Derek McCulloch: Part Crime Story, Part Ghost Story, Part Love Story, All Epic

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Yesterday we published an interview with Colleen Doran, who illustrated the epic graphic novel Gone to Amerikay. Today we talk to Derek McCulloch, the writer on this book and, as you'll soon find out, a man with many interesting projects in his past, present and future.

(Photo of McCulloch and Doran (c) 2008 Duncan Scott Brown)

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Gone to Amerikay is a very ambitious work, as seems to be usual for you. You've taken on a lot of subjects. How would you do the elevator pitch for this book?

Derek McCulloch:  Just this morning I saw for the first time the marketing copy that summarizes the story better than I can.

It’s a story about Irish immigration to America. It takes place over the course of 140 years. It takes place in three different time periods -- in 1870, 1960 and 2010. The 1870 story is about a young woman who comes to America with her daughter, and they're waiting for her husband to show up and he never arrives. It's about the things that she has to do to survive in a foreign land as a penniless immigrant. The 1960 story is about a man who comes to America wanting to be a Broadway actor and gets involved with the Greenwich Village folk singing scene. The 2010 story is about a billionaire industrialist who comes to America to find out about the two people who preceded him in 1870 and 1960.

There's a bunch of different things in it. As you say, I do these things that have all these disparate elements that don't seem to have a lot to do with each other at first but tie together in the end. We've got a crime story and a ghost story and a couple of love stories all in this big historical epic that wraps them all together.

CB: I gotta admit, that's my first question: how do these two people inform the life of this man today?

McCulloch: That's what you gotta read the book to find out about.

CB: Colleen's art for this book is gorgeous.

McCulloch: It is.

CB: And she's talked a lot about making sure that she gets the details right. I'm sure you've put a lot of work into that yourself.

McCulloch: Yes, in fact, I was just speaking with someone about this yesterday. The questions that Colleen has come back to me with in this book have been amazing. The kinds of things that I wouldn't have thought of, things that I don't think a lot of people working on the same material would have thought of. Like, there's a scene that takes place in a restaurant in 1870 with a couple of Irish people in it, and she wrote me when she was working on the page and said, which hand should he be holding the fork in? Because the manners are different in England than they are in America. What are they in Ireland? And so I had to go back and do all this research and suss out whether that would be a right or left hand in Ireland at that time. Whether they would be influenced by English manners or not. I don't know if the answer I came up with was correct. I mean, honestly, I can't remember what the answer I came up was, but she's thinking on that level of detail.

Another example: in one of the ghostly scenes, we have a picture of a skull that presumably was underwater for some time, and in the script I said there was a sea snake poking out of the eye socket.  And Colleen, being Colleen, went to do her research to find out exactly which kind of sea snake that would be, and discovered that there aren't any sea snakes in the North Atlantic. So we had to make it seaweed instead.

CB: You've worked with a wide variety of artists, all of whom brought their own unique perspective to the work. How would you characterize Colleen's approach as being different from some of the other people that you've worked with?

McCulloch:  There's quite an immediate big difference, which is that Colleen is getting paid an advance to do this work, so she can afford to spend more time on it than someone working on the back end. But she's also very prepared and she works very hard to get everything right. She does a ton of research. You've seen the stuff she does with ships, for example. You wouldn't believe how much reference she collected to get the rigging exactly right on a sailing ship from the 1870s. She goes the extra mile with this stuff, definitely.

CB: Does that push you to work within the historical elements in a different way than you did, say, in Stagger Lee?

McCulloch: The research was different for me on Stagger Lee. I would say I did more research on Stagger Lee than with Gone to Amerikay, just in the sense that the Stagger Lee story was much more specific. It was about more real-life things. I invent more freely in Gone to Amerikay. There are historic characters in Gone to Amerikay; Dave Van Ronk is in the '60s scenes and [there are] various other well-known real people. I had to do some research into the history of Five Points and the gangs there, the 1870s stuff. But I felt I had a lot more latitude to invent, actually, in Gone to Amerikay than I did in Stagger Lee.

As to how working with Colleen with the research differed from Shepherd Hendrix, it didn't affect how I wrote things because I didn't know how different it was until she started drawing it. With the script of Stagger Lee, what I did a lot was embed hyperlinks in the script. I remember saying that a bouquet in one scene would look like this one here and then adding a link for Shep to click on and go to. I didn't do that so much with Colleen. I did a little bit of it, then discovered when she came to work on it that I may as well not have bothered because she was going to research it herself anyway. It's stuff that you find out as you go along.

CB: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in the story? What brought the woman in 1870 to America, and did she come on her own? It's an interesting journey for a woman to take on her own if that's the case.

McCulloch: It was. Her name is Caira O'Dwyer. She was to leave Ireland with her husband, Fintan, and their daughter, Maire, but just as they're going to leave, Finton is detained. Not in terms of detained by authorities -- his uncle is actually detained by the authorities and he has to stay behind and help him out. He plans on going on the next ship and never leaves.

The family was moving to America for economic reasons. It's not actually during the potato famine. Technically, you can say that 1870 is at the very tail end of the immigration wave sparked by the series of events in the 1840s that would be called the potato famine. For reasons that become clear as you read the book, I had to set it a little late for the famine.

CB: As a single woman alone in a strange country -- especially in New York -- in the 1870s, it had to have been a dauntingly frightening life -- a life of pretty literal peril in the midst of the industrial revolution and the transformations that were happening in New York at the time.

McCulloch: She was lucky enough that she has a cousin with a family who lives there in a tenement. She stays with them and they know their way around. So she's not entirely alone. But yes, it's difficult, and that's what her part of the book is largely about. It's about the things she does to take care of her child while her husband is missing.

CB: And then flash forward to the 1960s. It must have been a whole different challenge to depict the 1960s. You have way more photographic evidence and, obviously, video of the era, so there's a certain requirement to have verisimilitude that you kind of don't necessarily have to have in the 1870s.

McCulloch: Things do look pretty different nowadays. There's a scene that takes place towards the end of the book at the Ed Sullivan Theatre. It's pretty difficult these days to find a picture of the Ed Sullivan Theatre that doesn’t have David Letterman's name on it. It was comparatively easy to get photographic reference for the real life locations that we were using, such as the Cort Theatre.

A lot of the stuff in the 1960s chapter, in terms of the big world of the story, comes from one main source. I've been a big fan all my life of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were the great Irish folk group of the 1960s. They debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show and brought Irish folk music to a wide audience in America. A lot of the background elements of the 1960s story are kind of drawn from their story. Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers wrote a great autobiography where he talked about growing up in Ireland and about the very beginnings of his coming to New York in the '50s and becoming involved both in the Broadway and Greenwich Village music scenes. They ultimately came to success in Chicago, not New York, but they hung out with Dave Van Ronk and a young Bob Dylan and Odetta and all these sorts of people. A lot of my inspiration for that chapter is drawn from that source in particular.

Derek McCulloch Interview - Gone to Amerikay

CB: It seems like you're implying the character arc of that section. He comes to America, he's gone to Amerikay, so to speak, and has become successful at least to the point that he appears on TV. It sounds like a kind of American success story.

McCulloch: What I intended was to show a kind of progression between the three stories. That in the 1870s you have the penniless immigrant, in the 1960s you have a striver, and in the 2010 scenes we have a billionaire who's come to buy the place. It's not necessarily a widely valid historical pattern, but it's a progression within the book. At the time I started writing it, the Celtic Tiger was definitely on the ascent. By the time I finished writing it, there had been a bit of a crash that they still haven't recovered from. Maybe I was a little optimistic on their behalf.

CB: Do you see them as being symbolic of different eras of Irish immigration, or do you see them more as specific people?

McCulloch: Well, that was the intent, to give the idea of how the Irish relationship with America changed over time.

CB: Were you looking to explore the immigrant experience in different eras, maybe touching your experience a little bit?

McCulloch: Well, my own roots are more Scottish than Irish. But yeah, it was the idea of telling broadly the immigrant story from immigration to assimilation to being the establishment or the ruling class.

CB: At the same time they're all kind of intertwined together.

McCulloch: They do all relate, but I can't tell you how because it will ruin the book for you.

CB: At the same time you're working on this, you're working on another book that's based on a historical era/historical attitude, a Damon Runyon anthology which brings up other interesting issues because it's almost more a historical legend than a specific point in time.

McCulloch: Well, actually, a lot of Damon Runyon's stories were based on things he personally witnessed or heard about. Of course, he would embellish on them and restructure them and make them comic or tragic or heartwarming as the case may be. But he knew these people. The time he lived and wrote in, the 1920s when Prohibition was on, it was… one of the great unanticipated consequences of Prohibition was the great democratizing effect on society. Everybody had to go to the same places to drink. Everybody had to go to the same speakeasies. Runyon would hang out at these places, on Broadway he'd go to the coffee shops and he'd go to the diners and he'd go to the speakeasies and hang out with the gangsters and the journalists and the show people and the boxing people and the politicians and the society people, all wrapped up in this same little social scene. That's the world he depicted in his stories.

CB: It's a kind of an odd, slightly larger than life world that he seemed to depict. I don't know how much of that is nostalgia and the way he exaggerated it and how much of it is the largeness of the characters.

McCulloch: The way I like to put it is that he invented Broadway. It was happening as he wrote about it, but he invented this fairy tale version of it that was, I assume, much much better than what the reality was, but it's the one we can remember now.

CB: It's a heck of a challenge adapting his work to comics form, too. His writing is so sharp and bright and interesting. Comics don't necessarily celebrate strong, sharp, interesting writing as much as crisp, clear, more visual content.

McCulloch: It is a challenge, and so much of the appeal of Runyon's writing for me is the language and original voice that I was determined to, at all costs, retain in the adaptation. To keep as much of his original text in it as I possibly could. How well that comes across to a comics reader today, we'll see when the book comes out.

I tried to keep as much of his original prose in there as I could. I'm not sure how well that will fly with comics fans, but anybody who loves great and funny writing will really like these stories. I've been a big fan of Damon Runyon most of my life, and it was an incredibly daunting task to be adapting one of my huge, huge heroes, but once I was doing it, it was a lot of fun. And the thing that's the most fun about it is that while I strove to maintain as much of his original text as I possibly could, inevitably there are places where I had to create. Where I had to create my own Runyon text, my own Runyon dialogue, and the thing that I'm proudest about in this book is when I get the pages back lettered, I look at them and sometimes I honestly can't remember which part's Runyon and which part's me. I hope that means I did it right and not that I'm suffering from really severe memory loss.

CB: You got to work with a wide range of artists with this project, which must have been another interesting challenge.

McCulloch: I'm mostly working with people I've worked with before on this. Jimmie Robinson did my children's book. T. Runt, and I’ve done a couple of pieces for short anthologies with him. Shepherd Hendrix, the artist on Stagger Lee, has drawn a story. Ron Turner is the art director on the book and has drawn one of the stories. He and I have been working together since we were teenagers, although I haven't worked on anything so substantial with him in a long time. Anthony Peruzzo, I've done a couple of anthology short pieces with him. He did Fractured Fables with me and an issue of Popgun. Craig Taillifer, the guy who does Wahoo Morris. It's my first time working with him, but he's terrific. As we're talking right now, all I've seen are the pencil breakdowns, but they're really terrific. I can't wait to see the rest of his story.

CB: Did you target the stories for each of the artists?

McCulloch: I was pretty consistent in the way I adapted all six stories because I wanted them to read consistently through the book. They all have kind of a set format in their structure. I think -- it's been so long, I can't remember how I parsed them out -- I sent the scripts out to everybody and let them pick which ones they wanted to do.

CB: You have Ron in between you and the artists in a way.

McCulloch: In a sense. Most of these guys -- I know them better than Ron does -- communicate with me sometimes more than they do with Ron. But I always route everything through Ron anyway, bring him into the discussion as cc's. As far as I'm concerned, he's in charge of what appears on the page visually, so he's got all the final decisions in those areas. Same as I have the final decision on the words.

Derek McCulloch Interview - Gone to Amerikay

CB: Did it help to manage the project to have someone who was the expert on that side of things?

McCulloch: It's nice to have someone else who can take the heat for the tough decisions.

CB: The Runyon project is part of a unique combination for most comics fans, in that this may even turn into a Broadway play. Derek's own Guys and Dolls, so to speak.

McCulloch: In addition to the six stories I'm adapting for Damon Runyon's Broadway and comics, I'm also adapting a seventh story, "Madame La Gimp," for the stage, as a musical for an off-Broadway theatre in New York. The two projects are unrelated, except in the sense that they both involve me working with the Damon Runyon properties.

CB: Comics and Broadway make for a pretty unique combination. There are comic writers who move into film writing or vice versa, but I'm hard-pressed to find a lot of people who have written stage plays of one sort or another.

McCulloch: There are more that have done straight-up stage plays. Like Jim Bricker did of Open Season, for example, way back when. And there are probably more recent ones that I don't know. But yeah, not so many of us doing musicals. That's pretty rare. Actually, last time I went to New York Comic Con, a few years back, I ran into Steven Seagle and had this conversation with him. I told him about my Runyon work and asked how many comic writers he supposed were doing musicals. And he said, "Oh I'm doing a musical." So I said, "How many others do you think there are?" and he said, "I think just the two of us."  Seems like there are more since then, though.

CB: You have kind of a lost graphic novel with Displaced Persons.

McCulloch: Displaced Persons was supposed to be my follow-up to Stagger Lee. It was the second one I wrote. If all goes well at this point, it will be my fifth graphic novel. We are looking to relaunch production on that in coming year. I'm not going to announce a release date for it until the artwork is completely finished. I've learned my lesson many times over that.

I'm working on this now with Anthony Peruzzo, who’s also on the Runyon book.  As I mentioned, I’ve worked on a few short pieces with Anthony, so this is the first full-length project we’ve done together.  It’s been great to see him really hit his stride and rise to the challenge because it is an incredibly challenging book -- 150 pages, three different time periods, a huge cast of characters, and a ton of period research.  He’s doing a phenomenal job, and I think this book will really put him on the map when it comes out, and deservedly so.

CB: Are you resisting the temptation to do rewrites to it?

McCulloch: I never even gave it a thought until you mentioned it. If there's one thing I absolutely hate when I'm writing, it's rewriting. Some people say that's what they love, they love honing it. It's not that I hate rewriting, actually. It's that I hate rereading what I've written. When I'm finished, I'm done. I don't want to look at it again. I'll revise it maybe when it's being lettered. I'll go to the script and see if I have any fine-tuning I want to do to individual sentences, but no, it's a finished work. I'll be happy to look at it again when it's in print.

CB: Along with the Runyon musical, you're working on creating a musical based on your graphic novel Stagger Lee, about the song "Stagger Lee" and its impact on society and how it reflects back. How is the challenge of adapting something like that different from adapting straightforward Runyon stories?

McCulloch:  It's a different challenge just by virtue of the fact that, in the case of Runyon, I'm adapting someone else's writing, and in the case of Stagger Lee I'm adapting my own writing. I am finding it's just as difficult, but in a different way. Also, with the Runyon stories, "Madame La Gimp" is something like an eight or ten page story that I have to expand into two hours of theatre experience. There's simply not enough incident in the story "Madame La Gimp" to fill out even an entire first act of a play, let alone the full show. So I had to create a lot with "Madame La Gimp."

Whereas with Stagger Lee, it’s a very, very dense 200-page graphic novel on a very complicated subject with a lot of historical detail and factual information. To make that fit into a two hour stage play will be a challenge. When you consider that it's a stage play that's a musical, where songs take up about a third of the length, it's an even greater challenge. I am finding the great difficulty with this is to figure out exactly how much I can take out before the play makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It's a challenge I hope I'm up to. We'll see.

CB: It's an intriguingly different challenge, because you can play with lighting and character and design in a stage play about a legend in a different way than you can do in comics. It's a whole different set of muscles you get to use.

McCulloch: It's been a big learning experience for me. A couple of weeks from now I’m going to St. Louis to workshop the piece and present an in-progress reading to a live audience.  It’s my first time doing anything even remotely like this and I have no idea what to expect or how well I’m handling the challenge, but everybody’s been really supportive so far and I think the draft I’ve written of the script is pretty good.  Whether it’s as good live as it is on the page I guess I’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

CB: Going from comics to theatre, too, you're going from a cool medium where the reader has to bring themselves to it, to a hot medium where everything happens right in front of you. It's hopefully very engaging.

McCulloch: I dunno. In a technical sense, writing comics is very similar to writing for theatre or for movies, I think, just in terms of what you're writing. Either way, you're writing descriptions that the world is never going to see and dialogue that the audience will see or hear. Obviously both theatre and movies are going to be fluid rather than static, and theatre obviously differs from both movies and comics in that the point of view is static. You're not able to move the camera around. And then there’s the further difference even within theater between plays and musicals, which are a very different animal. I think I'm armed with enough basic awareness of the most important things that I need to keep in mind when shifting from one medium to another.

CB: Anything else you'd like Comics Bulletin readers to know about you or your work?

McCulloch: I should say on Stagger Lee that I'm very very fortunate to be working with a couple of great collaborators on the music. I'm working with Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, who created the show Passing Strange. I don't know if you know it, but go on the Google and learn about it. It was a great show. It workshopped in Berkeley. I didn't even know about it when it was in Berkeley because I had a small child at the time and wasn't leaving the house much. They went on to Off Broadway and then Broadway to great acclaim and won a bunch of awards. It won the Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for Best Book in 2008. These are really great people to work with on my show and they love the material and are very nice people and I'm looking forward to working with them. The most incredible thing for me is that I’ve written draft lyrics for the show and have heard demos of some of the songs with my lyrics. The idea that I’m actually helping write new versions of Stagger Lee to add to the musical canon I so revere is kind of mind-blowing for me.

If you missed it, read our review of Gone to Amerikay, as well as Jason's interview with Colleen Doran.

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