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Friday, 20 May 2011

Read West, Young Man (and Woman)...

by Matthew Badham - cross-posted here and on the Forbidden Planet blog with full permission. Read the original version here

West, by Andrew Cheverton and Tim Keable, is one of my favourite indie comics. It's the story of Jerusalem West, a conflicted anti-hero with a chequered and incident-filled past: smart, sophisticated storytelling that both subverts and embraces Western tropes.

I'm not the only one who likes it. The Forbidden Planet International blog reckon that "with this Morricone, Leone, Eastwood-inspired Western tale, Cheverton and Keable have delivered the goods."

Meanwhile, Comics on the Ration has called it "very well-written and well researched."

I decided to chat with Andrew and Tim about West and the following interview was the result:

An atmospheric panel from West: Stray Bullets. Art by Tim Keable.

Matt Badham: Please tell me how West first came about?

Andrew: Towards the end of 1993, I had packed in my job to look after our newborn son and started working Saturdays in the local comic shop to keep my sanity. Tim was one of the customers pointed out by the manager as "a good sort".

We began to discuss comics, movies, books and television shows, and have never really stopped. Our tastes are quite consistent with each other, and whenever we do disagree we have the best debates and arguments.

During this time, I had become quite prolific on the old Comics International group. I was later selected by moderator Phil Hall (based, I assumed, on my sarcastic and profane comic reviews on that group) to write for his online comics PDF magazine, Borderline. Initially, I did an opinion column called "The Blank Page", though I later branched out to reviews and even a few interviews (culminating in a Grendel feature/interview with Matt Wagner, who was my idol at the time).

Through Borderline I met such people as Jay Eales and Selina Lock, and was exposed to the British small press scene. Tim and I went up to a Caption event in 2003, held in the Oxford Students' Union bar. and were so enthused we began, separately, to get work published in The Girly Comic.

After having been friends for about a decade at this point, one day I asked Tim if we should probably work together on a short comic strip. His answer was, simply, "Okay. Something with cowboys or Romans."

Tim: I seem to remember Andy saying to me that Cowboys or Romans were definitely not his thing. Then, about a week later he called me up all enthused telling me he had an idea for a cowboy story! Then he had another one. And another...

It all kicks off in a story from West: Stray Bullets. Art by Paul Rainey
Matt: What experience have you guys got outside of small press comics? Tim, didn't you work on Doctor Who Magazine under John Freeman?

Tim: Yes, many years ago I did some one-off illustrations for DWM. I did these for John and for his successor, Gary Russell. Later I did some back cover CD illustrations for Big Finish's Dalek Empire which led to one more illustration accompanying an article in DWM about these. That would've been in about 2003. I also illustrated Jim Mortimore's Blood Heat. That was for Virgin's Doctor Who novels range in the 1990s.

Andrew: My experience, as far as writing goes, doesn't really extend beyond the stuff I did for Borderline and the two or three short strips I did for Factor Fiction (I think that 'Believers', the first West strip published in Violent!, was the third script I sent Jay and Selina). The debut issue of West, Justice, was the first time I ever wrote a full-length comic.

Matt: Had you both been 'creative types' since childhood? Always doodling or writing? Andrew, you draw as well as write don't you? Tim, do you write?

Andrew: Actually, I can't say that I was especially creative as a child, beyond the sort of thing all kids do. I had always drawn, copying characters from Marvel comics and, later, 2000AD, but it was never for more than my own amusement, though I would always add an illustration to the interior of friends' birthday cards. I barely scraped through O-Level art at school.

Writing short stories was something I experimented with in my teens, but that was just for fun too. I didn't do it with a view to submitting to magazines. Back then, it was all longhand and typewriters, and I had neither the patience nor the attention span.

If it hadn't been for Borderline (and having a PC word processor to organise my chaotic thoughts into actual writing) I wouldn't have been encouraged to write again, and wouldn't have become aware of the opportunities of the small press and desktop publishing.

Of course, once I did start writing again, I had more stories than I had artists to draw them. So that was a matter of sitting down, looking hard at the comic artists I liked (Ted McKeever, Mick McMahon, Matt Wagner, Nabiel Kanan) and teaching myself how to draw all over again.

Tim: I've been drawing ever since I can remember. At school other kids would get me to draw things for them. Usually Spitfires and the like -- I don't really write. It's not something that comes naturally to me.

'Guns on a Cold Morning' is about it, I'm afraid! That was a short West story that appears in Tall Tales, which was a collection of short stories we put out a couple of years ago. I was messing about in my notebook and sketched an image of these guns poking out of a saloon window. Then I thought about who might be behind those guns. Then I thought it'd be fun if they were all lying in wait for West.

I didn't really write it. I just drew it then did some dialogue afterwards. It was an exercise in page design really. I'd been looking at some of Dave Sim's crazy page layouts and I wanted to have a go at it. Then Andy had me add one line and suddenly it fit in with the big West story line. There's been a lot of serendipity about West.

Art by the talented Emma Price from the West: Stray Bullets anthology

Matt: So, how did West start to cohere into an ongoing after that first strip?

Tim: Andy just kept coming up with new ideas. I think it's best if he tells that one.

Andrew: Believers was, by publishing necessity (Violent! being an anthology title), only six pages long. I wanted it to be both a classic western, but also different. The last panel was the first thing that occurred to me: the gunfighter, his pistol emptied, facing off against a gang of men with only bluff and his reputation.

Writing the five pages leading up to that was simple enough, in retrospect. It was a classic barroom shootout. I didn't really give it any thought after it had been sent off to the editors. But every once in a while, Tim would ask me what happened next. I didn't know. We leave West there in the street, his gun empty, facing down two hardened gunfighters armed to the teeth, with only bravado to save him. That's the point of the story. Either the bad guys would draw and shoot him, or they'd both sheepishly wander off, their tails between their legs. Neither are good endings.

The only option -- as I wanted to keep working with Tim -- was to do a prequel. After a bit of brainstorming, I came up with what I thought was a simple Western ghost story. I checked with Tim that veering into fantasy territory was okay with him and started writing what became Justice. At some early point I may have naively thought I was writing another short strip that we'd send to Violent!, but it rapidly became clear that I was writing my first full-length comic.

As is usually the way with these things, the writing of one story lead to another, and a character for Jerusalem West began to form. I read up on a bit of Wild West history and the thing that struck me was that there didn't seem to be as many bad guys' and good guys' as the movies would have it. Outlaws would become lawmen and vice versa. Law-abiding men were easily driven to murder and men would travel, learning trades to survive. It seemed like one man could be, in a lifetime, many men to different people, depending on which stage of his life they'd known him.

As we'd already set the non-chronological template for West, I liked the idea of jumping around in time; it gave us the opportunity to tell many different types of story and to change West's personality a little bit to suit. In some stories, like 'Population 489' and 'The Last Bounty', he's proactive, with an agenda (even if it's not entirely clear from just that story what his agenda might be).

Some other tales, like 'Justice' and 'High Moon', simply feature West while the story essentially unfolds around him. And, as you say, 'cohere' is the right word. I have the whole story in my head (in fact, I have the final story already written), but it evolves in small ways all the time.

'High Moon', for instance, was a deliberate reaction to my noticing that the first two issues had West walk into a town, have an adventure and then leave. So I pointedly started 'High Moon' mid-adventure, told a separate story in the middle, and then had West abandon it halfway. I figured if the audience we'd built up at that point would go for it would quite happily read a comic with one and two half stories in then we were probably on to something.

Jerusalem West, in trouble as always. Art by Andrew Cheverton from West: Stray Bullets

Matt: Have you guys been surprised (gratified?) by the positive critical reception West has received?

Tim: Absolutely! Even more important to me is the vibe I get from the punters who regularly buy the book. I mean, sometimes it can be a real struggle creating something like this while doing a full-time job as well.

Enthusiasm is a strange viscous thing that grows and shrinks. Meeting the people who like what you do and keep coming back for more is very important as a driving force. That and the sheer vibe I get from reading one of Andy's scripts for the first time. It makes it all worthwhile.

As for critical acclaim -- I tend not to read our reviews. I get Andy to do it for me so I only get to hear about the good ones, lol!!

Andrew: Gratified, yes. It's always good to see that your hard work is rewarded. Surprised? If I'm honest, no. I don't mean that to sound conceited. What I mean is, I think anyone who creates something knows when they've done well, and every issue we finish is, I think, good work. If I didn't think my scripts were up to scratch, Tim wouldn't get to see them. And I have no doubt that if Tim thought his art was substandard, I'd never see that.

Every once in a while, Tim will pick out something in the script that doesn't work well -- as I will in the art -- but these are rare instances. By the time each issue is finished, it's the absolute best work we can do. I'm surprised, however, that so many people like it and like it as much as they do.

Having said that, I wasn't at all sure at the beginning who our audience would possibly be; after all, embarking on a multi-issue, non-chronological Western series and randomly switching genres with almost every issue isn't what you'd call a targeted plan. It's pretty much all of the things you're not supposed to do if you want to reach a market. But we've ended up with readers of all ages and both genders.

I like to think that's because we quickly steered away from using strong Deadwood-style profanity and portrayed strong female characters, on the few occasions women enter what is largely a male-dominated genre. As West is coming from the classic western background where his wife was killed, I think it's important to balance that with other women who aren't simply there to provide the men with vengeful motivation.

Jerusalem West under siege in a strip from West: Stray Bullets. Art by Warwick Johnson Cadwell
Matt: It suddenly occurs to me that I haven't asked you chaps for the Hollywood-style' "high concept" that underpins West, which would be useful for those unfamiliar with the series.

Andrew: West is, at its heart (and as much as we can make it), self-contained stories set in the Wild West but that layer each other the more [of them] you read. For the first six issues (what we're now calling Volume One), it wasn't obvious that the whole thing hangs together as a totality; that every issue contributes something to a larger story the reader can't yet see.

Volume Two (so far comprising the two parts of 'Distance') makes these connections far more apparent. Those two issues build up to one name written on a piece of paper, the name of a seemingly random bad guy from a previous issue.

It was very satisfying to hear from people who read that and then went back and reread everything. That's what I want: to let people make their own connections from the clues we drop and to occasionally surprise them with something they never saw coming.

Tim: Okay. How about Classic Revenge Western meets Universal Horror taking in George Romero on the way'? How's that for a Hollywood high concept pitch?

Matt: Andrew, you mentioned that you've taught yourself to draw so you could illustrate your own comics. What fresh insights, if any, has that given you into the medium of comics? Also, do you think it's helped your writing at all?

Andrew: For a start, I've stopped writing so many 12-panel pages for Tim to draw! He hates those and now I understand why. When I write a script (and I even write myself a script for the stories I plan to draw), I like to keep beats and moments running through the pace and I'm fastidious about only switching scenes mid-page if it's part of the plot. So I have a scene of West and I'm often left with the choice: is this scene worth two pages of steady action, or can I fit everything into one page? If it's three or four pages, where are the breaks, the mini-cliffhangers and moments of action or dialogue that I can end a page with to keep the reader turning the page?

As soon as I isolate those moments, I have the pace of a scene and that's something that I thought I knew as a writer, but I have a more solid sense of it now that I draw.

As soon as I start edging over six panels [on a page], I start to fret about it. I write West full script and I like to write dialogue, so the tendency to fill the page is always there. Six panels is about our comfortable limit (though I tend towards five or seven, to keep Tim from using a standard 23 panel grid!), unless we're opting for multiple small panels or splash pages for effect, such as we used in 'Distance'.

For my own comics, I love tiny panels. I hate drawing big. It's something I'll need to learn, but my preference is small panels of close-up faces: intimate character-based comics. I'm lucky enough to get people asking me to draw their scripts. It's a learning curve but I like to be challenged, otherwise I won't get any better. But once these next couple of scripts for other people are done, I'm settling down to draw a couple of projects I want to write for myself.

It's not all about Wild West shoot-outs. A romantic scene from a West: Stray Bullets story. Art by Jenika Ioffreda.
Matt: Tim, have you got anything you want to say on that subject?

Tim: Only that I think Andy's scripts are more visual now. I should qualify that: they were always visual but there was plenty of dialogue too. In fact when we came to publish the collection, Andy told me he was struck by how verbose the older stories seemed to be compared with what he does now. These days he's much more confident using an image to tell the story.

I also happen to think he has a very beautiful art style and he's much more confident about placing blacks than I am!

Matt: Please tell me about the the various West comics that are coming out in 2011, plus any other projects that are ongoing for you, either as individuals or as a team?

Tim: As far as 2011's comics go I'll leave that to Andy. I don't really have time for any other projects although I try to do one-off paintings when I can and I'm always happy to take commissions.

Andrew: The current issue of West is Stray Bullets, which is a bumper-sized special (32 pages!), crammed full of short stories drawn by guest artists. As well as having art by Tim and me, we also have Paul Rainey, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Emma Price and Jenika Ioffreda.

It started out as a way to give Tim time to get ahead of his schedule, not only so that he isn't facing publishing deadlines all the time, but also to get him into a comfortable position to start work on our own bumper-sized West issue coming up soon that one's called 'Points West'.

In between both of these issues, though, we have 'Confederate Dead', which is the script Tim's drawing now.

For myself, I've recently drawn a script Rol Hirst wrote called 'Face For Radio', a one-pager for Simon M's The Sorry Entertainer, a newspaper comics anthology, and I'm writing and drawing a one-off comic called Pictures Made Of Light. Also, I'm writing a script for an AccentUK book, but I don't think they've announced that yet!

Andrew takes time out from West to illustrate
Rol Hirst's Face for Radio.
After that, both Tim and I are drawing some very short strips for a new Rol Hirst series, and I'm working with Chris Doherty (creator of the excellent Video Nasties) on a miniseries called The Whale House, which will be an off-kilter family drama, partially inspired by two types of movies the American awkward Thanksgiving get-together' movie and the British Old Dark House movie. I'm writing and Chris is drawing, but we're thrashing out the details and the characters at the moment.

Matt: Where do you hope to be in five years, with West and as creators?

Tim: In five years I hope West will be reaching a much bigger audience. Also I'd like to be able to spend more time on my drawing and less time in wage slavery!

Andrew: Last year was personally quite stressful and busy for me. I managed to keep on top of our commitments to West we finished both the issues we planned, and we finally had the collection published but I wasn't in any real frame of mind for much else.

We'd like to persevere with getting West: Justice into some comic shops and submitted to distributors. We actually took the book into a couple of small press-friendly London comic stores and were pretty much rebuffed out of hand. That was a knock-back, considering the reviews and feedback we've had on it as a professional-looking package. But, as with anything, I guess it's just a matter of plugging away at it. I have faith that it's a good story, well told. We'll get it finished one way or the other.

Thanks to Andrew and Tim for taking time to talk to Matt. For more on West, visit http://www.angrycandy.co.uk

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