Conducted by Dan Royer
Comic Attack interviews Driver for the Dead creator and writer John Heffernan about his new miniseries with Radical Publishing.
Welcome back, kiddies. I have lured John Heffernan into the depths this week to pick his brain about his new book, Driver for the Dead. So sit back and relax as he tells us about who he is, what he does, and what we can expect from him in the future. Trust me, you will like what you read!
Decapitated Dan: Hey, John, thanks for taking time to talk with me about Driver for the Dead. First of all, let’s talk about you. Who are you and what do you do?
John Heffernan: Hey, Decapitated Dan. Thanks for the interview. At first, I thought it would be a little unsettling, being interviewed by a man with no head, but it’s actually kind of pleasant. No snide glances, no eye-rolling, no reproachful looks of admonition and remorse… kind of like when I talk to the little dead girl I keep sealed up in the oil drum down by the— never mind. Let me start over: My name is John Heffernan and I’m a writer. Mostly I write movie screenplays, but recently I’ve started writing comics, Driver for the Dead being my first endeavor, with, hopefully, more to follow.
Decapitated Dan: How did you find yourself getting into making comics?
John Heffernan: I’ve been a life-long comics fan, and the love I have for the medium has stayed with me from about age 8 all the way to the present. So I’ve always wanted to write a comic, but I’ve always loved movies as well, and when I graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles, most of my energy went into writing films. I still wanted to write comics, but the thing is, although comic books are a supremely great art form, the writing of comic books is not so commensurately supreme, and if you’ve got a good thing going with movies, your agents and managers aren’t exactly overjoyed when you tell them that you want to break into the funnybook business. Fortunately, with the recent success of comic book properties being parlayed into film franchises, comics have come to be more respected in Hollywood— at least, in the sense that they can make money for movie studios. For me, Driver has always been sui generis a comic book— the story and characters just have that unflinching comic book feel. But they also lend themselves pretty strongly to a film series. So when I pitched my idea for Driver to a movie producer friend here in town, he suggested that we take it to Radical, which has a history for making high-quality comics that can stand on their own as well as make the jump from page to screen. To me, it sounded like a perfect fit. I pitched the idea to publisher Barry Levine and he loved it. Then we got Leonardo Manco on board and we were off to the races.
Decapitated Dan: So, what can you tell me about Driver for the Dead?
John Heffernan: It’s a hell of a ride. If you like action comics, if you like horror comics, if you like comics in general, chances are you’re going to like this book. The artwork from Leonardo Manco and Kinsun Loh and Jerry Choo is just awesome, some of the best pencils and digital painting I’ve ever seen. And the story ain’t all that bad either. The driver in question is a corpse jockey named Alabaster Graves, a hearse driver who specializes in the undertaking of assignments of a dangerous and often supernatual nature. And if dangerous equals lucrative, well, so much the better. In the first 3-part miniseries, Graves must cover the distance from Shreveport to New Orleans to retrieve the remains of Mose Freeman, a renowned voodoo priest, with Freeman’s sultry and contumely granddaughter riding shotgun. What Graves doesn’t know is that he’s being pursued by a resurrectionist named Fallow – a necromancer who gets his power from stealing body parts… and for whom the corpse of Mose Freeman would be the ultimate prize. Future storylines will see Graves plying his trade across unlit roads everywhere, encountering all kinds of peril both unnatural and otherwise, and learning more about this strange calling that led him to become a driver for the dead.
Decapitated Dan: Who are the main characters?
John Heffernan: Our heroes are Alabaster Graves and his supercharged up-armored hearse named Black Betty. Together, they make up the driving force, if you will, of the story. Graves is a hardened veteran of funeral homes, mortuaries, and coroners’ offices across the Deep South, and if you’ve got a dead body that you absoutely need to get from point A to point B without it being “interfered” with somehow, Graves is your man. Graves’ current employer is one Felix Delacroix, owner and proprietor of the Delacroix Funeral Home and Mortuary, a huckster with a heart of gold who’s seen it all and done it all and probably made a buck or two doing it. Between Graves and Felix, they’re going to make sure that the restless dead make it home to their final resting places. The other main characters of the first series are Moses Freeman, an old hoodoo practitioner who’s been healing the sick and snuffing out black magic since the days of the Civil War, and his great-granddaughter Marissa, a college girl who doesn’t believe in all of this superstition and bullshit, but is about to get the kind of education that doesn’t come with a diploma. Rounding out the cast is Uriah Fallow, a necromancer who can resurrect and draw power from the recently deceased. Fallow’s been around a long time, supplanting his aging tissue with freshly-dead flesh, and he needs a new heart to keep his evil in motion. And the one currently sitting in Mose Freeman’s chest will do just fine.
Decapitated Dan: I want to take a quick sidebar and ask you this: Mose Freeman looks like Morgan Freeman. Was this the intention?
John Heffernan: Yes and no. The description that I gave Leo in the script was: “Getting out of the back of the cab is an old black man in an old brown suit. This is MOSE FREEMAN. Inspiration is Morgan Freeman by way of Nelson Mandela. He could be sixty, he could be a hundred. It’s impossible to say.” So, certainly I wanted Mose to look like Morgan Freeman, but maybe not exactly like Morgan Freeman, as he does in the book. My mistake was underestimating just how incredibly good an artist Leonardo Manco is. If I had known he could do such a dead-on portrait, I might have given the character a different name. That being said, this discussion touches on something interesting that’s going on in comics these days, and that’s the “casting” of well-known actors as characters in comics. Tommy Lee Jones as Norman Osborn in Mike Deodato’s Avengers books, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates, Simon Pegg as Wee Hughie in Darick Roberston’s The Boys. On the one hand, I can see some possible legal trouble there, sort of like the recent flap over digitally inserting the likeness of dead celebrities into vacuum cleaner commercials. On the other hand, it’s almost certainly what got Sam Jackson the Nick Fury gig in Iron Man 2 and the upcoming Avengers movie. Whether comic purists like it or not is, I guess, a matter of personal taste, but I’ll tell you what, if Driver gets made into a movie I’ll take Morgan as Mose any day.
Decapitated Dan: Where did the ideas for this story come from?
John Heffernan: I was sitting in a Denny’s around five in the morning, unable to sleep, and I came across this article in a local paper about a hearse driver who was carjacked at gunpoint. Authorities later found the hearse but they never found the “freight.” Apparently, this happens a lot, and it got me to thinking that for whatever reason, perhaps corpses are more valuable than we give them credit for. Why? Lots of potential reasons. Satanists? Necrophilia? The gold in the corpse’s teeth? Anyway, it struck me that if you had something this valuable to transport, you’d need someone you could count on to transport it, and that’s how the character was born. Beyond the mechanics of the shipment of human remains , I’ve also always been fascinated with the folklore of death and the supernatural, as well as with local history and culture and Americana, and New Orleans has all of that stuff in spades. It’s one of my favorite cities and places to visit so it just made perfect sense to set the first part of the story there, as well as to make it a kind of base of operations for Alabaster Graves.
Decapitated Dan: I love the mixing of all the different cultures. Voodoo, vampires, and witches so far, so anything else in store?
John Heffernan: Yes, indeed. In the first miniseries alone we’ll also have stock car racing, moonshine running, Middle East combat, Civil War history, angels of death and the infamous Loup Garoux.
Decapitated Dan: If you were to give this book a movie style rating (G, PG, PG-13, R, X) what would it get, and why would you say that?
John Heffernan: Well, if we were going by MPAA rules on the book the way it’s currently presented, I think I’d have to give it a hard R for violence, language, nudity, and adult situations. However, if the book was to be bought by a studio and I was commissioned to write the screenplay, I’m sure I would be compelled by the powers that be to write it as a PG-13. Not to bore anyone with the long and convoluted history of feature film demographics and the way movies are marketed, but ever since Columbine, movie studios have been very specific that genre films like this need four-quadrant earnings in order to be profitable, which means that kids have to be able to buy tickets to get in to see the show. And what that means is no sex and no foul language, but just about as much fantasy violence as you want. Welcome to America. Sorry, no naked witches.
Decapitated Dan: In terms of horror, what can we expect?
John Heffernan: Lots of good stuff. Issue #2 alone fills the gore quota of a 12-issue maxiseries, and #3 brings us home moist and dripping. And beyond just the body count, I think the next two books deliver a goodly amount of shock and suspense, which are the true hallmarks of good horror in my opinion. But it’s really all about the characters. The personalities who populate this book are bad people with bad intentions, with a history that made them that way that’s not always pretty to see. But it’s that same history that allows us to identify with their motivations and makes them great (and scary) characters.
Decapitated Dan: What are you hoping readers can take away from this book?
John Heffernan: My primary objective with everything I write is that readers will come away entertained. And if readers happen to come away with a little more knowledge or a new way of looking at things, well, that’s all gravy. But what I really want is to give people a little distraction, a little diversion, a little escape from their day-to-day. Life is hard, man. If I can give people a little break from the drudgery of their lives for a half hour or so, that’s mission accomplished for me.
Decapitated Dan: So, another thing I noticed while reading #1 was that you’re setting up for a whole lot of possible side stories. Would you say that there is a good possibility for more to come after this first mini?
John Heffernan: I certainly hope so. I’ve got lots of potential adventures in mind for Graves & Co., lots of dark, creepy backroads for Black Betty to drive down. I’ve pitched the next installment in the series to David Wohl, Radical’s Editor-In-Chief, a story that involves Graves being hired to relocate the remains of a group of Native American skinwalkers to make room for a new casino. We all know what happens when you start messing with Indian burial grounds, and one thing inevitably and horrifyingly leads to another. But as regards this story seeing the light of day, all I’ve been told is that we’re in wait-and-see mode for right now. If fan reaction to the current series continues to be as strong as it has been, I’m pretty confident we’ll see another one, but the people need to make themselves heard. If you like what we’re doing and you want some more, start posting on the fansites and blogs and lighting up Radical’s facebook page. The more we hear from you, the more likely it is that Alabaster Graves gets to keep on driving.
Decapitated Dan: How has the reaction to the book been so far?
John Heffernan: The reaction has been fantastic. Lots of great reviews, and the user comments on the messageboards have been uniformly positive. It’s very encouraging, and I thank each and every person who has taken the time to write nice things about us. I read it all, and it makes me very happy.
Decapitated Dan: Can we expect more titles from you in the future?
John Heffernan: Absolutely. Radical has already asked me to do another book for them, and I’ve been in talks with Marvel and DC, as well as some other indie publishers, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll be seeing more and more of my stuff on the stands in the comic shops sometime soon.
Decapitated Dan: Any strange or interesting stories from shows you care to share?
John Heffernan: I was in a car accident on my way to my first signing on Free Comic Book Day earlier this year. Then I was in a second accident a few months later, a pretty serious one that required emergency surgery and four titanium plates to put my smashed-up face back together. I don’t know whether these particular incidents of vehicular horror had anything to do with the storylines in Driver, but suffice to say I’ve been praying extra hard lately to St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers.
Decapitated Dan: Were you into any horror titles growing up that led you to want to create a book like this?
John Heffernan: I’ve always loved the old EC books like Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Fear, and I also love Creepy and Eerie. I think that horror comics on the whole are very smart and appeal to smart readers, and the best ones are usually twisted allegories and morality tales that really pay off at the end. Delicious little pieces of sickness and revenge. The grimy little windows into the dark parts of our souls… everybody likes to take a peek now and then.
Decapitated Dan: What comics are you currently reading?
John Heffernan: Oh, man, it’s a frickin’ laundry list. All the Superman books, all the Batman books, all the Spider-Man books, all the Avengers books, all the Ultimate stuff, anything by Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb or Kurt Busiek, Jonah Hex, The Punisher, Hellblazer, Scalped, Conan the Cimmerian, The Walking Dead, Beasts of Burden, American Vampire, the list goes on and on and on. So much great stuff out there.
Decapitated Dan: So where can readers find out more about this book?
John Heffernan: Check out Radical’s site or just do a Google search. We’ve been pretty well represented.
Decapitated Dan: So, in summary, give me a quick recap on Driver for the Dead and why fans should give it a try.
John Heffernan: It’s a fast-paced thrill ride with great artwork and a decent story that’ll hit you so hard you’ll be blowing your nose to wipe your ass. Plus, it’s 56 pages of prestige-format comic for only $4.99. Oh yeah, and there’s naked witches.
Decapitated Dan: Thanks so much for your time, John.
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