Nominated for the 2010 Eisner Awards, The Guns of Shadow Valley looks straight at comic-book conventions with one eye and back toward those of the Western with the other. Though this may sound disorienting and kind of painful, it’s not too much to ask of such an infinitely inventive medium. And while it’s one thing to translate a Western theme into a modern comic book, it’s quite another to do it by still relatively experimental online means, both in production and distribution. It’s another still to go on to score a chance at winning what are widely considered the “Oscars of comics.”
The series is, at its core, the cross-country creation of writer James Andrew Clark and illustrator/cowriter David Wachter and . Having originally met on the Internet, Clark (from Santa Barbara) and Wachter (from Pittsburg) began using it to collaborate on a more traditional superhero comic project called Scar Tissue. “We were itching to do something else,” Clark recalled, “something that would allow us to leverage what we’d learned making Scar Tissue while reaching a bigger audience. Dave had this idea of a Western crossed with superheroes, The Magnificent Seven meets the Justice League. The more we talked about it, the more excited we got.”
Given the larger-than-lifeness of both superheroes and the outlaws who loomed over the Old West, the characters were the first element to create. “We’d already done a superhero comic, so we felt we had that ground pretty much covered,” Clark wrote. “As for the Western genre, we took a lot of inspiration from movies we loved like The Searchers, Shane, The Wild Bunch, and, of course, the ‘spaghetti Westerns.’ We wanted it to look and feel like a classic John Ford film.”
But how to achieve such vibrant texture? The duo’s first instinct was to repeat but modify their Scar Tissue method, hybridizing the superhero and Western sensibilities. “Our initial idea was to do another self-published book, this time printed in landscape format like a panoramic, wide-screen cinematic experience on paper,” explained Clark. “Then we realized we could accomplish the same thing by doing it as a webcomic, which also gives us the advantage of producing it cheaper while making it immediately available to the audience.”
Whether on the printed page or the computer monitor, the priority was to craft as evocative and dramatic a visual experience as that of the most iconic Western film. “I don’t have to write tons of exposition to show a character feels a certain emotion when Dave can show us through the facial expression and body language,” Clark explained. “The character can speak volumes with a subtle look, much like the way a good actor can. Plus, Dave can draw things that just look cool.”
The project’s unique challenges and rich inspirational roots have prompted Clark and Wachter’s teamwork to adapt and improve. “I can write a panel with the simple direction that riders ‘are coming up fast, their horses running at full speed,’ and Dave will turn that into a brilliant shot looking up from the ground under the horses’ hooves that creates all sorts of dramatic tension,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of drawing it from that perspective.” And given the unprecedentedly low cost of connectivity, these two can afford perfectionism. “Sometimes,” Clark admitted, “we’ll spend an entire day debating a single word of dialog.”
Plus, in cinematic comics, vast artistic benefits can be realized without actual cinema’s pricey hassles. “I think The Guns of Shadow Valley would actually make a fantastic movie,” wrote Clark, “but not everyone has the luxury to make big-budget movies. Dave and I aren’t in a position to bankroll the film we’d want to make. With comics, we can make a visually dramatic statement with very little money in a short amount of time. There are things we can do that we couldn’t achieve in a film without expensive CGI. We can be more unorthodox, take more risks, experiment more, and we don’t have to worry about pleasing producers or focus groups.”
As it is, the comic book world seems pretty pleased. The Guns of Shadow Valley is up for an Eisner as best digital comic, which will be awarded at Comic-Con in San Diego on July 23.
The Guns of Shadow Valley is available to read at gunsofshadowvalley.com.