Caryn A. Tate grew up and worked on ranches and farms throughout the rural west of the US , horseback riding, herding cattle, and otherwise performing hands-on research into the world of Red Plains. Now Caryn is working on the webcomic Red Plains at Top Shelf 2.0. Although the story is set in the Old West, many of the themes are modern, played out with a fresh take on classic archetypes. Caryn and a variety of talented artists dole out violence in an Old West looking to become civilized.
First Comics News: You’re a published author, what made you decide the next step in your career should be comics?
Caryn A. Tate: I followed the story, and it just felt right for the comics medium. I’ve been a comics lover for some years now, and when the initial concept for Red Plains came to me, I just imagined it being told visually. I wanted folks to see this world, to be able to jump into it and really experience it.
Red Plains is a far cry from my published work, which so far has been children’s books. It’s a historically accurate, realistic, and therefore violent and adult account of what life was truly like in the American West in the 1880s. Quite different from Sunny Bear’s Rainy Day!
1st: Will the series eventually be collected into a trade paperback?
Caryn: That’s something I’m presently looking into. Stay tuned!
1st: How much of your own experiences do you put in your work?
Caryn: As much as I can fit! I grew up on working ranches, and farms, and I come from a long line of cowboys and cowgirls. So I was raised knowing a lot of the old time ways of doing things, the terminology, the people, the stories, and hearing the legends. I inherited the deep and abiding love of the lifestyle, of the West, that every Westerner has. Much of the stories of Red Plains are experiences I’ve had, or stories I’ve heard, writ large.
Those experiences, that lifestyle, also made it impossible for me to enjoy unrealistic Western entertainment. I can’t abide a stereotypical Hollywood Western film, or a trite Western novel with no heart or realism to it. If you know the world, you also immediately recognize an impostor. When we see cowboys in Red Plains they’re doing actual work, people don’t have an endless supply of ammo, their horses get tired, violence has consequences, and there are no gunfights at high noon in the middle of the street.
I liken it to how it is for cops and their families. It’s pretty hard for a cop to watch a typical “Hollywood” cop show, except for pure amusement. It’s not the real thing, and they and the people closest to them recognize it immediately. It’s the same thing for Westerners.
1st: With Red Plains, do you aim to give the readers a better understanding of what life was actually like in the Old West? Does the story take place in Texas?
Caryn: Actually Red Plains does not take place in Texas – though there is a region in Texas known as The Red Plains, which interestingly I didn’t know until after I’d come up with the name. It’s a fictitious locale that’s within riding distance of all my favorite western landscapes – the rolling prairie, the desert, and mountainous terrain like that found in the Rockies. Red Plains is sort of my ideal western location.
Life was hard for folks in the West at this time (the late 1870s, early 1880s). I mean imagine life at that moment in time as a settler dealing with the everyday hardships of finding and growing food while at the mercy of the elements; imagine being an African American and making your way out West where you had greater freedom, but still struggling to survive; or being Latino in a land that your ancestors once called home, that now belongs to a growing populace who view you as inferior. And then factor gender into the equation – women could scarcely find work enough to feed themselves, unless they had a husband or male relative to take care of them. There were few alternatives other than prostitution.
1st: Who are the main characters and how do they relate to one another?
Caryn: Red Plains is the story of a town and the people in it, so it’s very much an ensemble cast. But some of our main characters include:
-The Escovidos, a wealthy Latino family. Luis, the family patriarch, is a powerful businessman who has a lot of clout in the region and an agenda all his own. His daughters, particularly Soledad and Lupe, are growing into womanhood in a land that isn’t kind. Soledad is extremely intelligent and observant, and seeks to be like her father. Lupe is a free spirit with the romantic ideals of any sixteen-year-old.
-Doug Stevens is a tough cattle rancher with a spoiled, bullheaded son in Jackson. Despite Doug’s best efforts, Jackson just doesn’t seem to have it in him to be the decent man his father is. We’ll be getting to know the cowhands on Doug’s ranch as well, and their reasons for coming out West and choosing this lifestyle.
-Isaac Templeton and his daughter Rose are the quintessential Western settlers in search of a new and better life, but in a town like Red Plains, they’re unlikely to find it. And like a lot of people who moved to the West, they’re desperately trying to escape their past.
-The lawmen are led by Sheriff Doles, a haunted former carpenter who now finds himself in over his head in the role of sheriff. Deputy Joe Morelli has endured some of the worst of what Red Plains has to offer, and he’s trying to return to the man he once was. Tom Bennett is an ex-cowpuncher who just fell into the role of deputy, and naively thinks it’s all girls and guns.
The violence and the conflict, both political and personal, that happens every day in Red Plains pulls all of these people into situations that could ruin everything that’s good in the town. The decisions they make impact everything that happens, and those decisions have real world consequences. When you add in desperadoes, hired killers, and hard men who are used to a lawless land, you have Red Plains.
1st: Is the main focus on Sheriff Doles?
Caryn: No, no one character is the main focus. As a matter of fact, in the very first storyline, “Range War,” I purposefully kept his presence minimal until the end. I didn’t want him to be perceived as the “hero sheriff.” He’s not. Sheriff Doles is one of the major players, definitely. And because there’s so much violence in the series, he’s a regular presence – but only one of several.
1st: You take current themes, and play them out against a western backdrop. What types of themes lend themselves to a good story?
Caryn: Honestly I don’t see them as current themes – I see them as universal ones. Racism, sexism, political corruption, murder, and greed are all things we’ve explored so far in Red Plains, simply because they were real issues that people of the time faced, just like we do now. Most Hollywood westerns don’t deal with these real world issues, so a lot of folks just don’t realize their importance in the Old West. I’m hoping to change that with Red Plains.
Caryn: I feel strongly that a lot of the major issues that are prevalent in our culture today – political problems, inequality, violence, etc. – really reached a major turning point during the Old West period. The West was filled with small, struggling towns like Red Plains, inhabited by people who were trying to attain power or make names for themselves. Sounds like the perfect setup for political issues, doesn’t it?
On that note, let’s look at violence as a way of solving problems. It’s an issue we see every day now, and I think the Old West played a huge part in how we as Americans deal with conflict. We idolize murderers like Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin, and six guns still hold this iconic, romantic place in our imaginations.
1st: You have a lot of different artists working on the comic. How do you select your artists?
Caryn: I’ve found all the artists I’ve worked with so far online. There’s a lot of phenomenal talent out there, and I try to select folks whose styles complement the feel of the series and the individual storyline they’ll be working on.
1st: There are a lot of talented online artists, but not many of them are putting out Western sample. What type of things do you need to send to artists to get them set to draw a period piece like Red Plains?
Caryn: I go into a lot of detail with the artists, from really detailed things like what a hackamore is to things that I take for granted, like “you get on a horse on the left hand side.” We take great pains to make sure the details are accurate, so that it feels real for the readers. I do a lot of research, and I stockpile reference pictures for the artists – things from clothing and hairstyles to wagons and equipment.
1st: Does the style of the artists you choose influence the way you write the story?
Caryn: No, not really. I try to partner each artist with a storyline that will showcase his strengths, and try to include as many fun, exciting things to draw in every issue as possible. But the tone of the series is pretty consistent.
I’ve been really blessed to get to work with some truly gifted artists. I worked with Noel Tuazon on the “Range War” story. His style really lent grittiness and chaos to our portrayal of life on the range. Then Patrick Bezanson came on the series, and he has a great feel for body language and a real noir feel that was perfect for the murder mystery “One of Us.” I just finished the “Nice Place to Raise Your Kids Up” arc with Larry Watts, who was perfect for the huge scope of that storyline and the broad cast of characters. He has a great sense of staging and making the characters “act.” Currently Gary Fitzgerald is featured on “The Scurvy,” where he is masterfully rendering the pain and desperation of a group of white settlers embarking on the harrowing journey out West.
After Gary, we’ll have some fantastic new artists who will blow you away. Plus the return of a few old favorites!
1st: What is the release schedule for Red Plains?
Caryn: It’s every other Friday typically. We put up approximately 11 pages every two weeks. Between the art and the writing, we try to pack as much content into each issue as possible, so a half issue for us often feels like a full 22 pages compared to a lot of other comics.
Another thing that we put a lot of effort into is making sure new readers can jump on at any storyline. It’s so frustrating to pick up a comic and not be able to follow the story because you haven’t read what came before, so we really strive to make sure that doesn’t happen with Red Plains. We don’t have any long, drawn out origin stories – everything you need to know is on the page.
Even if you’re not a western fan, if you’re interested in cunning and beautiful women, hardcore violence, or fully fleshed out characters, check us out!