Canadian Comics: Interviewing Derek McCulloch of Stagger Lee and Pug

This week on The Fabler Blog, we have a swell treat for fans of historical fiction (and comics books in general).

Derek McCulloch

We tracked down Derek McCulloch, award-winning writer of the graphic novels Stagger Lee and Pug, for an interview about… well , just about everything under the sun.  We touched on both of the aforementioned books, his work on the upcoming Vertigo title Gone to Amerikay, and chatted at length about his comic career thus far.

And an interesting career it has been. Some background:

Derek first started writing regularly in the early 80’s, and alongside paul Stockton, founded the Edmonton-based indie comic publishing company Strawberry Jam Comics in 1985.

He wrote and published his first comic series’, To Be Announced and Night Life, during the time that Strawberry Jam Comics was active. While both received positive reviews, the success of the combined Strawberry Jam titles weren’t enough to keep the company from folding in ‘92.

Fast forward fourteen years later.  No, you didn’t misread that – McCulloch was then totally absent from any comic scene to speak of until 2006, when he released Stagger Lee with artist Shepherd Hendrix. FOURTEEN YEARS, people.

Stagger Lee, which was published by Image Comics, is the story of “Stagger” Lee Shelton – an actual person who, in 1895, walked into a bar on Christmas eve and murdered William “Billy” Lyons. The event was retold and reinterpreted in a number of songs, becoming a significant item of American folklore.

Since every version of Stagger Lee’s story is different, McCulloch’s book cannot be said to be a fully historically accurate interpretation of  events, but it did make for an incredibly engaging read.  McCulloch’s re-emergence into comic books netted him nominations in the 2006 Eisner and Eagle Awards, and won four Glyph awards – including Best Writer and Story of the Year.

After the success of Stagger Lee, Derek wrote a series of stories for the comic anthology PopGun, and released a children’s book titled T.Runt! in 2009. His most recent graphic novel, Pug, was just published by Image Comics this past July.

Pug is another period piece, this time set in the late fifties-to-early-sixties. The book, which was illustrated by Greg Espinoza, tells the story of a down-and-out former boxer who could have been great. Due to one particular bad decision he made in his life,  the boxer – Jake Mahoney – lost everything, and when we meet him he is living entirely on the kindness of his burlesque-dancing girlfriend, Kitten KaBoodle.

His next major project will be the original graphic novel Gone to Amerikay, which will be published through Vertigo Comics and features artist Colleen Doran. Little is currently known about the upcoming work, except that it will be 150 pages long and tells a multi-generational story about Irish emigrants to the United States.

It should be noted that while he has his roots in Ontario and Alberta, Canada, McCulloch is presently a Canadian living abroad. He currently lives in Oakland, California.

Derek was (graciously) quite thorough in his responses to my interview questions, so I’l let the interview speak for itself from here. Without further ado,

The Fabler Blog’s in-depth interview with Derek McCulloch:

KD: The earliest comics that I could find that were written by you were the Strawberry Jam titles that you worked on in the mid-to-late eighties.

Had you written anything prior to that?

DM: Written, yes.  Published, no. I wrote a lot of really lame science fiction stories in the early 80s and sent them to places like Analog, F&SF, and Isaac Asimov’s Magazine, and thankfully none of them were ever accepted, though I did get one or two nice rejections.  Mostly, though, where I got my practice was in APAs.  APA, for those who’ve never heard them term (the great majority, I’m sure), stood for amateur press alliance.  They were a form of collective fanzines and a kind of primitive pre-Internet social networking device.

I belonged to about fifteen different APAs at one point, and I developed a lot of terrible writing habits that I still have to this day.  But it also connected me with a lot of people who made a big difference in my life.  Strawberry Jam Comics actually grew out of an APA I started, GALACTUS.  A lot of other people involved with Strawberry Jam were members of GALACTUS, like my partner, paul Stockton, Mike Bannon, who drew To Be Announced, and others.  You could say accurately that all the horrible fan fiction I wrote for APAs in the early 80s were the necessary precursor to the theoretically professional comics work I did for Strawberry Jam.

Pug

KD: What comic books would you say were the most pivotal in inspiring you to pursue comic writing yourself?

DM: I probably first thought about writing comics in the mid-70s when I was a tweener addicted to Marvel Comics.  My comics writing heroes at that time were Steve Gerber, Steve Englehart, and Doug Moench…and Stan Lee, though he wasn’t actually writing comics much anymore by the time I started reading them.  He was the inescapable voice of Marvel, though, so even though I only knew his writing from back issues, I thought of him as a major role model.

By the mid-80s, when we started Strawberry Jam, I had discovered Cerebus and dropped out of the superhero mainstream.  Cerebus was really the only comic I was reading at the time, and it was the one great inspiration that all of us involved in Strawberry Jam had in common.  Dave Sim’s creative and business approaches laid out the playbook we tried to follow…trying to tell new kinds of stories, trying to find new ways to tell them, and doing it all ourselves with a post office box for a business HQ.

I got attracted back to mainstream comics briefly by Alan Moore, when he was doing Swamp Thing, and later Watchmen.  From Hell was probably both the last comic I followed and the last comic to have really influenced me.  I was very conscious of it as a template for historical fiction in comics when I was writing Stagger Lee.  For the most part now my inspiration comes from other places—history, music, movies, and everyday life.  Other than writing them, comics don’t play much of a part in my life at all these days.

KD: After Strawberry Jam Comics folded in ‘92, it is my understanding that you took an extended hiatus from comicking that lasted roughly a decade.

Was this a true hiatus, or were you still somewhat active in producing mini-comics or stories for anthologies during this time?

DM: It was a true hiatus.  Strawberry Jam and my first marriage both happened to break up in the same general period of time.  My then-wife had been very involved in everything I did in comics, and my personal, social, and business lives were all pretty closely entwined.  It wasn’t a sudden switch-turning thing, but it gradually occurred to me that the six or seven years I’d spent living a very comics-dominated life hadn’t given me much of a return.

I wasn’t even reading comics at that point, so it was a very natural thing to just absent myself from the scene, particularly because I was very nomadic in the 90s.  I bounced around a lot.  I was in Vancouver for a bit, and Las Vegas, and wound up in New Orleans for several years, part of a scene that had more to do with bar crawling than comics.  It was the perfect place to be rootless and single and unhappy, and I started writing again there, in prose.  I wrote a cycle of autobiographical fiction stories and didn’t do anything with them.  They weren’t work for the ages, but in the process of writing them I finally came to a clear understanding of what my authorial voice was.  Years later, I self-published a collection of them with some other stories, which the morbidly curious can find here.

KD: What was the catalyst for bringing you back into the comic industry as an active participant?

DM: Around 1998, I decided it was time to take another crack at comics.  I don’t remember why I decided that.  I guess enough time had passed and I had an itch to be in print again.  I didn’t exactly work hard to scratch it, though.  Greg Espinoza and I were working on a proposal for a series called The Good Fairy that went nowhere.  The next year, I had the idea for Stagger Lee, as well as the initial ideas for Pug and Displaced Persons (which has yet to be completed).  I started working slowly on all three of them, initially planning on doing the rounds with proposals, and later deciding that I’d self-publish Stagger Lee and use it as my new calling card.

In 2000 I made the acquaintance of Charles Brownstein, who’s now the head of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund but at that time was between engagements.  We ended up working at the same place and spending a lot of time having long conversations about writing.  I told him about the various things I was working on, and he said that Stagger Lee sounded like something that would interest Eric Stephenson at Image.  I was so fixated on the idea of self-publishing at that point that I had a pretty lukewarm reaction to the idea, but Charles was persistent, and persuasive.  He introduced me to Eric, I reverse-engineered a proposal for the book, which was already written and had about twenty pages of art in the can, and Stagger Lee had a home.

Stagger Lee

KD: Stagger Lee marked your triumphant return to the medium, earning you significant praise as a writer as well as a number of awards and nominations.

To what degree was the success of Stagger Lee instrumental in your continued work in comics?

DM: That’s a difficult thought to contemplate, but given that I was already working on two other books before Stagger Lee saw print,  I’d have to guess I would have kept trying as long as people would let me.  And probably beyond that, given that I’ve always been willing to self-publish if I needed to.  I’d rather not need to at this point, but the option’s always there.

I will say that I was pretty sure Stagger Lee would get at least some positive response.  It’s a fascinating vein of Americana to build a story around and it’s the kind of stuff that wasn’t being done enough in comics, so even if we’d done a terrible job at it I think we’d have got points for trying.

KD: Let’s talk about Pug. You take a unique narrative approach to this title – weaving together two stories from past and present in a manner that mirrors the format of a traditional boxing match.

Did you have this approach in mind right from the outset, or did the idea come out as you were fleshing out the story?

DM: It’s hard to remember after 11 years, but I think the structure was one of the first things I had for the story, that it would be exactly 59 story pages made of 15 three-page “rounds” and 14 one-page “rest period” flashbacks.  A lot of other things changed about the story over 11 years, but that structure was always a given.

It’s counterintuitive, but a lot of the time it works that way for me…that I have in mind a structure I like and find the best way to make the story conform to it.  It probably doesn’t sound organic but in practice, it is.  For me, anyway.

Pug

KD: I read in an interview you did with Newsarama that your father was an amateur boxer.

Did Pug have a more personal  connotation for you due to that connection?

DM: Absolutely.  The book is dedicated to my dad.  He used to try to interest me in sports in different ways when I was a kid, but I was a hopelessly sedentary bookworm and couldn’t have been less interested in the Grey Cup or the fortunes of the Leafs.

The boxing stuff was always interesting to me, though.  I think the only sporting event I can remember willingly watching was Muhammad Ali’s rematch with Leon Spinks.  If my dad never boxed or I’d never known about it, I suppose it’s possible I would have thought of a boxing story at some point but I doubt it would have captured my imagination the same way.

KD: Both Pug and Stagger Lee – as well as Gone to Amerikay, to my understanding – are historical works that portray snapshots of different eras.

What’s the allure to you of working on stories with a non-contemporary setting?

DM: I just love stuff from before my time.  I like old movies and old slang and old clothing and signs and packaging and what have you…all the little markers of a living culture.  I’m not sure why it is.  Maybe it’s because it’s easier to get a big picture look at something when you’ve got a vantage point of decades, or centuries.  The world could use a big sweeping narrative about the nature of racism in America today, but I find it a little easier to get a handle on what it was like in 1895.

The other thing that all three books have in common – along with Displaced Persons if it ever gets finished – is that they actually depict multiple time periods.  Stagger Lee has flashbacks that go back to the 1860s and Pug takes place in both 1962 and 1956.  It’s a little difference, but I crucial one.  I’d kind of like to write something that doesn’t jump back and forth in time just to show I know how to do it, but I like it a lot as a device.  It lets you take a more complete look at a person or a place or a story if you see it in one time and then again at another and then another, and make the triangulation between them.

We’re all a construct of our own pasts, the sum total of all our decisions and experiences and happenstances.  I think you need a macro view to get at that.

KD: What other eras do you think you would like to visit in your future works?

DM: My main period of fascination is from the late 1800s through to the end of World War II.  For whatever reason, I particularly like stories about New York in that period, stuff like the Godfather movies or novels by people like E.L. Doctorow or, moving upstate to Albany, William Kennedy.  I don’t know where this fascination comes from – I have no personal connection to New York and was never even interested in visiting there until business finally took me there a few years ago, but give me a book that tells a tale of corruption centered around the demolition of Penn Station and I’m happy.  I have a couple of things in mind that fall into that category and I hope one day I’m able to get to them.

I also have a big big story in mind that takes place where I live, in Oakland, over the course of about 60 years, but I’ll have to be a much bigger name than I am if I ever want to sell it.  Either that or go back to self-publishing.

Gone to Amerikay

KD: What can you tell me about your experience writing Gone to Amerikay?

DM: It was my first time working with an editor, which is something that gave me trepidation going in.  I’d had a long time to grow accustomed to calling my own shots, and I’d heard a lot of horror stories about editors in comics.  I’m happy to say it couldn’t have been a better first editorial experience.  Joan Hilty, the editor on Gone to Amerikay, has been stellar.  She and I went through about four drafts of the initial proposal together before she pronounced it ready to submit.  She was incredibly sharp and had great story sense.  Every note I got from her was soundly reasoned to make a genuine improvement in the story.  More than a couple of times, she pointed out stuff that I’d thought about changing but had left alone out of laziness or complacency or whatever…it’s incredibly valuable to work with someone you can trust to catch you and call you on it if you’re cutting corners.

Regrettably, Joan was a victim of the recent round of layoffs at DC.  Colleen and I were both devastated to learn that Joan would not be able to see the book through to publication.  Gone to Amerikay would not be what it is without Joan Hilty.

KD: Can you tell me anything about how the project came together in the first place?

DM: It’s a long and tangled story, but the brief version is that Colleen and I did a story together for Comic Book Tattoo, the Tori Amos anthology that Image put out a couple of years ago.  We found we had a great working rapport and were both really happy with the finished story.  I had an idea for another book and asked Colleen if she wanted to work with me on it.  She said sure, and moreover she knew that several editors (including Joan) were keen to have her do a project in the style she’d invented for Comic Book Tattoo.  For the long and tangled reasons that I won’t go into here, there were several large mutations along the way in both in the book concept and the art style, but what we’ve ended up with is, I think, something really special.

It’s too bad I can’t share any of Colleen’s pages with you.  It’s a complicated book and she’s really risen to the challenge. It’s extraordinary work.

KD: What else are you working on these days? Is there anything else you have in the works/on the horizon that you can speak about?

DM: I’m working on an anthology for Image, a half dozen stories based on an existing literary property.  I can’t say any more than that yet, but it’s a labour of love and I’m working with another bunch of wonderful artists.  Ron Turner, whom I haven’t done anything really substantial with since Strawberry Jam, is acting as art director.  I’ve written four of the six stories right now and am just seeing the first pencils on it.  No idea when it will be complete and out, but it’s the largest comics thing on the horizon right now.  And it all takes place in one time period, so there you go.

I’m also co-writing the book for a musical to be produced off-Broadway in New York sometime in the next year or two.  That probably sounds kind of left-field and I guess it is, but it all ties together eventually.

For more from Derek McCulloch, you can visit his website, check out his Stagger Lee blog, or stop by The Derek McCulloch Experience on Facebook.

-Interview by Kevin de Vlaming

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One Comment

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