With the release of Been Bit, my first digital comic short, I’ve been thinking again about process. Hopefully you all like the story, as Stan and I had a great time making it. How it all came together is a pretty interesting story in and of it self, and I wanted to share it with y’all.
The horror genre isn’t one I ever thought I’d be especially drawn to, but if there’s a monster in the compendium I’ve been fascinated with over the years, it’s the werewolf. I’m a dog person at heart, what can I say? Vampires are fine, and I won’t deny I like a good zombie story, but the werewolf has always been my favorite. There’s something about the connection to the night, and the moon in particular, that speaks to me when it comes to monsters. I also like that most werewolf stories are largely about our inner demons, the monster inside of us that we all struggle with. I like that the wolf can be a metaphor for things like anger, addiction, sadness, or loss. I’ve had my share of those demons along they way and werewolf stories always seemed more connected my own conflicts than other monster tales.
And yet, the specific impetus for this werewolf story is simple to trace and not connected to any specific personal trial or tribulation, however. I’ve actually had the idea for a Wild West Werewolf tale for almost 25 years, and that makes me feel really old. It became a little seed in my head the first I saw the trailer for a made for cable movie called Into the Badlands. The movie is a psychological horror western starring Bruce Dern, Muriel Hemingway and Dylan McDermott, and I have to admit, I’ve never actually seen it. I just saw the trailer a million times (It was on an old VHS copy of Point Break, I think). The trailer seemed to very vaguely hint that Into the Badlands was a werewolf western, but it turns out it wasn’t. There was a scene in which some frontier folk are attacked by actual wolves, I believe, but when I discovered that the film wasn’t really what I thought it was about (what I desperately wanted it to be about) I abandoned it, unwatched. The film is so old and so forgotten that it doesn’t even have a score on Rotten Tomatoes, and I can’t find it today on any streaming service currently available.
That said, the concept speaks to one of my great loves: Movie Trailers. When I found out that very few directors make their own trailers, that there are Hollywood professionals whose sole job is to turn dailies and early edits into these little mini-masterpieces, I very nearly abandoned my dreams of writing fiction one day and attempted to become a Movie Trailer Director. Story ideas often come to me in the form of film previews: a tag line, a few basic quips of dialogue, a simplified concept and a general overall mood. I wrote down the phrase “werewolf western” in a notebook all the way back then and I’ve transferred it to various analog and digital versions of my “ideas” folder over the years, but I had never managed to wrap my head around any actual characters or plot.
Many years later, the first name for any of the story’s characters popped into my head. It was the first time I ever felt this story creak it’s joints, to begin to “walk and talk” as an old writing teacher used to say. I was listening to a song called Lungs, by one of my favorite songwriters, Mr. Townes Van Zandt. Lungs is a great acoustic guitar piece with an oddly mysterious bent to it. Mr. Van Zandt wrote my absolute favorite song in the whole world (this isn’t it) and I’m a fan of his stuff in general. This particular song was recently featured over the credits of an episode of True Detective, and that may have been what brought it back into my mental orbit, I’m not really sure.
What I am sure of is that while listening to it that day, the name John Comb appeared in my mind. I liked it’s simplicity, and it’s solid core, if that’s a thing. John Comb was a man who was not to be broken, a hard man who’d lead a hard life and wanted, desperately, to be good, even though he knew he wasn’t. I thought it would be the right name for the werewolf hunter in my Werewolf Western, and I quickly opened my “Ideas folder” (which now lives on my phone and my desktop in two badly dis-organized piles of crazy) and wrote the name “John Comb” on the end of the sentence – “A werewolf hunter in the old west discovers he and his prey are not all that different.” Beyond that, the story didn’t really take shape, and while I was disappointed it didn’t fully spring forth, as they sometimes do, I knew that one day I’d get around to John Comb’s story.
I attended New York Comic Con during it’s regular time slot in October in 2013, only the 4th comic convention I’d ever been to. I had decided once and for all that writing comics was what I was supposed to be doing with my life, and I had a different fully developed comic series in hand. I was determined to find an artist at one of these big conventions that would LOVE my idea, and equally determined to get my story off the ground before my 40th birthday. None of that happened, of course, but I did return from NYCC convinced I was on the right track in some ways, and pointed in new more valuable directions as well. I decided to start creating as many different stories as I could, to cast my nets a little wider for collaborators, and to make comics, no matter what it took. I went to a few more cons over the following months, in Seattle, Anaheim and Chicago, and just kept writing, one idea at a time. My “Ideas” folder got a little less full, and new folders began to appear, both on my desktop and in my head, with fleshed out concepts that were becoming more and more fun to work on. A lot of my stories were beginning to “walk and talk”. Yet still, the words “A werewolf hunter in the old west discovers he and his prey are not all that different. – John Comb,” lingered on my list of unexplored ideas.
Then came Special Edition. Specifically, the New York Comic Con Special Edition, held this past summer in New York. It was at a panel run by Buddy Scalera of comicbookschool.com, that I met Stan Chou. It would have been tough not to meet Stan, actually, as Buddy kind of made him a guinea pig. Scalera puts together a panel called Creator Connection that’s been described as “Artist – Writer Speed Dating.” Each potential creator in the room spends a few minutes with everyone else, trading info and talking about the comics they’d like to make. I’ve been to a view of these similar panels at a few cons, and some were beginning to bear fruit. At this particular panel, right at the start, Buddy asked the room, “who in the room is an artist?” Several folks raised their hands, and Buddy picked one person near the front to come onto the stage, in order to demonstrate the kinds of interactions he was hoping to foment during this little exercise. The person he picked as a volunteer was Stan Chou. I remember being particularly tickled during this whole presentation for two reasons. The first was that everyone in the room very obviously understood what was up, and I wasn’t so sure that he and Stan’s little role-playing exercise was super necessary. For me it felt like a flight attendant demonstrating a seat belt, but that’s likely my own crappy perception. I can be a bit of an asshole, so It’s likely I was the only who thought that, and most folks were all pretty happy to see it. The second thing that struck me funny was the way Buddy Scalera kept pronouncing Stan’s name. He’d said that his name was Stanley, but Scalera couldn’t stop himself from consistently pronouncing it “Stan Lee.” I wasn’t entirely sure if he was joking, or just enunciating in the wrong place, but it gave me a giggle, for sure.
That said, I made certain that I was going to get to talk to Stan during this hour or so we all had to get together, and it worked out great. While I was flipping through Stan’s portfolio, Comb began coming to life inside my head. John Comb wasn’t just a werewolf hunter; he WAS a werewolf, and none too happy about it at that. I began telling Stan a little bit about it, and he was excited right away. I remember on that first day he told me he’d just spent several months perfecting his technique drawing revolvers, and that a Western would be a fun way to put these newly polished skills to use. We talked for the requisite few minutes and exchanged contact info, and I went away pretty happy about the experience. I also got a chance to thank Buddy Scalera for the chance to meet Stan and all the other great artists there that day, and tell him I had gotten a nice laugh out of his butchering of Stan’s name, and he was a great sport about it. Without Buddy and his Creator Connection idea, this story would not have happened.
Scalera wasn’t the only creator I had great conversations in New York that summer. In fact some of those conversations were also important in the creation of this story. It was listening to and later speaking with creators Amy Chu and Erica Stultz that I realized that these kinds of short stories were going to be the most valuable use of my time. I didn’t need to be so overly ambitious, didn’t need to try and make whole comic series, I needed to just make comics, to start small and perfect the craft. I find both these ladies inspirational in their approach to breaking into the comics industry, and I hope to get to thank them in person sooner rather than later.
I got back to San Francisco riding a creative high, really excited to have met so many folks, really excited to tackle comics a little more realistically, and really excited about the story that I had now named, in my mind at least, Been Bit. I quickly sat down and began fleshing out who the characters in the tale were, beginning with Comb. This is pretty typical for me, when it comes to narrative process. I recently heard Kelly Sue DeConnick and Greg Rucka speak about the idea that storytelling is like driving a car at night – you know where you’re going, but aren’t necessarily sure what’s out beyond the headlights. I often find I have a better sense of the way to go if I know who’s coming with me, and why they are along for the ride in the first place. So I started with what I’d had for a good while now, that name. John Comb. And before I knew it, John’s entire life came pouring out of me. The part you see in Been Bit is a very small portion of it, but it’s one of the best parts, so far. Dr. Alexander Herman Von Strader, whose full name does NOT appear in the comic, quickly followed John. Can you imagine lettering that handle into an 8-page short? You’d never get to see his face. Anyway, I digress.
Von Strader was followed quickly by Mona, and she became the primary villain in my mind almost right away. Again, Mona had a full name too, one that I had shamelessly cribbed. Her name is the same as that of a relatively new friend, the inimitable Mona Darling, whom I met last summer at both the World Domination Summit and Yes by Yes Yes conferences. The Mona of Been Bit and the real world Mona Darling share a few traits I suppose, but it was the name that connected them the most, a name I simply couldn’t un-stick from my head. I left it out of the comic on purpose, as I was trying to differentiate the two women in my own mind. What I hoped I did carry over into the story was a strong and charismatic female character who serves as more than just a plot function for Comb. I always intended for Mona to be the true villain of the story, a master manipulator who does indeed love John and desires to turn him to her werewolf pack for many reasons. Mona wants a strong hunter in the pack as much as she wants John to be wolf because she loves him. I wanted to stress that Mona was never Von Strader’s puppet, but a villain who was equal if not superior to him.
I filled in the plot and started scripting, and of course it nearly turned into a novella. I have a hard time, now and then, not letting my imagination run away with me, and there was the potential for a lot of world building here, even if the Old West setting is fairly well known. I wanted to explore Mona and Jakeson’s relationship, how she manipulated and turned him, how she taught him he could kill her as a human and the change would resurrect her as wolf, how they hooked up with Von Strader. I wanted to wander around in Von Strader’s European roots, his connection to werewolves of the “Old Country” and how he came West searching for a new pack, and possible the source of the original werewolf curse. There was a TON of stuff in this story that never came through, believe me. I talked to Stan about a lot of it, but I’m certain he’s finding out about some of this for the first time himself.
So I scrapped the whole thing, and started over with 8 simple story beats, what would be the heart of each page, as it were. They didn’t quite stay the same, but they were pretty close to the finished concept, and before I knew it, I had a draft for a fun little short. I sent the script to Stan, and he was fantastic to collaborate with. He had his own ideas, both on motivation and look, for each of the characters, and it was awesome to seem come even more fully to life visually. We had special fun playing with the two men’s facial hair, and translating that into their werewolf form. As one might expect, hair became a big factor in a story about men and women who turn into wolves. It was really Stan who solidified the idea that Comb’s handle bar mustache would translate into long mustaches on his wolf form, and that Von Strader’s mutton chops would fill out his wolf face. Mona’s dark black hair made her wolf form so much darker than all the rest, and really helped with the idea that each wolf was as unique as the human they had been, a concept I really dig. It also meant that the awesome nearly all black character sketch of Mona as a werewolf could become the cover art for Been Bit, helping solidify her as an important character and not just a peripheral one. Jakeson is such a character, a tool of the plot, but in a story with only 4 people, I absolutely didn’t want the only woman to be marginalized, and this fantastic dark black representation of her helped her stand out as a werewolf in a great way, I think. She is intentionally physically smaller than the men, as is typical of wolves and humans alike, but her place in the story is a strong one, I hope. She also has a deep rich back story in my mind, and I hope to get to tell it someday.
Once we finished the art, a process that again Stan made great fun, it was time to figure out how to letter. I did some simply lettering over stand original rough pencils, just to make sure I would be able to let the characters say what I wanted to them to say, and it became yet another frightening point at which I nearly decided to abandon it all and get a day job. I realized that the novelist inside me was writing buckets of dialogue that were never going to fit on a comics page. I also began to remember some important things about the characters. While John Comb is internally conflicted about what he is becoming, he’s not outspoken. He talks to himself a lot about what’s happening to him, but he’s very much the strong silent western gunfighter. He’s tight lipped and a little grumpy, and would swear a good bit but not dish. Von Strader, however, is ebullient. He is verbose and grandiose and a ridiculous drunk and snob at the same time. Some of it (in particular the drinking) are affected, but his method of speaking is not. Like a great villainous cliches he doesn’t know when to shut up. I recognized fairly early that a lot of Von Strader is a cliche, but that’s what I wanted. I hoped, in only 8 pages, that I could hide the true villain, Mona, with the obvious villainy of Von Strader, at least for a while. Too this day, I worry that he overshadows her, honestly, as his villainy is pure and one sided and hers in more complex. She’s never repentant, but she also always loves John, and she can be at least a little sympathetic. She also has less panel time, as she is dead for at least part of the story, and if there’s a flaw in this first story I’ve created it’s that, Mona’s under representation. I ask readers only to bear with me, as I am learning, and desperately need to make these early mistakes to get better.
Hopefully this will shed a little more light on the ideas behind Been Bit. I hope you all enjoy reading it, and I’m excited to be bringing you more shorts like it in the future!