INDEH came to me fully realized and dragging along behind it a metric ton of source material and historical data, so as a project it was more an exercise in digging a story out front he riches. The fear and difficulty in that exercise was essentially making sure we honored the Apache we were depicting and keeping in full frontal view, our entirely white selves telling a native story and how fraught that would and could be. The greatest amount of racial and social mistakes made by white people is by innocent ignorance that can all be collected under the rather turgidly amorphsc term of white privilege. We did not want to recommit the same sins of our forefathers and as it turns out we didn’t. INDEH was remarkably well received both in the broader and more importantly to us, in the native communities. We had stuck the landing of the most baroque and difficult triple-linty dive in our collective lives and it was obvious now having done that well once, we’d be inclined to do it again. And why not? The book had debuted at the number one spot on the NYTimes Bestseller list and held that place for longer than it should have and kept to the list for months thereafter. In those moments in between events we blocked out the next chapter, focusing squarely upon our unrequited adoration for Lozen and Victorio and then letting them bring us into the stories that made Geronimo so famous. It was a given as far as projects go… but somewhere along the line I threw a monkey wrench into the mix.
Ethan and I are both obsessive story freaks. We love them and are entirely focused on narratives all the time. Whether it’s our ranting over character arcs in game of Thrones, or if Westworld is as good as it pretends to be, old Paul Schrader films, Sam Shepard… we just consistently talk about story as normal people banter about sports. I remember sitting at thew table at Ethan’s house as my oldest son, Emmett was there with his boy Levon and the wee girls running about being lunatics, discussing INDEH 2, and I had had this little nugget of a story that I couldn’t figure and so while we were drinking coffee I said “Hey Ethan… help me out with this thing that won’t leave my brain…” I mapped out the basic scene set in the Huntsville State Prison… a father who is a security guard there and his son whop was visiting him at work that day…. and a jailbreak. I asked him if it had any legs to him because it would not leave my thoughts for some reason. At first he thought so, pondering it a little and then one of the kids spilled something or the dog barked and shook us out of it. You know how it is. But a few minutes later out of the blue Ethan came back and asked… “Did Dad have something to do with the break?” And that as usual set off our typical mind meld where we ranted for a hot second about the causality of having your father participate in such a scheme in front of you, how it would impact their relationship and change it… and it went on like that amidst our time together here and there, poking it’s head up at a lunch or in a green room someplace… a new question every time… “How many prisoners? is this the end game of a secret plan we only get to discover…. what if the boy’s mom is in danger?”, etc… It would not go away and overtime we touched it it grew like the Blob in our hands and began to overtake everything.
It was something that we were now building together entirely on the side and by accident. More a distraction and a lark of a notion than anything serious. We were enmeshed in INDEH and essentially repeating ourselves endlessly for new audiences and in retrospect, it made sense to want to talk about something, ANYTHING else than INDEH and native issues. It was exhausting but even late at night in hotel rooms, or nattering back and forth across the aisle in one of the seemingly ten thousand airplane flights… the story just got bigger and better. I remember one night after a long day in Chicago we were up in the Hancock building grabbing some food and drinks and Ethan asked the question that had been looming over us more and more as this process unfolded: “Hey… Feel free to call me crazy… but what if we did this story next and not INDEH 2?”. The light went on like being awaked while making a sandwich while sleepwalking. The thing we were doing by accident should be the thing we should maybe try and do on purpose.
Next was pause to make sure we weren’t being crazy or betraying something in ourselves and to the deep and ethical purpose behind telling another tale of the Apache. We had also entered a period with our sons of cataclysmic difficulty. Both of us going through different things with our boys as they became full fledged teenagers, including epic fights and typhoon struggles that fathers and sons do at these times. It created a vast array of self analysis confusion coming of age moments and terror. As this all was in the background of our lives, INDEH 2 seemed a kind of otherworldly escape to a place where we weren’t the feckless fathers of teenage boys challenging our every damn thought, but this new story became a speedboat out of it. It turned to face the reality of our current lives, what it means to be a teenage boy these days, what it means to be a father and how these two foes could find value and wisdom in each other… Really it came down to a moment of clarity once again from Ethan when he threw off the idea that if he had his perfect world, we’d develop INDEH 2 as part of a show someplace later on… and that his heart had been lured by this new story. The clincher was this “It scares the shit out of me, doing this book instead.” That’s what got me because I never forget the crazy bullshit I say here on Muddy Colors- this time the often uttered command: “DO WHAT SCARES YOU”. We looked at each other and it was done. INDEH 2 would be shelved and we were instead going to pursue this insane autobiographically informed work in its place. It would be called MEADOWLARK.
SO. The next thing after the enthusiastic high of deciding to leap off the edge of a cliff together faded was to make once again a proper pitch kit, summarize the story put it together to present and let our editor at Hachette/Grand Central know we had decided to pull a Crazy Ivan and wanted to do this book instead. Unlike before where Allen Spiegel shepherd Ethan and I around NYC for two days pitching to a dozen different publishers, we were resolved to convince Gretchen Young, our friend and editor on INDEH to champion this project instead. She had gone out on the slimmest of long limbs for us in advocating for INDEH and we’d need that kind of strength in this instance too. We knew we didn’t;t want to shop it around but wanted instead to re-team with our previous group and make it work at the home that brought us together in the first place. So this was a case to pitch to a single all the eggs in one basket person and place. To be honest I think she was more taken by our contagious enthusiasm, but also was entirely fine with us not dipping back into the Apache well right away. She trusted that even if she couldn’t;t see it yet that we could and that was good enough for her. We presented our pitch, she pointed out all the areas we missed and didn’t;t express well and went back home and retooled it so she could present it to her publisher. It was all a much more familiar and swifter process- where INDEH took well over a year to move from pitch to agreement, this was a matter of weeks and months at most. Once agreed, the contract stuff took forever, but it was all the permission we needed to start running. Ethan and I spent the bulk of that time writing and writing and chatting and writing.
Back and forth over emails, phone calls and when we could in a shared office space with our print outs of the draft script running and our computers for writing and building dialogue. We both came out of Texas and were imminently familiar with the culture and the place. While it wasn’t;t exactly a autobiography we filled every nook and cranny with details of our lives childhood experiences, music and how we saw and struggled against our own fathers as well as verbatim quotes from fights and confrontations we had with our own boys. I’m not a believer as art as therapy for the artist- particularly in making the work because it tends to be narcissistic, blindly self-indulgent and supplants the needed realities of telling a good stories with personal sacred cows. I don’t know if it was clothing it in a crime genre that did it or simply being each other chicken hawk that rescued us, but somehow we managed to avoid all those traps.
The first step was the plot. We had a crime story to tell and that meant we had to construct a watchword plot and event structure that would make the concept work. The plot would be the tree and branches, the fruit and leaves where the characters and meaning. Crimes stories require this to work, and no crime tale ever functions no matter how marvelous the character and attending fruit is if the plot stinks or has holes in it. The nice thing we learned by necessity from scripting INDEH fully before drawing it was that this way both gave us a proving ground to work out the plot and provide Gretchen with something to work with before we were already committing the story to drawing. We wanted the prison break to be real and authentic- and lucky for us, because Ethan was doing some action film at the time he had a trainer working with him named Strider (No, seriously… that was his actual name), and he had worked as a prison guard in a max-security mental health facility for about a year. That dude had STORIES to tell, and most especially, an attempted prison break that would have worked had the cons done what they always do to ruin themselves- someone bragged about it and word spread. But the principle of the breakout was solid and we brought it whole cloth into our story. Over merguez sandwiches and falafel in between workouts Strider spun story after story of really insane characters from his time in prison, and I scribbled like a madcap journalist to write it all down. I don’t know what our book would look like without him and his input, but it wouldn’t be a tenth of what it came to be with out Strider whispering in our ear. It also helped to have a an advisor who we could check with as we played our plot and prison details. The rules and structures and culture of those places, the interaction between guards and inmates… all those little details were essential. We wanted to bring what we learned about INDEH- that using true life details brought out a tangible reality to the world we built and legitimated the story we were telling. So we soaked up Strider’s insane stories like camels at a desert oasis.
Once we had gotten script all written, we were still scared shitless. But this time it was different: We knew it was good and we believed in it. We felt like we could trust ourselves in a way that up until that point we weren’t sure. We had dabbled in a tv show adaptation of INDEH, Ethan was wrapping up his Blaze Foley movie and I was doing a million other things, but coming to MEADOWLARK was like coming home overtime we revisited. With INDEH, we were working with a script Ethan had already written, from stories already written by others. MEADOWLARK was our own baby. Made entirely and originally from us, and by us. It was the first time we had taken a n original tale out for a drive in our partnership and as it turned out.. we loved it. It cemented a creative bond even more and powered us forward, through the fear remained. Would anyone like this? Would it work? Were we being too self indulgent or would what we were doing matter? We had never made a long form crime story before and wondered if we could. But it was happening. Contracts were signed, schedules were laid out and we had work to do that powered us through the trepidation.
But the hardest part was still to come… drawing it. That’s where our roles change and the 1:1 ratio of the partnership changes for a time as I am alone in my studio doing that work and Ethan acts as a kind of trainer/coach/cheerleader/referee. All I knew for sure was that I didn’t want it to look like INDEH. Or THE LOST BOY. I had spend the last three years post- INDEH discovering graphite as a medium and it had gone surprisingly well. But the detail work and time spent on those drawings were not possible in a graphic novel- not if it was going to get done before we died of old age. SO a new way had to be invented. I was and remain in a. period as well with a growing body of work behind me that makes me want to throw it all away and try something new. Anything that felt like my own usual way was poison to me. It was time to reinvent and avoid the trap of thew middle aged artist who then locks into his/her style and method and rides it all the way into the grave like the Rolling Stones playing “Brown Sugar” until retirement. This of course is not entirely possible, nor should it be. While the impulse seems Nobel, there’s a lot of babies in that bathwater that would be lost unnecessarily and I was on a clock. I had a period of time, for about two months where I was white knuckle panic-attacks about this book. Ethan and Gretchen waited patiently while I lost my ever loving mind, drew ten pages, trashed them, drew them again and trashed those. I needed to find the voice of the book, reconcile with my own voice and make something new. At the end a retreat into my old touchstones… Franklin Brother, JC Cole, Both, and always and forever, Goseki Kojima’s work on Lone Wolf and Cub caused me quite by accident to make a drawing that worked for the first time. It wasn’t much to go on, hardly addressed the myriad of issues I would need to face and land right as the story really opened up, but for the first time in months of ever increasing screaming… a crack in the wall to the other side. Here it is below, entirely rendered din pencil, and then of course colored digitally:
The trick here was also not just to manage a new style of drawing, but also to make a duotone-style book that wasn’t’t just black and white but flat and not full color either. The key and essential ingredient in all good comics storytelling is to do the art well enough so that it’s always enjoyable to see but not so commanding that the reader can’t forget it and take int he story. Most of us don’t noticed the font of a novel we’re reading or really pay attention to them at all as anything more than a means to receive the signal broadcasted from the writer. Not if it’s a good story done right. Comics, despite the allure of art asa means to tell the story, need to aim for that as much as possible. The reader needs to stop seeing rh drawings of the characters and see the characters. The dialogue and page structure needs to flow naturally so the reason likewise flows unencumbered. No mean feat. And I’ll tell you something young turks aiming to do comics: The muscle of the medium atrophies and fast. MEADOWLARK was the very first comics work I had done in at least four years since INDEH and it took a good while to get the engine back up and running to speed. It’s still unfolding and ramping up even as I round page 32 today- especially knowing that benchmark means I am only a tenth of the way through this long journey.
But it’s moving now. It’s one its way and I feel no more comfort than I did before finding the voice of the book and begin the principle art- but it’s happening now and there’s not time to lose to naval gazing and grousing about the details. Comics are a marathon you run like a hundred yard dash. And the momentum alone is helping to get to the needed answers as one by one the characters begin to come to life. What was once ethereal becomes real and present so Ethan and I are meeting these characters we’ve been so into,ately involved with these last few years look back at us with their faces. One face in particular, hilariously reflective in Jack, the father figure of the book. While Cooper, the boy is by accident but not surprisingly, looking a lot like my boy Emmett, I couldn’t shake the idea of Jack resembling Michael Shannon mixed with Nicholson. He’d have the handlebar mustache of a middle aged retired boxer working in a prison in Texas, but beyond that he just wasn’t;t coming together as we hoped. Then after Ethan was thankfully shaving off his insane beard from his time in Magnificent Seven, he sent this pick along complete with the worried grizzled gaze that only Jack could exude:
Its was locked. Ethan would be the model for the father and we had our Jack. Normally I’d never indulge that sort of thing, being keen to resist the urge to insert ourselves into our own story. I never love that personally, especially in film. It just strikes me as too self aggrandizing and vain and when you see a recognizable face like that it instantly brings you out of the story. While I certainly draw my comics in a cinematic ay, casting like this so directly was something I never wanted to do. But how could I not? I mean just LOOK at that hilarious picture. That, my fiends is Jack and now it was about making sure we did this right. It’s weird for both os us and harder for me because while Ethan is used to having his mug made into different people, drawing my friend and creative partner as a character in a book is tricky. It’s not Ethan and shouldn’t be, but it is and there he is. While the shorthand of knowing his face far more than anyone else save for his family after all these years of working and hanging out together does inform a lot of the basic needs of establishing the character, making sure not to fall prey to his personhood is not going to be easy. And this book, despite the wide and varied cast of people, from our secret Lozen tribute in the old motherly prison warden Smokey, the apelike albino monster of Red, Wolf-Boy, Maurice the crime boss and Cooper’s mom and her feckless second husband Barry… Cooper and Jack are the whole game. Get them wrong and nothing else matters, get them right and the rest will follow. There’s a lot time driving around in Jack’s old Impala, Buck’s powder-blue F-150… while all the toy cars I bought to model from are terrifically essential (thanks Frank Miller for that priceless advice!), making sure Jack and Cooper are real and relatable is EVERYTHING. Whether that comes together or not we’ll see. But it’s happening now and the long road to making the book is unfolding, like all journeys no matter where they intend to go, I know it will driver at some new place unbidden and surprising. The fear remains and ever-present, but now its given purpose. We have all the tools we need right now and it’s now about putting them to good use. Now it’s time to rock n roll.
Speaking of which I am doing that thing I do again- a missed tape soundtrack of music running now more than 4 cd’s worth ranging from songs by Neil Diamond, Boston, Rush and the Cars, through Fleetwood Mac, Dolly Parton, the Pixies, the Ramones, Philip Glass and the Butthole Surfers. Like I said. this is a weird one. I hope you’ll like it. This may or may not be my last graphic novel, but whether or not that’s true, I’m doing it like it is and that too will bring surprises and fear. SO here;s to keeping that fear in the passenger’s seat and focusing on the road ahead. More when I have it- stay tuned…