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Apocrypha Entertainment Presents:



I've had the privilege to call Matt Maxwell a friend for a few years now, so it gave me extra pleasure to sit down with a copy of STRANGEWAYS after the long odyssey it took to get the book to shelves. Matt's one of the smartest cats I know, and even though he can come off as a cynic in his column, I think he's one of the more optimistic people in my orbit. He should be- he's smart, gifted, has a great family behind him. I recently took the a few minutes to pick his brain about his life in comics from childhood 'til now, and here's what he had to say.

MM: Let’s start at the beginning- how old were you when comics became a part of your life?

MAX: A regular part? Not until I was 12 or so. Junior High School. At first, I leaned towards the comic adaptations of various movies and licensed properties/toys, etc. When I was a kid growing up, comics were one of the only dependable ways to get an additional fix of your favorite pop culture thing(s). We didn’t have VCRs or channels that had devoted themselves to endlessly rerunning whatever cheesy science fiction show you loved, so you had to go look for other things.

Besides. They weren’t ever going to make a movie about the Micronauts. And I have to say, that THE MICRONAUTS was one of the first comics that I read regularly. I’d read stuff like the ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS and SON OF ORIGINS, etc, but never had a way to get them on a regular basis. But when I was old enough to bicycle to the 7-11 or the Stop and Rob Mart, I was old enough to get sucked in.

MICRONAUTS might have been just a toy comic, but they had some really great art (Golden and Guice, later on, with some solid work by Pat Broderick in-between), and some at-times truly whacked writing by Bill Mantlo. MICRONAUTS #29 remains one of my favorite single issues of any comic ever. But I wasn’t interested in Marvel comics characters for a while. Hell, I read ROM to learn about the Uncanny X-Men, from which point I was well and truly hooked.

MM: Did you gravitate to a particular comic or creator early on?

MAX:I was a huge X-MEN fan, and grabbed whatever I could when they showed up (which when I started reading wasn’t all that often; though their charms got worn out, even to a die-hard fan like myself.) Though in the mid-80s I bought a good chunk of Marvel’s output in general. It was cheap enough that I could actually do so. About the only DC book that I ever bought regularly was BLUE DEVIL, just because it seemed like such an unusual character, feeling a lot more like a Marvel than a DC book. All the old-school DC heroes didn’t really grab me. Marvel’s books felt a lot more contemporary, more “mine,” if catch my drift.

There was a time that I was really more into the characters, but it didn’t take long to figure out that there were creators whose work I liked a lot more than others. I followed whatever John Byrne was doing at the time, which was FANTASTIC FOUR (his run on which is still one of the best on any mainstream superhero comic). I grabbed a random issue of DAREDEVIL (#171) sometime and was blown away by how scary the book was, compared to the rest of what was out there. So, I then followed Frank Miller’s work through the 80s.

It wasn’t until the middle-late eighties when I started giving up on characters and sticking with creators. But I had a lot of good choices in that regard, Alan Moore being primary amongst them, but also artists like Wagner, Mignola, Dave Gibbons (after being blown away by WATCHMEN).

MM: Was there a particular time when you found yourself thinking that you wanted to make your own comics?

MAX: Oh sure. I plotted out some really dire, awful stuff too. A friend of mine (Matt Selznick, who writes today and introduced me to the wonder that was Starlin’s WARLOCK) and I plotted and wrote a superhero novella over a weekend once. It was very much in the X-MEN/team book mold.

No, you can’t read it.

I’d always wanted to write, but didn’t take it seriously until I’d left college, and didn’t take comics writing seriously until much much later. I wrote my first novel BLUE HIGHWAY in 1991 (which I always threaten to revisit and make readable one day) and worked mostly in prose until stopping writing in the mid-90s, when I concentrated on design/photoshop/animation until about 2000.

MM: You call yourself a “reformed animator” on the back of the book. How did you get involved in animation?

MAX: Animation was one of those things that I’d always wanted to do, along with writing, and making interesting electronic music/noise. I went to design school in the middle 90s and took up animation around then. See, this was about the time that your high-end home computer could work reasonably well as an animation workstation and software was relatively available, so you could teach yourself a lot of this stuff.

I spent a lot of time getting a demo reel together and trying to get some connections into animation. As with STRANGEWAYS, there were a lot of “almosts” and “not quites”, but I finally landed a job doing LightWave animation at Netter Digital in the late nineties. Living 5 days a week up in LA and weekends in San Diego was not necessarily what I’d had in mind when I set out to do this, but that’s how things worked out.

Netter Digital, home of BABLYON 5, had branched out from doing its own animation production work to doing animation on full-length CGI kids’ shows for outside producers. I got hired in one of their massive hiring booms (hint: 23 minutes of CGI animation is a TREMENDOUS amount of work) to cover the massive man-hour demands incurred by their new productions. When I was hired, there were maybe 40 animators there. They shot up to 110+ for a time before crashing down to 30 in 2000. I quit before the company declared bankruptcy, as my son was due that year. In retrospect, I should have held out until the company imploded and then I could have collected unemployment, but the grind and the commute had taken a heavy toll.

MM: What was the best thing about animating? Do you miss it at all?

MAX: I don’t miss the producers’ inability to figure out what they needed for the production. I don’t miss the 60+ hour workweeks.

I do, however, miss being in a bullpen full of creative types who are all culture geeks. So yeah, the social aspects of the job, I miss a great deal. That’s probably the worst thing about being a writer, the whole working in a vacuum thing. I can chat with folks on the internet, but it’s not quite the same thing.

MM: When did STRANGEWAYS begin to form in your mind? Does the final product resemble your original concept? Or did it undergo immense changes along the way?

MAX: The first iteration of STRANGEWAYS was written up in the mid-nineties, probably. It was called BADLANDS back then, and in some ways was very different. It was much more a fantastic take on things, even having its own intricate alternate history and vaguely steampunk technologies (which I maybe should have kept, seeing how that’s a cottage industry these days). The character of Collins was a much more Lovecraftian hero, very erudite, educated, willfully upper class, and a lot of the tension would have been this tenderfoot character trying to make it in the Old West.

Ultimately, I jettisoned almost all of that and stripped it down to the basic setting and allowing for “magic”, for lack of a better word, to have a foothold in our world. In some ways, the current STRANGEWAYS is a lot more accessible and less alien than the first one, and probably a bit less fun.

I may revisit some of those ideas that I dredged in the first attempt, but they won’t look the same as when I’d first planned ‘em.

MM: Why cowboys and werewolves? What appealed to you about that concept?

MAX: Mostly the metaphor, I guess. The Old West was very much about the spread of civilization from East to West, the tension between absolute freedom and civil society.

Besides, I was a kid in a time where the werewolf had been redeemed in horror film and books. THE HOWLING had a huge influence on how I imagined werewolves would be, in terms of their physicality. Same for AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Those didn’t feel like actors in suits, but much more feral and frightening. More man-wolf than wolf-man.

MM: Tell me about the research you had to do for the story. Were you always a Civil War era guy, or did you have to bury yourself in the books to get the period right?

MAX: Ha! I fooled you!

I really don’t know that much about the period, other than what I’ve picked up through cultural osmosis. I do what I can to avoid total cliché, unless the cliché is better than the history. But really, history is far more interesting than its presented to be in the school system. The little bits of intense reading I did made me say “geez, if only they’d covered some of this stuff, I might have paid more attention in class.”

But I’m very much of the mindset that if I have to choose between Absolute Fidelity in History and a good story, I’ll chose a good story every single time. Which I think puts me at odds with a great deal of the Western fanbase out there, as they seem to be very interested in how things “really” were. Really, I do as little research as I can get away with. This isn’t a history text; it’s a story.

MM: Those who are curious about doing their own graphic novels might be curious about the process of finding an artist. You went through quite an ordeal to find good ones you could count on. Can you elaborate a bit on how it all played out and offer some advice to others who might be in the same position you were?

MAX: The only real “ordeal” was with the meltdown of the series’ original artist and his eventual vanishing from my radar screen and inability to answer my phone calls, even after I’d offered him multiple opportunities to quit the project as it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to finish even the first issue. That he’d been paid for.

Finding the guys at Estudio Haus in Argentina was really very easy. I posted an ad at Digital Webbing and they replied. I asked Luis to do five pages of art and they looked good, so I had a contract drawn up.

Now, there were a lot of hours looking at Deviant Art and other sites, trying to locate an artist. There was some pain involved. Most of the samples were just amateur level or below. Screening for those, I blew out all the guys (and few girls) who just wanted pin-up work or were obviously tracers. When you consider just sequential work in a style that was acceptable, it’s easy to screen a lot of work in a very short time.

To artists who are reading this: do sequential samples. Ink your own work. Show a mastery of basic anatomy and storytelling. Know how to spot a black.

To creators who want to follow in my footsteps: demand sequential studies. Make sure the artists can handle a range of expressions. Make sure they grasp fundamentals of storytelling. Anyone can make a cool single image, but can they string it together in a way that makes sense?

And never, ever pay in advance.

MM: You also got contributions from some of comics’ best artistic talents: Steve Lieber, Guy Davis, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. How did you get them involved?

MAX: Ah, the wonders of email. Actually, I’d known Steve by way of a mutal friend and had been introduced to him in 1994 or so, back when he was just getting the HAWKMAN gig and still doing TWILIGHT ZONE for Now Comics (bet he still has a box of those in the closet somewhere.) Thankfully, Steve agreed to do covers. I know for a fact that a lot of attention the book got from retailers the first time around, came from the striking cover he did for issue #1. Ultimately, his cover for what would have been issue #4 was so good that I had to make it the cover for the whole thing.

Graeme McMillan had pointed me in the direction of Fábio and Gabriel, both in their shared book DE:TALES and in Fábio’s work in SMOKE AND GUNS. I liked their approach and got a hold of them, thanks to Larry Young at AiT. Again, it was just a matter of laying out the details for the job and saying “you’ll get paid when you’re done.”

As for Guy Davis, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in THE REALM. Yeah, I’m oldschool like that. Really though, he didn’t come into his own until BAKER STREET and SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE. When I got back into comics in 2002 or so, one of the first things I came across was THE NEVERMEN, which is this criminally-overlooked miniseries that Dark Horse put out. Guy did the art and it was amazing (as was THE MARQUIS, another forgotten gem.) I’d love to say there was a big story where I had to perform twelve heroic labors in order to have Guy do a page, but it was a simple matter of being straightforward and asking. He did a stellar job, too. I’d love to do a short story based on his gallery page in STRANGEWAYS sometime.

MM: Now that the book has made it to shelves, are you able to relax and breathe a bit and enjoy it? Or are you already thinking about the next volume?

MAX: Relax? I suppose the thought had crossed my mind. It’s great to see the book out there after so many failed attempts and the wreckage of destroyed companies left in my wake. But the truth of it is that there’s so much work to do as a publisher that it’s tough to stop. Not to mention the whole “you really should be writing the second book” thing in the back of my head. That’s mostly done. The third one will be a trick, because I’m not precisely sure what it’s about.

It’s still really weird after talking about it so long that I’m sick of talking about it to see the book out there on the shelves or up on Amazon. A good weird, but weird nonetheless.

MM: Any thoughts about extending your publishing ambitions beyond your own work? Or are you content to have Highway 62 Press remain Matt-centric?

MAX: I’m not a natural-born publisher. I’m not real good at the persistent marketing thing that is demanded of small publishers in comics or elsewhere. So no, I don’t see publishing anything by anyone else. Ever. But I suppose stranger things have happened.

Marc Mason


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