Today, Dark Horse announce from Emerald City Comic Con a new creator-owned work from a concept by Joe Lansdale (Batman TAS) and written by Mark Miller for an October release date: Steam Man. It’s a crazy wild-west premise with some beautiful art by Piotr Kolwaski that blends multiple genres. The Old West (but not as we know it): Giant robots that run on steam power are created to take down invading Martians and armies of killer albino apes in an all-out brawl. The Steam Man, a giant metal man operated by a team of monster hunters, seems to have the town protected and the West under control, until a crazed and powerful vampire comes to town to bring forth the apocalypse.
Bloody-Disgusting got the chance to sit down with Joe and Mark to talk about this kitchen sink approach to writing horror, and what it’s like to bring more depth to the archetypes we all know and love.
Bloody-Disgusting: Joe, I’m sure there are a number of readers who either know you by now or know of the general path you’ve taken. Writer on Batman TAS to an accomplished novelist. Can you tell me a bit about how that road has taken you to The Steam Man? In what way is partnering with Dark Horse for “The Steam Man” a fulfillment of the new phase for you?
Joe Lansdale: This story is an older story. I’ve been doing comics for a long time. It’s been reprinted several times, and it was in a magazine called Steam Punk I never considered this story steam punk, I just wrote a story. I had no idea that’s what it was. But it was based on a lot of the dime novels that I’d read. In the early part of 20th century there was these dime novels. In those there were science fiction stories that were very steam oriented. People actually built a steam man, and that impressed people so much that writers began writing about the use of steam. There’s even a story where a villain is chasing Jesse James with steam driven horses. So all of that was there in my background, through all my research, and the things I’ve read. So one day I got the idea for this story and I thought, “Lets just see how outrageous we can make it.” Can we alternate universes, or collapsing universes? And let’s just take some known characters from fiction and see what we can throw together. Now we have the story adapted by Mark [Miller], for the world of comics.
BD: Your previous comics projects have been characterized by a love for the west. I get the feeling that “The Steam Man” is born out of some of the same interests, but what can you tell me about the series on the whole, and how does it deviate from what readers of your previous work might expect?
JL: Well if they thought some of the other stuff was weird that was just a warm up. This is a very strange story; in fact we had to restrain some of it to make it work the comic form. And it works beautifully. Not only is writing great, the art is great, and I think what they’re gonna look for and what they’re gonna see is something unique and something powerful. I think it works in the tradition I’ve already established a mixture of genres.
BD: Yeah I wanted ask you a little bit about your writing style, it’s often a kitchen sink approach, how do you tackle writing a project like this?
JL: Well I don’t think the voice is kitchen sink, but the ideas are. The earliest influences on me were comic books. Comic books always mixed things, they always had the kitchen sink approach. There would be mystery, science fiction, and morality lessons. It was everything mixed together. Batman used to use the fantasy idea of a time machine and go back to the old west to solve a crime. A lot of the characters at DC, and Marvel and a lot of the comics that came later use those devices and mixed those ideas naturally. So that impacted me greatly so as I moved into writing more fiction, and a cross hatch of literature, they went into a blender and when they came out they came out this natural mixture. I never sit down and think I’m going to mix western and science fiction; I just naturally gravitate toward that mixture. Even straight crime stories I write have a horrific feel.
BD: On the story side, this series is taking that manga idea of a giant monster-fighting robot to North America. How does a concept like that help push this story out from a sci-fi western on its own and into the world of crazy genre entertainment?
JL: This just naturally happens. I don’t plot; I don’t sit down and figure out what happens next. In fact I never know from day to day. My subconscious must. I go to bed at night. I get up in the morning and the story is there. I only work about 3 hours a day. I try to always end with a little juice left. So when I pick up where I left off I’ll sort my own problems out. Very rarely do I ever get stymied. It happens, but it doesn’t last long.
The idea comes from the steam man of the prairies. I took the concept and developed it in my way, but of the many influences manga didn’t play a part. All kinds of science fiction, like covers by Frank R Paul combined with the dime novel drawings of the steam man and the things that were written about using steam as our main power. Then of course other technology came along.
BD: The cover of the book is sharp and, I think, establishes an aesthetic for the series. What is the Wild West to you in general, and how does that idea bleed into the look and feel of “The Steam Man”?
JL: The Wild West to me is the idea of having that mythological place you can go that is always expanding west. That Turner idea of always expanding west, its not only mythological, I think it’s a human need. I think especially us Americans I think we’ve always had this longing to expand. I know when you get past the physical expansion you have the interior expansion of the imagination. A lot of writers are having their own expansion mentally. Then there’s the idea that we’ll go to other planets. We’re always trying to go somewhere new either internally or externally, and this is just an extension of that. But mostly it’s to me a hot-wired interesting, at least I hope, story.
Mark Miller: The Wild West, to me, is a great vast landscape of mythological projection. It’s the metaphor people use when they talk about anything that’s unhinged or untamed. Much like “Hitler” is the go-to example of as bad a person can get, the idea of The Wild West as a time of lawlessness and mayhem can be applied to subjects as diverse as the internet to retail. There isn’t really anything else in our consciousness quite like it. And the book very much partakes of that notion; there isn’t anything like it. It’s completely unhinged. The source material, Joe’s original short story The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down did that in spades. So my job was simply to lasso that spirit and adapt it for the illustrated page.
BD: This series is taking the obsession with steam and embodying it in a living weapon. How does steam power change the world of “The Steam Man” and what does it do for the your characters?
MM: Something happens early on in the story that I won’t give away. But it blows the doors off of reality as we know it. From there on out, everything in the world is different. It changes the fabric of our characters’ lives and that’s where we find them; after this event, their lives forever altered. So they harness this power and, with it, try to affect some change in the world and in their own lives.
BD: The Steam Man, obviously drives everything that happens in his series. What about its personality helps to give the comic its identity?
MM: Steam Man is the creation of his maker: Captain Beedle. It’s Beedle’s drive, industriousness, and tenacity that inform Steam Man’s personality. Beedle won’t back down. He’s on the trail of some very bad customers and that he refuses to lose sight of, sometimes against his better judgment. Steam Man goes headlong into battle, often to his own detriment, but he will never back down.
BD: The Steam Man is operated by a team of monster hunters, in what ways do you want to flesh out their archetypes to make them real people with stakes in this story?
MM: The story is rooted in classic literature. There are a lot of references people are going to recognize. There are some that will only be caught by a few. But Joe drew the characters from deep wells, so the flesh was already on them. These are men with unique voices, appearances, and backgrounds. Each has as story to tell. Maybe we’ll get to tell those stories eventually. But they’re all fascinating men who, were it not for the new world order, would not necessarily be drawn together the way that they were.
BD: A big part of establishing the unique feel comes from your collaborators. What does working with Piotr Kowalski do in terms of establishing the world of “The Steam Man?”
MM: Piotr is a dream collaborator. Here’s a guy with so much talent it’s insane. I worked with him before on the Nightbreed comic and fell in love with his style there. So when the chance to work together again came up, it was a no-brainer. I wrote the scripts and handed them in, and then started to get these notes from Piotr about logistics and dimensions and layout and just about everything a writer could ask for when being teamed with a visual artist such as Piotr. I’m not that detail-oritented of a guy, which can be a challenge in comics. And I can say with 100% confidence that the comic book is better for having Piotr attached. Any time he had an idea or made a suggestion, it was always an improvement on what I had done. Joe’s story was all there. I translated it for the comic page. And then Piotr went in and did his thing which blew all of us away. The book is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I wish every collaboration was this much fun!