Interview: Reinventing Genre Comics (Westerns)

Like any form of media entertainment, comics can age gracefully or become poorly dated. When all our modern films and music and literature often reference or re-imagine old concepts, it creates a difficult creative environment to traverse when trying to present something old as something new, or at least to shed a new perspective with historical context. This is why we so rarely see Western, Military or Romance comics in the industry these days, and when we do, they’re either mini-series or one-shot specials. At the same time, now more than ever, we’re seeing a highly saturated market of offerings in comics; there’s a comic for almost any topic you can think of, including even non-fiction studies of animals, the culinary arts, biographies of inventors, and so on.

As specific as we get for the genres of those comics, how is it then that Westerns are so often overlooked? These stories were some of the most popular books of the golden and silver age of comics, and now they’ve virtually disappeared. Some might argue that the genre could only be brought back through that ‘poorly dated’ category of viewing, and perhaps this is partially correct because of how often these comics were rampant with blatant racism and sexism. My argument to the contrary is that any genre can be transformed through careful thought, changed perspective and tactful narrative, and every so often there appears a prime example of those literary tools in action.

To my surprise, a little advertisement on The Comics Journal tuned me in to a new independent publication titled ‘Love Triangle in the High Sierras‘. Written by Tom Durwood and illustrated by Boell Oyino, this little comic is a bold love song to the traditional American Western story told with a wistful but contemporary voice. The latter point is especially important because this, along with Mr. Durwood’s other story collections available through Empire Studies Press, all petition to offer tales of different eras that connect young readers today to the kids and teens of the past. ‘High Sierras’ is a comic able to master the emotional youth of the characters as well as the harsh reality of the setting by the incredible synergy between writer and artist, both of whom I was lucky enough to speak with further on their work!

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(Bolded to indicate myself as the questioner) Increased visibility of comics and graphic novels is due in part to several factors, from product availability in major book chains, to the success of superhero films, to their use in modern curriculum. It’s the scholarly application that made me so interested in speaking to you both further regarding ‘Love Triangle in the High Sierras’, a vignette comic strip featured in the anthology: ‘Ulysses S. Grant in China and Other Stories’. Let’s start small. Mr. Durwood, what inspired you to write the script for ‘Love Triangle’, or any of your other works that brand themselves as adventures creating historical context for young readers?

(Un-bolded text indicate the answers as given by Mr. Durwood or Mr. Oyino)

TOM: I really had no choice. I saw the idea and felt compelled to build a story that had some kind of inner life. This particular story is very derivative of Louis L’Amour and his work, but I really enjoyed writing it. Seeing how Boell has brought it to life is a bonus – he draws so well, and with such personality.

The whole collection of stories has grown out of this same compulsion to construct. The big challenge is to create dimensional characters who are independent, who act and feel and speak on their own. The secondary challenge is the villain – a counter-force which has some real meaning. If Act III is weak, the whole thing collapses. For me, a gratifying Act III almost always involves historical forces, greater social and economic forces. That’s what helps to hold a reader’s interest.

And you, Mr. Oyino? Your portfolio is an incredible motley of fantastic character designs, highly stylized illustrations and refined sketch-work, and yet the means by which I first saw your work was through this comic. How were you introduced to this particular project?

BOELL: I was contacted by Tom in early 2018. He discovered my work on Artstation (a portfolio hosting network) and asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with him on the story he wrote. I did some involved research and discovered he was accustomed to working with many different kinds of artists, and was working on these literary collections aside from teaching.

I was honored, and accepted the scripts to read and consider.  

Among the stories I saw, ‘Love Triangle in the High Sierras’ was my favorite.

 

One of the other draws of this comic, for me, was the present lack of Western stories (and at times, accurate historical fiction, versus ‘altered universe’ history) in the world of sequential art. It was once an enormously celebrated genre in comics, alongside ‘cops and gangsters’ crime pieces, but eventually these stories were overrun by the popularity of slice of life hits like Archie or the grandeur of superhero antics and perhaps, understandably, the evolving politics of our modern society. Mr. Durwood, from your perspective as a teacher, why is it important to keep these stories relevant to new readers, young or old, and what draws you to history in particular as a subject?

TOM: Well, the ebb and flow of genres that you mention is always happening – crime stories, cowboy stories, vampire stories, zombie stories, sub-genres of science fiction. There are some very interesting writings on why certain stories emerge at certain times. A sociologist might say that crime dramas rose with the growth of the American city in the 20th century – as rural families migrated to cities, they encountered new and unexpected dangers. The crime dramas are our way of working out these collective fears and questions.

Certainly the Westerns are associated with the rise of the American empire, and the worry over retaining American morals as we have left that world to enter into the modern world. That specific concern is apparently not on our minds right now.

Altered universe stories can be really clever. As to why they are so popular, my guess is that trends form and break up regularly. Maybe it is that kids who grow up reading a certain type of story want to recreate it. The altered universe stories could also spring from our anxieties about the current state of the world.

As to why historical stories are somewhat rare, it may be that the study of history is almost becoming a niche field of study, as opposed to a staple of all school curricula. One of my historian friends advises students to NOT become History teachers, since the employment opportunities are few and far between. But for me, these historical settings offer incredibly rich story possibilities.

Your other books also seem to employ illustrative storytelling, from full page renditions of specific scenes within a story, to other comics, to smaller illustrations paired on half a page or so. What was behind the thought of including those mediums in your collected works, as opposed to creating publications limited to strictly prose entries?

TOM: I grew up enjoying the Landmark Biography series and historical fiction like ‘Johnny Tremain’ by Esther Forbes, as well as comic-book artists like Jack Kirby, Hal Foster, Alex Toth, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, Barry Smith, Walt Simonson and many others. So it seemed natural to adapt my historical adventures to the graphic-novel format. I hope it opens up the prose for readers.

And Mr. Oyino, as a French artist, what was your approach for ‘High Sierras’ to depict characters and landscapes that still carried your signature touch of design, but also had to convey a very specific impression of American history?

BOELL: First I gathered together as many references as I could – Tom also gave me some really helpful materials. I studied them closely so that I wouldn’t be restricted by a lack of knowledge later in the production. After that I proceeded with the same drawing workflow I’m used to: I start by sketching panels, then I add speech balloons, and then I clean the image through editing.

As my style is often fashionable and refined in nature, I relied on the poses and outfits to conjure the intent and personality in the characters.

I don’t read many comics, perhaps even too few of them, so my approach is probably different to the style we usually see in the medium. I took it as a challenge, I like to create variety of a certain type of media, and enlarge the spectrum of possibilities.

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Speaking of those characters and landscapes, your work seems to traditionally be very vibrant and colorful unless they are sketches, but this comic called for a strict lack of color. Despite that constraint, your panel-work is still so highly detailed that it would read just as complete and natural as one of your previous illustrations. Was it challenging to operate under that difference of mindset, from using distinct colors to represent a person or an animal or piece of the environment, to instead relying on distinct lines, shapes, or shadows? Why was it challenging or why was it not?

BOELL: I read a lot of manga, which are almost exclusively black and white with patterns from filters. The other big inspiration for me would be Sergio Toppi stories like ‘Sharaz De’. So these references gave me an idea of the experience would be working in just black and white. I’ve also made a few attempts in the past working in black and white early in my career. If I find I have difficulty, such as creating gray areas, I know I can use patterns like cross-hatching lines or forming other shapes and through that, I train myself to have a broader language of shades. Even in black and white, you be aware of values. These are what will determine foreground, middle ground and background so without them, the legibility of the image can dissipate.

What was even more difficult was panel composition and story-boarding; how to make it fluent and appealing to the eye, the logic of the scene, all of these things are the core of how to tell a story in my opinion.

Okay, now I’m curious: what are some mangas that you enjoy, or mangaka that you are inspired by?

BOELL: I’ve read so many titles since I was very young, but among them I can stress these series most:

  • Rough by Mitsuru Adachi;  When I first started drawing, I really tried to imitate his style with a mix of some classical elements like that of Michelangelo, and in the end, I picked up this Yoshitaka Amano vibe. That came as a surprise!
  • Hikaru no Go by Takeshi Obata and Yumi Hotta
  • Maison Ikkoku by Rumiko Takahashi.
  • Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue
  • Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki; I especially recommend the 5th story arc of the series.

I still have hundreds of series to read, but I lack of time these days! I’ve also sort of changed my fields of inspiration; it’s often more related to fashion and dance.

Are either of you able to discuss any future projects or collaborations you’re currently working on? How about any subjects you’d be interested in tackling in the future?

TOM: Yes! I am about to tackle a sequential-art adaptation of the semi-epic ‘The Boatman’s Daughter’, and just starting the storyboards is ridiculously thrilling for me. ‘Ulysses S. Grant in China’ comes next, then ‘The Colonials’, then ‘King James’ Seventh Company’. Those are big, complex efforts for me, so I am glad to have time to ramp up to each one in sequence. The process of adapting such a long story forces me to revisit and re-invent the sequence of events, the dialogue — practically everything — so that is very constructive. You are constantly discovering what the story is really about. The architect Louis Kahn said that we build in order to understand – I certainly feel that way.

I am also currently working on an ambitious story cycle or story collection that is giving me fits, but I hope to be rewarded with something authentic. Most of the stories center around engineering and empire.

BOELL: While most of the projects I’m working on are under a non-disclosure agreement, what I can tell you is that I’m collaborating with Tom on another story!

I’m also working with my older sister, who is a wonderful writer, on an upcoming manga project.

‘Love Triangle in the High Sierras’ is a story of a small moment in time, tense and bittersweet and just a little comedic. It captures not only the time period with rustic grace and researched dedication, but the innocence and complexity of the subjects. The young sheriff’s deputy Dave Durrell has fallen hopelessly in love with rancher’s daughter, Angie Cass. He is about to propose to her when Dirk McGonigle’s gang interrupts, with very bad intentions. In the violent shootout that follows, Dave finds out all he needs to know about Angie –  an episode that ends with a twist to their romance.

 

I would like to offer a very special thanks to Mr. Tom Durwood and Mr. Boell Oyino for the donation of their time for this interview. Please, support both of these talented creators by checking out their websites and purchasing their works below:

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Tom Durwood is a teacher of English Composition and Literature at Valley Forge Military College, as well as a writer and an editor with an interest in history. He is the owner/operator of Empire Studies Press, where you can find ‘Love Triangle in the High Sierras’ available for digital download here, or as part of the anthology collection ‘Ulysses S. Grant in China and Other Stories’.

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Boell Oyino is an accomplished character designer for video games and animation, and a professional illustrator based in Lille, France. He has worked for the independent gaming studio Enigami, as well as Khayal Productions, Martine Betremieux Publishing, and Manga no Yume. You can see further works at his official online gallery here, or at his Artstation portfolio here.

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