COMIC BOOK YETI: This is Byron O’Neal for Comic Book Yeti sitting down today with J.M. Brandt and Theo Prasidis, the writers of the new comic series Swamp Dogs from Scout Comics released on its Black Caravan imprint focused on horror and sci-fi. Thank you both for joining me today.
For those out there who haven’t picked it up yet, haven’t heard about it, or need some convincing, give me your synopsis pitch for Swamp Dogs.
THEO PRASIDIS: A heartwarming lesbian romance, a goofy heavy metal band, and a bunch of atrocious, undead, voodoo-powered Confederate soldiers. Need I say more?
J.M. BRANDT: It's funny. It's sexy. It's romantic. It's tense. It's horrific. And it's a hell of a lot of fun.
CBY: My initial impression after reading the first two issues is that you both must have grown up in the 70s like I did because there is so much in there that echoes the horror movies of that time period or at the very least you are painting with that specific brush in mind. How much did that era played into the creation of the story you were trying to tell?
JMB: "One of the weird things that I never quite understood about genre fiction is that 99% seems to exist in a world where popular culture doesn't exist. Having those touchstones makes the characters instantly more relatable and instantly more dynamic. They've watched the movies we've watched. They grew up with the same stuff."
TP: We were both born in the 80s, so our movie playground was mostly late 80s/early 90s stuff. But you can’t love cinema without loving the 70s, right? It’s the decade that changed everything. Still, I didn’t quite delve into it until I did my masters in London, in 2009. It was an MA degree in Cult Film and Television, and we had a course called Shocking Seventies Cinema, taught by this professor/author/filmmaker/really cool guy, Xavier Mendik. Seeing films of such excessiveness and vulgarity being treated with the analytical insight and academic depth of high art, was eye-opening. I was hooked. Ain’t nothing like going to class at 7am to watch and study I Spit on Your Grave, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or Pink Flamingos, for God’s sake.
JMB: The 70s played a gigantic role in the way we planned out the book. To this day, 50 years later, the horror and exploitation films of that era are just as shocking and titillating as they were at the drive-in. But also I think society has done (in some ways) a lot of growing up since then. So part of the pull was to take our mutual love of that era, blend it with the other horror we've immersed ourselves in, update the dynamics some, and hand it to the people. And honestly I think the horror movies of the 80s are just as important to that comfortably uncomfortable feeling we've worked on creating.
CBY: There are also clear Blaxploitation elements. The heavy use of the bold orange on the cover of the first issue looks like any movie poster from the subgenre and one of your main characters, Ayana, looks like a Pam Grier knock off. Was it difficult to balance keeping that proper feeling of nostalgia while being sensitive to the cultural changes since that time period?
TP: And what a fantastic Ayana would Pam Grier make! See, that was our goal with Swamp Dogs, to have all those cool exploitation cinema elements, the violence, the sensuality, the general aesthetics, but circle them around interesting, diverse characters and a strong emotional core that can resonate with today’s readers. They should be able to fall in love with Ayana and Violet, they should want to hang out with the band, they should feel the loss when horror strikes. I wouldn’t say it was difficult balancing these, because both J.M. and I are aware that exploitation is a traditionally insensitive genre, and have a fine eye for what it takes to make it more conscious and topical.
JMB: It's a tightrope in a lot of ways, to be sure. And I think our genuine concern about being offensive storytellers has been our guiding light. To be fair, there are characters and situations that are offensive. I mean, we're talking about an homage to exploitation cinema featuring monsters that are Confederates that even the most egregious of history's sadists would turn their noses up at. And we're also two straight white (for all intents and purposes) guys writing a book that headlines a queer couple-- one of whom is a person of color. The potential pitfalls aren't lost on us; but we're actively discussing the sensitivity amongst our team (including colorist Ruth Redmond, a queer woman and part owner of the book). We're actively discussing it with our amazing editors and the publishers Rich and Joe. And we're actively seeking outside opinions from people within the communities we're depicting. And we are always open to hearing from readers with constructive feedback.
CBY: They may be more subtle, but you didn’t leave out other eras of fandom either: Roy’s dogs being named Roddy and Piper or the Sutter Cane name drop referencing the fictitious writer in the 1994 film In The Mouth Of Madness. It’s such a playful script in many ways that feels as much Scooby-Doo as grindhouse. Are you just trying to keep us readers on our toes?
TP: Nothing can stop two nerds from nerding out.
JMB: One of the weird things that I never quite understood about genre fiction is that 99% seems to exist in a world where popular culture doesn't exist. Having those touchstones makes the characters instantly more relatable and instantly more dynamic. They've watched the movies we've watched. They grew up with the same stuff. So their decisions come with the weight of their knowledge... and that makes decisions like, say, a "Let's split up," that much more terrifying or inconceivable. Plus, I just like little easter eggs for the folks that know. Issue 4 even has a little meta joke inside a running gag about easter eggs.
TP: "First came the story, then came the band. But the story screamed: a band should be there."
CBY: I want to delve into some of your plot mechanisms in the book a little bit. I live in Florida next to a swamp. It’s a green belt next to the house. Classically swamps are these foreboding, enclosed spaces full of creatures that bite and dark water. What made you want to anchor the setting in a swamp?
TP: It’s not just that heavy, foggy atmosphere surrounding a swamp that’s visually enthralling. It’s not just the mystery of what might lurk in its muddy waters. It’s also the feeling of isolation. It’s like a place beyond the perceivable world, a place out of time. A place where rules and norms do not apply, and its decaying grandeur is the only law. I cannot think of a more perfect setting for a horror story than a swamp.
JMB: I wrote the original version of Swamp Dogs before Theo came in and it got mutated into its current glorious form. In it, I just had this vision of a scene on a steamboat curtained on all sides by willows. That scene is gone, but the swamp remained. But at least we got to throw in a hovercraft!
CBY: One of the other significant pieces of the story’s construction so far is the band. I understand band van life very well having spent a decade travelling around as a tech/manager/basically everything. I drove the van for a period of time for a band called L.I.F.E. or Living in a Funky Environment. Long story, anyway, were one of you in a band?
TP: I was playing the electric guitar throughout my college years, but thankfully there came a point when I realized I pretty much sucked at it. So, I decided to organize events instead, inviting real musicians to play the gigs I wanted to see as an audience. I worked in various cultural organizations, setting up live shows among other art-related events, and in 2013 I launched Fuzztastic Planet, the first international heavy/psych rock festival in Greece, with esteemed guests like Elder, Radio Moscow, Samsara Blues Experiment, 1000mods, Nightstalker, etc. So yeah, for the better part of the 10s, I lived and breathed band life.
JMB: I was never seriously in a band. I dabbled with some sample-based music and tried starting a punk band and metal band with me doing vocals... but none of them got past a handful of garage practices that devolved into smoking weed and playing Playstation. Growing up I had enough friends in bands that I'd ride with to help roadie that the band dynamic, and the band van dynamic, are pretty baked into my psyche.
CBY: Was the band first and then you surrounded them with the horror elements or the other way around?
TP: First came the story, then came the band. But the story screamed: a band should be there.
JMB: The original version of the story focused on a love triangle and a group of despicable-but-charming gangsters. When we whipped the story into shape we knew we wanted to lean heavily on some of the music we both love. So, the band was a natural conclusion.
TP: "Horror fans for sure, indie comic lovers and cult cinema buffs, but also rockers and metalheads are all game. It’s basically a book for everyone looking for a funny, lusty ride of spooks and thrills, with a heart."
CBY: Since you are both music people, you must have a soundtrack in mind for the book. I had “Swamp Devil” from Circus of Power in my head while reading it. What is your Swamp Dogs playlist?
TP: Glad you asked, because we do actually have a playlist, and we’re thinking about doing a limited vinyl run at some point, maybe via crowdfunding. It’s a thoroughly curated compilation of occult/psych/southern/blues rock/metal songs, with a couple of killer soul/funk grooves, which we started putting together even before writing the scripts. To name drop some of the artists: Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Kylesa, Zeal & Ardor, The Picturebooks, The Budos Band, Brownout, Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. Circus of Power’s “Swamp Devil” would also be spot on for this! If you like this branch of heavy blues, I suggest you give a listen to Deltahead. It’s a short lived duo that wrote 2-3 minute really bizarre, yet explosive bangers, combining delta blues, garage rock and 70s punk. They sound like how The White Stripes would sound after gasoline huffing.
JMB: What Theo doesn't know is that I've been working on a competing playlist for a soundtrack. So we're going to wind up having an intercontinental knife fight to figure out the final track order. Hahaha. I'm actually in the process of putting together a Spotify playlist of songs that I've written to or used for inspiration. So far some of the songs I've thrown on there have been by Comets On Fire, Cobalt, Killdozer, and Crowbar. Thinking about the music I've used to write it... it's sludgy, twangy, and aggressive. I can't overstate the effect of Cobalt's album Slow Forever on writing the flashback violence of Issue 3.
CBY: I hate spoilers, and we don’t want to give anything away but is the intent to create some, if not exactly, hero, at least non-antagonist longevity or are these Confederate voodoo sumbitches destined to steal the show?
TP: There are some characters that will shine in this arc and will continue to shine in the arcs to come. But yeah, we see to it that you have never seen such nasty and utterly gruesome villains as the Swamp Dogs.
JMB: The book is named after the villains for a reason. This is their coming out party after being asleep since the 1860s. They are vile and reprehensible and, conceited though it may sound, iconic. Their actions shape the world around them. But we didn't go full Crossed and just have things be as nihilistic as Garth Ennis' first arc ended. As tempted as I've been to throw everyone into the meat grinder, I promise the readers out there that there is some sunshine to take refuge in. Only a sliver, but it's there.
CBY: Who would you say your target audience is for Swamp Dogs?
TP: Horror fans for sure, indie comic lovers and cult cinema buffs, but also rockers and metalheads are all game. It’s basically a book for everyone looking for a funny, lusty ride of spooks and thrills, with a heart.
JMB: Everything Theo said I would echo. What I found really encouraging and exciting, though, was the audience that the book resonated with at the first con I got a table at. It was at a horror convention, so I guess that was the common thread. But the amount of queer women and people of color that were so excited to support and read the book was incredible. Talking to them, they were genuinely stoked to see themselves portrayed in a book as more than just eye candy and cannon fodder. It was just really nice to get validation from those communities... along with a healthy amount of skeptical trepidation that let me know we'd continue to be evaluated.
CBY: Tell me about this collaboration. How did you meet and how did this wild concept flourish?
TP: We were both writing for Screen Rant, some years back. J.M. noticed that I was curating Fuzztastic Planet, and we got talking. We realized that we shared common tastes in film, music, and pop culture in general, and we wanted to start a project together, but had no idea what this project might be. An entertainment website? A horror mag? When Image Comics announced my little book The Doomster’s Monolithic Pocket Alphabet, he suggested we write together his dream project, the one that has been bouncing around his head for more than a decade. It didn’t take much more than a two-sentence pitch for me to hop onboard.
JMB: For my part, the story originally was something very different. It was the idea of updating and recontextualizing an awesome 70s Spanish horror film called Tombs of the Blind Dead. So where Tombs had Templars, mine would have Confederates. Where Tombs had a castle in Spain or Portugal (I honestly don't know which country Berzano is supposed to be in), mine would have a plantation in Louisiana. So we had that as a foundation... but we knew we didn't want to just do a remake. So, we looked at what I had and stripped it to the core elements that we both loved and built it from that foundation.
CBY: I’m always fascinated by co-writing. How does your process of creation and more importantly editing break down?
TP: Black Caravan is kind enough to provide us an editor for the book, although when you have a co-writer, you also have an editor. We edit each other’s drafts, and our scripts tend to be in fairly good shape before going to the professional editor. As far as process is concerned, we just talk about things. Talk about our ideas for each script, the parts we want to write, the characters we want to develop, and get to it. We’re lucky enough to share the same vision for the book, so the process is quite organic. Reading back our scripts, I often can’t tell who wrote what, which is pretty awesome.
JMB: One of the most important things we do, I think, is that we will go over each others' parts and "smooth" it out to create a consistent voice. I think that's the danger in co-writing is having something stylistically uneven. I think we both have favorite characters and types of situations to write, and so the work does tend to separate pretty easily. But having an editor on the book in addition to just the two of us has proven immensely helpful in terms of showing us things that we were just kind of blind to in our own book.
TP: Quite easily. Besides being some of the downright best comic artists out there, these people are also huge horror buffs. Our pitch got them excited, and they immediately said yes, simple as that. They were all our first choice for the job.
JMB: It felt a little bit like that Rick and Morty heist episode. There was an awful lot of, "You son of a bitch. I'm in."
CBY: This is a five-issue arc. Was it originally intended as a standalone story or are there plans to develop it further?
TP: House of Crows was always intended as an introductory chapter to our Swamp Dogs mythology, which would play out like a grindhouse horror movie, both plot and structure-wise. There are plans for at least two sequels as ongoing series.
JMB: There is talk, internally, about spreading out our bloodbath a bit more and making it six issues. I don't think I've said that in an interview yet. While I have several other ideas I want to work on making books out of, I would love to explore the world of the Swamp Dogs thoroughly. On top of the ongoings, we've talked about the possibility of minis or one-shots to tell the backstories of some of the characters. And when it comes to the third phase (I don't like using the MCU terminology, but it's the best way), I already see several potential spin-offs just because I have so many amazing characters I have cooked up.
CBY: How did you land with Black Caravan? Did you shop the project around for a bit before finding a publisher?
TP: Yes, we did a round of submissions, and as a matter of fact, we did have another Swamp Dogs contract on the table. But Black Caravan just seemed right for us. Our publishers, Rich and Joe, were really enthusiastic about the project. They told us that this was the best pitch they ever got, and that they plan to make this book their flagship. It’s really important to find the right people for your work, people who understand it and believe in it. Everything becomes significantly easier going forward.
JMB: It was an interesting experience for sure. But the amount of faith that Black Caravan has in the book and its potential has been a guiding light for us. They see the potential in the book and in us and so I'd be hard-pressed to picture a better scenario for our first comic.
CBY: What else do you have in the works for us? This is your chance to brag on yourselves.
JMB: "One of the most important things we do, I think, is that we will go over each others' parts and "smooth" it out to create a consistent voice. I think that's the danger in co-writing is having something stylistically uneven. I think we both have favorite characters and types of situations to write, and so the work does tend to separate pretty easily."
TP: I have another horror book coming out by TKO Studios this Spring, for which I’m really excited about, and I’m working on a sci-fi mini, a webtoon series, and an animated film. But I’m also a full-time stay at home dad at the moment, so God knows when any of the above will see the light of day.
JMB: I've spoken to a few publishers about working together. Part of my problem is that I am very ADHD and just keep coming up with ideas that I get excited about... so it's difficult to pin one down and focus on developing it. Luckily some folks are helping me pin things down and, while I can't talk about it yet, there are some things in the works. I've been let out of my cage with Swamp Dogs, and so the world will just have to get ready for what I've got to show them.
CBY: Anything else you’d like to touch on before we go today?
TP: I’d like to thank all the people who have supported us thus far, by buying Issue One and all its different variants-- many of which are completely sold out. Stick with us, there’s some seriously frightful fun coming up!
JMB: Yeah... I'd like to just say that the supply chain issues that have been affecting the comics industry suck. I know it's not a life-and-death thing, so it's important to keep it in perspective. But for fans it is disheartening to have all these delays and, as a creator, it is a real gut punch to see your book held back for reasons so big that nobody can be blamed. Make sure to support creatives during all this, even if it's not us. Don't let a delay derail you reading a series. Don't let the fact you can't see a band play a show stop you from showing your appreciation with some money. COVID has been, and continues to be, super tough on everyone. So keep your head up, and keep on truckin'.
CBY: Big thanks to Theo and J.M. for joining me today. Baring industry related printing delays, the second issue of Swamp Dogs should be on your local comic book shop shelves later this month so make sure to look for it.