The West has always been a subject of singular fascination for creators across the pop culture spectrum. From The Magnificent Seven and Deadwood to True Grit and No Country For Old Men, this region (more a state of mind) has long been a source of contextual goodness, with themes of freedom, redemption, and individualism informing many a rich series. Comics have also seen a regular stream of western-centric stories (shout out to Bat Lash), and the latest such project comes courtesy of Image Comics.
Written by Chris Condon, and with art by Jacob Phillips, That Texas Blood is described as “Paris, Texas gut-punched by No Country for Old Men,” in which a small-town sheriff goes in search of a lost casserole dish only to be faced with a “dark and tense confrontation.” Based on the debut issue alone, it’s a slow-moving, highly gripping affair, and the ambiance and pacing do wonders in playing with readers’ perception of normal, small-town life.
We caught up with both Condon and Phillips recently to talk about the series, including their work as industry “newbies,” the story’s balance of inspirations, the role Texas plays in the narrative, and deciding what to show (and when), among many other topics.
That Texas Blood #1 is due out June 24.
AIPT: As relative “newcomers,” is there a sense of anxiety in trying to launch a new series? Did it help that you’re both (mostly) on an even field, experience-wise?
Chris Condon: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t anxiety in launching something that’s been – up till this point – very personal and sending it off into the world. When it’s in your mind or on your computer the project is yours. Once you send it off in an email to the publisher, the thing is off into the unknown. That’s the duality of being a creator, I think. You simultaneously are hungry for readers/viewers but you’re also sitting there biting your fingernails, saying to yourself: but will they like it? I hope that people like That Texas Blood, I know it’s something I feel like I would like as a reader and I hope that translates for other people. As for the second half of your question, I think that we both came to this project hungry to get our voices out there and finally found a way through our creative partnership. So, in short, yes.
Jacob Phillips: Yeah, I think the fact that we’re both so new to this gives us a feeling of very much being “in it together”. We’re both just trying to figure all this out as we go and bouncing ideas off each other for the best way to go about things. Obviously we have a great support system and the help is there when we need it but it’s exciting to be on this journey together for sure.
AIPT: What’s the appeal of exploring the same territory as Breaking Bad or No Country For Old Men — these down-home, Southern-fried adventures that play up the drama of mundanity. Was there a worry you’d oversaturate the market at all?
CC: The appeal for me is that it’s not about Breaking Bad or No Country For Old Men (though I’m flattered by the comparisons), it was about the place itself and the characters that inhabit that place. So, honestly, I didn’t even think for a second about an oversaturated market or about exploring any territory already trod by any other series. When I sat down to read PAPER GIRLS #1, for example, I didn’t think twice about the time period or the locale. Sure, the setting was the 1980s. Sure, it was a suburban adventure, Amblin-esque. But what I wanted to see was how the creators told their story and whether they told it well. I think the same is true of our comic. We’re lucky, if anything, to be participating in a long tradition of southwestern pulp stories – and I’m excited to explore that world with Jacob.
AIPT: I think when you write about Texas it becomes its own character. How does that “character” exist or influence this story? Could you tell this same story in Connecticut?
CC: I totally agree that Texas is a character in many, many ways. It’s why I decided to begin and end issue one with the landscape. No, I do not believe that you could tell this story in Connecticut. There’s a different feel to Connecticut than Texas. There’s a pace to life that’s different. You can’t necessarily hop into your car and be at the Walmart or Target in 5 minutes. For some people that trip is a day’s journey. We’re telling a story about characters that are unique to this state, some based on real people that I’ve had the pleasure of shaking hands with in Fort Davis, Valentine, Alpine, and Marfa.
AIPT: I think the art (especially some great, great shots in issue #1) feel deeply cinematic. What’s the vibe/aesthetic you’re going for visually? Do you think that style imparts some of the pacing or energy of the larger story?
CC: I’ll let Jacob do the heavy lifting on this question. But for my part, when I set out to write this, I was thinking of the vastness of Texas, of vistas. The opening of Paris, Texas springs to mind. Or the crop dusting scene in North by Northwest (not Texas-set, but stylistically). If we were talking about cinema, the term I would use would be VistaVision. And now…enough of my yakking.
JP: Yeah I think my love of cinema comes into play a lot when I’m composing the shots. I love that cinematic style and I think when it came to working on this story it just made sense to me. The landscape itself is in widescreen y’know? Those expansive vistas are tough to squeeze into narrow panels so the subject dictates the style.
AIPT: I love how there’s one item that kicks things off (I won’t spoil what it is). It’s a really great way to play up that motif of hyperbolizing the everyday. Is that approach something you hope feels a little silly or maybe plays up connotations to NCFOM’s briefcase?
CC: Oh, yeah – and glad you liked it! It’s such a silly, trivial thing and it’s meant to be exactly that. I wanted there to be this sort of plodding mundanity and this creeping dread that’s simmering until it finally boils over. The “item” is just our ticket to that.
AIPT: I love the extra slow pacing, even for one of these methodical, noir-centric titles. How important is for readers to really meander through this narrative? Do you think a story can be too deliberate in how it unfolds?
CC: I think that the slow pacing matches the locale, in terms of the story we’re telling. I, personally, love a slow burn. It’s why I got back into baseball when I was about 25 – it’s a slow burn that has an impactful finale. The way I’m approaching this series, chapter to chapter, is to see it like that. Innings one through five – you think it’s boring, drawn out; what’s the point? But if you stick with it, you find yourself jumping out of your seat in inning eight when the center fielder hits a triple and drives a run home. You’ve become initiated into this thing and you don’t even know it. Of course, I think a story can definitely be too deliberate. I think that a story can overdo anything. Forgive me for yet another metaphor – but it’s like cooking. Even a good cook can cook a bad meal. Sometimes it just comes down to the seasoning. The same goes for writing. I hope this isn’t the case with That Texas Blood!
AIPT: There seems to be some “supernatural” elements (mostly the dream bits), which adds a new element. Is that an important motif of the story, or to make the series stand out?
CC: It wasn’t intended to make the series standout but if it helps it do so, I’m happy about that. I’ve always been drawn to the surreal and dreams help us enter that territory with ease. But yes, I think it’s an important motif, and one that will see a big payoff in later chapters as things unfold in Ambrose County.
AIPT: My impression of Sheriff Joe Bob Coates through #3 is that he’s a great balance of the grizzled veteran and the true-blue hopeless romantic for small-town life. How important is it that he be such an effective entryway into this world?
CC: I think Joe Bob is the perfect guide for us into this world because of his years, his grizzle, and the fact that he’s lost none of his humanity. He’s haunted by the bad things but he still wants nothing more than to just sit back, shuck his shoes off, and put his feet up. They often say of presidents that they’re a “person you’d want to have a beer with.” I know, personally, that I’d like nothing more than to share a drink with Joe Bob and chat with him, president or not.
JP: Yeah, even when designing Joe-Bob’s image I was trying to come up with the look of a guy you just want to be friends with. A slightly worn but welcoming character who’s like “Hey, come on in, have a beer whilst I show you around the chaos”.
AIPT: Were there conversations about what to show regarding blood, death, etc.? Is there such a thing as too much, or a greater need for nuance in these kinds of stories?
CC: I am a believer in the “less shown, the better” philosophy. We didn’t actually discuss it much, if at all, but I think I had written it that way in the scripts. Violence tends to happen off-panel because what you don’t see is always going to be worse than what you do. Though there are, of course, exceptions. We have plenty of blood running through our panels, I think!
JP: Yeah, I’m not trying to put people off their lunches, some things are better left to the imagination I think. Having said that there are points where you kind of need to see what’s going on and to have that shock and action that the slow pace of the book builds to so it’s all about finding that balance I think. But I just draw the pictures, what do I know?
AIPT: Do you think a series like this is for hardened genre fans, or is there a universal appeal? How do you hook the reader who doesn’t read a lot of true crime-esque titles?
CC: I think that if it’s good, people will like it, regardless of genre. At least, I hope so. If people aren’t big fans of true crime or genre titles, I would just tell them that this series is about character first and foremost. If you love interesting characters, I think you’ll enjoy it.
JP: I think there’s something in there for everyone, crime fan or not. People always seem to expect me to be a big genre fan but I’m more of a “if it’s good I’m into it” kinda guy and I think (hope) this is good.
AIPT: Is there something about our current political or cultural landscape that inspired this series? Coates’ dynamic of “good man in a bad world” feels perfect for our time.
CC: Not exactly, but I think that there is definitely a place to explore our politics and culture in the series. We have planned issues that definitely take a hard look at some of our country’s faults. There is, of course, a big difference between metropolitan policing versus rural sheriff, but I still think that the same questions arise, no matter where you are in the world. I didn’t anticipate the current climate but I agree – Joe Bob is (as we mentioned previously) a great guide for us. Our main guy is a cop. How do we wrestle with that? How does he? I think that current events are only going to make our series better and help us ask questions (to ourselves and the world) that we feel need to be asked.
AIPT: How much does the story influence the art and vice versa?
CC: Jacob’s art is fantastic, isn’t it? I sometimes write things into the script because I simply want to see how Jacob will handle it. So, yes, I suppose you could say his art has influenced my writing, if not the story.
JP: Well, like I mentioned earlier I feel the landscape has a huge influence on the way that the story is told and like we said, it couldn’t be set anywhere but Texas so I guess the story has a huge sway on the way I approach the artwork.
A lot of it comes down to the kind of tone and atmosphere Chris is trying to get into the scene. I get the script and then it’s my job to translate that feeling into the visuals which is where it really makes you think the best way to approach it to convey what it is you’re trying to convey. A large amount of that also comes from the coloring choices, too.
The beauty of the medium is the ability to pair text and imagery in such a unique way and if one isn’t influencing the other I don’t think you’re doing it right.