Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
So last time we got a look at what my ostensible inspiration for STRANGEWAYS was, that being the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “The Thing from the Mound.” Said story happening to feature a vampire right alongside cowboys from New Mexico. I was intrigued by the combination of the two and wondered why other writers hadn’t gone ahead and done it. Yeah, there was Joe Landsdale, whose fiction I was passingly familiar with but hadn’t actually read, in particular his take on JONAH HEX, which I don’t think I actually saw until I had figured out a first draft of Badlands.
Oh yeah, the original name for STRANGEWAYS was “Badlands”. And then I saw the Steven Grant-written miniseries that came out from Dark Horse after I’d put together my first pitch (to Dark Horse as well as others.) So that meant I had to chuck the name. I suppose in 2004 when I started things up again, I could have used that name without any problem, but by that time I’d come up with the name Strangeways. It seemed evocative enough, conjuring up a mysterious frontier that was both western and something else. Yeah, there was that Smiths album, so perhaps my UK readers might make that connection. If there was a connection to make. (Editor’s note: Strangeways is the nickname for a notorious prison in Manchester that has absolutely nothing to do with the haunted western frontier, at all.)
Back to the genesis of the work, though. One of the other inspirations for combining the wild west with fantasy elements (or horror if you prefer) was the 1969 film THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, featuring cowboys and dinosaurs, animated by the legendary Ray Harryhausen (of whom I was a big fan as a kid, still am now.) Now, there’s no way I’m going to say it’s a great movie, but when I first saw it, there was no way that anything in the world could possibly be better than cowboys and dinosaurs, at least not until STAR WARS came out. THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO also plays into this, with a mystical and fantastic character in the midst of a (very late-era) frontier town in the west.
Then of course, there was THE WILD WILD WEST (the television show and not the visually-interesting yet misfire of a movie.) I suppose it’s in a class by itself. Again, not particularly “good” by objective measurements (which aren’t all that useful when it comes to aesthetic enjoyment), but always cool and always entertaining. Granted, there weren’t many actual supernatural elements, most of them being of the “I’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling government agents” variety. However, it did combine westerns with science fiction elements into a tasty little dish.
Obviously, none of this would have happened without the western as a genre (more appropriately mode or setting, since Westerns like superhero comics and science fiction can cover multiple genre conventions within themselves.) But I’ll talk about those movies (and it was almost always movies) later.
And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to the idea on its face. Not a lot of others had tried mining this particular vein, not exactly, precisely. This was in the days before BRISCO COUNTY JUNIOR (not really the same kind of thing) and whatever it was that Richard Dean Anderson did afterwards. This was before the days of the DEADLANDS RPG and HIGH MOON (hiya, David!) and the DESPERADOES books by Jeff Mariotte and company. Hell, I hadn’t even read BLUEBERRY at that time (and let me tell you, when I did, it made me want to burn everything I’d written.) So I’d thought myself pretty darn clever.
Of course, a clever idea and three bucks will get you a cup of coffee these days. That is to say, a clever idea that you don’t do anything with (and talking to your friends or posting on your blog or yakking about it on the forum of your choice doesn’t count) is pretty much worthless. That and if you sit on it too long, things end up catching up with you and that clever idea can end up just one in a field, and perhaps not even a particularly distinguished one. Once that clever idea is in place, you actually gotta do something with it. Two people can have the exact same idea or take inspiration from the same thing, but end up executing it in different ways, which is what makes the work different and brings it up to a level past “copycat.” I might’ve been lucky enough to avoid that, tough to tell.
Back to the work, though. I wrote up a story treatment, and even a mess of a first issue (of probably three, which should have been five, since I didn’t have any way of knowing how badly I was mismanaging the structure of the story). In this first attempt, Collins was much more of a tenderfoot, a more Lovecraftian protagonist: educated, effete, non-physical. Gone was any mention of the Civil War, much less him being a veteran. In addition, there were more “steampunk” touches, more strictly science-fictional (yes, I was ahead of the curve.) I’ve long since abandoned overt steampunk references in STRANGEWAYS. There’s probably a few stories that if you stretched, you could put ‘em in that category, but I don’t. Really, all of it would’ve worked better as a novel, but I was too dumb to see it, so I officially apologize to every editor I handed a copy of it to, wasting their time and mine.
Here’s an excerpt. This was also reprinted in what would’ve been the first issue of STRANGEWAYS from Speakeasy Comics.
BADLANDS – CRY WOLF I: Prairie Lawyers, Silver Spoons
SERIES OF THREE LANDSCAPE PANELS — Same POV
Nighttime — bright moonlight, scene colored mostly in blacks, blues and purples.
We are looking into a dried-out river valley, gentle down slope running to the river bottom and off panel towards the reader. There is a dirt wagon track worn into the landscape, following the easiest route down. We appear to be watching from the opposite side of the valley. In the lower right-hand corner of the panels is what appears to be the silhouette of some dense shrubbery. Hidden in this is the Wolf, but we have no occasion to realize this yet, not until it moves in the last panel. We appear to be standing over the Wolf’s shoulder (such as it is) at this point.
“Mother: I wish I could say that joining the Express has been the thrill that they advertise, but I cannot.
A horse drawn wagon comes over the rise and begins the descent into the river bottom. The wagon is pulled by four horses, two men riding on top: one driving, the other riding shotgun, casually, gun at his side. They are too far off to get any appreciable detail.
There is little excitement in endless sagebrush, jackrabbits and towns so small that they could have been contained within Father’s estate.
The wagon is near the bottom of the track now. We notice that the shrubbery in the lower right is now much sparser or gone entirely, as if something had been standing between us and it before, something that we did not see earlier. The Wolf has started its prowl.
Two rows of three panels each, Third row landscape.
The focus of each row is as follows: Top of wagon, body, road.
Closer in on the two riders. Collins has already been described in the introductory materials, so I won’t repeat that here.
His companion Webster is a bit older than Collins, more heavyset. Thinning hair, mustache, beginnings of beard, dressed in slightly nicer working clothes than Collins. Collins’ comment apparently distracted him from something else. His eyes are now on Collins.
Oh, nothing. Just writing a letter that I’ve been putting off.
Don’t see no inkwell nor paper.
Just thinking about it. It’s not important.
Webster is back to looking around. He’s expecting something to happen, but continues his conversation. Collins looks ahead, to the road.
No girl. It was to my mother.
Collins looks at Webster, notices him checking around.
What are you looking for?
All the wolves stopped talkin t’other. Out here the prairie lawyers are usually talkin’ a gale.
Panels 4-6 break up a view of the stagecoach seen from the side. The windows are open and we can see three travelers along one side, two young women and an older man, apparently their father. They are all sleeping, one daughter on either side of him.
One thing that this experience continually teaches me, Mother, is that humans removed from the environs of the city, and all the comforts and reassurances of civilization, quickly become superstitious in the extreme. My partner is a good example. He has been suspicious this entire evening, simply based on the observation that the wolves are not howling tonight.
Middle view of the coach, unobstructed view of the moon framed by the large window cut over the door. It is nearly full, waxing.
Perhaps it is the moonlight, passing to him its peculiar lunacy. Perhaps all of us are already like that: willing and perhaps even hoping to hurl ourselves from the responsibilities of life, to become as children, afraid of shadows. To go back to the wilderness which we came from…the garden unspoiled.
Sitting across from the father and his daughters is a thin young man, dressed rather nicely, if not a bit formally for the occasion. Sitting open on his lap is a wooden box, which he is gazing into intently, as though inside the box is the key to all his worldly hopes and dreams. We cannot see what is in the box, due to the angle.
But, fear not, I shall not be running with the wild anytime soon. As the British say, ‘going native’ is not a concern. I too much adore the little comforts of civilization. As do those who travel with us in all the luxury we can muster, though that amounts to a roof with which to keep off sun and rain.
PANEL 7 (Landscape)
In the right-hand corner, we can see the edge of the wagon wheel moving away, faint dust kicked up by its passage. The middle of the panel is open road. On the left side, we can see the shadow of the Wolf and one of its paws in mid-stride. This is not a normal paw (if that wasn’t obvious before). Think of a wolf who got halfway to being human, rather than a human who got halfway to wolf.
That and protection from the various dangers which might confront them on this trek.
Yeah, just… Yeah. Sorry, editors.
More on Friday.