Caryn A. Tate: Violence and Corruption in the Old West

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
I’ve been enjoying Caryn A. Tate’s webcomic Red Plains for some time on the Top Shelf 2.0 website. Recently I had a chance to chat with Caryn about her comic and its key themes.

Caryn’s choice of a Western series is appropriate given her long personal history of living and working on the frontier, so I was interested in her thoughts on her Western and what makes it unique.

Jason Sacks: Can you give us a feel for what you're trying to accomplish with Red Plains?

Caryn A. Tate: On top of being a fun, exciting, and realistic western, Red Plains takes a crime/noir influenced look at the culture of violence and corruption that has shaped American culture. We tend to think of the Old West as an era that ended a long time ago and has no bearing on our lives today, but in many ways it has directly impacted our society.

Take the violence side of that. In the Old West, we all know that gunplay was fairly common – that folks often handled disputes or disagreements with a bullet. That mentality of solving our problems with violence, whether it's with a gun or some other weapon, is still so ingrained in America.

Another major aspect of what we're achieving with Red Plains is portraying the real West, not the Hollywood version of the West. No high noon gunfights in the street, no clean, bloodless fighting. Gunmen run out of ammo. Horses get worn out from running across the country. Peoples' decisions have consequences. Even everyday life, such as that of homesteaders like the Templeton family in the series, is really tough – it's not living, it's survival.

JS: I'm intrigued by the idea that most media don't show the ramifications of violence, but that you find it important. How does the impact of violence play its part in the larger tapestry that you're creating?

CT: It's important to me to show what really happens when violence occurs, and to get us thinking about it. Too often we're shown a gunfight, a stabbing, whatever, and we (as an audience) are almost desensitized to it, because it's window dressing. It's a prop or a plot device that doesn't affect those characters left living. But in Red Plains, it's real. It drives decisions the characters make, and changes the way they look at things. It affects them, physically and psychologically.

For instance, look at what happened to Joe Morelli , the deputy sheriff, in issue #8, during the “One of Us” storyline. That moment wasn't just for show.

JS: Do you approach the strip in a certain way because it's a webcomic?

CT: No, not really. First and foremost it's a story being told in the comics medium. Whether it's on the page or online, the approach is the same. Good, solid storytelling, compelling characters, great art. All the things any type of comic benefits from. I try to fill each issue with a lot of story and action so that each piece feels meaningful – my goal is to create the type of comic I would enjoy reading.

The folks at Top Shelf 2.0 and I have found that Red Plains works well as a webcomic because of how much is contained in each posted piece, but that's just the way I write. So it can translate to print well, too.

JS: Flipping that last question around, the strip is in b&w and uses paper dimensions. Why did you choose to go this direction with the production on the strip?

CT: The black and white coloring of the comic is a result of my crime and noir influences. Red Plains often takes a stark, shadowed viewpoint – both visually and in the stories – that works well in black and white. So much can be achieved just with the contrast of black and white – I think it's too often overlooked in mainstream comics.

As far as the dimensions...I wanted the comic to be accessible to both web and print. I don't want to limit it.

JS: This is a western comic, but it's as much an ensemble piece rather than a story that focuses on a single character. It's the Deadwood approach rather than the "hero sheriff" type approach. Why did you choose to go at it that way?

CT: Yeah, it's very much an ensemble series. Honestly that's mainly because I just have so much story to tell that I could never limit it to being focused solely on just one protagonist or “hero.” This series is really about the town of Red Plains – the people who live here in all walks of life. The lifestyles. The world. It's not any one person's story. Everything matters – everything plays into everything else, directly or indirectly. I have told and will tell more stories about cowboys working on ranches, settlers moving out West, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, miners, soldiers, the whole gamut – so it's definitely an ensemble series.

Actually, I don't have HBO, so I've only recently started watching Deadwood, on DVD. So it's not an influence on Red Plains, at least not yet.

JS: I was intrigued by the feeling of the arrival of civilization into lawless frontiers , what with the town council passing laws in the current story arc.

CT: The town council believes it can make Red Plains a more “civilized” place. They dream of making the town prosperous and peaceful if for no other reason than to become the city council of an actual city that folks have heard of.

A couple of influences of mine are The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. They are both models of a fictional world that feels real to the audience, and The Wire especially deals extensively with issues surrounding politics and leadership that have influenced Red Plains – and they have begun to manifest in this storyline.

Along those lines, some of my favorite westerns like Lonesome Dove or All the Pretty Horses vividly portray the details of everyday life in the West. It's important to show those everyday details and people, like the town council or the Westfields who run the General Store in Red Plains, because they really make up this world. That kind of content and level of consistency is what I'm striving for with Red Plains.

JS: The shift to an ensemble feel is a change from the first story arc; why the shift?

CT: The first arc, “Range War,” was developed more as an introduction to the series, so I kept the cast of characters small. Jackson Stevens was the character we sort of focused on initially, just because he was an appropriate and fun character to introduce readers to the world of Red Plains. Since then, we've delved more deeply into other characters (Sheriff Doles, Deputy Tom Bennett, the Templetons, and the cowboys of the Devils Hed), and now, with the “Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up” story, we'll be introducing even more central players to the series.

JS: This is a very dangerous town, with shootings and set fires all the time. Will the move to ban guns in part 10 backfire? Is there a hidden agenda behind the ban?

CT: I can't say too much about how the gun ban will end. And as far as a hidden remains to be seen whether the folks behind it can keep their scheming a secret from the lawmen and the townspeople. It'll be a lot of fun finding out!

JS: Some of the scenes in "Range War" are rather intensely violent; did those moments leave psychological scars on the residents of the town and ranches?

CT: Absolutely. All of the fights and violence that have appeared so far have their consequences. My whole intent with Red Plains is that everything looks, sounds, feels--is--real. So just like in real life, violence has real psychological effects. Everything matters.

JS: You allude to Sheriff Doles basically being a handyman; has he had to fight for the town's respect because of that?

CT: Some of the townspeople's respect, definitely. We get a taste of that in issue #10, the first chapter of “Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up.” There are people in Red Plains who feel Doles isn't suited for the job, including one of his own men. But you really have to think about their reasons behind it.

And with some of the mishaps that have already happened in the series on his watch, you've gotta wonder if Doles himself is feeling all that confident.

JS: I notice the art team does a nice job of showing Doles's reaction to the events; how are you enjoying the collaborative process with your artists?

CT: Yeah, they're great storytellers, aren't they? I'm glad you're enjoying the characters' reactions and facial expressions. That's something that's really important to convey in Red Plains because I try to work without narration or unnecessary exposition.

I love the collaboration -- one of my favorite things about it is when they render a new character. Typically for new characters, I'll provide a physical description, background, and their purpose in the story, and then just let the artist run with it. It's so much fun to see their portrayal, their vision, of that person. And often it's nothing like what I was imagining but works much better!

And working with several artists the way I have been, it's exhilarating to write to their different strengths. I love getting their pages with these fresh portrayals of characters and depiction of scenes.

JS: It's noticeable how the world of Red Plains gets wider as the series goes on; was that your plan from the beginning?

CT: Yeah, that's absolutely what I'm going for. The initial “Range War” arc was just to give people a feel of what Red Plains is all about; once they were comfortable with a few of the central characters, then I'd be able to expand, like with this storyline right here (“Nice Place...”), where we're adding a new family, political infrastructure, and filling in more people around the town. I didn't want to overwhelm folks in the very beginning with a bunch of characters that they would have no attachment to.

That said, “Nice Place...” is definitely reader friendly, and everything you need to know is right there on the page. There are no origin stories or long, drawn out histories that you have to be aware of. In fact, a lot of the characters in the story are making their very first appearance here.

JS: I thought the tension between the anglos and latinos was really interesting. The tension is pretty close below the surface, even between the wealthy latinos and the anglos. Is this an area you're looking to explore?

CT: I'm glad you're enjoying that! Yeah, it seems pretty raw for a lot of them, doesn't it? Just wait, it gets more tense.

Well, let's look at it this way. We're reading about a time and place that, contrary to the standard Hollywood portrayal, was more accommodating of different races than we might initially think, but there was still a lot of inequality and injustice. The subject of race in the West is one that we've just started dealing with in Red Plains but one that you'll definitely see a lot of as the series progresses, especially surrounding the Escovido family. What's it like being Latino in a place like Red Plains? What's it like being African American? Native American? A woman? These are some things we'll be addressing.

JS: The relationship between Charlie and Lupe has a bit of Romeo and Juliet to it. What are the chances their relationship will end in tears?

CT: 50/50. Nice try!

Romeo & Juliet weren't really on my mind when I was writing this, but along the lines of the race issue, this was something I wanted to explore via this prospective couple.

JS: How was your transition between artists?

CT: Fantastic actually. Each of them has a completely different style but one that really fits the feel of the book. Noel Tuazon did a great job on the first storyline, “Range War.” After that I worked with Patrick Bezanson on the “Letters Back Home” one shot, then the “One of Us” arc. He produces great work really fast and was always on time – very professional. Now we've got Larry Watts on the “Nice Place...” storyline, and he just gets better with each page. Really amazing work – he just captures body language and facial expression so well, and nails the action scenes. He's had to design a few new characters and locales, even, and he's done an amazing job with them. I'm really happy with our collaboration.

JS: Will you keep working with Larry Watts, or will you move to other artists as well?

CT: I am planning on working with Larry again, but right now we're rotating artists on separate storylines so that the artists working with me are able to take a break and recharge.

JS: Why a western, and why now?

CT: Why not?

Really...the old cliché of “write what you know” is true here. I grew up on cattle ranches and farms in the West, and when I got older, worked on them – breaking and training horses, herding cattle, you name it. It's a deep-seated love of mine, and the lifestyles of modern cowboys and country people is still very rooted in the old ways. I've always had the desire to tell our stories. That's where Red Plains comes from. With extra violence, of course.

Westerns are American mythology. Why did the genre seem to fall from grace after the '60's? I personally think it's because so much western entertainment didn't take the subject matter seriously, and hence, neither did the audience. Westerns like Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men and Open Rang are examples of more recent successes that surprised people who thought they didn't like westerns. They all had elements of a great story but were also fantastic representations of the genre. I really believe most people could be western fans – they just have to be exposed to a good one.

JS: Tell us about Top Shelf 2.0 and how you got involved with it.

CT: I met Brett Warnock at Emerald City Comic-Con in 2008, and showed him an 8 page Red Plains mini comic that Noel and I had done. He really liked the concept and offered to help us gain exposure via their webcomics portal, Top Shelf 2.0. He and Leigh Walton have been very supportive and enthusiastic about the title.

JS: Are you hoping to collect it in print in the near future?

CT: Definitely! It'll translate well to print, and I'd love to have it on shelves in comic shops soon.

JS: It made me smile how you frequently end a chapter with a thank-you for the reader.

CT: Glad you liked that! It's important to me to thank people for taking the time to read our book. There are a lot of things out there vying for folks' time and attention, so if you're taking the time to read Red Plains, then you have my thanks. And I always appreciate it when I see something like that at the end of a great film or book!

JS: Anything else you'd like the readers to know about you or "Red Plains?"

CT: Well this is a project that's definitely from my heart, and the artists and I put a lot of effort into it. I'm not interested in stories that don't feel authentic or where nothing much seems to happen. We want every issue to be something we're all proud of.

Also, there's a lot of research that goes into Red Plains. Even though I'm familiar with the bulk of the material from growing up in the western lifestyle, surrounded by its stories, I'm always checking up on historical accounts and gathering reference. The artists take great pains to render those researched details to help make this comic the best it can be, and I can't thank them enough for their time and dedication.

My hope is that people who are interested in good storytelling and great art will take a look at this story and read a few issues on Top Shelf 2.0, and that once they do they'll stay with us for the long haul.

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