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Newsarama Interviews John Heffernan

Interview conducted by David Pepose

Who is Alabaster Graves? Why does he have bodies in his car? And who’s coming after this Driver for the Dead?

Snakes on a Plane‘s John Heffernan knows the answer, and he’s not telling. The writer has teamed up with artist Leonardo Manco and Radical Comics to tell Graves’ story with Driver for the Dead. The writer spoke with Newsarama to discuss his wheelman protagonist, the foes he faces, and just what might lead a man to drive such a unique cargo.

Newsarama: So John, how’d you wind up working with Radical on Driver for the Dead?

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 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, what happens when you absolutely, positively have to get a corpse delivered from point A to point B without it being “interfered” with somehow? You need someone who knows about these kind of things. Someone you can count on. You need a driver. A driver for the dead. That’s where the idea came from. I knew I wanted to do it as a comic, but it had to be with the right company, and Radical was that company. I’ve been a fan of Radical’s stuff for a long time. Their production value is super high. Take a walk down the rows of your local comic shop and Radical’s books just jump off the shelves at you.

Nrama: It seems like you’ve got an interesting guy behind the wheel on this book — namely Alabaster Graves. What can you tell us about this guy?

Heffernan: Alabaster Graves is a hearse driver, but he’s not your average corpse jockey. As a veteran of funeral homes, mortuaries, and coroners’ offices across the deep South, he’s chauffeured hundreds of bodies to their final resting places… although the trip isn’t always so restful. Graves is a specialty driver, one who’s called in for the more unusual assignments that come down the pike, and if unusual equals dangerous, well, that’s just a job that pays more. But spending your life driving dead bodies around doesn’t come without a price. Graves is a tortured soul, haunted by dreams that he doesn’t understand but form the basis of his calling. As he makes his way farther and farther down the murky road that runs along the edge of the underworld, more and more is revealed about the finer points of his grim vocation.

Nrama: Now, it sounds like you’ve got a cool tone with this book — are there any influences that have really helped you shape Driver for the Dead?

Heffernan: I’m influenced and inspired by anything that effectively mixes action and horror. It’s a great effect, that rum-and-coke mix of guns and gore, that shock-and-splatter TNT. Movies like The Evil Dead and The Omega Man have it in spades. Grindhouse meets Slasher meets Tarantino/Roth/Rodriguez. Badass shit that pulls no punches. I love it all, and comics is a great medium for it. But apart from the high body count, I’m also very interested in giving the reader an intimate relationship with the narrator. The best part about writing comics is that you can really get inside the head of a character and let the audience know what your protagonist is thinking. This is a hallmark of film noir, this hard-boiled working-stiff first-person narration, and I think the best example of it from a supernatural standpoint was in the classic 1970s TV show, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Driver for the Dead uses the same technique.

Nrama: Driving the dead sounds like a heck of a gig — what’s the job description there? Are there any wrinkles in this operation?

Heffernan: Well, it ain’t all shuttling little old ladies to grassy little plots at Forest Lawn cemetery. One of the book’s main conceits is that funeral homes don’t just do things like burials and embalmings; they’re also the people that the cops and coroners call when they need tainted corpses put in the ground before certain transformations set in. Alabaster Graves’ current employer is one Felix Delacroix, owner and proprietor of the Delacroix Funeral Home and Mortuary. He’s 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. Together with Felix and Black Betty, Graves’ supercharged armored hearse, our hero is going to get his bodies buried come Hell or high water—which in New Orleans are both practically a nightly occurrence.

Nrama: Seems like Alabaster’s got someone in hot pursuit — namely, the necromancer Fallow. Can you tell us a little bit about this guy, and what sorts of powers does he have at his disposal?

Heffernan: Uriah Fallow is a bad man. He’s sort of part ghoul, part vampire; a practitioner of the Dark Arts who extends his life by supplanting his own aging flesh with fresh tissue. His favorite victims are those gifted with certain attributes; psychics, prophets, seers. If Fallow comes across a clairvoyant, for example, he’ll pluck out the guy’s eyes and transplant them into his own eye sockets, stealing his power of second sight. He’s also a resurrectionist who can call the recently deceased back to life and bind them to his will to do his bidding. One of the cooler things about Fallow is his appearance; he’s a walking patchwork quilt of his victims’ stitched-together skin, which means his flesh is pockmarked with old tattoos and scars and piercings. All of which was great fun to draw for the book’s artist, the inimitable Leonardo Manco.

Nrama: Let’s talk about Leonardo Manco a bit — what’s the back and forth between you two? Have there been any moments that he’s really knocked it out of the park?

Heffernan: Leo is the best. He’s a consummate professional and his work speaks for itself. His stuff looks great when painted by the books’ colorists, Kinsuhn Loh and Jerry Choo, but I really hope we can feature Leo’s original black-and-white pencil-and-inks in the TPB collection because they just look awesome. His speed and efficiency is also amazing to me. I can submit five pages of raw script on Friday night and he’ll give me five fully drawn pages on Monday morning. I very, very rarely have any notes on his work; in fact, nine times out of ten he’ll take a raw, barely formed concept that I just kind of throw out there and then he’ll flesh it out and make it so much better than I could have originally imagined. And if I do request a change or a tweak, he’ll have the panels turned around overnight. But what’s most striking about the artistic relationship that he and I share is how much on the same page we are despite the fact that I’m American and he’s from Argentina, and English isn’t even his first language. It’s just that same shared popular culture, that same artistic point of reference we have, that’s further evidence of the ever more connected global community. My favorite stuff from Leo so far is the presentation of Alabaster Graves’ origin story that we’ll see in issue #2. It depicts Graves’ baptism by fire on the front lines of combat in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are so different in tone and feel than the dark, sultry tones of the moonlit bayous of Louisiana, and yet Leo captured them both so perfectly.

Nrama: Finally, for those who still aren’t sure about Driver for the Dead, what would you tell them to get them on board? Any moments you’re excited to see hit the page?

Heffernan: Step outside your comfort zone. Pony up the five bucks and try something different than the capes and spandex stuff. You’ll be happy you did. And if you don’t like my book, come and find me, and I will refund your money. If you can defeat me in single combat in my backyard Thunderdome. Nah, I’m just kiddin’. Maybe.

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DriverfortheDead_2_cover_Manco.jpg

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