Interview by Tim Mass Movement
Every now and then, you stumble across a book, whether by design or accident, that you instantly fall in love with. ‘Driver for the Dead’ is one of those books. I mean, c’mon, what’s not to love? Muscle cars, monsters, voodoo, mythology, high octane thrills and a tough-as-coffin-nails bad ass hero. The book could have been written with me in mind, I’m its target demographic, and as I’m just another member of the global ensemble of metal-loving-V8-worshipping-monsters-and-all-kinds-of-nasty- things-that-lurk-under-the-bed, if I was asked I’d have to say that ‘Driver…’, was about to break big. Really big. Try it, I swear it’s seriously good. Hell, don’t take my word for it, here’s the man behind ‘Driver…’ , John Heffernan, to tell you all about it…
MM: Right, let’s start at the beginning. Time to both introduce and tell us a little about yourself John…
John: I am not a bum. I’m a jerk. I once had wealth, power, and the love of a beautiful woman. Now I only have two things: my friends and… uh… my thermos. My story? Okay. It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi… OK, that’s not entirely accurate. Those are in fact the opening lines to a classic Steve Martin movie. I was actually born in Connecticut. All the rest, though, is true. I work as a writer, mainly a screenwriter, although lately I’ve been trying my hand at comics, and it’s been working out pretty well so far.
MM: Before we move on to ‘Driver for the Dead,’ I was kinda curious about what drew you to, and continues to draw you to, the word of comics? Do you think that the four colour world is an addictive literary genre? A habit that’s impossible to break, and once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life? If so, why?
John: Whoa, whoa, hold up. There’s four colors now? I thought there were only three. When the hell did they add a fourth color, and why wasn’t I notified? Jesus, this changes everything. No wonder my printer hasn’t been working right. Kidding. I’ve been a comic book fan since I was about six years old. Back then there was no internet and I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV, so that kind of limited my options for good old fashioned prurient entertainment. But comics cost only 50 cents at the time. So I would mow my grandmother’s lawn for two bucks on weekends and then I would walk to the local convenience store and spend 50 cents on a comic book and 50 cents on Twinkies and then go back home to my room and read comics and eat Twinkies. I liked ‘em all, probably Batman the most, although I do remember enjoying the early days of the brand-new Firestorm. I started becoming a “serious” comics reader in high school after comics kind of matured in 1986 with books like Dark Knight and Crisis and Watchmen, and my tastes matured along with them.
I’ve been reading and collecting comics ever since. And now I’m writing them. Which is cool. At least to me. But yeah, comics are addictive. I don’t know if once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life. I’ve known a lot of people who just stopped reading comics one day. They always say they “grew out of” reading comics, but that’s not really true, I don’t think. I think they just didn’t mature within the medium. Comics are not just superhero stories, not by any means, even though the capes perennially dominate the sales charts. There are comics out there that can and should be regarded at the same literary level as other genres of great literature are regarded. There are comics that have won the Pulitzer Prize. Can anyone honestly say that they just “grew out of” reading regular, non-illustrated books? No. The same holds true for books of a more graphic nature.
As to the why of some people do become hooked on comics for life (like me), that question’s a little harder to answer. There’s lot of reasons, I think, and it’s probably a little different for everyone. I think that first and foremost comics are a form of diversion and entertainment, like movies or video games or television, or even regular books for that matter. But more importantly, especially as regards the addiction question, comics are a form of escapist entertainment. And that’s what most addiction centers around, I think: a desire to escape the harshness and boredom of reality. You can get addicted to anything that makes you feel good or gives you a spot of relief, even if just for a little while. And reading comics makes me feel very good indeed. Beyond that, I think some people are just more appreciative of the genre. They like the art, they like the writing. They like the stories. They get involved with the characters and their worlds, and for the characters published by the larger companies, their entire universes. It’s hard to just turn your back on that and unplug from it entirely.
MM: So, ‘Driver for the Dead.’ How would you explain the set-up and the story to someone who was unfamiliar with the book? As the concept is a little unusual, but at the same time is thoroughly engrossing and bloody marvellous, I wondered where the initial idea for ‘Driver…’ came from? How do you dream up something like that…?
John: I’m a terrible insomniac. I can’t sleep at all without medication. So I actually get a lot of my ideas from just driving around aimlessly at night. I was sitting in a Denny’s restaurant 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.” I did a little web research into hearsejacking and body snatching and found that apparently this kind of thing happens more frequently than most people might realize. 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? Necrophiliacs? 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? You need someone who knows about these kinds of things. Someone you can count on. You need a driver. A Driver for the Dead. From that concept, the story and the characters were born.
The action centers around a hearse driver named Alabaster Graves. He’s a specialty driver, one who’s been around the moonlit block a few times and knows that there’s more to the business of death than the undertaking profession might allow the public to believe. When something… unnatural… goes down, and you’ve gotta get a body in the ground and time is of the essence, that’s when you call Graves. In our initial story, we present the case of an old hoodoo witch doctor named Moses Freeman who dies performing his rites. Mose knows that there’s a lot of bad folks in the bayou who’d love to get their hands on his black-magic infused bones before they’re laid to rest, so before he dies he hires Graves to make sure his body gets to hallowed ground before it can be harvested. To get the job done, Graves has to make a midnight run across Louisiana with Mose’s body in tow and Mose’s great-granddaughter riding shotgun, pursued all the while by a necromancer named Fallow who sustains himself by transplanting his own aging tissue with a steady supply of fresh flesh …and for whom the heart of Mose Freeman would be the ultimate prize. Beyond the high concept, the story deals with the existential (deathistential?) journey of the protagonist. Graves drives a hearse for a living, but he’s not your average corpse jockey. And it’s no accident that he does what he does for a paycheck. It’s almost like he has a vocation to get bodies to their final resting place… although the trip isn’t always so restful. All his life has been lived in the shadow of death, but why? Who set him off down this dark two-lane highway? What higher, or lower, purpose is he serving? And why is he so damn good at his job? Besides sharing the story of Graves and the moonlit road of the soul that he drives, I also had a desire to tell a tale based in the cultural traditions of the Cajun and Creole mysticism of the American deep south. All that stuff is alive and well in New Orleans and its history and heritage, and that was the supernatural sandbox that I wanted to play in.
MM: I wanted to ask you about Alabaster Graves… Given the nature of his job, and the way that it’s shaped his character, I was curious about how you viewed his role in ‘Driver…’. Do you seem him as the traditional hero, a reluctant hero or an anti-hero in, say, the same kind of vein as John Constantine? Why? What, in your opinion, defines a hero and heroics?
John: Webster’s defines a hero as the following:
he•ro noun, plural -roes;
1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. 2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child. 3. the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc. 4. Classical Mythology. a. a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity. b. (in the Homeric period) a warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability. c. (in later antiquity) an immortal being; demigod.
If we’re going by that definition, I’d say Graves fits 1, 2, 3, and even in some ways 4. So definitely a hero. But what kind of hero, that’s a little harder to say. A traditional hero? Traditional in what sense? He’s not Superman or Captain America or one of these squeaky clean guys. He’s definitely not afraid to get his hands dirty. So, a reluctant hero? Maybe that’s a little closer, but still not exactly quite right. He’s not really reluctant to do anything that requires courage or bravery or self-sacrifice; those are all character traits he possesses in spades. The only thing he’s really reluctant to do is ride with Marissa. And to maybe admit his inner nature to himself, and the fact that there might be such a thing as destiny. So perhaps a little reluctant.
An Anti-hero, then? Well, for that we need to go back to Webster’s:
an•ti•he•ro [an-tee-heer-oh] noun, plural -roes.
a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.
Nobility of mind and spirit? Graves is pretty noble, I’d say. Life or attitude marked by ac- tion? We’ve got plenty of that. But purpose..? Now we’re getting somewhere. Purpose is what Graves is lacking most and is really what defines his character arc. Graves is haunted and distracted by this lack of purpose, or more accurately, a lack of understanding of the purpose that drives him. He feels compelled to do certain things but doesn’t know why he’s doing them. So his journey of discovery is finding out his purpose in life… and in death. For the record, when I think anti-hero, I think Clint Eastwood. Whether it’s The Man With No Name or Dirty Harry, this is a guy who exemplifies antiheroics. The Man is a stone-cold killer who’s out for the money, and the only reason we like him is because he’s the tiniest bit morally superior to the other characters he shares the screen with, like, for example, Angel Eyes and Tuco (who represent the latter two-thirds of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). That, and the fact that he’s such a cool fucking badass. Dirty Harry routinely breaks the law to enforce the law, and seems to take pleasure in doing it, but the justification here is that the law is portrayed as being either too narrow or inept to combat the greater evil, so we need a guy like Harry Callahan around to take out the garbage. That’s why he’s called Dirty Harry. ‘Cause all the shit jobs go to him. Another anti-hero that comes to mind is Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction. His speech at the end to Ringo: “The truth is, you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” Pretty much says it all. And we can go even further down the sliding scale to Frank Castle to Dexter Morgan to Hannibal Lecter. I love anti-heroes. But I think Graves is a lot “better” than any of these guys, really, at least from a moral standpoint. He’s just a little rough around the edges.
John: They’re fun to look at, and the ones you want most cost a lot of money.
MM: And sort of sticking with the intentional thing, ‘Driver…’ has an almost noir, or Chandleresque, feel to it, as he works in a world where he is the law, a world that terrifies the police… Did you always see Graves as this noir character, standing on the precipice between our world and the world of the things that go bump in the night, or was that just the way he developed as the story started coming to life…?
John: That’s a very astute perception. A lot of the noir feel comes from the voiceover, which in literary detective fiction by the likes Raymond Chandler and Dash Hammett was often written in the first person, and was maintained in the film adaptation through the cinematic technique of the voiceover. Comics have sort of co-opted this technique in the proliferation of caption boxes, which have all-but-replaced the once ubiquitous thought balloon. So a lot of comics, if you think about it, already have a kind of noir thing going. Throw in a detective angle and you’ve really got Sam Spade in spandex, and his name, of course is Bruce Wayne. But Alabaster Graves has a lot of that going on too. And yes, it was intentional. I mean, he’s a guy who works alone, mostly at night, with the denizens of a creepy and squalid and sinister underworld that the cops would just as soon leave alone and regular people don’t often encounter… until they have to. The story has other film noir conventions, too, like the troubled introspective protagonist, the rich cultured girl who hires the scruffy private eye, and of course the dark and moody look to the whole affair. Noir, after all, means black.
MM: The setting of ‘Driver…’, New Orleans, is almost as important as the story itself, given the [city's] rich voodoo and magical history. Would, do you think, ‘Driver’ have worked as well if you’d set it anywhere else? Was, and is, setting ‘Driver for the Dead’ in the Big [Easy], crucial to the book? Why?
John: New Orleans is one of the most unique and magical places in the world. It has a history and energy like no other city. Due to its geographical location, it’s been a crossroads of many different cultures from all over the world and it retains a taste of all of them. In the past few hundred years, it’s been home to Native American, African American, Dutch, Spanish, French, and modern American residents. It’s endured hurricanes, civil wars, oil spills, pirates, naval battles, plagues, and fires.
It’s violent. It’s sexy. It’s haunted. It has streetcars. It has jazz funerals. It has above- ground cemeteries. It has its own food, its own music, its own language. It’s gothic and creepy and humid and sultry and I can think of no better place to set a story like this one. A lot of the presence of the voodoo and hoodoo stuff in the book originates from this New Orleans setting, and from the larger backdrop of Louisiana. The history of that location and the people who live there is inexorably tied to the cultural traditions of black magic and sorcery that came over on slave ships from West Africa and found a home in the New World. Like the people who practiced it, those cultural traditions became an integral part of America and Americana and continue to resonate to this day. So if you’re going to tell a supernatural story about death and dying in New Orleans, you’re going to have to incorporate voodoo and hoodoo in some way. I wanted to incorporate it in as big a way possible, to go beyond the Hollywood clichés of voodoo dolls and zombies and explore the origins of the traditions of black magic in the deep south and how it affected everything in that region from race relations to family dynamics to civil war history and even to modern day funerary practices.
MM: You touch on mythology in the book via Graves’ recurring dream, which casts him as the boatman, drawing on the ancient role of Charon and invoking the spirit of the Valkyrie, etc. – does this mean that there are other Drivers out there, and that they adapt their roles to their surroundings, in Graves’ case using a V8 rather than oars? Is it maybe something that you’ll explore in further volumes?
John: That would be telling! But yeah, you’re definitely on to something. It’s very important to me to keep the mystical elements of Driver for the Dead grounded in a kind of cultural reality that can feed and shape the story and its characters. It’s also fun for me as a writer to do research into the folklore of different cultural groups, as every ethnic identity has some form of death mythology that influences its culture, and the more you learn and the deeper you go into that folklore, the more connections you find between the people, places and things that make up the history of not only that culture, but also the key figures in other cultures around the world. So wherever Alabaster Graves’ adventures take him, the monsters he’ll face and the forces he contends with will be influenced by that particular location and the myths and lore and legends that surround it. So is it possible that there are other Drivers out there who represent different cultures and nationalities and ethnicities, who look and talk a little different than Graves but are every bit as hard and badass? Maybe. You’ll have to wait and see. But here’s a hint: the British Driver is The Stig.
MM: Following on from the last question… I’m assuming that there will be other volumes? It isn’t over for Graves yet, is it? What, if anything, do you have planned for him..?
John: Stay tuned! All I can tell you is that there are indeed many adventures that exist for Graves already mapped out and etched into the thick walls of my skull. These adventures may or may not include Skinwalkers, The Gates of Guinee, Baron Samedi, Hellhounds, a Ghost Dog, and an upgrade for Black Betty that comes in the form of “Supernatural Horsepower.”
MM: The artwork in ‘Driver’ is absolutely incredible, and gives the book an almost visual feel, almost like you’re watching a movie via the stills… Have you thought about maybe optioning the book for a movie deal? If so, how would you like to see it filmed and brought to life on the silver screen?
John: The art is great, isn’t it? And it’s all thanks to Leonardo Manco, digital painter Kinsun Loh, and please, let’s not forget the absolutely awesome letterer, Todd Klein, who won an Eisner for his work on this book. But the cinematic style is Leo’s deal. His panels and pages have a dynamic momentum to them that is indeed like watching a movie. I’ve been a big fan of his since his runs on Hellblazer and War Machine, and his greatness continues in Damaged. He draws great guns and cars and monsters, and really what the hell more can you ask for? He’s also incredibly fast and efficient.
It’s like Christmas morning when you open your inbox and you’re expecting maybe a page or two and there’s five or six fully inked pages inside. But the best part of working with Leo is how intuitive he is. It’s always amazing to me when I’m trying to get an idea for a visual across and I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of explaining it but then Leo will come back with an image that is not only exactly what I was picturing in my mind but also so much better. It’s even more amazing when you consider the fact that he lives in Argentina and English isn’t even his first language. All I can say is that we’re very much on the same multi-panelled page. I will also add here that the process has been greatly facilitated by our editor, Renae Geerlings. Renae really loves and believes in the book and has a terrific eye for detail. If something’s not working she’ll fix it instantly. In fact, after having such a smooth experience on this title, I’m a little worried about working on other books in the future. Having a great editor and a great artist is a pretty damned good way to get spoiled. As far as the film adaption goes, the project is currently in development with Radical and Mark Gordon (Speed, Source Code, Saving Private Ryan) producing and with the fantastic Ricardo de Montreuil (The Raven, Mancora) on board as director. Ricardo has some very cool ideas about how to make the movie version of Driver for the Dead as dark and scary and moody as the comic, while still every bit as much the action- packed thrill ride.
MM: Talking of films, you wrote the script for ‘Snakes On A Plane’ as well right? How does the writing for the movies compare to writing for comics? Any similarities, or are they polar opposites? Why?
John: Night and day, man. Night and day. Similarities: they both involve words. Differences: as varied as the fish in the sea. First off, in screenwriting there’s a very established format that you have to stick to. It is so established, in fact, that it has its own word processing software, Final Draft, which is the industry-standard application that most screenwriters use. The idea behind this format derives from an old formula that movie producers used to use to figure budgets, in which one page of screenplay equalled roughly one minute of screentime. That is no longer in the case in the world that I like to think of as reality, but it is still very much true in the minds of studio executives, and still kind of works as a general rule of thumb I suppose. In comics, there is no such application. You can write as much or as little as you want. You can write panel descriptions that go on for pages and pages, like Alan Moore does. Or you can keep it short and snappy, as I think is the modern preference (although I don’t know too many artists who would pass up the chance to work with Alan Moore). But really, it’s up to you. You will hear that phrase, “it’s up to you,” quite often as a comic book writer. I think the last time I heard it in a film production office was in 2002, and the person who said it might not have even been talking to me. In fact, looking back, I think it was a daydream. But for a comic book writer, the world is your oyster. Still, I like to keep it simple, so my process is pretty straightforward. When I sit down to write a comic like Driver for the Dead, first I’ll do a little research into the lore of the story’s monsters and magic and the history of the settings and locations, which in turn inevitably generates more story ideas and also helps to provide visual references for the artist later in the process. Then I like to flesh things out with a detailed treatment that outlines the story and characters and the forces that motivate them—usually a 15-20 page piece of dense black text that forms the spine of the story and lays down the plot and direction and tone and flavor of what the script is going to be. From there, I’ll start writing the actual script, which I do in Microsoft Word. You might think that, being a screenwriter, I’d use a screenwriting program like Final Draft, but I don’t. I know that some comic writers like Brian Bendis and Steve Niles use Final Draft, and I can see how it could have its advantages, especially for a really dialogue-heavy guy like Bendis. But I actually find it a little confining when trying to do certain things like captions and panel prompts and art direction that are unique to comics, so I just use Word. I’ve got my own style and it works OK I think; pretty basic, pretty easy for an artist to follow. I try to read as many comic scripts as I can to see how different authors work, to see what techniques are being used and which ones are the most useful. Comicbookscriptarchive.com is a great resource for this, by the way. I like reading comic scripts from my favorite authors; guys whom I really respect, like Garth Ennis and Kurt Busiek and Mark Millar. I’ll read their stuff and see what they’re doing formatically and sometimes I’ll try to incorporate some of their styles into my own. But really it’s just all about communicating your vision to the artist, making your idea for a scene or sequence clear and then giving him or her enough space to take your little mental visual sketch and run with it, to shape it and expand on it and make it better than you ever originally conceived in your own limited imagination.
The most challenging aspect of writing this comic for me was also the thing that was most rewarding, and that was the art direction. Figuring out how the panels are laid out, and what’s happening in each of those panels visually. As a screen- writer, this kind of “directing on the page” is frowned upon; a screenwriter should only concern him or herself with the story and characterization and nothing more. But for a comic book writer it’s just the opposite. The artist relies on the writer to provide a kind of textual blueprint as to what’s happening visually in each panel—the point- of-view, the camera angle, the close-up, the pull-back- to-reveal. And not only that, but how many panels are on the page, and how big they are and in what order. And is the story communicated better with a big full-page splash or four wordless panels or seven panels of talking heads filled with dialogue balloons? Or something completely new and different? These are the decisions that the comic book writer faces, made more difficult by the fact that there’s no standard format for comic book writing as there is for screenplay writing; every writer does it a little bit differently. I was greatly assisted by something I read by Jack Kirby, who advised comic book artists to remember that a comic book page, although bearing some resemblance to a TV or movie screen, is not, in fact, a TV or movie screen. It’s a page. Once I grasped that concept and started thinking about it in that way, it got a little easier. Of course, I also had a very patient and intuitive artist in Leonardo Manco who [could] not only completely understand what I was trying to communicate, but also make it so much better.
MM: Sticking with the movies for a while…. What’s this we hear about your Die Hard On A Spaceship project? Anything you can tell us about that? Are there any other movie ideas or pitches and scripts that you have out there that you can talk about?
John: Die Hard On A Spaceship is the tongue-in-cheek logline for a script called Abducted that I recently sold to Paramount, with Disruption and Benderspink producing. It’s a big, fun sci-fi/action movie about a down-on-his-luck construction worker who gets stranded when his truck breaks down in the middle of the desert… and then he gets kidnapped by alien slavers. Luckily, he manages to break free from his captors, but now he’s stuck in the bowels of this massive ship orbiting the Earth, and there’s no way to get home… or is there? I also have another sci-fi actioner that I’m working on with Imagine and Blacklight workingly titled Time Travel Mutiny. And then there’s a TV project that I’m talking to some people about called Point of Entry, which is kind of like The Shield on the U.S./Mexico border.
MM: I know that, musically, you love metal, John, and having talked about this with a few other comic book writers (such as Arvid Nelson), why do you think writers and comic book writers seem to have an affinity for, or are drawn toward, metal and the harder side of the musical spectrum?
John: That’s an interesting question. I think writers and especially comic book writers are attracted to metal for a few reasons: first, the music is loud and hard and raw and powerful. It has an energy to it that makes it enticing to people who are sensitive to that kind of thing, and I think the experience of reading an action-packed comic has that same kind of energy. Also, metal has an intrinsic fantasy element to it, as evidenced by the websites and videos and album cover art of many metal bands. One of my favorite bands of all time is Iron Maiden, and they’re a perfect example. Their album covers all feature their ghoulish mascot Eddie, who is at various times a serial killer, a soldier, a cyborg, a samurai, a fighter pilot, a pharaoh… all characters one might encounter in the pages of a comic book. So there’s a lot of crossover appeal there. And let’s not overlook the obvious. Writers are, for the most part, a lonely, misunderstood, antisocial and anti-establishment group. So are metalheads. Both groups feel powerless, disconnected, and angry, and they get to experience a sense of community and a feeling of relief when rocking at a metal show or attending a comic convention. In both settings, we are among our people. We are not alone. And together, we are powerful. Our numbers are legion.
MM: So, what’s next for you, John?
MM: If there’s anything that you’d like to add, speak now or forever hold your peace…?
John: Thanks so much for giving me the chance to share my thoughts with your readers. And if you’d like to see more of my work and keep up with my breaking news and coming attractions, please visit my pages at www.driverforthedead.com and www.dysgraphicpictures.com. And Drive Like Hell, everybody!
Click the cover image to the left go to MassMovement.co.uk, where you can find Mass Movement Magazine #31, in which this interview first appeared. Click here to learn more about Driver for the Dead.