Since I joined Robot 6 earlier this year, my webcomics and overall sequential art interviews have run there, for the most part, rather than here. But given that Red Plains writer Caryn A. Tate was already interviewed by fellow great Robot Sixer Brigid Alverson recently (go read it, it’s a great interview [thanks to Alverson's questions and Tate's answers] as is this one [again, thanks to Tate's answers]), I opted to give Tate a slot here at my home site to discuss her work at Top Shelf 2.0, Top Shelf’s online comics program. I’m always happy to support a Top Shelf creator, partially as I often say, because I consider the publisher to be my home team (both the publisher and myself are Georgia-based). As detailed in a recent Top Shelf press release: “Written by Red Plains series creator Caryn A. Tate and featuring beautifully and brutally rendered art by Larry Watts, ‘A Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up’ focuses on the violence, corruption, and crime of the Old West that is seldom deeply explored. While other towns may have tried it, can guns really be outlawed in a place like Red Plains? Sheriff Doles, the recently appointed lawman in Red Plains, may find himself out of a job–if he doesn’t lose his life first. As a new family comes to Red Plains, meet the Escovido clan and find out what role to they have to play in all of this. Who will vie for the favor of the vivacious Lupe, and who will be scarred in the attempt? How many people will be calling on Doc DeGraff–and how many more on the undertaker?” My thanks to Tate for her time. Be sure to go back and visit Top Shelf 2.0 site frequently, as there will be new Red Plains chapters every two weeks.
Tim O’Shea: What attracts you to telling this tale in particular–why as a comic, as opposed to prose?
Caryn A. Tate: The tale of Red Plains is one that’s really dear to me. I grew up and lived in the West on working ranches and farms, being around Western people, and there’s a distinct beauty to the land, its lifestyles, its people. I’ve been passionate about telling our stories for a long time, and Red Plains is the culmination of all of that.
I love comics, and one of the reasons I think the medium is so satisfying as a creator is because the final result manifests faster than prose work. And I’m a very visual writer – I have a visual art background – so I tend to see things very clearly and I have a desire to see that on the page. But, that said, I do love prose too, so who knows?
O’Shea: Red Plains started as a mini-comic, right, how beneficial was it to you when you gained a slot at the Top Shelf site?
Tate: Oh, it was the definition of beneficial! I couldn’t have asked for a better place to showcase the series and gain readership. I’m grateful that the folks at Top Shelf saw the potential in Red Plains from that little 7 page mini comic and gave us a shot on Top Shelf 2.0. Now we’re building an audience, and Red Plains is way more visible than it would be elsewhere online. It’s an amazing opportunity.
O’Shea: The story features a rotating selection of artists, how do you go about selecting the artists and making sure their styles compliment each other?
Tate: Every artist that I’ve worked with so far I’ve met online. There’s a surprising number of driven creators out there. It’s just a matter of finding them, and making sure you’re compatible creatively.
More than the artists complementing each other, I try to make sure their styles complement the series and what I’m trying to accomplish with it. And the genre, of course. I generally look for artists who can inject a good amount of detail and the trappings of the West, but who also have a good grasp of storytelling, facial expressions, and can depict a variety of people. Larry Watts, the artist on the current “Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up” storyline, is great at these kinds of things. Wait till you see issues 12 and 13!
O’Shea: Would you describe the genre for the story as Western noir?
Tate: That’s exactly how I would describe it! I think the Western and noir genres and styles complement each other really well, especially in a case like Red Plains, where our focus often tends to be on crime and corruption. But it’s imperative to me to keep the essence of the Western genre, to keep that the more prevalent of the two genres.
O’Shea: What fuels your creativity in building a character like Lupe Escovido?
Tate: Well, initially, I created her father Luis, who was inspired by one of my favorite works of fiction, Zorro. I wanted to play with the concept of the wealthy Latino family, and I was interested in focusing on that rather than the more common peasant and bandit depictions.
In the beginning, Lupe was created as the sort of wild child of the Escovidos, a free spirit. But the more I wrote her, the more her personality started showing itself, and she grew into a full person from there. I became very interested in seeing where she and her sisters would go, how their stories would evolve. We’ll be seeing a lot of them in Red Plains.
O’Shea: When doing a period piece like this, how much research do you do?
Tate: Actually I’m a stickler for realism in Red Plains, so I do a whole lot of research, both in books and online. Because I’ve experienced the Western lifestyle first hand, it always drives me crazy when I watch a film or read a book that gets details wrong. Like the high noon gunfights in the middle of the street, cowboys who never do any cowboying, gunmen firing way more than six shots. These are a few examples of things you’ll never see in Red Plains, because they’re not real and they just didn’t happen.
In Red Plains, the cowboys do real ranch work, people run out of bullets, and gunfights are ambushes, not clean “ten paces, turn, and shoot” affairs. Other details like clothing and speech, weaponry, and peoples’ mindsets back then, are all things that I do my best to accurately portray.
A happy realization I’ve had in doing research for the series is that the old adage, “the truth is stranger than fiction,” is true! I’ve learned of some really bizarre and astounding things that happened that are crazier than you would imagine, and they’re way more interesting than some of the tropes we’ve seen in a lot of Western films and novels. So I inject a lot of those sorts of details that pull from real life occurrences and people.
O’Shea: I love that in discussing your work, you referenced Marty Robbins “Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs”. Would you say music, movies, comics or prose novels (or a mixture of all) most influence your storytelling mindset?
Tate: Oh, definitely all of the above. I’m influenced by everything around me. I think it’s vital to not allow yourself to to be limited to a particular medium or art form for inspiration. Everything feeds my creativity, and anything can spark an idea. I always want to grow and improve, and the only way to do that in my opinion is for me to be open to learning from everything.
For example, one of my biggest storytelling influences is the TV series The Wire because there’s so much more to it than you may expect going in, something I’m striving for with Red Plains. I’m influenced by a variety of sources, including filmmakers like Scorsese, Hitchcock, Spike Lee…writers like Cormac McCarthy, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison, David Simon, James Yoshimura, Ed Brubaker, Kazuo Koike…musicians ranging from Marty Robbins to Metallica. And so much more. I actually like lettering to Marty Robbins music!
O’Shea: How far out do you have Red Plains planned out?
Tate: I have the whole series planned out roughly, but there’s plenty room for spontaneous changes. That happens all the time – it’s so fun to be surprised by an idea and working it into the series.
But yeah, the basic beginning, middle, and end are there. I know where Red Plains is going and pretty much how it’s going to end. That really helps as I go along – it’s like I can see the Big Picture.
O’Shea: Would you ever like to write a Western tale for DC or Marvel, or are you more interested in working with your creator-owned properties?
Tate: Sure, I’m always interested in writing for anyone. It’s what I love to do most. But of course Red Plains and my other creations are definitely first in my heart.
O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I glossed over?
Tate: I’d just like to emphasize that Red Plains is very accessible to new readers. There are no long, drawn out origin stories, no detailed backgrounds that you need to be aware of before you can start reading. You can jump on any time without any trouble.
Also, it might surprise folks who feel that they aren’t Western fans. I’ve even had a few people who have never thought they liked Westerns reach out and tell me they really enjoy Red Plains and have become regular readers. There’s a lot more to it than a tin star and gunfights.