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DF Interview: Brian Schirmer shows readers how wild the West can be in Black Jack Ketchum
By Byron Brewer
Writer Brian Schirmer and artist Claudia Balboni’s new title for Image Comics, Black Jack Ketchum, is a surreal Western that kicks off with a case of (possible) mistaken identity. It’s the story of Tom Ketchum, struggling to clear his name in a world populated by talking sidearms, crackshot children, a mysterious, merciless judge, and the faceless, supernatural Dusters.
It’s The Fugitive meets The Prisoner in a dreamlike version of the Old West. To learn more about it, Dynamic Forces moseyed up to a table at the local saloon and chewed the fat with our podna, Brian Schirmer.
Dynamic Forces: Brian, if memory serves, your last book, Ultrasylvania, was self-published via the Kickstarter route. How did your new limited series, Black Jack Ketchum, go immediately to Image Comics?
Brian Schirmer: I was at San Diego Comic Con in 2014. I swung by the Image booth to say hey to Matt Fraction, who's a friend. Well, Matt and I make eye contact, he grabs my arm, and then calls over Eric Stephenson. In the next sixty seconds, Matt introduces me and then proceeds to pitch the story of Ultrasylvania to Stephenson. He then turns to me and asks, "Is that about right?" After I pick my jaw up from the floor, Stephenson asks for my card and tells me he'll get in touch after the show's done.
True to his word, we were corresponding a week later. I sent in a couple pitches, and a few weeks later Stephenson said he'd like to go with Black Jack Ketchum. Then, we were off and running.
DF: If I am not mistaken, Black Jack Ketchum and his gang were true-life train robbers. Is your comic all fiction or are there real-life events that are included in your saga?
Brian Schirmer: There are allusions. There are some direct references to people and incidents from his life, particularly in the final two issues. There's also another historical figure who's around a bit, but who doesn't get identified until the third issue.
There's a personal connection too: Black Jack Ketchum is a distant relative. Great-grandmother on my mother's side was a cousin. As such, I'd heard his name and stories all my life.
DF: Even for a fan of Rod Serling and Steve Ditko, this is one weird book. Tell us about this world that you have created for your protagonists.
Brian Schirmer: It's a Wild West that operates on dream logic. Now, that doesn't mean there are no rules. There most certainly are. It's more that traditional Western elements and motifs tend to serve atypical purposes. For example, saloons are not only places one can play cards and grab a drink, but also transportation hubs, allowing one to teleport to other watering holes in other towns.
DF: What can you tell us about the storyline.
Brian Schirmer: Petty criminal Tom Ketchum flees a wealthy cabal who are convinced he's a legendary outlaw. As he struggles to clear his name, Tom is joined by a mysterious gambler, a mute girl with a Winchester, and his talking sidearm. With adversaries increasing in both number and strangeness, Tom is compelled to question his identity, his sanity and his very existence.
DF: Tell us about Tom Ketchum as a character from your perspective.
Brian Schirmer: He's the archetypal "wrong man", accused of something -- or, in this case, many things -- he didn't do. He never admits to being a "good guy", but he's adamant that he's innocent of the crimes of which he's been accused. He's a bit Josef K, a bit Number Six -- but in a messed-up version of the frontier.
DF: Who are some of the supporting characters who assist Tom?
Brian Schirmer: There's our enigmatic gambler. He clearly knows more than he's telling Tom -- or us. It becomes more evident as the story unfolds that he has his own agenda, and whether his aim is to help or hinder Tom is one of the mysteries of the book.
The mute girl likewise raises a lot of questions. I can say this much -- she's a better shot than Tom.
And then there's Tom's talking sidearm. It gives him the occasional bit of counsel, but is just as prone to arguing with him. Just like the closest of friends.
Like many characters in dreams, they all flow in and out of the story. Their presence or absence may seem arbitrary, but that's never really the case.
DF: Who are the Dusters?
Brian Schirmer: The Dusters are the truly terrifying enforcers of this world. Faceless, impervious, unstoppable gunslingers, they're akin to Nazgul or Terminators, in terms of being both relentless and unstoppable. You don't want these guys after you. And they're assigned to track down Black Jack Ketchum.
DF: Why is Claudia Balboni the right artist for this book?
Brian Schirmer: When I was looking at artists, I really dug what she'd done over at IDW on series like STAR TREK and TRUE BLOOD. She had this really clean line work. Then, when she turned in her first roughs, it was clear that Claudia was relishing creating something without being beholden to the rigors of licensed properties. Her work was a bit more wild, a bit more rugged. Then, the finished pages started coming in, and I could tell she was cutting loose, rejoicing in finally being allowed to draw in her own style. When asked to compare her to anyone, I tend to liken her work to Sean Murphy. I know them's fightin' words for some folk, but I stand by it.
DF: A talking sidearm??
Brian Schirmer: Heheheh. YEAH! It -- he? -- was one of the initial concepts that made it all the way to the final book. The Dusters were like that too. Tom's gun probably has more in common with Jiminy Cricket than I can consciously admit.
DF: Brian, are there any other projects either current or in the near future that you would like to discuss?
Brian Schirmer: I've a pair of books in the earliest stages of development with a couple of amazing artists. One of these projects should be ready to take to publishers in a couple weeks. If it quickly finds a home, then we should be able to chat it up in early 2016. Regardless, next year is poised to be rather spectacular.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Brian Schirmer for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Black Jack Ketchum #1 hits stores December 2nd!
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