This week a new horror comic drops into your local comic shop. Redneck, by writer Donny Cates and artists Lisandro Estherren and Dee Cunniffe, is the story of a family of vampires who live deep in the heart of Texas. As Cates told me at this year’s Emerald City Comic Con, his creator-owned series has deep resonance to his life.
“I really wanted to set a vampire story in East Texas,” says Cates, “with a group of vampires that are the kind you have never really seen before. I always liked the idea of a bunch of good ole country folks, who got bit by vampires – and, afterwards, they’re still just a bunch of country folks. They just have a whole lot more birthdays.
“To that end, all of my extended family comes from East Texas: a little town called Sulphur Springs, which is where Redneck takes place. That name is perfect for a scary-sounding town. Can you imagine springs of Sulphur? That’s what hell sounds like. I remember, as a kid having to go out and see my extended family in Sulphur Springs. They were all creepy and racist and horrible people, and they lived in a place called Sulphur Springs. It was so scary.”
The family in that town mainly just wants to be left alone. Cates continues, “When the book starts, the family are very much in hiding. They’re living a very isolated life that is, while safe, certainly is not sustainable with the kids, with Greg and Seamus and everybody, wanting to live an actual life. We see the consequences of that as it plays out in that first issue. What’s great about it is you’ll get to see the origins of all of those things spread out over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years.”
In fact, the vampire family may look young, but, as Cates reports, “they’ve been in Texas since before Texas was independent from Mexico. Some of them are older than that. I think – with our patriarch of the family, J.V., it’s kind of an ongoing joke. We’re not really sure how old J.V. is, but he’s pretty damn old. Our main character, Bartlett, calls himself the Last Surviving Son of Texas because he was sired – meaning he got turned into a vampire –the same month that Texas declared its independence. He’s exactly as old as Texas is. He considers himself the last surviving son of Texas.”
Cates explores this background in a series of flashbacks that don’t just explore the history of the region but also of the family. In those flashbacks readers see that violence fits a painful repeating cycle: “While I love the genre of Westerns, what’s really important about these flashbacks is that you’re seeing the seeds of these patterns of behavior that this family has lived through over and over and over and over. A cycle of violence that has only ever led to them.
“It’s always the same conflict. It’s always the same family. It’s always the same thrust of trying to break bad blood.”
The background of this story hits close to home for Cates. “The big, underlying message of the book is kind of based on my own family. My father’s side of the family, unfortunately, is every horrific stereotype that you can think of when it comes to Deep South or parts of Texas. Hateful, violent prejudice, all of those kinds of things. When my dad had my brother and myself, he broke that limb off our family tree and kind of excommunicated all of them. He moved us farther away into Dallas, which is where I grew up. He broke that cycle of violence and decided that he was going to raise his kids in a way that would produce good people and get out of that cycle of prejudice and hate.
“So, to that end, my family was the – my mother was the first person who carried our last name who had ever graduated from high school. My brother was the second one; I was the third one. My dad still never has because he worked overtime at Southwest Airlines this entire time to put us through that. He was always very supportive of me and my endeavors in art and everything like that.
“In a lot of ways, this book is about my dad – about my family. It’s about blood, right? It’s about a family trying to overcome a very violent past. What’s interesting about it is – because they’re vampires, and because they’re so old – is that it’s not like they’re trying to live down the sins of their fathers or their grandfathers. When we flash back to scenes that took place two hundred, three hundred years ago, it’s them. It’s that family who did those things.”
Centering the story on family gives Redneck much of its power: “I’ve always thought that the best vampire stories especially – the best monster stories generally – the good ones are always saying something about something else while using them. Vampires especially have always been used to talk about sexuality or being in a marginalized group or things like that. Damned if they work really well to talk about family and blood and how bad blood can ruin things. They fit really well for that. “
Appropriately for a series published by Skybound, the comparisons to The Walking Dead abound. “We like to talk about it as a mirror version of The Walking Dead,” says Cates. “The Walking Dead is about a group of humans trying to continue living some semblance of a peaceful life in a world full of monsters. Redneck is about a family of vampires that are trying to lead a peaceful, quiet life surrounded by us.”
Of course, what makes for a quiet life for a group of vampires is very different from a quiet life for you and me. “Here’s the thing,” reports Cates. “The book walks such a dangerous line because you fall in love with this family, and they’re sweet, and they’re good people. But there’s a line that I come back to a lot. At a certain point, when this family is threatened, you’re quickly reminded that they are monsters and they do some monstrous things. They’re apex predators, and it comes out. We say, “If this character does this thing, if they go there, that’s not something that we’re going to be able to walk back. That’s going to change that character forever. That act of brutality, that act of vengeance – Going to that place, that’s a real big deal. We take it seriously.
“Everything has massive consequences in this book. The idea of the world at large finding out that they exist is on the table, as well. Beyond everything else. I’m about to say something that’s the dumbest, also cliché: The stakes are so incredibly high in this book.
“It’s crazy,” Cates continues, “because you so very rarely ever see your typical monsters, like your werewolves or your vampires or anything, as essentially the least powerful character in the play. The Bowmans are for the most part the victims. They’re the ones that are under attack. They’re the ones that are under pressure or under the gun. They’re never – I’m not going to spoil anything at all, but very rarely are they on the hunt.”
The consequences are especially strong for the family members who seem youngest. “There’s a little girl in the book. Her name is Perry. While she’s like 40 or 50 years old, she’s a little girl. Relative to her age in the family, she’s still the little girl in the group. They’re very aware of their actions haunting her for the rest of her life. It’s not a matter of, ‘This guy pisses me off. I’m going to break his fuckin’ neck, and I’m going to drink him dry.’ Then, it’s like, ‘Awesome. Well, you killed that guy, but, now, Perry has got to be on the run for the rest of her life, too.’ You’re just going to create another predator with your predatory actions. If that’s not applicable to raising a child and your actions affecting –
“Every action affects the next generation until you break that cycle. The entire book is them desperately trying to break it and the world really making it pretty tough for them to do so.”
Cates is effusive about the art by Lisandro Estherren and Dee Cunniffe. “Redneck was the first book that I ever brought to a publisher that didn’t already have an artist attached. Skybound editorial and I spent a good couple of months looking at portfolio after portfolio. Lisandro did two things that, to me, nailed it. First, he draws ugly really pretty. He’s really good at making hideous things beautiful. I think that that’s something that Southern Bastards does really well. It’s a hideous book, but it’s beautifully done. It’s meant to be, you know. Things are meant to be uncomfortable.
“The other thing is acting. Every book that I have ever done, I’ve cast a book not on any fight scenes or anything. I think that any artist worth their weight should be able to draw a dude hitting a dude. But being able to sell an emotion – being able to sell a lie or a tear or something like that – that really came clear in his art. As people read this book, the ability to sell someone crying their eyes out in grief is really, very important to this book. Because it happens quite a bit.”
It’s the human drama that makes Redneck stand out, even if that those experiencing that drama are vampires. After several years in the industry, Cates finds himself extremely passionate about the work he’s doing on Redneck because “I have something to say. I’m a firm believer in comics meaning something and being important. Certainly there’s a place for popcorn comics, and certainly I’ve made a number of them. But I’m at a point in my life with stories like God Country and Redneck, especially, where I’ve got a lot of shit to say.
“Redneck’s the one – to use a cliché – I’m really digging my teeth into.”