Tuesday, July 09, 2013

To Hell You Ride: A Review of Issue #1, and Interview with Lance Henriksen, Joe Maddrey, and Tom Mandrake

To Hell You Ride is the Dark Horse comic-book from authors Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey and Tom Mandrake, and if the first issue is any clue, it’s a symbolism-laden, multi-faceted work that straddles genres, and offers trenchant social commentary on our modern world and human nature itself.

Moving with relentless speed, agility, and purpose -- not-unlike like a well-paced genre film -- the first issue of To Hell You Ride is an ambitious opening chapter to a story of epic scope. 

The tale commences in the Colorado Mountains during winter, in the year 1881.  Avaricious white miners seeking gold arrive on Native American land and brazenly interrupt an important ritual conducted by four warriors. 

In doing so, the miners unleash a timeless curse.  This curse is vividly presented in terms of imagery and words:  “Flesh runs away from bone…” 

This horrific prologue quickly and efficiently creates a mythology around a set of supernatural beings called “Watchers” and in addition to Native-American lore, there’s a bit of Lovecraft here too, particularly in the discussion of “The Old Ones.”

To Hell You Ride’s narrative then shifts to our present-day, and introduces our troubled main character, Two-Dogs, a Native-American man who deals with prejudice and a near-total lack of opportunity in a dead-end town.  He is counseled by a friendly sheriff and father figure, Jim Shipps.

Finally, the story’s third section is set during 1939, and it recounts a true story (expressed to Lance Henriksen…) about the surprise resolution of a grim murder investigation.

After reading the first issue, I have many questions about where the story is headed, and how the three time periods connect.  But most importantly, I want to read more. 

If you visit this blog with any regularity, you know that the brand of story that endlessly intrigues me is one that speaks to the issues of our times in a meaningful, artistic way, and doesn’t resort to spoon feeding us obvious lessons or conclusions.  For me, engagement multiplies when there are things to interpret; thing to think about and ruminate upon.

Delightfully, that’s the case here.  What I admire about the first issue of To Hell You Ride -- and hope to see continued in upcoming episodes -- is the comic’s very powerful sense of place (with a different palette representing each era), and its confident and yet wholly unconventional reliance on symbolic story telling.  The story’s narration is brilliant and distinctive in terms of the writing, but so much of the tale is also conveyed through canny visual representations.

For instance, the story dwells a great deal on messengers, and the idea of people receiving messages, but rather determinedly not listening to them.  These messengers might be animals, part of the landscape, or something falling from the night sky.

In recent weeks alone, we’ve seen in our culture how some people have steadfastly ignored facts regarding polls and statistics, and even created their own erroneous facts and statistics in their place…to their own electoral peril. 

And of course we saw the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, a “message” about climate change that so many people are still determined not to hear, despite the devastation. 

To Hell You Ride doesn’t tread into anything specific like that, but rather comments on the apparently universal quality of our species to look around and see only the things we want to see, even if Mother Nature seems to be screaming warnings at us.  We seem to want to fit the facts to our beliefs, not let our beliefs be dictated by the facts.

To Hell You Ride also connects that idea of ignoring important information/messages with a scathing commentary on human avarice or greed.  In an unequivocally blunt, even caustic author’s voice, the writers opine “Greed turns men into hungry rats.  They grow fat on the garbage of lust and illusion.” 

It’s a great line on its own, but also a searing, devastating line about our times.   Many in our culture today pursue wealth at the expense of the environment and the expense of their fellow man, and To Hell You Ride, again, seems to see this as a kind of universal flaw in our Western culture.  The Native American culture provides a strong contrast in terms of values, and indeed, that’s the point.  Again, and again, To Hell You Ride forges trenchant comparisons between cultures in terms of listening, in terms of respecting nature, even in terms of how society as a whole faces death, and the rituals surrounding death.

But you have to do some real thinking to connect all the dots here, and that’s a very good thing. The connection between “the messengers” and the men who have grown fat on “the garbage of lust and illusion” is one that requires consideration, and adds depth to the intriguing, three-point narrative. 

The first issue of To Hell You Ride covers an incredible amount of territory, including a commentary on religious and daily rituals that, perhaps, “mean nothing,” or perhaps mean everything.  What I enjoyed so much about the comic’s inaugural chapter is that even though it moves from one era to another, and offers meaningful commentary on our species on quite a few topics, it also feels admirably consistent and coherent.

There is a powerful voice at work here, a voice I believe I recognize --  partially at least -- from Not Bad for A Human…of absolutely no-bull-shit honesty and honest reflection.  That voice isn’t about politics or a partisan agenda, but about blunt, often hard-to-face truths.  And delightfully, it is coupled with scorching, unforgettable artwork reflective of the story’s themes.

And as you know, that’s the zenith for me in terms of aesthetic considerations.  Form must echo, augment, mirror, and reflect content.  The two quality elements must walk hand-in-hand so that the artistic experience is consistent and organic. 

Based on what I’ve seen so far, To Hell Your Ride reaches that apex.

I had the opportunity last week -- after reading an advance copy of To Hell You Ride -- to interview Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey and Tom Mandrake about their original comic-series, and bring up some of the qualities that fascinated me most about their new work.

Part I: Origins

JKM: “Tell me about the origins of this story.  How was To Hell You Ride conceived?”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “I went to Telluride in the 1970s. It was slightly dilapidated. Quaint but dilapidated.

And I remember sitting at a bar one night and having a beer, and I could see that it was hard for the people there.  I thought, ‘Holy Shit,’ this is the end of the world, literally, and that these people must be reincarnated miners and hookers from the old days. 

I traveled up to an old mining town in the mountains, where no one ever went anymore.  I was intrigued with the idea that they used to hold slave miners up there with just a few riflemen on the ridges, and I thought, ‘what a strange-ass place this is.’

And then I remembered that quote by Dylan Thomas:

I have heard many years of telling
And many years should see some change. 
The ball I threw while playing in the park
Has not yet reached the ground.” 

That quotation made me think of a curse on that land [Telluride]. I saw it as a curse that will come to fruition when it is ready.

That was the seeds of it, and it was just me sitting in a corner.  It stuck with me, and I decided to write it as a movie, because actors when they are out-of-work tend to write movies with a part in it for them.  So I wrote it, and I realized that the themes were there.  I created a mythology, a curse that would take place in the modern day for something that happened in the 1800s. 

As is the case in all good mythology, I saw it as a morality play.”

JKM: “Were you thinking about in it terms of genre?”

JOE MADDREY: “We haven’t had any explicit conversations about what genre it is. 

Lance just told me the opening scene, and he had it mapped out in his head, shot-for shot…the first seven pages of the comic.  He described it to me and I liked the mystery of it, and it sounded like a modern myth.  It clearly had a bit of science fiction in it.  There was a sense of foreboding in it, so there was an element of horror too.  The setting it made it seem like a bit of a western.

But we never pigeonholed it as a genre. We just talked about the story and the characters, and went from there.

Part II: Process

JKM: “Can you describe the writing collaboration between the three of you?

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “I don’t think of myself as a writer, to be honest.  I really think in pictures, and the words just blurt out.  There’s a really interesting phenomenon that was happening while we were working on this.  All three of us seem to be channeling ideas that seem to be coming out of nowhere.  The proof is that you get confirmation from real unexpected places.

TOM MANDRAKE: “There’s usually two ways that you can do a comic.  You can do a full script where the writers writes it, hands it in, and you draw it.  And then there’s the plot style, or what some people call the Marvel style, where the writer gives the artist a few pages of notes and the artist pencils them…and goes back to the writer. 

We’re doing it in a completely different way.  We’re all involved in talking about the story.  We start penciling it, and we make changes.  The three of us work very closely.  We’re constantly talking on Skype about this, and driving our editor crazy.”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “Our collaboration is like a perfect marriage.  I hate to say that, because we still have three more comics to do….”

JKM:  “Tom, what’s your process so far as bringing the script to the page?”

TOM MANDRAKE: With the scripts, I’ll read them a few times and sit down and think about them.  Then about the third time through, I’ll sit down and start putting down little visual ideas in the margins of the script.  And I’ll start doing thumbnails.  I’ll usually throw in lots more panels than I end up with.  It’s a way to bring out the information. 

It’s not unlike editing a book: you put in a lot more stuff than you end up with, and start refining.  So I might have twelve panels a page when I start out, knowing full well I’m not going to end up with that. I’ll try to find the image which best expresses the story.”

Part III: Themes

JKM: I’d like to go over some of the great and really memorable writing in the first issue.  The book opens with a stunning line that implies something about our culture and its denial about or obsession with death.  “Indian graves are not meant to last.”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “I hate the idea of autopsies.  Everyone in America gets autopsied.  I would rather wrap myself up in a blanket, climb a tree, and let it all fall apart.  Let nature take its course.  You don’t need crypts made of marble.  The Native Americans have a different point of view.  Theirs is aligned with nature, while modern man is trying to put us all in a vacuum can, for what reason I don’t know.

“I think the thing we tried to do is have respect for the Native Americans, and that’s why we called the first comic “White Man’s Guilt.”  It’s really about respect for what they did.”

JKM:”I have to say, I admire that To Hell You Ride is not your typical clichéd view of Native Americans, right down to the dialogue, right down to the art work.”

TOM MANDRAKE: I spend a lot of time trying to put in Native American elements in such a way that people who understand the culture are not going to look at the book and go “what an ass.” 

There’s way too much of that kind of thing over the years, just sort of a ladling on of Native American decoration without thought as to what it really represents.  We want to infuse this project with the culture, realizing it is not our culture.”

JKM: “Another line that jumps out at me, especially since so much of America is divided today by different belief systems: “What is sacred to one tribe is meaningless to another.”

LANCE: “You can’t escape the messages of the era, including war, and the Muslim vs. Christian thing.  All those things are going on around us, so these lines are part and parcel of our era.

When I was in Australia and New Guinea, I bought some artifacts, like masks from the South Sea Islands.  And one of the things I was told was that a crocodile mask from one tribe was so sacred that women were not allowed to lay eyes on it.  It had to be brought to the men’s hut, where men sit and discuss their tribe and what they need to do. 

But to another tribe, those objects -- like the mask -- are as useless as firewood.  Many tribes are not able to reach across the gulf and respect the other’s beliefs.”

JOE MADDREY: “That line [“What is sacred to one tribe is meaningless to another”] is something you’ve said to me quite a bit, Lance.  That’s one of your philosophies of life, and it fits naturally into your story.  The comic is about respect.  Being respectful of other religions and other cultures… to be respectful of nature; to be respectful of everything you co-exist with.  That’s a through-line.”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “In the prologue, there’s the whole ritual about asking forgiveness for not protecting the sacred burial grounds. When the white man came along and interrupted it, they turned the ritual into a curse.”

JKM: “Tell me something about how and why your story exists in three time periods…”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “There are some laws that we are using in the story.  One law is that the way Native Americans think about time is non-linear.  If something happened in 1881, the life of that thing is still happening now.  It didn’t end.  And now we’re just picking up on it, but it’s nevertheless a constant.  There’s no such thing as time, really.

JKM: I notice that the story is separated into three different times -- 1881, 1939 and the present -- and that each time period has a distinctive look.

TOM MANDRAKE: “We do it with color.  Color is becoming an extremely important tool in our time line.  We’re trying to establish color palettes for each time line, and that helps the reader to key in on which time period we’re in.  I have to make sure I don’t draw the wrong props in at the wrong time.  You have to watch for the wrong details.”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “The transitions in the comic are seamless, John, absolutely seamless.  Wait till you see the second issue.

JKM: “The comic-book form seems ideally suited for this kind of narrative approach…”

JOE MADDREY: “To me, transitions in comics are even more interesting than transitions in film.  I love seeing how different writers and artists shift between scenes and time periods in comics.  The medium allows you to kind of flatten out different planes of reality.”

JKM: “Tell me about To Hell You Ride’s mythology of the Watchers. Is it something you made up, or something that you researched?’

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “It’s a creation.”

JOE MADDREY: “We’ve defined them as we’ve gone along, and we’ve found confirmation for them in a lot of other myths, from many different cultures.  We weren’t consciously searching out inspiration for these things, but we were hitting on something without realizing we were hitting on it.”

We are all paying attention to messengers.  A story doesn’t come out of nowhere.  It’s like talking about zeitgeist.  Elements of this story are floating around in the air, and you pick up on different aspects.  You don’t dream up anything from scratch.  We know the essence and the themes and what’s important, but we’re really open-minded, and have our antennae up so other details can resonate with us.”

JKM: “Messengers are very important in the story. They’re everywhere.”

TOM MANDRAKE: “The landscape [in the comic] is alive, and the appearance of animals is definitely important throughout the story.  There again is another thing.  Once you put your head into that space, messages do start coming to you. Once you open your mind, more and more information is sort of handed to you.  It’s floating in the ether.  This is a much deeper project than many I have been in involved with over the years.”

JKM: “I just have to ask: is the Sheriff Jim Shipps character our Lance Henriksen surrogate in the story.”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “Yes he is.  You find out more in the second issue.”

TOM MANDRAKE: “I’m glad you were able to catch that.  It means I didn’t screw up.  To me, Jim Shipps was Lance the minute I read it. I don’t think it’s a mistake on the part of Lance and Joe.  Why not take advantage of such a great face?  He’s got a wonderful face for light and shadow to play against.

Part IV: Final Thoughts

JKM: “Lastly, why is this story important to all of you?  Why is it a tale that needs to be told right now?

JOE MADDREY: “To me, if you strip away the specifics of the story, the core of the thing is a pretty timeless myth.  What’s the purpose of a myth?  To try to give you a world view so that you feel like your life has meaning.  So that you are being creative and not destructive.

The story is coming from a very intuitive place for all of us.  It’s coming from a world-view and a belief, and that’s how you should start telling any story you believe in.  That’s how you start any story that’s worth telling.”

TOM MANDRAKE: “When you put your heart into a project, you want people to see it and feel that emotion.  The hardest thing to do in comics is get an emotional reaction from readers.  To have someone say your work means something to them is rare.  And when they do, it makes you feel wonderful.”

LANCE HENRIKSEN: “I’ll answer that question for you, John, when all five issues are out and we’re reading them over a glass of red wine together…” 

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