Or, Q&A with the creators of the new graphic novel
A few months ago I walked into Showcase Comics and saw a cover: an old fashioned pistol, a Stetson hat, and the clincher - the words “STAGGER LEE” - above. I had to have it.
I wasn’t let down, of course, and it turns out that Stagger Lee, by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, will end up being one of the most critically acclaimed comics projects of the year. Product of careful research and even more careful invention, unlike most versions of the famous song Stagger Lee doesn’t stop with Billy’s shooting or Stag's hanging; it goes on to discuss the ins and outs of Stag’s trial, St. Louis politics and race relations in the 1890s, the probable process of the song's creation, recorded versions, American archetypes, and how song acts as a societal mirror.
The book was published this spring to excellent reviews, and somehow between promoting the book, attending the big Con, and in Shepherd’s case recovering from a collapsed lung, the two authors found the time to correspond with this fan and answer a mess of questions for the Posse.
Your bios indicate that for both of you, Stagger Lee is a return to comics after perhaps a decade long hiatus. What was it about this story that made you want to tell it in this medium, and badly enough to draw you back to comics?
Derek: I think my last published work in comics before Stagger Lee was in something like 1991 or 1992, so in my case it’s been an almost 15‑year break. I did try to put other projects together in that period, but was always pretty lackadaisical about it. It’s not too surprising I didn’t get anywhere.
Stagger Lee was one of those intermittently-pursued projects (as was Displaced Persons, the one I’m writing now, for publication by Image in late 2007), but I think several things set it apart to make me just a little bit more persistent in getting it done. One is that it’s really different from most everything else you see in comics in a really fundamental way – in the structure, the subject matter, the general approach – and it’s kind of exciting to feel like you’re doing something unique. Another is that in Shepherd I had a very enthusiastic collaborator who was as drawn to the story as I was and was as committed to seeing it told – that’s a value-add that can’t be overstated. A third reason has to do with how we hooked up with Image in the first place, and I’ll talk about that in question #9.
Shepherd: Well, in my case, that’s not entirely true. I did indeed leave comics back in the mid 90s but I actually had done another comics project before Stagger Lee.
Back in 2004, I’d published a graphic novel with Image called Shangri La, written by Marc Bryant. I don’t really talk much about the book—not because I feel that it was a bad book but due to the distraction of juggling other work commitments—coupled with the fact that my comics work was really rusty--I didn’t put my full effort into it. I thought I could have done much better. If Shangri La were to be reprinted I’d definitely redo certain parts of the book.
In regard to why Stagger Lee, Derek and I had tried for years to get a few other projects off the ground but for some reason or another things fell apart. Derek and I had known each other for twenty years. I’d worked on a few short stories that he had published back in the 80s but nothing really substantial. Until Stagger Lee, that is.
Obviously, a lot of readers will be most familiar with the classic Lloyd Price version of the song. Do either of you recall the first time you heard this song, or the first version you heard? What were your reactions?
Derek: I had what’s maybe the lamest possible introduction to Stagger Lee. I first heard it when I was a kid on an American Graffiti soundtrack. Not even the American Graffiti soundtrack, mind you, but an American Graffiti soundtrack. After the monster success of that first double album, they pumped out a couple more albums filled up with oldies that weren’t even in the movie. One of those oldies was the Lloyd Price version of Stagger Lee. I can’t say I really knew the song well then, but the title always stuck in my mind. Probably the next version I knew after that was Nick Cave’s, and I was kind of baffled how they could be the same song. When I finally came across the basics of the story in a book by Greil Marcus, I was hooked, and that set me off on the path to writing my own book.
Shepherd: I heard Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee as a track on a cd I’d received from I don’t know whom. With the way Lloyd was cheering Stagger on, I thought the song to be peppy yet weirdly sadistic.
You list about 35 versions of the song in the Appendix. What are your favorite versions? Are there any you DON’T like? What influenced which renditions made appearances in the book?
Derek: My inclinations tend to the old-timey, so my favourites are all early blues versions, particularly Mississippi John Hurt’s and Furry Lewis’. I also really like the very comprehensive (but hard-to-find) proto-rock ‘n’ roll version by Archibald, which was faithfully covered and maybe even improved upon (certainly improved upon in terms of recording quality) by Dr. John. I also really like Ma Rainey’s version, even though it doesn’t really have much to do with Stagger Lee. Professor Longhair’s version is really great too. Oh, and it took a while to grow on me but I ended up liking Bob Dylan’s gargly voice on his cover of the Frank Hutchison version.
Of course, there are versions I don’t like, but I’d prefer not to rag on them since I’m sure they all have their supporters. After collecting more than two hours’ worth, though, I can say that there are way too many covers of Lloyd Price’s version. It’s testament to how solidly Price constructed his version that so many people have covered it, but it gets a little repetitive on the CD mix after a while. Of all the Price covers, I think I have the softest spot for Johnny Otis’ version.
What influenced which versions went into the book and how they made their appearance was mostly copyright law. Every version is significant in its own way, and I’d have loved to quote more extensively from later ones, but I figured I was on safest ground using only those whose authorship is credited to “traditional” and/or which are old enough to be in public domain. Hence, a fully quoted treatment of ‘Bama’s extemporaneous work-farm ballad, but only a single panel glancing at the Clash’s take on The Rulers’ “Wrong ‘em Boyo.”
Shepherd: I’m not sure I really have a favorite. They all mean something different. The Lloyd Price version, to me is the most familiar. The Nick Cave version is a definite stylistic standout in comparison to the others. The Ma Rainey version is sad and almost plaintive.
Derek, you’re a white guy writing about race relations, black history, folklore, black on black crime, etc. Do you think this (consciously) affected how you chose to tell the story? Did it ever lead to any awkwardness?
Derek: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an intimidating project from that perspective, but if I wanted to do it right – and I did – I knew I had to have no fear. To achieve that level of confidence, I had to be certain I knew the material thoroughly—backwards and forwards—and I had to be wholeheartedly committed to the value of truthfulness. I didn’t sit down to start writing until I honestly thought I could meet both those criteria. It’s been a few years now since I finished the script, and every now and then I find myself looking at this or that piece of dialogue and wondering where I ever got the balls to put it down on paper, but I’m glad I did. No punches are pulled, and it makes the world the characters inhabit a real and believable place.
The history in the story is obviously carefully researched, courtesy the academic world. Image-wise, all of the historic musicians pictured are immediately recognizable to fans; other than the explained exception of lawyer Nathan Dryden, was Shepherd able to research likenesses for the novel’s historic characters’ physical appearances? Likewise, were historic images of the St. Louis neighborhood at the center of the story used in constructing the scenery?
Derek: I think the only historical characters we ever had actual likenesses of were Nathan Dryden (after that likeness was irrelevant); the judge in the first trial, though I can’t remember whether or not Shepherd made use of that likeness; and I think I might have come across one picture of Ed Butler, though again I’m not sure if Shep used that when designing the character. A couple of cameo appearances did make use of real likenesses – Tom Turpin, who’s seen playing piano at his Rosebud Bar a few years before the place was built; and Frank James (of Frank and Jesse), who make an uncredited cameo at Butler’s vaudeville house, the Standard Theatre, where he really was employed for a time as a doorman.
Shepherd: The character likenesses were rather general. As a work of fiction based on fact, I felt the likenesses of the characters didn’t have to be exactly spot on. In Nathan Dryden’s case, Derek requested that he resemble Roscoe Lee Brown.
Derek’s research extended beyond mere facts and figures; he did extensive online searches for relevant characters and places. In fact, his script was laced with all the hyperlinks I needed to get such visual references. Derek also sent me a couple of books, one of which featured prominent St. Louis locales as they appeared long ago and as they appear now. Much of the remaining research I did was for everyday things common to that time period; household items, clothing, furniture, etc.
Speaking as an artist: when drawing a graphic novel based on factual evidence-- Derek is the guy to work with.
I noticed that you have commentary from Greil Marcus on the back cover, and the comments on Amazon as well as my own experience show how well this book speaks to certain music fans. How has the music community responded to the book? Have any of the artists who’ve recorded the song reacted?
Derek: As you might guess, the quote from Greil Marcus was a particularly big thrill for me, since it was his book, Mystery Train, that first introduced me to the myth and history of Stagolee. He was incredibly supportive of the book, and went out of his way to fix it so that we could quote his piece from Interview on our jacket. We’ve also had very good response from the blues fans who’ve read it – one guy posted plugs on what looked like every blues bulletin board in the world. We were also recently talked up on Bill Wax’s blues show on XM radio. It’s a challenge getting the book in front of music fans, though – it’s not a traditional distribution channel for comics, and we’re kind of figuring it out as we go along.
As for artists who’ve recorded Stagger Lee, we haven’t heard much. I sent a copy to Johnny Otis, but haven’t heard back from him. Several different friends have told me they showed the book to musicians who have Stagger Lee in their repertoire and got very enthusiastic responses, but this is all filtering back to me second- or third-hand.
Your book explains how the race of Stagger Lee (along with the plot) has come into and out of focus as the song has shifted among audiences, locales, and traditions, and cites Stagger Lee as “the spiritual father of the ‘gangsta,’” one of the dominant images in hip hop today. Are you familiar with the contemporary (well, maybe has-been or also-ran) rapper Stagga Lee?
Derek: I’m pretty pig-ignorant about rap, though I do think the historical arc from Stagger Lee to gangsta is pretty clear. Cecil Brown certainly thinks so. I have heard of Stagga Lee, though I haven’t heard any of his music. Somebody told me that 50 Cent did a version, but I haven’t heard it myself.
Did you ever consider serializing Stagger Lee, or was it conceived as a novel from the start? It makes a fantastic novel, but I can’t help imagining how it would have broken down monthly...
Derek: I always thought of Stagger Lee as a novel. The narrative structure I decided on seems to me inherently novelistic. I think if I were to have done it as a monthly serial it would have been very different in both concept and execution.
Shepherd: As a reader, I couldn’t imagine Stagger Lee as a serialized piece of work. It’s like watching a movie: you have to fold yourself up within the story and follow it through to the end.
That said, it seems an odd type of story to be published by one of the largest comics companies. How hard was it to sell the story, and how has Image been?
Derek: Compared to all those years of abortive attempts to get comics projects off the ground, selling to Image couldn’t have been easier. Stagger Lee was very lucky to find an early champion in Charles Brownstein, who now runs the CBLDF. I used to talk to Charles about the book when he lived in the Bay Area in the early oughts, and he would always cajole me about working harder to sell it somewhere. I was more interested in self-publishing and was still sticking obstinately to that path when it occurred to Charles that Eric Stephenson, Image’s Executive Director and a huge music fan, would have a natural affinity for the project. Charles introduced us to Eric, and here we are today. Image has been great. They’ve seemed from the start to really believe in the artistic and commercial potential of the project, and have been behind it a hundred percent.
Shepherd: I was pretty surprised when I first heard that Image was interested in publishing Stagger Lee. But I praise them for doing so and for supporting us with getting our book out to the public. I think comics can be a larger and grander medium of communication and education than a lot of people give it credit for.
During the course of the novel, you also touch on two other well-known St. Louis murder ballads from the same era and neighborhood (Frankie & Johnny, and Duncan & Brady). With the abundance of source material, do either of you hope to undertake another project similar to this in the future?
Derek: It’s hard to imagine that I could ever again come up with anything as singular as Stagger Lee, but yeah, the thought of a sequel has once or twice crossed my mind. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but all of the projects I have in mind for the near future could be said to fall under the broad heading of “historical fiction” — some more fictional than others. I don’t have any plans for anything with quite the same confluence of historical/mythological/musicological elements, but you never know. I’m told there’s a compelling story behind that Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini song.
Shepherd: I would like to. I’d also like to know that there are those out there who would appreciate and support such material. Please let us hear from you! I don’t want to be preaching to an audience of crickets!
If by any chance you’re not familiar with the song at the center of the book, click the following link to download a primer with some of the versions referenced in the book, recorded over the past 80 years and arranged here in (I think) chronological order.
1. Frank Hutchinson (1927)
2. Mississippi John Hurt (1928)
3. Bama (1947)
4. Lloyd Price (1959)
5. Ike & Tina Turner (ca.1965)
6. Taj Mahal (1969)
7. The Grateful Dead (1978)
8. The Clash (197 9)
9. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (1999)
Plug: For more news and info, be sure to check into Derek’s blog at http://staggerlee.typepad.com/, and thank the creators for their time and thoughts by moseying over to Amazon.com and copping their book for a ridiculously low price.
Friday, August 11, 2006
Or, Q&A with the creators of the new graphic novel