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Caryn A. Tate: The Vastness of the West

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Caryn A. Tate has been producing her remarkable online comic Red Plains for several years now. Red Plains is a unique online comic because it uses traditional comics storytelling to tell a complex and interesting story about the Old West. Recently I had the chance to talk with Caryn about her series, her influences, and her passion for the West. And Caryn was kind enough to include her list of Top Ten Westerns for us, just for fun!

SACKS: Why don't you tell us a bit about Red Plains?

TATE: Red Plains is an ongoing comic series that's a Western, but it's different from a lot of others because it's historically accurate. We make a concerted effort to avoid any Hollywood tropes. It's also very much an ensemble story that involves a lot of different characters in the town of Red Plains. We start the story in 1879 or 1880.

Our main characters are: Sheriff Doles and his deputies (Tom Bennett, Joe Morelli, Ray Tucker, Sandy Burroughs, and Milt Fuller); and a few different families in the area: the Escovidos, the Stevenses and the Templetons. The series looks at these people and their everyday lives, their struggles that they find themselves involved in, on top of just living and surviving in Red Plains.

The entire comic thus far is available for free on Top Shelf 2.0. So far we have 17 full 22-page issues up online. We just finished labeling each issue by the titles and storylines to make it easier to navigate.

SACKS: It's no easy task to survive in that town.

TATE: Definitely not! It wasn't easy in any town in the West at that time. These are true survivors. At least the folks who make it...

SACKS: And you seem to love the fact that this is a traditional Western.

TATE: I do. I'm proud of it, and it's very important to me. The West is really dear to my heart because I grew up on working ranches and I come from a long line of cowboys and cowgirls, so I was definitely raised in a traditional Western lifestyle. The way I was raised—it wasn't a genre. It wasn't clothes we wore or the music we listened to. It’s a lifestyle, a big part of who you are.

So as I've stated on my blog and in other interviews, I have real issues with non-realistic Westerns. The artists and I take pains to make sure Red Plains is very accurate and respectful to the genre, to the West and its people. We're not trying to reinvent Westerns or anything like that. We're just going back to the core of what the West is really about – why this part of the world at this time became a genre all its own.

When you're experiencing something that has that authenticity, it just rings through. It feels right. I think everyone recognizes it, whether you've had personal experience with the subject or not. It just has this innate respect of the genre - of any genre, not just Westerns.

I look at Westerns tropes like high noon gunfights in the streets, bad men in black hats who can fire their six-shooters without ever having to reload their ammo - that kind of stuff really gets to me. It's so tired and almost absurd, and honestly I just don't believe folks want to see that kind of thing anymore. But contrast that with stories like Lonesome Dove and Unforgiven – they feel raw and gritty but not to the point where it feels forced. It's just because that's how this world was. It was a matter of survival. It's a hard world that people really have to work to survive every day. That's something that's very important to me to convey in Red Plains, while still exploring the optimism of the West, the reasons why folks braved such a difficult place to try to get what they wanted.

SACKS: So, to you, what makes a really good Western? What are some of the hallmarks of it?

TATE: Some of the key ingredients are revenge, lawlessness, the search of a new life or treasure – the adventure. Wide open spaces that are full of promise and freedom. Reliance on guns and what that means in the long run, how that affects everyday life.

SACKS: But you also have a story like "Letters", which is important because it's not about action but about a character and why he chooses to live out there. There's a certain romance to it.

TATE: There is. And that's the part that frankly can be a bit of a challenge to convey, which is that deep and abiding love of the West, of why people choose this kind of life. And even today, why modern cowboys are still out there doing this, despite all the challenges that are coming against them, like developments and the difficulty with the cattle work and things like that. Why do people choose to live like this and make very little money? It's because they love it; they have this need to be out there and do this work every day. Enjoying the big sky above you, not being behind a desk under a roof working a 9 to 5 job. These are some of the intangible things I'm really trying to portray, for instance with the cowboys on the Devil's Hed (Doug and Jackson Stevens' ranch). We're actually going to see a lot more of them soon, and we're going to get into their heads and their hearts, why they do this.

My desire in "Letters" was to introduce Rand, this nice quiet cowboy. He hails from back East, and his family doesn't understand why he’s gone West and become a cowpuncher. The story was actually influenced by a classic old cowboy song called “Night Rider's Lament,” where a cowboy has gotten a letter from some folks back home who think he's gone crazy, they can't comprehend why he's out there. That's what Rand and lots of other cowboys dealt with – still do.

SACKS: It's such a nice contrast after the first story, "Range War," which is very intense. It's a nice breather to have a story where a cowboy reflects on why he likes his life so much.

TATE: And that's something that we really strive to do, to make the comic kind of ebb and flow that way. "Range War" was really slam-bang and intense, with a lot of action. We took the one-shot breather. I liked that.

We did that with "Some Kind of Closure" too, with the town reflecting on what just happened, all the chaos from “Nice Place...”

SACKS: There was almost a biblical amount of chaos in "Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up."

TATE: One of my favorite things about that story is that we see that the so-called heroes in Red Plains aren't necessarily your typical heroes. There are some good people but they're not at all infallible. They make mistakes. They're flawed. Like Sherriff Doles, who got beaten within an inch of his life and then run out of town. Things like that make it different from a lot of Westerns out there.

In all the research I've done and all the legends I've heard, not to mention real life, it’s rare, if ever, that there was a “hero” who won all his fights or who always did the right thing. That's something I really want to touch on. I hope we've started to do that.

SACKS: It's nice to see the diversity of the characters, too. There's an ethnic diversity, too, similar to the Danny Glover character in Lonesome Dove, who escape the hidebound world that they lived in.

TATE: Oh, thanks. It's funny because when I was growing up, this was something that was not well known even among those who lived that lifestyle. The Spanish, the Latino influence on the cowboy culture and the West was unmistakable and everyone acknowledges that. But it's not often talked about in popular culture that there were a lot of African Americans in the Old West who made huge contributions to everything that we know happened. I really want that to be represented in Red Plains. We've already seen Rand, the cowboy, and Nate (the homesteader), and we have several other African American characters who will be appearing soon. One of them is actually a huge character who will play a major role in the series.

Rand is a character who happens to be black, and that's exactly what the point is. Whether it’s a woman, a Native American, whatever, I never want folks to feel like anyone's a token minority character at all.

The Escovido family was very influenced by Zorro. I'm a huge Zorro fan. A couple of years ago I read the Isabel Allende Zorro novel. It was fantastic, just awesome! I really wanted to explore the idea of a Latino family that was more well-to-do, and truly are noblemen. Their feelings on race and land ownership, especially at that time…how it feels to be this family that has money and influence among their own people, then to come into a country where they're suddenly seen as inferior despite the fact that this used to be their land...it's really fun to explore.

SACKS: Do you think it's important to understand the West to set a story in the West? Like how the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns represent a West that never existed, but it's a mythical West...?

TATE: Well, yes, but my definition of “understanding“ the West is a little different than what I think you may mean. Take those Sergio Leone films. I love his spaghetti Westerns despite the fact that it's a fabricated West that's not all that realistic. But the difference is that Leone very much respected the genre. It never felt like he was making fun of it or just using clichés in order to sell the movie. It was very organic and had a lot of those key elements to a Western that we all look for. So I think you have to understand it, but that doesn't mean you must have lived it or had firsthand experience with it – you just have to love it, respect it, and understand what it means to people who live it or are fans of it. You need to understand the heart of it.

I saw something online about a Western story that was going to “reinvent the Western genre,” and I was thinking, This genre doesn’t need reinventing. It's fantastic as it is. It's cool when it's done right, so it can be popular again. People just need to be exposed to really good examples. There was this period where a lot of films were really cheesy and didn't take the source material seriously, and it almost felt like they were laughing at them. Unfortunately those are the only examples of Westerns that some folks have been exposed to.

SACKS: I always like the feeling of spaces and large distances in Leone's movies.

TATE: Yeah he was a master of that. He portrayed the effect the surroundings had on people and the way they think so well.

I took those wide open spaces for granted growing up, thinking everyone understood it, but when as I got older I realized that not everybody gets to experience that sense of freedom. It’s special.

SACKS: You also mention No Country For Old Men as a favorite, but that's a New West story, not an Old West story.

TATE: Very much so, yeah. It’s a perfect example of the timelessness of Westerns. I actually saw the film before I read the book, and I had only watched the first few minutes before I knew that it was absolutely a Western despite the time period, it was fantastic. And then having read the novel and others of Cormac McCarthy's novels, he really gets it. He really has done his research, or I don’t know if he's lived the life or not, but it feels like he has. He gets it. He gets why people are doing this and how they think. I'm a huge fan.

SACKS: I always think of the great spaces, the vastness of the places.

TATE: There's this freedom to it that can't be duplicated or replenished, and it's something that – I actually read an article recently that was just fantastic. It talked about modern cowboys and their struggles in this time. It happened to be in Oregon, but it could have been anywhere. They were talking about the fact that these guys are now struggling with unemployment, not making enough money, having to figure out something else to do with their lives. It was extremely moving and the spaces, the land, not to mention the culture and lifestyle - it’s something that we're seeing disappear. It's something I've been witness to my whole life.

I feel like every American knows Westerns and it's part of our culture to a degree. It's very American and mythological. But we're seeing that West that we all take for granted gradually change and disappear due to different factors like development. Once it's gone, it'll never come back. It's essential to me to help people think about that, and to examine what it is about the West and its people that are special. Why all of us as Americans--and internationally, for that matter...even people who don't necessarily think of themselves as Western fans...carry a little bit of that in our everyday modern culture. That's important and singular, and I think it's healthy to examine the reasoning behind it.

The current storyline is "The Scurvy.” It's essentially a flashback story of the Templeton family, Rose and her dad, Isaac. It's a flashback to their trip West. They were basically your classic settler family. They came West on a wagon train, looking for a new life. It's classically American. Whether you have something in your past that you're running from, or you feel like you don't have anything and you want to change that...there's this chance to be something different, to start a new life. It's very American and the Old West was sort of the heyday of that freedom of expression and opportunity.

SACKS: I also really enjoy how your female characters have diverse personalities.

TATE: With Red Plains I'm really striving to make sure that all the female characters are fleshed out. That they're not one dimensional stereotypes. If you do any amount of research into the Old West, you'll find that women kicked butt. They were strong, cunning, and overcame their cultural disadvantages of the time to get what they wanted.

SACKS: The mayor's wife just takes command.

TATE: She's a great example. Francine is very interesting, very modern. And Rose, she's somewhat mysterious, but she's a survivor. We'll get to know her a lot better throughout “The Scurvy.”

But I don't go into it thinking, "I want my women characters to be this way." They're characters who happen to be female. That's how I see characters regardless of ethnicity, their class in society, their gender, whatever. First and foremost is - who are they as a person? What do they love? What do they hate and fear? What do they want out of life? Gender, race, everything else comes second to those things.

SACKS: Do you have a real ending to the series?

TATE: Yes. It's fluid to a degree, there will no doubt be some surprises even to me along the way, but overall it's pretty solid. And I think I knew it at the conception of the story. There's only one place this story can go.

SACKS: So what are your top ten westerns?

TATE: Honorable Mentions:
  • Rawhide (TV series)

  • The Daybreakers by Louis L'Amour (novel)

  • Seven Men from Now (film)
10. Cowboy by Ross Santee (novel)
9. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (film)
8. Have Gun Will Travel (TV series)
7. Giant (film)
6. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (novel)
5. The Searchers (film)
4. Sand by Will James (novel)
3. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (film & novel)
2. Unforgiven (film)
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (film & novel)

SACKS: What else would you like people to know about you or your work?

TATE: Well, I'm starting a new project with Noel Tuazon, who worked with me on the first arc of Red Plains, "Range War." We're going to be working on a crime noir comic together. I'm really excited about this!

And...I have big Red Plains news! I'm actually in the process of distributing Red Plains digitally on the iPad, the Kindle, the Droid. Pretty much everything digital you can think of, we'll have it on there. I don't have a firm date on this yet, but it'll be very soon!

We'll be offering a bunch of fantastic extras with the digital release of Red Plains - we're going to have script samples, character sketches, concept art and other features…basically we're taking after trade paperbacks in that way. It'll be really fun. Stay tuned – check my blog, or follow me on Twitter for updates.

Finally, I think it’s important to say that even people who don't feel that they're Western fans and don't think they have a desire to read a Western, I encourage them to read Red Plains. I think you'll find something slightly different than you're expecting.

SACKS: What's the one story they should start with?

TATE: You can start at the beginning with “Range War” of course, but I would recommend starting with "Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up" even more. That's starting with issue 10, going through issue 15. It's really action-packed and exciting, but it's realistic. There are no pretty gunfights or anything like that. There's lots of character development and depth to it. I think it's the best storyline that we've posted so far, thanks in large part to Larry Watts' amazing art. Give it a shot – I think you'll be pleasantly surprised!

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