Don't touch that hat!
Ever hear of Stagger Lee? You have. I know it. With at least thirty different versions recorded, the song is like an unconscious thread winding through the musical tastes of the United States. Artists from Sidney Bechet to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have done the song. What makes it special is that the events in the song, one black man shooting another black man over a hat in a saloon, actually happened. Interesting, right? So what do you do when you hear about something this quirky sort of interesting? Tell your friends around the water cooler? Google it maybe? Writer Derek McCulloch and artist Shepherd (Shep to his friends) Hendrix did a freaking graphic novel about it. And guess what? It’s Hot like Fia!
I got a chance to sit down with the gents last week to dialogue about what the hell was going through their heads when they put this work together. It’s the type of graphic novel your hip anthropology professor would assign so discuss the notion of the meta narrative, but the guys who generated it are chiller than a polar bears toenails in December. After I found out Derek used to work at the same comic book store I did, I knew I was in good geek company.
ME: How did you come to Stagger Lee?
DEREK: I can show you. I came prepared. The one prop I brought. (He pulls out a book.) Mystery train by Greil Marcus. I bough this book in 1998 or 1999 and it set around on my book case. One day I was flipping through the index and I came across a notation for Stagger Lee and I guess Nick Cave’s Murder ballads had just come out recently and I was kind of puzzled that he had this song called Stagger Lee …and I guess I couldn’t reconcile the Nick Cave version with the Lloyd Price version I knew as a kid. So when I saw it in the index and I saw it I had to read it. He (Marcus) basically tells the whole story of Lee Shelton and how it was based on an actual murder. At the time I was thinking of different stuff to do to get back into comics. I’d been out for a long time. I didn’t know quite what a comic about Stagger Lee could be but I knew there was something there.
ME: And that was ’95?
DEREK: 99 I’d say. It took me about four or five years of research. Before I started writing the script. First I tried to find out as much as I could by collecting songs. I collected every version of Stagger lee I could find. I compiled this tape, yes tape not CD, of every version I found. I’m a techno illiterate. I had this idea that if I could fill up a two hour tape of Stagger Lee’s that could be my soundtrack on continuous loop while I was writing. I got old blues versions, 50’s rock and roll versions. Fats Domino, Neil Diamond. Neil Sedaka. Neil Young hasn’t done one yet but we’re waiting. Neil diamond’s is the worst. It’s not quite bad enough to be so bad that it’s good.
ME: I will be using that as a quote. (To Shepherd) What was drawing this piece like?
SHEP: Well, It got a pretty good start. I was working a day job at EA and at times I’d come home and work on it. Then there was a time when I think I just gave up on it for a little while to keep up with the day job. At that point we were still thinking about self publishing it so there wasn’t really a deadline. It was more like when do we think we’ll get it done. Eventually, Derek talked to Image and they expressed interest. When that happened there was a deadline which meant I had to start working. At that point, I’d finished up with EA and worked specifically with Stagger Lee. What we’d do is just turn it over in increments. At times I was doing a page a day, pencils and inks. That’s really really fast. I finished it on a collapsed lung. In fact I didn’t know I had a collapsed lung until it happened.
ME: Gotta give up the smoking.
SHEP: I don’t smoke!
ME: How do you guys know each other?
DEREK: Shep was one of the first people I met when I moved to California.
SHEP: 86 was the first year I got into comics. I was studying commercial design and it was dull. One my instructors said that I had a lot of comic book tendencies and gave me Steve Leialoha’s number, with whom I ended up working with later.
DEREK: Back then him, Tom Orzechowski, and Trina Robbins…they all lived in this house Steve owned in San Francisco. They mentored a lot of young comic people back then.
SHEP: I started going to conventions that year. San Diego went there for the first time that year. I went to a local convention in San Mateo in a dumpy hotel; I think it was tri-con. That was the first time I remember meeting you (Derek). That was the first time I heard the Pogues. Irish pirate music I was listening to. I was like what is this?
DEREK: The Pogues are my favorite band in the history of civilization. I came across this bulletin board online where the lead guitarist was posting and I sent him this private messages saying “Hey I’ve done this book called in Stagger Lee. Would you like to see a copy?” And he said yes. So the big dream now is to get a Pogues version of Stagger Lee out of this.
ME: Is this the first time you guys have worked together?
DEREK: We’ve tried repeatedly to get something done or off the ground. We did finish a short story in the eighties. We can’t remember what happened but it never saw the light of day. It was a Zombie story. We were telling this story about these pages at a signing and Joe Keatinge from Image came over, you know those guys are all about Zombies right now (See Walking Dead). He was all about it. He hasn’t said anything about it since so I don’t know what’s going to happen.
ME: What do you do when you’re not doing Stagger Lee?
DEREK: Wishing I wasn’t doing my day job. I’ve been working at an engineering firm for the past 15 years…ok more like twenty doing word processing. I first worked there after I quit Comic Relief. Stagger Lee has been so well received and has so much potential I see so much happening with this book I can’t help but think…There’s got to be money in it somewhere.
ME: What’s your deal with Image like? You get paid up front or….
DEREK: Nah, Standard Image deal. We get paid off the profits.
SHEP: That’s after Image takes their piece off the top and we pay our publicists…
DEREK: Depending on where you’re at, it’s a great deal. They give a much higher percentage of profits than anyone else plus you get to retain all the rights to the property. The trick is you have to sell enough for there to be a profit.
ME: Who was your target audience for Stagger Lee?
DEREK: One of the things I love about Stagger Lee is, not just the book but the whole thing is that it has cross over appeal into a lot of different areas. There’s a potential for so many different audiences to find something for them in the book. Stagger lee…is the progenitor of the gangsta. There’s an audience there. Then there’s the dusty old folklorist audience. It’s a book made for KMEL and KPFA. It’s just a really good story.
ME: I really like the way you kept going back to the song as the Rosetta stone of the book. It would’ve been easy to get lost in the narrative you created.
DEREK: That's what fascinated me from the moment I read about it. The departure from history to myth. This real story that became its own thing that went off and did its own thing, all in the lifetime of the main character. So he survived to see his own story become something bigger than himself. That’s the essence of what attracted me to it.
ME: That reminds me of a Joseph Campbell line. He said remember that the cult of the hero is the cult of the dead.
DEREK: That would’ve been a good quote.
SHEP: I hadn’t heard the song until I was an adult. And that was the Lloyd price version. And I was interested in the name. Stagger Lee. OK, so does that mean he was drunk or something? How did the Stagger come about? When Derek handed me the script my initial interest was “I’ve always wondered who Stagger Lee is?” I was intrigued by the history. It wasn’t really a story I would’ve considered drawing. I’m more of a science fiction, a little fantasy, but I didn’t really think of drawing a period piece. It was challenge. A 205 page challenge. I’m not sure what struck me to draw it because it wasn’t something I thought tons of people would flock to. But it’s something that may not appeal to someone, but may be it should. It’s a folk hero. Someone wrote a song about a murder and it’s been going on for this long.
ME: Whose idea was it to do the Sepia tone?
SHEP: Rafael Navarro brought it first to us.
DEREK: It was a group decision. Charles Brownstein, the head of the C.B.L.D.F., he threw it out first. He hooked us up with Image. He suggested it and we thought maybe but it’s easier to do it the Black and White, normal way. But towards the end Richard Starkings of Comicraft pointed us to another book they’d done Gunpowder girl and the Outlaw Squaw
SHEP: Done by another brother.
DEREK: They’d thought it would be a really good idea for us.
DEREK: We vacillated about it for a few days then we said just go for it. When I first saw it, the book, was at a bookseller convention and I was struck with panic. I couldn’t figure it for a second. But then I saw it and it was really good. So I relaxed about it. I’m really glad its sepia. It gives it uniqueness about it. It’s right for the material.
ME: (To Shep) Are you happy with it?
SHEP: I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.
ME: What do guys listen to aside from Stagger Lee?
SHEP: I’m not keen on a lot of modern stuff, like the last twenty years. I listen to movie soundtracks, soul, classics, rock. Derek got me into the Pogues. I recently bought a CD of Sea Shanties. I like to listen to comedy. Richard Pryor. Jeff Foxworthy if you can believe it.
DEREK: I mentioned the Pogues. Shane Mcgowan, I’m also really really into Tom Waits.
ME: You know he’s got a three CD set coming out. I’ve heard one or two tracks. It’s beautiful, old school Tom.
DEREK: Closing Time is my favorite thing to write to. If I had nothing else but Pogues albums and Tom Waits albums I’d be happy for the rest of my life. My favorite thing with both of them is the storytelling. I was not into the Blues at all before Stagger Lee. But the process of unearthing the versions…I wouldn’t just listen to the Stagger Lee on an album I’d buy, I’d listen to the whole thing. In the process of writing this book I became a huge blues fan. My favorite is Mississippi John Hurt. His version, live from some folk festival revival, a version of Stagger Lee with a brief spoken word intro, that’s my favorite.
SHEP: What I listen to cycles. There was a time I listen to a lot of Leonard Cohen. My life is just about drawing. I’m a very insulated person.
ME: Do you listen to music when you draw?
SHEP: Sometimes I watch movies. Just put it on, it’s all about the ambience. Sometimes I put some Red Drawfs' on. I listen to a lot of comedy. I listened to the Stagger Lee tape when I was drawing the book.
DEREK: I always think of you as the only Gordon Lightfoot fan.
ME: “If you could read my mind love?” Gordon Lightfoot?
ME: And you’re going to defend that on record?
DEREK: Actually the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a great song.
SHEP: My aunt had it when I was 6 and it was still fresh. I was on a road trip with her and I remember it. Music reminds me of different times and space. If I want to be in a certain mood it puts me in the mood. I don’t have a lot of Lightfoot in the collection but I know it. I’ve been listening to a lot of Henry Rollins. His spoken word.
DEREK: (To Shep) You ever listen to Cowboy Junkies? I bet you’d like the Cowboy Junkies.
SHEP: I tend to come into things way after everyone else…
DEREK: This would be a great time to come in. Get the trinity sessions.
ME: I love the trinity sessions. Great storytelling. What do you guys read?
DEREK: I buy things on impulse like Mystery train then stick then on my shelf. Then I have this line of things I should read that I read based on when I bought it. Right now I’m reading Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. The only reason I bought it….because of that Monty python sketch. For thirty years I’ve had the first line of that novel memorized because of that Monty Python sketch. I thought maybe its time I read the rest of it. Writers I come back to again and again, Elmore Leonard, George MacDonald Frazier. Joseph Conrad, Steven King. I span high and low. You know who was weirdly influential in Stagger Lee? Gore Vidal. Try to connect those dots.
ME: (Scratching my head like a chimp) Live from Golgotha to Stagger Lee?
DEREK: Yeah. No, his series on the presidential America... I think the first were Burr and Lincoln. I think his last was the Golden age. The way we wrote the dialogue for educated people of the 19th century is how I loosely based the dialogue for the educated people in Stagger lee. I figured “Who the hell knows how people talked in the 19th century? Hell maybe Gore Vidal’s old enough to remember.
ME: I always think of the iambic pentameter of Deadwood. I think that’s how people really talked.
DEREK: Yeah, the script for Stagger Lee was written and done long before Deadwood hit the air. But I did see some kinship.
ME: You read comics?
DEREK: Hardly any. When I was a kid I grew up on them. But when I first published my own comic, I was twenty. I was part of that major black and white movement in the eighties. I was part of the group that didn’t make any money at it…I’ve worked on every end of the comic line. I’ve been in publishing, retail, distribution. There’s something about having such a comprehensive view of the industry. It’s like working for KFC. You don’t ever want to smell chicken again.
ME: That’s another quote.
DEREK: I come back into comics every now and then. The only things I’ve read in the past ten years was FROM HELL.
SHEP: I pick up things here and there. I read myself to sleep. It takes me a while to get through books. I’ve read a lot of Steven King. But lately I’ve been reading a lot more research. I’m writing my own story called Prospect. It’s 1492 in space. It’s Christopher Columbus in space. It’s like imagine all the bastardized European cultures, Indian, African, wanting to go back…not totally back to the roots, but their lives are a lot more simple. The sponsoring thought is if I could create the world anew, what would it look like? But I’m not trained as a writer, so it’s taken a lot longer than I’ve thought. So putting all together means I’ve got to read a lot of cultural stuff. Older cultures, the ways people used to live fascinate me. The way people used to view life, a lot of it…The way we live now just seems so superficial.
ME: You ever read Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond?
SHEP: I’ve read another book by him. How societies choose to fail or survive. A lot of books. Under the banner of heaven. That’s a scary book. I always thought the Mormons were nice people. I mean I guess most of them are but…
ME: So what’s the dream project for you guys?
ME: Sounds awesome I’d love to read it.
SHEP: It’s a lot of things I’ve learned over time. Like I took a class on how to build earth homes. So I’m incorporating stuff on that. It’s world building for me. I’m taking all the science fiction stuff I love. I was Star wars/Star trek crazy. I love drawing ships. So I’m taking all the stuff I love and incorporating culturally interesting things in this. It’s taken me a long time to do it because I’m not as comfortable with writing.
DEREK: He’s been working on this since I’ve known him. I’d have to say my dream project was Stagger Lee.
ME: So you’re done now?
DEREK: I’d say yes but it’s not true. It’s just hard to imagine anything else that’s going to be as all consuming. Stagger Lee was a project that required such a large personal investment. In a lot of ways, mostly superficial it was life changing. Like it turned me into a blues fan. Not a big thing, I know. But still, it’s rare that things like that come along.
SHEP: Wow, I’m glad I could help you with your life’s dream.
DEREK: Yeah. I’ve got eight other next projects in my head and I don’t want to sell any of them short, but Stagger Lee was special.