western comics on the stands. Jonah Hex hadn’t even been around for a while. Now that 15 years have passed since the first issue, weird westerns are everywhere and the people reading them don’t necessarily even remember that Desperadoes ever existed.

2. Which of the Desperadoes characters did you most enjoy writing for?

I love all of them (and intentionally answered in the present tense, because I don’t want to close the door on writing them again). I really enjoyed doing the narration in Race Kennedy’s voice, because it was all so alien to him and he could react to everything he saw, in ways that people more accustomed to the setting wouldn’t. But Race is dead, so I don’t get to write him anymore. Gideon Brood is the most me, in a lot of ways, and I love the way he turns a phrase. But I can’t leave out Abby DeGrazia or Jerome Alexander Betts or Clay Parkhurst, either. So I’ll have to take the easy trail and just say, whichever one I’m writing at any given moment.

3. Who influenced you as a writer?

My influences are many and varied, and include such unlikely bedfellows as Stephen King and William Goldman, Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner, Ross Macdonald and Thomas Gifford. In terms of western writers, I can specifically point to a contemporary young adult Western by Gordon D. Shirreffs, called Mystery of the Haunted Mine, which I read in the 5th or 6th grade, and which combined Western elements with mystery/thriller elements and even supernatural elements (or at least the suggestion of them) in a way that marks the path I’ve taken in my career more concretely, I think, than any other book. Likewise, a 1952 Western by Clay Fisher, War Bonnet, was formative in how I thought about western fiction (and Clay Parkhurst of Desperadoes owes more than a small debt to Fisher). I’ve enjoyed several of his other books, too, especially those written under the name Will Henry. And under his real name of Henry Allen, I’ve had a lot of fun watching the cartoons he created alongside director Tex Avery. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of other western authors, but those two are the ones who bear the most burden for making me the writer I am today. I guess I have to call out one more influence—Roy Rogers. Not that he wrote the comics himself, but he was my childhood hero, and I read everything I could with his name on it. The first comics I can remember ever having in my hands were Roy Rogers comics, so that’s what set me on the road I’m still traveling.

4. You've worked on a lot of licensed properties (as have many of our Western Fictioneers members)... if you could pick one pre-existing western character to write about, from comics, movies, literature, or television, who would it be?

I’ve been so fortunate to be able to work with a lot of the great western characters, including Zorro, Jonah Hex, El Diablo, Bat Lash, Scalphunter, and more. I’ve even been able to do comics and fiction based on the popular weird western game Deadlands. I’m envious of John Ostrander, though, in that he got to play with the Marvel Comics pantheon, including the Rawhide Kid, the Two-Gun Kid, and more. Those guys would be a blast to work with. And I once had an opportunity to do something with the Lone Ranger, but it came up at a bad time and I had to pass. So that’s who I’ll stick with—if somebody wants me to write a Lone Ranger novel or comic (the real one—I can’t say I’m impressed with what I’ve seen of the new movie), I’m there.

5. You work in a lot of genres (and often blend them)... is there anything in a western, besides the obvious setting factors, that requires an approach different from other stories?

I think what defines a western is different from what defines any other genre. It probably falls under the “setting” category, but it’s more complex than that. After all, there are plenty of novels written about the American southeast, but they’re not called “southerns.”

A western, unique among literary genres to my knowledge, is defined by place. Whether it’s historical or contemporary, it first has to be set in what’s known as the West. That setting has to be more than just window-dressing; it has to matter to the story. The characters have to be affected by the setting, and ideally to affect it in return. Whether or not they really notice it, the writer should be aware of it. It helps if the writer actually knows it, from ground level. Finally, people who have been shaped by the West aren’t quite like anybody else, and that’s got to come through in the characterization. Any or all of those things can be faked, but I think in those instances the work itself suffers. To be a western and to be good, they’ve got to be as true and as real as the landscape and the people and the clear, big sky overhead.

6. You were on our panel a couple of years ago that voted on the greatest all-time western comics (and Desperadoes placed 6th on the list, even though you abstained from voting for it!)... do you remember what some of your picks were?

I don’t specifically recall what I picked, but I’d imagine that a number of my picks wound up on the list. I’m sure I would have chosen Jonah Hex and Bat Lash and The Kents and the various Marvel Kids. I probably would have picked Roy Rogers, too. And I can’t tell you how greatly honored I am that Desperadoes wound up on there—and so highly placed—and also that Graveslinger, which I wrote with my good friend and saddle pard Shannon Eric Denton, wound up so high on the runners-up list. It really is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

7. Tell us about your newest release, and anything coming down the pike you are excited about.

My new book—releasing today [Feb 26], if all goes as planned—is Season of the Wolf. It’s not a western, per se, but it’s a supernatural thriller set in a small Rocky Mountains town in Colorado. Besides a western setting, it has some of those elements I mentioned earlier: the landscape matters, the flora and (especially, as you might guess from the title) the fauna are literally fundamental to the story. Most of the people in the book are real westerners, and they’d be familiar to anybody who reads western fiction. It’s contemporary, but with threads reaching back 10,000 years. It is, I like to think, suspenseful and fast-paced and scary, and just when you think you know who/what the villain is (or are), there are some curveballs coming. Season of the Wolf is published by a prestigious small press called DarkFuse, in limited edition hardcover (already sold out), trade paperback, and ebook, so if you don’t see it in a bookstore near you, ask for it—they can order it.


Beyond that...well, there is one more Desperadoes story done, story and art. It’s a very cool crossover, and we’re just waiting for a few more pieces to fall into place before it’s published. So there’s something else to look forward to. I’ve long thought about writing a novel about those folks, as well. With the current weird western boom, this just might be the time to do it.

Many thanks to Jeff for joining us today... check out his work, you'll love it as much as I do.

Troy D. Smith


    1. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jeff!

    2. Great interview, Troy and Jeff! I have not read any western comics. I know--y'all don't beat me with the wet noodle!

      Reading about them in this post makes me want to go out and buy a big armload of them, get me a couple of pieces of Double Bubble chewing gum and spend the afternoon reading like I did as a kid--usually, in our society we're looking for things we can water down to make it "okay" for kids--but this is WONDERFUL! A venue we loved reading as kids that we've changed to entertain ADULTS. I can't wait to get some of these and get started on them.

      Jeff, I loved your answers to the questions Troy asked...very thoughtful and thought provoking at the same time. Thanks for being with us today!

    3. Excellent interview, gents. I cannot wait to dive into that Desperadoes omnibus.

      It's great that you list Edward Abbey as an influence, Mr. Mariotte--I'm rereading DESERT SOLITAIRE just now. It offers something new every time I open it.

    4. Jeff and Troy: Enjoyed reading this interview. Not surprised that yoU, Jeff, mentioned Gordie Shrreffs, Will Henry and Ed Abbey. Good friends of mine and damned fine writers. Good influences, to be sure. YOu have a good grasp on the western. Setting is crucial. Gave me much food for thought to read this most interesting interview.
      Jory Sherman