Once upon a time I poisoned Alex de Campi. Some dodgy sausages at a barbeque at our place. She threw up all over the patio. I spent the next day picking it all out. But we made up. Now she's writing Lady Zorro for Dynamite, announced today, drawn by Rey Villega and based on the character introduced by Matt Wagner in the Zorro Rides Again series.
So I talked to Alex about it. We didn't get a reprise of the patio situation. But I thought it was explosive in all so many other ways…
Black and white preview pages accompany covers below, the final versions will also be in colour…
Rich Johnston: So Alex de Campi. The new writer on Lady Zorro. Does this feel at all like getting the second-string choice? The spinoff rather than the actual? I'm trying to avoid using the word booby prize here…
Alex de Campi: Well, it's my first work for hire book other than My Little Pony, so I couldn't really expect to get a major character. I love writing swashbuckling adventure and over-the-top action and I'm hoping folks like to read it too. Although because I'm so soon coming off my Grindhouse book [From Dark Horse, read about it here – Rich], I have to police myself that it doesn't get depraved and/or inappropriate.
RJ: That's a point – are you writing the character as they are – in the style they have been previously told in, or are you making the character and the book closer to the image more people are likely to have of you? Which changes more, you or Lady Zorro?
AdC: Since the character has so little background/history, I assumed I'd been brought in to do something very creative. So I originally pitched something quite leftfield and innovative that I thought could be fascinating (and, incidentally, be a great movie) but the licensor really wants a straight-up swashbuckling book. Also, necrophilia jokes are out. I learn a new thing about work for hire every day! NO SCREWING DEAD PEOPLE. (Insert own Jerry Siegel joke here.)
RJ: So what's your history with swashbuckling? Is it brand new to you, a life long obsession?
AdC: I grew up reading great adventure stories, from the King Arthur books illustrated by Howard Pyle, to more recent stuff like the fantastic BD series SCORPION… so it's a genre I'm totally delighted to work in.
I'm a bit of a swot when it comes to military history, too, so my script is full of notes about the proper firing and operation of 1800s cannon, and how a regiment of musketeers would fire (front rank kneeling) etc.
I'm also a massive, massive Robert E Howard fan (his frequent racism and sexism aside) and that's all big adventure stories… mixed with Lovecraftian horror which is a super combo. Not as big of an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. Always thought John Carter was a bit pants, sorry.
RJ: So no Warlord Of Mars or Dejah Thoris comics to follow Lady Zorro then I guess.
AdC: I love those Dejah Thoris covers, though. Seriously I feel I know that character better than her gynaecologist does.
RJ: So what would you expect Alex de Campi fans (we do exist, honest!) to get out of Lady Zorro? Whether Grindhouse or Kat & Mouse (or Kat & Grindhouse)?
AdC: It's just a big, badass, over the top action book. Catfights! Swords! Whips! Last-minute rescues! SEXYTIEMS. I think there's a lot of similar feel in my Lady Zorro script to something like Bee Vixens from Mars or the current (final! sob) Grindhouse storyline, Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll. Badassery turned up to 11, hot chicks, and just… fun. Lots and lots of fun.
The difference between Lady Zorro and male Zorro is Lady Zorro starts off a lot more like Huntress — she is all about Vengeance. In her brief appearance in the main Zorro book (I think it's issues 10-12 of the Matt Wagner series) she's basically just killing soldiers because she wants indiscriminate, bloody vengeance as someone in uniform killed her family.
It's a lot less MS 45 than I make it sound, though. Zorro makes her understand that random murder of innocents is not really cool, and she goes into exile. At the beginning of our book, an evil, rich Spanish countess (who may or may not be an ageless evil vampire from Spanish legend) is buying up and/or stealing all the estancias in Alta California, and wants to run everyone off their land so she can turn it into a giant cattle ranch such as exist in Argentina.
She has asked Don Diego to Spain to play cards with her (where she hopes to win his estancia because girlfriend CHEEEAAAATS) and meanwhile sent her personal army of German mercenaries to start clearing the land of those pesky humans. (Yep, think Highland Clearances.)
Don Diego asks one simple thing of Lady Zorro: come back, and steal back an important Indian ceremonial axe that the mercenary general has taken from the local indian tribe, the Chumash… and thus avoid a war with the indians.
So Zorro heads off to Spain to play poker for his estates and is like "you can handle this, right?" She had ONE. JOB. Well. As they say, "complications ensue".
RJ: So for some straight up swashbuckling, you're actually still stepping on a few political toes?
AdC: But… but… evil Germans! And very few people in the US know what the Highland Clearances are. It's basically a setup that means that Lady Zorro has to team up with the Spanish soldiers, the ones she used to kill for sport. Which makes for uncomfortable bedfellows. Quite literally, in one case. On a fuzzy-wuzzy level, it's a personal journey for her about the meaning of vengeance, and when and if there is an actual "end" to a mission of vengeance… or if it just becomes a vicious cycle.
Very early on, she makes a selfish, personal decision that causes the entire rest of the book to happen. If she hadn't let her own interests get in the way, there would have been a lot less death.
RJ: I'll put in a Wikipedia link. But, it's not like America didn't have any clearances of its own around this time period… there are still parallels to be drawn, surely? I mean you've got the native Americans right there…
AdC: Oh, absolutely!
And the tribes in that part of California were pretty amazing… the Chumash had female chiefs as well as males, and were a pretty fantastic civilisation. I hadn't seen much in the Zorro books that acknowledged there was a thriving and diverse group of Indian tribes also on that land that the Spanish were occupying, and to me it makes it a more interesting and accurate book to have the native peoples in there. Zorro is an interesting book, because it's swashbuckling adventure, but it also takes place in a Spanish colonial atmosphere that's only about 30 years off the main "cowboys & indians" time period in the West. So maybe I'm bringing in a bit more of the traditional Western to it… although we're before a lot of the technological advances that make Westerns Westerns (eg the railroad), would-be cattle barons are a staple of the genre. The Chumash in particular resisted Spanish colonization and I believe fought two major battles/wars with the Spanish… until they were ultimately defeated more by the colonists' diseases than the colonists themselves.
Basically I can't turn my brain off. I want to write good old high adventure, but I also like some degree of historical accuracy (it makes it a much more exciting story) and for things to count for something for the characters. Once you start researching a time period and a location/terrain, all sorts of interesting plots make themselves known.
RJ: So what is the relationship with the artist here? It seems very non-personal… have you worked like this before?
AdC: This has been a big part of the work for hire learning curve. I'm used to a very personal interaction with artists… even on My Little Pony, it was me and Carla and we'd be IM'ing about stuff… this, while Rey Villegas' art is GORGEOUS, we've not even exchanged one email and that is just a new thing to me! (If you love Rey's art on Lady Zorro, he's also drawing Lady Rawhide. Bulk deal on the Ladybooks!)
So there are a bunch of things that are different. The first is the total lack of contact. The second is working in translation — sometimes I wonder if all my script is being translated for him (to be fair, I do tend to go on a bit). I've worked in translation before, for Humanoids… but the artists and I were in direct contact, and I spoke enough Spanish and Italian that we could muddle through if there were questions.
The third is I've had to drop my panel count to adjust to his very detailed, highly rendered art style — to make sure the action pages really shine… I have had friends talk about big-two work and not being really able to go above four panels a page and I've been like, "pshaw!" but it's true, especially on fight scenes. Rey is doing some amazing grid pages (there's a grid in Issue 1 and a grid spread in Issue 3), though, so I am lucky that he can rock a 9 panel grid when he wants to! You look at someone like Sean Phillips (I obsessively panel count Brubaker / Phillips books, it's some sort of nerd OCD) and he is such a skilled minimalist, he can draw just one detail in a panel and it conveys a world of emotion. So you can throw a bazillion panels at him and it's all cool. Rey is a maximalist, in the grand tradition of some of the great European bande dessinee artists, and while he is very clear in what the focus of the panel is, he creates a gorgeously complete universe in every panel.
It's also a penciller-inker-colourist deal and I've always worked with people who ink themselves. So, you know, seeing such detailed pencils is just weird and cool and like… wow!
But, you know, this is how 80% of the top 300 comics are produced. Writer gives script to editor, script revisions are requested and done, then you might get a chance to look over a lettered version if you're lucky but then a comp appears in the mail and that's really the first time you see it after sending in the final script. At least I'm lettering my book, so I am seeing art before print (and am able to adjust letters accordingly… I tell you, it's a killer doing letter placement on Rey's art. It's all so pretty, there's no easy place to cover up with a word balloon or three…)
RJ: Are you resigned to this going on?
AdC: I have many motivations for being OK with this process, and most of them are bills. Just kidding. (That's an old AA Gill line; been wanting to use it for years.) Humour aside, I've gotten a grey streak in my hair from the stress of self-producing books like Ashes. It's so, so nice letting someone else do the heavy lifting of production work.
Besides, I have how many creator owned projects on the go right now? Grindhouse, the horror series with Jerry Ordway in Dark Horse Presents (starting in #4 in Nov!), the series with Carla (which now has a home! She started drawing it yesterday!), the noir book with Ramon Perez; the horror GN Margaret the Damned whick may have an artist now at last…. another series in development… Valentine, every week at Thrillbent (for free! go check it out — it's a good example of the swashbuckling skills I'll be bringing to Lady Zorro and did I mention, FREE?)… new episodes of that coming to me from Christine… Yeah, I talk to ALL these people. Probably least to Jerry because even though Jerry is awesome and full of SUPER ideas, because he is also Jerry Effing Ordway and every page he turns in is so good it might as well be bathed in the jealous tears of unicorns.
RJ: Someone you'll talk to?
I talk to ALL these people. So I'm not hurting on opportunities for talking to artists. So doing a little WFH where someone else manages this process? Although I have to literally remind myself to unclench my fingers from the process, it's actually really really nice.
RJ: So it's a little less pressured?
AdC: Oh hell yes.
RJ: Which reminds me, we were meant to be talking about Lady Zorro. Okay so… tell me about your decision to go supernatural. There's always a choice with these kind of stories, to present people's beliefs as just that, or to treat them as the real thing. You're going with vampires… or at least treading that line.
AdC: It's not supernatural. The off-panel Big Bad in
Spain who is behind it all (imagine the silhouetted, part-seen figure at the end of a Goodwin/Williamson X-9 story, teasing the next story), I used a name from Spanish legend because research is fun! And on the chance I do more Lady Zorro or mainline Zorro I can do something more central with that Big Bad. C'mon, Zorro versus a sexy, evil ageless vampire countess? You'd read that, wouldn't you? Hell, we could probably have Vampirella show up too. (Love me some Vampy.)
RJ: Gotcha…. Well now hopefully a few thousand more. Do you care how few folk get your references or are you really only writing for an audience of one?
AdC: This isn't like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, where it's all about having read lots of books and if you don't get the references, you feel like a numpty. I never make obscure references a focal point of the story, or to show off. Especially not in something like this, that's just high fun.
I'm much more concerned that the sequence I have with the firing, cleaning and reloading of a cannon is drawn right, than if people know or care about the other stuff. You entertain first, always. Anything else comes a distant second.
RJ: The other thing I wanted to ask about was the deal with Dynamite. I was made aware there were some contretemps originally… Was that satisfied to your satisfaction?
AdC: We had a negotiation… as one always does with any deal. They named a number, I named a different one, we met somewhere in the middle. We're obviously both happy, because lo! a comic was born. And strictly entre nous? I turned in Issue 4 — the final issue — like a month early. I had so much fun writing Issue 3 I just romped onwards through to 4. And, I want to do a lot more with Dynamite. They have a bunch of pulp characters and trash-horror characters I'd totally cage-fight someone to write. Maybe I can even find one where they'll let me put in the necrophilia jokes.
RJ: Do you have any worries about how that, and indeed this interview, might affect your reputation as an employee?
AdC: I have a fairly masculine negotiating style. And indeed, writing style. I think sometimes this surprises people,
but once they're like, "okay, she's not very girly, we'll just treat her like one of the boys" then, in the words of recent popular cinema: everything is awesome.
RJ: It is.
Lady Zorro by Alex de Campi and XXXX will be published by Dynamite in July.